Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Shortlist reaction

The shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction was just announced and I briefly wanted to share my thoughts. I haven’t read all that many books of the longlist (worst reading slump plus a lot less time) but I still love following along. I correctly guessed four out of the six shortlisted books, so I am pleased with that:

Here are the six shortlisted books:

I am particularly excited to see Piranesi by Susanna Clarke on this list which I thought was excellent and timely in its depiction of loneliness. I am also happy to see both The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi on the list, as I have heard good things about both of them. I am planning on at least trying to read those two. I am currently in the middle of No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood which I expected to love but am not enjoying at all so far. I have no interest in reading How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones although I have heard good things – but it is also apparently bleak and I cannot deal with bleak in my fiction right now. I am not sure if I will read Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller which I expected to see on the list – the reviews have been mixed and I enjoyed but didn’t love her earlier book Swimming Lessons.

Overall, I am happy with the shortlist. I would have loved to see Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters of the shortlist – I find its discussion on motherhood nuanced and very very resonating. I am also sad that Luster isn’t the book of the crop of “disaster women” books that made the list but I also did not think it was as strong as it could have been. But I feel that this year’s longlist was overall very strong and it must have been near impossible to narrow it down to six books. The resulting shortlist is varied in style and genre (or at least as varied in genre as literary fiction prizes get) and author identity. I would bet that either Transcendent Kingdom or The Vanishing Half will win but for myself, I am definitely #TeamPiranesi.

Review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

“I wanted to tell him that in a framework where affection was circumspect, its overt forms were necessarily hostile. Look, I’d say, it’s like English grammar. It doesn’t make sense but it’s too late to change it.”

Exciting Times – published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, April 2020

Ava, newly arrived in Hong Kong from Dublin, spends her days teaching English to rich children.

Julian is a banker. A banker who likes to spend money on Ava, to have sex and discuss fluctuating currencies with her. But when she asks whether he loves her, he cannot say more than ‘I like you a great deal’.

Enter Edith, a lawyer. Refreshingly enthusiastic and unapologetically earnest, Edith takes Ava to the theatre when Julian leaves Hong Kong for work. Quickly, she becomes something Ava looks forward to.

And then Julian writes to tell Ava he is coming back to Hong Kong….

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Great beginning, brilliant ending, kind of terrible middle.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I love books about disaster women and unlike many of my bookish friends do not seem to tire of them at all. There is just something I really appreciate about women writing about women making terrible choices and being honest about that while they are doing it. It’s something I appreciate in memoirs and also in literary fiction. This year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist includes quite a few of these disaster women books and I for one am really pleased with that. That said, I did not always love this book.

Told in first person from Ava’s perspective, the tone and voice worked exceedingly well for me in the beginning. Ava is awful, or at least she thinks so and the way in which she treats first Julian, a banker who quickly starts to finance her life, and then Edith a woman she starts a relationship with while omitting the fact that she regularly slept with her “roommate” aka Julian, seems to agree with her. When this book works, it really works for me. Dolan has a brilliant way of writing dialogue and especially the kind of hostile banter between Ava (a self-proclaimed socialist) and Julian (a lot closer to a Tory) was just mesmerizing. They spar and they bicker and they treat each other horribly – but somehow it works. My favourite parts of the book were when Dolan leans into this narrative.

On the other end of the spectrum is Edith – who is by all accounts wonderful and who makes Ava want to be a better person. Their relationship is definitely the more healthy one but I found it boring and I also could not help but brace for the inevitable shoe drop. I do not deal well with lying in books.

I want to briefly touch onto the comparison to Sally Rooney which I do not think does this book all that many favours; while there are similarities, I do think that Exciting Times excels in different areas. It is a lot more overtly political and more successful at that part; Dolan does seem to know a lot about political and economical theory in a way that really worked for me. The asides on language did not work as well for me as they did for other readers but they do add another layer to the class discussion Ava is always having in her head. What this book does not quite as well but I do think on purpose is the secondary characters; Ava is not really all that great at reading other people (or herself for that matter) in a way that fits with her character but made for sometimes flat love interests.

