The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 Shadow Panel Winner

The official winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 will be announced tomorrow evening. Prior to that, our shadow panel have chosen a winner from our shortlist. *drumroll*

9780552776646

It was a unanimous decision based upon our re-reading of the novels we’d chosen for our shortlist. A God in Ruins not only stood up to a second read but was the novel we all got something more from second time around. That something ranged between concerns about characterisation dissipating to sheer marvel at how Atkinson plants throughout the book the idea that this is fiction, moving effortlessly through the time and space of her world without ever sacrificing the story.

Inevitably we discussed the decision by the official panel not to include the book on their shortlist. We’re still baffled. However, that didn’t have a baring on our decision other than the fact that we believe A God in Ruins was the best book on the longlist, indeed was one of the books of 2015.

The Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction Shadow Panel Shortlist

After four weeks of reading and discussion, our shadow panel have decided upon the following shortlist. Like the official judges, we will be re-reading our choices and deciding upon a winner at the beginning of June. The official shortlist is announced this evening; we’re looking forward to seeing how it compares.

If you click the covers of the novels, they will take you to my reviews.

9780552776646

24902492

1430789787569474338

51o08ertrxl-_sx324_bo1204203200_

51xwzyawm8l-_sx325_bo1204203200_

51-2bjcqwu2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2016

Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2016 Longlisted Books1

8th March 2016: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announces its 2016 longlist, comprised of 20 books that celebrate the best of fiction written by women

Here they are, the 20 books longlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. In alphabetical order (of author’s surname):

A God In Ruins – Kate Atkinson

Rush Oh! – Shirley Barrett

Ruby – Cynthia Bond

The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding – Jackie Copleton

Whispers Through a Megaphone – Rachel Elliott

The Green Road – Anne Enright

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah

Gorsky – Vesna Goldsworthy

The Anatomist’s Dream – Clio Gray

At Hawthorn Time – Melissa Harrison

Pleasantville – Attica Locke

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

The Portable Veblen – Elizabeth McKenzie

Girl at War – Sara Nović

The House at the Edge of the World – Julia Rochester

The Improbability of Love – Hannah Rothschild

My Name Is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

My initial reaction is that the three books I thought were certs are all on there – A God in Ruins, My Name Is Lucy Barton and A Little Life. Very pleased to see all three.

I predicted six of the titles, which is my highest success rate ever! Very pleased to see Girl at War on the list as well as The Portable Veblen. I’ve enjoyed all those I’ve already read, which includes The Green Road which I haven’t posted my review for yet.

As for the rest of the list, I’m delighted to see Pleasantville – I loved Black Water Rising and have had the latest on my TBR pile for ages. I’ve also heard good things from people I trust about The Book of Memory, At Hawthorn Time and The Glorious Heresies.

As always with The Bailey’s Prize there are some books I hadn’t heard of before I saw the list. My absolute favourite part of this is reading those titles, there’s always one in there that surprises me with its brilliance. On looking through the blurbs, I can’t believe I hadn’t come across Ruby, it’s had so many fantastic reviews, and The Anatomist’s Dream is perfect for my PhD thesis so I’m very pleased it’s come to my attention.

I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the reading and debating the books with the rest of the shadow panel. I’m hoping you’ll join in the discussion on our blogs and Twitter too. Can’t wait to hear what everyone thinks of the chosen titles.

 

 

My Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 Wishlist

It’s almost time! The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist will be announced next Tuesday, 8th March. Once again, I’ll be shadowing the prize and for the second year running, I’ll be doing so with a panel. I’ll introduce you to the members of that panel on Friday.

For now though, here are the books I’d like to see appear on Tuesday’s list. They’re a combination of books I’ve loved and those I’m keen to read based on what I’ve heard about them so far. I’ve had to cull this list significantly to keep it to 20 books so, as usual, anything’s possible with the real one!

