Tag Archives: Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan

Those of you who have visited this blog for some time (it will be ten years old this year which seems madness) will know that I have a slight aversion to horses both in real life and in fiction. So when I spotted both Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings I was somewhat vexed. Internally and then I cursed myself as I had popped both of these books proof copies in the recycling last year, because of the horses. However in the name of reading the whole of the Baileys Prize longlist for the second year running, I momentarily cursed the Bailey’s judges for their choices and then picked up the most daunting of the two, The Sport of Kings. Within an hour I was completely and utterly gripped, who could have seen that one coming from the cover or synopsis, yet this is not really a book about horses and horse racing, it is about so much more than that.

4th Estate Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 545 pages, kindly sent by the publisher and then re-bought by me for me (that’ll learn me!)

As The Sport of Kings opens we join a young boy Henry Forge as he runs to escape his father< john Henry, from something awful that has happened in one of the barns and which he is being blamed for. Two lines in and Henry is asking himself ‘How far away from your father can you run?’, in many ways is actually the constant theme in the book as it moves forward. We soon discover that Henry is the master’s son of a vast plot of land and one of the wealthiest and longest running family dynasties in Kentucky. We also soon learn when he gets home and the belt is brought out, that his father is also a monstrous, bigoted, misogynistic tyrant as he proves time and time again throughout the first hundred pages.

His voice loud against the clattering, John Henry said, “What you don’t yet comprehend about women, Henry, is a great deal.” He stared at the cars as they flipped past. “I wouldn’t say that they’re naturally intellectually inferior, as the Negroes are. They’re not unintelligent. In fact, I’ve always found little girls to be as intelligent as boys, perhaps even more so. But women live a life of the body. It chains them to material things – children and home – and prevents them from striving toward loftier pursuits.”

I know, awful isn’t he? And this is just the John Henry that Henry (I know a lot of Henry’s and we have a Henrietta to come, but that is what the Forges are about) sees. One of the brilliant things which C.E. Morgan does is let us see John Henry from other characters eyes, both his wife and his staff, and we see many of the things we shouldn’t – but I don’t want to spoil anything (I did an admittedly thrilled ‘oh my goodness, well I never’ about 50 pages in). Honestly, this book has lots of lovely sensational moments throughout, which also made it so readable and epic.

Anyway, I digress… The more Henry’s father rages and orders the more Henry wants to go against him, infuriating his father by announcing when he inherits the land it will be used to breed the finest race horses, the ultimate revenge in his eyes and also the ultimate escape as he goes on to learn everything he can about them filling his mind with anything but his father. But as they say the apple never falls to far from the tree and, as we all probably know too well, in spite of ourselves elements of our parents run into us despite our best intentions and we soon see Henry has far more of his father in him than he would care to admit or acknowledge.

Ginnie said, “Henry, are you going to get married?”
Henry made a face. “Someday, maybe, I don’t know.”
“Let’s you and me get married!”
“You? No way, you’re ugly.”
“I am not!”
Henry sighed. “When I get married, I’m going to marry a beautiful woman. My father says not to waste energy on ugly girls.”
Great dollop tears formed in Ginnie’s eyes. “A pretty girl won’t be half as fun as me!” She whined, but Henry was distracted by the blooms of his breath in the suddenly icy barn air.

Ginnie is right, I won’t say why but she is and this leads us onto the middle section of the book which not only sees Henry’s daughter Henrietta start to take a real prominence in the families thoroughbred business, her tale also brings with it a darkness to the whole breeding theme throughout the book as well as hiring a young man, Allmon Shaughnessy, whose life in the darkest, poorest parts of Cincinnati couldn’t be more different than the colour of his and Henrietta’s skin and here is where the heart of the story, for it is a ripping yarn, starts to reveal itself.

In the first scene of Allmon’s tenth year, a girl dies in the cement garden. Her name was Gladys Gibbons, just a tiny little thing on the third floor opposite with skin the colour of chalky churned-up river water, a soft cheek and a pert ski-slope nose like a white girl’s, maybe the kind with money. That nose made her a beloved pariah, as despised as she was envied by girls who didn’t yet know what envy was. She had the stamp of difference on her face, and that stamp was a pass. The girls in her building put their hands to the skinny vale between her shoulder blades and shoved. Knocked her against barriers, into doors, down onto cracked sidewalks and onto her knees. She thought: I’m ugly. And there was no grown person to tell her otherwise. So the wind of natural confidence died.

How beautifully and vividly written whilst utterly heartbreaking is that? You see The Sport of Kings is not really a book about horses and racing, it is a book about race, class, bigotry, power and privilege and how those who have it and those who don’t fare over several decades in American History and it saddens me that people, myself included, might avoid it because they think it is about horseracing when it is so, so, so much more. And it is an incredibly powerful example of an epic book that contains all of those themes whilst also being an incredibly addictive family saga to with affairs, murder, incest, poverty and riches, secrets and ok, horses. As one character sums it up so brilliantly “Those Forges are motherfucking nuts.” They are.

In many ways what I think made me enjoy it so much was it had all the elements of a Victorian sensation novel, which I adore, with all the twists and turns, melodramas and characters of incredible depth. You have the main characters Henry, Henrietta and Allmon who come with whole family descendent stories behind them and who effect the Forges dynasty in huge ways, but you also get every characters back story too (a trope I really love in a big sprawling book) even the smallest of characters. And you never know when one of those smaller characters might come back to a big dramatic effect when you least expect it… oh, I might say too much.

This could of course make it sound like The Sport of Kings is a never ending, far too filled and possibly flabby book. Not at all. If anything I would have quite liked for it to have been another hundred or more pages as I felt the final section was somewhat suddenly rushed and a bit manic, one of my only two qualms in the book. The other being that I can’t decide if I feel like Morgan does something incredibly brave, making a huge point with one of her characters story arcs or if in fact she really, really lets them down (a bit like J. K. Rowling did with A Casual Vacancy, though in this case it didn’t ruin the book for me) which had me slightly riled for a while after putting it down and I am still debating.

The Sport of Kings thrilled me and surprised me. It also reminded me why sometimes picking up a dense family saga can be such a wonderful reading experience. You find characters you live and breathe with, even the ones you love to hate; you have big chunks of history to digest with all their politics and social questions around to think about and the ripples that affect everyone afterwards. I was lost in a ripping good epic yarn, for that is really what this book is and I would highly recommend you get lost in it too. You’ll race through it – sorry, I couldn’t not.

Has anyone else read The Sport of Kings and if so what did you make of it? If you had been put off somewhat by how it was sold have you changed your mind? If you’re thinking about giving it a whirl now you can get it here. I know I certainly want to give C.E. Morgan’s All The Living a read now.

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, C.E. Morgan, Review

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

One of the joys for me with reading the Baileys Women’s Prize is the books that it makes you discover. There are some on the list, mainly the horsey ones and Barkskins, which I am slightly nervous about, there are also all the books and authors I have been meaning to read for quite some time. Linda Grant is one such author. I actually own almost all her books because she is an author I have always felt I would really like and every time I go into Waterstones in Liverpool and see her writing by the escalators, reading as I ascend or descend, I think ‘ooh, I really must finally pick up one of her books’. Well now I have…

Virago Press, hardback, 2016, fiction, 312 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

London. Big black old place, falling down, hardly any colour apart from a woman’s red hat going into the chemist with her string bag, and if you looked carefully, bottle-green leather shoes on that girl, but mostly grey and beige and black and mud-coloured people with dirty hair and unwashed shirt collars, because everything is short, soap is short, joy is short, sex is short, and no one on the street is laughing so jokes must be short too. Four years after the war and still everything is up shit creek.

I have mentioned the infamous ‘book tingle’ on the blog before. That feeling you get very early on in a book where you know that you are just going to love the journey ahead of you, wherever the author decides to take you. You just know, simple as that. That is what happened to me within about two or three pages of The Dark Circle, well in fact probably from the first paragraph and the tingle lasted throughout and has since because I simply will not forget this book or the wonderful cast of characters that inhabit it. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Four years after the Second World War has ended, Lenny and his sister Miriam are being driven to a sanatorium in the Kent countryside. Ironically, after their uncle paid for the powers that be to say Lenny was unfit to be a soldier, it turns out that Lenny has TB and has passed it on to his sister or vice versa, so the pair are packed off to recuperate. To Lenny and Miriam, who we discover very early on like to live life to the full and often rebel against it, this is going to be torturously dull. However once they arrive and start to get to know the other characters there, and in their minds see it as a grand free hotel thanks to the newly created National Health Service, they begin to see this as a holiday from the cares of the world. Yet as we follow them both, and those around them, we discover behind these facades darkness and fear reside.

This place, Gwendo, was all about plate glass, calm light blue paint, the stillness, the paths through the woods, the bells that rang to punctuate your day, the reading of books, the playing of cards, and above all the ceaseless measuring of temperature, saliva in the spittoons and the mysterious darkness inside your chest which the machine could see and you couldn’t. Your skeleton which held you up and would be what was left of you when the worms had finished chomping at your insides.

What I loved about Linda Grant’s writing in The Dark Circle most initially was its warmth and humour, from the off it brims with life and all the quirky wonders of it. This somewhat lead me in to a false sense of security though as the more I read on the more bittersweet the humour becomes, after all the power with dark comedy is that it verges so close to the edge of tragedy the two can become entwined and the effect of that can be incredibly emotionally potent. If I am sounding a little cloak and dagger here it is because I don’t want to spoil an iota of this book for any of you who go onto read it, which I want every single one of you to do. Suffice to say each of the characters knows they are dicing with death, though the longer they stay and life at The Gwendo becomes routine, the more they are inclined to forget.

Weeks pass. The reading group on the veranda is making its way through the sanatorium’s library and attempting to expand the dimensions of incarceration. Lenny has been enjoying exotic foreign voyages in the company of Joseph Conrad. There has been an unsuccessful foray into Jane Austen. Miriam throws Pride and Prejudice off the veranda where it lands on a rhododendron bush. ‘Them girls should just get bleeding jobs instead of hanging around fluttering their eyelashes at rich fellers.’ Valerie agrees to give up on Middlemarch when she sees it is sending them to sleep.
And reading is not enough, Valerie admits to herself. I used to think it was everything, it isn’t. I’m so bloody bored. The hands of the clocks seem to have stopped altogether. What day is it, what month? Stupor.
To Lenny, too, the days seem mouse-coloured. The officers still in their old battledress jackets have become mouse-like creatures, timid and grey.
No one is discharged well, they leave secretly without goodbyes. New arrivals disappear onto the verandas. Stuck.
Lenny wonders if he died under the pneumothorax needle.

Valerie, who shares a veranda with Miriam, puts into words the other element that I loved about The Dark Circle and Linda Grant’s writing and the world she created when she says ‘When you approach a story, it’s not necessarily just about one thing.’ I know this is the case with every story, however I don’t think I have read a book that says so much about the world then and the world now so compactly, succinctly and (enjoyably isn’t the right word but I want to say it) with so much spirit and heart.

She looks at tolerance of all kinds. There is race and heritage; at the start we learn that Miriam has to change her name at work because it is “a little too Hebrew for our clientele”, we also have Hannah who is a German resident and left ignored by most of the other patients. We later, without spoilers, have themes around disability and also deformity. Then there is class. When they arrive at the sanatorium Lenny and Miriam are not only the first Jews but also some of the earliest of the ‘common folk’ getting their health care for free, up until then it has been the privileged or those who have served for our country. In doing so she also looks at the NHS and, through another link I don’t want to give away, the political state of the country and how Labour strived to do good and yet failed at the election. Remind you of the present at all? This is of course, I think, all meant to highlight that too us, we haven’t come as far as we think but where we have, acceptance and some of the medicines now etc, we should be thankful but never complaisant. Bad things happen when we do, though we are also shown that bad things happen to good people with the best intentions. Again I don’t want to say more. Ooh this is a tricky book to try and encapsulate and talk about.

Suffice to say, as I think I have made it pretty clear, I thought that The Dark Circle  was an utterly wonderful book. It has a real vibrancy, in all of its shades from bright to dark and back again – believe me it takes us through them. I was utterly bereft when it finished, I felt like I had lived with these wonderful characters, through good times and bad, and the stories they share with each other and the ones they don’t yet we get to discover. Go and read it, now.

If you have read The Dark Circle I would love to know your thoughts on it. If you haven’t read it then please do, you can get it here. Have you read any of Linda Grant’s other novels and if so what did you make of them, which of her other works should I be heading to? I now want to read them all.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, Linda Grant, Review, Virago Books

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

There are sometimes books that come into your life and strike such a chord with you that they leave you somewhat stunned. Those books are wonderful. Then there are books that strike a place in your psyche which resonate with such force within you that they can leave you breathless like someone has just punched you hard in the heart. Midwinter, Fiona Melrose’s debut novel, was a book that did the latter for me and completely shocked me with how much it affected me.

Corsair Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 262 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

As Midwinter opens young lad Vale is out in the middle of the water trying to save his friend, Tom’s, life when they take a boat out after one too many drinks finding themselves in danger. We are thrown straight in and initially think that this could be the heart of this novel. Wrong. We soon discover, and this isn’t really much of a spoiler, that Vale had gone out to get drunk after an altercation with his father (Landyn Midwinter) about his mother, who has been dead for some years. Melrose pretty much throws us right into the centre of a fractured family just as they start to spiral out of control all the more. I liked this, no messing about. I think we have all endured those novels which spend at least two hundred pages slowly but safely taking us from the smallest chip to the tiniest hairline fracture and beyond. Yawn. No the case here.

What Melrose does though is far more powerful and also more cunning. Cunning in a good way. We think we know the issues, we then learn that actually much more is going on which is slowly revealed. Why did Cecelia die? Why were they in South Africa when it happened? Why did they then head back to this desolate part of Suffolk after? And why does Landyn believe that Cecelia has come back as a wild animal watching over them?

‘I saw my fox this evening, Son. You remember the year I had to leave food out for her poor thing? I know she knows me. Came out of the night and looked right at me. Come to check we were all doing ok. Beautiful.’
I knew I was babbling. The lad said nothing, only fiddled with the bed sheet. His colour wasn’t right yet and we’d be needing to see the doctors again even after he was released. And he carried the mark of my anger, his eye still swollen. He carried on rolling the hem of his sheet into a little peak between his thumb and forefinger.
He made to clear his throat a little. Didn’t look up though. ‘It’s not her you know?’
‘What’s that?’ I had to lean forward to hear him.
‘It’s not her. It’s just a fox.’

Whilst there are these questions going on, really where the story lies is in the void that grief can build between two people. The lonely desolate space where shock leads to silence, where things can become misunderstood, messy and where a chasm needs to be covered up and potentially avoided. This is where this book really hit home for me. Without going into too much detail, when I was ten and my mother twenty six my stepfather accidentally killed himself, I found him after a shopping trip with my mum. We didn’t properly talk about it for almost fifteen years in which time we both created our own version of events and the story of the others filling in the blanks often wrongly, mine leading to rebellion.  Very, very, very like Vale’s, though not with a boat as we all know I hate boats – sorry had to lighten it a bit. What blew my mind somewhat was seeing my feelings and that chasm of silence between two people written so like my own experience but from someone else, someone who I have never met but will definitely give a hug if I do.

Fiona Melrose is an incredible writer, not just because she writes about that empty space between two people who don’t know how to communicate or simply can’t, this space which she throws her readers into. She also writes incredibly about atmosphere, Suffolk broods as the Midwinter house hold does, nature can be friend or foe as we see through the novel when she equates natural elements or moments with what is going on in the book, and not just in the Suffolk countryside but the South African too.

The trees out there always felt nervous, I felt that from the day we arrived. Later realised they were always anticipating rain, bristling for it even, and after one of those lovely downpours you could just about feel the roots ease out as they relaxed under your feet. For a week or so and then they’d be back tilted on the edge of their seat, an eye on the sky and another on the furthest horizon.

She also writes incredibly about grief. Not just how people cope with it, or don’t, at the time or how they deal with it as a long term mental battle, like seeing foxes. But also how grief can be a thing which you cling to, in the case of Vale, and use all the emotions around it (anger mainly) to push yourself further. Or how it can be something which will nag at you one moment, leave you completely alone then next and then come at you full throttle when you least expect it.

Don’t I still think how things might have been different for his mother? Some nights I dream things turned out well for us. Then I wake full round and as I fall back into my old sad skin, I remember myself again and know it not to be true. This is a cruel trick the mind plays. Like a sly old ferret those hopeful thoughts burrow in there. And then, when you’re getting all cosy, they turn on you and rip you right open with their sweaty little teeth until you feel your guts are spilling out all over again.

And she doesn’t always need a paragraph or two to do it in, often in this novel a single sentence can contain all that needs to be said. Sometimes a blessing is just shy of a curse.

If I am making it sound all doom and gloom, albeit it powerful doom and gloom, there are often some real heart warming moments that never verge on clichéd. There is the way in which Landyn bonds with his sons’ best friend, and in turn how Tom bonds with his nurse. There is the relationship between Vale and a barmaid. There are also wonderful moments between grown men in the village, such as when Landyn is at his wits end with Vale and his friend Dobbler says ‘Ah, I knew a boar like him once.’ When pushed on how he might make things better he replies ‘Parsnips.’

After the effect that Midwinter had on me personally, and rather unexpectedly, it is hard for me not to just go on and on and on about how wonderful. But then part of the reason why I hope you read this blog and these thoughts is the personal interaction I have with this book, the joys of bloggers and vloggers eh? I will say I had a slight quibble as Vale’s storyline develops and at one point became a little melodramatic for me, but we all need a melodrama or two in our fiction really don’t we?

I think what astounds me most is that Midwinter is Fiona Melrose’s debut because this to me felt like a novel which is three or four down an author’s career. Don’t get me wrong I bloody love a debut, always have, and like all the best debuts Midwinter is brimming and jam packed with themes, ideas, fantastic set pieces and characters. Yet there is a control and a restraint, which makes the book all the more sharp and affecting to the reader. I cannot recommend you read this novel enough.

I am thrilled the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction made me head to Midwinter, though I have been meaning to read it for a while. If you haven’t read Midwinter you can get it here. If you have read it then I would love your thoughts and experiences of it. I would also love to know about books that have shocked and surprised you as they made you see moments of your life on the page.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, Corsair Books, Fiona Melrose, Review

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017

It has not long struck midnight, and whilst many of you (myself included) may be asleep, the book world still keeps whizzing with the latest news that the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has been announced and it came with a surprise or four. It had been said that the longlist was going to be twelve books, yet the wealth of women’s writing was so strong in the last twelve months (as I mentioned when I tried to guess the longlist last week) that we have a list of sixteen titles. And here they are…

  • Stay With Me – Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀ (Canongate, Nigerian, 1st Novel)
  • The Power – Naomi Alderman (Viking, British, 4th Novel)
  • Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood (Hogarth, Canadian, 16th Novel)
  • Little Deaths – Emma Flint (Picador, British, 1st Novel)
  • The Mare – Mary Gaitskill (Serpent’s Tail, American, 3rd Novel)
  • The Dark Circle – Linda Grant (Virago, British, 6th Novel)
  • The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber, Irish, 2nd Novel)
  • Midwinter – Fiona Melrose (Corsair, South African, 1st Novel)
  • The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan (4th Estate, American, 2nd Novel)
  • The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus, South African, 2nd Novel)
  • The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill (riverrun, Canadian, 3rd Novel)
  • The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail, British, 2nd Novel)
  • Barkskins – Annie Proulx (4th Estate, American, 8th Novel)
  • First Love – Gwendoline Riley (Granta, British, 6th Novel)
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien (Granta, Canadian, 3rd Novel)
  • The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus, British, 14th Novel)

It’s all too easy to go on about the books we should think should be on there (though I am nosey enough to want to hear your thoughts on that down below) because despite all the books I mentioned when I cheated terribly at guessing there is so much I love about this list, though I am still letting all the titles settle in my brain. Naturally though I cheered at the inclusion of The Essex Serpent and The Gustav Sonata (review coming on Friday), yet I am so excited about what gems I am going to find in the next few weeks and months, as yes I am going to read the longlist. I have only read three of the books – which I have popped in italics above, however I have thirteen of the titles and three more coming in the post so it would be rude not to, especially as I still have almost two more weeks of post surgery recovery.

I think this year is a really diverse selection in all sorts of ways. Women from their first book to their sixteenth, from all around the world and importantly writing on a wide variety of subjects and themes; even two about horses, anyway… I am really excited about delving in, what about you?

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Guessing The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017

A week to this very day will see the announcement of the longlist for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Those of you who have followed this blog for the last (almost ten, how did that happen) years will know that the Women’s Prize for Fiction is one of my top five literary prizes ever. For many a year now I have played the all at once delightful and downright difficult game of trying to guess the longlist, so I thought I would do it again this year. Why fix it if it ain’t broke?

There is a slight change this year. Normally I do a list of 20 books, for that is the usual longlist length. This year it is all change however as there is rumoured to be a shortlist of just twelve books this year. For me to choose a list of only 12 books is frankly impossible, well ok not impossible but it would be very difficult as one thing about the guessing the list for this prize shows me every year is how many amazing books there are by women published every year. So I have decided if the prize can change its list length so can I, so you will be getting a list of 12 books I have read and would love to see on the list and 12 books I would love to read and see on the list.

First up the books I have read, which has shamefully reminded me of how little of what I read last year I have reviewed but I will in good time, that I would love to see on the list…

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail)
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Allen and Unwin)
Shelter by Jung Yun (Picador)
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Vintage)
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Penguin)
This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)
The Good People by Hannah Kent (Picador)
Fell by Jenn Ashworth (Sceptre)
My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal (Penguin)
The Muse by Jessie Burton (Picador)
To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (Tinder Press)
The Museum of You by Carys Bray (Windmill)

I was going to add Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which I read for the Man Booker Prize last year but I didn’t love it as much as everyone else BUT if it was on the list I would read it again so thought I should give it a nod. Right, now to the books I haven’t read yet but want to, which was again so, so, so tough to whittle down just to twelve.

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Here Comes The Sun by Nicole Dennis Benn (Oneworld)
The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (Granta)
Autumn by Ali Smith (Penguin)
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich (Vintage)
Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (Sceptre)
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber and Faber)
English Animals by Laura Kaye (Little Brown)
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (Oneworld)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Orion)
Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (4th Estate)
The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy (Scribe)
The Unseen World by Liz Moore (Windmill)

There were so many more I wanted to add onto this list. Brit Bennett, Emma Geen, Min Jin Lee, Claire Fuller, Katherine Arden, Stella Duffy and Sara Baume  were all wriggling away in the back of my mind as were heavyweights Ann Patchett, Emma Donoghue and Annie Proulx. See it just goes to show how many amazing books there could be in the list next week. And you know what? I wouldn’t mind if I was completely wrong and was introduced to a whole selection of books I hadn’t even thought of, that is all part of the joy of a prize like this one, so much scope, so many possibilities, so many good reads ahead.