Overall, I did enjoy this and thought parts were absolutely brilliant – I will definitely read whatever Dolan decides to write next. I cannot recommend the audiobook highly enough, it is narrated by the always great Aoife McMahon and gave this book the extra something I needed.

Content warnings: cheating, homophobia

I am not reading the complete longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year but I will attempt to review the books I do get to. I also cannot help myself and will rank the ones I read.

  1. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (review)
  2. Luster by Raven Leilani (review)
  3. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

Piranesi – published by Bloomsbury, September 15th 2020

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

For readers of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and fans of Madeline Miller’s Circe, Piranesi introduces an astonishing new world, an infinite labyrinth, full of startling images and surreal beauty, haunted by the tides and the clouds.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an intoxicating, hypnotic new novel set in a dreamlike alternative reality.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Near perfect.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this but talking about why I loved this is proving difficult. Normally, I do care about spoilers at all – but this time I genuinely think not knowing too much helps with appreciating the book, as then the reader’s experience mirrors the main character’s. While the mystery at the heart of this book is not the most important part, I enjoyed being able to guess and look for clues. One of the levels this book works as is as a puzzle box and I had so much fun.

I adored Clarke’s debut Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but I might actually prefer her second novel. The books could not be more different: the former is a sprawling, long, and dense historical novel with Austenesque wit (plus, you know, fairies), the latter is a short, vague, interior novel focused on a very small cast of characters. Written in the form of diary entries, we never leave the main character’s head – and what a wonderful head to be in it was. Piranesi is fascinating: he is kind but set in his ways, he believes the House knows best but is still able to keep looking for answers once he wants them; I do not know that I have read about a character like him often and I adored the fact that before everything, he wants to do what is right.

Pretty much all of this worked for me, from the characters to the peculiar prose to the structure; especially the first half was near perfect for me. I do admit that this just hits a lot of my pleasure buttons and I can see where it might not work for other readers but I am glad that many people are taking a chance on this.

Ultimately, on a metaphor-level I think this is a book about loneliness and about the structures we impose to deal with it. Clarke is chronically ill and you can tell she knows what she is writing about here. For me, this hit particularly hard given the slowly becoming unbearable pandamic and the intrinsic loneliness of new motherhood. I will treasure this book.

Content warnings: murder, cult-like behaviour

I am not reading the complete longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year but I will attempt to review the books I do get to. I also cannot help myself and will rank the ones I read.

  1. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  2. Luster by Raven Leilani (review)
  3. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: longlist reaction

It is finally here!

I am both excited and not excited. There are many books I am very thrilled to see on the list and quite a few I either hadn’t heard of or have no interest in reading. As I said before, I will not even attempt to read the longlist this year (which is probably a good thing as I am in a very bad reading slump) – but I do hope to get to some of these. I only correctly predicted three books which hopefully means that this will be a lot better than last year.

Here are the books, in alphabetical order by title:

Because of You by Dawn French
I had heard of Dawn French but not of this book but I do like the inclusion. This deals with motherhood and grief and by the looks of it racism.
Will I read this? Probably not. I do not think I am in the right head space to read about still birth.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
This was already shortlisted for the Booker Prize – as such it was already on my radar. I forgot to include this one to my predictions and kicked myself basically the moment I posted them. This also focuses motherhood – but in what sounds a really interesting way.
Will I read this? Maybe – the reviews are all over and I will probably wait until more people in my WP group chat have read it.

