Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019

The winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced on Wednesday 5 June; and well done to Tayari Jones’ with her book An American Marriage.

We’d already blogged about some of the titles on this year’s shortlist.

And here are our thoughts about the others, including this year’s winner.

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My Sister the Serial Killer by Okinyan Braithwaite

Set in Nigeria and, as the title suggests, this novel is about two sisters, one a beautiful serial killer and the other a plain nurse who cleans up after her sister’s crimes.  This is not really a crime thriller, but a dark comedy.  The book is energetic and very funny.  It surprises and delights and has a young feel about it.  The younger sister, Ayoola, is at once a seductive beauty, a cold-blooded killer, a spoilt daughter and a young woman preoccupied with fashion and social media.  The older sister, Korede, is serious and dutiful by contrast, in love with a doctor she works with who inevitably falls for her Ayoola.  The sisters’ relationship is complex – competitive and antagonistic, but they are partners, each one suffering in their own way and both needing the other.  This book stayed with me and I loved its vibrant style.  It can seem a little like a soap opera, but what is done very well and what lingers after the story is finished, is the view of a society that perpetuates violence against women on many levels.  Like Circe and Ordinary People, it has a lot to say about what it means to be a woman and women’s complex relationships with each other.  This book stood out as highlighting important issues is a very clever, funny and new way.

Milkman by Anna Burns

Middle sister lives in a world where it is dangerous to be interesting, dangerous to have a name or to name others; a world where what is said or unsaid can have devastating consequences. Middle sister tries to keep to herself but when Milkman takes an interest in her the rumours begin to spread.

When I started this it felt like science fiction or dystopia but as I learned more about Middle Sister’s world I started to think perhaps this was closer to home than I thought. It cleverly exposes the absurdity of what we are willing to accept as normal. It has an unusual structure as it is written almost as a stream of consciousness and the story jumps around a lot chronologically. It is so original that it doesn’t really remind me of anything I’ve read before. I think one of the most striking things is how current and of the moment it feels and so I was not surprised it won.

 The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker 

‘The Silence of the Girls’ is the perfect title for Pat Barker’s reimagining of ‘The Iliad’ told through the eyes of Briseis. Briseis is the cause of the infamous quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles and yet in Homer’s version, although we get to hear powerful speeches from both the men, Briseis remains silent. Pat Barker finally gives her a voice.

Despite being based on a myth, the story feels incredibly real as Pat Barker doesn’t shy aware from writing about the realities of war. The war camp is filled with the rats, disease and the constant threat of violence. Barker shows how Briseis and the other women become objects belonging to the men who yesterday killed their husbands and brothers.

Most of the book is told in the first person from Briseis’s viewpoint, but about half way through we also get chapters in the close third person, from Achilles perspective. Achilles character is beautifully portrayed in all his cruelty and violence, but he never becomes just a monster, he is always a real man with complex emotions. Despite this, I much preferred Briseis’s chapters and wonder if the book would lose anything if it was told only in her voice.

There has been a flurry of feminist retellings of myths recently but I think this is one of the best. It made me look at ‘The Iliad’ differently and it raises questions about who gets to tell our stories. At one point in the novel Briseis tries to run away from Achilles and chose her own fate, but she is unable to do so. She concludes that she can never escape the story that ultimately belongs to Achilles.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones 

An American Marriage tells the story of Roy and Celestial. They are a young married couple planning their “American dream” future together when the unthinkable happens and Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. We watch as their plans for their lives unravel and we hear the story from the viewpoint of three different characters.

It is difficult to discuss the plot without giving too much away, because there are a few surprise twists and turns that I didn’t expect. It deals with themes of loyalty, family, history, race and the American justice system. All three of the main characters are so realistically portrayed with all their dreams and faults that you are always invested in their stories, even if you don’t always find them likeable.

