Baileys Prize: A Fantasy Shortlist

I’ve spent much of the last month eagerly devouring the Baileys Prize longlist; today is the day that the shortlist will be announced and, although I’ve not read 5 of the 16 books on the initial list, I’m going to put some goodwill into the ether for a couple of my favourites so far.

To be clear, here are the longlisted books I’ve not read yet: Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (I’ve pre-ordered the paperback, which doesn’t come out till later this month); The Lesser Bohemians by Eimar McBride (read the first page and thought, “no”); Barkskins by Annie Proulx (I’ve had it since it came out last summer and read the first section back then, but was slightly bored. I love Proulx though so I will return to it soon); The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan (got it from the library; keep putting it off because it’s so long), and First Love by Gwendoline Riley (on reserve at library but hasn’t come in yet).

I’d already read a few before the longlist came out. Ayomabi Adebayo’s Stay With Me was one of my favourite reads of 2016; it’s emotive but economical, giving a really close insight into a marriage and how a lack of children affects it. It kept surprising me right up until the end and Adebayo’s writing is wonderful. I really hope it stays in the running for the prize. I’d also read Hagseed by Margaret Atwood, who  is one of my all-time favourite authors. I liked Hagseed a lot; it’s part of the Hogarth series of Shakespeare retellings and it’s very clever and entertaining. I think it suffers in comparison to her other works, particularly the speculative fiction classics like The Handmaid’s Tale and the Maddaddam trilogy. It’s a good book, but I’d prefer to see someone with less of a profile awarded. I read Madeline Thein’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing last year when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker; it’s a really interesting account of a historical period I knew little about – the Chinese Cultural Revolution – and would be a worthy addition to the shortlist. The last of the longlist I’d read already was The Power by Naomi Alderman: a book which horrified and alarmed me, more than it entertained. I read it a few months ago and still feel a bit traumatised by the ending, and my feelings about the book are mixed; although I’m not sure I actually enjoyed it, I have been recommending it to other people and do think it would be worth a place on the shortlist.

Onto the books I’ve read as a result of their inclusion in the longlist. I started with The Mare by Mary Gaitskill, which is an intriguing look at the relationship that develops between a vulnerable black teenager and the affluent white woman who she meets through the Fresh Air Fund. It’s quite melodramatic but a very engaging read. It’s not in my top six, but is worth picking up.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Emma Flint’s Little Deaths. I don’t usually read crime fiction, but the story of a woman suspected of murdering her young children really absorbed me. Flint goes to town on the sexist attitudes of the police, media and society, all of whom judge Ruth based on her appearance and conduct; it creates an additional layer of interest, meaning the plot never becomes procedural. Again, it’s a good read but not necessarily prize-winning, in my view.

Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle really surprised me; I didn’t expect to be so enthralled by a tale of TB-suffering twins, admitted to a sanatorium in post-WW2 Kent. Grant creates a really strong impression of the two central characters and the motley crew of fellow sufferers who surround them. All the patients await a mystery, longed-for cure which they’ve heard rumours of, and the depiction of their despair while they wait is really engaging. I’d like to see this on the shortlist.

I enjoyed Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata, with its depiction of the friendship between a young boy whose father died helping Jews escape Nazi Germany, and the Jewish friend who represents a more appealing lifestyle. It’s broken up into three distinct sections, with the middle one focusing on Gustav’s mother and father; it’s a neat way to tell the story. Halfway through reading it, I bought a copy for my mum, knowing that she would love it too. It wouldn’t make my fantasy shortlist, but it’s worth reading if you pick it up.

Offering a more gentle reading experience is The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, it follows two elderly women, one white and one black, who find themselves living next door to each other despite their deep enmity. The bitterness between the women is quite entertaining, and even as it inevitably softens, engaging frostiness remains. I quite liked the book but I don’t think it will stay long in my memory.

Midwinter by Fiona Melrose is beautifully written but, sadly, quite dull. Reminding me a little of Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither, it’s about a father and son with a traumatic past and frosty present. I liked Melrose’s style but the story didn’t do anything for me.

The last of the longlisted books I’ve read is The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill, which I am now completely in love with. Starting inauspiciously with the traumatic early years of Pierrot and Rose in their nun-dominated orphanage, it expands into a magical story of love, gangs and clowns. O’Neill’s writing is outrageously gorgeous, elevating even the rare mundane events to something beautiful. I really loved this and it’s my favourite for the Baileys Prize win so far.

So, it seems that my fantasy shortlist looks like this:
The Lonely Hearts Hotel
The Dark Circle
Stay With Me
The Power
Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Have you been reading any of these books? Which is your favourite for the prize?

Review: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

swimming-lessonsThe Premise: If you’re in the mood for some family drama, Swimming Lessons may well be the book for you. The plot centres on Flora, whose mother disappeared twelve years ago. At the outset, Flora’s ageing father, Gil, tumbles to a hospitalising accident after believing he’s seen his missing-presumed-dead wife. As the family tries to make sense of the past, long-buried secrets come to the surface and people do a peculiar amount of naked swimming.

Thoughts: I maintain a great degree of love for Claire Fuller’s last book, Our Endless Numbered Days (you can read my gushing review here) and a significant part of this was the beauty of the writing. Swimming Lessons is equally lyrical and lovely. The story is split between the present day, third person narrative and the letters that Ingrid, the long-lost wife and mother, wrote to Gil and left in a selection of books, expertly chosen for their titles; the contrast between the two time-frames creates a fascinating disjunct, as vulnerable, aged Gil is revealed to have been a somewhat less sympathetic figure in the past. It’s also a clever way for the reader to get to know Ingrid in her own words, rather than through the contrasting views of her family.

As with Our Endless Numbered Days, Fuller has crafted engaging and flawed characters; Flora is endearingly peculiar, while sensible Nan, the older sister, has never had the luxury of being “quirky,” instead having to act as a mother to Flora in the wake of their actual mother’s disappearance. The supporting characters, like the old family friend who knows more than he’s letting on, and Flora’s boyfriend, who is a fan of Gil’s infamously rude novel, also contribute plenty to the richness of the plot.

As a serial bookworm, I also loved the way in which Fuller weaves book collecting throughout the book. While the descriptions of Gil’s home overflowing with tomes may horrify a neatfreak, I wanted to move in. The writing process is presented painfully, also serving to show how the single-mindedness necessary for success can make a person selfish and distant. And, while I will continue to keep my books in the most immaculate condition you can imagine, I liked reading about Gil’s passion for marginalia and what you can learn about a person from what they underline in their books. It’s nice to read something that’s so concerned with reading.

In Conclusion: Claire Fuller has written another beautiful and appealing novel; while her work is undoubtedly literary, it’s also extremely accessible. Swimming Lessons is simultaneously warm and haunting; I’ll continue to eagerly grab everything Fuller writes.

Review: The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

the-thing-around-your-neckThe Premise: The Thing Around Your Neck is Adichie’s short story collection. If you’ve read her novels, the themes will be familiar: navigating familial and romantic relationships in Nigeria with a backdrop of post-colonial politics, as well as incisive ribbing of white condescension towards the whole concept of Africa. Marriage features heavily, with stories focusing on situations like a young woman leaving Nigeria for an arranged marriage and finding that her overly-Americanised husband is not what she thought, as well as wider cultural conflicts between Nigeria and America, not to mention the cultural divide between the different nations of Africa.

Thoughts: I am officially in love with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing. She’s so incisive, so uncompromising; you could pick up any of the stories here having read her other works and immediately know the writing was by Adichie, and her unique voice really appeals to me. Not that any of this is original; there are plenty of more qualified people out there who can rave about the tremendous worth and readability of this novelist’s work.

An art in which Adichie is highly skilled is the framing of individual experience within a broader cultural and political context. The tragedy of a mother losing her child in The American Embassy is juxtaposed with the oppression of the media in Nigeria, while On Monday of Last Week offers an intriguing contrast of child-rearing ideas in different cultures when it comes to discipline (something that also came up in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, which I read right before this). I don’t know how to explain my love for Adichie’s work without making some kind of annoying or misguided comment on learning about other cultures or something equally mundane, but I do find her representation of the flaws and triumphs of both Nigeria and the west really fascinating. I particularly enjoyed Jumping Monkey Hill, the only story in this collection which places representatives from different African nations together to highlight what divides as well as unites them. The patronising white dude in that particular story seems too awful to believe in, until you flashback to November 2016 and an old, white guy mansplaining racism to Adichie on live television. I could almost hear her eye-roll as I was reading.

Much as I love a really good short story, I tend to struggle with settling down to read a full collection by a particular author. I’m far more likely to enjoy an anthology, with stories by a range of writers (like the excellent YA collections Slasher Boys and Monster Girls and I’ll Be Home for Christmas); in a set by a single author, I feel that the quality is usually far more erratic. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie completely wrecks this philosophy; not only is every story here sublime, they all strike the delicate balance between giving the reader enough closure to provide a satisfying reading experience and leaving you wanting a little more.

In Conclusion: look, it’s just brilliant, okay? Which is a very obvious thing to say, but it’s true. The whole thing is sublime. I am now saving Half of a Yellow Sun, the last Adichie book for me to read, in the manner that you might save a really good bar of chocolate for a day when you really need it. Sadly, my experience of this is that I usually end up eating the chocolate three seconds after buying it, so I will probably have run out of Adichie’s wonderful work by tomorrow.

As a side note, if you share my love for Chimamanda, may I take the liberty of recommending Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me, which comes out in March, as well as Yaa Gyasi’s glorious Homegoing? Trust me: if you haven’t read them, you should.

Top Ten Tuesday: The Books I Need To Get To

This week’s TTT, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is meant to be about the 2016 releases we didn’t get to. I read a crazy amount of new releases last year, neglecting some of the books that had been on my shelves for ages, and I’m determined to rectify that this year. So these are the long-neglected books on my TBR in 2017.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I’ve been saving this because I’ve read all her other books and I am scared of running out.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Bought because of its beautiful cover but abandoned 100 pages in because the plot wasn’t doing anything for me, I’m going to return to this soon.

Middlemarch by George Eliot
Let’s pretend that I will finally read this book in 2017, having said I was going to for the last two years.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Another book I’ve had for a while, I really want to read this soon; I read The Muse just after it came out and enjoyed it, so there’s no reason for me to neglect this one any longer.

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
I received for Christmas in 2015, so it is disgraceful that I haven’t read it yet. I am going to. Really.

The Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse
This arrived with my copy of The Raven King, so I know it’s been staring at me resentfully since May.

Darkthaw by Kate Boorman
I read and loved Winterkill last year but have probably forgotten everything about it (were the people in it speaking French? And there were monsters or something?) so, perversely, I’ve been putting off reading the follow-up. This makes no sense as a strategy.

Darkness Follows by L.A. Weatherly
I have only had this for a few months but, as with Darkthaw, I need to read it before I forget my own name.

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
Another Christmas gift from over a year ago, I have no excuse for not having read this yet.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
Here is a story of book-buying logic: I bought this at the airport on my way to Portugal in October 2015, struggled to fit it into my hand luggage, ignored it all week and haven’t picked it up since. Because I am terrible. I have a grand plan to reread my favourite Rushdies (The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Midnight’s Children, since yo u asked) but I have resolved to read this first.