Consent by Annabel Lyon
This is one book I have been on the fence whether I want to read it since I first heard about it. I love books about siblings but I do not deal well with unfairness in books and this sounds very unfair. But look at this cover!
Will I read this? I honestly do not know yet.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
I am so excited that the Women’s Prize finally longlisted their first trans woman. This book sounds like it could be incredibly up my alley, with its focus on difficult women, motherhood, and complicated and unconventional relationships.
Will I read this? Yeah, absolutely.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Another one that I nearly predicted and one that I am very excited for. It has been compared to Sally Rooney, who I famously love, and its focus on a difficult woman in a transitional phase of her life is absolutely my catnip. The audiobook narrator is the same as for Conversations With Friends, so I am very pleased.
Will I read this? Definitely.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
Another one that I briefly considered adding to my predictions, this sounds like a quintessential WP book, sprawling narrative, different perspectives, social commentary.
Will I read this? This is another one that features a dead baby, so no, this will not be a book I am going to read. I am very excited for everybody’s reviews though!

Luster by Raven Leilani
This one I correctly predicted! Another book featuring a difficult woman on the crossroad of finding herself, I thought the first half was pitch.perfect and the second half a bit lacklustre. But still, I adored most of the debut and would not have been happy had this not been longlisted.
Will I read this? Review here.

No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
This is another one of the books I am thinking of as millenial books on this list. Lockwood’s memoir has been on my TBR for ages and this one, a novel about the internet and being very online, intrigues me to no end. It seems to be a bit of a marmite book and those are always fun to have on longlists.
Will I read this? Yes! The snippets I’ve seen, I adored, and this has the potential to be a favourite for me.

Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
I had heard nothing of this book before its inclusion on the longlist and I always like this! After the death of his wife, a man realises that he maybe did not know her as much as he thought.This seems to be a literary mystery of some kind – and those can be my thing but this sadly doesn’t sound like it.
Will I read this? Probably not. As this is written by an Irish author, I can be sure Rachel will get to it as some point and can then tell me whether I would like this or not.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
YES! I am SO happy! I loved this, I want more people to read this, I adore Clarke’s writing. Normally, I do not care about spoilers but with this one, I do think knowing as little as possible (there is a reason the blurb is this vague) actually works in the book’s favour. I need to finally write my review but, wow, this is so good. I am glad the judges included a book that is at least spec-fic adjacent and what a good one to choose!
Will I read it? Review to come.

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
Another one I had only vaguely heard about, this initially did not interest me at all. A historical novel set in the fifties, featuring a possible virgin birth, a woman falling in love with her friend’s husband, and what sounds like interesting mother/daughter relaionships. Very few of my friends have reviewed this yet, so I am interested to hear more.
Will I read this? My first impulse was no, but the more I sit with it, the more intrigued I am.

Summer by Ali Smith
Possibly the biggest suprise for me, as I was under the impression that Smith didn’t want her books to be put forward for prizes anymore. Arguably one of the bigger releases on this list and one that comes with the additional hype of being the final in a quartett of books that has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. I am very glad to see this included because I like when authors are at the top of their game which Smith definitely is.
Will I read this? No. I read and appreciated Autumn but did not enjoy reading it and have thus not kept up with the series.

The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig
I had neither heard of the books nor the author (although a quick Google search reminded me that she signed that obnoxious open letter in support of JK Rowling which makes me unhappy for a variety of reasons) but this does not sound like my type of book at all. I do not often enjoy more crime focused novels and this one sounds too stressful.
Will I read this? No, no chance.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The third book I correctly predicted, as did pretty much everybody I follow. Another book focussing sisters (which I adore!), with a heavy emphasis on commentary on race, this seems to be the one to beat. I have wanted to get to Bennett’s writing for a while, but her debut which is written from the perspective of a chorus of mothers does sound more like my type of thing. I am very pleased to see it on the list though!
Will I read it? I got a copy of this book for Christmas, so yes, I will definitely read this.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
This also nearly made my list but for some reason didn’t. I am very happy to see it included. A book dealing with science and faith and sibling relationships that has been near universally been praised by reviews, this is another favourite to win, I am sure.
Will I read this? I am not sure yet.

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
I read Fuller’s sophomore novel a while ago and while I appreciated it, it was not enough of a favourite that I have kept up with her books. That novel also focused siblings (which was my favourite aspect of the book), as does this one. Twins Julius and Jeanie’s lives start to unravel when their mother who they still lived with at 51 dies. I do often love books about siblings but for some reason this one does not particularly speak to me.
Will I read this? Maybe.

When the longlist was announced, my first reaction was excitement. This list seems to be a lot more catered towards my tastes than last year’s longlist was. However, the longer I sit with it, the less enthused I am. For one, with only five books written by authors of colour and the vast majority of authors coming from either the US or the UK, this is not as varied as I would have liked it to be. There are also many books that sound similar in themes – which I hope I will be proven wrong about.

However, even if I complain about books being similar, at least it caters to my taste. I will be reading all the books about difficult women and the internet. As always, I am most excited to see what my bookish community makes of these books. This really is my favourite time in the bookish world.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Longlist predictions

It’s my favourite bookish time of the year! I love following the Women’s Prize for Fiction, or rather I love what it does with my bookish corner of the internet. While I will not be reading the longlist this year (after last year’s disaster of a longlist, my will to put myself through another possible Girl is just not there), I am nonetheless very excited to see what makes it. I have actually read more eligible books than last time, so who knows, I might even get to have opinions. I am also hopeful that this panel of judges (especially the brilliant Bernardine Evaristo) will longlist books that are more interesting in structure than what we (mostly) got last year.

Last year I did OK predicting the longlist but also jinxed it when I proclaimed to like books about motherhood – and books about mothers we got. Lets hope that this time I won’t accidentally wish on a monkey’s paw again. Here are my predictions, in no particular order. I have included whether the author was longlisted before or not because longlisted authors are basically a freebie for the publishers to nominate, additionally to the two spots they usually have.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

This is the one I am most confident will make the list. It has gotten rave reviews and so much buzz that I cannot imagine the publisher not nominating it.

Longlisted before: No.

Would I be happy to see it: Yes, actually. I got a copy of this for Christmas, for whatever reason, so I might even try to pick this up if it ends up longlisted.

Harvest by Georgina Harding

The longlist is usually fairly historical fiction heavy, which this is. It also deals with a war that isn’t WWII, so it would make an interesting addition, I think

Longlisted before: Yes (2012).

Would I be happy to see it: This is not a book I would ever pick up but it sounds like something people who enjoy historical fiction would appreciate, so sure.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

St. John Mandel is at the top of her game here and her particular brand of non-linear storytelling is exciting enough that I think it absolutely merits a place on this list.

Longlisted before: Yes (2015).

Would I be happy to see it: Very much so. I adored this book.

Luster by Raven Leilani

This is one of the buzziest books of the last year and interesting enough in its commentary on loneliness (something that is very relevant to all of us at the moment, I am sure) and race that I would indeed be surprised if it didn’t end up longlisted.

Longlisted before: No.

Would I be happy to see it: I thought this was an interesting addition to the difficult women cannon and the first half was near perfect. While I didn’t quite love the way the book developed after that, I still do think it is well worth being longlisted.

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

This sounds both timely and readable, a combination the WP has been fond of for a few years now (looking at you, An American Marriage). Traditionally, Indian authors have been often longlisted but haven’t in the last years and I would like for the prize to remedy that.

Longlisted before: No.

Would I be happy to see it: This is not a book that particularly appeals to me – but I do think that people who like this kind of politically charged, sprawling narrative this will work really well.

His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie

Sometimes, I see a book and somehow immediately think that it’ll be a contender for the longlist (I spend a lot of time over the year thinking about the Women’s Prize). – this is one of those.

Longlisted before: No.

Would I be happy to see it: I would, actually. This has the potential to be really great and I would like to see more reviews to decide if I want to read this.

As You Were by Elaine Feeney

Hailed as the Irish debut of the year, this sounds like it could be an excellent addition to the longlist.