Although I felt some of the other books in the shortlist were more innovative, this is one of the most beautifully written. I love the way Tayari Jones weaves words together. I also found it very moving. For me the letters Roy and Celestial write to each other while he is in prison were the most powerful. Several chapters near the middle of the book are made up of just these letters and it is handled so skilfully that it’s all we need to move the story along.

Fiona and Phillipa, Brompton Library

 

 

Women’s Prize Shortlist – Part 1

In this series of posts, we will be reviewing the books shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, which was announced on Monday 29 April.

Circe by Madeline Miller

In this retelling of Circe’s story, Miller takes us into the world of ancient Greece from a female viewpoint.  Most commonly known as the enchantress who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs and him into her lover, Circe comes to life in this gripping and well-told tale.  She still turns men who displease her into pigs, but the story adds flesh to her bones and turns her from a female stereotype, into a goddess with a lot of earthly humanity.

Starting life in the court of her father, Helios the Sun God, Circe discovers that she can use flowers to transform people.  When she innocently admits her magical powers to her father, he banishes her to the island of Aeaea.  On her island, Circe lives in a house filled with everything she needs, surrounded by trees and beaches, alone except for the lions that live with her and the creatures of the woods.  She is visited by several interesting characters such as Medea and Odysseus, which feels like having access to secret stories and conversations. The island is both a great freedom and a prison for Circe and we see her, over the few thousand years of the story, struggle with her fate and isolation, grow into her power, fall in love and watch those she has loved die.

There is a lot of debate about whether it is right to retrospectively empower ancient characters.  Circe is three dimensional and flawed.  She stays true to herself despite her isolation, and does not resort to the power games of the male dominated world of the gods, but she is also not afraid to use her power.  She serves men graciously when it suits her but is not afraid to use her powers when it doesn’t.

This is an engrossing novel that is difficult to put down.  A review says it should be read in one sitting.  Quite long to be read all at once, but a great holiday read or for a time when you can dedicate a few hours at a time to it.

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Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Set in London in 2008 following the election of Barak Obama, two couples are in crisis.  In an interview with the author on the Women’s Prize website, the author says that she wanted to write a story about how marriage effects both men and women and she does this very well, letting all the characters be both likeable and flawed.  The novel covers a lot of ground including motherhood, modern relationships, race, identity, home, ancestral and historical ties, but does so with a deft hand, bringing all these layers together and weaving them around each other.

Through the novel, she takes us into the routine, day-to-day family life and transforms it with her colourful, rhythmic writing.  She really takes time to tell the story, bringing small details to life, while keeping a steady ebb and flow to the pace of the melodic writing.  Music features throughout, bringing us closer to the characters, who they are and what they are going through emotionally.  The couples weave in and out of each other’s lives, physically and emotionally, and the past weaves into the present with memories of the early days of their relationships and references to parents, grandparents and distant countries of origin.

London features vividly throughout with many references to Chrystal Palace both now and historically, the 176 bus route lined with chicken shops, a wedding in Greenwich, shopping at Selfridges and bridges over the Thames.  The city is brought to life, its colours, intensity, its moods and its history, and it looms large even though ultimately it is the backdrop to the slower, subtler journey of the characters.  I found the book funny, engaging and incredibly moving and I enjoyed the feeling of being told a story, the music references and all the layers that Evans creates from the ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people.

Watch this space as the winner will be announced Wednesday 5 June.

Fiona,
Library Customer Service Officer, Brompton Library

May’s displays from the Biography Collection

Throughout the month of May we will have two displays of books from our special  Biography Collection.

To mark the bicentenary of Queen Victoria’s birth, just up the road at Kensington Palace, on May 24th 1819, we have a range of the many biographies of her in our collection. We have coffee table books beautifully illustrated with portraits, and detailed analyses of her relationship to the huge changes that took place during her reign – politically, socially, industrially and culturally.

Every aspect of her unique life has been documented by a biographer at one time or another, making use of the incredible resource of her copious diaries, so you can read about her role as a mother, her celebrated love affair with her husband Prince Albert, her childhood, her sense of humour, her leisure pursuits, her health, and her relationships with the politicians and statesmen of her day, as well as with her royal relations all over Europe.