To be eligible, books have to be written in English and first published in the UK between 1st April 2015 and 31st March 2016. Publishers can enter three full length novels per imprint plus anything eligible by writers who have previously won the prize.

I’ve reviewed the first eleven titles – click on the covers to go to my reviews – and read the next three as well (reviews coming soon).

978055277664651t7ulbq-kl-_sx309_bo1204203200_51f1gawzayl-_sx325_bo1204203200_9781847088369

y450-2939781781256381martin-john-final-300x4609781408873649

278456579781846559167978081299634091vnpzx7dal

51o08ertrxl-_sx324_bo1204203200_978000746283451bepilw6ll-_sx322_bo1204203200_article20lead20-20narrow997594147ghxwnjimage-related-articleleadnarrow-353x0-ghxwkj-png1435892731112-300x0

fates-and-furies-design-suzanne-dean61vgnih3fcl-_sx325_bo1204203200_918jkbciodl9781846689925-pagespeed-ce-fkuzlanj8z

 

In the Media: January 2016

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

sh20author20photo202

January’s been living up to it’s reputation as the most miserable month in the calendar. There’s been the misogynistic and racist response to Sarah Howe’s Young Writer of the Year Award and TS Eliot Award wins. Poet, Katy Evans-Bush responded with ‘TS Eliot prize row: is winner too young, beautiful – and Chinese?‘ in The Guardian.

The deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman at least inspired some great writing: Stacey May Fowles, ‘Reconciling David Bowie‘ on Hazlitt and Sali Hughes, ‘I’ve had it up to here with the grief police‘ on The Pool. Gwendolyn Smith, ‘Forget Snape – in concentrating on him, we leave out one of the greatest roles Alan Rickman ever performed‘ in The Independent and Daisy Buchanan, ‘Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon taught me an important lesson about love‘ on The Pool

juno-dawson-credit-fern-edwards-photography

In happier news, there were a number of other prize wins for female writers: Kate Atkinson won the Costa Novel PrizeAnuradha Roy won the 2016 DSC prize for south Asian literature; A.S. Byatt won the Erasmus Prize, and the writers shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award were revealed, including Annalisa Crawford, Peggy Riley and Erin Soros.

Glamour welcomed a transgender columnist: Juno Dawson will chart her journey in the magazine. I’ll add Juno’s column to the regular columnists list once it has a permanent URL.

3113852440

The Observer revealed their New Faces of Fiction for 2016 and Joanna Cannon wrote this great piece – The Monster Under the Bed – about her inclusion.

And the woman with the most publicity of late is Amy Liptrot with ‘I swam in the cold ocean and dyed my hair a furious blue… I was moving upwards slowly‘ in The Guardian; interviews in The Independent and The Pool.

lauren-groff-c-megan-brown-e1443711852353

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

nicole

Personal essays/memoir:

annfriedman

Feminism:

kavita

Society and Politics:

landscape_nrm_1421089899-elle-jill-soloway

Film, Television, Music, Art and Fashion:

ayisha-malik

The interviews:

bim-adewunmi-byline-picture-red-women-blogs-redonline-co-uk__square

The regular columnists:

Books of the Year, Part Two: 2015 Publications

Here we are then, the books from this year I’ve read and rated most highly. I’m basing my choices on the very unscientific, I thought it was brilliant at the time and I’m still thinking about it. I was concerned this would skew the list towards the end of the year but it hasn’t at all – two thirds of the books are from the first half of 2015. Publication dates are UK (where applicable) and if you click on the cover it will take you to my review.

Citizen – Claudia Rankine 

A superb book. An examination of race and the treatment of black people in present day America. Rankine uses flash fiction, essays and poetry to explore the way people of colour ‘…feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background’ and, by implication, how often, as a white person, you are complicit in creating and maintaining that background. Short, sharp and powerful, I’d like to see a copy of Citizen distributed to every household, taught in schools and university, and added to the canon. If you believe art can change the world, this is a book that should be able to do so.


