Tag Archives: Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

And The Winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 is…

…Naomi Alderman’s The Power.

9780670919987

Stay With Me – Ayobami Adebayo
The Power – Naomi Alderman
The Dark Circle – Linda Grant
The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan
First Love – Gwendoline Riley
Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

I have popped links to all my thoughts on the shortlisted books, bar Do Not Say We Have Nothing which I have tried to complete twice. I might try it again in July as a buddy read with my good old pal Mercedes off of that YouTube. Speaking of youtube if you fancy a bitesize round up of the books that were shortlisted and indeed the winner on my booktube channel here.

So what do you think about the winner? Which of them was your favourite? Which, if you still have some to read, will you be heading to next?

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

As this goes out on the blog, tonight will see the winner of the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction 2017 announced. In a break with tradition on the blog, I decided that instead of telling you all about the shortlist (though I think I have reviewed all of them bar one and made video about them here too) I wanted to share my thoughts on my very favourite last. I have loved a lot on the shortlist this year but without a doubt my favourite has to be Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò which has pretty much every element of what I love in a book and held me captivated by it.

9781782119463

Canongate, hardback, 2017, fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

From the opening of Stay With Me we know that something has gone very wrong with the marriage between Yejide and her husband Akin as she writes of packing up and driving away. Where to, where from and what has happened we do not yet know but soon we are taken back a decade or two before to when the cracks began to show. The time when after much trying Yejide was finding it very difficult to get pregnant and it was becoming the constant focus of her husband and his family’s attention. (I know the below is quite a long excerpt, however I think it gives a real flavour of what comes in the novel as I am going to have to say very little as I don’t want to give too much away, which I will explain.)

I had expected them to talk about my childlessness. I was armed with millions of smiles. Apologetic smiles, pity-me smiles, I-look-unto-God smiles, name all the fake smiles needed to get through an afternoon with a group of people who claim to want the best for you while poking at your open sore with a stick, and I had them ready. I was ready to listen to them tell me I must do something about my situation. I expected to hear about a new pastor I could visit; a new mountain where I could go to pray or an old herbalist in a remote village or town whom I could consult. I was armed with smiles for my lips, an appropriate sheen of tears for my eyes and sniffles for my nose. I was prepared to lock up my hairdressing salon throughout the coming week and go in search of a miracle with my mother-in-law in tow. What I was not expecting was another smiling woman in the room, a yellow woman with a blood-red mouth who grinned like a new bride.

It soon transpires that Akin and his family have been plotting a back-up plan which is to introduce a second wife into the home, Funmi, a woman who they believe will bear children and thus save the family line as well as the marriage between Akin and his first wife. Breaking away from what is socially and culturally expected of her Yejide fights back initially in a rather comic way, yet this is the beginning of an unravelling between Yejide and Akin and a downward spiral of Yejide’s already low sense of worth since the death of her own mother in childbirth.

‘What did you feed them?’ Akin shouted.
‘Bridegroom, welcome back,’ I said. I had just finished eating my dinner. I picked up the plates and headed for the kitchen.
‘You know they all have diarrhoea now? I had to park by a bush for them to shit. A bush!’ He said, following me into the kitchen.

That is where I pretty much have to stop telling you the story, and we are only a chapter or two in, because what follows is a fantastically twisting and turning tale of what happens between Yejide and Akin in the aftermath of this with Adébáyò almost turning a marriage into a thriller which I wasn’t expecting but delighted me with the way in which she accomplished it. Of course, there is a danger in me simply saying that there are plenty of twists and turns ahead may mean you will look out for them but I doubt you will spot them. I genuinely couldn’t tell what was might happen next, and there were many a gasp out loud moment and many a heart dropping moments for this reader.

I am slightly worried that comparing Stay With Me to a thriller may diminish it in some people’s eyes, they couldn’t be more wrong and not only because to accomplish the best kinds of thrillers you need to hide a tightly constructed spiders web of plot where one can’t be seen. Adébáyò does this and much, much more. Behind the domestic dramas that are going on is the drama of Nigeria in the 1980’s and all the rioting and crime that was taking over the country and adds an additional tension to the novel as well as some heart breaking and shocking scenes as the novel moves forward.

I could not imagine then that one day in Nigeria thieves would be bold enough to write letters so that victims could prepare for their attacks, that one day they would sit in living rooms after raping women and children and ask people to prepare pounded yam and egusi stew while they watched movies on VCRs that they would soon disconnect and cart away.

One of the other elements that I admired so much about the book, and yet I have seen criticised in some places, is the fact that as the book goes on you realise it isn’t always Yejide that is narrating the story. Sometimes it flits to Akin and it takes you a small while to realise and then reassess the voice you are reading. I loved this because I thought it not only highlighted the two points of view of a marriage and all that befalls it, but more cleverly is that Adébáyò asks you to stop making assumptions about how a woman might feel about marriage and parenthood and how a man might feel about marriage and parenthood. It gives you so much to think about as well as asking you to check your own assumptions of men and women, though kindly.

You might think this implies that Adébáyò creates two leading characters who merge in to one far too easily, again that isn’t that case. Adébáyò’s characters all come fully formed whether it be leading players like Yejide, Akin, Funmi, Dotun or Moomi or lesser characters like Yejide’s competitor hairdresser Iya Bolu or the hermit up the mountain. They all brim with life, laugher and more often than not secrets. I adored them, even the shadier ones. I also loved the elements of fairy tale (you know me, I love a good fairy tale or myth) that intertwine and are told throughout too. Not often yet deftly and adding certain nuances when they do.

My favourite story was the one about Oluronbi and the Iroko tree. Initially, it was difficult for me to believe the versions my stepmothers told. Their Oluronbi was a market woman who promised to give her daughter to the Iroko tree if it could help her to sell more goods than other traders in the market. At the end of the story, she lost her child to the Ikoro. I hated this version because I did not believe that anyone would trade a child for anything else. The story as my stepmothers told it made no sense to me, so I decided to create my own version.

I could frankly go on for hours about how much I loved Stay With Me, can you tell? It brims with life, humour (dark and saucy), heartache and hope. It is one of those books that just enraptures you within its pages and you find yourself thinking about those characters, situations and layers long after as well as thinking ‘what a bloody good story that was’. For me this was a dream of a novel, it will be one of my books of the year without a shadow of a doubt, and I think Adébáyò is going to be an author to watch in wonder. Go read this book.

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Filed under Ayobami Adebayo, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, Canongate Publishing, Review

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The finale of the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction seems to have crept up on me all of a sudden. There is that space between the shortlist being announced in April and the winner being announced in June that feels like ages but whizzes by, or maybe I am just getting old? Anyway, I still have two of the shortlisted titles to review and the penultimate is The Power by Naomi Alderman who is one of those authors I have always meant to read yet for some reason or other haven’t. Now, having read her latest, I certainly will be.

9780670919987

Penguin Viking, hardback, 2016, fiction, 342 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Imagine a world where ‘power’ is literally within women’s hands. Sounds a damn site better than the world is at the moment with old President Tango and his chums over the water on one side and Captain Crazy and his nuclear testing on the other, oh yeah and that other one who hates gays but spends weekends riding around on horses topless with several other men. Sorry I seem to have digressed already, where was I? Oh yes, the book…

Young women around the world are waking up with something different ignited in them, literally, they have an electrical power of some kind which has lain dorment for decades is now running through their veins. Initially just one or two younger girls have it, yet soon it is many, many, many of them and what is more they can ignite the power within older women be it their mothers, aunts, teachers, co-workers. This is the world in which we are thrown into by Naomi Alderman, well technically Neil Adam Armon (more on him later) and a world we see through four sets of eyes.

There’s a crackling flash and a sound like a paper snapper. She can smell something a bit like a rainstorm and a bit like burning hair. The taste welling under her tongue is of bitter oranges. The short man is on the floor now. He’s making a crooning, wordless cry. His hand is clenching and unclenching. There is a long, red scar running up his arm from his wrist. She can see it even under the blond hairs, patterned like a fern, leaves and tendrils, budlets and branches. Her mum’s mouth is open, she’s staring, her tears are still forming.

First there is Roxy, who discovers she has the power in her hands when she and her mother find herself threatened at the hands of some gangsters, the outcome of the encounter leading her to look for revenge. Tunde, a young man from Nigeria, who works as a journalist and starts reporting/blogging/vlogging (Alderman embraces the digital world in this novel which I really, really liked and not many authors could pull off as well) as this new electric epidemic begins. We then have Margot, a middle-aged woman working in Government surrounded by men she could do the job a million times better than but due to the patriarchal society, ever the more concentrated in politics, has not risen as high as she could. Finally, we have Allie who after years of abuse uses her power to free herself in a murderous way, and once discovering how strong her power is starts a new kind of gang/cult/religion through the power of the internet, though which becomes ever the more a reality bringing girls with ‘the power’ together.

There’s one girl, Victoria, who showed her mother how to do the thing. Her mother, who, Victoria says as simply as if she were talking about the weather, had been beaten so hard and so often by Victoria’s stepdad that she hasn’t a tooth left in her head. Victoria woke the power up in her with a touch of her hand and showed her how to use it, and her mother threw her out into the street, calling her a witch.

There is a lot that I admire in The Power and the not too distant future world that Aldermen creates. There is the message of empowerment and equality which she looks at in the forefront and start of the book but what I admired more is that she takes it to another level. Many authors would create a world where all women use their power for good and the world becomes a harmonious place where ‘the power’ is used to right the wrongs and punish the bad. Which could be a possibility and, in many cases, is how young girls and women interact with this new-found ability at the start of the novel. However, power is a tricky beast regardless of gender, to use that famous phrase ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ yet also power can become an addictive trip and once people have power it can change them in many ways, women or men, girls or boys.

No one knows why; no one’s done enough research on the thing to venture a suggestion. She’s getting fluctuations. Some days she’s got so much power in her that she trips the house fuse box just turning on a light. Some days she has nothing, not even enough to defend herself if some girl picks a fight with her in the street. There are nasty names now for a girl who can’t or won’t defend herself. Blanket, they call them, and flat battery. Those are the least offensive ones.     

As The Power continues the sense of dread and horror mounts, partially as we get titles of parts of the book like ‘Can’t be more than seven months left’ but also as women start to use the power for their own gains, for revenge, to create terror and fear. We see with Roxy and Allie particularly what can happen when people get a power trip. We also see through Tunde’s eyes just how some women, almost in packs, take this power and use it for revenge. There was one particular scene which I found genuinely horrifying and still gives me the chills every time I think about it. As a reader you start the novel thinking ‘this is so cool’ and ‘those men deserve exactly what is coming to them’ and by the end you are left shocked by what some of the characters do, and not just to the men to other women too. Which hits you all the more when you remind yourself this is a fictional world and in the real world real men are doing these things all the time.

My only slight criticism of the book was that I wanted more narrators, not something I usually say and not something that is meant as a slight. I just wanted to see the world through even more eyes, particularly through the eyes of one of the women living in the woods, admittedly it would be a pretty twisted narration (you can’t say I am someone who doesn’t like an unlikeable character) and also more from Jo’s perspective. This is a minor issue but one I did think on more than one occasion. I think what I am really saying is I wanted more, which is always a good sign.

The Power is like the book equivalent of a rollercoaster, it gives you thrills and then terrifies you leaving you a bit winded and numb at the end – only just sat on your sofa. That is Alderman’s design, she creates a book that will hook you in, take you along at speed and won’t let go until you’re good and done and then leaves you to have a think about it all. This added to by the prologue and epilogue (the latter I won’t spoil but I thought it was a genius stroke) remember I told you about Neil Adam Armon? I will say no more other than I would highly recommend you go and read The Power, I will certainly be going to read more of Alderman’s books that’s for sure.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Naomi Alderman, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

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

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.

9780241248775

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…

9780992918224

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.

9780571296842

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