The Power – Naomi Alderman

Alderman’s The Power well-deserves its place in the Bailey’s Shorlist. An Atwood-style utopian/dystopian future. I did though have a little less respect for the Atwood quote on the front cover when the acknowledgements make it clear that she mentored Alderman. I’m very keen for writers in a genre to mentor upcoming writers, but then providing public feedback seems misleading.

Onto the book though: I like the concept, a reversal of all gender-based power. It places misogyny into context, whilst questioning just how much is due to essential shared human nature, with the flipping of the power merely changing who abused it.

I found the introductory letters confusing, until I read the epilogue letters as well, at which point the whole story clicked into much clearer context. The setting of the main book is a near-future science fiction, in which all women have gained a new life and death power. We follow four characters, and see how the changing world shapes them. Each central character is given depth, and has their own voice throughout. Their stories twist together and apart through this, done perfectly smoothly.

A must-read, and my favourite so far to win the Baileys, although as a science fiction fan I may be biased!

Is anyone else reading from the shortlist?

The Emperor of the Eight Islands – Lian Hearn – read by Paul English

I had this as an audiobook, read chapter-by-chapter as I took the train to and from work. Each day I lost myself in a mythical Japan, where Shikanoko finds his powers and influence within the Islands rises and falls. A strongly mythical setting, magical powers are real, and as important for influence as military powers. Spirits truly haunt, and fate plays a strong part in the direction of the characters.

This last part was one of the most frustrating parts of the book for me. Used to more active protagonists, heroes who fate repeated drops into the right place and time, again and again seem to lack decisiveness, and makes the novel more of a blocking piece than dependent on the characters.

But I will read the rest of the Tale of Shikanoko, to discover what happens to all these intricate, well-written characters.

One – Sarah Crossan

One is a very adventurous book. Its the story of two conjoined twins, as they grow into themselves, told entirely in verse.

I like poetry, and this was well-paced, short poems interspaced with longer to move the story along. The choice to only ever hear one twin’s voice was well-chosen, giving us a view of Grace as her own person alone, even as she is never apart from Tippi.

As young adult fiction it shows two girls with difficult lives making choices and growing to share lives with others and move into the difficult word of alcohol and sex. I think it stood up well as a book without the final dilemma they are faced with. That dilemma was handled well, with the choices well-framed and the unexpected ending bringing a tear to my eyes.

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

If this wasn’t quite so short and one of the Bailey’s prize shortlist, I would have given up on it. A deary introspective look at Neve’s relationships First Love never really offers love, just an understanding of why she can’t share it fully.

I’m not sure why this was shortlisted, and am glad it was from the library and therefore easy to return.

The Sport of Kings – C. E. Morgan

I’m not sure quite what I expected from The Sport of Kings, but this wasn’t it. It is a great American Novel in that tradition, a look at Kentucky social structures and racism, and a commentary on family relationships.

My teenage years reading horsey books proved valuable here, as I had a basic understanding of the breeding of Thoroughbreds, and how American horse farms can work. But at every section I was left struggling to keep up as the setting changed dramatically, especially with the first cut to Allmon. And I didn’t understand any of the Interludes or what they where adding to the story.

I still read it compulsively though, letting the threads pull the story together to a coherent whole, and appreciating how early foreshadowing was tied up in the last section of the book. It is clearly a well-structured book, with character depth and development. We see whole generations moving through the community, and social changes as history carries old practices away.

A well-written book, and although not one I would have chosen myself, the sort of book that is worth reading to gain perspective, even if the writer’s aims are at times opaque. As I am trying to read the women’s prize, the focus on me throughout much of this was disappointing, as was Morgan’s decision to publish with her initials rather than first name.

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

Having cast aside The Lesser Bohemians, I picked The Dark Circle out of my library bag in its place. This was much more readable, written in a conventional third-person style, moving between points of view as the plot develops.

I appreciated the perspective on the dawning days of the NHS, and how rationing, waiting lists and condemnation of patients was always part of the culture. But the NHS itself was not the subject, far more how the circle of friends at the centre of this novel drew together, and each coped with and recovered from, their time in the institution. How they each managed in the prospect of death, and how ultimately each of them left.

It is a “coming of age” story, but one with a difference, in that the trial these young people pass through is one of its time. And the writing gives a perspective on that time, and a connection to the characters that makes the whole situation heartbreaking.

Very well-written, and a good selection of a slightly unusual subject-matter.

Unfinished: The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

This was not a good start to my Baileys challenge: I got 20 pages in and the writing style and subject were just irritating me. Skipped to page 100 and the writing style was the same breathless internal monologue, so I gave up. This one just wasn’t for me, so back to the library it goes.

The Lure of the Lake District – Steve Goodier

We are fortunate to live close enough to the Lake District that day trips are possible. It is an area I have returned to again and again throughout my life, as a child, doing my Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Expedition, with my husband and now with our son. I have walked mountains, cycled, taken boat trips, had tea shop visits and even skied within the confines of this national park.

Goodier captures the spirit of everything we love about the Lakes, its wild spaces which are well-tamed, and how well recorded life in the Lakes is. He tells us of his days in the hills, and inspired our walk on Saturday with his description of “doing a number 35”, that is taking advantage of the days when no-one is up to a famous peak to pick up one of the easier walks towards the end of a Wainwright book. We had a lovely day in the snow on Selside Pike, but the going was definitely too hard for a tough mountain.

 Then there is the review of other Lakeland writers. As well as acknowledging Wainwright, he picks out some less well-known authors, who developed the whole concept of a writing guide. I have ordered a couple of books by Coleridge and am now aware of John Wyatt’s work for when my to read pile is more manageable

Storm Front – The Dresden Files 1 – Jim Butcher

I’ve been aware of the Dresden Files before, but had never felt particularly pulled to them, until I read a Butcher short story a few weeks ago. I ordered it in the library reservation system, although have been disappointed to be unable to order Fool Moon (book 2) so Abe books has come to the rescue.

The Dresden Files is a take on the sterotypical consulting detective theme, with the additional twist of said detective being a practicing wizard in modern-day Chicago. Gritty and real, unlucky in love and hopeless at actually paying his rent, Harry Dresden is a hero it is easy to feel drawn to. He has the wit, the insight and the abilities to get through a fiendishly unlucky set of circumstances when all he really wants to do is pay (last month’s) rent.

The writing is compelling, drawing me into this world where so much criminality is down to other-worldly forces. The dark side of human nature is battled against as day becomes night, but we know all along that Dresden is somehow going to solve the case. For starters there are another 15 books for him to appear in!

As I mentioned at the start, I loved this enough to buy book 2, and am glad I have the whole series ahead of me.

The Man who Rained – Ali Shaw

The cover of this set the tone nicely – is a nice “chick lit” with a fable woven beneath it. Elsa is taking the normal “running away” approach to life, and settles  in a small town. But of course it is not an ordinary small town, and it takes a few chapters before we discover how unusual it is.

This is hardly deep literature, but covers both the bright and dark sides of the human spirit. We see displays of love and of jealousy, of loyalty and a brutal mob.  The human side alone is powerful. Then the magic is imaginative, running with the idea of spirits (mischievous or otherwise) which have local powers.

I loved how Shaw drew all the threads together for the ending, giving very satisfying conclusions to all the parallel subplots running through the novel.