I’ve said it before, but it really does feel like the first holiday of a year when the longlist for The Women’s Prize for Fiction gets announced. It’s one of my favourite book prizes and I love reading/discussing/debating all the titles this award honours. It’s particularly exciting that the prize this year is known under it’s new title The Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Baileys Prize.) Some weeks ago I made a video with my friend Anna about what books we’d like to see on the longlist for the prize. Between us we guessed 9 of the 16. You can watch me discuss my reaction to this year’s longlist here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-DCtqkk_78&t=27s

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After I finish reading Joanna Cannon’s novel I’ll have six more on the list to read. I’ll be meeting with Naomi from TheWritesofWomen and other members of our Shadow Group to discuss the longlist and pick our own fan favourite shortlist/winner for the prize. So there’s a lot of fun discussion to come! Let me know in the comments what books from the longlist you’re eager to read or what you’d like to see win. The official shortlist will be announced on April 23rd and the winner will be announced on June 6th.

A lot of people will bemoan the fact Ali Smith’s “Winter” isn’t included on this list and its absence is a great shame. I have no special inside knowledge or insight into the judging process, but I’d just point out that we don’t know if the novel was even submitted for the prize. Novels that are eligible aren’t always put forward for a prize and there can be any number of reasons for this. That’s just part of the mysterious alchemy of book prizes!

For the books that I’ve already read and reviewed you can click on the titles below to see my full thoughts.

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Sight by Jessie Greengrass
When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy
Elmet by Fiona Mozley
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal

It feels like historical fiction is such a flabby term that's better for booksellers than readers. Really all novels are historical because even ones set in the future are an author imaginatively writing about the world as they've seen and know it. But mostly it feels like historical fiction means books set in the distant past and I especially like ones about periods of time I don't know much about. How would you define historical fiction? And what's the best historical novel you've read this year?

Here are my picks of eight great historical novels from 2017. There's fiction about suffragettes, a female viceroy of Sicily, a WWII naval shipyard worker, the fate of a much-desired man, a dysfunctional ancient Greek family, Nazis in the Ukraine, an axe murder and a president’s grief. Click on the titles to see my full posts about them or you can also watch me discuss these in this video (where a fox makes a surprise appearance): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAXFfOMC-X4&t=146s

The Night Brother by Rosie Garland

The Revolution of the Moon by Andrea Camilleri (translated by Stephen Sartarelli)

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

House of Names by Colm Toibin

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

It’s sobering to look back on my post about mid-year favourite books in 2016 and recall how depressing the global news was at that point. Who’d have thought things could turn even more sour a year later? More than ever I’m convinced it’s important to celebrate good things like great new books being published and delve within them to understand the perspective of people and characters whose lives are so different from our own. This isn’t an act of escape from the world; it’s a way of embracing it!

I’ve read 45 books so far this year. My reading feels like it’s slowed down recently because life has been so busy. I feel really privileged to receive so many new and forthcoming publications, but I’m continuously struck with guilt that I don’t have time to read (let alone review) them all. I am aware it’s a good problem to have! But I’m glad I can at least mention all the wonderfully promising new books I want to read in regular “Book haul” videos that I film for my Youtube/Booktube channel. So (while this mid-year list is far from comprehensive) I hope I’ll have time to read more of the exciting other new books published this year which sit temptingly on my shelves at some point soon.

Here are my top ten books of the year (so far.) All of them except the anthology “The Good Immigrant” were first published in 2017. Click on the titles at the bottom to read my full thoughts about each of these outstanding books. You can also watch a video of me briefly discussing each of these books here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSkLuQ10uPA

In past years, I ran a competition that worked so well I want to do it again.
Here’s how to enter:
-    Leave a comment letting me know the best book you’ve read so far this year (it doesn’t have to be a recently published book).
-    Leave some kind of contact info (email or Twitter/GoodReads handle).
-    At the end of July I’ll pick one of your suggestions and send that person one of my favourite books from the below list below.
-    Open to anywhere in the world.

I’m really curious to know about the best books you’ve read this year so whether you want to be entered in the competition or not please let me know in the comments below. But also let me know if you are intrigued to read any of my choices.

The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Dear Friend From My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li
One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

Whenever I read a description of another new novel dealing with The Holocaust I feel a little twinge of uncertainty. Despite being one of the most horrific acts of genocide in the past century it’s a subject that’s been covered in countless novels. Is there anything new to say about this atrocity? Of course there is. Many novels from Audrey Magee’s “The Undertaking” to Ben Fergusson’s “The Spring of Kasper Meier” have proven this to me. But never has a novel I’ve read about this period of history felt more relevant and close-to-home than Rachel Seiffert’s new novel “A Boy in Winter.” I’m conscious that this has a lot to do with the current politics of our world, but I truly recognized in this story situations and patterns of behaviour that feel very near. Seiffert has fictionally dealt with this era before in her debut book “The Dark Room” which is composed of three novellas connected to the war and set in Germany. This new book is set in a small village in the Ukraine over a period of a few days in late 1941 when the Nazis come marching through “cleansing” the community of its Jewish population. It’s stunningly told and it’s a devastating story, but it also speaks so powerfully about the world we live in now.

Seiffert has the most unique and powerful way of conveying the inner sense of a character’s emotions using only external descriptions. It’s something she did so expertly in her previous novel “The Walk Home” (which was one of my favourite books of 2014) and she does it again in this new novel with an adolescent Jewish boy named Yankel. Different sections of the book focus on different characters, but the author doesn’t often shine a spotlight on Yankel. Instead, we get a sense of him through other characters such as his father who has been put in a hellish temporary holding cell by the Nazis or a young woman Yasia who takes in Yankel and his younger brother. We get descriptions of the way Yankel carries himself, his stance or the movement of his eyes, but even though the reader is not often keyed into what he’s thinking we get a real emotional understanding of him from the author’s evocative external descriptions. Seiffert does this in a way which is powerful and quite unique. The arc of his story and the semi-tragic transformation he goes through in order to survive is brilliantly told.

This is an incredibly beautiful and impactful novel, but a slight problem I had with it is an instance where a certain character who is conscripted into the Nazi forces leads the reader through the way that Jewish people were processed. There’s nothing wrong with Seiffert’s descriptions of these scenes and their impact is devastating, but it clearly felt like his character was being used simply as a device to show what the author wanted to show rather than what his character would naturally encounter. However, a striking thing about this section is the way she describes the Nazis basically forcing each other to drink while they conduct their brutal and horrific executions. It gave a powerful sense of the way many of these soldiers had to use alcohol to deaden their humanity in order to perform the atrocious duties they were ordered to perform.

The central question of this novel asks what you would do if you were faced with the choice of following the evil will of an oppressive government or being severely punished for refusing to participate. It prompts you to ask yourself what you would do if neutrality wasn’t an option. Seiffert shows the complexity of this question through a number of different characters including non-Jewish Ukranians and a German engineer who takes a remote position in the army because he wants to avoid this moral dilemma but finds himself forced to make a horrific choice. The lines between an individual’s right and wrong become blurred when they are forced to ask themselves: “where was the wrong in staying alive?” It’s a haunting question.

I read this novel as part of a mini-book group I’ve formed with the writers Antonia Honeywell and Claire Fuller. We discussed it over lunch and had a fascinating conversation, but it’s quite special in that it’s the first book (out of the three we’ve read together so far including “The Underground Railroad” and “Mothering Sunday”) that all three of us were overwhelmingly positive about. Antonia and Claire are astute critics so the fact they both liked this novel so much is high praise! Rachel Seiffert is an incredibly talented writer and I find her writing moving in a way that is hard to describe. But it’s safe to say I’d recommend that everyone should read this timely historical novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Seiffert
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