In April, the lovely, brilliant bloggers Callum, Emily, Hannah, Marija, Rachel, Sarah, Steph and I came up with the Women’s Prize for Fiction SQUAD Longlist as an alternative to the original Women’s Prize longlist, which has left us underwhelmed. It was a very spontaneous decision as we discussed all the books we wished had made it, and it was fun to come up with books we would’ve chosen instead. To no one’s surprise, a longlist we chose ourselves was far more enjoyable to read. Obviously we are biased because of our somewhat similar tastes, so of course this is not a serious list and neither did we put a whole lot of effort into it. If we decide to do this again next year, we’ll make sure it’s far more diverse!
Here were our choices:
I have now finished reading all of them, and have some thoughts. First of all, this was an exciting list, and thank you to everyone for making me read some of my favorite books this year. I was looking forward to reading the entire list and this is the main difference to me between this one and the one from the original Prize this year: it was actually exciting.
I poked a bit of fun (= I wrote a conspiracy post and have acquired followers, we meet every Tuesday, BYOB) at the Women’s Prize for always having some sort of pattern, like the 2019 list being all about marriages being awful and about Greek retellings, and the 2020 about bad relationships with mothers plus a Greek retelling. Funnily enough, our list also ended up having a pattern, so now I have to eat my words. We had:
- Two Frankenstein retellings (My name is Monster & Frankissstein)
- Two books about writing programs (Bunny & The Body Lies)
- Two Irish books (Actress, The Fire Starters)
- Two books told via multiple POVs, with not much of a plot although all of the POVs are connected (Girl, Woman, Other & Disappearing Earth)
- Three books about women behaving in ways they shouldn’t and society thinks they’re crazy and/or evil (The Mercies, Actress, Supper Club)
- Five about violence and abuse against women (The Bass Rock, My Dark Vanessa, The Body Lies, The Mercies & arguably also Ninth House)
- It’s also a fairly magical list with two fantasies (Call Down the Hawk & Ninth House) and three books with magical elements (The Fire Starters, The Bass Rock and Bunny)
- Sapphics win this longlist with six-maybe-seven books! (The Mercies, The Bass Rock, Girl, Woman, Other, Bunny, Supper Club, a couple chapters in Disappearing Earth, unclear for My Name is Monster but at least one very minor character is Sapphic)
Which, frankly, is a much better pattern to have in a reading list, if you must read 16 books. Not a single Greek retelling in sight! Also no Mantel, which is actually surprising.
Bunny by Mona Awad / Review
I loved this book, it was so weird and snarky and I was obsessed with it for days. It’s not an easy book to recommend, and the others in the group didn’t quite love it as much as I did, but even so, I think this does something unique and is wildly entertaining. It brings a freshness to the list with its mix of horror and absurd!
The Body Lies by Jo Baker / Review
Literary thriller is my new favorite genre after reading The Body Lies. This is a character-centered, rather slow-paced thriller about men telling women’s stories and being believed, while the women themselves are silenced and mistrusted. It was brilliant and a chilling read!
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo / Review
This was a dark, gritty fantasy, and I love that Leigh Bardugo writes action and adventure so well. I had lots of fun reading it and will certainly continue with the series, but I don’t think it was particularly remarkable – in terms of fantasy I enjoyed Jade War a lot more. However, this was a bold addition and I think the WP should add more sci-fi and fantasy to their list, too!
The Fire Starters by Jan Carson / Review
This is a seriously underrated novel set in Belfast, where tensions are high as politicians try to limit the amount of fires lightened traditionally for the Eleventh, which bring lots of damage to the town. With several references to the Troubles and a beautiful inclusion of magical realism at its very best, plus Jen Carson’s gorgeous writing, it’s one of the best books I’ll read all year. The depiction of violence, heritage and what it means to do the right thing, it was just incredible.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann / Review
Ducks is an outstanding book about a stay-at-home mom who spends her days baking pies and taking care of her children, worrying about the world, and it’s told in an epic stream-of-consciousness style. Both funny and insightful, it was truly a joy to read this, her worries about the children, her fears for the future, her past and mundane thoughts about what’s on TV or on the news. It’s difficult to explain what is so exciting about this book, but it’s really brilliantly executed. This represents well what literature can do, how it can take the mundane life of a woman mostly ignored by society and turn it into an epic.
Actress by Anne Enright / Review
This is a gorgeously written story about a glamorous Irish actress who was institutionalized decades ago after shooting a man on the foot, told through the eyes of her daughter. I loved this at times, but it left me wanting a bit more out of the story. Also longlisted for the WP 2020, this was an enjoyable read and a crowd-pleaser!
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo / Review
This book has been thankfully hyped lately, for a good reason. It tells the story of twelve characters, all connected to each other in some way, building to one story of hopes and dreams, of queerness, of racism in Britain, of broken relationships and misunderstandings. A great book and one that most readers adore, it makes literary fiction accessible and brings relevant topics to life.
My Name is Monster by Katie Hale / Review
This is a loose retelling of Frankenstein, a post-apocalyptic story of a girl who might be the only survivor after the Sickness and War, until she finds another girl, half feral. This is an exploration of motherhood, society and rules, language, power. I loved it and was surprised by the depth and humanity in what I expected to be just a post-apocalyptic story. The power struggle between Monster and the girl as they disagree on what is important in life and what it means to survive, it was fascinating to read.
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave / Review
This is a bleak but compelling look into the witch trials in 1621 in a small Norwegian town, after the men have been killed during a storm that came suddenly and left the women to take care of themselves. This was heartbreaking, but still with hope, and brings to this list a story of strength and resilience, of hatred and prejudice, and a reminder of the horrors women suffered by being accused of witchcraft in those times. Despite its bleakness, there is so much strength and hope in these pages, and the author brings the world of 17th century Norway to life with vivid colors.
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy / Review
I loved this slim gem of a novel – it goes back and forth between the present day when Saul gets hit by a car and his days in East Berlin in the sixties. This unreliable narration makes for a great and engaging read, and a glimpse into life in East Germany under the Stasi, exploring the deep suspicion one had of neighbors, family and friends, the scarcity, constant surveillance and how homosexuals were despised.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips / Review
This beautiful book tells the story of the kidnapping of two sisters in a small town in Siberia and the secrets and lives of the women connected, however remotely, to them. This reads like a collection of stories, a photograph of the lives of the characters in the aftermath of the kidnapping, and it’s both bleak and hopeful at the same time. Truly beautifully executed.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell / Review
My Dark Vanessa is a nuanced story about a young woman who was groomed and abused by a professor as a teenager and has complicated feelings towards him to this day. It’s emotional and touching and such an important read. The author executed this perfectly – it’s not an easy subject and the main character is not the most likable. She is flawed and clearly in state of denial, not seeing herself as a victim at all. This book brings a devastating look into a topic that is hardly ever seen from the victim’s point of view, humanizing her and allowing her to be flawed.
Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater / Review
This is a follow-up series to The Raven Cycle, focusing on the Lynch brothers and Ronan’s power. I did not expect to love this, since I enjoyed TRC but did not love it plus dream sequences are my least favorite fantasy trope, so this ended up boring me a little bit with a slow-moving and (to me) predictable plot. It does give depth to each of the brothers and their complicated relationship, doing justice to Declan’s character and was also a bold addition to this list! I am happy to see more fantasy here, even if it did not work for me.
Supper Club by Lara Williams / Review
This was such an interesting read! It’s about women who gather for Supper Club to take up space, experience joy and push boundaries of what society expects of them, eating enormous amonts of food and wrecking havoc. It wasn’t an entirely original plot, it reminded me of Bunny and of My Dark Vanessa in some parts, plus the trope of women behaving badly and having little control over their lives is also quite popular now. But this is definitely one of the best ones and I really enjoyed it! It brought a vibrant, defiant story to the list and I am sure a lot of women will enjoy reading about pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable behavior.
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld / Review
The Bass Rock is told through the point of view of three characters in different decades, all connected by the house on the bleak, small Scottish village. It explores how toxic masculinity hurts people and, although much has changed, some things haven’t changed at all and women still get hurt by the heritage of this violence and by living in a modern society that is still violent. It’s a ghostly story with Gothic tones and although it’s not always the easiest or a very cheerful read, it is full of resilience and hope.
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson / Review
This was a book I really wanted to love, and it shines with brilliancy quite often, but I can’t quite get over the treatment of the main character, a trans doctor. I don’t have authority on the representation, but E from Revolution in the Pages has reviewed it brilliantly. I enjoyed the discussions on AI, of a post-body future, of what consists being human, if it’s only our consciousness and what part do our bodies play in it. The nitty-gritty details were so very interesting, but I cannot recommend a book that has hurt the trans community this way. There are a lot of brilliant books out there by trans authors and it’s not really a big loss skipping this book!
I will not say which book(s) has (have) my vote as the winner, because I’m mysterious and suspenseful like that. But here are the things I am keeping in mind:
- What makes this book special? Why is it an exciting choice?
- Does this book do something new with literature, perhaps in technique or exploring an overlooked theme?
- Would people benefit from reading this book, for example by its relevant theme, or for bringing to light a minority that does not get represented often, by talking candidly about an experience many people feel, or doing something new in a genre?
I look forward to seeing everyone else’s thoughts on the list as they work their way throught it! Luckily the pandemic did not put me into a slump, because adding 16 books to your TBR to read in a few months along with your regular TBR is not an easy thing.