So over to you, what do you think might just make the list next week?

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Pleasantville – Attica Locke

In the last 12 months I have become quite fascinated by American politics and law. No, not because of the whole Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump furore, the latter is frankly petrifying rather than fascinating. I have become somewhat addicted to political and legal drama’s such as House of Cards (which I am waiting to watch season four of until I have completed all of my Bailey’s longlist read, of which this novel is one), Damages ad current obsession The Good Wife, which I am limiting myself to two episodes of a night. Occasionally three because season five is so, so good. Anyway… I have now found a novel that brings all that televisual love into my literary landscape, Attica Locke’s third novel Pleasantville.

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Serpent’s Tail Books, 2016, paperback, fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

I am going to do something that I do not do very often, and I am slightly embarrassed by. I am going to borrow the back of the blurb so I can give you a synopsis of the book. This is not something I normally do on blog posts as I don’t like it however I think that the blurb will sum up the start of the novel far better than I will as it is quite a complex set up, which Attica Locke (and whoever wrote the blurb) make seem so effortless but have defied me five times so far, so here it is…

It’s 1996, Bill Clinton has just been re-elected and in Houston a mayoral election is looming. As usual the campaign focuses on Pleasantville — the African-American neighbourhood of the city that has swung almost every race since it was founded to house a growing black middle class in 1949. Axel Hathorne, former chief of police and the son of Pleasantville’s founding father Sam Hathorne, was the clear favourite, all set to become Houston’s first black mayor. But his lead is slipping thanks to a late entrant into the race — Sandy Wolcott, a defence attorney riding high on the success of a high-profile murder trial. And then, just as the competition intensifies, a girl goes missing, apparently while canvassing for Axel. And when her body is found, Axel’s nephew is charged with her murder. Sam is determined that Jay Porter defends his grandson. And even though Jay is tired of wading through other people’s problems, he suddenly finds himself trying his first murder case, a trial that threatens to blow the entire community wide open, and reveal the lengths that those with power are willing to go to hold onto it.

You see that makes it sound so less complex than it is, not in a ‘difficult to read’ way more a ‘there is so much going on’ way, and almost lessens the power of what Attica Locke does which is to create a completely gripping thriller that twists politics, law, murder, domestic drama and a take (because it is fictional set around some factual) on recent African-American issues and history. She makes all of this poignant and gripping whilst also adding a sprinkling of the great noir novels gone before as well as the great crime classics. We meet unlikely private detective, shady politicians, dodgy business men and women, ruthless hacks and half arsed police officers as well as getting introduced to small subplots that may mean more than we think.

“Look,” the cop says. “Officer McFee and I have no problem amending the initial report, Mr. Porter, adding in your description of the intruder and the bit about the misplaced glass.” He delivers that last part as f he were describing the plot of an Agatha Christie novel. This isn’t a murder mystery, he wants it known, just a simple case of breaking and entering, one of thirty or forty on a given night in the city of Houston, depending on the weather.”But I will also add words to support my opinion, based on ten years on the force, that I did not see evidence of an intruder in your place of business at the time my partner and I were present.”

At the same time as making this all a gripping murder investigation, intriguing political election and then fast paced courtroom drama, which would be enough in itself, there is another layer to Pleasantville and that is the story of a man dealing with a dip in his career and a home life tinged with grief and recent single parenthood after the loss of his wife. Jay Porter is a brilliant character both in the story surrounding him for the reader but also all that he stands for. Many thrillers will take the same old, same old hard done by divorcee who numbs the pain with drink. Jay numbs the pain by wanting to do what is best for his clients, what is best for Pleasantville and what is best for Houston. He’s not a cop with a grudge, he is a solicitor with a heart who is bloody good at what he does. He is a role model, almost a nod to Atticus Finch in there somewhere, well in his To Kill A Mockingbird guise at least. His home life becomes as much a part of the story, plot, pace and drama as his work life and I liked that a lot.

If I am making this all sound a little too dark or noir, there is also a great sense of humour in the novel. To me it really felt that Attica Locke is writing books about things she feels are important, like the law, African-American issues and politics, but also having fun whilst writing it and wanting the reader to do the same. After all which is more affective, a book with a sense of humour as well as a sense of worth (without being worthy just to add) or a book which takes itself and its issues far too seriously.

The Harris County District Civil Court has long set, by its own bylaws, an ancillary judge, a name assigned and rotated every two weeks, to handle emergency motions, and Judge Irwin Little, through no choice of his own, got this one. A “doozy”, he calls it from the bench. He leans his pudgy torso all the way back in his leather chair, resting his hands on the mound of belly beneath his black robe, waiting to be entertained.

Like Judge Irwin Little, I wanted to be entertained, I got the complete opposite of a “doozy” with Pleasantville though. Admittedly I read thrillers to escape, however as much as I  like them to pack a punch with plot a thriller will get me all the more if there are additional layers to them too. Not that I don’t enjoy a simple cosy, or indeed grisly, throwaway crime novel from time to time. Oh, you know what I mean, a literary thriller will get my brain tingling and ignited whilst at the same time have me routed to my sofa avoiding the real world. This is such a novel. Pleasantville has all the escapism you want with a sense of reality that makes you think and want to go and find out more. I will certainly be reading more Attica Locke, I will soon be somewhat shamefacedly be dusting off the copy of Black Water Rising which has been on my shelves since it was published. It appears I have committed a true reading injustice right there.

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Filed under Attica Locke, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Serpent's Tail

A Girl is a Half Formed Thing – The Play

Tonight* I have had the pleasure, if pleasure is the right word, of watching what might be one of the most intense, brilliant and gobsmacking pieces of theatre and acting that I have ever seen in my 34 years. Seriously, that good.

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Tonight I have had the experience of seeing Annie Ryan’s adaptation of Eimear McBride’s incredible novel A Girl is a Half Formed Thing which I read (and was bowled over by) back in 2013, which went on to win the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Goldsmiths Prize the following year. Without giving too much away the novel is a tale of an unnamed young woman from just before her birth to her early twenties, all told in a rush of quite unusual language, which Ryan has used and condensed to create a one hour and twenty minute monologue, here is a taster…

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skim she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

This one woman show is all given to you, and I want to say given rather than acted or performed because it is lived and literally given to you as an experience, by Aoife Duffin who is nothing short of phenomenal. Not only does she manage to remember 80 minutes of dialogue (which I do not understand how anyone could do) she manages to make her own face and voice contort into a whole set of other characters and the unusual language seem utterly understandable. You are shocked, you are saddened, you cringe and quite often you cackle with laughter.

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If you are worried you haven’t read the book then don’t, I went with my friend and colleague Jane and she was as spellbound – and this is a woman who has fallen asleep in a show (the night before with her family) and walked out of one half way through (with me, though I stayed and shouldn’t have) because she wasn’t enjoying it. She is now really, really keen to read the book and I am really keen to give the play a read to relive it all.

Can you tell I rather loved it? Understatement of the year, I thought she, and the play, were just absolutely incredible and had to share it with you. Here is a small taster of the play…

Sadly the UK tour has ended. I am really hoping that someone like BBC Four or Sky Arts, or even better BBC One or Channel 4  will have it on the television at some point because it should be seen, or heard on the radio. However if you are in the USA then you are in luck as I believe that it will be heading to New York in the not too distant future, so keep your eyes peeled for further announcements and whatever you do get yourself some tickets. It is quite unlike anything I have ever seen before and I thought it was utterly, utterly fantastic.

You can see my review of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing here and hear Eimear McBride in conversation about the novel with me on You Wrote The Book here.

*This was written on the night that I saw A Girl is a Half Formed Thing I have just been so busy reading the Bailey’s longlist or having food poisoning my reviews have been a little delayed and out of kilter, oops.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Eimear McBride, Random Savidgeness, Theatre