Category Archives: Book Prizes

Booker Prize 2020: Wrap-Up, Ranking, and Winner Prediction

The winner announcement for the 2020 Booker Prize will be upon us in a matter of hours, and as I’m mostly finished with what I wanted to read in relation to this prize, I want to share some concluding thoughts. I still have Mantel’s longlisted The Mirror and the Light on my schedule for next month, but am planning to include any Booker or Women’s Prize thoughts about it along with my review, so I’ll forge ahead here. There are also two other longlisted books this year that I’ve skipped entirely and don’t currently have any plans to read, so this round-up is slightly incomplete but I’ll do my best.

For more info on this year’s Booker Prize and my thoughts on the books, I’ll link here the official Booker website, my initial longlist reaction and shortlist reaction, and my reviews for each of the individual titles will be included below.

The shortlist, ranked in order of personal favoritism:

  1. Real Life by Brandon Taylor – 5 stars. A gay Black man in a Midwestern biochemistry grad program wrestles with the choice of leaving an area of study he enjoys in order to escape the pervasive racism that plagues his experience at the school. Over the course of a single weekend, the main character’s interactions with fellow students and friends take a large toll and expose numerous injustices.
  2. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – 4 stars. One woman’s troubling experience with alcoholism in (recent) historical Scotland affects the lives of everyone around her. Hit hardest by her inability to hold onto sobriety and also by the harsh judgment of their surrounding society, her youngest son Shuggie clings to innocent love for his mother while trying to keep her afloat and battle bullies of his own. An exceedingly tragic read.
  3. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste – 3 stars. This historical fiction tale depicts the Italian invasion of Ethiopia just prior to WWII; with sometimes brilliant and sometimes beautiful prose, Mengiste brings the plight of a nation to life, highlighting individual experiences. Though feminist in intent (and indeed featuring particularly strong female characters) the book’s tendency to focus as well on male experiences diluted the woman warrior theme for me.
  4. This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga – 3 stars. A suitable end to an impactful trilogy, this volume follows the same Zimbabwean main character as the trilogy’s previous installments, this time as she approaches middle age. This woman is struggling to find meaningful work and a reasonable home for herself in the wake of a postcolonial education which has negatively shaped her life view and sense of self. A heavy and important read (just as the rest of the trilogy), I simply did not appreciate this volume as much as Dangarembga’s first, and felt that the similar themes addressed here had by this point become somewhat repetitive.
  5. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook – 3 stars. A woman and her young daughter leave the City to live in the Wilderness as part of an experiment to determine whether humans can live in raw nature without harming it. An engaging if unsurprising dystopian, this book compensates for a lack of social commentary and fast plot with indulgent landscapes and detailed world-building of its Wilderness.
  6. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi – 3 stars. An Indian artist reflects on her past and sense of morality as she must provide increasing care for her carefree mother, who is losing her memory. The two women share a complicated relationship filled as much with judgment and disappointment as with love, and struggle to help each other even as they are also desperate to save themselves.

As you can see, this wasn’t my year for high shortlist ratings. The only real favorite for me was the title I’d read prior to the longlist announcement. Most of my Booker reading after that point failed to excite me, though I didn’t have any strong dislikes either, which may be a first.

All in all, though I was initially happy with the shortlist, now that I’ve read all of the books I find it a bit…stagnant and stuffy. While I think the themes and concepts on display here are worthwhile and interesting, and all of these writers succeed in laying out stories that are engaging and coherent, there seems to be a lack of innovation here, of playful inventiveness, of inspiring form and wording. Real Life is the exception for me, in that I think it manages to convey quite a lot without saying any of it directly; Taylor tells his story on a slant, where the surface level reads like an eyebrow-raising drama while a lot of powerful implications and emotions ride underneath. The rest, however, struck me as straightforward, long, wandering, and perhaps just a bit too focused on being called Literature to accomplish enjoyability. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on a collection of books that are indeed admirable each in their own way and simply don’t cater to my reading taste. I prefer my literary fiction a bit more raw and biting, which is not what I found here, and while that’s unfortunate for me it does not mean these are necessarily bad books or that anyone who finds more to enjoy in them than I did is wrong to do so- I do hope someone’s having a better time of it than I did.

With that in mind, if I were to pick a winner, I’d say my favorite for that slot all along has been Taylor’s Real Life. It’s a bit disappointing to have read nine other books from the longlist now and still feel that my top choice is the only title I read independently beforehand, but here we are. I think Taylor and his intelligent, emotional writing would make for a deserving Booker win this year, but in all honesty, I don’t think the judges will lean in this direction. Real Life doesn’t quite seem to match the rest of this shortlist for tone, and though its themes are just as heavy and important as any of the others highlighted on this year’s Booker list, there’s a lightness to the delivery that I suspect doesn’t appeal to the judges as strongly as it does to me, if the rest of this list is anything to go by.

Thus, my actual winner prediction is instead Mengiste’s The Shadow King which, while not quite fitting my expectations based on the synopsis and jacket copy, is a commendable piece of fiction that reveals an overlooked piece of history and whose corrections of that historical record feel timely and important. The judging panel this year is wonderfully diverse, and I suspect those judges will lean toward supporting an author, a country, and a story of a sort that has been underrepresented with the Booker in the past, which makes Mengiste’s Ethiopian epic an appealing choice.

Here is a not-quite-accurate shortlist photo, excluding two titles I didn’t have on hand at the time- Burnt Sugar and The Shadow King and instead including the one longlist title whose absence on the shortlist hurts me most- How Much of These Hills is Gold.

For a bit more fun, here is my current longlist ranking, along with brief recaps for the titles that missed the shortlist.

  1. Real Life by Brandon Taylor – 5 stars.
  2. How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang – 4 stars. In the dying days of the American gold rush and westward expansion, two Chinese-American children are orphaned after the death of their prospector father. Instilled with a love of the natural land from him and with Chinese traditions from their mother, the siblings set off to build lives of their own, rooted in their pasts and dreaming of better futures, all while facing rampant racial discrimination. It’s beautifully told with an interesting chronology, and Zhang is expert at playing on readers’ assumptions about character. An astute and heart-wrenching read.
  3. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid – 4 stars. An overly dramatic and not entirely believable soap opera of a novel about modern racism and performative allyship. It revolves around a young Black woman accused of kidnapping a white child that she’s babysitting, and the harmful ways that the people closest to her try to “help” with the situation. I wouldn’t call this a literary masterpiece, but I found it great fun to read. I appreciate that it brings timely and important topics to a wide audience in an accessible way.
  4. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – 4 stars.
  5. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste – 3 stars.
  6. Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward – 3 stars. An incredibly intriguing format and plot centered around an ant that may or may not have crawled into a sleeping woman’s eye. The book, a cross between a short story set and a novel, is a sort of philosophical thought experiment in itself. UnfortunatelyI found it far too emotionless for a story rooted in love that’s meant to be strong enough to save humanity, despite loving the book’s structure and unpredictability.
  7. This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga – 3 stars.
  8. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook – 3 stars.
  9. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi – 3 stars.
  10. Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler – 3 stars. This was just too incredibly benign for my reading taste. It’s the story of a man going on middle-aged who’s a bit misunderstood, and must change his solitary ways for the sake of important relationships in his life. It’s a brief and competent contemporary story that I’m sure will please readers who enjoy slice-of-life character studies.

Additionally, at this point I have not read these titles from the longlist:

  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. This book is still on my TBR; I’ve read the first book in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy and have fit books two and three into my December reading schedule, so my reviews will still be forthcoming. I’m determined to read this before the end of the year and expect it would rank in the top half of this year’s Booker list for me, based on my experience with that initial Cromwell novel.
  • Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze. I was not particularly drawn to the synopsis of this book from the start, and it was too challenging for me to get a copy in time for the winner announcement at a price that I was willing to pay for my interest level. I’ve not seen any reviews thus far convincing enough for me to add this book to my TBR, and now that I’ve missed the optimal timing to read it I doubt I will ever get around to picking it up.
  • Apeirogon by Colum McCann. I have no interest in reading this one, and have actually made plans to read a different book with a similar setting as an alternative read (Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa). McCann has been accused of sexual assault and so I do not want to read or support this book or author even though I have heard positive things about the story itself.

Though I can’t give reliable stats for the titles I didn’t read, over half of the longlist titles that I did complete ranked only 3 stars for me. Which is not a bad rating, but it can be a frustrating one, especially when beginning with high expectations (which seems reasonable when approaching a prestigious prize list). 3-star reads are often difficult for me to review, and difficult for me to care about their advancement within the prize ranks or lack thereof. 3-star reads can also (regrettably) be forgettable, which is not a reaction I want to have for top literary reads of the year.

And so, my overall experience has been somewhat subpar. Even the books I rated higher, like Such a Fun Age and Shuggie Bain, I would not have minded leaving behind on the longlist, which is not a great sign. But despite this Booker season turning out to be an off year for me, it was not such a negative experience that I regret following along, nor do I plan to abandon reading along in the future. But I have learned along the way this year that it can be helpful to trust my first impressions, and that neither the world nor my blog will end if I don’t manage to complete the entire list- and so going forward I think I will be making an effort to be choosier about which Booker titles I will pick up instead of pushing myself through titles I’m less intrigued about for the sake of greater completion.

As usual, the best part of this prize season has been following along with other readers, comparing thoughts, making guesses about the upcoming announcements, and finding a sense of (virtual) community in discussing topical titles. I’ve very much enjoyed chatting with everyone who’s commented along my 2020 Booker journey whether having read the books or not- being able to share the experience is the part that makes sticking with sometimes difficult reads worth the effort.

Have you read any of this year’s Booker longlist, or have thoughts about the winner announcement?

The Literary Elephant

Booker Prize 2020: Shortlist Thoughts and Plans

Earlier this week, the Booker Prize for Fiction announced their 2020 shortlist:

The Booker Prize 2020 | The Booker Prizes

Thanks to the reading slump that hit me hard at the end of August and carried into the first half of September, I’ve only scratched the surface of the longlist so far and thus don’t have much in the way of significant reactions. But, upon first impression, I am fairly pleased with this result!

Real Life

The one title I was really rooting for did make the cut- Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. I loved this book, and would not be at all disappointed to see it take the win, though it’s too soon for me to place my bets. The other longlist read I would’ve been happy to see place (from what I’ve read up to this point) was C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold; I’ll still have a very positive review for that one coming soon and would recommend it despite its absence here.

The Shadow King

The other book from the shortlist I’ve completed thus far is Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King; it was a 3-star read for me, but I’m not surprised to see it here. There’s always one on the shortlist, it seems, that I can appreciate without truly liking very much, and this year I think that’s this book. I think it’s an important and beautiful story that many readers are right to love, though it just didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I don’t particularly want to see it win, but that certainly wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen in 2020, we’ll leave it at that.

Shuggie Bain

Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is one of my current reads; I’m taking it slowly as I pull out of my reading slump, but I am enjoying it so far and don’t have any reason to complain about its placement on the shortlist. I’m not sure I’m excited enough about it to want it to win, but it’s too early to say for sure (I’m about 1/3 through). But to have read nearly half the shortlist already considering how few of the longlistees I’ve gotten to at this point is very encouraging!

Actually, I’ve only read one book from the longlist so far that didn’t make the cut: Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would but didn’t expect to see advance. So, no real complaints about how things have turned out, based on what I’ve read to date.

Burnt Sugar

Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar is the only title on the shortlist I’m somewhat unhappy to see, and that’s only because I wasn’t initially drawn to the synopsis and thus wasn’t sure I’d take the time to read it. This is the only title of the shortlist that I’m still uncertain about getting around to- it looks like a bit of a challenge to get a copy in the US, and I’m still not particularly looking forward to reading it, despite having now seen some encouraging reviews. But I will definitely read this if it wins, and will maybe read it if it doesn’t.

The New Wilderness

I’ve not seen any rave reviews of Diane Cook’s dystopian The New Wilderness yet, so this is the biggest surprise on the shortlist for me. But I was already curious about the premise and managed to grab a copy through my library, so I’ll definitely read this one. I don’t really envision it winning, especially after Atwood’s dystopian novel took half the win last year, but I’ll have to read before forming a firmer opinion.

Speaking of surprises, I think the biggest shock of this shortlist is what isn’t included- Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light! So many readers (not excluding myself) were considering Mantel a shoo-in for the win, after her notable Booker Prize successes with the previous two books in her Cromwell series. I am still planning to read and review The Mirror and the Light regardless of it’s exclusion here, and actually I am pleased not to see it advance. It’s a very long book that would’ve impacted my motivation to continue with the shortlist right now, but moreso I’m excited by the prospect of removing the “safe” choice from the possibilities- now it seems that anything could happen, each of these six books is just as likely to win as the next. It gives the prize a bit more thrill, in a year when we really needed that, I think.

This Mournable Body

Last but certainly not least is Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body; like Mantel’s book, this is also a third-in-a-series title, though from what I hear this can be read as a standalone. I read the first book in this trilogy years ago and remember quite liking it though I’m hazy on the details now. I’m still looking forward to rereading that first volume (Nervous Conditions) and then diving into this one, and am further encouraged to see that the judges considered it shortlist material. Will they think it winner material? I can’t guess yet, but time will tell.

It’s an excitingly diverse shortlist, despite the fact that at least three of the authors are American (Avni Doshi would be the fourth, though she’s currently living in Dubai and Burnt Sugar was not originally published in the US… which isn’t to say Doshi isn’t American, but that perhaps her book is not best represented with that label.) The settings of the books take us from the US, to Ethiopia, to Scotland, to India, to Zimbabwe, and to an unspecified (but likely American) futuristic City. Four of the nominated authors are women.

Thanks to my library resuming interloan services, I do have all but Burnt Sugar on hand from this shortlist, so I expect to read at least 5 out of the 6.

I’ve also got Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road checked out (I would have cancelled the hold except it came in the same day the shortlist was announced; now that I have it, it is very short…). Additionally I purchased a copy of Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward, which I was hoping to see advance but can’t really comment on at this point, and earlier in the year I also bought Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light thanks to the Women’s Prize. I’m unlikely to read Colum McCann’s Apeirogon now, though I have a few suggested alternatives (own voices authors who haven’t been accused of sexual misconduct) on my TBR, including Susan Abulhawa’s Against the Loveless World, which I’d like to read regardless. Otherwise, I’m unlikely to read Gabriel Krauze’s Who They Was at all now, as it’s hard to get ahold of in the US and I wasn’t especially interested in it when I read the blurb, though I have heard some great things about it recently.

All told, this makes it likely that I will end up reading 10 out of 13 of the longlist titles; tracking down Burnt Sugar for shortlist completion purposes would increase the tally, but I’m undecided on that at present. (If you’ve read it, please advise!)

The winner is scheduled to be announced October 27th; I’ll prioritize reviews for any Booker titles I complete before then, but this is a difficult time of year for me to keep up with blogging so I can’t make guarantees, unfortunately. Nevertheless, it’s always great fun following the Booker prize and the reactions of other readers, so please share all your shortlist thoughts below!

The Literary Elephant

Booker Prize 2020: Longlist Thoughts and Plans

It’s here! It’s likely you’ve already seen the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction longlist and various reaction posts, but I always have a good time talking about lit prizes with you lovely readers! So here we are.

I’ve only read one of the longlisted titles so far, own one more, and ultimately am not expecting to have as much coverage for this prize this year as I did for this year’s Women’s Prize. I just am not interested enough to fully commit right now. Although, I believe I said the same thing last year and ended up reading 12 of the 13 titles, so who knows! Matters are further complicated this year by the fact that I’m not sure interloan services are up and running at my library, which will affect how many of these titles I can read.

Okay, let’s look at the list!

The New WildernessThe New Wilderness by Diane Cook

Pub: Aug. 11 2020 US ~ Sept. 3 2020 UK

Sci-fi/Dystopia in which a polluted City is fast becoming uninhabitable; there is one area of open land left, where our protagonist and her 5 year-old daughter volunteer to live with a small group in a sort of experiment to determine whether humans can exist in raw nature without destroying it.

My stance: Other than the focus on the mother/daughter relationship, all of this appeals to me. It’s not out yet and it doesn’t look like my library has it on order, but it might appear there closer to its release. I’d love to read this one.

This Mournable BodyThis Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Pub: Aug. 7 2018 US ~ Jan 16 2020 UK

Literary fiction set in Zimbabwe, following a protagonist whose hope and potential turns into a struggle for survival as she searches for an appropriate job and is eventually forced to return to her parents’ impoverished homestead. Themes revolve around the toxicity of colonialism and capitalism.

My stance: I’m excited about this one! I read Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions in a postcolonialism class in college and remember liking the experience. This newer release actually follows the same protagonist from Nervous Conditions, later in her life. If I can get this via interloan at my library, I am tentatively planning to reread Nervous Conditions and follow it with this one. There is apparently one more novel between these two- the jury’s out on whether I’ll be able to track down a copy (it’s not in my library’s catalog) or resign myself to reading the books out of order. I’m getting the sense that while they are sequential they also stand alone, so I won’t let the missing second book (The Book of Not) deter me from picking this one up.

Burnt SugarBurnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Pub: unknown US ~ July 30 2020 UK

This is the story of a wild young woman who abandons a loveless marriage, joins an ashram, becomes a beggar, and chases an artist. It is also the story of her daughter, who, when grown, must return, “caring for a woman who never cared for her.”

My stance: I’m less interested in this one. It seems very focused on the mother/daughter relationship, which I learned with this year’s Women’s Prize list just isn’t where my interest lies right now. I’ve added this book to my TBR mainly to keep it on my radar- I’ll look for reviews and keep an eye out for availability before determining whether or not to give it a go, but initially I’m not prioritizing this one.

Who They WasWho They Was by Gabriel Krauze

Pub: unknown US ~ Sept 3 2020 UK

Literary fiction featuring the youth of London who scrape the bottom of the barrel and live in the moment.

My stance: Not sure. I can’t see when/if this will be available in the US, and I’m not getting a great sense of what it’s really about from the synopsis. Troubled people whose stories don’t typically get told? Does it dig into race, class, etc.? I need more info, and reasonable availability. Initially, I’m not drawn to this title based on its scant synopsis.

The Mirror & The Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3)The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Pub: March 10 2020 US ~ March 5 2020 UK

Historical fiction covering the final months of Thomas Cromwell’s stint as Henry VIII’s right hand man. This is the third volume in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, which opens with Wolf Hall and continues with Bring Up the Bodies.

My stance: I’ll be reading this for sure. I am planning to finish and review both the second and third books in this series before the Women’s Prize winner is announced in September; I’ll probably work on this throughout August, but I’ll be shocked if it’s not shortlisted so I’m not feeling particularly rushed in relation to its Booker standing.

ApeirogonApeirogon by Colum McCann

Pub: Feb. 5 2020 US ~ Feb 25 2020 UK

Two men- one Palestinian and one Israeli- build a friendship based on loss. In a story that spans centuries and continents and tests the line between fiction and nonfiction, this is a grand tale told in small pieces, born in a world of violence.

My stance: Unsure. If interloan services are running I could easily read this, but I’m not including it in my test run of holds. I’m not especially drawn to it or the author, but here’s the thing: every year there seems to be a rather long, ponderous book written by a man that makes it to the shortlist that I maybe got something out of but did not ultimately enjoy- I think this is 2020’s version of that book. I’m torn because I suspect this is a book I might appreciate having read, but not appreciate actually reading it. So, to be determined. Please persuade me one way or the other!

The Shadow KingThe Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

Pub: Sept. 24 2019 US ~ Jan. 30 2020 UK

Historical fiction chronicling Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, specifically focused on women’s untold role in the early days of WWII. This is a tale of female power that “breathes life into complicated characters on both sides of the battle line, shaping a heartrending, indelible exploration of what it means to be a woman at war.”

My stance: Sure, why not? It’s a piece of history I’m not familiar with and I always like a good story of powerful women. I’ve placed a library hold through interloan services, so I’ll pick this up if/when it comes in.

Such a Fun AgeSuch a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Pub: Dec. 31 2019 US ~ Jan. 7 2020 UK

Contemporary fiction set in the US. A young African American woman babysitting a small white child is confronted in public and accused of kidnapping the child. Responses to the incident highlight racial tensions in America.

My stance: I’m so unsure about this one! I’ve seen rave reviews, I’ve seen some readers detest it, and I’m entirely uncertain about whether this will work for me or not. I haven’t been faring well with non-literary contemporary novels in general this year, but I was intrigued by the synopsis. If I can get it through the library, I might give it a try, but it looks like I’ve got a bit of a wait with the holds list so I have time to change my mind several times.

Real LifeReal Life by Brandon Taylor

Pub: Feb. 18 2020 US ~ Aug. 27 2020 UK

Literary fiction following a gay black man’s difficult decision over whether or not to stay in his biochemistry grad program while dealing with casual racism from everyone involved in his school and social circles.

My stance: This is the one I’ve read! I loved it! Highly recommend, and I’d be thrilled to see it shortlisted. Very deserving of its place on the longlist, and this positive experience is essentially why I’m feeling generous enough about the longlist to want to read what I can. You can find my review here if you missed it.

Redhead by the Side of the RoadRedhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

Pub: Apr. 7 2020 US ~ Apr. 9 2020 UK

Contemporary fiction featuring a “creature of habit” man who is faced with some sudden major surprises- like his woman friend confessing that she faces eviction, and the son he didn’t know he had showing up at his door. This is a story of “misperception, second chances, and the sometimes elusive power of human connection.”

My stance: I’m sorry, but I hate the cover image, hate that font, and am not at all interested in the synopsis. Everything about this is turning me off. This is obviously not a reflection of the book’s merit, as I haven’t read it yet. In fact, I’ve never read Anne Tyler. This is under 200 pages and as available through interloan services as any of the others, so maaaaaaybe I’ll end up taking a chance?

Shuggie BainShuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Pub: Feb 11 2020 US ~ Aug. 6 2020 UK

Historical fiction in which a young boy spends his 1980’s childhood in Glasgow with an alcoholic mother who can’t quite care for her children the way they need her to. The two remain close through the years even as they struggle with addiction, sexuality, and the flaws within their own relationship.

My stance: I’ve seen mixed reviews, but have been interested in this one for a while and am happy for the nudge to pick it up and see for myself. If interloan is working, I will be reading this one for sure.

Love and Other Thought ExperimentsLove and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward

Pub: unknown US ~ Feb. 6 2020 UK

Literary fiction in which two women hoping to have a baby have a bitter fight instead, when one of them wakes up convinced that an ant is stuck in her eye and the other doesn’t believe the claim.

My stance: I am so intrigued by this absurd situation, and by the fact that it’s inspired by philosophical thought-experiments. Unfortunately I can’t seem to find it in the US and have no idea when/if I might. This is the one I’m most tempted to buy.

How Much of These Hills Is GoldHow Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang

Pub: Apr. 7 2020 US ~ Apr. 9 2020 UK

Historical fiction in which two Chinese immigrant siblings whose parents have died find themselves on the run from their Western mining town in the dying days of the American gold rush. The book combines Chinese symbolism with American history and explores race in an expanding country.

My stance: This was already on my TBR and one of the titles here I’m most looking forward to reading, if interloan services pull through!

And that’s the list! (If you happen to know/find any of the US pub dates missing in my list above please let me know so I can add them in, there were a few I failed to locate, if they exist!)

Overall thoughts: There are a few titles I’m familiar with that I’m particularly happy to see (namely, Real Life, though I’m also happy for the extra nudge with Shuggie Bain, How Much of These Hills is Gold, and The Mirror and the Light), a couple of new titles I’m now particularly interested in (Love and Other Thought Experiments, This Mournable Body, The New Wilderness, and The Shadow King), and a few that likely wouldn’t have made the list if I were in charge (Redhead by the Side of the Road, Burnt Sugar, Who They Was, Apeirogon– no shade to them, they just don’t excite me at the moment). Of course, having only read one title so far and basing the rest off of hasty first impressions, my opinions are entirely subject to change.

On the whole though, while I’m happy with some of these, this is not my favorite Booker longlist. I’m fairly certain I won’t like all of these (if I were to read them all), and there aren’t a lot of themes and premises here that really hook me and call to my particular reading taste. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad list or that someone else won’t enjoy it more than I do. Time has been so unaccountable this year that I barely have any grasp on which books were even eligible this year, so I suppose it’s a plus that I didn’t have a list of predictions I was attached to that didn’t make the cut. There were a few Women’s Prize books I wouldn’t have minded seeing here that have been omitted (Hamnet, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line) but to be honest I’m not too surprised not to see them, and aside from the fact that I’ve yet to read The Mirror and the Light I’m content to be putting the 2020 Women’s Prize behind me, with the exception of the winner announcement still coming up.

Anyway, I’m confident I won’t be able to read all of these before the shortlist announcement on the 15th of September; depending on availability and my excitement level I might try harder to read the shortlist at least. In the meantime, I’m happy with the diversity here and pleased to see quite a few debuts! Not too many already-big authors, and more than half of the list was written by women, always a plus in my book. I’ll read what I can, but at this point the only guarantee I can make (barring whatever curveball 2020 throws at us next) is The Mirror and the Light, which is already in my possession.

What do you think of the list? Which titles have you read or do you plan to read?

 

The Literary Elephant

2020 Women’s Prize Take 2: Blogger Edition

As much as I appreciated the structure that the Women’s Prize longlist brought to my reading and blogging life over the last two months of global chaos, in the aftermath of the shortlist announcement I have been taking a nice break from both that I didn’t realize I needed so desperately. But, I’m back on my game this weekend and getting back into both!

For a bit of further explanation here, I’ve been part of a chat group called Women’s Prize Squad comprised of some great bloggers with similar bookish interests; it’s low-key and no reading is actually required- two members of the group haven’t read any of this year’s longlist at all yet. These lovely people are: Callum, Hannah, Marija, Naty, Rachel, Sarah, and Steph. Though opinions do vary, one thing we could all agree on this year was that the official longlist wasn’t living up to expectations for us, and in a year with so many great eligible books we found that especially disappointing. So, just before the shortlist announcement, we spent an hour or two assembling our own longlist from this year’s eligible books: fiction written by women published in English in the UK between April 2019 and March 2020.

It wasn’t something we planned or prepared for in advance, and our selection method was the highly scientific process of choosing a random draft order and letting each person pick any two eligible books they wanted to nominate. This is in no way affiliated with the official Women’s Prize, if that hasn’t already been clear. I’m posting about our personal longlist now because I’m going to be reading and reviewing these books on my blog in the coming weeks/months, and for those who’ve followed along with our Women’s Prize Squad content for the prize this year and are looking for some more promising recommendations, we’d like to offer up some alternative titles. This is all in fun, and varies from titles that have been recognized by lit prizes to titles that haven’t, from titles many of us have already read, to titles not a single one of us has read. In the end, these are books we’ve been loving and/or are VERY excited about; if you’ve also been underwhelmed by this year’s WP longlist or have finished it and are looking for a new challenge or just like to look at recommendations lists, I hope this collection of some of our top choice new releases by women over the last year will have something that appeals to you as well!

Without further ado, the list:

Bunny  Bunny by Mona Awad – Literary horror featuring a group of women in a selective New England MFA program; they call themselves Bunnies and take part in workshop rituals that blur the line between reality and their own monstrous fictions. (I’ve just ordered my copy!)

The Body LiesThe Body Lies by Jo Baker – Thriller/suspense novel about a busy and distracted woman teaching creative writing in the English countryside; after a discussion about violence against women, she realizes one of her students has written her into his novel as a character with a terrifying fate. (My copy has just arrived!)

Ninth House (Alex Stern, #1)Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo – Fantasy in which a young woman who is the sole survivor of a multiple homicide is given a free ride to Yale on the condition that she keep track of sinister and occult activities among the school’s secret societies. (I’ll be adding this one to my May BOTM box!)

The Fire StartersThe Fire Starters by Jan Carson – Magical realism set during the Irish Troubles; two fathers begin to have concerns about their children as fires break out across Belfast and the line between right and wrong blurs as the two men must choose who to protect. (I’ve just ordered my copy!)

Ducks, NewburyportDucks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann – Literary fiction following an Ohio housewife who spends her days baking for a living, mothering her children, and worrying constantly about the state of the modern world. Alongside her narrative is the tale of a female mountain lion searching desperately for her stolen cubs. (My 5-star review here!)

ActressActress by Anne Enright – Literary historical fiction about an infamous British-Irish actress (now dead) and her daughter, set partially against the backdrop of the Troubles. Years after her mother has gone mad and shot a man, Norah writes about what her mother was really like behind the wealth and fame. (My 4-star review here!)

Girl, Woman, OtherGirl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – Literary fiction told in short story-like vignettes that showcase the lives of twelve British women- mostly queer, mostly black. These highlight the challenges minority women have faced in historic and modern London, converging narratively around a successful theater production. (My 4-star review here!)

My Name is MonsterMy Name is Monster by Katie Hale – Science fiction set in post-apocalyptic Scotland. This story features a woman called Mother and a girl called Monster who find each other after the end of the world and rebuild a life in the now-empty world, only to realize as they learn from each other that they want different things. (I’ve just ordered my copy!)

The MerciesThe Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – Historical fiction depicting a devastating storm in an isolated Norwegian coastal town that leaves most of the men there dead. As the women reassemble their lives in the aftermath, they are further challenged by a Scottish witch hunter planted in their midst, who feeds off the divided community. (My 5-star review here!)

The Man Who Saw EverythingThe Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – Literary fiction following a man who’s been hit by a car and leaves the scene with a somewhat hazy recollection of his life. As he shares what he knows, he reveals tragedies left in his wake through the years, but also a greater problem that he fails to grasp. (My 5-star review here!)

Disappearing EarthDisappearing Earth by Julia Phillips – Literary mystery in which two girls vanish in northeastern Russia; in the year following their disappearance, women from the area share their own stories, all relating loosely to the missing girls. (My 5-star review here!)

My Dark VanessaMy Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell – Contemporary fiction about a woman reevaluating a relationship she shared with a manipulative teacher during her teen years. It’s a psychological exploration of sexual abuse and its aftermath. (I’ve just ordered my copy!)

Call Down the Hawk (Dreamer Trilogy, #1)Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater – Young adult fantasy featuring a character from The Raven Cycle (a YA series by the same author) who can pull things into the real world from his dreams. He is not the only person with this ability. (I’ve read The Raven Cycle but don’t own it- I’ll check this one out from the library when it reopens!)

Supper ClubSupper Club by Lara Williams – Contemporary fiction coming of age story featuring a secret society of women who give in to their hungers and feast, letting go of society-taught repressions and going back into the world with rebellious confidence about the space they fill. (I already have a copy on my shelf!)

Frankissstein: A Love StoryFrankissstein by Jeanette Winterson – Science and historical fiction taking place in a near-future world in which Artificial Intelligence is on the cusp of taking humans’ place in the pecking order; alongside debate on this topic are snippets from Mary Shelley’s history, including her famous character Frankenstein. (My 5-star review here!)

The Bass RockThe Bass Rock by Evie Wyld  – Historical fiction set on the Scottish coast, a place that oversees and absorbs the tales of the people who’ve lived there across centuries. The stories of three women in three timelines loosely intersect in this narrative of violence and resilience through the ages. (I’m having difficulty tracking down a copy, but as the US release date is early September I’m sure it will be easier to get hold of a little later on.)

 

I, for one, am beyond excited about this list. I’ve already read seven of the books, had seven others on my TBR, and was happy enough to add the last two. From the books I’ve read, I’ve had two 4-star ratings and five 5-stars, for an impressive average of 4.71. So while of course I cannot say this is an objectively better set than the Women’s Prize 2020 longlist (that is not quite the point here), it is obviously much more to my taste; if your taste seems to overlap with mine at all maybe there are some gems here for you as well!

We would like to eventually vote amongst ourselves on a shorlist and winner, but no date has been set. This isn’t something we want to feel pressured into reading on a certain timeline, and we won’t necessarily all read all of the books, so clearly this isn’t as rigid as the official judging process- but I will post about further developments and I’d love to chat about these books with anyone who’s read them or is planning to read them or just wants to have some fun watching how this alternate, blogger-built Women’s Prize turns out!

Are there any titles here you’ve read, or want to read? Do you think you’ll pick any more up? Particularly looking forward to any of my reviews? Let me know all of your thoughts in the comments below!

 

The Literary Elephant

Women’s Prize 2020: Shortlist Reaction

The results are in! In case you missed the announcement, this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist contains the following six books:

Congratulations to each of the shortlisted authors!

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(Again, I’m missing a copy of Weather, thus the backward-facing stand-in.)

My shortlist reviews (so far) are linked in the titles above. For more of my thoughts on this year’s prize titles, be sure to check out my Women’s Prize 2020 longlist wrap-up, which contains the links to all of my longlist reviews and my impression of the set as a whole. Also included are some shortlist predictions, in which I guessed five of these six titles correctly! That is certainly a record for me, and made for a fun reveal. But let’s talk about the list.

First, what isn’t there? A few of my longlist top choices didn’t make the cut, including Actress, which I was never convinced would stand a chance at the shortlist with this set of judges, who seem to prefer accessibility over literary merit. I thought Fleishman is in Trouble might have stood a slightly better chance, as it is a juicier family drama (which these judges seem to favor, if the longlist is anything to go by), and aside from its bold structure it isn’t a particularly literary read, though it is quite smart. But I wasn’t confident enough to place this one on my predictions list either. I’m more surprised not to see Djinn Patrol, which was lower on my favorites list but a great blend of heavier topics with a lighter narrative tone that I thought would appeal to these judges. It’s also a debut novel from an Indian author amidst quite a few well-established US and UK writers. Similarly, How We Disappeared is a debut from a Singaporean author, and also deftly handles some tough themes- I’m heartbroken this one didn’t advance. I didn’t include it on my prediction list mostly as a way to brace myself for this bad scenario of it not advancing, which sadly is what happened.

Also of note, I think, are the absences of The Dutch House and Red at the Bone, neither of which I particularly wanted to advance but both were highly favored among readers.

As for disappointments that did make the cut, the biggest one for me is Dominicana, which hasn’t sat well with me over time (bumped down to 2 stars), mainly for its lackluster presentation of a questionable romance masquerading as an immigration tale. But it does adhere to a particular motherhood story arc that I saw repeated throughout the longlist, which must have particularly appealed to this year’s judges, and on the heels of the American Dirt debacle earlier this year it does at least make a positive political statement about the need to support immigration stories written by immigrants (or their descendants, in this case). I was also underwhelmed by Weather, though aside from it not resonating with me personally I really have nothing against its presence on the shortlist. Most surprising is the appearance of A Thousand Ships, which I did include in my prediction list as a last-minute wild card but regretted almost immediately because it felt like throwing away a vote; after both longlisted Greek retellings (in the wake of which A Thousand Ships accomplishes very little that’s new) featured on last year’s shortlist, it’s a shock to see such a similar sort of story being honored again so immediately. But while I wasn’t quite at the right place in my reading life to love A Thousand Ships, I do think it’s a perfectly fine novel whose main fault is simply having such a tough act (Miller and Barker) to follow.

But there are some reasons to celebrate as well! With two WP shortlistings and two Booker Prize wins under her belt for the previous books in the same trilogy, it is exciting to see Mantel advance with The Mirror and the Light. It would be a great accomplishment to see her win either the WP or the Booker this year with the trilogy’s final book, and I’d very much like her to have that success. I’m also currently reading this trilogy, so its place on the shortlist is also personally motivating and lets me feel my reading is still “relevant” even though I didn’t quite finish this final longlister before the shortlist announcement. But I’m equally thrilled for Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other on the shortlist! After the fiasco of her dual win of the Booker Prize last year with Atwood, it would really be a rewarding accomplishment to see her win this one outright. Helped, of course, by the fact that her experimental novel (mostly) about queer black women in London is an absolutely excellent book. Then there’s O’Farrell with Hamnet, which was my favorite reading experience from this year’s longlist despite not being the most technically well-done. O’Farrell is perhaps a bit less obvious a choice for the winner (though still very deserving!) than Mantel or Evaristo this year, which is appealing in itself.

And some of my least favorites are now left behind as well, another relief. I’m most pleased not to see Girl on the shortlist, which I thought was messy both in content and authorship. I’m also glad not to see Nightingale Point advance, which many longlist readers (especially UK-based) seem to be loving, though I strongly disliked mainly for failing to deliver on its stellar premise. While I had some fun reading The Most Fun We Ever Had, I also thought it had nothing to offer beyond entertainment, which is really not what I look for in a literary prize so am happy to see this one missing from the shortlist as well.

I think the only longlisted book I haven’t mentioned yet is Queenie, so might as well! This was probably the most middle-of-the-road book for me on the longlist, and I was fairly indifferent to its possible shortlisting. It’s a book that I love to see getting commercial attention and was happy to discover on this year’s longlist, but it also left me nothing to think about after closing the cover, which isn’t a trait I would look for in “the best” fiction of the year. I suspect it might have been a bit too thematically similar to the more obvious shortlist choice of Girl, Woman, Other, which probably hurt its chance of advancing this year even if it is a great read.

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So, my initial overall impression of the shortlist: It could have been worse! It also could have been better, but it would have been hard to pull a really exciting shortlist out of a longlist that felt so underwhelming to begin with, and I think the three I’m happiest to see on the shortlist also have the best chance of winning, so it’s hard to feel too bitter.

Do I recommend reading the shortlist? Sure! While I don’t think this is the most exciting set of six books, there’s only one that I thought was actually subpar, and some readers seem to be having a better time with it than I did. If you’re a long-time prize fan looking for a literary challenge though, this one might not be for you. But there’s no shame in picking up only what appeals either, even if that isn’t the set of books that made it to the shortlist. I recommend at least glancing through the longlist because this is a great way to find books by women that lots of people are reading and talking about! My top recommendations from the longlist would probably vary by reader, but I would most widely recommend Girl Woman Other, How We Disappeared, Hamnet, and Queenie.

Where I stand: The only shortlister I haven’t read yet is The Mirror and the Light, which is the third book in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. I am currently reading Wolf Hall, the first book in said trilogy. I’ll plan to review all three books together in one go, probably at the end of April or beginning of May. The winner will not be announced until September 9, so there’s plenty of time to finish up (and I do intend to take it a bit easier both with reading and blogging than I have been the last few weeks)! I’ll probably start gathering my concluding thoughts as soon as I finish the Mantel, while my thoughts are fresh, but I’ll wait to post them with an informed winner prediction until closer to the final announcement date, by which time a refresher will probably be helpful.

But never fear! I’m obsessed with Women’s Prize content these days, so more WP-related posts will still be forthcoming. I’ll be posting about an unaffiliated alternate longlist created from this year’s Women’s Prize eligible books, assembled by a great group of bloggers who’ve closely followed this prize. Whether you’re looking for just a few further recommendations or a whole new reading challenge, stay tuned! 🙂 I’ll also be reading as many previous WP winners as I can over the next five months, reviewing as I go, because September is also the closing of the WP “winner of the winners” public vote! The poll is open now if you’re already prepared to cast your vote; if you’re waiting, I’m planning to post at least a partial wrap-up including some thoughts on all of the past winners I’ve managed to read, complete with a ranked list of my favorites.

In the meantime… let me know what you think of this year’s shortlist! Do you have an early guess for 2020’s winner?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Women’s Prize 2020: Longlist Wrap-Up, Shortlist Predictions

The shortlist announcement for the 2020 Women’s Prize is only hours out! In that spirit, here is a full round up of my thoughts on the longlisted books (minus one- I haven’t finished Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light yet), and some guesses about what lies ahead for the shortlist.

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(Not pictured: Weather by Jenny Offill, which I read from the library in Feb.)

Though my initial reaction to the longlist was one of cautious excitement, my feeling at the end (or almost) is one of disappointment with this year’s selections. This year’s judges seem to have very different reading taste than I do, and as a result I am left underwhelmed by many of these titles and by the 2020 longlist as a whole. It hasn’t been all bad, of course- this list has encouraged me to pick up a few books I’m happy to have read that I might have missed otherwise! But I’ve not found a single 5-star read among them. This is in contrast with last year’s Women’s Prize longlist which contained FIVE 5-star reads for me, as well as two 4-stars that came very close. In the wake of such excellence, I am less than satisfied with my overall current rating of 3.2 for the 2020 longlist.

One part of the experience that made this longlist stand out for me is the fact that it was the first time that I’ve read most of a longlist outright, picking up the books back to back to back from start to finish. Well, 13 of them- I read two titles prior to seeing the longlist, and still have one left to finish. With life out of whack due to lockdowns and all, I found it very helpful to have a structure to follow over the last month, a concrete list and a (sort of) concrete deadline.

Also because of the lockdowns and *current world state,* I noticed quite a few mentions of fever, quarantine, hand sanitizer, and other “timely” key words in this year’s longlisted books. Almost every book, actually, contained a sentence or two that felt very ironic given our present situation. It’s likely this would have happened with anything I was reading (the same way learning a new word makes it suddenly seem to crop up everywhere), but I was surprised to realize how common it is that authors remark on outbreaks of illness. The most obvious case is of course O’Farrell’s Hamnet, in which the black plague plays a key role, but there were plenty more mentions. (No wonder reading has been such a struggle for so many who are stuck at home these days!)

“I was, for most practical purposes, a person in quarantine; my sickness was without cure and kept eating away at me until I could hardly see anything of myself.” – How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

” ‘Here-‘ she said, holding out a bottle of antibacterial hand gel. She squeezed some into my palm.” … “I pinballed my way down the bus, careful not to touch anything or anyone with my hands, and stepped off.” –Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

” ‘He wears the mask because he thinks it will protect him,’ she says. / ‘From the pestilence?’ / His mother nods. / ‘And will it?’ / Her mother purses her lips, then shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so. Not coming into the house, however, refusing to see or examine the patient, might,’ she mutters.” –Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

 

Less coincidentally, I noticed among this year’s longlist a pervasive theme of motherhood commentary. Every single longlisted book (barring Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, which I can’t speak about yet) includes a pregnancy, a child, a family, or some combination of all three as a central focus of the book. There are absent mothers, abusive stepmothers, sisters who take on parental responsibility, women who aren’t ready for pregnancy but find themselves faced with it anyway. Of course lots of women even outside of literature have children and families, but they are present in these books as main subjects, not incidental details. The common trend seems to be an exploration of what makes a “good” mother; many of this year’s longlisted titles present the reader with a woman who is seen as bad or undesirable as a mother for one reason or another, and then goes on to show that there’s more to the story and to demonstrate that the mother is actually making the best choices available to her given her circumstances. Though this is perhaps ultimately a positive message about women existing as individuals outside of the demands of motherhood, it does paint a rather unflattering image of parenthood in the process, giving us many mothers who seem discontent, doomed from the start, and unrewarded for their efforts.

I’ve never seen a theme quite so consistent across an entire longlist, and while I don’t have an issue with books about motherhood on principle, the concentration of it here bothered me for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not particularly interested in marriage or motherhood for myself at this point of my life, which made it harder for me to find any of this commentary personally relevant.  I don’t need to “relate” to every book I read, but out of sixteen of “the best” books in literature published by women over the last year I would have hoped for at least one that would really speak to me. There’s so much more to women’s experiences than motherhood. There’s so much more to literature. It’s disappointing not see more of a variety being highlighted by this prize.

Secondly, I couldn’t help wondering how the strict adhesion to this theme reflected the judges’ approach to selecting this longlist. Were there great books up for the Women’s Prize this year that were passed over for a spot on the list because they didn’t focus on motherhood? Were some of the weaker longlisted titles chosen solely because they highlight motherhood and family dynamics? I have no proof or insider info of course, and I ask out of a sense of curiosity and fun rather than accusation, but this has provided me some interesting food for thought as to the judging process. (Another conspiracy theory for your list, Naty!)

Before I move on from themes and content, I want to touch on some smaller parallels I found between longlisted books. Here are some subjects and/or tactics I saw repeated:

  • Boy sleuth investigating tragic mystery: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, How We Disappeared
  • Long-term emotional and psychological effects of large scale violence/disaster: Nightingale Point, A Thousand Ships, Girl, How We Disappeared
  • Retelling: The Dutch House (Hansel and Gretel), A Thousand Ships (Trojan War)
  • Impoverished group neglected by police/government: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, Nightingale Point
  • Wicked stepmother: The Dutch House, Hamnet
  • Criticism of marriage and wealth through unlikable characters: Fleishman is in Trouble, The Most Fun We Ever Had, The Dutch House
  • Ignorant men overlooking efforts of spouse/family: The Dutch House, Fleishman is in Trouble
  • Challenges of life in London as a black woman: Queenie, Girl Woman Other
  • Teen girl removed from family home and raped: Girl, How We Disappeared, Dominicana, A Thousand Ships
  • Absent mother: The Dutch House, Nightingale Point, Red at the Bone, Queenie Fleishman is in Trouble, Hamnet
  • Family saga: The Most Fun We Ever Had, Red at the Bone, Actress, The Dutch House, How We Disappeared, Dominicana, Girl Woman Other, Hamnet
  • Difficult/unusual pregnancy/birth: Fleishman is in Trouble, How We Disappeared, Girl, The Most Fun We Ever Had, Hamnet, Red at the Bone, Queenie, Actress

(Let me know in the comments if you’ve noticed any connections I’m missing! I had a particularly hard time placing A Thousand Ships and Girl Woman Other because of the multitude of perspectives in each; I read GWO several months ago and no longer remember every character’s plot arc. I also haven’t read The Mirror and the Light yet so am not sure what applies.)

 

And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, my ranked list of longlist titles, from most to least favorite. You can follow the links through the titles for more info and my thoughts on each of the books!

  1. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – 4 stars
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – 4 stars
  3. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – 4 stars
  4. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – 4 stars
  5. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – 4 stars
  6. Actress by Anne Enright – 4 stars
  7. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – 3 stars
  8. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – 3 stars (down from 4 stars initially)
  9. Weather by Jenny Offill – 3 stars
  10. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – 3 stars
  11. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – 3 stars
  12. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – 3 stars
  13. Dominicana by Angie Cruz – 2 stars (down from 3 stars initially)
  14. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie – 2 stars
  15. Girl by Edna O’Brien – 2 stars

(Not included: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. I’ll come back and edit it into place when I finish, but my best guess right now is that it’ll end up in the 4 star range, though I’m HOPING for a 5!)

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You can see above my top six favorites, and those would be my IDEAL shortlist. But I don’t expect that will happen. My actual shortlist prediction is:

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  2. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill
  4. Djinn Patrol by Deepa Anappara
  5. Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  6. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

wp2020shortlistpredictions

This was actually very hard to choose! It is always a bit challenging to guess what will appeal most to other people (in this case five other people), especially when factors like diversity, past accolades and present author standing, past WP lists, thematic relevance, and more could all be weighed in the balance as well. I drafted about fifty variations of predictions before I had to just quit so I could finish this post before the announcement, ha. I doubt I’m correct but I didn’t feel any more confident about my other variations and it’s all in fun anyway! Anything could happen. A Thousand Ships is my bold choice reflecting that, I suppose, after TWO Greek retellings made it onto last year’s shortlist.

I’m most sure about the Evaristo and Mantel advancing, and the only book I really don’t want to see advance is Girl. My other 2-star ratings do seem to be getting more favorable reviews from other readers, so I’m trying to prepare myself for one of those featuring. I also have seen that most of this year’s popular hits and commercial successes (ahem, The Dutch House) are not my personal favorites, though it’s always hard to guess how many big names/titles the judges will put forward- not 6, surely. But it seems inevitable SOMETHING I don’t want to see on the shortlist will be there. I just hope some of my 4-star faves will also appear!

Soon we’ll know. I’ll probably post again in about 24 hours with a few early thoughts in reaction to the shortlist, and possibly a winner prediction! (Although maybe not if Mantel does advance, I’d like to finish her trilogy before sharing an opinion about it.)

 

Last but far from least, I can’t close this wrap-up without a big shout out to my Women’s Prize squad, who’ve been ranting and (less frequently this year) raving about the prize books along with me: Hannah @ I Have Thoughts On Books, Marija @ Inside My Library Mind, Naty @ Naty’s Bookshelf, Rachel @ Pace Amore Libri, Sarah @ Sarah Ames-Foley, and a special nod to Callum @ Callum McLaughlin, the only one of us to actually FINISH the entire list before the shortlist announcement!! Since disappointment with the longlist was pretty mutual amongst us this year, we’ve actually recently assembled an alternative longlist, which I (and others from the group) will be posting about soon as an offering of further recommendations and fun. 🙂

And an extra shout out to even more bloggers who’ve been posting Women’s Prize content that I’ve been loving following along with: Hannah @ Hannah and Her Books, Hannah Celeste @ Books and Bakes, Gilana @ Gil Reads Books, Laura @ Laura Tisdall, and Lou @ Random Book Reviews Web!

If there’s anyone here you’re not already following, definitely check them out! (And if I’ve been commenting on your Women’s Prize content over the last month but I’ve missed you on this list, please let me know so I can correct the oversight!) A big thanks also to everyone who’s read, liked, and/or commented on my Women’s Prize posts even if you’re not reading/posting from the list this year. Having a community to read and chat with about this prize really makes the experience, and I hope anyone who’s been following along with my thoughts has had a positive experience as well!

 

And now… what do you think will make the shortlist?!

Edit: it’s been half an hour and I already want to change my chaotic A Thousand Ships prediction to a perhaps slightly more likely (and personally preferred) Hamnet… 😅

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Women’s Prize 2020: Longlist Reaction

It’s been almost 24 hours since the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was announced, which means it’s time to share some thoughts and plans!

In case you missed it, here’s this year’s lineup:

Image result for women's prize longlist 2020

I’ve read two of the books so far: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, and Weather by Jenny Offill. I think they’re both worthy of the nomination.

I guessed five titles correctly in my prediction list, which isn’t bad for my first attempt at guessing! The titles I predicted correctly were: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.

The only title I hadn’t heard of from this list is Luan Goldie’s Nightingale Point; I had been hoping for two or three books that were new to me, but this one sounds appealing so I’m pleased with it!

Of the fourteen books I haven’t yet read, five were already on my TBR: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee, Girl by Edna O’Brien, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, and The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. I was also already planning to read The Mirror and the Light, though technically only Wolf Hall, the first in Mantel’s trilogy, was actually on my TBR.

Notable snubs: I think there are quite a few actually, as there were so many great new titles coming out over the last year from authors who’ve been up for other prizes, been previous winners, shortlisters, even longlisters, and been the subject of much popular conversation among readers. That said, the biggest exclusions that I notice are Atwood’s The Testaments, which I’m actually happy not to see, though it won (jointly) the Booker Prize in 2019; as well as Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport and Choi’s Trust Exercise, two of the titles I’d read and loved in the last few months and was most hoping to see longlisted. My first thought on seeing the longlist was actually “Oh no, none of those are Ducks!” For the record, I highly recommend reading it anyway if you’re interested in picking up the best literary books by women published in the last year.

Other early thoughts: since I haven’t read many of the books and don’t like to know too much about them before diving in, I can’t speak to thematic or content patterns yet. I can say I’m a bit surprised to see so many commercial titles in the list, though perhaps I shouldn’t be? There are a number of titles here that I was interested in already but not planning to pick up in any hurry, because I wasn’t sure I’d like them or was in the mood for them at present. But overall, I’m not disappointed in this list! There’s nothing nominated that I feel strongly opposed to reading or seeing honored by the Women’s Prize. To be honest I probably wouldn’t have been reading any of these books this month if not for their placement here, but that also means I’ll be able to go in without many pre-formed biases or expectations. Even though most were on my radar already, they’re fresh content for the top of my TBR! There aren’t any that I’m absolutely dreading off the bat, though I am a bit wary about Fleishman is in Trouble, which is the only title here I think that I’ve seen several underwhelming reviews for. Otherwise I’m mainly just excited to have a fresh list of well-written books by women to dig into, and I think I’m in the right mental space to approach them all open-mindedly! It should be a good prize year!

My plans: I’m determined to read the full list. I’d love to finish it before the shortlist announcement (April 22), which I’m setting as my goal, but it’s certainly going to be a challenge. I’ve already placed library holds and bookshop orders for all of the titles I still need to read, so it’ll mainly be an issue of timing for me. I will be on vacation next week, which will mean a bit less reading for me in general, and also that the books I just ordered won’t be in my hands until I return, so I can’t start reading the list immediately. I do hope in the meantime to tackle my other TBR goals for this month before I can start the Women’s Prize list, so that once I’m ready to begin I can spend the latter half of this month and most of next month focusing solely on this list. If I don’t quite manage to complete the longlist before the shortlist announcement, I’ll continue anyway.

 

Some individual thoughts and plans by title:

41081373. sy475 Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

I’ve read and quite adored this book, though it wasn’t a perfect 5-star read for me. You can follow the link through the title to my review. I’d be happy to see this one shortlisted, even this early in the game.

What’s it about? – twelve British women (most of them black) reveal the struggles they’ve experienced as minorities often overlooked or frowned upon by society at large. It’s a celebration of largely unacknowledged histories and identities.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple LineDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

I’ve got a library hold on this title, though it’s currently checked out so I might not be reading it until April.

What’s it about? – Set in India, this mystery follows a group of friends searching for a missing classmate. What begins as amateur sleuthing turns more serious as other children disappear and rumors of djinns abound, speaking to real circumstances in India.

Excitement level: Looking forward to it!

Fleishman Is in TroubleFleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

A copy is already on its way to me. It’s the title I’m least looking forward to, so I’d like to “get it out of the way” within the month.

What’s it about? – A recently-divorced man settles into his new single life full of dates and one-night stands. Then his ex-wife goes missing.

Excitement level: Low. But I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised!

QueenieQueenie by Candice Carty-Williams

My copy will probably arrive while I’m gone next week. I was interested in this book before its nomination and I’d like to read it this month.

What’s it about? – A Jamaican British woman in her mid-twenties grapples for a place in London society, making questionable choices while trying to figure out where her life is headed.

Excitement level: Looking forward to it!

DominicanaDominicana by Angie Cruz

My copy will probably arrive while I’m gone next week. I’m expecting to read it in April.

What’s it about? – A teenaged Dominican girl agrees to a marriage and a move to New York. It’s a loveless match, but the US offers her attractive opportunities, including the possibility of helping her family immigrate.

Excitement level: Meh. I’m drawn to the premise and themes, but suspect the tone and style might not work for me, based on reviews I’ve seen.

ActressActress by Anne Enright

I’m third in line for this one at my library, and suspect I’ll get to it in early April.

What’s it about? – An Irish actress rises to and falls from fame, in the end committing a “bizarre” crime. Her daughter follows her career and stands by her side as long as she can, looking for happiness in her own passion projects.

Excitement level: Meh. I’m neither thrilled nor wary about this one, anything could happen here.

The Mirror & The Light The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

I’ve ordered the entire Cromwell trilogy (I’ve yet to read any of them) and am hoping to binge it all in time; just in case it’s not going to be possible, I’ll probably save this one for last, in mid-late April.

What’s it about? – The final years of historical figure Thomas Cromwell, beginning in 1536.

Excitement level: So excited! The size of these books is definitely a bit frightening in combination with the “deadline” for the end of this prize, but I do think I’ll love this trilogy!

Nightingale PointNightingale Point by Luan Goldie

My copy should be arriving mid/late March; I’m aiming to read it in April.

What’s it about? – Set in the 1990’s, something “extraordinary” changes everything in a single day for the residents of this micro community.

Excitement level: Looking forward to it! I’m confused but intrigued as to what this is actually about.

A Thousand ShipsA Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

My copy should be arriving mid/late March; I’m aiming to read it in April.

What’s it about? – The Trojan War retold entirely from female perspectives.

Excitement level: So excited! I just read previous WP winner Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which has put me right in the mood for more Greek mythology retellings!

How We DisappearedHow We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

My copy should be arriving mid/late March; I’m aiming to read it before the end of March.

What’s it about? – Set in historical Singapore, this is a dual narrative following a woman’s experience with the 1940s Japanese invasion and years later, a boy who hears an unexpected confession.

Excitement level: Meh. I was already interested in this title pre-longlist, but I’m afraid I’m not in the mood for WWII fiction at present. Hoping it’ll win me over anyway!

GirlGirl by Edna O’Brien

A copy is on its way to me; it’ll probably be one of the first longlist titles I read in March.

What’s it about? – Set in Nigeria, this is one woman’s tale of survival following the abduction and incarceration of women by Boko Haram.

Excitement level: Cautiosuly optimistic! This one was already on my TBR and I have high hopes. The suggestion that it’s a tale of faith and redemption makes me slightly wary though, I prefer hard-hitting fiction not to pull punches. But I don’t know yet which way this will go!

HamnetHamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

My copy probably won’t arrive until early April, so this will likely be one of the last longlisted books I read in mid/late April.

What’s it about? – Agnes and her husband (Shakespeare) lose a son in the 1590’s; what follows is a tale of grief and the writing of a play called Hamlet.

Excitement level: Looking forward to it!

WeatherWeather by Jenny Offill

I just read this last week! I have mixed thoughts, though I don’t mind it’s place on the longlist at all. Full review should be up later this week.

What’s it about? – A librarian spends her time trying to save everyone she knows, which becomes increasingly difficult as she begins answering mail for a friend’s podcast about climate change; as she worries that humanity is doomed, she’s left to wonder if there’s anything to be done at all, and whether the effort will be worth the time in the end.

Red at the BoneRed at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

A copy is on its way to me! The brevity is appealing, I’ll probably pick this one up as soon as I can.

What’s it about? – A generational family tale centered around a teen girl’s coming of age ceremony; an exploration of identity, parenthood, and long-lasting decisions people are forced to make, sometimes before they are ready.

Excitement level: Meh. I suspect this doesn’t have a lot of plot, and I’m not in the mood for parenthood stories at the moment. But I’ve heard great things and am hoping to be pleasantly surprised!

The Dutch HouseThe Dutch House by Ann Patchett

A copy is on its way to me! I’m aiming to read this one sometime in March.

What’s it about? – A pair of siblings must leave the house of their childhood to their stepmother, and return to the poverty that their parents crawled out of years before.

Excitement level: Looking forward to it! This will be my first Patchett novel, which is long overdue.

The Most Fun We Ever HadThe Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

A copy is on its way to me! I’m aiming to read this one before the end of March.

What’s it about? – A family saga featuring an abundantly happy marriage and the four drastically different daughters it produces. A long-buried secret shakes their perspective on love and their relationships with each other.

Excitement level: Cautiously optimistic. I can’t pinpoint what exactly calls to me about this novel, but I have a good feeling about it.

 

All in all, I’m predicting quite a few of these will fall in the 4-star range for me, though I am hoping for a few 5s! I’ve divided the 14 I have left to read into 7 to read in March and 7 for April (plus the rest of the Cromwell trilogy), which will be a slight push considering when I’ll be able to get started and the fact that the shortlist is announced before the end of April. But it seems possible! I’ll be catching up on end-of-February reviews this week and likely I’ll be absent most or all of next week; following that, you can expect plenty of Women’s Prize content from me!

Have you read any of the list already, or see anything you’re now more interested in picking up?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

 

 

Women’s Prize 2020: Longlist Predictions, Wishes

The long-awaited announcement of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is almost upon us! The list is scheduled to appear on March 3rd, and prediction fun has already started to surface. I’m terrible at guessing so do not take any of this seriously, but please join in the fun if you’re also keeping an eye on the Women’s Prize!

Last year was the first year I managed to read the entire longlist before the shortlist announcement, and I’m hoping to do the same this year. Of course, it helped that last year I had read 9/16 of the longlisted books before the announcement- I do not expect that number to be as high this year. It’s also not certain that the longlist will be the same length- the last three longlists have all come in at 16 books, but the Women’s Prize does not have a set number for its longlists so we can expect anywhere from about 12-20 titles to feature. It seems like there are a LOT of excellent contenders this year, so it’ll be interesting to see how far the judges manage to narrow it down!

Let’s look at some of the possible nominees.

 

First off, some Booker Prize titles:

I read (almost) the full 2019 Booker longlist, and so many excellent women featured there in the fall that I’m certain we’ll see some crossover. On the other hand, I doubt the Women’s Prize will want to double up too much, so it’s hard to say how many of these might feature. The titles I MOST want to see nominated are, in order of personal favoritism:

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If we’re just going by merit, Ducks, Newburyport certainly deserves an appearance, though I’m hesitant to say it’s guaranteed a spot because “accessibility” is among the criteria of the Women’s Prize; a thousand-page book consisting mostly of one long sentence won’t necessarily fit everyone’s idea of accessible, though it’s an incredible work and to be honest I’m already rooting for it to advance past the longlist. Might as well place my bets early, I suppose. Ellmann has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize twice previously, and Ducks was a Booker shortlister last year, so hopes are high here.

Girl, Woman, Other seems like a very safe choice, as one of 2019’s Booker winners, and as an excellent piece of literature.

Frankissstein was another personal favorite for me, inventive in structure and dealing with many interesting topics and themes. It wasn’t shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but I’d love to see it get another chance here.

And a couple more Booker nominees that have a chance, though I’m less invested in their potential listing:

42972048  10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World  The Testaments (The Handmaid's Tale, #2)

I had a great time reading Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything and would be happy to see it longlisted. It’s written brilliantly, though it’s not quite as “timely” a book as the three I’ve listed above so I’m less confident about it going very far with this prize.

I was less impressed with 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, though I appreciated its depiction of Turkey and it’s central conceit, both of which I think give it a fair shot at a spot on the longlist.

Lastly, I’m actually hoping The Testaments sits this one out. It’s been very commercially popular since its release, and with Atwood securing the other 2019 Booker win it would make sense to see it longlisted. Personally, I don’t think it’s literary enough to have been of note for either the Booker or to feature in the Women’s Prize (which isn’t to say it’s a bad book or that you shouldn’t read or enjoy it). Atwood seemed somewhat embarrassed  about her Booker win, and I’m guessing that between her disinterest in the attention and the book’s style, maybe we won’t actually be seeing The Testaments up for this prize.

 

A few titles of note from other prizes:

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It took me a minute to warm up to National Book Award winner Trust Exercise, but it came together in the end. This one’s likely to appear on my favorites list this year!

The Confessions of Frannie Langton won the debut category of the Costa Book Awards; I haven’t read it yet but I very much want to and from what I’ve heard it would be an excellent choice for the Women’s Prize.

Supper Club won the Not the Booker Prize in 2019; this is another title I haven’t read yet but desperately want to and have heard intriguing things.

Saltwater won the Portico Prize, but I have no interest in reading it after seeing a few excerpts and disliking the style. I am hoping not to see this one longlisted, but it is eligible.

 

Miscellaneous eligible titles I’ve read and would like to see featured:

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I don’t know why I never seem to spot anyone reading The Farm, as I loved the way it explored its topic from every angle and I think it’s a great book. It’s one of the titles I’d most like to see recognized with this prize this year.

I’m pretty sure I’ll be lowering my rating for Long Bright River imminently from 5 to 4 stars, but again I loved the way this one tackled its topic and wove a fun mystery besides. It would be nice to see some genre fiction on the 2020 longlist, and the blurb from Paula Hawkins (one of this year’s judges) does seem like a good sign.

 

Miscellaneous eligible titles that I’m less invested in seeing longlisted:

37506228  Far Field  46301955

I liked but didn’t love all three of these, for various reasons. I wouldn’t be upset at seeing any of them longlisted, I’m just not as excited for these as some others. (My review for Weather should be coming soon, but if you’re interested in the others here are The Far Field and Follow Me to Ground.)

 

Authors that have won the Women’s Prize previously:

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Obreht (Inland), and McBride (Strange Hotel) are both previous Women’s Prize winners, whose prize-winning books (The Tiger’s Wife and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, respectively) I have read, I’m definitely interested in reading their newest releases. I have not yet read any of Patchett’s work, though I have been meaning to; she won previously with Bel Canto and also has The Dutch House eligible this year. These authors’ past recognition bodes well for their placement this year, I think.

 

Books on my TBR that I would appreciate the extra motivation to pick up:

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This is not an exhaustive list of all the eligible books on my TBR, just the titles I either have a copy of already or have some reason to be inclined to pick up within the year. So, these are my selfish choices.

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And I’m frightened but this seems inevitable:

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The Mirror and the Light is the third book in Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series; both previous books were shortlisted in their publication years, and both won the Booker Prize. I have read none of them. I do want to read them, but they’re a bit long. While others worry about Ducks, Newburyport, I’m psyching myself up to read this entire trilogy before the shortlist announcement. I can’t guarantee it’ll happen, but I’m feeling determined.

 

I could go on, but I’ll link this Goodreads list of eligible titles here instead, for your perusal.

While I am hoping to have read some of the longlist already by the time it’s announced, I am also hoping to cross off a few TBR books, and pick up a couple titles I’ve never even seen before. The fact that I am hoping for one or two titles that aren’t on my radar at all already makes assembling an ideal longlist impossible, but it seems almost rude not to gather some proper guesses at this point! And so, my list of 16 potential Women’s Prize titles, a mixture of predictions and wishes:

  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
  • 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  • Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
  • The Farm by Joanne Ramos
  • Long Bright River by Liz Moore
  • The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
  • The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
  • Inland by Tea Obreht
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  • The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
  • Supper Club by Lara Williams
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

 

Am I missing anything major? Am I looking at anything that’s not actually eligible? Is my hopeful list extremely different than yours?  Let me know!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Wrap-Up: Booker Prize 2019

The Booker season has passed, the year has passed, a lot of the buzz surrounding these books has passed, but it’s time to collect my thoughts on the 2019 Booker Prize now that I’ve read the whole list. (Well, almost the whole list.)

I’m going to start by ranking the longlist in order of personal preference, with a few words about my reading experience. I’ll link the titles to my reviews if you’re looking for more in-depth thoughts or general information about any particular book.

 

13. Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. I expect I’ll get around to reading this one eventually. BUT Quichotte wasn’t published in the US until the shortlist was announced, and I wasn’t prepared to read both Cervantes’s Don Quixote (which I would want to read beforehand) and Quichotte while the prize was going on, and now it feels less urgent. I know Rushdie is a big name in the literary world and a previous Booker Prize winner, but I can’t claim an opinion. (The only reason I’m placing it at the bottom of this list.)

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12. An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma. 2 stars. I can see why this was nominated. There ARE some appreciable elements here: the commentary on racism and prejudice in Africa (and beyond), and what is, in most respects, a wonderful cultural snapshot; both fit in well with this year’s other nominees. But I found its structure more like a gimmick that never panned out and I HATED the male character’s attitude toward the woman he supposedly loved. While I can admit there are some good aspects here and that part of my dislike is personal (such as not enjoying the writing style), I was dismayed to see this made the shortlist.

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11. The Wall by John Lanchester. 2 stars. This one was very readable and unproblematic, but I don’t understand the choice to longlist it at all. Despite how glaringly obvious its parallels to real-world issues are, it fails to offer any new observations or perspectives. There’s just… nothing to dig into here, and the ending addresses none of the concerns raised. Perhaps I somehow missed it, but I found no worthwhile statement or even question here, despite the story being perfectly fine.

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10. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. 2 stars. I don’t begrudge this book its fan base, but this was not a good fit for me. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale especially for its ambiguous ending, and found myself frustrated with its sequel for spoon-feeding me the answers to all of the questions I didn’t ask. Which isn’t to say it’s objectively a bad book. My main criticism with seeing it longlisted is simply that it reads more like a predictable YA dystopia than literary fiction, so while ultimately I’m glad that this one’s making waves and capturing the hearts of many, I don’t think the Booker prize was the right placement for it, especially beyond the longlist.

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9. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. 3 stars. Despite a premise that struck me as highly intriguing, I felt mostly indifferent toward this one in the end. It’s got some beautiful prose, if that’s your thing, but not much plot, and again, just nothing really to dig into. Unlike with The Wall, it did at least seem like an attempt was being made, and there were a few individual elements I enjoyed- a chapter here, a character there, etc. Ultimately I was left wishing it had simply gone farther in any of the promising directions it could have taken based on its premise. I can see why this is working better for some readers, but it was underwhelming for me.

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8. Lanny by Max Porter. 4 stars. This was mostly a fun read (despite the heavy topics of otherness, child safety, and mortality) and beautiful on the page. It’s divided into three parts that are all very different from each other, and I had a very different experience with each: the first piqued my interest, the second COMPLETELY hooked me, and the third took the magical element too far for my taste. I wouldn’t have been heartbroken to have missed this one, but it doesn’t seem out of place on the longlist.

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7. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak. 4 stars. This book is not without its flaws, but I came to it late after seeing quite a few negative reviews, which worked in my favor. Though the execution falls apart to some extent in the second and third parts of this narrative, it’s a readable tale with an interesting structure and worthwhile themes of prejudice and injustice in Turkey. I’m indifferent to its placement on the shortlist; its advancement encouraged me to pick it up, which I don’t resent, but it wouldn’t have been one of my top choices to advance.

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6. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. 4 stars. Admittedly it did take a while for this one to convince me, but in the end it won me over. I thought the structure and plot worked well together, I was emotionally invested, and appreciated the dive into a timely topic. I think a spot on the shortlist would’ve been well-deserved and I’ll continue to be disappointed that it missed the chance both with the 2019 Women’s Prize and now the Booker. I highly recommend picking up Luiselli’s nonfiction Tell Me How it Ends alongside this one if you’re interested in the topic of Mexican and Central American migrants crossing into the US.

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5. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. 4 stars. This was a very high 4-star read for me; I loved its themes, the narrative voice, the vignettes that read almost like individual short stories (though I’ll continue to argue that they’re not), the range of unique and fascinating characters. I had only a couple of small hang-ups about the overarching plot and the themes feeling a bit forced at times, but ultimately I appreciated this book quite a lot and highly recommend it- it holds up as a Booker winner. Even though it wasn’t my personal favorite read from the longlist, I would’ve been happy to see it as the sole winner this year.

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4. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. 5 stars. This one’s ranked ahead of Girl, Woman, Other only by a very small margin, as is the next book. I simply had such a fun time with this one. It took me completely, pleasantly by surprise- the fact that it’s probably one of the first literary thrillers I’ve read couldn’t have hurt. I’m neither shocked nor disappointed that it didn’t advance farther than the longlist, but it’s quick, accessible, thought-provoking, and a bit hard to categorize; all elements I love.

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3. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy. 5 stars. Another short book that accomplishes a lot, this one manages to address a range of interesting topics while also being one of the most structurally innovating books on the longlist. It’s not quite as… politically charged as the shortlisted books, so I can see why it didn’t advance farther, but I am so glad it was longlisted; I for one, might have missed it otherwise, and found it entirely worth the read.

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2. Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson. 5 stars. This is definitely a book for Frankenstein fans, of which I am one, so this was always going to work for me, I think. There’s not a lot of plot and the humor doesn’t always hit the mark, but on the whole I loved Winterson’s prose, I loved the emotion it was able to provoke and the avenues of thought it led me down. This one manages both to expand upon Shelley’s original themes and take them in new directions, while also Frankenstein-ing the structure, adding Shelley herself and her characters into the mix, and contributing to modern gender discourse. It’s absolutely everything I wanted it to be and I loved every page.

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1. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. 5 stars. This one takes patience. At 1000 pages, it’s probably the least “accessible” book on the longlist, though aside from the time commitment I did not find it particularly challenging to read. Some aspects of this worked better for me than others, but at the end of the day this is THE book from the longlist that impressed me most and will stay with me the longest. I love the import it gives to a seemingly unimportant character, I love the perspective it highlights, I love the way it loops around and doubles back on itself, drawing a complete narrative out of an exhaustive strand of thought. I understand that this isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but in my mind it was the most deserving of this year’s Booker win. It’s timely, it’s experimental and ground-breaking, it’s feminist, and, a lot of the time, it really is fun. At least, for me it was. This ended up being my favorite read of 2019 as well. It raises the bar high. There’s nothing like it.

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As a whole, it’s not a bad or unusual longlist. Thematically there’s a lot of focus on political unrest, on the very divided opinions we’re seeing in the world right now and what the long-term effects might be. There’s a lot of fear for the future here, and a close examination of injustices. A fair amount of feminism as well, and more than half the list written by women. All of which I can appreciate.

It’s not been my favorite longlist though (I’ve only read one other full Booker list so take that as you will); despite the four 5-star ratings, this felt like a safe list, with a lot of big authors starring. Two that I liked a lot were titles I’d already read, and THREE 2-star ratings was a real low for me. I wasn’t originally planning to read the entire list, and I might’ve ended up having a better time if I hadn’t pushed myself through so many that weren’t doing much for me. So, a mixed year. What I’ve learned is that I shouldn’t ALWAYS read the full longlist, especially if it doesn’t appeal to me initially as a whole.

I’ll link my initial longlist reaction post here for anyone curious, though it’s mainly a preview of which books I expected to read or not at the time, which definitely changed.

 

Now for the shortlist. Unfortunately, the one book I didn’t end up reading was shortlisted, so I’m still not entirely informed here, but I’ll do my best.

Image result for Booker prize shortlist 2019

On the shortlist: Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities, Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, Atwood’s The Testaments, Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, and Rushdie’s Quichotte.

Again, on the surface, not a bad list. Countries represented include: Nigeria, Turkey, US, UK, Canada, and India. 4 out of 6 are female authors. Every book here (that I’ve read, at least) is structurally interesting, challenges the political status quo, and offers a unique perspective, generally through a particularly well-drawn character. But… both authors with a previous win appear here (Atwood and Rushdie), as does a previously shortlisted author (Obioma). There are several here I would’ve traded, if the choice had been up to me. I would’ve loved to see Frankissstein in place of The Testaments (both are gender-focused sci-fi tales), Lost Children Archive in place of An Orchestra of Minorities (both tell a story of people traveling to an unfamiliar country) and perhaps The Man Who Saw Everything in place of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (the only similarity I can think of drawing here is a spoiler, so I’ll refrain). I have no idea whether I’d be willing to trade Quichotte or with what. Admittedly my choices would leave us with more UK- and US-based writers, which would be disappointing though not the only consideration.

I’ll link my initial reaction to the shortlist here for the sake of completion, though if I remember correctly it’s mainly a sum of what I’d read so far and still intended to read.

 

I hoped that Milkman winning last year while I was in the midst of reading it boded well for Ducks, Newburyport this year, which I was reading at the time of the winner announcement. Unfortunately, the winner(s) announcement turned into quite a mess, instead.

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Both Atwood and Evaristo were named as the winners of 2019’s Booker Prize, which… a lot of people had a lot of issues with. I’ll link my initial winner reaction here, which includes some of the arguments being raised at that time; primarily, that Atwood’s book was not particularly literary, and that the joint win wasn’t fair to Evaristo, the first black woman ever to win the Booker.

After writing that post, quite a bit more drama ensued. I read several articles that were published after the fact, a couple of which stood out; this one, for instance, in which the judges discuss their deliberations and admit to choosing the winner not by weighing the literary merit of each story, but by looking at the authors’ careers and critical/cultural standing as well. Then there was this article from Ducks’ publisher about the difficulties small publishing houses face participating in big literary prizes, and thus the unfairness felt when they’ve put in the money and work and aren’t given a fair chance at winning. It was quite a debacle, and that’s not even taking into account the fact that the judges’ SOLE JOB was to choose a single winner, which they failed to do.

I can’t deny I wanted Ducks, Newburyport to win. I hadn’t finished reading it and I hadn’t read Girl, Woman, Other yet, but my opinion hasn’t changed after reading them. I do think that Evaristo’s novel is a quality winner. It’s arguably more readable than Ellmann’s novel for the sheer difference in size, and its themes are just as timely, insightful, and significant. Evaristo’s win puts a great story with a creative structure and messages of equality into the hands of readers who might not have bothered reading the Booker winner this year if it clocked in at 1000 pages. If I had to pick a second choice for a winner, Evaristo would’ve been it, and honestly maybe it is the better fit. I can live with it, anyway. I can be happy about it.

On the other hand, I mostly ignore Atwood’s win. I can’t help it. I love her writing, and she probably deserved to win for The Handmaid’s Tale, but for The Testaments? In a way, I feel that her 2019 win was a way for the judges to retroactively award her for Handmaid’s and the huge fandom it inspired. I think of Atwood’s 2019 win as a sort of lifetime-achievement award, which isn’t what the Booker should be, but I just can’t wrap my head around anyone thinking The Testaments is one of the top literary achievements of the year. It’s not a bad book. I’m not trying to say it’s not an achievement, or an important piece of modern culture, or fully deserving of its popularity. It’s just… not a Booker winner. Not in my mind.

 

And thus ends my experience with the 2019 Booker Prize. (At least until I eventually read Quichotte, but I’ll confine my thoughts to a single review for that.) I had a much better time with the 2018 list, so this isn’t going to scare me off of ever reading the Booker longlist again, but it does encourage me to be more choosy.

If you followed along at all last year, feel free to share your level of satisfaction with the 2019 Booker Prize below!

 

The Literary Elephant

Booker Prize Winner(s) 2019

I’m going to save my thoughts on the 2019 Booker longlist as a whole until closer to the end of the year, because I know there are at least two more titles I’ll be reading for sure in the coming days/weeks, and some maybes as well. But in light of today’s utterly surprising winner announcement, I wanted to share some initial thoughts!

41081373. sy475 First off, in case you haven’t heard the news, congrats to 2019’s TWO Booker Prize winners: Bernardine Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other, and Margaret Atwood with The Testaments!

I didn’t post a winner prediction, as I’ve only read two and a half of the shortlisted titles so far and didn’t feel I could pass any sort of fair judgment on titles I haven’t read yet. (All reading and judging is of course subjective anyway, which is important to keep in mind especially around the time of book prize announcements) But, from what I’d read, and what I’d heard from other readers, I was HOPING for Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport to win, and EXPECTING that Girl, Woman, Other might actually take the title. So, I’m thrilled that Evaristo did indeed take the win! She’s the first black woman in the history of the Booker Prize ever to win, which is a fantastic development for 2019 and absolutely worth celebrating. Additionally, the content of her book sounds fantastic, but I’ll save descriptions for the end.

Now, let’s talk about Atwood’s joint win.

42975172For anyone who saw my review of The Testaments, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m rather disappointed about this title taking half of the prize winnings. Though Atwood is one of my favorite writers and I don’t in any way begrudge The Testaments its wide popularity, I just don’t think this book is prize winning material. I don’t want to spend this post bashing a winner, so please follow the link at the end of this post to my review for more specific thoughts if you’re curious.

Historically, this is the third time the prize has been divided between two winners, and Atwood is the fourth author to receive the prize twice. I don’t mind an author receiving a literary prize twice. It goes a little ways toward proving that the judges really do consider each book individually rather than taking logistics/statistics too heavily into account. But I don’t like the idea of this prize being divided at all. Joint winners feels like a cop-out. This seems like one of those “you had one job!” situations where the judges just… didn’t do their job. And of course, my frustration at the situation isn’t helping my opinion of the book I didn’t want to win in the first place. If any author deserved to win twice, I would be the first to say it’s Atwood. And yet, The Testaments is my least favorite Atwood novel (so far), and frankly, it’s just not as good from a literary standpoint as The Handmaid’s Tale. No, literariness isn’t everything, but for a LITERARY PRIZE, I do expect that to carry some weight. For The Testaments to win where The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t does not sit well with me, and it leaves me wondering whether this prize in 2019 is in some way meant to reflect the judges’ appreciation for BOTH of the books in this duology- an “I’m sorry the better book didn’t win, let us make it up to you by giving this less accomplished sequel an accolade instead.” Just a theory.

If I sound harsh, it’s mainly due to my frustration at the lack of a definitive winner, and furthermore that the first black woman to win the Booker has to share the prize. These are my biggest hangups. The fact that I didn’t think The Testaments merited a win at all is a lesser concern- I know that opinions vary, mine isn’t any more valid than anyone else’s, and again, reading is subjective, so.

45735014Moving on to the greatest slight, let’s talk aout Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport. Though there are plenty of readers who simply aren’t on board with this 1,020 page stream-of-consciousness story that’s told mainly in one looong sentence, the crowd that gets it really gets it, and this is the title I saw the most votes for among my own social media feeds. Personal opinions on the content aside (I’m currently reading this one and don’t have any final thoughts to share yet), it’s undeniably impressive in structure and style, and certainly the most unique book on the list. (Yes, I feel confident in making that assertion after reading only half the book and not having read three of the other shortlisted titles.) I thought this one had a great shot at winning, and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing this one again when the 2020 Women’s Prize nominees are announced. I’ll have a full review coming soon, but I want to voice another theory in the meantime:

I wonder if Ducks simply seemed a bit too similar to 2018’s Booker winner, Milkman, to succeed here this year. Both are structurally inventive and challenging reads, in stream-of-consciousness style, with political commentary, from a female perspective, written by a white woman. They’re totally different, of course, but similarities can certainly be drawn. I actually think Ducks is going to fare best with the Milkman-loving crowd. I suspect this might have played a role in its missing a 2019 win.

Additionally, I think the joint win seems especially harsh for all four of the shortlisted writers who didn’t win this year. To have your shot at winning increase from 1/6 to 1/3, and STILL not be chosen, would be tough. To know that the judges had such a hard time making a choice that they DIDN’T in the end make the choice, and yet were confident enough to exclude those other four writers, must have been unimaginably difficult. Of course, Everyone on the shortlist (and even the longlist) is likely just happy to have been nominated at all and knows not to expect a win, but to be passed up in such a wishy-washy situation just sounds unusually painful.

And so, I highly recommend picking up more than just the winning books, if you have the chance! I’ll share full recommendations from the longlist in another month or two, but for now, a quick recap of my progress and general overview:

I’VE READ:

  • An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma. 35003282This is an Odyssey retelling about a Nigerian man, a poultry farmer, who just wants his lover’s family to accept him. While trying to prove himself, he is taken advantage of in tragic ways. Moral and social themes are explored.
  • The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. The sequel to Atwood’s wildly popular Handmaid’s Tale, this one’s a dystopian thriller set in Gilead. Three new perspectives each have their own feminist insight to impart, and the book offers a hopeful and powerful response to unjust government.

CURRENTLY READING:

  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. Here we have a deep dive into the perspective of an Ohio housewife: the everywoman in Trump’s America. As the unnamed narrator bakes pies and takes care of four children, she’s also extremely preoccupied by the current state of the world.

WILL READ:

  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. This is a novel comprised of twelve connected short stories that examine the lives of black women in Brexit Britain.

MIGHT READ:

  • Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. 44599127This is a Don Quixote retelling with fantasy elements set in modern America. This is a love story and a wild romp of political commentary.
  • 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak. Here we take a trip through a dying woman’s brain in the moments immediately following her death, followed by the trials of the friends who fight to give her a decent burial afterward.

46777584I’ve linked the two titles I’ve read to my reviews, and the rest to Goodreads. I’ll post a personal ranking of the longlisted titles and more conclusive thoughts on the shortlist once I’ve finished reading the titles I’m interested in checking out. I’ll continue to post reviews as I read, as well. And if any of these titles catch your interest, please give them a further look! Though the Booker Prize aims to single out the best novel(s) published each year, don’t forget that there are plenty of other great new books that are also worth reading as well! Though I’m very much looking forward to Girl, Woman, Other myself, literary prizes are above all a call to celebrate READING, and that’s one cause I’m sure we can all unite over!

But if you have specific thoughts about this year’s Booker Prize, whether you agree or disagree with my stance, I’d love to chat in the comments. 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant