It’s that time again…

….and the short list for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction is with us. I decided to try and read the long list this year, hoping to complete it before the short list was announced, but I failed by six! In my defence, two of those were a tactical play. When I knew I hadn’t given myself enough time to fit in all 16, I looked at the titles and banked on two of them definitely making it to the long list, that those two were also some of the longest reads on there was very helpful!

As the shortlist was announced I jotted the titles down and was pleased to see that I’ve read three, a further two are the books I’d deliberately not read, leaving one that I just haven’t gotten around to yet. So, let’s run through the books that are a bit closer to that finish line and taking the prize.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz (John Murray Press )

I have to confess I love a book that looks at a clash of cultures, the dreams of what moving to a land of opportunity could provide and then the realisation that it’s not all quite what we’ve seen in the movies.

We begin this book with 15 year old Ana living with her large, boisterous family in the Dominican Republic. Her brothers, sisters, and especially her mother, are alive on the page immediately. All have desires from life that they will noisily strive for. For Ana, well, she is enjoying school and her teenage crush on a kind, gentle, local boy, one who she knows would treat her right, who she’d have a good life with. Her mother has other plans.

Wanting a better future not only for her daughter, but for the whole family, her mother sees a ticket to the good life through one of the islands notorious Ruiz brothers, 30 year old Juan. Before Ana can blink she is being married off to a man she barely knows, so that she can follow the strict plan set before her. Move to New York with husband, devote your life to said spouse, while you work your fingers to the bone earning money that will, in turn, bring the rest of your family to the land where the streets are paved with gold.

I became so attached to Ana. From the moment she found herself in her new apartment, high above the city, looking down on a world she feels she will never fit into, I wanted her to win. With so much against her in her new home, a language she barely speaks, a culture she doesn’t understand and a husband who expects more of her than she could ever have imagined, will these daily battles simply be too much for a young girl far away from home?

Ana was so well rounded as a character for me, I felt I was getting a real insight into the cross over of the first generation of people moving into America at an intensely political time in history. For me this is fiction at its best, here is a life so far removed from what I have lived, a story representing so many others who really did experience this journey, and providing me with a level of understanding and empathy I could never achieve through a dry, historical textbook.

Delighted to see this has made its way onto the shortlist!

Weather by Jenny Offill (Granta)

For such a slim read this is actually the piece of fiction I haven’t yet made it to, and had not done so deliberately assuming it would be on the long list. This should not be seen as a slight to Jenny Offill, I have loved her past work (all hail ‘Dept of Speculation) but this years long list was simply too hard to call.

This is a story about a librarian, one who leaves work each day to go home to another job as carer for two family members. Things change when a former mentor arrives and offers her a new role, one that will be challenging in many new ways.

As I haven’t got to this yet I don’t want to ‘blurb’ this to you, BUT what I can offer is a link to an interview we had with Jenny Offill at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. This was meant to take place in the shop itself, but with our current challenging times this had to turn into an online event. If we look for silver linings this means you can all now enjoy it from the comfort of your home wherever you may be. Just click below to read the interview.

‘For me, the only antidote for dread is collective action’: a Q&A with Jenny Offill

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (Penguin)

I would have been shocked not to see this title on the shortlist, after its more than deserving Booker win (and if you want to know, I think it should have won outright, alone *grumble grumble*)

It’s a funny old game these prizes, the books submitted need to have been published within a certain window to qualify for entry. This novel first arrived in our bookshops at the beginning of April 2019, in fact only ONE day after that window to enter opened! I received a proof copy of this book to read, with proofs usually coming out around 9 months before the book itself is published, I feel like I read this book a loooong time ago!

You’d think this would mean my memory of it would be a little hazy, but what is total testament to this book is that it is still with me as clear as day. The characters, of which there are many, still vivid and ready at a moments notice to go walking through my imagination again.

The book is split up so that we read, one by one, twelve characters experience of being a black woman in the UK. What makes it incredible is that these lives span an entire century, and gradually their stories all become interwoven, ending in something of an ensemble piece. The scope of showing so many sides of black womanhood from the early 1900’s through to the 2000’s is a feat that could be too much for many, ending up confused or laboured with so many voices, but Evaristo handles this so deftly that you start fitting the strands of each life together without challenge. I think a sign of excellent writing is when you become blind to how excellent it actually is, as you have become completely absorbed into the story.

There is always the question hovering whether winning the Booker means you are less likely to pick up this award, but as we know, Evaristo ‘shared’ the Booker, so who knows what it could potentially mean here! All I know is that if she does win, it couldn’t be more deserving.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (Harper Collins )

If you’re a betting sort it may not have taken too much working out that this is one of the books I assumed would make the short list, so saved to read a little later. I don’t know if I’ve ever waited so long, with such anticipation, for a novel to arrive. How can it be 11 long years ago since I first picked up Wolf Hall?!

So here we have it, the conclusion of Mantels trilogy, as we follow Thomas Cromwell through his last days. I decided that in readiness for this I would start the trilogy again, and got stuck back into ‘Wolf Hall’ (probably why I didn’t finish reading the long list in time eh?! It’s not a quick read at over 600 pages). Honestly, I got so much more from it the second time round and just revelled in her genius, it’s simply word perfect. I still need to reread ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ before I get to this final tome, but that’s hardly a chore. I honestly consider the first two in the series to be masterpieces of literature, and I have no doubt at all that the third will live up to its predecessors. I almost don’t want to start it as then I know the journey Mantel has taken us on will have to end.

I also highly recommend the BBC documentary ‘Hilary Mantel: Return to a Wolf Hall’, she is a constant delight through out, one minute making me laugh, the next making me cry. We should be so proud to have a writer of her calibre penning stories to send around the globe from our country, she’s one of our greatest exports. Also, it is worth the license fee alone to see her sitting firing a machine gun along a windy coast line, utterly glorious. Hunt it down on iPlayer.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (Pan Macmillan)

We seem to have had a real influx of Greek myth retellings over the last couple of years, Circe, Silence of the Girls, House of Names, I could go on. This is in no way a complaint, I love the retelling of myths and legends, how they can surprisingly lend themselves to the current dramas of the day. Natalie Haynes has previously written about the Greek Gods, one book being ‘The Children of Jocasta’ which I enjoyed while sitting in the Cretan sunshine (it helps if you can pair your setting with the book right?!)

‘A Thousand Ships’ sets out to tell the stories of the women who were caught up in the Trojan War, their voices generally not considered important enough to relay. ‘Silence of the Girls’, by Pat Barker, attempted a similar theme last year, but many found that after starting out with Briseis voice, it very quickly found its way back to Heracles being our narrator.

‘A Thousand Ships’ really does cover many, many of these women’s voices, and I have to confess I often got muddled as to who was speaking, as it went to and fro amongst them all. We meet and then keep revisiting these women as the war goes on in the seemingly never ending way it did, hearing from the mightiest beauty to the lowest of servants. What I found thrilling was how three dimensional Haynes made these women, we didn’t just hear their fear as they recounted their days but also their anger, their bitterness at what these men were putting them through, their sarcasm towards their husbands (managed to get lost coming home for TEN WHOLE YEARS did you dear?!) their gentleness towards some and their wickedness towards others.

If you have enjoyed reading Greek myths in the past then I really recommend this, it adds a whole new dimension to the Trojan War story and will raise many a wry smile in doing so.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Headline)

And last but by no means least we come to Hamnet, and if you’ve been keeping score, the second book I haven’t read yet due to me betting on it being on the long list. Now I have to admit I am something of a super fan which it comes to Maggie O’Farrell. I have always adored her fiction, but her last outing ‘I Am, I Am, I Am’, which was a memoir of her 17 brushes with death, blew me away, quickly going into my list of ‘favourite books of all time’. I was lucky enough to go and see her read from this, she chose the last of those 17 stories and when she read the last sentence, well, I scared a few people sitting around me as I burst into rather alarmingly snotty tears.

Her novels prior to this have all been contemporary, but ‘Hamnet’ sees her first foray into historical fiction (my favourite kind of fiction *rubs hands together with glee*). Now even though I haven’t read this yet I am going to introduce you to what it’s about, and even though the novel is based on actual historical events, I’m going to say – SPOILERS! Just incase you do not know about this story, which I very much didn’t, and don’t want to know anything going into the book.

So, Hamnet, who dis?! Well, turns out he was Shakespeares son, and yes it sounds like Hamlet, apparently the two names were interchangeable back then. Unfortunately he passed away while still a young boy, and this is very much a story exploring grief and the many ways different people experience it, even within the one family and their four walls.

I have trusted friends who have read this already and claimed it is exquisite, beautifully told and utterly heart rendering. I expect nothing less from O’Farrell to be honest, she can touch the coldest of hearts.

If you are a reader who also likes their books to be a beautiful object to behold, this hardback is stunning, from the gold foiling on the dust jacket to the designs underneath.

Again this is a book I can’t wait to get to, but also have that reader dread of not wanting to start it as once I have I’ll never get the joy of reading it for the first time again. Authors who make me feel this way basically have my dedication for life.

With The Globe theatre kindly streaming live plays to be watched during quarantine, why don’t you watch some of the bards work and then tuck up with this glimpse into his own story.

So there you go dear readers, our short list for 2020. I must confess I enjoyed a lot of the long list, it was a really strong year for me, and there are a couple of books I would have been just as delighted to see appear (if you’d like to know more about those give me a shout and I can do a post giving a nod to them, as still very much deserved).

Obviously we cannot get our to bookshops at the moment but many independents are still posting books out, and they need your help now more than ever. I’ll pop a link to Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights below (click home – sorry about the big pink box, the wonders of the internet popping it there for no reason!) but if you’d like to check your local independent bookshop just head to their website and they’ll inform you whether they can currently deliver.

More than ever dear friends, stay safe and well, and…

Happy Reading!

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It’s that time again…

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