Category Archives: Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

Ruby – Cynthia Bond

When the Baileys Women’s Prize longlist came out a few weeks ago Cynthia Bond’s Ruby was not one that I had heard of before. Those of you reading this in America might be looking aghast, or possibly even shouting ‘what?’ at the screen as I know it has been a bit of a hit, especially after Oprah chose it for her book club. Having now read it I am pretty sure that it is going to get read and discussed by many more people over this side of the ocean…

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Two Roads Books, 2015, paperback, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher and by the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high. The people of Liberty Township wove her cautionary tales of the wages of sin and travel. They called her buck-crazy. Howling, half-naked mad. The fact that she had come back from New York City made this somewhat understandable to the town.
She wore gray like rain clouds and wandered the red roads in bared feet. Calluses thick as boot leather. Hair caked with mud. Blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night. Her acres of kegs carrying her, arms swaying like a loose screen. Her eyes the ink of sky, just before the storm.

From the opening of Ruby Cynthia Bond instantly submerges us into Liberty Township where Ruby Bell is very much the outsider in her own hometown. So much the outsider that she now lives in a ramshackle dwelling deep in the nearby woods. She has become ostracized and of course as readers we want to know why. Whilst most of the town laugh and jeer at her one man, Ephram Jennings, sees Ruby with different eyes and we soon learn he has been smitten with her since childhood. He too is seen somewhat as an outsider yet to a much lesser extent thanks to being somewhat shrouded by his sister Celia, who has followed in their Reverend father’s footsteps becoming quite the feared God fearing woman, who does not approve of Ruby at all.

You might be thinking that this is therefore going to be some great love story set against the odds. In some ways it could be seen as that and yet, as Cynthia Bond soon shows us, there are many dark corners, secrets and layers of both Ruby the character and indeed Ruby the book. And as Ephram goes in the woods to give her White Lay Angel Cake as an offering of love and acceptance, after being scared in town and dropping her bread in her own urine, he discovers that there may be something else darker in the piney woods with Ruby, and not just her memories, though something just as sinister and something that has been following Ruby since childhood.

That night, when the Dybou slid into Ruby’s bedroom, it stopped at the door. It seemed to grow larger. The air became electric. Spider cracks spread across the panes. Instead of reaching for Ruby, the Dybou lifted above her, the whole of the ceiling in shadow, then it dropped down upon the new spirit sleeping within her.
In seconds the girl was gone, inside the creature, screaming, terror flashing in her clear eyes, small arms reaching for Ruby, as the Dybou slithered across the floor.  

If you are wondering what a Dybou is, and why would you not be, without giving too much away it is an evil spirit that feeds off other spirits and can take over the body of humans. Some might say it is the spirit entity of the devil. Yes, this is where Ruby takes on a rather strange turn as it becomes more and more magically surreal. Interestingly though I found it became all the more powerful and effecting for it. As we read on we both succumb to the world in which Ruby inhabits, learn why it has come to pass that she is so filled with these demons and spirits and why her childhood in Liberty Township and then her horrendous time in New York might have driven her to the depths of madness, if she is mad? If this had been written by many another writer I would have probably put this book down very quickly, with Cynthia Bond at the helm I was mesmerised both in horror and in hope for Ruby’s possible salvation by Ephram deep in those piney woods.

The piney woods were full of sound. Trees cracking and falling to their death; the knell of axes echoing into green; the mewl of baby hawks waiting for Mama’s catch. Bull frogs and barn owls. The call of crows and the purring of doves. The screams of a Black man. The slowing of a heart. All captured, hushed and held under the colossal fur of pine and oak, magnolia, hickory and sweet gum. Needles and capillary branches interlaced to make an enormous net, so that whatever rose, never broke through to sky. The woods held stories too, and emotions of objects; a tear of sleeve, bits of hair, long-buried bones, lost buttons. But mostly, the piney woods hoarded sound.  

As we delve deeper into the stories from the piney woods and Ruby’s story you should be warned, there are some very dark and uncomfortable scenes ahead and some are not for the faint of heart of those easily upset. However, if you can read through them Ruby is an incredibly moving, magical and menacing read that you will feel like you have experienced long after the final page. Bond looks at sexual and domestic abuse, Satanism and the supernatural, interracial racism, legends and myths, sexuality, family secrets and love. All this based in reality, in fact some of the novel is based on Cynthia Bond’s own experiences, with an infusion of magical realism. I know; that is quite a heady concoction. Ruby is one of those books that will leave you as haunted as its characters. That is where its power lies.

Ruby is one of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize longlisted novels that I am giving away here

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Books of 2016, Cynthia Bond, Review, Two Roads Books

My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

As well as introducing me to some debut and/or brand new to me authors reading all of this years Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has brought me a couple of authors that I have been meaning to read for a while. The first of those is Elizabeth Strout whose Pulitzer prize winning Olive Ketteridge I have been meaning to read for ages and ages since the much missed Granny Savidge Reads read it and raved about it years ago. Her latest, My Name is Lucy Barton, was also one of the most ‘guessed’ and rated books before the official longlist came out and so I was intrigued.

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Penguin Books, 2016, hardback, fiction, 206 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

After a slow recovery from what should have been a relatively simple operation and recuperation Lucy Barton wakes one night to find her mother, who she has not seen for years, sat at the end of her bed. This is something that Lucy finds wonderful, baffling, terrifying, thrilling and worrying, how do these two women relate to each other after so many years apart and after so much has gone unsaid?

“Hi, Lucy,” she said. Her voice sounded shy but urgent. She leaned forward and squeezed my foot through the sheet. “Hi, Wizzle,” she said. I had not seen my mother for years, and I kept staring at her; I could not figure out why she looked so different.
“Mom, how did you get here?” I asked.
“Oh, I got on an airplane.” She wiggled her fingers, and I knew that there was too much emotion, for us. So I waved back, and lay flat. “I think you’ll be alright,” she added, in the same shy-soundingbut urgent voice. “I haven’t had any dreams.”

After an initial read of the book, which at a compact 200 pages can be done in one sitting, it would be easy to simply say this was a concentrated and heightened fable of the relationship between a mother and daughter. In many ways it is. It is also much more than that as Lucy’s mother’s random appearance brings back many memories and stories of her youth, many of which are unsettling rather than happy. It could also be seen as a novel of a women’s journey to becoming a writer, what inspired her and what compelled her from a young age (mainly escapism through books). Now I have to say that I am not a fan of novels about novelists, so many clichés, however as with Graham Swift’s recent Mothering Sunday, this won me round as it isn’t the focus of the book, rather another layer.

My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone! (But it was my secret. Even when I met my husband I didn’t tell him right away. I couldn’t take myself seriously. Except that I did. I took myself – secretly, secretly – very seriously! I knew I was a writer. I didn’t know how hard it would be. But no one knows that; and that does not matter.)

What the real focus of the book is actually tries to evade our eyeline directly unless we catch it unsuspectingly and that is the story of Lucy’s childhood which she doesn’t seem to want to tell us about. This also happens with Lucy’s failing marriage, yet unlike that which she can hide her memories from childhood start coming to the fore without her expecting them or being able to lock them away again as quickly as she would like. We soon discover that Lucy grew up living in impoverished and difficult circumstances, people thought she and her family were trash and they became outcasts, something she wanted to escape.

When I was a child, our family went to the Congregational church. We were outcasts there as much as anywhere; even the Sunday school teacher ignored us. Once I came late to the class, the chairs were all taken. The teacher said, “Just sit on the floor, Lucy.”

Yet as we read on there is another layer amongst that. Deep down are memories of really dark times not inflicted on the family but by them, we only get some glimpses of them but they are there all the same. Strout, through Lucy’s seeming denial, leaves it for us the reader to work out what they are and if this is why Lucy Barton has become so estranged. It also asks the questions as to whether blood is thicker than water and how we cope with having to love someone as they are our parent, with all their failings and even with some serious hatred towards them for some things they have done. How do we then cope with that when they are gone?

There is also something slightly fairytale (both the happy and the horrid elements) and surreal amongst the cracks of this novel too. I love fairytales and you may think I can spot them in every book I read, not always honest but I could in this one. First for me was sudden arrival of Lucy’s mother, for a while I spent quite a lot of the beginning thinking she was a ghost or possibly a post surgery drug induced hallucination, especially when she starts to talk about having not had any bad dreams so all will be well. Then there is the slight Cinderella element of rags to riches. Mostly though it was the monsters lurking in a woman’s memories that made me feel like that, we mainly glimpse them, we know they are real and yet they seem other because of the way Lucy is dealing with them, or not. Naturally this compelled me further.

My Name is Lucy Barton is a deceptive book, both in its size and in the story it tells. I devoured it in a single sitting and it affected me, however since I have read it the affect has grown and grown and bothered me more and more. It is the kind of book that you need to read, digest, walk away from, digest some more and then at some point go back to. It’s affect has grown on me as much as it has grown in my estimation the more and more distance I have had from it. It’s a book that lingers much longer than you anticipate. Looks like I need to head to some more of Elizabeth Strout’s books now doesn’t it?

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Elizabeth Strout, Penguin Books, Review

The House at the Edge of the World – Julia Rochester

I have mentioned before how some books you instantly fall in love with and know are for you as you get that elusive feeling of the book tingle. Something I haven’t written about, and probably should, is when you start a book slightly unsure and then it coaxes you and surprises you as you completely fall in love with it and end up hugging it (yes, hugging it) afterwards. The latter was very much the case with Julia Rochester’s debut novel The House at the Edge of the World, which I will be very much surprised if it doesn’t become one of my books of the year even though it is barely April.

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Penguin Books, 2015, hardback, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

When I was eighteen, my father fell off a cliff. It was a stupid way to die. There was a good moon. There was no wind. There was no excuse. He was pissing into the chine at Brock Tor on his way home from the pub and fell headlong drunk into the spring tide with his flies open.

As The House at the Edge of the World opens we are drawn into the world twins Morwenna and Corwin one night they will never forget, well they were all asleep but you know what I mean, when their father is last seen, by a drunk friend, falling off a cliff into the depths below. A night when everything changes, or a night where everything gets a little more surreal afterwards for Morwenna and Corwin don’t live in a typical 2.4 children family. Their grandfather, Matthew, spends hours and hours hidden away in a room painting a map of a land that symbolises where they live, their family and the stories of both. Their mother seems to have suddenly been freed by the death of her husband, yet resentful left in a house she feels she was never really wanted in.

This all unfolds within the first few chapters, however initially I wasn’t sure I was going to get through the first few pages as the writing was throwing me slightly, as was the narrator. There is something quite surreal as this novel starts in the fact that everything feels a little bit surreal and a little bit, well, drunk. Having had this feeling with Sarah Perry’s debut After Me Comes The Flood and being thoroughly rewarded for my perseverance I, well, persevered. Then there came Morwenna as a narrator, spiky, sarchastic and pretty much disliked by everyone she meets, don’t get me wrong I love a dislikeable character but she along with the style of the book were throwing me around a bit and testing me… But I like to be tested and sure enough she won me over, which I imagined if she was real and knew would really piss her off, ha.

That morning the heat had sparked a rush on Slush Puppies at the Sea View Cafe and we ran out of electric blue, which upset people. ‘It’s all the same shit,’ I told my customers. ‘They’re not flavours, they’re just different combinations of chemicals. The virulent green tastes almost exactly the same and is just as bad for you.’
My boss took me aside and said, ‘Morwenna, you are a bad tempered, foul-mouthed little smart arse and the only reason I’m not firing you is that it is the end of the season anyway.’
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ I said to my customers, chastened. ‘But we’re out of raspberry.’

Anyway back to the story. Things settle somewhat after their fathers death and soon enough Morwenna and Corwin are spending more time away from the family home, yet always it calls to them and draws them back. Seventeen years after their fathers death Corwin starts to question that fateful night and as the twins start digging into their families past they discover a family, a map and a crumbling house brimming with secrets all infused with the urban legends and myths of the land in which they were born. Well I was pretty much hooked from then on and became more and more so the more I read and the more quirky and mysterious it all became.

One of the many things that I think Julia Rochester does fantastically well with this book is set it very much in the now and yet somehow make it feel timeless and also slightly other worldly. Morwenna ends up living in London after leaving home, yet because bar a few work colleagues and a boyfriend she reluctantly meets she seems out of time with the city and a bit of a ghost living in it. When she goes back home most people dislike her and her friendship group have dispersed and so again she becomes some kind of loner, almost a harbinger of something. This makes her both a fascinating and interestingly frank and vulnerable narrator who also has an agenda and scores to settle which brings in the question of her reliability. All of which I love in a novel and the way Rochester did this felt really unique.

The other aspect that gives The House at the Edge of the World this wonderful sense of otherness is the interwoven tales of otherness. As we read on we are told of tales of mermaid sittings, demons roaming the valleys, things that live in the woods, the devil himself and also those people who seem a bit other and out of kilter with the world. Those people who are part of society yet seem so very different, those people who fascinate some or bring fear to others. Like an old lady who might look like a witch, or a Crab Man…

The Crab Man looked like Matthew’s idea of Long John Silver, but without the peg-leg or the parrot. Instead, his props were the crabs that rattled about in the metal bucket at the kitchen door. Laughing saltily, he would take a couple out of the bucket, one in each hand, and, with a leathery leer, wave them in Matthew’s face. Snippety-snap went the terrifying crab claws within an inch of Matthew’s nose. They smelt of fish-water and engine oil.

What adds to all this is the sense of mystery and the fact that at its heart this is also a family drama. Actually I want to turn that around and say… THIS is how you write a family drama. I like a family drama as much as the next reader yet sometimes they can be a bit staid. With otherworldly maps, demons and hints of the supernatural, unsolved family mysteries and legends all whirled into the mix of relations who love and loathe each other, Julia Rochester has created something quite, quite brilliant and I think rather unique. I cannot say better than that this book in some way cast a spell over me which I had no idea was coming. In fact you could say The House at the Edge of the World was the perfect unexpected tale of the unexpected. I hugged it after I closed the final page, superb.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Books of 2016, Julia Rochester, Penguin Books, Review

Whispers Through A Megaphone – Rachel Elliott

One of the things that I always enjoy about any prize longlist is that invariably it introduces me to a lot of books that I have either never heard of you have only seen and pondered on. Rachel Elliott’s debut Whispers Through A Megaphone is a book that I saw promoted quite a lot in Foyles earlier in the year and almost bought (because when a hardback is half price you want to buy it regardless) and then again had a mental dalliance with when my boss was reading it and raving about it. Then the Baileys longlist popped it straight into my reading path…

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ONE (Pushkin Press), 2015, hardback, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

Whispers Through A Megaphone is initially a tale of two halves and two people. First we encounter Miriam Delaney, a thirty-five year old woman who has not left her house for three years. Well she hasn’t gone further than a few feet of it, thanks to the help of her best friend, Fenella who does her shopping, and her neighbour, Boo who takes her bins down the drive and onto the street. That really is the interaction at its maximum between Miriam and the outside world. But why?