Longlisted before: No.

Would I be happy to see it: Yes! Unlikeable female character but make her incurably ill, I love it. I need it. (The Sinéad Gleeson blurb also helps)

Silence is a Sense by Layla AlAmmar

This is a novel about isolation (need I say more?) – something I am sure will be a prominent feature this year, given, well, everything. It is also a novel about finding one’s voice and doing what’s right – and I cannot imagine anything timelier.

Longlisted before: No.

Would I be happy to see it: Yes!

The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes

This book has steadily been building hype, with overwhelmingly positive reviews – and with its focus on one family in Ireland during the financial crash, this sounds like a quintessential WP book to me.

Longlisted before: No.

Would I be happy to see it: Mostly. I am not sure I would love it – but plenty of others will and then I can decide for myself if I want to read it.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

This is so good. Clarke writes with such perfection – and while it is speculative fiction, the speculative elements are slight enough that I think it has a chance making this list. Her debut was longlisted for the Booker after all!

Longlisted before: No. (which is a shame.)

Would I be happy to see it: Yes! Yes! Yes! It is SO GOOD!

The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin

Admittedly, I don’t even know what this is about but I have a gutfeeling of this making the list, so I am including it.

Longlisted before: No.

Would I be happy to see it: Sure.

We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan

Books about families, spanning generations, are often longlisted for the Women’s Prize. This sounds like the most likely contender for the spot.

Longlisted before: No.

Would I be happy to see it: I genuinely do not know. It is not a book that appeals to me, for sure.

Pew by Catherine Lacey

This book is experimental enough while being accessible still, that I could see it making the list. Its commentary on gender was more successful for me than its commentary on race but in general I thought this was mostly well done.

Longlisted before: No.

Would I be happy to see it: Yes.

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

Before this won the Costa Award, I was sure this would make the longlist, now not as much anymore. It was, however, also longlisted for plenty of other prizes.

Longlisted before: No.

Would I be happy to see it: I am always happy when books with a speculative twist make literary prize longlists, this would be no exception.

A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

Another book dealing with loneliness and Brexit, I think this has an absolute chance of making in the list.

Longlisted before: Yes (2007 – shortlisted even)

Would I be happy to see it: Sure. I have loved Guo’s writing in the past and really should read more of hers.

The Yield by Tara June Winch

This has basically won every Australian book award there is (I don’t actually know if that is way hyperbolic or only little hyperbolic – but it won a lot). Everybody I know who read it, loved it. And I think it is time for an Australian author to be longlisted again.

Longlisted before: No.

Would I be happy to see it: Yes. I even have an unread ARC on my Kindle and would love the extra incentive to read it.

There you have my official 16 predictions. As always, there is the slight chance that they go back to the longlist of 20 books – but I doubt it somehow. I left off some books that nearly made my list: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, Sisters by Daisy Johnson, Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh, and Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan. If the list is 20 books strong, these are my additional predictions.

Whch books are you most hoping for? Are you planning on reading the longlist?

Wrap Up April 2020 or the world is weird.

April was still weird but maybe a bit more bearable? I don’t even know. The world is weird. Being pregnant is weird. Everything is weird.

Books I read in April:

  1. The Dom Who Loved Me (Masters and Mercenaries #1) by Lexi Blake: 2 out of 5 stars
  2. How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa: 4 out of 5 stars
  3. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: 3 out of 5 stars (review)
  4. Girl by Edna O’Brien: 1 out of 5 stars (review)
  5. Mr Salary by Sally Rooney: 5 out of 5 stars
  6. White Hot (Hidden Legacy #2) by Ilona Andrews: 5 out of 5 stars (reread)
  7. Wildfire (Hidden Legacy #3) by Ilona Andrews: 5 out of 5 stars (reread)
  8. By a Thread by Lucy Score: 3 out of 5 stars

Favourite of the Month:

My favourites were my rereads: the second and third book in Ilona Andrews’ Hidden Legacy series are as brilliant as I remembered them. I am really looking forward to finally continuing with the series in preparation for the next book coming out.

