Women’s Prize for Fiction/Orange prize shortlist

All posts in the Women’s Prize for Fiction/Orange prize shortlist category

The Bees – Laline Paull

Published November 13, 2015 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Hunger Games in this brilliantly imagined debut.

Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. And while mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, Flora is reassigned to feed the newborns, before becoming a forager, collecting pollen on the wing. Then she finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous. Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all, and her instinct to serve is overshadowed by a desire, as overwhelming as it is forbidden…

Laline Paull’s chilling yet ultimately triumphant novel creates a luminous world both alien and uncannily familiar. Thrilling and imaginative, The Bees is the story of a heroine who changes her destiny and her world.

What did I think?:

I was first attracted to this book in Foyles where the beautiful bright yellow cover immediately attracted my eye but it was not until I read the intriguing synopsis that I knew I had to read it. Told from the point of view of a bee, Flora 717 is an unlikely heroine in a world that demands uniformity and perfection with no deviation from the norm allowed. It’s been described as a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hunger Games and I can easily understand the comparisons but I think it’s also similar to books such as 1984 and Brave New World as a fascinating look at how a society can be brain-washed into believing certain ideals for the greater good as they imagine it.

Flora 717 begins her life in the Hive as a sanitation bee, the lowest caste of all bees and nothing is expected of them except to make sure the Hive was clean at all times. However, it’s not long before the higher caste bees begin to realise that Flora is no ordinary bee. For a start, she can speak – a function not given to the lower castes as it is not usually required. She can also produce “flow,” the substance given to developing larvae and for a while Flora is put to work in the Hive nursery, feeding and taking care of the infants. She is then given the opportunity to become a forager i.e. searching outside the Hive for as much pollen as she can carry back and becomes rather good at it. Even her bumblebee dances which explain to the other foragers where to get the best pollen and warn of any potential dangers, are praised and looked forward to on a daily basis.

It is not long before Flora is admitted into the inner sanctum of the Hive, where the Queen resides, attended to by high priestess bees. Once again, her intelligence and talents surprise everyone and surpass everything ever seen before from regular bees. It looks like life can only get better for Flora with ears in such high places, then something happens that has the potential to threaten everything she has ever known. Flora cannot help her response to such a situation and, as a result, must try desperately to hide her secret as much as she can. This is dangerous territory, especially when their Holy Mother the Queen is having problems of her own in a sensitive area that involves the future of the hive. Furthermore, the Hive Mind will always seek out any mutant bees or rogue thoughts in their midst that cannot be controlled by the sweet pheromones pumped out by the Queen Bee.

This was a really interesting and unique read, a dystopian fantasy from the perspective of a creature we normally take for granted, the humble bumblebee. I loved Flora as a main character, she had just the right amount of tenderness and rebellion to make her exciting and so very readable. The author has clearly carried out astute research into the life of bees yet I still had to laugh at the mental images I was getting of these little insects, such as sweeping the floors and doing their little explanatory dances.

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Image courtesy of http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-dance-bumble-bee-image5957307

Never fear adrenalin junkies there are also plenty of action sequences in this novel as we see the Hive battle enemies such as mice, spiders and their old adversary the evil wasp! Then there are the princely male bumblebees which provided an extra bit of humour as they were preened and doted on by the females before finding their own mate outside of the Hive. To be honest, I don’t really have much to criticise about this book, it was slightly slow in the beginning but as I settled into the style of writing I began to love Flora and all she stood for. If you’re an animal lover or intrigued by the world of bees specifically, this is the perfect book for you. I learned a lot but I was also highly entertained which of course is the main thing!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

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Image courtesy of http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-illustration-dancing-bumblebee-colored-cartoon-illustration-vector-image44156434

 

A Spool Of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

Published October 22, 2015 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

‘It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon…’

This is the way Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she and Red fell in love that day in July 1959. The whole family on the porch, relaxed, half-listening as their mother tells the same tale they have heard so many times before.

And yet this gathering is different. Abby and Red are getting older, and decisions must be made about how best to look after them and their beloved family home. They’ve all come, even Denny, who can usually be relied on only to please himself.

From that porch we spool back through three generations of the Whitshanks, witnessing the events, secrets and unguarded moments that have come to define who and what they are. And while all families like to believe they are special, round that kitchen table over all those years we see played out the hopes and fears, the rivalries and tensions of families everywhere – the essential nature of family life.

What did I think?:

This was my first Anne Tyler book and I was really looking forward to it having heard some great things from other reviewers and friends and noticing that it had been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2015. It tells the story of the Whitshank family, four generations in fact and begins in 1994 where Abby and Red Whitshank have just received a queer telephone call from one of their sons, Denny who is calling to tell them that he’s gay. On hearing his father’s reaction, he hangs up on them and Abby is distraught, believing that he will now deliberately distance himself from them.

This is the first inkling we get as readers that Denny is a personality to be handled with kid gloves. He comes across as quite a bitter character (for reasons we are told later on in the novel) and is somewhat the black sheep of the family. He has never held down a “proper” job for a long period of time, tends to jump feet first into unsuitable relationships, manages to get someone pregnant at a young age and lives as far away as he possibly can from the family hub.

The hub for the family is a beautiful large house which was passed down to Abby and Red from his parents Linnie May and Junior, the latter restoring it to such a high quality for another family and then was delighted when the family could not stay there as he jumped at the chance to move himself and Abby in. The house is almost a character in itself as it shelters and protects the four generations of Whitshanks that stay there and if houses could talk…. it would be bursting with the secrets it knows.

Of course life is unpredictable and all families have their problems which is why the children get together to discuss what should be done about Abby and Red. Unfortunately their mother has been experiencing little episodes where she goes out wandering and then comes to with no recollection of what she has been doing and how she got there. All the children have their own personal issues or extenuating circumstances but it is finally decided that Stem, his wife Nora and their children will move into the house and assist Abby and Red as they see fit.

Out of the blue our black sheep Denny suddenly arrives at the house and he is incensed that he wasn’t included or considered in the discussions (even though the other children had no idea how to get hold of him!) and believes that he and not Stem should be the one to take care of his parents. Again, we find out the reasons behind this later on in the novel. So, the big house which should be filled with love and laughter is not exactly a warming and welcoming haven. Even Abby, a considerate and peaceful person is starting to get slightly irritated with Stem’s wife Nora taking over everything and it takes a lot to ruffle her feathers.

When Red experiences a mild heart attack the children find themselves in very different circumstances and there is an awful possibility that for the first time in their family, the large house may have to be sold. The author also takes us back in time before Abby and Red to explore the relationship between Red’s mother and father, Linnie May and Junior and, as with a lot of this novel, nothing is as it appears to be on the surface.

As this is my first novel by Anne Tyler, I don’t really have much to compare this with but what I did get was a beautiful family saga filled with substance and decorated with drama. It’s not fast paced by any means and if you’re looking for action, perhaps this isn’t your sort of book but I found it a pleasantly moving and captivating tale. The strength of this novel lies in the characters who when we leave them almost feel like old friends in that they are so authentic. I also loved that Anne Tyler wrote a novel where the family is not picture perfect – it made the characters themselves very relatable and filled the pages with the sort of tension and excitement that we see in our own families from year to year.

After taking a look at my trusty Kindle, I actually found a couple of Anne Tyler books that I had forgotten I had bought, hooray! So, I’ll definitely be reading some more of her work and I can finally say that now I see what all the fuss is about.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

 

NW – Zadie Smith

Published September 10, 2013 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

This is the story of a city.

The northwest corner of a city. Here you’ll find guests and hosts, those with power and those without it, people who live somewhere special and others who live nowhere at all. And many people in between.

Every city is like this. Cheek-by-jowl living. Separate worlds.

And then there are the visitations: the rare times a stranger crosses a threshold without permission or warning, causing a disruption in the whole system. Like the April afternoon a woman came to Leah Hanwell’s door, seeking help, disturbing the peace, forcing Leah out of her isolation…

Zadie Smith’s brilliant tragi-comic new novel follows four Londoners — Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan — as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. From private houses to public parks, at work and at play, their London is a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end.

Depicting the modern urban zone — familiar to town-dwellers everywhere — Zadie Smith’s NW is a quietly devastating novel of encounters, mercurial and vital, like the city itself.

What did I think?:

Zadie Smith takes us on a journey to North-West London, an area she has visited before in her debut novel White Teeth, making it quite a special place. In reality, there is nothing very pretty about the London she portrays, although I think she has captured the multitude of characters that we call Londoners beautifully and with real vision. As I began reading, I quickly realised that the book is divided up into sections, each portion favouring us with a different character as its focus, and we begin to know them more intimately as individuals. In the first section we meet Leah Hanwell, a woman in her mid-thirties who has a philosophy degree yet works in an office where she constantly feels out of place among the other workers who are African-Caribbean, who tease her mercilessly, mainly about her husband who is black and a hairdresser. The big problem in her relationship comes when Leah begins to question whether she wants a family, eyeing her friend Natalie’s family circle with envy and yet relief that she does not have that burden. It is written as a sort of stream of consciousness, and was quite novel to read even if it may have been a little hard to follow at times.

Natalie aka Keisha (as she was previously known), is a bit of an enigma, and it is not until we get to her section of the book that we begin to understand her a little better. She is Leah’s best friend from childhood although they seem to have grown apart in recent times.  During her childhood, and particularly her adolescence, she constantly felt a need to prove herself, due to both the poverty of her family, and expectations of society. She ends up becoming a fairly successful lawyer, with a husband and a family, but is she truly happy? The other two main characters are Felix, a reformed drug addict who is desperately trying to change the habits of his past, and Nathan, a school friend of Natalie and Leah’s, who has just spent a spell in prison. Both of the latter characters I would have loved to know a little more about as I found them intriguing. There is a particular sexual scene involving Felix that I can’t get out of my head – why did you put that horrible image there Zadie Smith?

In general, I did enjoy this book, which I am glad about as I didn’t really take to “On Beauty” and “Autograph Man” very much. It’s probably not a book I would re-read, but I would definitely recommend it to someone who has never read her before as her style of writing is incredibly unique and at times poetic. I enjoyed how each section was written in a different way and certain words and phrases were confidently attributed to the different ethnic types, giving a true and current picture of how London lives today.

Would I recommend it?:

Probably!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Published September 5, 2013 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.

Wildly inventive, darkly comic, startlingly poignant — this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best, playing with time and history, telling a story that is breathtaking for both its audacity and its endless satisfactions.

What did I think?:

I’ve been meaning to read some Kate Atkinson for a while, and when she was short-listed for the Woman’s Prize for Fiction 2013, for this, her latest novel, I thought this would be a good place to start. It is the story of Ursula who is born in 1910, and has a nasty habit of dying quite a lot. I say a lot, as each time she dies, she is reincarnated again (into the same family) but each time she is given a new shot at life, she gets that little bit further along by avoiding the incident that led to her death in the first place. Sounds confusing, but somehow, Kate Atkinson makes it work, but how she kept track of all the different strands I’ll never understand!

The deaths take a variety of forms, at different ages as mentioned – from the first where she is strangled by her umbilical cord during her mother’s pregnancy, to the Spanish flu and being killed by a bomb explosion during the Second World War. Each death brings originality and a new little curiosity to us as the reader, as we wonder how she will avoid the same fate next time round. Ursula is not completely aware that she is preventing her own death each time, but feels an ominous sort of dread. Some of the decisions she makes are quite small and not particularly life-changing, for example, simply deciding not to step out onto the roof as a child, saves her from her fate. Other decisions determine that she will never have the chance to be a mother. And, of course, what would her life have been like if she had the chance to meet Hitler in 1930 and shoot him?

I wasn’t sure about this book at first, but once I had read the first few chapters and got into the swing of things, I absolutely loved it and thought it was an incredibly unique way to tell a story. The characters were all fascinating, and some parts were truly gripping, having me turn the pages (okay, tap my Kindle) long into the night. Heart-breaking and poignant in parts and shocking and gritty in others as the war rages and Ursula joins a bomb raid rescue team. I don’t think I will ever forget the “corpse coming apart like a Christmas cracker” section…. but I’m not going to say any more, you’ll just have to read it!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver

Published August 16, 2013 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Dellarobia Turnbow is a restless farm wife who gave up her own plans when she accidentally became pregnant at seventeen. Now, after a decade of domestic disharmony on a failing farm, she has settled for permanent disappointment but seeks momentary escape through an obsessive flirtation with a younger man. As she hikes up a mountain road behind her house to a secret tryst, she encounters a shocking sight: a silent, forested valley filled with what looks like a lake of fire. She can only understand it as a cautionary miracle, but it sparks a raft of other explanations from scientists, religious leaders, and the media. The bewildering emergency draws rural farmers into unexpected acquaintance with urbane journalists, opportunists, sightseers, and a striking biologist with his own stake in the outcome. As the community lines up to judge the woman and her miracle, Dellarobia confronts her family, her church, her town, and a larger world, in a flight toward truth that could undo all she has ever believed.

What did I think?:

Having read and loved Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, I was eager to read her latest offering, in particular because it was shortlisted for the Woman’s Prize for Fiction 2013. (Please see my previous post HERE). When we first meet our main character Dellarobia, she is fleeing from a stale marriage to begin an affair with a man she barely knows. On her way to the rendez-vous point with her potential lover, she climbs the hills on the grounds behind her home to an amazing sight – multiple strange growths on trees and a valley filled with what looks like flames. Astounded by this, she takes it as a sign that she should return to her family and spurn the man she was escaping with. Later on, we learn that the growths and flames are colonies of Monarch butterflies, which have unusually chose the Appalachians as their spot to roost, instead of their usual spot in Mexico. The butterflies end up attracting scientists and media attention the world over due to this strange occurrence, and when it turns out that this may be all down to global warming, Dellarobia’s life changes beyond which she ever could have imagined.

I thought this was an absolutely beautiful book which manages to communicate the drastic issues of climate change without sounding in the slightest bit preachy. There is a quote on the front of the paperback copy that I own to the effect that the author makes us “think, feel and care” all at once, and I completely concur! This is a wonderfully told story of human relationships, family life, religion and science that all seem to mould together to form a cohesive whole interesting the reader enough that we feel connected to these fictional characters in some way (and the butterflies, of course, whom I formed quite an attachment to). Personally, I was concerned about what was going to happen to these individuals, and when a piece of fiction is not “action-packed,” it is hugely important for me that I felt sympathetic and understanding of the issues otherwise I would have just put the book down, bored to tears. The strength of the writing and of the characters prevents this from happening, and is made all the more poignant for the Afterword where Kingsolver tells us that climate change has actually affected the roosting places of Monarch butterflies (although she fictionalised the setting of the Appalachians). I would definitely class Barbara Kingsolver as amongst one of my favourite authors and consider this a worthy short-lister for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

Buddha Da – Anne Donovan

Published June 23, 2013 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Anne Marie’s dad, a Glaswegian painter and decorator, has always been game for a laugh. So when he first takes up meditation at the Buddhist Center, no one takes him seriously. But as Jimmy becomes more involved in a search for the spiritual, his beliefs start to come into conflict with the needs of his wife, Liz. Cracks appear in their apparently happy family life, and the ensuing events change the lives of each family member. Donovan completely captures these lives in her clear-eyed, evocative prose, rendered alternately in the voices of each of the main characters. With seamless grace and astonishing veracity, Buddha Da treats serious themes with humor and its characters with humanity. From prize-winning writer Anne Donovan, this stunning debut novel — shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Whitbread First Novel Award — will appeal to readers of Roddy Doyle.

What did I think?:

As a proud Scotswoman this novel appealed to me not only because it was short-listed for the Orange Prize (now the Woman’s Prize for Fiction), but because it was written in the Glaswegian dialect in the same manner as Irvine Welsh’s novels. It is the story of a family, consisting of Jimmy, Liz and their young daughter Anne-Marie, and how their lives are turned upside down when Jimmy decides to explore his spiritual side by becoming a Buddhist. Each chapter is written from the point of view of the three main characters which I found to be very effective, and added to the charm of the whole story as a whole. When Jimmy starts to spend more time away from home in the Buddhist Centre and changes his way of life – no alcohol, meat etc, his relationship with Liz begins to fall apart, and it was interesting to read how the outcome of this affected each character.

Anne Donovan’s story seems to flow off the page so effortlessly and I was completely drawn into the story, and found myself engrossed and caring for each character as an individual. I think she has captured the ups and downs of relationships, and the troubles we all face with daily life so easily, that it was a real pleasure to read. The dialect, as I mentioned earlier, was a big attraction for me, and it was wonderful to read small words like “oxter,” and “boking,” that transported me right back to my childhood (and  the periods of my adult life, whenever I am around my Scottish parents!). A worthy short-lister for the Orange Prize, I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in spirituality, family dynamics, and great story-telling.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 Shortlist Announced

Published April 16, 2013 by bibliobeth

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 shortlist was announced today (formerly the Orange Prize), looks like a tough group – do you think Hilary Mantel can take them? And win yet another literary prize (and £30,000) for Bring Up The Bodies? Place your bets! The Chair of Judges, Miranda Richardson said “The shortlist for 2013 represents six tremendous writers at the top of their game.” 

I can’t wait to read them. I’ve only read On Beauty by Zadie Smith and wasn’t that impressed but it was a long time ago and here’s hoping my tastes have matured. The A.M. Homes book is on the Waterstones Book Club list at the moment and definitely on my TBR radar, and I have been meaning to read Kate Atkinson for a while, but not sure whether I should start with her older works? I have read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and have The Lacuna to read pretty soon so looking forward to dipping into Flight Behaviour. As for the giantess that is Hilary Mantel, I will soon be attempting to read Wolf Hall again, was I the only person in the world that didn’t get it? I am a big fan of the Tudor period so am very disappointed in myself…. (slaps wrist). Finally, Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple  was also mentioned and recommended in a podcast that I listen to on a regular basis – Books on the Nightstand, so will be checking that out.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments on the shortlist!

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