Winner of the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Following the revelation of the shortlist for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in March, the winner was announced at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose on Saturday. As some of you will know, I am currently attempting to work my way through all of the shortlisted titles since 2010, so I have a particular interest in following this particular prize.

The seven titles on the 2017 shortlist were:

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson
The Good People by Hannah Kent
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

And the winner is…

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry!

This is the second time Sebastian Barry has won this prize (On Canaan’s Side in 2012 was the first). I haven’t yet managed to read all of the titles on this year’s shortlist, but Days Without End is one of the four that I have read and although it wasn’t my personal favourite, I did predict that it would probably win. I think it has a lot of the elements judges look for in a prize winner and, like all of Barry’s novels, it is beautifully written. In the words of the judging panel, “Eventually, Days Without End took the lead, for the glorious and unusual story; the seamlessly interwoven period research; and above all for the unfaltering power and authenticity of the narrative voice, a voice no reader is likely to forget.”

Have you read Days Without End? What did you think of it?

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2017 Walter Scott Prize Shortlist

Following last month’s revelation of the 2017 longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, the shortlist has been announced today. As you probably know by now, I am currently working my way through all of the shortlisted titles for this prize since it began in 2010 (you can see my progress here). There are seven books on this year’s list and for once I’m off to a good start as I’ve already read three of them!

Here are the seven:

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

***

Of the three books that I’ve read, I loved Golden Hill and The Good People, and although I wasn’t a fan of Days Without End, Sebastian Barry’s writing is beautiful and I would say it has a good chance of winning. Of the four that I haven’t read, I already have a copy of The Gustav Sonata which I’m hoping to read soon, but I don’t know anything about the others. Have you read any of them? What do you think of this year’s shortlist?

The winner will be announced in June!

The Walter Scott Prize longlist 2017

I’ve mentioned before that I am attempting to read all of the books shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since the prize began in 2010. I am always looking for quality historical fiction and I have found the books nominated for this particular prize to be of a consistently high standard. You can see the progress I’ve made with this project here – Kay of What Me Read has also joined in and if anyone else wants to take part you’re very welcome!

The longlist for this year’s prize has just been announced and includes lots of intriguing titles. I’m not planning on trying to read the entire longlist – I’m waiting until the shortlist is announced – but I might still dip into this list from time to time.

Here are the thirteen books on the 2017 longlist.  As you can see, I’ve only read one so far.

days-without-endA Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Crane Pond by Richard Francis
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson
The Good People by Hannah Kent
Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

It doesn’t surprise me that Days Without End is on the list and it wouldn’t surprise me if it ends up as the winner. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other Sebastian Barry books I’ve read, but it’s the sort of book that usually does very well as far as prizes are concerned. I’m delighted to see The Good People on the list as I read it recently and loved it (review coming soon) and also Golden Hill, which I just started reading yesterday.

Of the rest, I was already interested in reading The Gustav Sonata and The Essex Serpent, but I know little or nothing about most of the others.

Have you read any of the books on this year’s longlist? Which ones do you think deserve to be on the shortlist?

For the first time this year, the Walter Scott Prize Academy has also put together an additional list of twenty recommended novels. I won’t post the complete list here (you can see it on the Walter Scott Prize website) but I’m pleased to see mentions of Orphans of the Carnival and The Ashes of London, as well as several other novels I’ve read or am interested in. Lots of great ideas for future reading there!

2016 Walter Scott Prize shortlist

Following the announcement last month of this year’s longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, today the shortlist of six books has been revealed. As I am currently attempting to work my way through all of the books shortlisted for the prize since it began in 2010 (see my progress here), I was particularly interested to see which titles would make the list this year. And here they are:

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Sweet Caress

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

A Place Called Winter

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

Mrs Engels

End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

End Games in Bordeaux

Tightrope by Simon Mawer

Tightrope

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek

Have you read any of these? If not, are there any you’re interested in reading?

So far I have only read one of the six – A Place Called Winter, which I enjoyed, although I haven’t posted my review yet. I know very little about any of the other books on the list, but I do know that Tightrope is a sequel and End Games in Bordeaux is the fourth in a quartet, which means, with my preference for reading a series in order, I will have some catching up to do before I can start either of those two!