A Little Life
– Hanya Yanagihara

It’s divided readers and critics but I make no apologies for including this book for several reasons: it’s utterly absorbing, I felt as though I’d been entombed in Yanagihara’s world; it focuses on male friendship which I think is unusual; the friendship group consists of four men of different ethnicities and different sexualities, one of whom is disabled and Yanagihara has written about their lives as though they are, well, people. They are not defined by their ethnicity or sexuality and this feels like a break through. It’s huge and harrowing and clearly not for everyone but I’m still thinking about it six months on.

 

The House in Smyrna – Tatiana Salem Levy (translated by Alison Entrekin)

A short, sharp tale told in fragments. At the centre of the book is the story of the key given to the unnamed narrator by her grandfather: the key to his old house in Turkey, in Smyrna. There are four threads to the book: the narrator’s journey to her grandfather’s house; the grandfather’s journey from the house to the woman who became the narrator’s grandmother; the narrator’s relationship with her dead mother, and the narrator’s passionate affair with an unnamed man. A shocking and beautiful novella about exile in many different forms.

The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika
Kapur 

Mrs Sharma’s thirty-seven-years-old and married with a fifteen-year-old son, Bobby. They live in a flat in Dehli with her parents-in-law. Her husband, Dheeraj, a physiotherapist, has been working in Dubai for over a year in a bid to raise enough money to cover his parents’ medical bills and send his son to college to do an MBA in business. She works as a receptionist in a gynaecological clinic and dreams of starting her own business. Mrs Sharma’s veneer begins to crack when she meets Vineet Seghal on a station platform. Tightly plotted with precise, often repetitive, language, this is a brilliant book about an unfulfilled woman.

Vigilante – Shelley Harris

Jenny Pepper, 42, manager of a charity bookshop, married to Elliot, graphic designer, with a 14-year-old daughter, Martha, is fed-up of her life. She’s particularly annoyed and frustrated by the way men objectify women and the consequences of this behaviour. Donning a superhero costume for a fancy dress party, she stops a mugging and gets a taste for the vigilante lifestyle. Before long, she’s on the tale of someone who’s attacking teenage girls. A gripping and believable look at the concerns of a middle-aged woman and her life.

 

The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

When Cathy Rentzenbrink was seventeen, her sixteen-year-old brother, Matty, was hit by a car and left in a persistent vegetative state for eight years. The book is Rentzenbrink’s story of the effect of Matty’s accident on her and her family. Told in an unflinching first person account with a huge amount of love and dollops of humour, Rentzenbrink brings the Matty she loved back to life and pays tribute to her parents without descending into mawkishness. Heartbreaking and heartwarming. Buy tissues before reading, I’m welling up just thinking about it.

 

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

A companion piece to Life After LifeA God in Ruins focuses on Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy and those who’ve shared his life – his wife, Nancy; daughter, Viola; grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny, and the men he served alongside in the RAF. The structure’s non-chronological, creating a jigsaw puzzle of Teddy’s life and the lives of his family members for the reader to reconstruct; every chapter capable of standing alone as a story in its own right. The chapters set in the war are some of Atkinson’s best writing but this is more than a character study, it’s a book that explores what fiction is. Superb.

 

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)

Mr Cheong chose his wife, Yeong-Ho, because she’s passive. But then, due to a set of reoccurring dreams, she turns vegetarian; a highly unorthodox act in South Korea. The reactions of Mr Cheong and Yeong-Ho’s family turn dark and sometimes violent quite quickly. But Yeong-Ho’s brother-in-law is fascinated with her and her mongolian mark which leads to him creating a physical work of art with her. A disconcerting story that explores society’s treatment of a woman who defies expectations and how her internalisation of those expectations affects her psyche.

