Women’s Prize 2021 Longlist Predictions

I’ve already talked a little bit about how I don’t plan on following the Women’s Prize this year as closely as I usually do… but at this point it’s tradition to make a predictions list and get everything spectacularly wrong, so, let’s do this.

I WILL be updating my Women’s Prize Complete Longlist history post here and its corresponding Google Doc here as soon as the list drops, so you can look forward to that, if that is the sort of thing you look forward to.

As of now, here are my predictions:

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Has the author been longlisted before?  No.

Would I be happy to see it?  Sure! I’ve heard mostly positive things and I’d like the excuse to finally read it. That said, I’d like to read Nella Larsen’s Passing first, which I understanding The Vanishing Act is sort of in conversation with, so I might not get around to reading it before the shortlist drops if it does make the list.

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

Has the author been longlisted before?  No (debut).

Would I be happy to see it?  YES. I loved this book and felt it didn’t get nearly enough attention. I thought it was a great snapshot of the withering effects of the Korean beauty industry on a group of young women.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Has the author been longlisted before?  No.

Would I be happy to see it?  Hannah loved it and thinks I also would, so yeah, why not.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Has the author been longlisted before?  No (debut).

Would I be happy to see it?  This narrowly missed out on being one of my top books of 2020 so yes, absolutely.

Sisters by Daisy Johnson

Has the author been longlisted before?  No.

Would I be happy to see it?  I’m not sure… I did mean to read this ages ago and was looking forward to it but since then my interest has waned a bit. I think I’ve read a few too many lukewarm reviews. I’d still probably give it a shot though.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Has the author been longlisted before?  No.

Would I be happy to see it?  I don’t think I’ll read this, at least not right now, but I wouldn’t mind seeing it on there; the consensus seems overwhelmingly positive.

The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes

Has the author been longlisted before?  No.

Would I be happy to see it?  I mean, you know me and Irish lit. I don’t know a whole lot about this one but I’ve heard good things.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Has the author been longlisted before?  No (debut).

Would I be happy to see it?  I was honestly a little underwhelmed by this book, but yeah, if it makes the list I think it will have earned its spot.

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Has the author been longlisted before?  No (debut).

Would I be happy to see it?  No. I can’t even explain why but I have a deeply intuitive feeling that I won’t get on with this.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Has the author been longlisted before?  Yes.

Would I be happy to see it?  This was my favorite novel of 2020, so yes.

The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin

Has the author been longlisted before?  No.

Would I be happy to see it?  Definitely. Would love the excuse to read this.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

Has the author been longlisted before?  Yes.

Would I be happy to see it?  Yes! Haven’t read this yet but Moss is great.

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Has the author been longlisted before?  Yes (winner).

Would I be happy to see it?  I don’t have a horse in this race. I’ve never read Robinson and I do intend to, some day, but also don’t feel an urgent need to do that next month. So if it’s on the list I won’t read it, but I also won’t begrudge the Robinson stans their happiness.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Has the author been longlisted before?  Yes.

Would I be happy to see it?  You literally could not pay me to read this book, so no.

The Yield by Tara June Winch

Has the author been longlisted before?  No.

Would I be happy to see it?  I know almost nothing about this, but it would be nice for at least one Australian novel to make the list.

We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan

Has the author been longlisted before?  No (debut).

Would I be happy to see it?  Also know very little about this one. No strong preference here.


What are you hoping and expecting to see on the list? Comment and let me know!

book review: That Way Madness Lies, edited by Dahlia Adler




THAT WAY MADNESS LIES edited by Dahlia Adler
★★★☆☆
Flatiron, March 16, 2021


I only requested this anthology so I could read the Lear story and move on with my life (in my quest to read every Lear retelling I can get my hands on), but what can I say, once I had it on my Kindle I couldn’t resist. Even though I don’t particularly like YA and didn’t have the highest of hopes that these stories would engage with the plays in particularly interesting ways. Still, there were some pleasant surprises here.

That Way Madness Lies is a YA anthology by a handful of noted writers, each retelling a different Shakespeare play. The selection of plays itself is very good–there are the crowd pleasers as well as a couple of unexpected ones. The organization of this anthology bothered me on a couple of levels–first off, why is The Winter’s Tale placed in the Late Romances category but not The Tempest? We’re also frequently treated to 1-page author’s notes after stories, all of the same tenor; “this is why the original play was problematic and here’s how I decided to fix it”. Which, aside from being jarring and downright annoying, showed such a blatant disregard for Shakespearean scholarship that I had to laugh–yes, of course this is a commercial anthology intended for a young audience but my god, patting yourself on the back for being brave enough to consider The Merchant of Venice through Shylock’s perspective as if scholars, directors, actors, and audiences haven’t been doing exactly that for centuries is solipsistic to the extreme. 

Anyway, as always with anthologies, it’s a mixed bag. Some of these stories are unexpected and brilliant and others fall spectacularly flat. So, let’s do this.

Comedies

“Severe Weather Warning” by Austin Siegemund-Broka and Emily Wibberley (The Tempest) – 4 stars
A nice and melancholy snapshot into sibling rivalry as a storm rages outside, delaying Prosper’s sister’s flight to a prestigious internship that she effectively stole from her sister. Really enjoyed this one and felt that it was one of the most successful stories in accessing the original play’s themes even as a nonliteral reimagining. 

“Shipwrecked” by Mark Oshiro (Twelfth Night) – 3 stars
Twelfth Night meets high school prom–we’ve got some love and heartbreak coupled with mistaken identity shenanigans as one twin has recently come out as nonbinary and has started to resemble their brother. It’s a bit corny but mostly harmless. 

“King of the Fairies” by Anna-Marie McLemore (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – 1 star
Midsummer from the perspective of the “Indian” child abducted by Oberon and Titania. Hands down one of my least favorites from this collection; it couldn’t be more heavy-handed and patronizing if it tried. If you like McLemore’s writing you’ll probably like this story; I simply do not.

“Taming of the Soulmate” by K. Ancrum (The Taming of the Shrew) – 3 stars
A soulmate AU where Katherine doesn’t see color until she meets Petrucio at her sister Bianca’s party; rather an inconvenience for her 5-year plan. I take umbrage at a modern retelling framing Petruchio as the Reasonable One, but I grudgingly ended up appreciating where this story arrived.

“We Have Seen Better Days” by Lily Anderson (As You Like It) – 2 stars
I found this story perplexing. As You Like It, as far as I’m concerned, is fertile ground for a reimagining that focuses on gender identity (a topic otherwise omnipresent in this anthology)–and instead we get… a story about summer camp nostalgia and daddy issues? Anyway, I’d be happy to put my expectations aside about what this had the potential to be if it were any good at all, but it was objectively one of the weakest in the collection. 

“Some Other Metal” by Amy Rose Capetta and Cory McCarthy (Much Ado About Nothing) – 1 star
I kind of hate Much Ado so I was probably never going to like this very much but… yeah, it was bad. It follows two actors, Tegan and Taron, who play Beatrice and Benedick on stage, and off-stage have an antagonistic relationship, but they’re trying to be set up by their director. The meta narrative was painfully obvious and would be more fun if you enjoyed Beatrice and Benedick’s dynamic in the slightest which I can’t say I do. This story is also set in outer space for reasons that are of absolutely no consequence? 

“I Bleed” by Dahlia Adler (The Merchant of Venice) – 5 stars
Annoying author’s note aside I honestly adored this. The Merchant of Venice + high school doesn’t seem like a match made in heaven–right down to Antonio’s occupation being declared in the title, this is an inarguably adult work. Part of the fun, then, becomes seeing how deftly Adler adapts this story’s mature moving parts to a context which shouldn’t work at all… but somehow does, brilliantly. It’s a very literal adaptation which otherwise isn’t my favorite approach in this collection, but I found this one very successful. 

A Sonnet

“His Invitation” by Brittany Cavallaro (Sonnet 147) – 4 stars
A couple take a road trip to California in the only story in this collection that tackles a sonnet. I have to say, this one didn’t make a huge impression on me as I was reading (part of it due to being the shortest story in this collection), but interestingly it’s really the only one I’m still thinking about after having finished. 

Tragedies

“Partying is Such Sweet Sorrow” by Kiersten White (Romeo and Juliet) – 4 stars 
Yes, the title is stupid, but let’s move on. White actually does a remarkable job at capturing the simultaneous foolishness and lovability of the titular protagonists. This story is told entirely in text speak which admittedly is not my favorite, but it makes for fast, feverish reading, which is probably the effect that White intended. This story I felt was one of the most successful at transporting the emotional landscape of Shakespeare to a much smaller and more modern setting, and hands down the most effective story in the tragedy section. 

“Dreaming of the Dark” by Lindsay Smith (Julius Caesar) – 2 stars
Julius Caesar meets a private girl’s school and dark magic. The context of this one was so utterly contrived (Briony and Cassie have just killed Julia as a sacrifice to a dark god; Annamaria wants revenge) I couldn’t really take it seriously.

“The Tragedy of Cory Lanez” by Tochi Onyebuchi (Coriolanus) – 2 stars 
This one is probably better than I’m giving it credit for. Cameron Marcus, known by stage name Cory Lanez, is a rapper who was recently stabbed to death; this story tackles family, sexuality, and LA gang violence. Unfortunately it’s also told as an oral history, and it’s that format that I couldn’t really get past–I don’t think it works at all in short story form; the author hasn’t earned the reader’s investment in the character that we’re mourning and the result is tedium. Which is kind of fitting for Coriolanus to be fair.

“Elsinore” by Patrice Caldwell (Hamlet) – 3 stars 
Hamlet retold as a penny dreadful–we’re in Victorian England, and Claudius is a vampire. Anne (Hamlet) and Camilla (Ophelia) team up to take him down. This will work for a lot of readers better than it worked for me, it simply wasn’t to my taste.

“Out of the Storm” by Joy McCullough (King Lear) – 1 star
Oh boy, HERE WE GO. I was already approaching this with trepidation after despising McCullough’s bestselling Blood Water Paint, but I think my mind was as open as it could have been under the circumstances. Anyway, I remain unconvinced that McCullough has read anything more than the wikipedia summary for Lear as this really failed to engage with it on… any level deeper than ‘three sisters whose names start with G, R, C.’ Written like a play script, it’s a snapshot piece where we see Gabi and Cora at their dying father’s bedside at the hospital; Rowan, the middle daughter, bursts in and we discover that she’s absented herself from the family to get out from under their strict minister father’s thumb. Arguments ensue; Rowan is accused of being selfish, she retaliates that she had the fortitude to escape, etc., that kind of thing. Look, I’m sympathetic to the fact that Lear is one of the hardest plays to retell and I’m happy for a reimagining to be nonliteral, as long as it accesses some of the original play’s themes, which this just didn’t, at all. Ample meditation on truth, power, aging, justice, human nature, and cosmic inevitability to draw from and you opt for… three sisters with an over-controlling father? (The play script format was insufferable as well; if this were a real play it would be peak ‘family arguing at the dinner table’ theatre.)

“We Fail” by Samantha Mabry (Macbeth) – 1 star 
Just dreadful. Drea, a high school senior, has recently suffered a miscarriage, and her fiancé, Mateo, has been passed over for a football scholarship. When the two get in a car crash and their friend Duncan is pinned beneath the car, Drea convinces Mateo to wait before calling for help, so Duncan will die and Mateo can take his scholarship; and also because she’s still mourning the loss of her child and needs to take control of their future. I really despise Macbeth retellings that have a hyperfixation on Lady Macbeth’s fertility, and for that narrative to be given to a high schooler made it all the more perplexing and oddly melodramatic in a way that didn’t show a similar self-awareness as the Romeo and Juliet story. This was too rushed as well; maybe it could have done something interesting as a longer story, but hurtling through the events of Macbeth at breakneck speed just didn’t work.

Late Romance

“Lost Girl” by Melissa Bashardoust (The Winter’s Tale) – 4 stars 
This was a lovely story about Perdita who recently discovered the identity of her absent father, trying to cope with that as her new relationship with classics student Zal blossoms. It’s short and sweet and a nice note to end on.

Thank you to Netgalley and Flatiron for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen




BIG GIRL, SMALL TOWN by Michelle Gallen
★★★☆☆
Algonquin Books, 2020

This was a fine and forgettable read. Big Girl, Small Town follows Majella, a fast food worker on the autism spectrum in the fictional town of Aghybogey, Northern Ireland. Like most post-Troubles lit this deals with lingering tensions between Protestants and Catholics, the unresolved and unstable social climate narratively underscored by the disappearance of Majella’s father, who went missing during the Troubles. 

I can’t quite put my finger on what didn’t work for me, beyond feeling sort of vaguely unconvinced by Majella who felt to me very much like a character in a novel and not an actual person. This felt like it was desperately trying to be quirky but didn’t quite have the finesse needed to pull it off; it comes off as rather prosaic and muted. I didn’t mind reading this–it’s a short book–but I also found it so unnoteworthy that I can’t come up with anything else to say about it. Read it if you feel like it but if you’re new to Northern Irish lit, there are better places to start.

book review: Dark Horses by Susan Mihalic | BookBrowse




DARK HORSES by Susan Mihalic
★★★★★
Gallery/Scout, February 16, 2021


Dark Horses is a shocking, heart-pounding debut; it’s both a coming-of-age novel and an unflinching story of resilience and survival. Fifteen-year-old Roan Montgomery is an equestrian prodigy; she attends a private high school, where she is given a special schedule allowing her to miss afternoon classes to train for her horseback riding events, which are a stepping stone to her plan of one day riding in the Olympics. In spite of her shortened class schedule, Roan receives straight As, and isn’t allowed to date or attend any social events outside of school. The reason why, the reader soon finds out, is disturbing and sinister: Roan’s father, also her riding coach, is in complete control of every facet of her life, and on top of the daily emotional abuse he inflicts on her, he has been sexually abusing her since early childhood.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about equestrian eventing HERE.

book review: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley




A THOUSAND ACRES by Jane Smiley
★★★★★
Anchor, originally published in 1991



A Thousand Acres is King Lear meets twentieth-century midwestern farming; oddly enough, a thematic match made in heaven, the mores of the small Iowan community so richly detailed that the stakes effortlessly mirror medieval English court life. It’s told through the eyes of Ginny, the eldest daughter and Goneril figure, who lives on their father’s thousand acre farm with her husband in a house adjacent to her sister Rose’s (Regan)–the youngest sister, Caroline (Cordelia) has moved away and works as a lawyer. When their aging father announces his retirement and intention to turn the farm over to his three daughters, Caroline admits skepticism and is turned away; Ginny and Rose are then left to battle his cruelty and deterioration into drunkenness while keeping the farm afloat.

While the premise sounds literally transposed from the Shakespeare play, enough details are reinvented to assure the reader that literality is not Smiley’s intention. Rose has cancer, and she has two daughters; Ginny has had five miscarriages and desperately wants a child; Loren (Edgar), in my opinion one of the smartest characters in the original play, is here an afterthought and a bit of a sycophantic idiot; Pete (Cornwall) is a recovering abusive husband, his relationship with Rose unhappy and volatile, while Ginny’s marriage to Ty (Albany) is placid in comparison; the Fool is omitted; Jess (Edmund) is not a scheming mastermind, but instead an unmoored drifter whose interruption of Ginny’s life is unplanned, haphazard. 

And as someone who’s read King Lear about a million times and has spent countless hours thinking about these characters, if I am actively choosing to spend my time reading King Lear retellings, I can’t allow myself to get mired in the details, or else reading retellings just becomes a self-defeating exercise. Half of what I just wrote, what Smiley decided to do with these characters, I don’t agree with; it doesn’t fit my own idea of what a picture-perfect retelling should look like. So I’m much less interested in the details and more interested in the author’s vision, in the ways in which they interact with the original play even–especially–when they choose to deviate. This is where The Queens of Innis Lear, a high fantasy Lear retelling, fell spectacularly short for me, and this is where Smiley succeeded.

Each of Smiley’s characters is tremendously well-drawn, none more-so than the narrator Ginny. Ginny is obedient and self-effacing, the modest counterpart to her sister Rose who blows through the story like a hurricane. The dynamic between these two sisters, united against the obdurate front that is their father, yet more severed than either of them realizes, is what makes this book so memorable and horribly devastating. This is a bleak, stark, humorless work, which accesses the tragic inevitability of the original play and refocuses it. This isn’t the tragedy of Lear as much as it is the tragedy of Goneril, the long-suffering eldest daughter, and in turning this into Ginny’s story, part of the cosmic scale is lost, but the calamity and the creeping dread is recaptured on a smaller, more intimate scale. This is an engrossing, quietly devastating book that deftly examines power, corruption, and betrayal through a melancholic, reflective lens, and I found the result both beautiful and heart-rending.

I prefer to write my reviews without spoilers, but in this case, the spoiler is also a huge trigger, so I do want to talk about that before we go. Highlight the following paragraph to read:

[Trigger warning for sexual assault of a minor. The reveal that the Lear figure had raped Ginny and Rose when they were teenagers didn’t sit well with me at first; for one thing, I tend to take the opinion that books should not introduce sexual assault as a plot point if sexual assault is not their primary focus; for another, it felt to me like a lazy shortcut to giving Ginny and Rose permission to defy their father, an unnecessary addition when the justification for their behavior is already built into the framework of the story. What I did find interesting, though, was how this related to Ginny and Rose’s relationship to Caroline; it was refreshing to see a Lear retelling finally do something interesting with Cordelia, turning her from the archetype of the perfect woman to a stubborn, ungrateful child, choosing not to see the full picture of what Ginny and Rose shielded her from. There’s a line toward the end where Ginny is about to tell Caroline the full truth, and Caroline turns away and refuses to hear it; there’s an acknowledgement that truth can’t be delivered without it being asked for, a shocking subversion from Cordelia’s role in the original play that I found tremendously effective.

book review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen




SENSE AND SENSIBILITY by Jane Austen
★★★☆☆
originally published in 1811



Sense and Sensibility was only my second Jane Austen after Northanger Abbey–I’m working to read them all in order from her earliest works to latest, which I should complete within six months now that I have the structure of a monthly Jane Austen book club guiding me. I’m honestly not sure that I’ll become an Austen-ite by the end of this–so far my experience with her first two books has been very tepid, though I’m certainly excited to see things take a turn for the more interesting as her writing matures.

I actually don’t have a lot to say about Sense and Sensibility, in spite of attending a very interesting near-two hour long book club discussion the other day. I thought this book was fine but also frustrating to spend 400 pages with; characters are largely flat and undergo very little development and the resolution was almost comically unsatisfying. That this was Austen’s first published novel shows; it feels rough around the edges, though regrettably not even in an interesting way. I didn’t hate reading it, and the fact that I’m an Elinor to a fault certainly helped earn my investment, but I’m looking forward to seeing how her style develops and hoping that her later books work more to my taste and expectations. 

book review: Milk Fed by Melissa Broder





MILK FED by Melissa Broder
★★★★☆
Scribner, February 2, 2021


Milk Fed just goes to show that you can love a book and still be incredibly disappointed in it. After I read the first 30%, I was convinced that this was going to be my favorite book of the year. Ultimately it did lose a bit of steam and I can’t help but to mourn for the exceptional book that it could have been, but nevertheless, I still enjoyed this so much and recommend it wholehearted to the right reader.

Milk Fed, Broder’s sophomore novel following her sensational debut The Pisces, follows Rachel, a lapsed Jewish woman who works at a talent agency in LA and spends every waking hour of her days counting calories and fixating on her diet. Her therapist recommends a detox from her emotionally abusive mother, who Rachel usually calls every day. Mid-detox, she meets Miriam, an Orthodox woman who works at Rachel’s local frozen yogurt place, who Rachel becomes fixated on, leading to a breakdown of her carefully constructed food rituals. 

Broder’s books are messy, piercing, gritty, and deeply, deeply funny–it’s a recipe that works perfectly to my tastes. (Also, if you’re familiar with LA and/or into bougie LA culture… her books are such a treat.) Rachel is a character whose head I bizarrely enjoyed inhabiting, in spite of or perhaps because of the sheer level of toxicity. Rachel was so convincing and well-crafted that I felt like I knew her intimately after only a few pages. Melissa Broder really excels at sharp and specific characterization where a lot of books in the ‘disaster woman’ genre tend to opt for a more ‘generic millennial every-woman’ approach (which I’ve certainly seen done well, but which I think I may be a bit burnt out on). Where this book falters is in its introduction of Miriam and her family–the pace slows, the focus shifts, Rachel’s behavior becomes slightly less intelligible. Still, while I ultimately felt that Broder could have used a defter hand in editing to get it up to the high standard she set for herself in The Pisces, I honestly loved spending time with this book. It’s not for everyone, but if you gravitate toward the slightly fucked up and absurd, you’ll probably love this too.

Massive trigger warning for eating disorders (in many different forms, though calorie counting is a big one). Probably other things too, but that’s the big one.

Thanks to Netgalley and Scribner for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.