Stats(ish):

I read 8(ish) books, all of which were written by women. I read two romance novels, two urban fantasy books, one short story collection and one short story, and two literary fiction novels nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Currently Reading:

Books I should get to soon:

I have for now given up on the Women’s Prize longlist and will instead be focussing on whatever strikes my fancy and hopefully a lot of fantasy reads. Given that I am currently always tired and napping all the time, I am unsure how much reading I will be doing at all, if I am being honest.

Women’s Prize coverage by other bloggers:

Rachel, Callum, Naty, Marija, Emily, Gilana, Laura

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Shortlist reaction and reading plans

I was unsure whether I wanted to write a reaction post at all, given how weirdly over this whole process I am feeling but as I do not know if I can do any proper blog coverage next year (and even next month if I am perfectly honest), I figured I should be getting the most of it now while I still have time for blogging.

First things first, here is the shortlist:

  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell
  • Weather by Jenny Offill

I am actually not mad at this? I got four books right and while I would have loved to see Anne Enright’s wonderful Actress here, I at least got my wish and Girl, Women, Other by Bernardine Evaristo made it. I am officially #TeamEvaristo now. Of the other books, I have read A Thousand Ships and thought it was a lot better than I expected it to be and Weather which I expectedly loved. I am currently in the middle of Hamnet which I am super enjoying and I have read a bit of Dominicana which I am expecting to mostly enjoy but not find very impressive. I am still not going to read The Mirror and the Light because the idea of reading three huge historical fiction novels gives me dread to no end.

None of the books I have read and actively disliked made the list which I am so glad about. I was ready to be disgruntled but now I am mostly relieved that this (imagined!) pressure of reading the longlisted books instead of what I actually want to read (fantasy!) is off my back. I will try to finish the two books I have started before the winner is announced, and given that I have nearly 5 months to accomplish that task, I should be fine. I am a bit worried that by the time the winner announcement comes around, I will have stopped being emotionally involved; which would be a shame! I love the Women’s Prize! On the other hand, I have already started looking at what could be eligible next year and there is every chance that in 2021 we will have an incredibly strong list of contenders. This seems to indicate that I am indeed still absolutely in the Prize’s thrall and shouldn’t worry so much.

I would have loved this list to be a bit more international but I also admit that I thought that the British/ Irish books on the longlist were indeed on average better. I think it will ultimately come down those three authors: Evaristo, Mantel, or O’Farrell. I am ultimately glad that none of the family sagas made the list and that there are a few books I would be happy to see win.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Shortish longlist thoughts and shortlist prediction

Today we will find out the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020!

First things first: I absolutely lost steam. I was powering through these books and then I wasn’t. There is no way I will finish the longlist in time for the shortlist announcement and I am very unsure if I will keep up with the project given how very much I am dreading some of the books I do not own yet and how very much I disliked a few of the books I have already read.

Overall thoughts: I find this year’s list distinctly uninspiring. I obviously have a very different taste to the judges – and while that is maybe to be expected, the degree to which I disagree what constitutes Great Fiction made this in many cases a very frustrating journey for me. For the record, what I realized while reading books that did not work for me en masse for this project was that I am looking for the following when it comes to  Literary Fiction: great prose and/or great structure, ideally coupled with interesting characters (but that is not necessary). The books on this year’s longlist are mostly told more conventionally and focus on plot and/or horrible characters. I found many themes of this year’s crop of books repetitive: there are an endless number of family sagas, often focussing on rich white families, a number of war books, many many books featuring horrible parents. Even the books I enjoyed this year are not likely to become all-time favourites of mine, unlike last year where quite a few books are still vividly both in my memory and my feelings.