I’m surprised – and slightly disappointed – that there’s no place on the shortlist for A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson or Dictator by Robert Harris, both of which had been longlisted, but congratulations to the six authors above. The winner will be announced in June.

2016 Walter Scott Prize longlist announced

As some of you may know, I am in the process of slowly working my way through all the shortlisted titles for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since it began in 2010. Historical fiction is my favourite genre and I have so far found the books nominated for this prize to be of a consistently high quality.

You can learn more about the prize on the Walter Scott Prize website and you can follow my progress through the shortlists on this page. Kay of What Me Read has already joined me in this project and if anyone else would like to do the same, you’re more than welcome.

Anyway, the reason I’m posting this today is that this year’s longlist has just been announced – with the shortlist to follow in March and the winner in June. I’m not currently planning to attempt to read the entire longlist, which includes thirteen books, but I would like to dip into the list from time to time and read at least some of them.

The thirteen books are as follows:

A God in Ruins A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Sweet Caress by William Boyd
A Petrol Scented Spring by Ajay Close
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
Dictator by Robert Harris
Devastation Road by Jason Hewitt
Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis
Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea
End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie
Tightrope by Simon Mawer
Signs For Lost Children by Sarah Moss
Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

The only one I have read so far is A God in Ruins, but I do have Dictator on hold at the library and can’t wait to read it. I have heard good things about Sweet Caress – and Death and Mr Pickwick sounds interesting, although I’m not sure if I should wait until I’ve read The Pickwick Papers first. Most of the others are new to me, so I have some investigating to do!

Have you read any of these books?

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries This is the novel that won the Booker Prize in 2013 but despite the hype surrounding it at the time and the fact that it did sound like a book I would enjoy, I have been putting off reading it, mainly because of its length. As well as the Booker Prize, though, it was also nominated for the Walter Scott Prize in 2014 and as I’m slowly working through the shortlists for that particular prize, I decided it was time I read it.

The Luminaries is set in the New Zealand town of Hokitika during the Gold Rush of the 1860s. The story revolves around several strange occurrences which all take place on the same night in January 1866: Emery Staines, one of the town’s richest men disappears without trace; prostitute Anna Wetherell collapses in the street in what is thought to be a suicide attempt; and the reclusive Crosbie Wells is found dead in his own home, surrounded by a large quantity of hidden gold. These things may not seem to be connected at first, but of course they are – as is everything else that happens throughout the 800 pages of this very clever and complex novel.

The first and by far the longest section of the book begins with the arrival of Scottish lawyer, Walter Moody, who is hoping to make his fortune on the goldfields. On his first evening in Hokitika he walks into the Crown Hotel to find that he has interrupted a meeting between twelve men who have gathered to try to make sense of what has been happening. These twelve men are all linked in some way with Emery, Anna, Crosbie or all three – and as Walter listens to their stories he too is drawn into the mystery.

In the sections of the novel that follow – each one half the length of the one before – we move forwards and then backwards in time learning more about each of the main characters and the events leading up to the night of 14th January 1866.

The decreasing length of the chapters corresponds with a waning moon (hinted at by the images on the front cover), one of many astrological elements Eleanor Catton has incorporated into the novel. The character list at the front of the book lists the twelve men who meet in the hotel under the heading ‘Stellar’ and each one is associated with a sign of the Zodiac, while the other characters are listed as ‘Planetary’. Each of the twelve sections of the book begins with an astrological chart and within each section the individual chapters have astrological titles. This was intriguing at first but as I don’t have a lot of interest in astrology it didn’t mean much to me and I quickly gave up trying to interpret it and concentrated on following the story instead.

I have seen lots of comparisons between The Luminaries and the Victorian sensation novels of Wilkie Collins, one of my favourite authors, but I’m not sure if I really agree with that comparison. The book does include lots of elements of the sensation novel (hidden treasure, opium addiction, double identities, séances, forgeries and family secrets) but Eleanor Catton’s writing, in my opinion, lacks the flair and humour of Wilkie Collins’ and the gift for creating strong, unforgettable characters. Apart from one or two, the twelve men of the Crown felt interchangeable and I had to keep looking back at the character list to remind myself which was which. The other eight were slightly stronger (they were the Planetary characters and the ones who tended to drive the story forward) but of these, Anna Wetherell was the only one I really came to care about.

I did enjoy reading The Luminaries, though, and can definitely see why it has been so successful. I was very impressed by the intricate plotting with facts and secrets being slowly unveiled and connections between the characters gradually revealed. I also loved the setting; I have read very few novels set in New Zealand and I certainly haven’t read any set in a New Zealand gold mining town in the 1860s! Because Hokitika is a real place, I could find lots of pictures online which really helped to bring the setting to life. The length of the book wasn’t a problem for me either; the pages seemed to go by much more quickly than I’d expected them to – especially in the second half, where the chapters become shorter and the pace becomes faster.

I know there were a lot of things happening in The Luminaries that I didn’t completely understand (especially all of the allusions to astrology) and lots of little details that I missed. I would probably have to read the book again to be able to fully appreciate it, but for now I’m happy just to have read it once and to have enjoyed it!

Historical Musings #3: Perceptions of the genre

Historical Musings Before I introduce this month’s Historical Musings topic, this is probably a good time to mention that the winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was announced yesterday. The winner is The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling, a novel set in 14th century China, which I haven’t read but am looking forward to as I love reading about Chinese history. As you may know, I am slowly working my way through all the titles shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize since it began in 2010. You can follow my progress here. Kay of What Me Read is doing the same and I hope other readers will consider joining us! I have found the winners and shortlisted books that I’ve read so far to be of a consistently high quality, which leads nicely into this month’s discussion topic…

Can a novel be both historical and literary?

My answer, unsurprisingly, is yes, of course it can…but for a lot of people, the answer doesn’t seem to be as simple as that. Here are some examples of the sort of comments I often see and hear when people talk about historical fiction:

* I don’t read historical fiction but I enjoyed this book and consider it to be literary fiction anyway.

* To describe this as a historical novel is doing a disservice to the author’s writing skills.

* This is very well written and explores some interesting themes, but it’s historical fiction so it’s hardly literature, is it?

* I’m not interested in historical fiction, but this is more of a literary novel set in the past so I was happy to read it.

* This was surprisingly good; it went beyond any expectations I had for historical fiction.

I respect other people’s points of view, of course, but I do think it’s disappointing that so many people have such a low opinion of a genre I love. I read a wide range of historical fiction and while I think the lighter ones can often be perfectly enjoyable and entertaining, I can think of many authors who have successfully managed to write novels that are historical and could also be considered to have literary merit: Hilary Mantel, Umberto Eco, Dorothy Dunnett, Patrick O’Brian, A.S. Byatt, Amitav Ghosh and countless others. Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Victor Hugo have all written historical fiction too; are their novels not literature?

This makes me wonder why historical fiction is sometimes viewed in a negative way. Is it because people have had bad experiences in the past? I know there are some badly written, poorly researched historical novels out there, but you could say the same about any genre (and there are also plenty of books classed as literary fiction that haven’t impressed me at all). Or is it that people sometimes associate the term ‘historical fiction’ with a certain type of book that doesn’t appeal to them – family sagas, maybe, or books with a lot of battle scenes, or romances with women in pretty dresses on the cover – and aren’t aware of how large the genre is and how many different sub-genres it encompasses?

It does seem that there are some readers who will avoid a book because it’s described as ‘historical fiction’ but who will happily read that same book if the term ‘literary fiction’ is used instead. As someone who never gives a lot of thought to genre labels and has always read whatever I want to read regardless of how other people might perceive it, I find this a bit difficult to understand. The Historical Novel Society website has an excellent article on this subject written by Sarah Johnson in 2002. I think the reputation of historical fiction has improved since then and so has its popularity, but she still makes some interesting points.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you have low expectations of certain genres or certain types of book? Is there a difference between a well-written ‘historical fiction novel’ and a ‘literary novel set in the past’?

I would also like to know if anyone has read John Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things – and if so, what did you think of it?