 

The Ship – Antonia Honeywell 

In the not so distant future where banks have collapsed, the homeless population is out of control, food is scarce and the military rule, Lalage is protected by her father, Michael Paul, and his creation, the ship. The ship is a version of paradise, stocked with everything you might need and more. As it sets sail with Michael Paul’s chosen people on it, Lalage begins to question her father’s motives and what she really wants from life. The Ship raises questions of wealth and poverty; of governments who fail to protect all their citizens; of the value of art and artefacts. It’s futuristic setting is misleading, this is really a novel about what’s happening to society now.

The First Bad Man – Miranda July 

Cheryl Glickman, early forties, lives alone and works for a company who make self-defence, fitness DVDs. She has two fascinations: Phillip Bettelheim and babies who might be Kubelko Bondy, the son of her parents’ friends. Cheryl’s bosses ask if their daughter, Clee, can move in with her until she finds a job. First Clee trashes Cheryl’s system for keeping the house clean and tidy, then she’s physically fighting Cheryl for extended periods before Cheryl begins imagining herself as Phillip having sex with Clee. It sounds absurd but it’s a sharp exploration of loneliness which transforms into something emotionally fulfilling.

The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall

Rachel has spent almost a decade in Idaho, monitoring wolves on a reservation but an unplanned pregnancy, the death of her mother and the offer of a job supporting the reintroduction of the Grey Wolf to Great Britain sees her returning to the Lake District. The Wolf Border considers a variety of different intersections that humans come up against – birth, death, addiction, love, political change and, of course, nature. The precision of the language, particularly in the descriptions of the Lake District and the wolves, is superb as is the characterisation of Rachel. One of our best novelists, probably her best book.

Grow a Pair: 9 1/2 Fairytales About Sex 
 – Joanna Walsh

From the very opening sentences of the first story to the end of the afterword of Grow a Pair transformations occur: characters adopt and change their genitalia; a man becomes a woman; a queen becomes a witch; a woman fragments into multiple vaginas. Walsh mixes retellings of traditional fairytales like ‘The Princess and the Penis’ with new pieces. Filled with as many moments of humour as it is ones of magical realism, the collection allows its women to take control of their own sexuality and fulfilment. Entertaining, smart and thoughtful.

The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan

A dual narrative following two young women – North, who lives with Circus Excalibur, travelling the sea but performing most nights on land with her bear, and Callanish, the gracekeeper, living on a tiny island by the graveyard and performing Restings for the dead. North has a number of issues to deal with – she’s engaged to Ainsel and his father wants them to live on land, but she doesn’t want either of these things; Ainsel’s mother is jealous, and North is pregnant to someone else. She’s also tied to Callanish in ways that only begin to reveal themselves when the two meet. A beautifully rendered world.

 

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay 

Mirelle is kidnapped in front of her husband, Michael, and their baby, Christophe, directly outside the heavy steel gates at the bottom of the drive to her parents’ house in Haiti. She’s been taken because her father’s rich and the kidnappers believe he will pay a lot of money for her, his youngest and favourite daughter in U.S. dollars. He refuses, assuming they will return her unharmed. She’s repeatedly raped and tortured. The majority of the book deals with the aftermath, looking at whether it’s possible to rebuild a life, a marriage, a familial relationship after such horror. An interesting examination of power and privilege.

Talk of the Toun – Helen MacKinven

Angela’s short-term ambition is for her and her best friend, Lorraine, to lose their virginity over the summer holidays. Long-term, she wants to move away from the council scheme she’s grown up on and attend Glasgow School of Art. Her parents are determined she’s getting a job. Over one summer in the 1980s, Angela and Lorraine’s friendship will deteriorate thanks to Pamela aka Little Miss Brown Nose and Stevie Duffy, just out of borstal and ‘a total ride’. Class, religion, family and friendships are all explored but it’s the perceptive look at women’s sexuality and the use of Scots dialect that really make this a stand out read.

 

Honourable mentions also go to The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester; The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips; Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey; Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, The Chimes by Anna Smaill and Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller.

In the Media: 24th May 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

The Cannes Film Festival’s been in the spotlight (haha) this week for turning women away from a screening because they were wearing flat shoes. Heels as compulsory footwear for women may or may not (depending which day it is someone asks) be part of their dress policy. Helen O’Hara writes ‘How the 2015 Cannes Film Festival became all about women‘  while Laura Craik asks, ‘Is the tyranny of high heels finally over?‘ both in The Pool. Hadley Freeman wrote, ‘Can’t do heels? Don’t do Cannes‘ in The Guardian, while Elizabeth Semmelhack wrote, ‘Shoes That Put Women in Their Place‘ in The New York Times

The other big feminist story was about ‘wife bonuses’ after Wednesday Martin wrote a piece for the New York Times called, ‘Poor Little Rich Women‘. Amanda Marcotte asked, ‘What’s Wrong With “Wife Bonuses”?‘ in Slate

Awards this week went to the five 2015 Best Young Australian Novelists, three of whom are women, all of whom are women of colour – hurrah for progress. Also in Australia, the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Award was revealed, four of the five shortlisted writers are women. The O. Henry Prize Stories for 2015 were announced. Of the twenty selected, fifteen were by women. You can read those by Dina Nayeri, Molly Antopol and Lynne Sharon Schwartz by clicking on their names.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music and Fashion:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

Photograph by Kwesi Abbensetts

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

The lists:

In the Media: 10th May 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

It’s Mother’s Day in 80 countries around the world today. Not surprisingly, there has been a whole range of articles, from a whole range of view points, about mothers and motherhood this week. The Hairpin ran a series including  ‘Mommy Queerest‘ by Sarah Liss; ‘Thoroughly Modern Murdering Mothers; or, Women Who Kill for Their Children‘ by Meredith Haggerty; ‘A Joke, A Story‘ by Naomi Skwarna; ‘Going for the Burn: Revisiting Jane Fonda’s Workouts‘ by Alison Hamm’ ‘Mothers and Moms‘ by Haley Mlotek, and Randi Bergman, ‘The Weirdest Beauty Tips I Learned From My Mom‘.

Tameka Cage-Conley wrote, ‘Motherhood, Art, And Police Brutality‘ on VSB; Amy Shouse wrote ‘My mom never wanted kids‘ on Salon; Anne Enright wrote, ‘When Mother Leaves the Room‘ in The New York Times; Cheryl Strayed wrote, ‘The ‘Painful Personal Toll Lung Cancer Has Taken on My Life’‘ on The Huffington Post; Monica Hessler, ‘The long drive to end a pregnancy‘ in The Washington Post; Mary HK Choi, ‘The Dicks Of Our Lives‘ on Buzzfeed; Mary Elizabeth Williams, ‘Sorry about Mother’s Day, my childfree girlfriends: Moms aren’t any more special (or unselfish) than you‘ on Salon; Edwidge Danticat, ‘A Prayer Before Dying‘ on Literary Hub; Brogan Driscoll, ‘I Refuse to Celebrate ‘Dad Bod’, Until We Appreciate the ‘Mum Bod’ Too‘ on the Huffington Post

Catherine Bennett wrote in The Guardian, ‘It’s dehumanising to be ‘an oven’ for someone else’s baby‘; Jessica Roake wrote, ‘An Ode to the “Mom’s Night Out”‘ on Slate; Rebecca Mead wrote, ‘A Woman’s Place Is on the Internet‘ in The New Yorker; Sophie Heawood wrote, ‘I’ve read all the advice, but I still don’t know – am I raising a serial killer?‘ in The Guardian; Laila K wrote, ‘Up with the kids‘ in The Pool; Dahlia Lithwick, ‘“Bye-Bye, Normal Mommy”‘ on Slate; Christie Watson, ‘The Joy and Pain of Trans-Racial Adoption‘ on Literary Hub; Meagan O’Connell, ‘It’s My First Mother’s Day As a Mom. Now What?‘ in The Cut; Kate Spencer, ‘How I Finally Let Go Of Grief For My Dead Mom‘ on Buzzfeed; Domenica Ruta, ‘Can Having a Child Help Me Get Over My Abusive Mom?‘ in The Cut.