As always, it was a joy to be reading this with my Women’s Prize group: Callum, Rachel, Naty, Marija, Emily (Sarah looked at the longlist and cleverly noped out right then and there). They even made the horrible experience that was reading Girl bearable because we were all in accord here. In general, we did struggle with this list a lot more than last year: of the 16 books, 6 have gotten an average rating of 3-stars or lower from us collectively, with one getting the frankly impressive low rating of 1.2 stars.

Of the books I have read so far, this is my current ranking:

  1. Actress by Anne Enright (review): 5 out of 5 stars
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review): 4.5 out of 5 stars
  3. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (currently reading)
  4. Weather by Jenny Offill (review): 4 out of 5 stars
  5. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review): 3.5 out of 5 stars
  6. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (review): 3 out of 5 stars
  7. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo (DNF)
  8. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie (review): 2 out of 5 stars
  9. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (review): 1.5 out of 5 stars
  10. Girl by Edna O’Brien (review): 1 out of 5 stars

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

I have read the first few pages of Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams and did not love it (I am not very happy with its glib tone and then sudden introduction of miscarriage – but I am willing to at some point keep reading and see if that changes), and the same is true for Dominicana by Angie Cruz, which I did not hate but I cannot see giving more than 3 stars to. I do already own a copy of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara, so chances are I will get to it eventually.

Prediction for the shortlist:

I don’t even have properly have a wish list this year – and most weirdly, I am actively rooting for the “big name”-authors on the list which is unusual for me because I do really love a well-excecuted debut novel.

45993330Actress by Anne Enright

My favourite of the books I have read, I thought this book handled this year’s unofficial theme of motherhood the best. The narrator’s warmth towards her mother while not being blind to her weaknesses was wonderful to read. Anne Enright’s prose is excellent and the book’s nonlinear stream-of-consciousness structure worked brilliantly, especially in the impeccably narrated audiobook.

45992717The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Maybe it is odd that I am including a book I have no interest in reading but by all accounts does Mantel achieve what she set out to do here. Her books seem to work brilliantly for people who enjoy this kind of character-focused and impeccably researched historical fiction and the reviews for this have been mostly favourable. As I have said before, I do love when authors are at the top of their games.

41081373._sy475_Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

The only book I had read before the longlist announcement, this is a masterpiece that should have won the Booker Prize on its own. Evaristo’s essemble cast is masterful, her prose stunning, and this book has stayed with me since I read it. Evaristo has a lot of warmth for her characters, even those who make stupid decisions. This does feature some less-than-amazing mother figures, so there’s that (it really becomes an overwhelming theme on this longlist!).

I would be very happy if this ultimately won.

43890641._sy475_Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

While I am not done with the book yet, I am enjoying it a whole lot. Again, I love O’Farrell’s prose (it really often comes down to this for me apparently) and the structure works. I find the way in which she sets out to tell this story masterful and I am enjoying how on the periphery Shakespeare is for many of the scenes. It does feature a horrible mother figure, but at least we are not supposed to empathize (I don’t think).

49085800._sy475_Weather by Jenny Offill

I enjoyed this a whole lot – but I do like this kind of navel-gazy, stylized writing, even if I usually encounter it more in non-fiction than in fiction. The pervasive dread of this book becomes ever more timely, especially since whatever hell we landed in right now. I thought it was cleverly done and stripped down just enough to be perfectly, bite-sized, brilliantly done.

41439813._sy475_How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

While I have not read this book and honestly do not know if I will if it doesn’t end up being shortlisted, this seems a likely contender. Of the war novels this seems to be the more successful one and the one that tackles trauma in the most nuanced way. (aside: if Girl makes the shortlist I will riot.) It would also stop the shortlist from being frighteningly UK and US centric.

Review: Girl by Edna O’Brien

43565316._sy475_Verdict: Seriously awful.

My rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

I was a girl once, but not any more.