Her six and a half decades on the throne spanned the transition from one world to another, and her qualities as an intelligent and curious woman make her a fascinating observer of her own life and times.

Our second display is on “Londoners’ Diaries”, and is linked to Cityread London, whose choice this year is Sofia Khan is not Obliged by Ayisha Malik, the funny and touching fictional diary of a young woman negotiating the Muslim dating scene in present day London.

There is something uniquely intimate and vivid about reading the private thoughts a diarist put on paper perhaps centuries ago, and we invite you to share the excitement of travelling back to the London of earlier eras through their observations. We’ve included some of the greatest diaries ever written, like those of Samuel Pepys and Virginia Woolf, as well as the diaries of less famous Londoners like the nineteenth century schoolboy John Pocock, and contemporary diaries whose writers celebrate different aspects of life in the capital – dog walking with Edward Stourton, ambling and observing with Tim Bradford.

We can learn how Londoners experienced huge historical moments through the immediacy of daily records, like Joan Wyndham hilariously juggling her love life during the Blitz, or Kate Parry Frye, a young Kensington woman pursuing her cause as a tenacious and passionate suffragrist. Come and meet your fellow Londoners of ages past – you never know, it might even inspire you to start keeping a diary of your own!

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

 

A world of writers from the Biography Collection

As we look forward to celebrating World Book Night on Tuesday 23 April, this month’s Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library brings together biographies of great twentieth century writers in languages other than English. There are a couple of exceptions, such as Han Suyin who wrote in English but whose autobiographical works are considered some of the greatest records of modern Chinese history and Wole Soyinka whose Anglophone work is pivotal to African literature.

Including many winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, this is a parade of some of world literature’s greatest voices, some of whom waited many years to be translated into English. Some are household names, some less well known outside their own continents; all open worlds of artistic beauty and cultural insight, and their biographies allow us to follow the experiences of how great writers develop in very different cultures and environments.

In a departure from our usual displays, which include only books from our Biography Collection, we have this month included some of the fiction by these writers alongside their biographies and memoirs, in the hope readers will discover some less familiar gems.  From Chile’s Isabel Allende to Austria’s Stefan Zweig, including Finland’s Tove Jansson (better known as an artist, her exquisite short stories were not available in English until decades after she wrote them); India’s Rabindranath Tagore, Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, Japan’s Junichuro Tanizaki, Isaac Bashevis Singer who brought his native Yiddish from Poland to the US and became the custodian of a vanished culture and many, many more, discover a world of writers on our shelves.

Happy World Book night from us to you all, happy reading!

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Brompton Graphic Novel Reading Group- The Bad doctor

Hello and welcome to the Brompton Library Graphic Novel Reading Group.

For the next session, Monday 8 April, 6:30pm, we will be discussing Doctor Ian Williams’ illustrated anecdotes of The Bad Doctor.

Cartoonist and Dr Ian Williams takes his stethoscope to Dr Iwan James, a rural GP in need of more than a little care himself. Incontinent old ladies, men with eagle tattoos, traumatised widowers, Iwan’s patients cause him both empathy and dismay, further complicated by his feelings for his practise partners: unrequited longing for Dr Lois Pritchard and frustration at the antics of Dr Robert Smith, who will use any means to make Iwan look bad in his presence. Iwan’s cycling trips with his friend and mentor, Arthur, provide some welcome relief for him.

