some thoughts: Bailey’s Shortlist 2017

So I set a little project for myself this year with the Bailey’s Prize. Initially I intended to read every book on the longlist. Many of the books were already on my TBR, so I didn’t think it would be too much of a challenge. I started with the ones that most interested me and ended up reading and loving both ‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain and ‘The Lonely Hearts Hotel’ by Heather O’Neill before the shortlist was announced, and sadly neither made the cut. I was half way through my fourth book on the shortlist  when it was announced, so I figured I would just complete the shortlist for now and eventually get to the others when I felt like picking them up.

As I’ve now completed the shortlist I thought I would do a little round up. I won’t include synopsis’ as it will just make this wayyyy too long. I’ll note how many stars I gave each, sum up my thoughts briefly (and messily) in terms of likes and dislikes, and link any reviews for ones I wrote about at length. Starting from #6, I’m counting down from my least favourite to favourite. Clearly, these are just my personal opinions, and I would love to hear yours if you’ve read any of these! I’ll make my winners prediction at the bottom. So, here goes!:

6‘First Love’ by Gwendoline Riley

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Gave it: 2 stars

Liked: Not much to be honest. I’m thankful that it was short, if anything (Although if it was longer I may have liked it better!) It was also an easy read, a quick read, and the characterisation was decent enough considering we had less than 200 pages to get to know them.

Disliked: The clunky, abusive dialogue. I get that I was supposed to hate Edwyn, and dislike the way he spoke to Neve throughout, but I heard a lot of people commenting that the dialogue was natural. For me, it was forced and excessive in order to shape a character that would have otherwise lacked depth in such a short amount of pages. I also just disliked the characters themselves. I understood that I was supposed to feel for Neve, but her nonchalance towards her situation irritated me and prevented my sympathy. More in my review, if you fancy reading it!

 

5‘The Sport of Kings’ by C. E. Morgan

C. E. Morgan - The Sport of KingsGave it: 3 stars

Liked: The bones of the novel, the overall story. I grew to like Henrietta and Allmon and the novel became infinitely more readable for me during interactions between these two characters. I also admire the themes and the overall message the novel is trying to bring to light.

Disliked: This was just too long, too ambitious, and at times it felt overwritten. Long chapters are separated by just as long interludes that had little to do with the overall plot and felt more like the writer eager to show off how well she can write (although to be fair, she does write quite well.) Too much use of the ‘n’ word, especially for a white author, regardless of the context. Also, I just don’t like horse racing and this was always going to distance me. In hindsight, maybe this is only a 2 star, but read more of my thoughts here!

 

4‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman

the power

Gave it: 4 stars

Liked: Rather enjoyable if you take it as just a quick, fun read. The multi character POV’s were clear cut and all very different from each other, giving diverse and interesting viewpoints. Fast paced. Sci-fi – A little something different, lighter than the others in the list. The concept of women being physically superior to men worldwide, to be considerably more dangerous and the implications of that gave me a lot to think about.

Disliked: That it’s being showcased as a work of ‘feminist’ fiction. It totally could have been that, I just wouldn’t call this an innately feminist work. I also didn’t like the characterisation of ‘Roxy’ – Cockney’s just don’t speak like that, her dialogue was jarring and cringe worthy. The ending was open ended (which I understand a lot of people would have liked), but it just fell short for me. Also ‘the power’ itself is pretty underdeveloped, a bit vague. A lot more work could have been done to explain how it develops, how it’s triggered, why has it taken so long for a revolution if women had always had this ability?

 

3‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

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Gave it: 4 stars

Liked: A whole lot actually. The writing was beautiful, some passages felt very fable-like. The characters were all unique and wonderfully brought to life. It was very sad at times, but powerful and the hard moments were necessary. It’s a very emotive insight into China at the time, and also it’s clever how Thien weaves in how this still has its affect on families generations after the revolution. It looks at identity and culture, family ties and loyalty. There’s classical music swirled throughout, and it was wonderful to read about the characters passions for it. For quite a long book, it really didn’t feel like it, I was eager to read on. It constantly switches timelines and I think this helped keep my interest piqued.

Disliked: Honestly, I felt a little disappointed in the ending, a little let down! I think for such an emotional novel I wanted more of an emotional payoff at the end. Again, this was ambiguous and it felt cut off at a point where she was running out of story to tell rather than rounded up in a satisfactory way.

 

2‘The Dark Circle’ by Linda Grant

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Gave it: 4 stars

Liked: The time period, the unique setting, the bold and unconventional characters. I loved the dialogue and the different interactions between each of the patients in the sanatorium. Alderman take note – this is how you write cockney teenagers. There was warm moments, funny moments, sad moments. I got some serious ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ vibes from this, as a character comes into the sanatorium and changes the pace and dynamics of those living in it, and I really liked that. Beautifully written throughout, I definitely want to pick up more from Linda Grant. As quiet and inconsequential as some may see it, this is just a damn good story.

Disliked: Again, the ending of this is probably it’s only downfall for me. It just felt a little rushed. All of a sudden a bunch of the characters have gone on holiday and you don’t really know where you are, or why you’ve been wrenched out of the story so quickly. It did all make sense in the end, and I did feel we left the characters at a natural place… Maybe I just wanted more!

 

1‘Stay With Me’ by Ayobami Adebayo

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Gave it: 5 stars

Liked: Oh god, this was just brilliant. The writing itself is just beautiful and I can’t wait to read more from Adebayo in the future. Although she has written short stories, this is her debut novel (to my knowledge?!) and she seems relatively young and this is just hella impressive if you ask me. The way she writes about being a mother and how the characters deal with such heartbreaking and tragic events, is so powerful. I love that you’re not sure who you feel for most at different parts of the story. It’s interesting to see how cultural and familial pressures are so much more prominent in certain places of the world (this is set in Nigeria), and although I can’t understand these pressures from experience, I think they were written about with integrity and understanding.

Disliked: If anything, my only negative comment would be that the ending (again!), may have come across as slightly predictable. Having said that, these characters had such a hard time and they deserved that happy ending goddammit! So, that’s not really a dislike at all. Oh – but I don’t like the UK cover. So I featured the upcoming American one instead. Bite me!

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And now for my Winner prediction!:

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‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman

Why?: There’s no question that this one stands out from the other novels in this list. Although I personally find this one the least well written, it’s fast paced nature, interesting concept, and multi-narrative perspective is going to do a lot for this book. Margaret Atwood is quoted on the front of both the hardback and the newly released paperback, and as Alderman’s mentor this is going to do a lot for this book as well. As much as I don’t personally consider this a very feminist read, the fact its being marketed as such as going to act as a buzz word for people wanting to show support for such a book. Ultimately, I just have a feeling. I may be wrong – but we shall see!

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Thanks so much for reading, especially if you read all my thoughts (sorry if they’re a bit jumbled), I really appreciate it!

Please do let me know in the comments section if you have read any of these and what your thoughts were. Also, who do you think will win and why?

sign off heartJess

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review: ‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan

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What can I say about this one. Before we begin, this was my first McEwan. In hindsight I feel it might have been a mistake to start with his most recent work. One which is no doubt more experimental than some of his staple novels.

‘Nutshell’ is a story told like no other. The novel is narrated by a baby. One that is not yet even born, and is recounting the peculiar events unfolding before his birth, from inside the womb. The mother often gets drunk, thus so does the baby. And if you were ever wondering how to write a baby as pompous and instantly detestable – ask McEwan.

Trudy, the mother, has requested a break from her husband John. She has sent him off and he’s moved into a London flat while she takes possession of his dilapidated family townhouse that has been the marital home up until this point. Trudy has taken a lover, Claude, who we soon discover is in fact the brother of exiled husband John. It’s all starting to feel a little incestuous isn’t it?

You’ll be pleased to know that more than once in this novel our unborn baby recounts the sensation of feeling Claude’s penis pressing against his barely formed spine whilst Claude engages in sex with his mother. Being told this even once is one too many times if you ask me. Also the phrase ‘clitoral snood’ was mentioned at some point and the less said about that the better.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention. Claude and Trudy are actually plotting to do away with John (and the baby by the sounds of it), so they can stake claim to the house and the little money his Poet salary provides. Nice!

So, this was just a weird one for me. As a concept, I think its brilliant. Really original, and it certainly grabbed me with its peculiar synopsis. The first couple of pages hooked me in even, it was an oddly refreshing experience to read a novel narrated by a foetus. But let me tell you, if a foetus could narrate a story, it would not be as pretentious as this. He even goes off on little tangential rants about the state of the world from the information he has learnt through his mother listening to podcasts to cure her insomnia. It just got a little bit too ridiculous.

There is some suspense here, but we come to a fairly predictable ending in my opinion. Aside from an odd moment when an incorporeal figure appears in a doorway, it ended pretty much how I expected.

In conclusion, I am glad I picked this up, if only to say I have actually read some Ian McEwan. But I highly doubt this is his best work. Didn’t hate this though, and some passages I found extremely well crafted. Slightly outnumbered by the large amount of cringe though, but never mind. I’ll definitely be picking up something else by McEwan in the future. Any suggestions of where to continue, or perhaps start afresh, are welcome!

Thanks for reading.

sign off heartJess

 

review: ‘Sisters by a River’ by Barbara Comyns

sisters by a river

5 stars

This is it folks, the last review in retrograde. Let’s see how long it takes me to post after this one. But this was a goodun!

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This came out of nowhere for me! Absolutely loved this little read.

Sisters by a River isn’t really a novel with a linear narrative structure like I was expecting. I would probably describe this more as a collection of vignettes, or snapshots, into the lives of this curious family.

From what I understand, this novel is semi-autobiographical. The narrative voice we hear throughout the book is from one of five sisters. She is named Barbara, the same as our author, although we don’t actually find out her name out until the very end.

This book is a great example of really well executed, believable characterisation, achieved in a fairly small amount of pages, especially when there isn’t much of a single plot to speak off, and it’s perfectly done for me.

Honestly, none of the characters in this book are particularly nice people. The dad is an abusive drunk, the mum seems cold and detached, the grandma comes across as spiteful and selfish, and the children can be very cruel to each other and to the occasional animal (albeit often with good intentions gone awry.) There are also a whole other herd of oddball characters that pop up throughout the book, all with their faults too, getting up to some very strange antics. But weirdly, despite their cruelties, despite their unorthodox upbringings, despite their suspect behaviour, they can be quite endearing and I loved reading about their lives.

Interestingly, throughout the book, quite a few words are frequently misspelled – but this is very clearly on purpose, in order to stress that our protagonist is recalling childhood memories. Some people may have found this too obvious, and may have preferred more subtle devices to depict childhood, but I think this really helped in warming me to the characters. All in all, a surprising, original, fab read. I want more from Barbara Comyns asap!

sign off heartJess

review: ‘The Sport of Kings’ by C. E. Morgan

C. E. Morgan - The Sport of Kings

3 stars

Thank you to Netgalley and 4th Estate for providing me a copy of this ebook for review.

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I have never experienced such a turbulent combination of (or at times the lack of) emotions as I did whilst reading this book. I still can’t really tell you whether I liked it or not.

Firstly, let me prelude my lukewarm review by saying that I can totally see why a lot of people are really liking this book. I thought I would be one of them. Morgan is undeniably a very talented writer, and you can tell a lot went in to this novel. In fact, I even think it has a good chance of winning the Bailey’s Prize this year (of which I only have ‘The Dark Circle’ left to read from the shortlist!) I’m also big enough to note that this book is probably too clever for me. This is probably one of the most ‘literary’ fiction novels I have read. So take my opinions with a pinch of salt, as always.

‘The Sport of Kings’ is a well written tale spanning several generations of the thoroughbred racehorse raising Forge family. The novel is deeply seated in it’s Kentuckian setting, the Forges’ as dynastic as Southern families come. Luckily, it isn’t actually that much about sport at all, and thankfully so, as I bloody hate horse racing and may have liked this even less.

Anyway, the book is actually quite important. It looks at the history of racial tensions specifically in Southern America, the importance of recognising privilege, and is otherwise just a fairly well crafted read about a mostly despicable family and a father’s obsession with leaving a legacy.

At around 35% of the way through this book I was all for abandoning it. I’ve gotten a lot better at DNF’ing books I just can’t gel with, and I was on my way to doing just that. The problem was, I hated all the characters I’d encountered up to that point. They were a bunch of entitled, rich, racist, sexist assholes basically. Now, usually I am quite partial to reading about horrendous characters doing questionable things, it can often make for quite delicious reading. But in this case, each character had little to no redeemable qualities, so much so that I just didn’t find myself wanting to continue reading in order to avoid hearing about them. The book is mostly written in third person, and I think this actually deepened the issue I had. Although the writing is often rich and descriptive, we get a look at the characters only really at face value. We are never privy to their innermost thoughts, their true feelings and motives. This just further distanced me from people I couldn’t empathise with in the least.

Then along comes Allmon Shaughnessy, a young black man (with an absent, white father and a criminal past), who is hired by Henrietta Forge to work on their estate. All of a sudden, I was intrigued. It genuinely felt like I’d stumbled into a different book. An encounter with a character I liked, a character I began to feel for. Up until this point I felt the writing was impersonal, I constantly felt held at a distance by the story, but it grew to be full of emotion. Allmon even helped me warm to Henrietta, as the tension between them quickened the pace of this (in my opinion) overly long novel, I wanted to read on as these characters were finding something in each other. However, a while after that, the plot takes a sudden turn, it starts to get a little bit Shakespearean tragedy, and it started to go downhill again for me.

Having finished the book now (it only took 5 days but it felt a lot longer), I can say that the actual bones of the story, I loved. I just think Morgan was being overly ambitious with what she was trying to cram in. All the individual stories fighting for a place on the page felt murky. There are only 6 dense chapters split up with interludes between each one that I thought were pointless and just over complicated an already crowded narrative. So much didn’t need to be there. I’m all for showing your skill but strip it back and you’d still have a really clever and important story, the characters could have been nuanced and I might have actually given a shit or two.

I want to end with mentioning that I still feel pretty uncomfortable with a white writer featuring the ‘n’ word in her story this many times, no matter what the context. Black voices need to be heard, and we need more of them in fiction no question, but I would rather read about them from the perspective of people of colour. Maybe it’s just my white guilt making me feel uncomfortable about this, but still.

Essentially, I’m very conflicted about this book. I’m glad I finished it, but it was never a book I would have persevered with if it hadn’t been on the Baileys shortlist.

Have any of you read it? I would really like to hear your thoughts on this one.

sign off heartJess

mini review: ‘Harmless Like You’ by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Image result for harmless like you rowan hisayo buchanan

5 stars

Looking back on reviews I’ve written, it’s clear to me that for some reason I find it hardest to discuss books I enjoy the most. Either I don’t want to give too much away, and hope people enjoy the beauty for themselves. Or – I wish to remain completely blind to any faults and don’t wanna talk about them. Let me harmlessly float in literary ignorance goddammit!

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‘Harmless Like You’ is a book that I won through a giveaway on Goodreads, which was rather marvellous, but I wouldn’t let that influence my review. Luckily though, I adored this book.

I would find it very hard to articulate why I loved this so much without revealing too much about the plot or the characters, and I don’t want to do that. Part of the beauty of this read for me was going on a journey with the characters as I read it, and that’s something this author does particularly well. Her characterisation is so skillful, so brilliant, I loved it even when I didn’t love the characters. Each character is deep, flawed and authentic, and there was a tragic beauty in each and every one of them.

Sometimes its hard to pinpoint exactly why you like a book, especially when you don’t want to spoil the content for any future readers. All I know for sure is that this book just clicked with me, and the character of Yuki I felt deep in my marrow, and she’ll stay with me for a long time. The strength of this book is definitely in its emotive writing, rich characters, complex relationships, and a quietly confident narrative.

Please do read this book if it sounds like something you would enjoy, I would love to chat to someone in depth about this – I’m having a lot of feels right now.

Exquisitely done. I will read anything Rowan Hisayo Buchanan publishes. It’s mindblowing to think this is her first novel. I can’t wait to see what’s next!

sign off heartJess

mini review: ‘Monsters’ by Emerald Fennell

Emerald Fennell - Monsters

4 stars

Throwing it back for another review I haven’t posted before. Read this towards the end of 2016 and clearly really enjoyed it. I have only now noticed that what I thought were rocks covered in algae at the bottom of the cover, is in fact a washed up dead woman. Noice!

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Very nearly a 5 star! This one genuinely surprised me. Sinister, original, and creepy as shit.

A young adult story centred around a troubled, spiteful child, witnessing a string of murders whilst spending the holidays by the sea with her aunt and uncle. This book is hard to categorise as although I guess it’s aimed at older children, it’s almost adult in its execution.

I really enjoyed the writing. The fact that such disturbing things are thought of by a young girl, but are written about so nonchalantly, really worked in this books favour. The characterisation of our protagonist was very well done. Her relationship with Miles – a similarly troubled boy of the same age – added a whole lot more depth to the already eerie narrative.

Honestly, even though I was enjoying the story, I thought I had the mystery all figured out – but the twist at the end was a good one. Having said that however, I still feel like the ending was wrapped up far too quickly, it felt rushed and could have been developed a little more for greater impact.

Especially loved the quiet English seaside setting, and pleasantly surprised by this read regardless!

sign off heartJess

review: ‘First Love’ by Gwendoline Riley

Image result for first love gwendoline riley

2 stars

Wow, a book I actually read this year. Can’t promise this is a favourable review though. In fact, the more I think about this book the more it winds me up. That can’t be good. Also, it’s on the shortlist for the Bailey’s Prize, and some books that I loved are not. I am sad.

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This started off as a three star read but in retrospect it really was just ‘ok’. I didn’t get anything out of this, and even though I only read it mere days ago, I’m struggling to remember quite how it left off.

I got the feeling I was meant to be feeling sorry for someone, but for the life of me I couldn’t work out who. None of the characters were likeable for me. I’ve also heard it said more than once that Riley writes very natural dialogue. If she does usually, this wasn’t such a good example in my opinion. I sometimes felt like her characters were more caricatures of who she wanted them to be. That being said, I guess it’s hard to nuance a character and warm to them if you only get 200 pages to do so. At least, it wasn’t possible in this one.

I don’t want to sound like a victim blamer by any means, and abusive relationships are never ok, and are never the fault of the one being abused. But having said that, I just got annoyed at the protagonist with how she reacted to being spoken to so disgustingly. Which was, she kind of didn’t react at all, she seemed blasé, nonchalant more than anything else. It just had me questioning her motives for being in this relationship. On the surface, I feel that the writer was pushing a quite obvious ‘daddy issues’ archetype onto the character, but it just felt too obvious, very forced.

I also quite struggled with the timeline, and in which point in Neve’s life are we hearing her speak from. For instance when the novel first opens, I thought she was estranged from the abusive Edwyn, but then maybe it could of been a snapshot of her life before she met him, before she moved in with him… I honestly couldn’t tell. Maybe I should go back and read certain parts but I shouldn’t have been this confused with such a lack of active plot.

Didn’t get the point of this one.

sign off heartJess