So begins Girl, Edna O’Brien’s harrowing portrayal of the young women abducted by Boko Haram. Set in the deep countryside of northeast Nigeria, this is a brutal story of incarceration, horror, and hunger; a hair-raising escape into the manifold terrors of the forest; and a descent into the labyrinthine bureaucracy and hostility awaiting a victim who returns home with a child blighted by enemy blood. From one of the century’s greatest living authors, Girl is an unforgettable story of one victim’s astonishing survival, and her unflinching faith in the redemption of the human heart.

I hated this. There is no way around this. I thought this was pretty damn awful and the longer I sit with it, the less I understand how this book was longlisted for the Women’s Prize. I am not touching the “should O’Brien have been the person to write this particular story” controversy with a ten-foot pole except to say it would have been easier to defend that decision if the book that resulted was good in any shape or form.

O’Brien sets out to tell the story of one of the school girls abducted by Boko Haram and she does not shy away from showing just how horrific that ordeal must have been. The book is relentless in its depiction of atrocities; in fact the first third is pretty much comprised of only that. However, weirdly enough, I found the second part of the story, after the protagonist returns home, actually a lot worse. I found the way in which her mother is characterized horrifying (and here having an own voices author would have made this decision feel at lot less voyeuristic and judging).

I do not get on with books that set out to teach me something – while I love the power literature has to broaden my horizon and to let me see lives outside my own, paedagogical books irk me. If I want to learn something, I gravitate towards non fiction – and as a piece of non fiction this might have actually worked for me because then the story told would have been just that: authentically mirroring the reality. As it stands, I questioned a lot of authorial decisions O’Brien made here (why is everybody so uniquely awful? Do we really need to only see awfulness?).

I also do not get on with books that set out to tell a horrifying story just to tell a horrifying story – and this felt like this. While reading it, I actually wondered if O’Brien had decided that trying to write a good book, sentence or style wise, would detract from the horror she was depicting. This is a pretty petty way to say that I was baffled by how bad the prose was. While I do kind of see why she chose to switch between tenses (it does add to the feeling of a fractured state of mind her protagonist has), overall I found this choice clumsy and the writing lacking. And in the end, this was what stuck with me: how can a book be this badly written and nominated for a major award? Even aside from the narrative problems I had with this and the question of authorship, this was just not well written.

Content warning: Rape, stoning, involuntary pregnancy, horrifying birthing scene, humiliation and pretty much everything you can imagine.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. Actress by Anne Enright (review)
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill (review)
  4. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)
  5. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (review)
  6. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie (review)
  7. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (review)
  8. Girl by Edna O’Brien

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Review: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

43697186Verdict: Well written but forgettable.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by W&N, 2020

Find it on Goodreads.

An unexpected teenage pregnancy pulls together two families from different social classes, and exposes the private hopes, disappointments, and longings that can bind or divide us from each other.

Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson’s taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.

As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody’s mother, for her own ceremony—a celebration that ultimately never took place.

Unfurling the history of Melody’s parents and grandparents to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they’ve paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives—even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.

While I can see that this is objectively a well-written book and I did really enjoy the structure, I also had trouble remembering what happened even in the chapter before and I cannot imagine this sticking with me. This review is taking me forever to write because I just do not know what to say.

Told in vignettes (something I love!), going forward and backwards in time telling the story of one particular family, this book mostly was a joy to read. Woodson’s prose is wonderful and the way in which she constructs her characters really worked for me. What I especially appreciated was the warmth with which she writes about these characters while still allowing them to be flawed. On a longlist including very many books that have a very cynical worldview and that are populated by horrible people doing horrible things for no reason, this really worked for me.

But the characters did not stick with me at all and I never got emotionally invested in their trajectory. While this does not take away from how good this book is, it did mean that it took me a lot longer than it should have to finish this very short book. I also thought the first half was a lot more successful than the second half and I could have done without the “remembering my own birth”-scene, which is just something I am very rarely on board with.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. Actress by Anne Enright (review)
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill (review)
  4. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)
  5. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
  6. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie (review)
  7. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (review)

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel