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

Review: Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie

43305429Verdict: Unfocussed.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by HarperCollins UK, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

On an ordinary Saturday morning in 1996, the residents of Nightingale Point wake up to their normal lives and worries.

Mary has a secret life that no one knows about, not even Malachi and Tristan, the brothers she vowed to look after.

Malachi had to grow up too quickly. Between looking after Tristan and nursing a broken heart, he feels older than his 21 years.

Tristan wishes Malachi would stop pining for Pamela. No wonder he’s falling in with the wrong crowd, without Malachi to keep him straight.

Elvis is trying hard to remember to the instructions his care worker gave him, but sometimes he gets confused and forgets things.

Pamela wants to run back to Malachi but her overprotective father has locked her in and there’s no way out.

It’s a day like any other, until something extraordinary happens. When the sun sets, Nightingale Point is irrevocably changed and somehow, through the darkness, the residents must find a way back to lightness, and back to each other.

Following six different perspectives around the events of a semi-fictional tragedy, I could not properly make sense of the why of this story – why did the author need this particular tragedy to tell the story? Why is the tone so glib when the events are so tragic? Is this supposed to be a story about a community or about a tragedy?

My thoughts on this are complicated: while I thought there were chapters and scenes that really worked, there were also vast stretches that I could not get interested in. Therefore, a list of things that worked for me and a list of things that didn’t:

What I liked:

  • Mary’s perspective. I really appreciated Mary’s voice and her particular dilemma. I thought her character was interesting and flawed in a really believable way. I enjoyed the different parental relationships she had with both her biological children and with Tristan and Malachi.
  • The wonderfully layered sibling relationship between Malachi and Tristan.

What I didn’t like:

  • The structure was possibly the part of the book that I found least successful. It took pages upon pages to finally reach the point of the plane impact and afterward the book felt very different than before. The book gets better in the direct aftermath of the tragedy but by then I had already spent hours listening to character exposition. After that the book jumps ahead in a way that made it feel like much of the plot and the character development happened off-screen.
  • Everything about the way in which Pamela’s story was handled. I found it both predictable and horrifying, which is my least favourite combination.
  • Tristan’s perspective: while I thought his character was interesting, his voice never felt authentic to me – to be fair, I do not know that many 15-year-old boys, but still it felt stereotypical rather than authentic. And I really could not deal with his rap verses, especially during scenes when a lot of things were happening.
  • I am not sure I liked the way in which Elvis’ sections were handled but I do admit that I cannot completely put my fingers on the why of that. I disliked the choice to have him refer to other characters by harsh descriptions (“the bad Black boy” for example), and by the clumsy way in which commentary on race and gender was integrated in his sections.
  • The scope was too broad for me, dealing with everything imaginable (racism and sexism, abuse, ableism, tragedy and familial relationships, cheating and abandonment) while never really giving any of those things any room to properly breathe.

Overall, the worst part was that after each momentary glimpse of brilliance, the next scene would again be clumsy and ill-thought-out, making me sad for the book this could have been if it had been more focussed; its inclusion on the Women’s Prize longlist baffles me.

Content warning: depictions of racism, sexism, and ableism; abuse; abandonment; cheating; death of loved ones; bullying; PTSD; drug abuse

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. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie
  6. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (review)

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

Wrap Up March 2020 or it’s Women’s Prize Season!

March was weird, I am sure everybody will agree. And I am not sure April will be any less weird but maybe I will be more used to the weirdness by then? In positive news, the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced and I have started making my way through it – and for the most part I have enjoyed the books so far, although I am weary if that’ll stay that way.

Books I read in March:

  1. Love Her or Lose Her by Tessa Bailey: 2 out of 5 stars
  2. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes: 4 out of 5 stars (review)
  3. Weather by Jenny Offil: 4 out of 5 stars (review)
  4. Actress by Anne Enright: 4.5 out of 5 stars (review)
  5. Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch: 3 out of 5 stars
  6. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: 1.5 out of 5 stars (review)
  7. Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby: 4 out of 5 stars
  8. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie: 2 out of  5 stars

Favourite of the Month:

Actress. I did not think I would like this book and was then very happy when I did. It is so far my favourite of the longlisted books.

Stats(ish):

I finished eight books in March, all of them written by women. Of these books five were on the Women’s Prize longlist and thus fiction. I also read one romance novel, one short story collection, and one memoir. I also spent a lot of my time re-reading parts of the Psy-Changeling series because those books always make me happy. I did not completely read any of those books though.

Currently Reading:

Books I should get to soon:

I am still kind of planning to finish the Women’s Prize longlist (except for the Mantel) before the shortlist is announced on the 22nd. I am unsure whether that is at all doable but I am still going to try my best.

Women’s Prize coverage by other bloggers:

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