Books of the Year, Part One: Pre-2015 Publications

Like last year, I’ve read a lot of books so I’ve decided to split my books of the year post into two – those published pre-2015 and those published in 2015 (UK dates where applicable). The latter will appear tomorrow, in the meantime, here’s my pick of the former. Clicking on the book cover will take you to my review.

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman

Not just a book of the year, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Set in the Nighted States sometime in the future and narrated by fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star. White people are dead of a disease called WAKS. Black people die of something called Posies at eighteen/nineteen. Ice Cream Star’s brother, Driver, is dying and she sets out to find a cure. Written in a futuristic version of AAVE, the novel considers race, religion, politics, class, war and love and has one of the best heroines ever. Newman also gives good interview, you can read my interview with her here.

Prayers for the Stolen
– Jennifer

Ladydi Garcia Martínez was dressed as a boy until she was eleven, as were all the girls in her village. This was to prevent drug traffickers kidnapping them. But Ladydi’s friend, Paula, was taken and – astonishingly – returned. Clement illustrates the way poor, brown skinned women in an exposed state in Mexico are treated by men. Fathers are feckless; brothers are dangerous. An unknown man entering the area is to be feared. Houses are peppered with bullet holes. Ladydi’s narration lifts this from being utterly bleak and Clement’s plot twists, often buried in a mid-paragraph sentence, are brilliant.


The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandesamy

The story of the Kilvanmani massacre and events leading up to it in 1968. A small village in Tamil Nadu, where the farm labourers haven’t had a pay rise for ten years and any insubordination against the landlords results in beatings. When Communism arrives, the local workers stand strong but their strength results in a massacre in which 42 villagers, mostly women and children, are killed. This is also a book about how you might tell the story of a massacre and the problems you might incur. Intelligent, layered, funny metafiction blending facts and storytelling.


how to be both – Ali Smith 

how to be both either begins with George in the car with her recently deceased mother discussing a moral conundrum or it begins with a 550 year old painter returning (sort of) to see his painting in an art gallery and to tell us about his life. George’s section is about life after the death of her mother; Francescho’s is about his youth and becoming an artist. Smith considers what art is and what’s its value, as well as how to be two things at once – alive and dead, watched and watcher, male and female. One of the joys of reading the novel is spotting the connections between the two sections.


Every Kiss a War – Leesa Cross-Smith

A collection about our battle with love: to find it, to keep it, to get over it once it’s gone. Teenagers deal with abortions, parental arguments and first loves:your heart beating like two quick tick-tocking clocks, like two fists with their muffled punching. Adults negotiate beginnings, endings and whether to stay or go: And staying in love is like trying to catch a light. To hold it in my hand. Even when it looks like I have it, I don’t. Ranging from flash fiction to interlinked stories, this is a confident, beautifully written collection.



Geek Love – Katherine Dunn 

The story of the Binewski family. Crystal Lil and Aloysius Binewski created their own freaks, experimenting with ‘illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes’.Five children survived: Arturo, known as Aqua Boy; Electra and Iphigenia, conjoined twins; Olympia, a hunchback, albino dwarf, and Fortunato, known as Chick, who appears to be ‘normal’ but is revealed to have telekinetic powers. Competition is fierce between them. The sub-plot, set in the future tells of Olympia and her daughter, Miranda, pursued by heiress, Mary Lick, who pays for women to be operated on so they’re less attractive/less likely to be exploited by men. A cult classic.

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

My review of this was bumped to January 2016 due to #diversedecember but I love this book. Chris Kraus and her husband, Sylvère Lottringer, have dinner with Dick, a cultural critic and acquaintance of Sylvère’s.  Chris falls for Dick and begins writing letters to him. The love is largely unrequited but she explores her feelings for him through the letters. The second half of the book, in particular, becomes much more than that, it’s filled with critical essays on art and theorists and explores the role of women in culture and life. A book you need to read with a pencil in hand. Should be described as ‘a classic’, rather than ‘a feminist classic’.

Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen 

Two novellas packaged together. In Quicksand Helga Crane searches for happiness. It’s always fleeting and she moves on until she finds herself trapped. Passing, the stronger of the two stories, focuses on a rekindled friendship between Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Clare is passing as white to the extent that not even her racist husband knows she’s black. The tension comes from knowing she’s bound to be exposed but also the devastating consequences her reappearance has on Irene’s life too.


Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo

A counterfactual slave narrative in which black people rule the world and whites are slaves. Divided into three sections, the first and third focus on Omorenomwara/Doris Scagglethorpe and her attempt to escape Chief Kaga Konata Katamba (KKK) and return to her family. The middle of the novel is the chief’s story of his involvement in the slave trade. His pronouncements about the inferiority of the Caucasoinid are supported by anthropology, ideas of savagery and a mission to save souls. Very funny in a horrifying sense. The reversal highlights the ludicrousness of the slide trade as well as reminding us of the barbarity of it.

How to Be a Heroine – Samantha

On a visit to Top Withins, the house that inspired Wuthering Heights, Ellis has a revelation: My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane. It leads her to revisit heroines from her formative years and consider others she didn’t read at the time. Part-memoir, part-literary criticism, fearlessly feminist, this will add to your TBR books you want to read and books you want to revisit. Part of the joy of this book is the space Ellis leaves for you to discuss and argue with her. I didn’t always agree with her points (#TeamCathy) but I was always engaged.



Mân – Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman)

Mãn is raised by her third mother after the first dies and the second retreats from the world. Maman takes her to a big city and passes on the things her mother has taught her. Maman finds Mãn a husband and moves to Montreal to live with him, helping to run his restaurant. As it becomes more and more successful, Mãn travels to Paris where the cookbook she’s co-written has also been a success. There she meets another restaurant owner and falls in love. Told in first person narrated vignettes, this is a beautifully written and emotionally engaging book.

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner 2015

Congratulations to Ali Smith whose novel How to be both is this year’s winner of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. A fantastic choice.

A self-congratulatory pat on the back to the shadow panel too as we accurately predicted the winning book.

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Shadow Panel Winner

After hours of deliberation – during the reading of the longlist, the rereading of our shortlisted titles and over dinner – we have chosen a winner and it is:

How to be both – Ali Smith

We felt that How to be both is an impressive achievement, a major and significant piece of writing. We all particularly enjoyed the ‘modern’/George section: the way Smith plays with language; the ambiguities that she writes into the narrative (this is, of course, also true of the ‘historical’ section), and the way the George section is illuminated further by the Francescho section (we felt that the George section was stronger than the Francescho section but enjoyed the way they played off each other). As an interesting aside, we all commented on the scene where George and Helena play with the shopping trolley in the car park – such a vivid piece of writing. How to be both is a worthy winner.

FullSizeRender-4We thought it would be interesting to reveal the process we went through to find our winner – it’s something that fascinates us about prize juries – oh to be a fly on the wall!

We’ve had a discussion group set up since the longlist was revealed and we’ve posted regularly as to what we thought about the books as we were reading – there were some brilliant (and sometimes very heated) discussions.

Shortlisting, however, was a lot simpler than we thought it would be. There were five books that the majority of us agreed on. The sixth slotted into place very quickly from the remaining books that two or more of us had put forward as worthy of a place on our shortlist.

When it came to deciding a winner, we met in person (see photo. Dan unfortunately couldn’t join us so made his wishes known and they were taken into account at every stage). We had a very lengthy discussion talking about each of the books on our shortlist – pros and cons – where we agreed and disagreed about their qualities. At the end of the discussion, there was only one book we could agree wouldn’t be our winner.

We decided that we’d each list our top two books – unranked – to see if there was commonality there. It was clear at this point that How to be both featured in five out of six of our top two books and we had our winner.

I think what’s also interesting here is that How to be both was half of the panel’s top book – the other half of the panel named The Country of Ice Cream Star as their top book. I mention this not just because I personally love that book but because we felt that the achievement of Sandra Newman in creating a world so fully realised, using a created dialect and taking us along – making us care for Ice Cream Star and her quest – deserved to be acknowledged.

Shadowing the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction with five fantastic people and passionate readers has been a brilliant experience. We hope you’ve enjoyed following it as much as we enjoyed taking part.

The Bailey’s Prize for Women Shortlist 2015

Here it is! The official shortlist for 2015. It shares three books with the Shadow Panel shortlist. If you click a cover, it will take you to my review of the book. Congratulations to all the shortlisted authors.

The Bailey’s Prize Shadow Panel Shortlist

Twenty books, five weeks, six readers and a lot of discussion later (some of it heated – ask six passionate readers how they each feel about a book and prepare to stand back!), here’s the Shadow Panel’s choices for the shortlist. (In alphabetical order by author.)

If you click on the books, they will take you to my reviews. My reviews of all the longlisted books are linked to here. Let us know what you think of our decisions. The official shortlist is announced tonight across all the Bailey’s Prize social media channels at 7.15pm.

The Man Booker Prize Longlist 2014: Where Are the Women?

In 1996, Kate Mosse established what is now the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in response to the 1991 Booker Prize all-male shortlist (this was prior to the release of longlisted titles) in a year when 60% of novels published were written by females. Since then, the prize has been subjected to criticism over the decision to make it a women only award, criticism that has only increased in recent years as Hilary Mantel and Eleanor Catton have gone on to win the Booker from shortlists which had gender parity. Unfortunately today’s longlist has demonstrated exactly why the Women’s Fiction Prize is so important.

Let’s start with a positive and offer huge congratulations to Karen Joy Fowler for the wonderful We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (a novel overlooked – in my opinion – by the Bailey’s Prize earlier this year); Siri Hustvedt (one of the first Americans to be considered) for The Blazing World, which is high on my TBR, and to Ali Smith for her forthcoming how to be both. To make the Booker Prize longlist is a huge achievement, to do so in a year when you’re one of three women (on a longlist of thirteen) is nothing short of incredible.

The problem with drawing attention to the gender of the writers on any longlist is that it inevitably leads people to question whether you would prefer to have ‘the best’ books on the list, regardless of gender, or gender parity. There are two problems with this: firstly, as Linda Grant pointed out on Twitter earlier today, is that it suggests that men are writing better novels than women, which simply isn’t true and secondly, the underlying factor is that prizes, and indeed commentary on literature, have been skewed towards men for decades. Whether readers want to acknowledge this bias or not, it exists; writing created by women is still considered lesser to that of their male counterparts.

Let’s take one particular example on this year’s list, ‘Us’ by David Nicholls. I haven’t read the book as it’s one of several on the list not yet published. However, I have read Nicholl’s previous novels, ‘Starter for Ten’ and ‘One Day’. Perhaps Nicholls has changed style for his latest work (please comment and let me know if you’ve read it) but if it is similar to his previous work then my question is this: Where is Jojo Moyes? Why isn’t she included on the list? My guess would be that she wasn’t submitted by her publishers. Why? Because looking at past longlists she wouldn’t stand a chance of making the final thirteen as her work would be considered too commercial.

And then there’s the question of what is submitted. Imprints are allowed one submission unless they’ve had a longlisted title within the last five years, in which case the rules are as follows:

2 submissions – publishers with 1 or 2 longlisting(s)
3 submissions – publishers with 3 or 4 longlistings
4 submissions – publishers with 5 or more longlistings

Any authors previously shortlisted are also eligible to submit their latest book in addition to those submitted by their publisher.

Imagine you work for a publisher and are one of the people responsible for deciding what goes forward to represent the company you work for. You’re making this decision knowing the prestige that this prize holds; knowing that a shortlisting at the least would allow you to publish the books of a number of lesser known writers who deserve a wider audience. You’ve two books in your hand – one by a woman and one by a man – both of equal quality but well, one’s already garnered more reviews in the broadsheets and you’ve studied previous shortlists and the winner’s table. Who do you choose?

What are the solutions? No surprises here that I don’t have any straight forward answers. In an ideal world all judging would be done anonymously. It’s clear from those quizzes that do the rounds on social media every so often that people can’t actually tell the difference between paragraphs written by men and those composed by women. For this to be possible though, the judging panel would have to exist in a cultural void for months and that’s unrealistic. However, during a brief conversation with the publisher Scott Pack on Twitter this afternoon, he suggested two things that could be implemented, although both have their issues.

The first was that the judging panel should have gender parity. Sounds easy but prize panels are often made up of an odd number of people so the chair can have the casting vote on split decisions. In the case of the Booker, there are five judges and a chair. This year the gender split is 4/2 male/female. Making this an even split on its own is not going to solve the underlying issue but it would be one step towards addressing it.

The second was that submissions should also be equally divided between genders. Now, as you can see from the guidelines above, that isn’t possible in the case of many imprints who are allowed an odd number of submissions and as the judges also have a huge amount of books to read in a relatively short time period (160 in six months this year) doubling the subscriptions from those imprints who haven’t had a longlisted book in the past five years sounds like a ridiculous thing to do. However, as long as the genders are neither considered nor represented equally, perhaps allowing all imprints to submit two books as long as one is by a female writer and the other by a male is a way to try and address the imbalance. It would no doubt mean that imprints with a large number of previously longlisted titles would have to be restricted to submitting fewer titles but surely it’s good for the industry to have greater breadth and for the small presses to compete on a slightly more balanced field? You only need to look at the recent success of Galley Beggars and Salt to see that small independent publishers are putting out interesting, high quality work.

It’s a shame that I’ve felt compelled to write this post in 2014 in a year when #readwomen2014 has raised the profile of female writers; when book shops are working to ensure that there’s gender parity on their display tables; when so many good books by female writers are being published, but it shows us that the fight is far from won.