Tag Archives: Natalie Haynes

Eighth Blog Anniversary! & Thoughts on the Women’s Prize Longlist

Last year, in the manic busyness that preceded moving into our house, I completely forgot to mark my blog anniversary. This time (8 years!) I wanted to be sure to remember it. Why have I not noted before that it coincides with International Women’s Day?! I’m pleased with that.

By Հայկ Ափրիկյան, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday evening the Women’s Prize longlist was announced.** Of my predictions, 4 were correct, which is pretty good going for me. I got none of my personal wishes, however. Of course, I would have preferred for us to have one of my lists. Still, overall, it’s a fairly interesting mix of new and established authors, with a full half of the list being debut work. Seven of the authors are BIPOC. I’ve read 2 of the nominees and would be amenable to reading up to 7 more. My library always buys the entire longlist, so I’ll eventually get the chance to read them, but not soon enough to add to the conversation.

Read:

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (CORRECT PREDICTION): Follows the contours of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, transplanting the plot to 1990s southwest Virginia to uncover the perils of opiate addiction. Ten-year-old Damon Fields lives in a trailer home with his addict mother, who works at Walmart, and his new stepfather, a mean trucker. Tragedy strikes and Damon moves between several foster homes before running away. His irrepressible, sassy voice is reminiscent of Holden Caulfield’s in this Appalachian cousin to Shuggie Bain.

Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris: Drawing on her own family history, Morris has crafted an absorbing story set in Sarajevo in 1992, the first year of the Bosnian War. Zora, a middle-aged painter, has sent her husband, Franjo, and elderly mother off to England to stay with her daughter, Dubravka, confident that she’ll see out the fighting in the safety of their flat and welcome them home in no time. But things rapidly get much worse than she is prepared for. It was especially poignant to be reading this during the war in Ukraine.

 

Requested from the library:

Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks – Sounds good, if too much like this year’s Opal & Nev.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell (CORRECT PREDICTION) – I was going to skip this because I wasn’t keen on Hamnet, but I do love O’Farrell in general, so I guess I’ll give it a try.

 

Interested in reading (but can’t find):

Homesick by Jennifer Croft – N.B. This was subtitled “A Memoir” at its U.S. release.

Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel (CORRECT PREDICTION)

Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin

 

Not interested in reading:

Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo – Like I said when it was nominated for the Booker, I have to wonder why we needed an extended Animal Farm remake…

Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes – I really should have predicted this one. It’s a hard pass on the Greek myth retellings for me.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy (CORRECT PREDICTION) – I avoid anything set during The Troubles. (Sorry!)

Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh – The Water Cure was awful.

The Dog of the North by Elizabeth McKenzie – The Portable Veblen was trying too hard.

Pod by Laline Paull – Her novels always sound so formulaic.

The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff – Nah.

 

See also the reactions posts from Cathy, Clare, Eric and Laura.

 

**The announcement has traditionally been on International Women’s Day, but I’m guessing that this year they brought it forward to pre-empt news of the inaugural Carol Shields Prize for Fiction longlist. This prize is open to novels, short stories and graphic novels by women, published in calendar year 2022, with parameters otherwise quite similar to those of the WP except that it’s only for U.S. and Canadian residents. {EDITED} To be honest, I was not convinced that the literary world needed an additional prize for women’s fiction, especially as North Americans tend to do well in the WP race. However, at first glance, its longlist is a lot less obvious and more interesting, with 11/15 BIPOC and some short story collections as well as a graphic novel in the running. It remains to be seen if I’ll follow both prizes or switch allegiance. Some of the CSP books may prove difficult to access in the UK. So far I have read Brown Girls and can get The Furrows from the library. Of note: the Carol Shields Prize is worth a lot more ($150,000 U.S. vs. £30,000).

 

What have you read, or might you read, from the longlist?

Women’s Prize Longlist 2020 Thoughts & Other Prize Reading Projects

Next Wednesday the 22nd, the Women’s Prize shortlist will be revealed. However, the winner announcement has been delayed until September 9th, so we all get extra time to read the finalists (which is handy since the 900-page Hilary Mantel is a shoo-in). I happen to have gotten through half of the longlist so far. There were some books I cared for more than others. Of the remainder, I plan to pick up a few more once my library reopens.

Here’s how I’ve fared this year, in categories from best to worst, with excerpts and links to any I’ve reviewed in full:

 

Loved! (5)

  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz: In 1965, 15-year-old Ana Canción, married off to an older man, leaves the Dominican Republic for New York City. With not a word of English, she feels trapped in her apartment and in this abusive relationship. Yet Ana is such a plucky and confiding narrator that you’re drawn into her world and cheer for her as she figures out what she wants from her life. This compassionate novel is proof that not all the immigration stories have been told yet.

 

  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: A terrific linked short story collection about 12 black women in twentieth-century and contemporary Britain balancing external and internal expectations and different interpretations of feminism to build lives of their own. The prose is more like poetry: a wry, radical stream of consciousness. A warm, spirited book, it never turns strident. It’s timely and elegantly constructed – and, it goes without saying, a worthy Booker Prize winner. To win the Women’s Prize too would be unprecedented, I think? But no surprise.

 

  • Weather by Jenny Offill: Could there be a more perfect book for 2020? It’s a blunt, unromanticized but wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life. Set either side of Trump’s election, it amplifies many voices prophesying doom, from environmentalists to Bible-thumpers. Lizzie’s sardonic narration is an ideal way of capturing relatable feelings of anger and helplessness. Don’t expect to come away with your worries soothed, though there is some comfort to be found in the feeling that we’re all in this together.

 

  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: A memorable exploration of family secrets and memories. Maeve and Danny Conroy are an inseparable brother-and-sister pair. When their father dies, they become like Hansel and Gretel: cast out into the wilds by an evil stepmother who takes possession of the only home they’ve ever known, a suburban Philadelphia mansion built on the proceeds of the VanHoebeek cigarette empire. Patchett always captures the psychology of complicated families, and her sharp prose never fails to hit the nail on the head.

 

  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: Like a family saga in miniature, this short novel stretches backward from Melody’s 16th birthday party, held in Brooklyn in 2001, to explore previous generations of the African American experience. Chapters alternate between first- and third-person narration, highlighting the perspectives of all the major family members. I raced through to see who would follow in family footsteps, or not. The title is apt: the book is sometimes raw and sometimes tender. It’s an emotionally engaging story of loss and memory.

 

Currently skimming (1)

  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel: I’ve stalled around page 200. I’ll be totally engrossed for a few pages of exposition and Cromwell one-liners, but then everything gets talky or plotty and I skim for 20‒30 pages and put it down. My constant moving between 10‒20 books and the sudden loss of a deadline have not served me well: I feel overwhelmed by the level of detail and the cast of characters, and haven’t built up momentum. Still, I can objectively recognize the prose as top-notch.

 

Did not particularly enjoy (3)

  • Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner: To me this didn’t stand out at all from the sea of fiction about crumbling marriages and upper-middle-class angst.
  • Actress by Anne Enright: A slow-burning backstory of trauma and mental illness. I found I wasn’t warming to the voice or main characters and mostly skimmed this.
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: In comparison with other historical fiction, this fell short. Overall, I found the prose flat and repetitive, which diluted the portrait of grief.

 

Attempted but couldn’t get through (1)

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – I’m wary of child narrators anyway, and the voice didn’t grab me within the first few pages.

 

Still plan to read (3)

  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
  • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

 

Not interested (3)

  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie: Sounds subpar.
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes: Say no to updated Greek classics.
  • Girl by Edna O’Brien: I don’t care for O’Brien’s writing. Though this was well received by the critics, it’s not finding much love among my trusted bloggers. (Plus there’s the cultural appropriation issue.)

 

My ideal shortlist

(A wishlist based on my reading and what I want to read)

 

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Weather by Jenny Offill

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

 

vs.

 

My predicted shortlist

 

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Actress by Anne Enright

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Girl by Edna O’Brien OR Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

 

Callum, Eric, Laura and Rachel have been posting lots of reviews and thoughts related to the Women’s Prize. Have a look at their blogs!


In this 25th anniversary year of the Women’s Prize, readers are also being encouraged to catch up on previous winners.

  • I’ve read 13 so far (and am currently rereading On Beauty by Zadie Smith).
  • I already had Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville on my shelves, plus The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller on my Nook.
  • I recently found a copy of A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne at the free bookshop where I volunteer.
  • On my current library stack are When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant, Property by Valerie Martin and Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels.

I can’t promise to be a completist about this project because the prospect of reading A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing and The Glorious Heresies fills me with dread, but we’ll see…

 

Other Prize Reading Projects

I’d been trying to make my way through some previous Wellcome Book Prize winners and nominees, but have been scuppered by my library’s closure. At the moment I have Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (2017 longlist; passed on from my father-in-law) and Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes (2016 shortlist; from the library) on my pile to read or, more likely, skim.

I also had the idea to read all the Bellwether Prize winners because I loved The Leavers so much. (Known in full as the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, it is a biennial award given by PEN America and Barbara Kingsolver, who created and funds the prize, “to a U.S. citizen for a previously unpublished work of fiction that address issues of social justice.”) This project did not start particularly well as I DNFed Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. However, I own copies of Mudbound by Hillary Jordan and The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow and hope I’ll have better luck with them.

 

What prize lists or other reading projects are keeping you busy?