Danah Boyd, ‘I Miss Not Being Scared‘ on Medium; Melissa Duclos, ‘To the Doctor Who Reported Me to Child Protective Services‘ on The Offing; Christopher Frizzelle, ‘The Day Virginia Woolf Brought Her Mom Back to Life‘ on Literary Hub; Lauren Laverne, ‘“Mum” as a diss‘ in The Pool.

And if you’d rather read a book instead, Literary Hub suggests, ‘Five Intense Books for Mother’s Day‘ and the Huffington Post recommends, ‘Mother’s Day Reads: Eight Great Mother Characters in Literature‘.

Photograph by Idil Sukan

In the UK, there was a general election. 3AM Magazine ran a whole series of reactions including, Lauren Elkin, ‘an open letter to mark-francis vandelli‘; Juliet Jacques, ‘london – 2015‘; Eley Williams, ‘rosette manufacture: a catalogue and spotters’ guide‘, and Rachel Genn, ‘you wouldn’t like me when i’m disappointed‘. Other reactions included: Laurie Penny, ‘Don’t give in: an angry population is hard to govern; a depressed population is easy‘ in the New Statesman; Joan Smith, ‘Almost a third of all MPs are now women – a milestone has been reached‘ in The Guardian; Janice Turner, ‘Why the north is in revolt against Labour‘ in The Times; Beluah Maud Devaney, ‘Unfriending Tories on Facebook Is Not the Answer‘ on the Huffington Post

And there were a few pieces written prior to the result that I still think are worth reading: Sam Baker, ‘When voting doesn’t make you feel good‘ in The Pool; Suzanne Moore, ‘By Friday we’ll be reduced to bystanders at a revoltingly macho political stare-off‘ in The Guardian; Concepta Cassar, ‘Food For Thought: Hazlitt, Malthus and the Tragedy of Food Banks‘ in Litro; Katy Guest, ‘Sandi Toksvig’s Women’s Equality Party is a movement for which time has come‘ in The Independent; Salena Godden, ‘Colour-blind: What colour are you?‘ on her blog, and Isabel Rogers’ poem ‘The truth about political correctness‘ on her blog.

I promised myself I wouldn’t mention it but there have been a few good pieces written about the birth of THAT baby: Sian Norris, ‘She’s not like other girls…‘ on Sian and Crooked Rib; Heather Havrilesky, ‘Royal Baby Girl Fated to Lead International Mob of Fake Princesses?‘ in The Cut, and Viv Groskop, ‘She’s a tiny baby, not a Kardashian‘ in The Pool.

Congratulations to Gill Lewis who won the Little Rebels children’s book award with Scarlet Ibis this week; to Emily St. John Mandel who won the Authur C Clarke award, and to Alice Notley who won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Foundation Prize. A gender balanced shortlist was announced for the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2015 and a female dominated one for the Branford Boase Award 2015. The ALS Longlist and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlists were also announced.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

Photograph by Cybele Knowles

The lists:

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

There was a handwritten sign attached to the shelf that said, ‘Please dear friend, leave these books in the condition that you found them’, which was ridiculous as no book could ever be left in the condition that you found it in because it was changed every time it was read by someone.

In Life After Life, Ursula’s life was changed every time it reached an end, it was rewritten anew. At first glance, there are no such linguistic trickeries in A God in Ruins, although Atkinson returns us to similar territory.

A God in Ruins is the story of Teddy, Ursula’s much-loved younger brother. Although, it’s more than Teddy’s story, it’s also the story of those around him – his wife, Nancy; daughter, Viola; grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny, and the men he serves alongside in the RAF.

The structure of the novel moves backwards and forwards in time, so begins with a short chapter just before Teddy’s last flight as an RAF pilot and then swiftly returns to Fox Cottage in 1925 and a visit from Izzie. She quizzes Teddy on a walk along the lane from the house to the railway station. Partly, it later becomes apparent so she can write a series of books based on him, The Adventures of Augustus, Augustus being the name of the second of her fiancés to die in the First World War.

A few years later she discovered that fiction could be both a means of resurrection and of preservation. ‘When all else has gone, art remains,’ she said to Sylvie during the next war. ‘The Adventures of Augustus is art?’ Sylvie said, raising an elitist eyebrow…Izzie’s definition of art was broader than Sylvie’s definition, of course. ‘Art is anything created by one person and enjoyed by another.’

By chapter three, we’re in 1980 and Teddy and Nancy’s daughter, Viola, is a grown woman with children of her own. Viola’s quite a creation:

She was twenty-eight but already jaded. Twenty-eight seemed a particularly unsatisfactory age. She was no longer young and yet no one ever seemed to take her seriously as an adult. People still told what to do all the time, it was infuriating. Her only power seemed to be over her own children and even that was limited by endless negotiation.

Viola’s pretty vile: she consistently rails against her father, unable to forgive him for her mother’s dying when she was young. ‘She felt as if she had been on the outside of happiness her whole life.’ She doesn’t seem to know how to show her children affection and, in probably the best chapter in the book, she sends Sunny to live with his father’s family, apparently unaware of either their financial circumstances or their ability to demonstrate love to children either.

Interestingly though, Atkinson uses Viola as the moral compass of the novel; it’s Viola who challenges her father over the legitimacy of war and his role in it:

She’d gone to a Quaker school, for heaven’s sake, and had taken part in an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in the course of which she had tried hard to get arrested. Her glory years were still ahead of her – Greenham, Upper Heyford – but she had long been treading the path of righteous indignation. Her father had flown planes, dropped bombs on people. He’d probably been responsible for the firebombing of Dresden – Slaughterhouse-Five had been on her syllabus at university. (‘It was only the Lancasters who bombed Dresden,’ Teddy said. ‘So? So? His daughter said. ‘You think that absolves you?’ ‘I’m not asking for absolution,’ Teddy said.) War was evil, Viola thought…

Teddy’s decision to join the war effort might have surprised Viola, had she asked him why or, indeed, if she’d asked him about his experience and his own concerns.

The chapters set in the war, as Teddy flies a Halifax bomber over Germany with a fairly consistent crew of men are superb pieces of writing. Atkinson’s research shows in the details of the rituals, the descriptions of the planes, the behaviour of the men (and the occasional woman: there’s a wonderful scene where Nancy’s sister, Gertie, shows up) where it is used to great effect.

What impressed me most about this book though was the structure; Atkinson confidently moves through time – sometimes between decades – in adjoining paragraphs. The novel as a whole is structured in the same way, moving in a non-chronological order through Teddy’s timeline. Atkinson creates a jigsaw puzzle of his life and the lives of his family members for the reader to reconstruct. She also writes every chapter (bar possibly the first and the last) so they work as stand alone short stories. It’s an impressive feat.

Atkinson also does something quite shocking towards the end of the novel – don’t worry, I’ll do this without spoilers but I think it would be remiss of me not to mention it at all. Atkinson begins to break down the fourth wall as Viola, now in her 60s, starts to consider how she’s lived her life and begins to regret some of her behaviour. At this point, the narrator comments on some of Viola’s thoughts. But by the end of the book, Atkinson’s not removed a brick or two from the fourth wall, she’s sent it crashing down. It’s an interesting piece of writing and one that I think will divide readers.

One of the reasons Atkinson mention as a reason for this in her ‘Author’s Note’ is that the book is about fiction – Izzie writes the Augustus stories; Viola becomes a writer later on; each character has their own core story; each chapter is a short story in its own right. It’s also a novel about war and the deaths of so many – not just in the Second World War, but in many other conflicts throughout the world. Atkinson considers the extinguishing of each of those lives alongside the deaths of the characters in the novel and questions how many other lives were lost because they were never allowed to exist at all; they are figments of someone’s imagination as Teddy is a figment of hers.

A God in Ruins is a stunning book: the structure’s experimental and clever; the characters are fully developed; the prose is sharp and often soars. Atkinson’s a writer at the top of her game and I think people, by which I mean literary prize judges, underestimate her skill as a writer. I suspect she’s often placed under that insipid category of ‘women’s fiction’ (whatever that’s supposed to be) and dismissed. It would be nice to see some recognition from the Booker Prize, for example, for A God in Ruins but I won’t hold my breath. Her fans, however, who I know are legion and loyal, will adore this book and quite rightly too.

 

Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.

In the Media: 3rd May 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

There’s an election in the UK this week. As you’d expect, there’s been a number of articles about it, policies and where the previous coalition has left us. Huffington Post have been running a ‘Beyond the Ballot’ series. Contributions include: Vivienne Westwood, ‘The Housing Crisis – Politicians Are Criminals‘ and Denise Robertson, ‘Today, There Are No Housing Lifelines for People Who Fall on Hard Times‘. Media Diversified also have a series called ‘Other Voices’. Contributions include, Maya Goodfellow ‘Why aren’t politicians talking about racial discrimination in the job market?‘ and ‘Letting migrants drown in the Mediterranean, is this what the Tories mean by ‘British values’?‘ and ‘The pro-Tory business letter: a reminder that politics shouldn’t be dominated by a privileged few

Elsewhere, Zoe Williams wrote ‘10 big misconceptions politicians have about women‘ in The Pool; Deborah Orr, ‘Scotland is sending a curveball down Westminster way – and it’s not just Labour that will get hit‘ in The Guardian; Gaby Hinsliff, ‘We floating voters may be unenthused but we’re definitely not unprincipled‘ in The Guardian; Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote, ‘Why I’m thinking about spoiling my ballot‘ in the New Statesman; Laura Waddell, ‘Pink Vacuum Politics‘ on Libertine’ Suzanne Moore, ‘Parliament? Over the years I’ve met several powerful men there who have no idea of boundaries‘ in the New Statesman; Hannah Pool asks, ‘Why aren’t black women voting?‘ in The Pool; Suzanne Moore, ‘I’m sick of this estate agent election‘ in The Guardian

Saturday saw the death of crime writer, Ruth Rendell. The Guardian reported her death and ran a series of articles: Val McDermid wrote, ‘No one can equal Ruth Rendell’s range or accomplishment‘; Mark Lawson, ‘Ruth Rendell and PD James: giants of detective fiction‘; Stanley Reynolds wrote her obituary; here she is ‘In Quotes‘ and if you haven’t read anything by her, The Guardian also recommend ‘Five Key Works’ while The Telegraph have, ‘The best of Ruth Rendell: 10 to read, watch and listen to‘.

And then there was that beach body ready advertisement. Responses to which ranged from Gemma Correll, ‘Hilarious Illustrations Show You How to Get “Beach Body Ready”‘ in Stylist; Hadley Freeman, ‘What is a beach body anyway?‘ in The Guardian, and Tara Costello explained, ‘Why I Stripped to Make a Statement‘ on the Huffington Post.

Congratulations to Marion Coutts on winning the Wellcome Prize. Jenny Turner writes in The Guardian as to why Coutts is her hero. The shortlist for the Encore Award was announced and includes Harriet Lane, Amanda Coe, Rebecca Hunt and Deborah Kay Davies. And Gaby Wood was ‘…made Booker’s literary director‘ reports The Bookseller.

And the woman with the most publicity this week is Leesa Cross-Smith who’s the featured writer on Atticus Review. She’s interviewed and has two stories up, ‘My Lolita Experiment‘ and ‘Dandelion Light‘; another in Synaesthesia Magazine, ‘The Darl Inn‘, and her column on Real Pants this week is ‘Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? & Girlfriendships‘.

 

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Music, Film and Television, Personalities:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

The lists: