It’s Women’s Prize Short List week!!

Just that really! On Tuesday of this week the Short List for the 25th Women’s Prize for fiction will be announced.

The Long List this year is :

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
  • Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  • Actress by Anne Enright
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
  • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Led
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  • Girl by Edna O’ Brien
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell
  • Weather by Jenny Offill
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Every year I set a completely unrealistic goal of reading each book before the Short List is announced and every year I fail spectacularly. I always forget how many other brilliant books I want to read that aren’t on the list!

This year out of 16 books I have managed 6. In fairness one was 900 pages long, so could actually count as 3 books! And I have 6 more waiting on my shelves.

But I can’t let Women’s Prize Short List week go by without marking it in some way, so I bring you my thoughts on those I have read.

Red at the Bone – Jacqueline Woodson

I thought this was an incredible book. It was short and I read it quickly. Probably too quickly. I am convinced that it is one of books that you need to reread to pick up all the inferences and cleverness you missed first time around.

It is an inter generational novel, set in NYC, chronically the changing fortunes of one black family. It had a time frame that reaches as far back as 1920’s, detailing the Tulsa Massacre and encompasses the 9/11 tragedy.

For a book with relatively few pages it paints a detailed picture of a family beautifully and effectively. I love a long book, but I also really appreciate a book that uses words sparingly and makes every paragraph count. This is one of those rare books.

Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams

This one was a Christmas gift. I had heard lots of good things and was intrigued.

Set in London this is the story of Queenie, a young black woman whose life is spinning out of control. There is so much humour, love and life in this book.

And there is also darkness and pain.

It is a book that creeps up on you. At the beginning it seems light, easy to read, unassuming, but as the story develops it becomes clear that this a skilled exploration of mental struggles and the journey back to health. It is about how our past shapes us, can scar us but how sometimes the support we need can be found where we least expect it .

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo

Twelve black women of Britain, all different ages, all with a different story to tell.

This book is a collection of perspectives and experiences bringing seemingly separate stories together; all cleverly intertwined through the characters within their tales.

When I heard about this volume I wondered if I would find it disjointed and disconnected. Nothing was further from the truth.

It is a glorious melting pot of sexuality, gender, politics and family identify. A triumphant representation of Black Women in Britain today.

I adored this book. It is going on the forever shelf.

The Dutch House – Ann Patchett

I might as well come clean now and say I am a huge fan of Ann Patchett. Her novel Commonwealth has stayed with me for a long time, so I had high hopes for this one.

Again, in the interest of transparency I think it is only fair that I admit that I listened to this book. With Tom Hanks narrating it was likely to be a winner, but it was so much more than that.

The story of Maeve and Danny, growing up in The Dutch House in the suburb of Elkins Park, Philadelphia. When their Father remarries, they find themselves increasingly isolated.

It is a story that spans five decades, told in detail, a beautiful portrait of siblings tied together through hope and adversity. In their lives the unique and beautiful house in which they spent their formative years becomes a symbol and a focal point.

This is a story that is told with the attention to detail and the understanding of family dynamics which is Ann Patchett’s own particular strength. It is a joy.

The Mirror and The Light – Hilary Mantel

This needs very little, if any introduction from me. The third book in her epic Trilogy documenting the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, it is quite simply a masterpiece.

At over 900 pages it is a challenging read, but in all the right ways. A host of complex and vivid characters, each vividly painted and woven into the novel seamlessly.

The historical research and accuracy of this novel is quite simply staggering. But for all that attention to detail, nothing of the emotion of the situation is lost. Quite simply this novel broke my heart. Being a Tudor geek I knew in glorious technicolour what Cromwell’s end would be. But Mantel had me believing that we could rewrite the story, she summed in me a hope that was cruelly dashed.

Simply brilliant.

And have producing one volume of this brilliance seems impossible, to have produced three is staggering.

It is hard to believe that this won’t win awards. Possibly it will follow it’s predecessors and claim the Booker, completely the Triple. Will it win the Woman’s Prize ? Who knows, but I will be amazed if it isn’t on the Short List.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

And finally we come to Hamnet.

I am not sure where to start with this book. It may not be the 900 pages of The Mirror and The Light. But it is a little drop of perfection.

I love Maggie O’Farrell’s writing. I find her one of the most skilled and versatile contemporary authors whose work I have read. Hamnet is, I feel, her masterpiece.

The fictional account of Shakespeare’s son’s short life and death and the love of a mother, skilled in healing but unable to protect him. It is also a testament to the love between parent and child and how loss shapes our lives.

The characters of this novel, burst off the page. For example Agnes, his wife, individual, strong and devoted; looking into the future with her curious gift of sight, facing down demons and healing the sick. Agnes is a creation of such skill and empathy that it is hard to see another novel being able to topple this from my read of the year so far.

I am going to put my neck on the line and say I would love this to win the Women’s Prize. And I will throw quite an unseemly tantrum if it isn’t shortlisted!

And what of the rest…?

In addition to the six books I have read I have another six waiting for me on my shelves.

I am particularly excited by Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. The publication of this novel as, due to ‘current circumstances’ been delayed. I am scheduled to be on the blog tour for this one later in the year and have a gifted copy waiting for me. For which, I am as always very grateful.

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo is another one waiting in the wings. After seeing it described on Twitter as a cross between The Cazalet Chronicles and Little Woman, I knew I had to have it. Seriously hoping it lives up to that label!!

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes has been sitting on the book trolley for a while and I am pretty sure that is where I am heading next. Circe, The Song of Achilles and The Silence of the Girls have all been winners for me in the last couple of years; I quite fancy losing myself in Ancient Greece again for a bit.

And finally, Girl by Edna O’ Brien, Actress by Anne Enright, and How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Led have all been waiting for me while. Plenty to be getting on with as always, and plans might well change when the short list is published !

So, a couple of predictions from me, but I haven’t read nearly enough of these stunners to predict the whole short list. I will be watching and waiting with anticipation, and as always really interested to hear your thoughts.

Rachel x

Blog Tour Review: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

When the invite for this Blog Tour popped up in my Inbox I was intrigued and thrilled in equal measure. Promises of writing that evoked Toni Morrison were more than enough to get me interested, and what a pleasure it has turned out to be.

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora is a debut novel published by 4th Estate Books on 16th April. This book is already drawing some pretty heady comparisons, including the work of Sara Collins (The Confessions of Frannie Langton) and Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing).

And in my humble opinion it is entirely worthy of all the praise being heaped upon it. Quite simply it is remarkable . And for a debut novel it is exceptional, both in content and style. Thanks go to Lindsay Terrell for my gifted copy.

This is the story of Miss Rue. Rue is a black woman, healer and midwife to the recently freed black community on an American plantation. Rue has followed her mother Miss May Belle in taking on this role.

But her mother’s shoes are proving hard to fill and times have changed since the Civil War brought the nominal freedom of the plantation’s slave community. Rue continues her mother’s work but finds the community’s loyalty and unquestioning respect is no longer the same.

As the novel begins Rue attends the birth of a child; a pale skinned, black eyed and strangely watchful boy who is quickly known as Bean. Bean’s birth seems to herald unsettled times for the community as a strange sickness moves unchecked through it’s people. First affecting the young and then the old, it strikes fear amongst people’s hearts.

As the villagers look for someone to blame they look upon the strange untouched child and a perceived kinship between Bean and Rue, the woman who delivered him.

When Bruh Abel, a celebrated but transient preacher visits the village, suspicion against Rue and her practises increases and she begins to be further cut off from the people who have looked to her to sustain them for years. Talk of the strange spirit or ‘haint’ that roams the woods magnifies their fear and ultimately their distrust of Rue and her ‘hoodoo’ ways.

But can Bruh Abel provide the answers everyone is desperately searching for ? Or are there more similarities between Bruh Abel and Rue than it would appear at first glance? And by attempting to destroy Rue does the community risk it’s own safety in a way it can not comprehend?

For Rue, like her Mother before her is more that the healer of the sick, guardian of the dead and experienced midwife. She is also the keeper of secrets. Secrets that are woven into the fabric of the past, present and future, and whose exposure would jeopardise the community’s very existence.

This novel is a story that spans two distinct time frames. The ‘past’ refers to the time immediately preceding the American Civil War, up to it’s conclusion, ending with the freeing of the plantation slaves and the burning of the big house. The ‘present’ is a new time, of both nurtured hope and long held fear, of white men roaming the woods, unaccustomed freedom and loose ends that need to be explained away.

In the past, in the time of Rue’s girlhood,the figure of Varina, the white daughter of the plantation, owner looms large. She and Rue are of an age. On some level playmates but never to be equals, their destinies are tied together in a way that only Miss May Bell could foresee.

The two girl’s individual losses and trials run parallel to each other, two sides of the same coin, reflected in the unusual doll stitched by Miss May Bell. Over a period of years, the rise and fall of their fortunes seem to mirror one another, in an uncanny and almost predestined way. Change is coming, but change is hard for all involved.

There is a tangible sense of the complex history of the time; the feeling that changes brought about by the end of slavery open a gateway to a new era. And each step along this new path is fraught with fear and only achieved through the presence of hope. The ties to the past are strong, not easily shrugged off in this new world where rules are still being written and the past still lingers in the air.

There is natural pacing to the narrative, it is a story of individual lives woven together; tragic at times but with glimpses of light and colour providing balance. It is a story told with pathos, in lyrical, flowing prose. There is a tangible and authentic ‘voice’, a real sense of a story being told, a history being passed on to those that need to know.

This is ultimately a story of women. Of their bodies, their lives, their hopes, dreams and sorrows. It is a chronicle of motherhood, it’s complexities, sacrifices and joys.The characters that populate the pages of this novel are strong, flawed but genuine.

Everything adds up to make this a beautiful, reflective novel. Afia Atakora has created something that is, quite simply, stunning. Take some time to immerse yourself in the world of Miss Rue. You won’t regret it.

Rachel x

And there is more…

I guarantee I won’t be the only person to fall under the spell of Conjure Women. For more reviews and reactions check out the rest of the blog tour …

Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Every now and then a book arrives in your life that you know is going to stay with you long after you have read the last page.

Often those books are filled with comfort, they resonate and feel completely relatable, a ‘go to’ tale to raise cheer.

Well in the case of My Dark Vanessa, the very opposite is true.

Don’t get me wrong, this book will stay with me. I want it to stay with me. And I want it to stay with anybody who reads. Particularly young women, particularly those in authority, particularly those in a position of trust.

But I doubt they will find comfort in it’s pages, but they will find truth. A truth that everyone needs to acknowledge and understand.

My Dark Vanessa is the story of stolen youth, in fact a stolen life. It focuses on Vanessa Wyes. An unusual teenager, romantic and bright, she is awarded a scholarship at prestigious Maine boarding school. A loner, struggling to find her place she enters a relationship with Jacob Strane, her English teacher. He is much older, not physically attractive but charming. He begins by praising her poetry, singling her out for additional attention in class, handing her challenging and individual texts. Soon this progresses to passing physical contact; a hand on a knee, a kiss on her head. Then it goes further.

Even calling this a relationship makes me uncomfortable. It is an ‘interaction’ that Vanessa defines as love; indeed as the her greatest love. But which the reader clearly sees as abuse.

When the novel begins Vanessa is in her early thirties, working, by her own definition, a mind numbing job in a local hotel. None of her early literary promise is fulfilled. Vanessa engages in periodic bouts of alcohol and drug abuse, references to broken relationships and casual sex litter her narrative.

And Strane is an ever present force in her life. When he is publicly accused by another former pupil of sexual assault Vanessa is forced to examine her experiences and start to redefine what she has clung to as her one great love.

My Dark Vanessa is raw, complicated and powerful.

It is an effective, but painfully stark portrayal of the power imbalance within abusive relationships, particularly those built on natural relationships of trust, like a student and teacher.

It is an expert portrayal of the process of grooming, exploring the myriad of ways an abuser can twist the situation. Classically Vanessa is an outsider, put bluntly she is easy prey. Strane is wholly aware of his strength. And he plays with power, seeming to hand it over to Vanessa at points and then taking it away in an instant. He is a master of control; control of the situation, of emotions, of futures. It seems unlikely that Vanessa is his first and only victim.

We see Vanessa blame herself. Time and again Strane makes her responsible for the situation, seeks to make it her fault, makes it clear that all the consequences of this relationship will be felt by her.

And he is right. The novel provokes many strong emotions but there is an overwhelming sense of anger that Vanessa pays the continuing price for this situation. At the time of her abuse no one steps forward to be her champion. There is no one to tell her that this isn’t love. That these dark feelings of shame, disgust and fear aren’t part of some dark romance that everyone experiences. That love should open up your life, not close it off. That’s it should help you grow, not shut you down. That this situation is so far from healthy, that she doesn’t need to be defined by this forever.

The power and pain of this novel lies in the focus on the long term effects of Vanessa’s experience. Years later she is still in a turmoil of denial. A state that goes far deeper than an inability to acknowledge and accept what has happened. We find her making excuses, rewriting history, redefining relationships and social norms.

Vanessa is in despair. In the face of Strane’s public accusations by other women her long term survival mechanisms of normalisation are crumbling. By defining the relationship as love she has refused to be a victim, attempting, in some way, to take control. The most painful thing to acknowledge for both Vanessa and the reader is that if she admits this relationship was abusive then her foundations, the events that have defined her life are rotten at the core.

As the events move out of Vanessa’s control, as more women step forward and Strane makes an unforeseen but decisive move, there begins a spiral of self degradation. Echoes of past behaviour re-emerge and it is clear that Vanessa is asking for help in the only way she knows how.

This book is one of the most powerful and important novels I have read for a long time. It doesn’t hold back in it’s portrayal of the realities of abuse. At times it will make you wince, at times it will make you deeply uncomfortable and I guarantee it will make you angry.

But it will also bring understanding, and empathy for all those victims whose stories have gone unheard and shed light on those relationships society has in the past ignored or in some cases normalised. And for all of that it will engender hope.

Rachel x