Let me reintroduce you to my favorite reading project of 2020: the women’s prize squad longlist. Last April, when the official 2020 Women’s Prize list had proved disappointing, a group of bloggers/friends and I (the women’s prize squad, if you will) decided to follow the same eligibility rules and assemble a list of our own that looked… more exciting. (If you’re not already following these kind, thoughtful, and all around excellent humans, there’s no time like the present to discover some fantastic new content- a big thanks to Callum, Hannah, Marija, Naty [who has also wrapped up the wps longlist already!], Rachel, Sarah, and Steph for making women’s prize reading and beyond so much fun!)
We used a very scientific process in which each member of the group simply chose two books that they thought deserved a spot. But despite the lack of formality, it really worked! At least, it did for me. I genuinely enjoyed my time with each book, almost everything on the list came down to 4 or 5 stars for me with nothing at all below 3 stars, and even the 3 stars have lingered positively in my mind and convinced me to add more work from the authors to my TBR. It’s been an absolute joy spending these last several months with such strong recommendations from readers I respect, and the lack of a shortlist deadline has made it a more tranquil experience than official prize list readings generally tend to be. All in all, these have been sixteen of the best books I’ve read over the last year or so, and now that I’ve read them all it’s time for some ranking fun!
In ascending order of personal preference:
— Frankissstein by Jeannette Winterson – 5 stars / null rating. The 5 stars reflects my original rating, as I did greatly enjoy the read, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it. My appreciation for the Frankenstein homage here apparently blinded me to transphobic content- I didn’t spot the transphobia while reading, but reviewers I trust have pointed it out so at this point I have to believe it’s there; I’ll need to reread this novel at some point in order to reexamine my experience with the book and update my review to reflect its problematic content. I do think the structure of this book, the (fictionalized) glimpses into Mary Shelley’s life, and the modern expansion of the original Frankenstein themes are wonderfully done, so it’s a shame Winterson flubbed the characterization but hurtful representation is just not where it’s at. I am hoping that the fact Winterson is not trans herself means she just wasn’t aware of what went wrong (just as I, as a cis-het reader, wasn’t aware of it either), rather than writing anything with ill intent.
15. My Name is Monster by Katie Hale – 3 stars. Don’t be fooled by finding this one so near the bottom of my stack; it’s a beautifully poetic dystopian in which one woman finds herself alone (or almost alone) in a post-apocalyptic Scotland, where she ruminates on how her preference for solitude at the cost of all else has ensured her survival. My beef with this book is petty and biased- I read it right after another dystopian novel with some thematic crossover and so found it a gratingly repetitive experience, which is of course no fault of this novel. I also wished there’d been more plot; what little happens I found convenient and/or predictable, though the character work that accompanies events is strong and worth reading for in its own right.
14. Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater – 3 stars. This is the first book in a fantasy trilogy, though it follows another four-book series. I’d call it YA, even though the MC is 18 and has graduated high school- the writing is PG and the themes of self-discovery make it entirely appropriate for teen readers and fitting with the previous books, which were definitely YA. Even so, the characters are old enough and mature enough that Call Down the Hawk doesn’t feel out of place on this list; the Women’s Prize does not often include genre fiction and never (that I know of) includes YA, though I don’t think there’s any rule excluding it and it seems correct for YA to be represented somehow given its widespread popularity. As usual, I enjoyed Stiefvater’s imagery- and metaphor-heavy writing and convincing characterization. There’s some great diversity among the cast. For all of these reasons, it was a fun read. What I didn’t like: dreams as a learning device, and the structuring of this story as a mystery when there is clearly a character involved who knows things and withholds for the sake of plot.
13. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo – 3 stars. I am eagerly awaiting the next installment of this series, which I think has great potential to become a favorite of mine as a whole. It’s an exciting fantasy tale involving secret societies at Harvard, following a sort of misfit magical guide who unearths and criticizes Harvard’s gatekeeping biases as she goes. Unfortunately this first volume suffered a bit for feeling like a whole lot of setup- it’s an intricate world with a large cast, very specific magic, and a whole lot of detail, so the plot felt mostly like a crutch for the world-building to lean on. There is also a bit of graphic content included in the book that doesn’t feel strictly necessary, so I’d recommend checking or asking for CWs if there are certain things you like to avoid, as some of the details are gratuitous and not necessarily worth reading through here.
12. Actress by Anne Enright – 4 stars. A sad and lovely Irish tale of a young woman and her infamous actress mother. This is a poignant story that delves into the complexity of a mother daughter relationship, which I might have loved more if my reading year had not been inundated with mother/daughter stories. This is another book that focuses more on character than plot, with most of the ‘action’ happening in the backstory; I love character studies in theory, but perhaps it depends on the character, because this was a perfectly fine read and smartly written, but I didn’t find myself quite as impressed as I expected to be and as others seem to be.
11. Bunny by Mona Awad – 4 stars. I had so much fun with this wild and slightly magical romp through a fictional graduate writing program. It’s a complete caricature of grad writer types and the workshop process, and there’s a lot of very bizarre action going on at the surface level that you just know is a distraction hiding a deeper implication, but I found myself entertained enough to wait for the big reveal, which was mostly worth the payoff for me. It’s a very weird and imperfect book that won’t be for everyone, but was very much for me.
10. Supper Club by Lara Williams – 4 stars. An absolutely gluttonous book about feminism- a group of women hold private feasts where they eat past the point of politeness and even comfort as an artistic and directly metaphoric way of reclaiming their space and rejecting the little boxes society wants women to fit neatly into. The emphasis is much more on theme than plot here, and even though the big message is obvious going in from the premise alone, I found this to be a reading experience worth savoring. In some ways it is as grotesque as it is sumptuous, but I baked a pie and began my sourdough starter as a result of this book so I cannot deny its influence.
9. The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld – 4 stars. This feels like it’s farther down the list than it should be, but there are just so many great things here that sadly they can’t all fit at the top. If I were a half-star person, this is probably where my ratings would shift from 4 to 4.5 stars, because I was completely engrossed by this multi-perspective tale of violence against women over three centuries. It’s gothic and mysterious and slightly supernatural (ghosts!) and woven together so well, especially considering that the women at the heart of this tale are connected by the setting of their struggles and not much else. This is another book in which the theme is the focal point and fairly obvious from the start, but each of the protagonists is compelling in her own way, as well.
8. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – 4 stars. Another very strong 4-star read for me that only missed the mark in that I found some of the characters and stories here less captivating than others and wished there had been a bit more payoff in the way the pieces connected together in the end- I think I would’ve rather had a more significant interaction between them all at the play they attend, or conversely more separation between the main characters, letting the pieces stand as unlinked stories. But I am discovering that I do quite like loosely connected short stories, and the focus of this set on the experiences of Black British women, + one non-binary character, is a beautiful way of painting a larger picture of strife without sacrificing the individuality of unique lives and stories.
7. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – 5 stars. Here is a slim book that encompasses quite a lot, and does it all in a very interesting way- it follows an imperfect narrator across countries, through relationships, and over a couple of decades, none of which are elements he sees clearly, nor is he quite fully aware of himself. Things are complicated when he is hit by a car on Abbey Road. This all sounds very ambiguous I’m sure, and indeed the first half of the book is rather elusive, but Levy builds this cleverly so that everything falls into place and eventually comes to make a point about perspective. For me it’s a book that I’ve appreciated more for what it accomplishes than I did for the actual experience of reading it; I found the MC somewhat unreachable, though as I’ve said, everything here has its place.
6. The Body Lies by Jo Baker – 5 stars. This literary thriller starts slow, highlighting small acts of sexism and deeper layers of trauma that women experience at the hands of men. But gradually, it becomes something more, as one of the protagonist’s students begins writing her into his work in alarming ways and escalating the situation as she tries to defuse it without making an official report. I’ll admit I was somewhat bored at first, but ultimately I think that’s part of the book’s brilliance- an entirely benign life is lit on fire when a man decides that a woman’s only significance is her significance to him. The tension, by the time the climactic moment arrives, is white hot.
5. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson – 5 stars. A Troubles book that is really so much more. Set in a stifling Belfast summer, this is a tale of complicated fatherhood following two main characters: one believes his son is the mastermind behind the destructive Tall Fires ablaze throughout the city, and the other believes his infant daughter may be an actual siren with a voice more dangerous than any mortal weapon. With a push-and-pull narration we get magical children mixed with intense political unrest, and you wouldn’t think it could all come together in any believable way but I promise, it does. Carson’s writing is witty and evocative, the story both beguiling and convincing at once. It’s a book for a specific set of interests I think, but if sirens and the Troubles and parenthood appeal at all, this one’s not to be missed.
4. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – 5 stars. I think by this point we all know that accusations of witchcraft were simply the easiest way to get rid of women who didn’t fit neatly into their societies, and yet reading new stories that make this same revelation still appeal. Millwood Hargrave proves why that is the case by presenting here a sapphic tale grounded in a tragic historical moment in which the women of a small Norwegian fishing village must bury most of their men and find ways to carry on. There is, of course, religious fervor, a man with too much power, and division of opinion between the women, but at its heart this is a tale of tragedy having profound impact on an isolated community, and a group of women finding strength with each other and/or within themselves. It’s beautifully rendered, quietly tense, and pushes the witchcraft narrative to new heights.
3. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips – 5 stars. This is a sad but gorgeous collection of connected short stories; until the very end they seem to have little in common, all loose reactions in some way to the disappearance of two local girls in northeastern Russia. Each story follows a different perspective with some tangential link to the crime, though as a whole it is not so much a crime or mystery book as it is an examination of personal and community response to tragedy, the ripple effect of one evil act touching many lives, in a place that is largely closed off in more ways than one. It’s a soft, heartfelt, and sorrowful book that requires some patience but comes together with great skill and consideration.
2. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell – 5 stars. A deeply unsettling and uncomfortable read that looks at gaslighting, manipulation, and power imbalance in sexual assault cases where one party is not in a position to say no. Russell presents with care and nuance the story of a teen girl drawn into a relationship with a teacher that she initially sees as romantic, disagreeing vehemently even into adulthood with those who tell her she’s been victimized. I had a difficult time reading this one because it’s very detailed and doesn’t shy away from unpleasant details, but the dismantling of the assumption that victims or survivors of sexual assault should react in a certain way was rewarding to watch unfold. The years that Russell spent writing this book undeniably show in the strength of the statements she’s able to make here.
1. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann – 5 stars. My favorite read of 2019 and probably one of my favorite reads of the entire decade, I suppose it’s no surprise that my top choice going in is still leading the pack for me at the end despite how many stunning reads I’ve enjoyed in the meantime. Is it perfect? Probably not (is anything?), but it’s creative, thoughtful, layered, and, I think, a literal work of genius. A thousand pages primarily comprised of stream-of-consciousness narration with very few breaks sounds daunting, I know. An Ohio housewife baking and stressing about the state of the world maybe isn’t all that appealing as a hook. I wasn’t even going to touch it at first. But I gave it a try, and it was quite possibly the best decision I made in 2019. I loved the prose, the simultaneous randomness and intricacy of the narrator’s thoughts, the gradual reveal of the plot, the underlying themes. This was both an enjoyable and impressive read for me, a completely unique experience wholly worth its length (and there is a point to that, and a method to the madness). Honestly, I would’ve read more pages. I’ll read it again. And this is the one I hope more readers will decide to take a chance on.
For a longlist patchworked together on a whim I think this is an incredibly solid selection and I had a lot more fun with it than the official 2020 Women’s Prize list. It dips into England, Scotland, Norway, Russia, Ireland, and the US, includes LGBTQ+ characters and characters of color, and focuses heavily but not exclusively on feminist themes. We’ve got a lot of women pushing boundaries here, criticizing the status quo, with a few nods to notable classics as well- Frankenstein honored by both Frankissstein and My Name is Monster, direct references to Lolita in My Dark Vanessa, even a Greek myth element in The Fire Starters. We’ve got sci-fi, dystopian, fantasy, a thriller, short stories, magical realism, historical fiction, contemporary, and literary fiction. Quite a range of lengths as well, with The Man Who Saw Everything just under 200 pages and Ducks, Newburyport claiming nearly 1,000.
Favorites for me have been the books I found most emotionally impactful, but personally my shortlist votes wouldn’t just be my top 6 most emotional reads- I’ll be voting for books that I think are effective and also innovative, playing with structure, prose, or tropes in interesting and inventive ways. So, this is subject to change and reflects only my own preferences, not those of the group as a whole- I’ll likely share in a separate post the shortlist we choose together, and our winner when the time comes, but it’s always fun (at least I think so) to see what different preferences reader bring to the table. So, in alphabetical order to keep things simple (my order of preference being listed above already), before closing, my personal shortlist choices:
- The Body Lies by Jo Baker
- The Fire Starters by Jan Carson
- Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
- The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
- Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
I’ve already changed my mind on this list twice since starting this post last week, so. There is no date or shortlist selection method chosen yet, so I can’t guarantee what I’m voting for, but this is the way I’m currently leaning. I am excited for more readers to pick up these books and to see where our list will go from here!
If you’ve read any of these books, or plan to, or have heard about them, or anything, go ahead and weigh in with your top choices below! What would you advance to the shortlist?
The Literary Elephant