It’s three years today since Miriam last stepped out of this house.
No, that’s not quite true. She has stepped into the back garden to feed the koi carp, stepped into the porch to collect the milk and leave a bin bag for her neighbour to place at the end of the drive. But to step out into the street? No chance. Risk collision and a potentially catastrophic exchange with a stranger? You must be joking. Not after what happened. Not after what she did. Inside the cutesy slipper-heads of two West Highland terriers, her feet have paced the rooms of 7 Beckford Gardens, a three bed semi with a white cuckoo clock, brown and orange carpets, a life size cut out of Neil Armstrong.

That ‘why’ becomes the main focus point of Miriam’s story and as we read on we learn that her mother might have been a little bit crazy, well she did get caught cleaning the school by the Headmaster in nothing but socks and shoes which then starts a long affair, yet Elliott cleverly and teasingly lets us know that there is much more going on her as we discover letters to a Grandmother and a more recent incident for which Miriam feels much shame and fear. This becomes in many ways the main propulsion of the book, or at least it did for me. But I mentioned there is initially another main character and that is Ralph Swoon, a happily married part time psychiatrist and father of two.

Blow me. He almost Googled this phrase once, to discover its origins, but decided against it when he imagined the kind of sites that might pop up. He tried not to utter these words, especially when working with female clients, but saying blow me was something he inherited from his father, along with narrow shoulders and a pert little bottom. Frank Swoon had been famous for his buttocks. Women wolf-whistled as he walked down the street. “Oh you do make me swoon, Mr Swoon, Just look at those cheeks.” It was the kind of compliment a man would have been slapped for.

Yet something is bubbling away underneath his home life too, something which we soon discover leads him to simply walking out on his family, mainly after a fight with his wife Sadie, and going and living in a hut in the woods, just off the local park. You can probably guess what is coming, Miriam and Ralph are going to meet, the question is are their timelines the same and if so might these two strangers help each other or, as I thought because I am quite dark, could their meeting be the awful event in Miriams recent past. You will of course have to read the book to find out, I know I am a rotter doing that to you aren’t I?

What I can say as the book goes on is that I interestingly found that whilst the novel is herding you into believing that Ralph is the second of the main characters I think Rachel Elliott’s focus was more firmly on his wife Sadie who really becomes the catalyst of Ralph leaving after which point I think she gets a lot more airtime, or wordage to be correct, than Ralph as we discover the secret that she has been keeping from herself and everyone else for quite some time. As her story gains momentum, Ralphs lessen though the effects upon him become stronger. I know that is terribly vague but once you have read the book you will see what I mean. This caused me a couple of slight problems with the book.

Joe squeezed Stanley’s bottom, which made his voice rise at the end of the sentence. His mother didn’t notice. She probably wouldn’t notice if the high note turned into a whole song from Annie, with Stanley singing as loudly as he could about the sun coming out tomorrow. She wouldn’t notice if Joe gave him a blow job right there in the middle of the kitchen. She was tweeting, pouring Prosecco, muttering about whether she had bought enough sausages. His mother the great multitasker, always in her own world, always oblivious.

I wouldn’t describe Sadie as oblivious, I would describe her as completely and utterly self centred. As we are treated to her Twitter feed/life where she tries to create a persona of who she aspires to be, one that is a bit more interesting, a bit more irreverent. This worked and didn’t work for me, personally I loathe tweets in books as a rule almost as much as talking horses, yet at the same time we see there is a huge insecurity with her. The only issue with this is that occasionally Sadie is either the butt of other characters jokes, boringly dislikeable at moments or she becomes rather overdramatized and farcical, by the end I was a little bit frustrated with her overzealous storyline and Ralph’s slightly ineffectual one. Not that it ever got so bad I wanted to skip their sections, it just seemed a bit too monster and victim, in fact some of the funniest moments of the novel centre around Sadie. And boy is this book funny.

What I really loved about Rachel Elliott’s writing was her eye for the detail of people’s mannerisms. There were probably a paragraph or two every ten or so pages where I would cackle loudly, and was grateful I spent a day (I wanted to devour it) when I was feeling a bit under the weather on the sofa with it as it cheered me up and saved me the embarrassment of openly giggling to myself on public transport. There are some truly gorgeous set pieces of mini stories within the main one that show just how ridiculous we can all be, especially when we are wrapped up in our on dramas. Elliott beautifully catches these moments and it brings her characters fully to life.

It was these moments that made Ralph and Sadie’s domestic strife so utterly readable. I do have to say though that Whispers Through A Megaphone is both in practice and literally a book of two halves. For me they were great writing but the part of the novel I will remember the most, and indeed the key to it all, is Miriam and indeed her story, as I mentioned that propels you to read more and more and more. It is also the part of the book that I connected with the most and actually wanted much, much more of her story and her mother Frances, especially when everything unravels and is revealed towards the end in an incredibly powerful and shattering chapter you probably won’t see coming. Whispers Through A Megaphone is an enjoyable, intriguing, witty and human debut novel and I am very much looking forward to what Rachel Elliott does next.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, ONE Books, Pushkin Press, Rachel Elliott, Review

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah

When I read Petina Gappah’s debut short story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, back in 2010 I was pretty much bowled over by it. Somehow I missed her debut novel coming out last year and so was thrilled when I saw that it had made the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year, which as you know I am reading all twenty of. Thrilled. As soon as I managed to get my hands on it I sat and read it straight away and was rewarded from its opening paragraphs until its conclusion.

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Faber & Faber, 2015, hardback, fiction, 276 pages, borrowed from the library then kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize

Memory sits in her cell in Chikurubi Maximum Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe having been convicted of murder waiting for an appeal, or if that fails potentially waiting for her death. As she sits and waits she starts to write, in notebooks given to her by a well known journalist, the story of how she came to be in the cell. From growing up in a family where her siblings kept dying through tragedies until the point where she watched her parents give her away in exchange for money to a white man named Lloyd. The man many believe that she murdered.

I could also start by telling you all about Lloyd. I could start by telling you that I did not kill him. ‘Murder’, said the prosecutor who laid out the case against me at the High Court, ‘is the unlawful and intentional killing of a human being who was alive at the time.’
After the police came for me on the night he died, after they arrested me and took me to the police station at Highlands, after I had spent three days without food or drink, after I had wept myself hoarse and my marrow dry – for Lloyd, I told myself, but really it was the fear – and after the dreams started coming again, I told them what they wanted to hear.
Their disbelief exploded in bursts of laughter. ‘Just tell us the real truth. You were his girlfriend and he was your boyfriend. He was your sugar daddy. Just tell us the truth, that you killed him for the money.’

I am a sucker for a novel where you are pretty sure an injustice has been done and you follow the victim of the injustice as they tell their tale and you get the real story. The Book of Memory is one such book, yet it is also very different and unique from others of its type. Memory herself is a really intriguing narrator and also potentially (one of my favourite things) a really unreliable narrator. We know what children’s, erm, memories can be like and sometimes a story that you were told can become part of your memory history in some way, you didn’t witness but you think or are certain you did. There is also the fact that many people who have committed murders claim their innocence, so why should we believe her? This tension runs wonderfully through three quarters of the book, I shall say no more for fear of spoilers.

Yet there is more to Memory’s story than that and as we read on into her childhood, the main one being that Memory was born albino. This brings in a whole new set of elements to the novel. There is the fact that during Memory’s childhood and beyond Zimbabwe is trying to get its independence from the ‘white’ ownership. Memory is African yet in some ways she is seen as a white person, however what also comes into play and in many ways is far, far worse for her is that being albino she is seen as being supernatural and by default dangerous, untrustworthy and scary.

I longed to play on Mharapara with the others but I could not join in. I could not join in because, if I went out and stayed in the sun for any length of time, my skin cracked and blistered. I spent my days indoors with the sound of the township coming through my mother’s shining windows, or I sat and observed them from our Sunbeam-red veranda. And when I did venture out, it was to be greeted as murungudunhu, so that I thought that must be part of my name.

Whilst there is time when this helps, she gets left alone from prison trouble for the most part, overall this is the most defining thing in her life, being ostracised at school, her own mother believing her a curse and then in time, when she studies in Britain, being seen as some sort of sexual predilection to the wrong kind of men initially. I found all this utterly fascinating, whilst often heartbreaking, to read.

Before I get to another highlight, which was the way Gappah plots and reveals various things as she goes, I wanted to share another couple of elements to the book which I enjoyed very much, the prison element. When Memory starts to talk about the other women that she is in prison with there comes a warmth and a element of comedy that I wasn’t expecting in the novel and liked all the more for it. In an odd way, and I mean this as a form of praise, I was reminded of Orange is the New Black as these women share their stories with each other (some very funny, some truly shocking yet told in a clever understated way) and form a camaraderie of sorts which Memory has not experienced before. Even the guards on occasion show a kind side.

What I also thought was rather marvellously done by Gappah was to show how crazy things in Zimbabwe, and indeed many parts of Africa, around the time in which The Book of Memory is set. We don’t have specific dates yet we know this is fairly recent and taking that in to account the fact that myths and magic were so prevalent and used as propaganda I found incredibly bizarre to read. It also gives Gappah another chance to show the very real danger to everyone’s lives was also so absurd, whilst also once again adding a certain humour to the novel, through hindsight which also comes with a bittersweet note of the reality of it.

I watched the news, stunned at the mix of bare-faced lies and superstition presented as fact. A convicted murderer who had been pardoned was declared a national hero. A house was blown up by witchcraft in Chitungwiza. A goblin was stealing women’s underwear in Gokwe. The adverts were all in celebration of the ruling party: I gazed in amused disbelief at the most unlikely figures ever to grace a football field, three big-bottomed women from the city’s oldest and most chaotic township, dancing on a football field in ruling party ‘team colours’. They shook their thighs of thunder as they sang in praise of the ruling party. They danced to the beat of their own oppression.

Finally, as I could go on for ages about this book, I have to mention just how brilliantly plotted I thought Gappah made this novel. There are seemingly throwaway moments which have a deeper resonance later on. She teases you that there are more secrets than meet the eye that will only be revealed just when she wants them to be and then have you puzzling how they affect everything else. She also cleverly uses Memory and indeed memories themselves to show you your prejudices, your assumptive second guessing and how nothing is every clear cut. Can you tell I really, really, really, really enjoyed The Book of Memory? I strongly recommend it.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Books of 2016, Faber & Faber, Petina Gappah, Review

Halfway Through The Baileys Women’s Prize Longlist, So Let’s Give Some Away…

Hoorah! I have just (within the last twenty minutes or so as I type this) got over half way through the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, as I popped down my tenth read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, which I am reading for the Bearded Bailey’s Book Club. Whilst I have a break to celebrate, then play catch up on reviews and start book ten, I thought it would be a nice idea to give some of the twenty books away…

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This isn’t because I don’t want them or don’t like them, not at all. Thanks to the kindness of the lovely team at the Bailey’s Prize (who sent me the whole longlist last week) aswell as the kindness of some publishers who before, and since, the list was announced have sent me additional copies I have some extra. I thought that one of you might like them. Here is the selection…

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I also have a slightly battered copy of Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies, so if you want that I can pop that in too. So what do you have to do to win this lovely selection of books? Simple, just tell me (in the comments below) what your favourite book is by a female writer and why. The competition is open worldwide, as I am still in the birthday spirit, you have until Monday April the 11th when the shortlist is announced. Good luck!

UPDATE – We have a winner chosen by random.org. Congratulations Cathling, you have been emailed for your details!

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Give Away, Random Savidgeness

Gorsky – Vesna Goldsworthy

Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky first arrived at Savidge Reads HQ last year unsolicited and I have to admit that having heard (on which podcast I cannot remember) that it was a reimagining of The Great Gatsby I promptly gave it to the book swap shelf at work. It is not that I have anything against reimagining’s, retellings or prequels and sequels, it is more that I found the original to be The Quite Alright Didn’t Set My World on Fire Gatsby. However with it being on the Bailey’s longlist, and as part of the Bearded Baileys Book Club, I had to read it and so I braced myself…

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Vintage, 2015, paperback, fiction, 278 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize

As the rich of Russian move into London one particular oligarch, Gorsky, is getting the most talk and the most press because he is a man of not mere millions but billions – well, if the press are to be believed. So it comes to quite a surprise to Nikolai Kimović, or Nick as he likes to be called, finds this very man standing in the bookshop in which he works, in one of the backstreets between Knightsbridge and Chelsea.

We were independent alright. And bookish, too. In spite of the mess, which gave the appearance of frantic activity, I managed to read a couple of titles a day, even on what passed for a busy one. I certainly did not expect to have to deal with ‘big business’, and everything about this man – from the way he stepped out of the vehicle, giving brief instructions to the sharp-suited driver who held the car’s door open for him, to the manner in which he lingered uncertainly among the shelves as I completed a minute transaction and chatted with one of our morning regulars, and the tone in which he finally uttered that if I might – spelled out big business.

Gorsky wants Nick to help him create the perfect library in his new home, which surprisingly happens to be the great house on which Nick’s low rent gate house belongs. So he has a new landlord and a new client all in one. Things take another turn when Nick discovers that Natalia, the woman of his dreams who comes in occasionally for books, seems to have some history with Gorsky and here Nick may once again be of some service.

If you have read The Great Gatsby, and I don’t think there are many people who haven’t, then you will know roughly what the plot that unfolds from here is. I say roughly because Goldsworthy does through in some twists and turns here and there as this is no straightforward retelling as I mentioned before. What you would be expecting is the wondrous world of London’s super rich echelons which Goldsworthy draws from the start and right up to the end. Indeed it was this that kept me reading on, along with all the book talk that Nick throws in along the way.

What then took me even further into the novel was something I wasn’t expecting at all, as Goldsworthy uses the reimagining of Gatsby to tell a much wider story, one which will have your thoughts fully provoked…

‘You can’t defeat them unless they wish to be defeated. They are like beasts. They will die in their millions without needing the consolations of an afterlife. You’ll never find such men and women anywhere else. Forget about the Muslims. They blow themselves up in the hope of seventy-two cherries to pop. The Russians are scarier. They fight hoping for nothing. Do you know that Natalia is from Stalingrad? Volgograd as it was called at the time she was born. Daddy was a Stalingrad rat, fifteen in 1945. It takes a special kind of zest to survive all that and then procreate so unstoppably. He had five children in a country in which most people stop at two. And not even religious. Unless you count Communism…’

As Gorsky unfolds Goldsworthy uses this famous plot of the young and rich, and the older rich and corrupt, to look at several things. The first is the situation with London now, which is becoming a city that is out pricing itself, and how the very rich are buying up masses of buildings just to visit, or worse still (considering the cry for affordable housing, which Nick himself lives in, is so high) simply leaving empty. It then looks, sometimes rather crudely through the eyes of Summerscale as quoted above (Natalia’s rich British husband, who could well be a take on Nigel Farage head of the awful political party UKIP), at the situation with the UK – and in some instances the world – with Russia, which I find as fascinating as I do petrifying. This then also leads to how the UK sees itself and is perceived by the rest of Europe. This is of course particularly topical at the moment with the European referendum coming up (I want to stay in, just saying) in the next few weeks. Nick is the perfect set of eyes for this as being a Serbian migrant he sees it all both from outside the world of the rich and as someone who is the focus of much debate at the moment with migration being a very hot topic.

I thought it was all of this that made Gorsky really stand out to me. Interestingly this is some ways does come at a slight cost. Goldsworthy is wonderful at constructing scenes, buildings and atmospheres, yet there is a slight struggle going on with the characters. As the main characters all have a certain plot to follow in many ways, it slightly constricts them. Most of the time, with many of the characters Goldsworthy works wonders, occasionally (particularly with Natalia) they feel slightly less like characters and more like chess pieces being forced to move in a certain pattern or direction. This is a minor qualm though when the discussions the book creates are so strong and the scenes in which they are set so luscious and so detailed.

All in all I really enjoyed Gorsky and read it in a couple of sittings. It entertained me and gave me much food for thought in a very subtle and subconscious way, which I really liked. I will have to go off and discover what else Vesna Goldsworthy has written.

Update: Gorsky is one of a selection of the longlisted Baileys Women’s Prize books that I am giving away worldwide here.

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The Green Road – Anne Enright

Knowing I was going to be reading all of them once the Bailey’s longlist was announced, one of the books I was rather nervous about was Anne Enright’s The Green Road. This was because I read her Man Booker winning The Gathering way back in my pre-blogging days and wasn’t really a fan, I then started The Forgotten Waltz but just didn’t get into it. Anne Enright and I had despite best intentions) a little bit of history, I hadn’t managed to ‘get her’ yet, so would The Green Road be the book to do it?

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Vintage, paperback, 2016, fiction, 314 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Green Road is a difficult book to describe as in essence you could describe it simply as the tale of one family, when actually it is a much more complex and intriguing one than that. In the first part of the book, through the eyes of the four Madigan siblings and then their mother Rosaleen (who always looms in her children’s tales) we are given insight into parts of four separate people’s lives and the jigsaw puzzle of one families story, no matter how fractured it gets. In the second half of the novel we watch the family return to their childhood home, Ardeevin, for one last Christmas as Rosaleen has suddenly decided to sell it. Yes, you know there is going to be some family dramatics there.

Hanna’s mother had taken to the bed. She had been there for two weeks, nearly. She had not dressed herself or done her hair since the Sunday before Easter, when Dan told them all that he was going to be a priest.

I really, really enjoyed the first half of the book. Having found The Gathering a somewhat difficult, slightly miserable and cold read I have to admit I was expecting the same again. However within pages I was wrapped in the warmth of Enright’s prose and loudly cackling as we see life through Hanna’s eyes as her mother reacts rather badly to some news in 1980, perfectly setting up the family dynamic. We then follow Dan’s escape from his family which takes him to New York in 1991 and the gay scene. We then return to Ireland, County Limerick in 1997 where Constance is having a mammogram before heading to Segou, Mali to find Emmet working surrounded by poverty and sickness. Finally returning to Ireland once more to find Rosaleen writing Christmas cards and thinking about all her children and how her family have become so seemingly fractured and apart, deciding to sell the house.

Before we move on to the second half, where you might feel a ‘but’ is coming, I want to pay particular attention to one of these stories which blew my mind. I thought all of the first part (which is aptly called Leaving) was wonderfully written and crafted, one part in particular was some of the best writing I have read all year. The segment set in New York 1991 was so powerful I actually finished it sobbing. Whilst this is claimed to be Dan’s story it is actually the story of all those men who tragically lost their lives to HIV and the Aids virus, the men who Dan finds himself amongst while in turmoil about his own sexuality.

This resonated with me for two reasons. Firstly, because of the way Enright draws Dan, flaws and all. Dan is one of ‘the beautiful ones’ who people fall for and sometimes, because he can and other times because he is struggling with dealing with all his confused feelings, is an absolute bastard and a bit of a coward. Where you should be enraged by him, you feel pity for him and I think Enright looks at the shame sexuality has had (and indeed still has in some counties and mindsets) unflinchingly. She also looks at how horrendous that time was for the men who caught the virus were as well as those loved ones around them. I don’t know if it was Enright’s intention or not, however, in giving the narrative as a collective ‘we…’ they the ghosts/souls of those who had died watching telling me of the aftermaths of their dying and their deaths. It utterly floored me, I was a mess. I thank Enright for this because these stories need to be told and these people’s voices to be heard, without compromise or making them more palatable for the masses. It should be slightly uncomfortable by its nature.

Of all the signs, the purple bruise of Kaposi’s was the one we hated most because there was no doubting it and, after the first mother snatches her child from the seat beside you on the subway, it gets hard to leave the house. Sex is also hard to find. Even a hug, when you are speckled by death, is a complicated thing. And the people who would sleep with you now – what kind of people are they?
We did not want to be loved when we got sick, because that would be unbearable, and love was all we looked for, in our last days.

The second half of the novel, Coming Home, was also wonderfully written. Enright gets certain moments spot on within family dynamics; the old resentments you have from when you were ten and can’t let go of, the negotiation of interactions and unwritten hierarchy when you’ve all been apart for so long, the moments you fight for everyone’s love and rebuke it too. All of this was perfectly drawn as I turned the pages. So there is a ‘but’ coming, as I hinted, in fact there are two.

My only two small criticisms of The Green Road were thus. I thought that the ending of the book, which I won’t spoil, fell into a bit of an old family matriarchal cliché and at once somehow became over dramatic and anti-climactic all at once. I think the book could have ended at page 280 and I would have been perfectly happy to be left guessing. The other small niggle I had was Emmet. Despite his quite interesting story in Mali was interesting, I felt that the novel wouldn’t have been much different without him, in fact I would have liked more of Hanna, Constance and (in particular) Dan’s stories instead. These are minor quibbles and probably just me sulking after being so bereft leaving New York and wanting Enright to give me more of that story, no matter how painful. That is the power of that section, I will let go and move on because really this is a beautiful book.

If you crossed the long meadow, you came to a boreen which brought you up over a small rise to the view of the Aran Islands out in Galway Bay, and the Cliffs of Moher, which were also famous, far away from the south. This road turned into the green road that went across the Burren, high above the beach at Fanore, and this was the most beautiful road in the world, bar none, her granny said – famed in song and story – and rocks gathering briefly into walls before lapsing back into field, the little stony pastures whose flowers were sweet and rare.

The Green Road has left me pondering if I have missed a trick with Enright all this time, or maybe I just read her at the wrong time as can happen. Enright is unquestionably a fantastic writer who, for me with this novel, conjured up the world of a family with all its highs and lows that felt like they might be having this reunion down the end of your road. Well, if it was Christmas and you lived in County Clare but you know what I mean. I didn’t notice it in her previous novels, so I guess I will have to go back again, that Enright does two of my favourite things in fiction. She makes the ordinary, and everything we take for granted, seem extra ordinary. She also gives voices to those who have not been able to share their tales. I know, I know, I cannot let that New York section go, but the writing is stunning. I mean could you forget, especially when Enright so aptly writes His head was a museum. And when he died the museum would be empty. The museum would fall down. Thought not. Let books like this one, though fictional, be some kind of museum or memorial for those who could not, or cannot, speak up.

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Filed under Anne Enright, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Review, Vintage Books

Thoughts on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2016

Normally I do a post dissecting the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist after it comes out each year. Well as it happens I have been too busy reading them at every opportunity I get (I am now on my sixth, so doing ok) to write something, however myself and my fellow Baileys Beareded Book Club partner in crime Eric of LonesomeReader have recorded something on the twenty titles instead…

You  can hear it over on The Readers here for over an hour of Bailey’s bookish chatter,  Any of your thoughts are, as always, welcome. I best get back to my book nook and crack on with reading.

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The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks

When it comes to historical fiction I tend to stick to two particular periods willingly. These are the Victorian era and the Tudors, the latter which I actually read less than I would like because I am picky. Anything before then makes me nervous, bar the Greek and Roman times which I am well versed in (though less well read in) with my mother being a classicist. So, despite having loved Year of Wonders in my pre-blogging days, I was rather worried about reading Geraldine Brooks latest novel The Secret Chord with it being set in 1000BC, a period in history I know next to nothing about…

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Little Brown, hardback, 2014, non-fiction, 302 pages, borrowed from the library

As The Secret Chord opens we are thrown into the world of Natan, prophet and scribe to King David, who has just been given the mission of going off to meet with the people who have journeyed with him or crossed his path in the lead to his rule. David, who we soon come to learn is quite vain, wants his life documented and as Natan only knows of it from a certain point (when David killed his father and was just about to dispatch Natan when he announces his first prophecy) he must go and find out other peoples truths and tales of the king. As he heads to find his rulers family and first wife, interestingly both distant and reticent, he starts to look back on his times with David, a king who seemed to rise from nowhere against all odds and conquer the land.

I have to say initially I wasn’t sure I was going to buy into The Secret Chord as the idea seemed a little forced/contrived (unless I missed something, this plot device also vanishes) and on page nine a line describing a murder as ‘It was as intimate as rape.’ made me quite cross, however I continued and was soon lost in the storytelling of the characters that Natan meets as well as Natan’s own stories, which of course are all Geraldine Brooks wonderful retellings. Natan of course being an intriguing character in himself as he, without control much to his frustration, can see some of the future coming before anyone else which often leads to the intriguing questions of what he should tell, what he should withhold and what he is missing?

For a seer, I was remarkably obtuse. I know this now; I did not know it then. Yoav and I had conspired to find some occupation that, while worthwhile in itself, would serve to distract a restless and unhappy king. Instead, he found a way to distract me, to get me out of his way. A man will silence the voice of his conscience when it suits him to commit sin. But if your “conscience” walks and breathes as a living man in your service, you might have to go to some additional lengths. I did not see this. I did not seen that proud and vital man who feared his manhood waning might take any reckless step to prove himself it wasn’t so. In the service of my gift, I had to forgo much that makes a man in full. I know now that this sacrifice has left me blind to certain things. I can see what others cannot see, but sometimes I miss what is apparent to the dumbest simpleton.

There was much that I admired about Brooks evocation of King David’s life and ruling. Firstly was her clear passion and enthusiasm to tell his tale, which is quite contagious. Through Natan she also creates a fully formed character, flaws and all. David is seen as a ‘great man’, he can often be a kind and impassioned king, he can also be an absolute bastard to both his enemies and those close to him. As Natan watches his relationship with Yonatan, King Shaul’s son and sibling of David’s first wife Mikhal, we see David at his most loving and vulnerable. This section may bring up some questions to historians or certain religious views but I found it fascinating and reminiscent of one of my favourite books, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.  Yet by that very same stretch we see how cruel and heartless he can be with his relationship to Mikhal as the novel continues. Brooks doesn’t portray him as some amazing hero, he appears fully formed warts (well not quite) and all and I really liked this. Well apart from the rape and pillaging, this occasionally made me have to put the book down.

Throughout there is a dark, grittiness to Brooks’ writing which brings the atmosphere or the time fully to the fore. These were dark times, though some might say we are still in them now, as people fought for supremacy and power. David thinks nothing of being sent to collect 100 foreskins from the dead bodies of Shaul’s enemies (in fact he goes for double) to win Mikhal’s hand. As I mentioned, parts of the book may not be for some of the fainter of heart readers out there. When Brooks gets out on the battlefield with David and Natan, which happens quite a lot, things get pretty bloody and pretty gory. Here is a taste of one of the battle scenes from early on in the novel, see how you fair with it.

When I reached the ridge, the king was making an end of another fighter. He was up close, eye to eye. His sword had entered just above the man’s groin. He drew it upward, in a long, slow, arching slash. As he pulled the blade back – slick, dripping – long tubes of bowel came tumbling after. I could see the dying mans eyes, wide with horror, his hands griping his guts, trying to push them back into the gaping hole in his belly. The king’s own eyes were blank – all the warmth swallowed by the black stain of widening pupils. David reached out an arm and pushed the man hard in the chest. He fell backward off the narrow ledge and rolled down the slope, his entrails unfurling after him like a glossy ribband.

One scene in particular I found almost too difficult to read and did question it’s taste, once you have read the book you will know which I mean, which leads me to a few quibbles about the book before I mention it’s greatest strength. I have to admit on the odd occasion I did get a little lost. Brooks doesn’t like to show off all the research she has clearly done in writing this book which I admired. However there are moments where her knowledge means she assumes she knows something, and I knew nothing which meant I got lost and on occasion a character, generally a man, would suddenly give reference the history of why people were at war in an aside that felt slightly like a reference book, these were rare moments and minor issues because I ended up reading this book in almost a single sitting and that was because of the women’s voices and tales in the novel – which in a slightly circular way leads back to the scene I almost found too hard to read.

One of the things I like the most about historical fiction is that it can give voice, if done well, to those people who were less documented and in the case of the time of 1000BC it is generally the women. Not so in The Secret Chord where Brooks brings them fully to life and ready to tell us all. In particular the voices of Nizever; David’s forgotten mother, Mikhal; David’s first wife who goes through the ringer, the wonderful Avigail; David’s third wife and the brains behind his early rise, Maacah; his fourth wife and mother of his only daughter Tamar, and Batsheva; his eighth and final wife, who all have quite the tales to tell, giving her-story to the history which I thought was poignant, upsetting, moving and fascinating. They are what make this novel standout, the forgotten voices unleashed.