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“The territory of doctor as patient has been visited before, but Dr. Williams’s iteration and its resolution are as subtle and thought provoking as the best of them, with the always worthwhile message that the roles into which humans sort themselves are as mutable as the rituals they accept and reject, and the calls for help they choose to hear or not.” -The New York Times

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“Replete with sometimes delicate, sometimes explicit observations about the foibles of human nature and the bureaucracy of healthcare, The Bad Doctor combines wickedly black humour with subtle characterisation that never fails to engage the audience’s empathy.” -Broken Frontier          

If you have any other suggestions for the reading list, then please let me know and we’ll try our best to accommodate. So far we have the following for consideration:

  • Casandra Darke
  • Cry Havoc
  • Full Metal Alchemist
  • Barakamon
  • Hellblaizer
  • V for Vendetta
  • Jaco the Galactic Patrolman
  • The Legend of Wonder Woman
  • The Flintstones Vol. 2: Bedrock Bedlam
  • Uncanny X-Force Vol. 1: Apocalypse Solution
  • My Brother’s Husband, Volume 1
  • The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

The reading group takes place on the second Monday evening of every month. There may be a pub quiz afterwards if you want to join in!

See you there! Bring snacks.

David Bushell
Library Customer Services Officer
Brompton Library

Barn Burning – a short story from The Elephant Vanishes written by Haruki Murakami 

A married man meets a young girl who works as an advertising model and studies pantomime.  They meet sometimes and go out for meals and he enjoys talking to her.  One day her father dies and she asks him to look after her cat while she travels to Africa.

When she returns, she has a new boyfriend in tow, a rich young man with a European sports car.  The girl and the boyfriend turn up at his house with lunch one afternoon and, after a few drinks, the young man admits to enjoying burning barns, an admission that creates an obsession in the older man.

True to his style, the story is simple with many subtle complexities and ambiguities.

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Burning – a film directed by Lee Chang-Dong

In the film, the main character, now called Jongsu, is no longer an older married man but a recent graduate with no money or parental support, trying to make his way as a writer.  Making him younger, adds a coming of age element that is reminiscent of Murakami’s other work such as Norwegian Wood.  The relationship between Jongsu and Hai-mae is more developed and her Americanised boyfriend Ben, now a Jongsu’s peer, becomes his rival.

The location of the story has moved from Tokyo to Seoul and Paju, the small town where Jongsu grew up.  Barns are now greenhouses, more appropriate to the South Korean countryside, and propaganda messages can be heard coming over the border from North Korea.  At one point there is news coverage of Trump talking about America in the background, making the film relevant and contemporary, while keeping and expanding on the important elements of the story and paying a lot of respect to Murakami.

Chang-Dong has taken the story and turned it into an unsettling and mysterious film that builds into a gripping thriller.

Beautifully shot and acted with a great soundtrack.

Inspirational female authors – International Women’s Day 2019

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today, 8 March, is a date to celebrate the social, economic, political and cultural achievements of women. It all began over a century ago and today it is observed all over the world. It is also a day to reflect on improving gender equality and for 2019 the theme is #BalanceforBetter.

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At Brompton library, we have been celebrating the literary achievement of women with a series of book reviews. Since International Women’s Day in 2018, I have been doing regular reviews of books by inspirational female authors. In total I have read eleven books by eleven amazing female writers. It is hard to pick a favourite because the books are all so different and written in different styles.

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I loved some of the books because of their subject matter or the worlds they created. There are the feminist dystopias of The Power, The Water Cure and Red Clocks which comment on gender equality in our own society. There is Helen Dunmore’s novel that explores how a female writer from the eighteenth century could be completely forgotten by history. Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood’s novels reimagine classic myths and fairy tales from a feminist perspective.

I found some of the books inspirational because of their authors. Such as Zadie Smith, who was published at a young age and has gone on to win many literary awards or Toni Morrison, who was the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Then there is Malala Yousafzai, who almost lost her life standing up for women’s rights.

Because the books are from different eras, it made me reflect on the journey of women’s rights. Roxane Gay’s essays are a funny and insightful look into the struggles of being a modern feminist, whereas Emily Bronte, who had to publish Wuthering Heights under a male pseudonym, is a reminder of how far we’ve come.

I hope you have been as inspired as me by these great reads! And I’m sure you can think of many more inspirational female authors to add to this list.

 

 

Brompton Library Graphic Novel Reading Group

Hello and welcome to the Brompton Library Graphic Novel Reading Group mailing list!

For the next session, MONDAY 11 March, 6:30pm, we will be discussing Marjorie Liu’s contemporary fantasy adventure fable Monstress.

Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steam punk, Monstress tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, a connection that will transform them both.

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“Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda take eastern and western comics storytelling traditions and styles, and create something wholly their own and remarkable: a beautifully told story of magic and fear, inhumanity and exploitation, of what it means to be human and the monsters we all carry inside us. Also, some of the best cats in comics. A delight.” – Neil Gaiman

“If you want big, beautiful, terrifying, violent magic, Monstress is your next favourite comic.” – Cosmopolitan

If you have any other suggestions for the reading list, then please let me know and we’ll try our best to accommodate. So far we have the following for consideration:

  • Casandra Drake
  • Cry Havoc
  • Full Metal Alchemist
  • Barakamon
  • Hellblaizer
  • V for Vendetta
  • Jaco the Galactic Patrolman
  • The Legend of Wonder Woman
  • The Flintstones Vol. 2: Bedrock Bedlam
  • Uncanny X-Force Vol. 1: Apocalypse Solution
  • My Brother’s Husband, Volume 1
  • Bad Doctor by Ian Williams
  • Out of Nothing by Dan Locke
  • The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

The reading group takes place on the second Monday evening of every month. There may be a pub quiz afterwards if you want to join in!

See you there! Bring snacks.

David Bushell
Library Customer Services Officer, Brompton Library

Author Caroline Lawrence at Brompton Library

On Wednesday 13 February, the first sunny day of the month, Brompton Library was host to an exciting event. Caroline Lawrence, author of successful series The Roman Mysteries, gave a brilliant two-hour workshop to 9 – 11 year-old pupils of local Earls Court School, St Barnabas and St Philip’s. The pupils were accompanied by Assistant Head Teacher, Nicola Challice.

The children learnt about what it is to be a writer and how to structure a story. This included ‘ninja description’, the ‘seven beats’ of plot and the ‘number shape system’.

The workshop culminated in working through the first chapters of Caroline’s forthcoming book, The Time-Travel Diaries, which will be published on 5 April. The children competed to see who could write the best blog about their experience. We think they all did brilliantly!

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Thank you so much to Caroline for such an interesting workshop. The Time-Travel Diaries is published on 5 April 2019. And thank you to St Barnabas and St Philip’s as well, the children were a credit to their school, remaining excited and involved throughout.

If you’re a local school and would like to take part in a similar event – please contact us at libraries@rbkc.gov.uk

Penny, Brompton Library

Inspirational female authors: Zadie Smith

As we get ready to celebrate International Women’s Day next month, we are continuing with our inspirational female authors blog series. For February, I will be reviewing White Teeth by Zadie Smith 

White Teeth was Zadie Smith’s first novel, which was published when she was just twenty-four years old. It went on to have huge critical success and it won several awards, including the 2000 Whitbread Book Award, the Guardian First Book Award and the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize. It has also more recently been adapted for the stage.

It is difficult to give a quick, neat synopsis of what White Teeth is about because it weaves between many characters, timelines and settings. It is a tale of immigration and belonging and at its heart are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. The book follows their stories and the stories of their families.

It is not a quick read and it has been criticised as needing editing as there is backstory upon backstory. Not only do you know the life of the main characters’ parents, but their parents and even their parents too. But I loved it, you really sink into the lives of the characters. I loved how you slowly learn how the threads of their lives intertwine and then collide towards the end, over the most bizarre spectacle.

It deals with some difficult, serious topics but it is also very funny. I don’t laugh easily at books, but I found myself chuckling at some of the lines and scenes in this.  Zadie Smith brings her own fresh perspective to the tale of an immigrant in Britain and although she has been compared to many other writers, I think she has a strong, unique voice.

Next month we will recap all the books we have reviewed this year, to coincide with International Women’s Day on 8 March.

Philippa, Brompton Library