Women’s Prize shortlist review #1- “Fire Rush” by Jacqueline Crooks

It’s been a busy few weeks with half term, travel away from home and the day job, so I have not been doing as much reading as I would have liked. This is especially disappointing given that I’d set myself the goal of reading the shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize! I have been doing a fair bit of driving and running though so at least I’ve been getting through some of them on audio. There is nothing quite like the feel of a book in your hands, but, increasingly, I am finding audio is the way I access most of my reading. Are you finding this too?

Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks was the first of the shortlisted books that I picked up and I am so glad I chose the audio version. At its heart is a love for music, specifically dub reggae, and the interconnectedness of the music, the Caribbean culture, the London scene of the 1970s where the book is set, and the idea of music as salvation. Short excerpts of dub reggae are built into the audiobook at key moments and it gives an extra dimension to the text, characters and setting, as well as the pace and tension of the book. This is also not a musical genre I am particularly familiar with, so I definitely would not have ‘heard’ it if I had read the book in hard copy.

The book opens in 1978 in the south London suburb of Norwood, where twenty-something Yamaye lives with her indifferent and sometimes cruel father. Her life seems to be going nowhere and the bleakness of the moment – it was a period of economic stagnation, cultural wilderness and all against a racist backdrop – is tangible. Yamaye lives for music, dub reggae, and spends her weekends at an underground club in the crypt of a church with her friends, sassy Asase and white Irish girl Rumer. There is an ever-present sense of threat from the authorities and most of the characters have had a brush with the law at some point. There is also an ever-present threat of violence, from darker forces operating in this underground world. 

At The Crypt, Yamaye meets Moose, a craftsman who works with wood, particularly the teaks and mahoganies from the Caribbean where he is from and where his grandmother still lives. Moose and Yamaye embark on a love affair. He dreams of going back to Jamaica with her and living a free and peaceful life in the country. Yamaye has dreams too, of becoming a DJ, mixing tracks at reggae nights. 

Spoiler alert:

All their dreams are shattered, however, by two devastating events: Moose is killed in police custody and Asase is found guilty of murdering Yamaye’s friend and the owner of the record shop she frequents. Events turn quite dark and fearing that her life is in some danger, Yamaye escapes to Bristol where she spends time in a ‘safe house’ which proves to be anything but. She must make a second escape and flees this time to Jamaica, determined to track down Moose’s grandmother, to find out more about her roots, and specifically to try and connect with her late mother who died mysteriously in Ghana when Yamaye was a child. In Jamaica she finds a new lease of life, but also encounters new dangers that will lead her to a final reckoning with forces that want to harm her. 

This is a really powerful book which tells a fascinating story. Over a period of five years or so we watch Yamaye grow from being a timid and cowed young woman, oppressed in her own home, to one who finds her inner power through music, love and embracing her true cultural inheritance. 

I loved this book. It was both gripping and engaging from start to finish. The audiobook is brilliantly read by Leonie Elliott (the actress who plays Lucille in Call the Midwife) who manages the range of voices and accents with aplomb. This is an example of audio really adding to the experience of the book and I recommend it highly. 

Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist

The shortlist for the 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced following much anticipation last week. The winner will be announced on 14 June, but it is one of those literary prizes where you suspect all of the finalists feel like winners due to the sense of warmth and inclusivity around it. This prize has really taken off in recent years thanks to some brilliant marketing activity. The team made fantastic hay out of the Covid lockdowns, running Zoom chats with shortlisted authors (and many hundreds of fans) where you really felt like you were part of the contest. All facilitated by the inimitable Kate Mosse, of course, the dynamic founder of the Prize. Unlike the Booker prize the Women’s Prize also has a sense of humility about it; it doesn’t confine itself to purely literary novels. This is a contest that celebrates the joy of reading in its widest sense, with podcasts, blogs and email newsletters that really keep you engaged.

This year’s shortlist of six books includes three debut novels and three from established authors.

Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks

This book has been getting a lot of attention. It is the author’s debut novel, though her short stories and non-fiction work have garnered praise. Set in 1970s London it tells the story of Yamaye, a young black woman and her relationship with the music she identifies with as part of her cultural inheritance, dub reggae. She meets and falls in love with Moose, but when their love affair ends, it triggers a search for identity and a personal transformation.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

Another author better known for her short stories, Irish writer Louise Kennedy’s novel is set in Belfast during the period known as ‘the Troubles’, a poignant moment to remember those terrible days as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It tells the story of primary school teacher Cushla navigating love and politics in the most challenging of circumstances. For most of us it is hard to imagine what it must be like to try and live an ordinary life surrounded by violence and threat but if the reviews are anything to go by, Louise Kennedy has pulled it off here.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver’s 1998 best-selling novel The Poisonwood Bible remains one of the best books I have ever read – it had such a powerful impact on me. This literary giant needs no introduction and has both won and been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize before. Demon Copperhead is said to be her modern take on Dickens’s David Copperfield where a young man, born into poverty in Virginia tries to make his way in the world in a modern America beset by social problems and prejudice.

Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris

Another debit novel, this one also set in against the backdrop of conflict, this time Sarajevo in 1992. As we watch the terrible events in Ukraine unfold day after day it is easy to forget that only thirty years another devastating war took place on the European continent and destroyed a country. This novel tells the story of Zora, an artist and teacher who must decide whether to flee their home or try to stay and defend their city against siege.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

Another author who needs no introduction, having won this prize a mere three years ago with her incredible novel Hamnet. This is her follow-up and is another work of historical fiction, this time set in Renaissance Italy. Sixteen year old Lucrezia has been married off to a powerful Duke, Alfonso, whom she believes plans to kill her. Powerless and alone she must try and save her own life. Based on a real person, it looks like Maggie O’Farrell has produced yet another literary gem.

Pod by Laline Paull

This looks to be the most unconventional book on the shortlist, where the central character is a dolphin. Afflicted by a form of deafness which isolates her within her family group, Ea survives a tragedy that kills other members of her family. Young and alone, she must navigate the treacherous oceans and multiple dangers. Exploring themes of family and belonging Pod also remninds us of the fragility of our natural environment and the impact humanity has had on other species.

Quite a shortlist! I would love to think that I might be able to get through them all before the winner is announced – six weeks and counting! I hardly know where to start.

Women’s Prize shortlist announced today

Each year the Women’s Prize seems to get bigger and better! The idea for this wonderful initiative was first conceived in the early 1990s when it became apparent that despite women authoring the majority of books published, they rarely achieved more than one or two places on the shortlist for the prestigious Booker Prize; in 1992, there was not even one woman writer on the shortlist. Author Kate Mosse was the driving force behind the prize and remains its Director. She is a formidable character and I am not surprised she was the one to get this going! The first winner was the late Helen Dunmore for her novel A Spell of Winter. Other winners have included Carol Shields, the late Andrea Levy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eimear MacBride, Ali Smith and Maggie O’Farrell.

Over the years the Prize has had a number of sponsors and has previously been named after them (the Orange Prize and the Bailey’s Prize), but since 2018 it has been known simply as the Women’s Prize and enjoys a range of joint sponsors. Its remit is not simply to award prizes for literary achievement, but also to support reading and creativity in the community more generally and to make a space in the literary world for women’s voices.

In many ways, the Prize feels more relevant than the Booker even, and I have particularly valued how, during the pandemic, the talks with authors, which often only took place in-person in London, came to Zoom, making the work and the writers more accessible.

The shortlist for the 2022 Women’s Prize was announced today and is as follows:

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead – I’ve already read and reviewed this one as it was shortlisted for last year’s Booker, and it is AMAZING!

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak – set in Cyrpus in 1974 at the time of the island’s division.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason – 40 year old Martha seems to have it all until her marriage breaks down and she has to move back to her dysfunctional family home. Can her life ever be ‘fixed’?

The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini – Alethea is in an abusive marriage. She witnesses a woman murdered by her jealous lover and seems to see what her own future might be. Can she change her life’s trajectory?

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich – set in a Minneapolis bookshop during the tumultuous period November 2019 to November 2020 which is haunted by one of its now deceased customers. New employee Tookie must solve the mystery and make sense of events.

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki – teenager Benny starts hearing voices after his father dies and his mother develops her own mental problems. He finds solace in the public library where he meets the characters who will help him through his grief.

This is a fascinating list of books and I would happily curl up on the sofa with any of them! I have long wanted to read Louise Erdrich’s work, so I think that may be the one I go to first.

Which do you fancy?

The winner is announced on 25 May and you can enter a competition to win copies of the shortlisted books by signing up to the the newsletter here.

Book review: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney

I’m travelling to Dublin on the ferry from Holyhead, north Wales as I write this, making our annual summer visit to see family and friends. I love Dublin and think of it as a second home, having visited the place several times a year for about two decades now. I haven’t seen all the ‘sights’, although Dublin Zoo, the art gallery, Powerscourt, and the Natural History Museum have all been well and truly ‘done’! When we visit we seem to spend much of our time just hanging out, visiting people, sharing meals, etc. For me, it’s only when you do that, after visiting a place so many times that you really get to the heart of it.

Normal People imgIt seems appropriate that I should be posting a review of Normal People this week, a book so very much about Ireland, the challenges and contradictions at the heart of a nation that has transformed itself in recent years. It is not just about Ireland, but about what it means to be young in Ireland and about class. It is also about identity and, in common with some of the issues faced in the UK and many other societies I am sure, the draw away from regional towns and cities, towards a centre, a capital, where there is perceived to be more opportunity, and what that means both for the individual and for society in the wider sense.

 Connell and Marianne are two teenagers attending the same high school in Carricklea in the west of Ireland. Both are very bright and hopes about their future prospects are high, but that is where the similarities end; their lives couldn’t be more different. Connell is the much-loved only child of a young single Mum. The live together in a small house and Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s family. Although academically a high achiever, Connell still manages to be popular and admired. Marianne is much more of a loner and lives with her working Mum and brother (a threatening figure who becomes increasingly violent towards her). She is remote from her family, not well-liked at school, and has a spiky personality.

Despite their differences, Connell and Marianne develop a closeness which soon blossoms into an intense and sexual relationship. The author portrays skilfully the subtle differences in their perspectives, which will at times lead to difficulties of communication and understanding throughout their young lives and the ebb and flow of their relationship.

The pair both end up with outstanding exam results which means that both secure a place at the prestigious Trinity College, Dublin. We follow them to college and here their positions are reversed – it is Marianne now who finds her ‘tribe’ amongst the affluent, the elite, the middle classes, and Connell who struggles to feel at home, whose financial and social background contrasts so markedly with that of his peers.

Despite this, Connell and Marianne continue to have an on-off relationship for the duration of their university careers and beyond. At times their relationship is passionate and sexual, at others it is more platonic, mutually protective. But always it is intense, even where there is little contact between them, such as the period Marianne spends on a Scandinavian scholarship with the abusive artist she has for a boyfriend at the time.

It is a fascinating and compelling book, part elegiac romance, part social commentary, where there is very little in the way of plot, but an abundance of humanity that is acutely observed and intimately drawn. The book has rightly earned its young author widespread plaudits and praise and was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. (The winner, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which I reviewed on here recently, was a worthy victor but I don’t envy the judges having to choose between these two outstanding novels.)

Normal People is a beautiful, clever book that will at times break your heart and at other times lift it, and I heartily recommend it. The only pity is that it’s relatively short!

Normal People has been widely read and reviewed – what did you think of it?

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Facebook reading challenge – join us in June

Despite the awful British weather, it is actually June at the moment, halfway through it in fact, so it must be time for a new book on my Facebook Reading Challenge. Earlier in the week, I published a review of the May title – Lord of the Flies by William Golding, one of the great literary classics of the 20th century. So many people have studied this book at school, at a time, perhaps, when English literature was not the thing they were most into, that it can often elicit groans of anguish! In fact, coming to it again after so many years (and as a mother!), I saw new things in this book. That’s the great thing about a reading challenge; you pick up books that you might otherwise have turned away from.

This month’s theme is something from the Women’s Prize shortlist. At the time of setting the challenge I obviously did not know what was going to be on the shortlist. The title I selected is a book I have had my eye on for some time. In fact, I recommended it over a year ago in a post Hot new books for springAn Amercian Marriage by Tayari Jones has since been announced as the winner of the prize, as of 5 June, so I’m delighted to be reading it this month.

2019-06-14 10.49.53The book is about a young newly-married couple, Celestial and Roy, and is set in the American Deep South. Their lives appear full of potential until Roy is accused of a crime he did not commit. He is convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison. The book concerns the effect of the separation on their marriage, how Celestial copes alone and what this means for their shared dreams.

The chair of judges of the women’s prize described the book as one that “shines a light on today’s America” and it has won praise from the likes of Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, as well as achieving wide acclaim in the review columns. The whole shortlist was extremely impressive and I could have chosen any of the books on; the fact that it beat Anna Burns’s Man Booker winner Milkman, which I loved, tells you something about the high calibre.

So, if you fancy a good read and getting involved in the discussion, do join us, it’s not too late. 

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