“It is important that you know, I want you to set it down: ‘Mikhal was in love with David.’ Nobody ever writes that about a woman. It’s always the man whose love is thought worthy of recording. Have you noticed that? In all the chronicles, they state it so. Well, you write down that it was I. I was the one who loved.”
Her observation was quite true. Indeed, in most of our important histories, it’s rare enough for wives to be named, never mind the state of their affections noted. So I set it down as she had requested. I paused, and looked up at her.

All in all I thought The Secret Chord was a compelling and escapist read. It introduced me to a time I know absolutely nothing about and held me there for the five and-a-bit hours it took me to greedily devour it, only stopping for the occasional cup of tea or breather from the Second Iron Age shenanigans. If you are a fan of historical fiction then I would imagine this might be just your fare and if you aren’t it is great place to dip a tentative toe and see how you get on.

So there are my thoughts on The Secret Chord, I would love to hear yours if you have read it. It has certainly reminded me of how much history there is still out there to learn about. It has also made me reflect on how much I loved Brooks’ Year of Wonders (which I took to my heart so much as it tells the tale of Eyam, the only place outside London to get the Black Plague and sacrificed itself, which happens to be mere miles from my hometown) and how I should check out more of her novels, any you would recommend in particular that I should read next?

*I read this as part of the Baileys Bearded Book Club as Eric of LonesomeReader and I try and read all the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year, more details here.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Geraldine Brooks, Little Brown Publishing

The Baileys Women’s Prize Longlist 2016

The clock has not long struck midnight (well GMT wise it has) and so it is officially International Women’s Day. What more apt a day could there be for the announcement of the Baileys Women’s Prize longlist than today? As some of you will have read the team at the Baileys Women’s Prize are very kindly letting myself and Eric, of LonesomeReader, become part of the family with the Baileys Bearded Book Club so we will be reading all the novels we haven’t, as well as doing some podcasts in the lead up to the shortlist in the next month and then a whole host of other things after that. But onto the longlist which is what you really want to see, the longlist of which I have read just the three, so someone is going to be a very busy bookish bearded bloke for the next five weeks. Here they are…

8th March 2016: The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction announces its 2016 longlist, comprised of 20 books that celebrate the best of fiction written by women

8th March 2016: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announces its 2016 longlist, comprised of 20 books that celebrate the best of fiction written by women

So as I mentioned I have read three, those have links to them, and I guessed a whopping four. This happens every year and yet every year I feel more confident and look more foolish. I will type up some more thoughts on the list later today when I have let it settle with me a little more, it is just gone midnight after all. My initial thoughts are of excitement though, all those books I have yet to read, all those adventures I am yet to have.

In the meantime what are your thoughts on the 20 strong longlist? Which have you read and what did you make of them?

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The Bailey’s Prize; Best of the Best from the Second Decade

Tonight in the Piccadilly Theatre in London, something very exciting is going to be happening… The folk behind the Bailey’s Prize will be announcing their Best of the Best from the second decade of the wonder that is the women’s prize for fiction. The question is of course which of these wonderful ten novels (if like me you thought they had chosen ten books from all time and were worried about some of the older ones not getting a shout fear not) will win the prize tonight?

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I will be there, so will be live tweeting over @SavidgeReads throughout and then filling you all in on the evening tomorrow, however in the interim the lovely team at the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction asked me if I would share with you which book I thought deserving of the title. This initially seemed like the most delightful thing to be asked, then when the selection above arrived I realised it was actually a potential nightmare. I have read nine of the books (sorry Barbara Kingsolver, I will get to you) and I can genuinely say that six of them have been absolute corkers (Homes, McBride, Tremain, Adichie, Miller, Smith) and out of those two of them have become some of my favourite books of all time. Step forward Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles (which I was sure I wouldn’t like after having a classicist mother who dragged me round Pompeii for 8 hours put me off all things Greek and Roman for quite some time, it’s okay Mum I forgive you) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (which I read for a book group knowing nothing about and completely blew me away) which are both corkers!

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But before I choose which of these would be my best of, and it changes minute by minute, I want to just take some time out to say how brilliant the prize is full stop and mention how much I wish they would let a male judge on the panel called Simon just once and all the brilliant fiction that it highlights be they longlisted, shortlisted or the final winners. Because it is brilliant! Without the prize I wouldn’t have read any of the above novels when I did, nor would I have known about Andrea Levy’s winning Small Island, or shortlisted titles like Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, Kathleen Winter’s Annabel or Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says It Loud. I could go on, and I haven’t even started on the longlisted titles that I have read and loved each year, or the fun I have every spring trying to guess the twenty books that might make it on that list. It has really informed my reading, more than I realised until I looked at all the titles – which then set me off wanting to read all the short and long listed titles I haven’t got to yet. Blimey!

So which would be my overall winner for the book of the last decade? Well after much torment, wailing, hair pulling and other vexation I have to say for me it has to be Half of a Yellow Sun. It is a book that stole my heart, broke it a few times and has left me thinking about it (and all the characters) ever since. It is also a book that I have bought for all the important people in my life who haven’t read it yet – and they have all been blown away by it too.

Right I need to get ready for tonight’s event, which there are still some tickets for, so over to you? Who would be your best of the best from the second decade be and what about the first? Which short and longlisted books have you read and loved.

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How to be both – Ali Smith

When the lovely folk at the Bailey’s Prize asked me if there was a book I would like to champion from the shortlist that I hadn’t read yet (or you know it would be The Bees) I instantly, and quite cheekily, asked them if I could read Ali Smith because I am a big fan of her work. I have actually been a big fan of her work since before this blog was born when I read The Accidental and loved it just as much as I was occasionally baffled by it. Since then I have loved Girl Meets Boy, The First Person & Other Stories, There but for the and Artful. Now with How to be both I think Ali Smith has encased everything I love about her writing in one book, though I am also aware that it won’t be a book for every reader out there…

Penguin Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the lovely lot at the Bailey’s Prize

How to be both is a clever novel in that is is made up of two narratives/novellas/stories which form a whole novel, yet can be read and have indeed been printed in either order creating a slightly different book. Before we get too involved in how that works, let me tell you more about the two stories. First up, well in my editon, is the tale of George whose mother has recently died and whose life and death along with the things she was interested in have become a kind of obsession with George whilst coping with the grief and loss of her mother, one being the art of an Italian 15th century fresco painter, Francesco del Cossa. The other story is the tale of the artist del Cossa who of little is known and indeed until a specific fresco and letter were discovered wasn’t a known artist at all. It may seem like the link between the stories is obvious however the more you read the more the narratives are connected, occasionally mirrored and interweaved.

But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?
The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done.
But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?
George sighs heavily. Her mother points across the way, to the castle wall. A bus goes past. Its whole back is an advert for something in which there’s a Madonna and child picture as if from the past, except the mother is showing the baby Jesus how to look something up on an iPad.

Now I left in the last paragraph of that quote because if you are worried that this novel might be too clever or maybe a little to conceptual it is honestly not. Yes Smith is an amazingly gifted and clever writer, yes she is also an author who is brimming with ideas and her novels can have an unusual concept to them, in no way is she a writer who alienates, comes across as pompous or likes the sound of her own voice or opinions. Her writing is as enjoyable as it is experimental and she has as much sense of humour as she has ideas, admittedly the first part of the Italian section made me do a ‘what?!?’ but I trusted her and read on more of that shortly. What I love about her writing the most is the way that she will play with words, flip them and their meanings about and show you just how blooming amazing this language we all have is.

There is also much more to love about her writing. Layers mainly, in fact layered is a very good word for Smith as she does this with themes in her novels, gender, beginnings, art, culture, stories, spirit & essence, death, grief and more are in this novel. Smith is clearly a people watcher. She has the ears for dialogue and the eyes for character. Any conversation you read in a Smith novel be they set now or be it set several centuries ago is exactly how people speak. I know this sounds really obvious because all authors write dialogue, yet even when that dialogue is good it isn’t as brimming and astute and layered with meaning as when Ali Smith does it, in particular (and this almost beats one of the best dinner party conversations in fiction ever in There but for the) there are conversations between teenage George and her mother that we know we have all had when we were being pedantic clever clogs and one scene with George and her father having to discuss a pornographic  video with its undertone of two people who have become alien to one another since grief hit, is utterly brilliant.

The same brilliance with dialogue applies to Smith’s characters. George is a wonderful, wonderful character who I loved seeing the world from the angle of. Like in There but for the (sorry to mention it again, it remains my favourite Smith book and I loved this) in How to be both Smith uses a younger character to show us the reader how utterly bizarre we are as adult human beings. She does this with the way her mother uses language, yes her own mother, and she does this when she is thinking about death, about art, about pornography, all without it ever sounding precocious. I was utterly charmed by George and it may have been leaving George behind, and initially the very unusual way the start of the second section (in my version of the book) that made me a little hesitant and a little cranky initially when we went to 15th Century Italy.

Don’t get me wrong, once I had warmed up to and got used to the way del Cossa tells a tale I was into the swing of it. There were three particular highlights in this section firstly the wonderful and rompy tale of del Cossa’s rise to painting for the aristocracy, which takes us via a wonderful and vivid whore house, secondly her tale of friendship  and finally, yet most incredibly of all, the way Smith writes about painting. You’d think creative types writing about other creative types would be easy, quite the opposite and some novels about artists or musicians can go horribly wrong (oh hello Richard Powers’ Orfeo) or come across as pretentious drivel. Not for Smith. I was worried I might get bored when she wrote about del Cossa painting or feel like it was a lecture, I was captivated.

It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even a imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and it told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are, their softness and wetness held in a pellicle of colour thinner and more feeling than an eyelid, as if a duck told you about the combined wet and underdry of its feathers, a brick about the rough kiss of its skin.

I also think the Italian section is very integral to another thing Ali Smith likes to toy with and that is our assumptions. If there is one thing I have learnt in the case of an Ali Smith novel it is to have no preconceived ideas about it, other than it will be very good, and also to assume nothing. For those of you who have yet to read it I will say no more for fear of spoilers, for those of you who have read it you will know what I mean and we can talk about those and much more in the comments below – after all I promised this would be like a book group, this does mean there may be some spoilers in the comments, be warned. I did wonder how it would work if I had read the two parts the other way around and tried playing the ‘if I had read it that way’ game, I am wondering if too much would have been given away too soon. More to discuss below I feel?

I really liked How to be both. I think it takes all the best parts of her previous novel, mixes them up  and produces something wonderful. Occasionally this does mean that How to be both will have a familiar feel to its predecessors in some way (I so wanted to call this post Artful: The Remix) yet it is also a completely original novel and concept too. As I said before, Smith is as enjoyable as she is experimental and long may she keep writing books like this and gaining a much deserved wider and wider readership. I think she could be one of the most interesting contemporary writers of our time whilst also being one of our most accessible, if you are prepared to put the work in and leave your reading inhibitions by the door. Marvellous!

So normally it is over to you and I ask if you have read the book and what you thought of it, plus ask you what else I should read of Ali Smith’s and indeed from the Bailey’s shortlist. I still want all that but I want a little bit more (and I feel I am worth it, ha) as I said this would be like a book group discussion so to get us all going I do want you to tell me what you thought, I have also asked a few questions in the first comment below… let’s get discussing!

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Filed under Ali Smith, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Penguin Books, Review

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2014

One of my favourite prizes of the bookish year is what we now know as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I have been a supporter of it for many a year now, trying to guess the longlist and then trying to read them. I normally stay up until the midnight announcement but as I appear to have aged by about 20 plus years in the last few weeks I couldn’t. I did wake up at about 5am, when Oscar decided to be sick behind the wardrobe, and then have a sneak peak and it’s a really interesting list…

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Before I go on to share the list can I just say there is so much that is brilliant about the above picture it is almost too much. Imagine being on a panel of judges with Mary Beard and Caitlin Moran, you’d just be in heaven. Anyway, the list of twenty books in full is as follows…

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood
The Dogs of Littlefield – Suzanne Berne
The Shadow of the Crescent Moon – Fatima Bhutto
The Bear – Claire Cameron
Eleven Days – Lea Carpenter
The Strangler Vine – M.J. Carter
The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton
Reasons She Goes to the Woods – Deborah Kay Davies
The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert
Burial Rites – Hannah Kent
The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner
The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri
The Undertaking – Audrey Magee
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride
Almost English – Charlotte Mendelson
Still Life with Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen
The Burgess Boys – Elizabeth Strout
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
All The Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

Amazingly though I don’t have all of them I do happen to have thirteen (I am hoping this is not an omen) of them in the house 4.5 of which I have read.

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I didn’t try and guess the longlist this year (what a party pooper) because I didn’t feel after last year being my slowest and quietest year for reading what with Gran (who was a huge fan of the prize, I think it lead her to Rose Tremain, and would be happy I have posed the books on what were her sofa’s on which she did much reading and I will carry on the tradition of) and all that jazz I didn’t feel that I could give a good enough insight. Plus there is always the worry you look super smug, then the mild embarrassment when I am sooooo wrong and the invariable almost moan of ‘why wasn’t x and y book on the list?’ Speaking of which Naomi Wood, Fiona McFarlane? Moving swiftly on…

I would have stabbed a guess at All the Birds, Singing, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, Burial Rites and Almost English being on the list as they were all highlights of my reading year last year, so naturally I am thrilled for those to be on the list. I may also have hazarded a guess at Americanah and MaddAddam being on the list as they are by two of my favourite authors though shockingly I didn’t read these upon release, strange. I also would have guessed The Luminaries, The Goldfinch and The Flamethrowers as they have been three of the most talked about books and also interestingly three books which seem to really divide people, interesting.

Berne, Bhutto, Cameron and Carter I am excited about because I have them on my shelves, The Bear was actually one of the books I mentioned in The Readers ‘Books To Be Excited About January to June’ show. Yet, as always with me, it is the books I know very little or nothing about that are the ones that I instantly go off and look up.  Deborah Kay Davies is an author I have already read and was equally impressed and disturbed with True Things About Me so I will have to get my mitts on her knew one, Elizabeth Strout I know through Olive Kitteridge which I still haven’t read but Gran raved about, Lea Carpenter and Audrey Magee are completely knew to me which is most exciting.

So it is a really interesting list, some big names with big books, some debuts, some lesser known authors all in the mix. Now I just have to choose which one to start with… I was umming and ahhing about doing a shadow jury of beardy blogging blokes but I think to try them out as and when the whim takes me might be a better plan of action. So while I decide which one gets read next (I am leaning towards The Bear) which of these books have you read and what did you make of them? Which books are you keen to read? And what do you make of the list overall?

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness