This year's nominees for the prestigious James Tait Black Book Prizes were chosen with the help of a team of student and staff readers from the English Literature department. Here they give a rundown of their picks.
Read by: Dr Alexandra Lawrie, Chancellor's Fellow of English Literature
"Jo Baker’s 2016 novel 'A Country Road, A Tree' is a fascinating re-creation of Samuel Beckett’s experiences during the Second World War, which he spent in France, variously in occupied Paris, Roussillon, and finally Normandy, where he co-ordinated the construction of a Red Cross hospital. The novel begins, though, in Ireland: one of the opening scenes shows Beckett at home with his mother and cousins in September 1939, feeling claustrophobic and desperate to return to Paris and to his girlfriend, Suzanne.
"In Paris Beckett and Suzanne try to carry on despite dire food rationing, brutally cold temperatures, and the threat of capture by the Gestapo – many of their friends are arrested, and Beckett’s work for the French Resistance means he is constantly at risk of exposure. Later sections trace the couple’s perilous journey to the Free Zone, having fled Paris, and their precarious existence in the rural village of Roussillon."
Read by James Gilbert, researcher and tutor
"Greenwell’s prose is crisp and direct, successfully capturing the profound angst surrounding the unrequited romance which forms the crux of the novel; the love affair between his narrator and the manipulative Mitko. The former’s feelings of uncertainty, compounded with his inability to resist what he knows to be a destructive relationship creates both a tense atmosphere and an insightful, relatable protagonist. Greenwell’s language evokes the intellectual while shunning the pretentious. The situation of the protagonist in a foreign setting creates a fascinating parallel between the alienation he suffers living abroad and the increasing psychological distance he places between his evolving assessments of his relationship with Mitko and the power of his own moral convictions. This is a very human novel, one that succeeds in drawing the reader in and only releasing them with its conclusion."
Read by Joanna Wilson, student
"Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, is exquisitely crafted. Through both her distinctive narrative style, and the slow-burning passionate story she weaves in fits and starts, the author relentlessly and skilfully draws the reader in. The novel's characters are wonderfully believable and deeply human - flaws included - but the reader never fails to empathize with their ups and downs. I didn't want this novel to end, and I can't wait for McBride's next literary offering."
Read by Suzanne Black, student
"In The Sport of Kings C. E. Morgan unflinchingly tackles themes of race and ancestry to raise questions about the historical construction of American society along ethnic lines, both in the past and into the present day. Morgan relentlessly pits white European rational empiricism/Darwinian theory against the lived realities of black Americans, chilling the narrative stylistically and ultimately demonstrating the privileged position of “rational” (white) histories over (black) oral testimony. A meticulously researched and executed text."
Read by Olivia Ferguson, researcher and teacher
"Cumming illuminates a myriad of different milieux – the Spanish court, Scots law, the small-town jobbing press, the world of fine art, the world of fake art – with a dexterous command of historical particulars. A page-turner for anyone interested in art, money, and how reputations are made and ruined."
Read by Laura Beattie, PhD candidate
"In this highly unusual and inventive book, Alexander Masters sets out to do several things: first, to write about the life of the unknown person whose 148 diaries a friend of his discovered in a skip; second, to thereby reclaim the genre of biography for the ‘ordinary’ person; third, to detail his own journey in writing the work. Luckily for Masters, the life of his unknown subject proves interesting: struck with a desperate desire for a much older woman while in her youth, Laura Francis (who Masters manages to identify after years of research) lets her life and ambition dwindle away from her by failing to be able to put her mind to anything except her unrequited love. For me, however, the most interesting part was Masters’ discussion of his own journey in writing the book, and particularly, his mistakes. He starts off assuming that his unknown subject is male and dead only to discover that she is female and in fact very much alive. This book is a highly enjoyable read that causes us to question the validity of biography as a category."
Read by Laura Beattie, PhD candidate
"A Stain in the Blood by Joe Moshenka sets out to explore ‘one of the most eventful and dizzyingly transformative periods in the history of England’, the time from the gunpowder plot of 1605 to the execution of Charles I in 1649, through the character of Sir Kenelm Digby. Moshenka spins a fascinating narrative of a man who struggled with the legacy of his father's execution for his involvement in the gunpowder plot - the 'stain in the blood' of the title - and his own ambitions to become a public and respected figure. The biography brings life in mid-Jacobean England alive in the minds of the reader through Digby's many exploits, from the day-to-day difficulty of being a Catholic in such times, to becoming a trusted advisor of Charles I and an English merchant upon the seas. The narrative skilfully weaves together Kenelm's public life with his private, showing the dependence and intersection of one with the other. Moshenka writes in a highly engaging style with rich and evocative detail, creating a gripping read."
Read by Hetty Saunders, student
"This would come second in my ranking of the books that I read. It is a brilliantly researched and very readable history of Grigori Rasputin and the many ways in which his character was maligned and bestialised before and since his assassination. Smith goes into fascinating detail on Rasputin’s life and relationships with the Romanov’s and the Russian court - that Smith is brief on Rasputin’s early life is explained and more than made up for by the complexity and depth of narrative that Smith provides for his adult life. Smith deftly portray’s Rasputin in a way that is both revealing and yet maintains a sense of scholarly distance, which would seem necessary given the history of response to Rasputin that has dealt in salaciousness and scandal. Smith details these responses with a clarity of purpose, as well as a lightness of touch. His book makes for compulsive reading - it is an excellent account of one of the world’s most maligned figures of the turn of the nineteenth century, displayed beautifully within the grand arena of the Russian Revolution. Smith’s scholarship certainly ranks amongst the most accomplished and most compelling of the books that I read - full of twists and turns, evidence and counter-evidence. A surprising, gripping book, definitely in my top two."
If you would like to attend the James Tait Black Prizes ceremony, you can buy tickets on the Edinburgh International Book Festival website: