When the 2017 Sir Walter Scott list was announced in the spring I noted that I already had read one of the books and had just bought another on the list. This made me decide to read all seven as the reviews were very favourable for this years short list. The Sir Walter Scott prize is for historical fiction and is announced each year at the Borders Book Festival. Previous winners being Hilary Mantel and Sebastian Barry who is also on this years list.
I love historical fiction. It combines my history degree with my love of literature. That said I tend to stick to historical fiction novels that relate to the history that I studied and am interested in which in the main is early 20th Century Europe and Russia. So the list although containing three books in this period would also take me out of my comfort zone. Always a good thing when you set yourself a challenge.
So taking the list from the top. Sebastian Barry’s Days without End has been highly favourably reviewed. We saw him when the book was first published at Mainstreet Trading our local bookshop. And he was superb one of the most entertaining authors I’ve seen and his reading of his novel by far the best I’ve ever heard. I had been so looking forward to this book that I stalled reading it one of my peculiar habits that I have of keeping things for best. The list gave me the excuse to read. But I really struggled with it. It was undoubtedly very well written and researched. And I do think it was me. I did American History as part of my degree and it struggled to ignite my imagination and I’m still struggling. Much to my surprise and Ros and Vivian at Mainstreet Trading who both loved the book. My only excuse is I was spoiled by Sebastian Barry reading it and if I could have listened to it as an audible book my thoughts on the book may have been quite different.
“A Country Road, a Tree” by Jo Baker was my type of historical genre set in the Second World War. But I found it lacking some of the turn page elements of previous books and I have read plenty on wartime France. It wasn’t till the end that I realised the book was based on the Irish author Samuel Beckett. And it struck me that the book had read as a biography not a fiction novel as it was indeed based on the life of a famous author.
“Mothering Sunday” by Graham Swift I would not have read as it was essentially a short story and I struggle with short stories. The historical setting was good just after the First World War. It was the length of the book that would usually have put me off reading it. It took me some time to get into the book but actually by the end I have to admit I enjoyed it. And didn’t see some of the elements of the story coming.
“The Vanishing Futurist” by Charlotte Hobson would be a book I would read normally. It is set in pre revolutionary and post revolutionary Russia. I enjoyed it from the start. This too read as a biography in some respects but I could forgive it as it was a compelling story of a English governess who stayed in Russia post the revolution becoming part of a communist commune there. I hadn’t realised that many British would have been there at this period and either unable to get home or didn’t want too. This intrigued me throughout this book which I greatly enjoyed,
“The Good People” by Hannah Kent would be a book I would usuually give a wide berth too. It’s set in 18th Cntury rural Ireland and is a story of three women. My initial reaction would be this is not for me and potentially life is too short to read books like this. But I truly loved this book from page one. Essentially it’s about a widow whose daughter has also died and left her with her disabled son. She employs a servant to help on the small holding she has and this girl loves her son in the way she is unable to as the widow believes that her true grandson has been stolen by the fairies. A new catholic priest has arrived in the village and is scornful of old traditions including the belief in fairies and home made cures such as those given by the final women in the tale who lives in a hut and has nursed and doctored the village with natural cures. The three women’s fates and that of the boy come intertwined and what follows is a truly fascinating story that had me gripped.
“Golden Hill” by Francis Spufford is not again my favourite historical fiction setting, as it’s set again in America this time when New York was in its infancy with only 7,000 residents. Again I had heard great things about this book from others who said it wouldn’t be a natural choice for them either but they had loved it. I am afraid I didn’t. I found it really hard to get into and it was a book I felt that life is too short how quickly can I get through this book to get on to one I want to read. If I hadn’t been doinng this challenge I would have given up.
“The Gustav Sonata” by Rose Tremain was the book that I had already read on the list set before the Second World War and up to almost the present day in Switzerland. Of the friendship of two boys one of them Jewish and their life long friendship which is set against a memorable time in history. The brilliance of this book is the two boys and their characters both good and bad and that of those around them especially their families. I really enjoyed this book.
The challenge has taught me three things:
1. Not to read a book by its cover. You should give it a go.
2. Reviews are the thoughts of one person and what I like you may not and vice versa and at the end of the day that’s why there are so many writers and books as we are all different.
3. It’s good to challenge yourself. Its easy as readers to just keep reading what you like but it’s when you are challenged you realise that there are sometimes treats of a read out there that you will never find if you just keep reading the same genre.
My list in priority for this years 2017 Sir Walter Scott prize is as follows:
Winner “The Good People” by Hannah Kent. I simply loved this book thought it was brilliant on so many levels and after reading it the other books in the short list never came close. After that it was:
2. The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson.
3. The Gustav Sonata by Rose Treamain
4. Days without end by Sebastian Barry
5. A Country road, a tree by Jo Baker
6. Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
7. Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
I am quite sure that the good judges may think differently and I await this years result with great interest. But thank the judges for this years short list which I think by far is the best one that they have ever had and hope this blog might encourage you to read one or two on the list.