Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2018: the Debut Novelists

I’m still pretty amazed finding six of the longlisted novels for the Women’s Prize for Fiction are debuts. Six of sixteen. That’s a big chunk, nearly half.

I can do math!

These women are incredible, each one. I may normally quibble and grumble about first-time novelists snagging such a prestigious longlist nomination, but after reading more about them I’m not just impressed, I hate my own guts.

What have I been doing? SPOILER: Sure as hell not translating my life and experiences into award-nominated books.

Elif Batuman (American)

The Idiot, Penguin


Elife Batuman, photo: The Irish Times


Elif Batuman has been a staff writer for The New Yorker roughly eight years. The author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, she’s won the Whiting Writer’s Award, Rona Jaffe Foundation Award and Terry Southern Prize for Humor. Earning her PhD in comparative lit from Stanford, she’s your classic underachiever.

I really want to hate her. But then, I remember I’m the one who’s opted to sit on my ass watching bad reality television instead of, I don’t know, writing?

In college I was one of two students in a Russian literature course, taught by an actual Russian. Yes, an actual Russian! I know, right? Funny thing, because of the low interest, she’d only agree to teach if I’d run her home after the evening class. The buses stopped relatively early, and she didn’t drive. Funny, at the time I didn’t think much about it, but why did she even schedule that time at all, if this was the case? Took me long enough, didn’t it.

We read and watched the film of The Overcoat and several other short stories, and explored Crime and Punishment in-depth. Hell, there were only two of us. There was no excuse not to cover everything in-depth. Those once a week trips to her house, I don’t even recall what we talked about. Books, I would presume. It’s just a weird footnote in my life.

I love Russian literature, and love that Batuman pays it homage in the titles of her books. I bought a copy, and covet her first book on the topic of one of my favorite literary nationalities.

We know it’ll be on my shelves, eventually. I mean, please.

Imogen Hermes Gowar  (British)

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, Harvill Secker


Imogen Hermes Gowar, photo: thetimes.co.uk


Now this woman, she really makes me realize how I’ve frittered my life. An archaeology, anthropology and art history scholar, her writing inspired by artefacts earned her the 2013 Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship funding an MA in Creative Writing.

Writing about artefacts, freaking genius. As a kid, one of the things I dreamed of was being an archaeologist. I was nuts about the Egyptians, the Romans, Druids…  When I had the chance to actually visit Europe, it filled my heart to bursting. I was that nerdy kid taking notes on the bus.

Picked as a ‘MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2018’ by Vogue, Sunday Times, Observer, The Times, Sunday Mirror, Daily Express, BBC Arts, Red Magazine, Stylist, The Pool, Emerald Street, Independent, The Herald, Irish Times, Irish Tatler, The Journal and Irish Independent. ‘A brilliantly plotted story of mermaids, madams and intrigue in 1780s London and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become the Essex Serpent of 2018’ – The Pool ‘Imogen Hermes Gowar is a soon-to-be literary star’ – Sunday Times THIS VOYAGE IS SPECIAL. IT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING.
  • Amazon.com


It never occurred to me to approach fiction from the angle of a single, historical object, and how I love that premise. I wasn’t going to buy this book. Now I don’t see how I cannot. It reminds me of the nonfiction book The Bronte Cabinet by Deborah Lutz, a book about eight objects owned by the siblings. An absolutely fascinating book, one I cannot recommend too highly.


Jessie Greengrass  (British)

Sight, Harvill Secker


Jessie Greengrass, photo: theshortstory.com


A student of philosophy at Cambridge and London, Jessie Greengrass’s first collection of short stories, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, won two prizes, including the Somerset Maugham. That is colossal.

Sight is narrated by a nameless young woman who, pregnant with her second child, meditates on her mother’s death and its aftermath, her relationship with her psychoanalyst grandmother, and how difficult it was to decide to have her first baby. The narrative brushes back and forth in time, bringing unexpected connections to the surface.


A book about familial relationships is a harder sell for me. I’m not generally a fan of this sort of novel. Might Sight be an exception? Possibly, and I certainly esteem the author’s credentials. It’s on the second string of Women’s Fiction titles I’m considering buying.

A few more reviews may sway me one way or the other.


Gail Honeyman  (British)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, HarperCollins


Gail Honeyman, photo: amazon.co.uk


I wasn’t able to find as much about Gail Honeyman, aside from the fact she’s a graduate of both Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities. Perhaps I could dig a bit deeper, but despite her Costa win I’m a bit hesitant to spend a lot of time.

That sounds more rude than I mean it to be. A tremendously popular writer of a universally loved book, Gail Honeyman will have a legion of fans. I don’t mean to disparage, just use my time wisely.


“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.”
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine



I disliked this book. Rather, I disliked the second half, after main character Eleanor made her about-face. I don’t like treacle-y endings. The first part  was so well-written. It had all the elements of a superbly dark story, then sold out. The first and last halves could have been from completely different books. It jarred, ending on an almost Bridget Jones note.

I half wonder if she didn’t originally write a much different book, but some misguided editor put it in her mind that it would sell better if it ended happily. She’s tremendously talented; the first half had me riveted. By the end, I was angry I’d wasted time on it.

No figs are given for popular opinion on Bluestalking. Moving on.


Fiona Mozley (British)

Elmet, Algonquin


Fiona Mozley, photo: thenational.ae


An employee in a bookshop, Fiona Mozley may be even more mysterious than Gail Honeyman. I found this on her website, and precious little else:


I grew up in York and later lived in London, Cambridge and Buenos Aires. I am now back in York, where I am writing a PhD thesis on the concept of decay in the later Middle Ages, as well as writing fiction.
I work part-time at The Little Apple Bookshop.



Little Apple Bookshop


An unassuming biography for a 29-year old woman who’s written a book both Booker shortlisted and on this longlist. A brilliant book, at that. I’ll let my review say the rest, but thus far it’s a favorite for the prize.


Sarah Schmidt (Australian)



See What I Have Done, Atlantic Monthly


Sarah Schmidt, photo: pinterest.co.uk


Sarah Schmidt is a reading and literacy librarian residing in Melbourne. She holds a B.A. in professional writing and editing, as well as an M.A. in creative writing. She’s also a history buff, judging from her dogged pursuit of all things Lizzie Borden, and resulting novel getting rave reviews.


On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell―of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.
  • Amazon.com


I have this book on order, expecting its arrival within the next week or two. I ordered a used copy to save a few dollars, considering the considerable expenditure involved in buying so dratted many books at once.

I, too, find the Lizzie Borden case transfixing, and can’t imagine there was no child abuse involved. My own theory, aided by all but zero research but empathy based on my childhood experience, is she one day snapped under the strain. The rest is morbid history.

Can’t wait to get my hands on this one.


Will one of these first-timers beat out the rest for a Women’s Prize for Fiction win? I have to tell you, from the bit of investigation I’ve done I wouldn’t be shocked. I plan to take a closer look at the other writers; I just wanted a special post devoted to the relative newbies.

But what a crop of newbies.



Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018: It’s Early Yet


Welcome to the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, formerly Baileys Prize, formerly Orange Prize. Quite the crop this year, including six debut novels.


I’ve had the Longlist date on my calendar for weeks. I just got very busy and had no time to post before now.



I’ve read a grand total of one of the longlisted books, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Unlike the rest of the world, I’m not a huge fan. I own three others: Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan, Fiona Mozley’s Elmet and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Had I the money, I’d buy them all. Not because I believe they’re all great, but to support this prize and female writers in general. I’d also like to stack and re-stack them, take photos of and with them, and gloat.

Mostly, gloat.

Eight authors are Brits, four American, one Australian, one Pakistani/British and two Indian. Diversity? Meh. Not so much.


I’ve checked Amazon re: availability. It’s astonishingly good, though not all can be had via my beloved Prime. Only one – Imogen Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – is unavailable in the States. It’s on pre-order, expected to be published September 11.

That does me no damn good, does it.


Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 Longlisted Authors
(first novels highlighted in red)


  • Nicola Barker, British, H(A)PPY, her 12th novel (William Heinemann)
  • Elif Batuman, American, The Idiot, her first novel (Jonathan Cape)
  • Joanna Cannon, British, Three Things About Elsie, her second novel (The Borough Press)
  • Charmaine Craig, American, Miss Burma, her second novel (Grove Press)
  • Jennifer Egan, American, Manhattan Beach, fifth novel (Corair)
  • Imogen Hermes Gowar, British, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, her first novel (Harvill Secker)
  • Jessie Greengrass, British, Sight, her first novel (John Murray)
  • Gail Honeyman, British, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, her first novel (HarperCollins)
  • Meena Kandasamy, Indian, When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife, her second novel (Atlantic Books)
  • Fiona Mozley, British, Elmet, her first novel (JM Originals)
  • Arundhati Roy, Indian, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, her second novel (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Sarah Schmidt, Australian, See What I Have Done, her first novel (Tinder Press)
  • Rachel Seiffert, British, A Boy in Winter, her fourth novel (Virago)
  • Kamila Shamsie, Pakistani/British, Home Fire, her seventh novel (Bloomsbury Circus)
  • Kit de Waal, British, The Trick to Time, her second novel (Viking)
  • Jesmyn WardAmerican Sing, Unburied, Sing, third novel, (Boomsbury Circus)


Repeated from my Man Booker rants of the past, being a novice should grant a writer no special privilege. Any judging panel worried about offending the masses is going to pepper a longlist with several Redshirts (Star Trek reference), and what better way than neophyte authors. Some are there from merit, others as place fillers. I’ve already sniffed out a place filler or two, but I’ll keep my own counsel for now.

Conversely, past reputation should bring no assurance, either. Even the big writers stumble. But – and this is a big but – experience will out. A writer who’s been honing her craft 20 years is going to be more sophisticated and nuanced than a newbie. Again, unless she should stumble.

So. The 2018 list. I’ll yoink off Eleanor Oliphant first thing. Too popular, and the ending was a sell-out.

And then there were 15.

Longlisted books I’ll try to finish before the Shortlist is announced (April 23):

Jennifer Egan Manhattan Beach

Fiona Mozley Elmet

Jesmyn Ward Sing, Unburied, Sing


Second Tier Longlisted books I’ll finish if there’s still time before the Shortlist: *

Elif Batuman The Idiot

Sarah Schmidt See What I Have Done

* Books I’m buying because they sound like great reads, and to support the longlisted authors, not necessarily books I think will win the prize.


I won’t get serious about predictions until the Shortlist’s announced. I’m not familiar enough with lots of these writers. I’ll read more about them and their books, scan some reviews, and keep an ear to the ground.

As with the Man Bookers, I won’t let the fact I haven’t read all the books stop me from opining.


First up will be Elmet. I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things. Once I’ve cleared off Ruby, my second read of The Ballad of Peckham Rye and A Clockwork Orange, it’s right on to Fiona Mozley.

So much to do. Back asap.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

IT book of the Summer: 2017

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

18 May 2017
400 pp.


I’m not normally one to read the IT books of the summer. When a book garners too much attention, I get suspicious. When I get suspicious, I reach for something else.

The quality of popular books is too unreliable, too apt to be swayed by the mass market. And when I read a book’s so popular it’s being fought over by multiple Very Big Publishers, growling and snapping, clawing and spitting, it can only mean one thing: there is Very Big Money to be made.

Author Gail Honeyman

It’s so obvious I shouldn’t have to repeat it, but literary fiction does not earn a writer Very Big Money. It’s a niche market, not material you’re likely to find in airport bookshops, nor in checkout lines. There’s a lot of money to be had selling retail in big box stores, a distinct correlation between mass market appeal and impulse buying in the checkout line. While picking up snacks, drinks and sunscreen for the beach, which novel is the average person more likely to pick up: the latest Dan Brown or something by Salman Rushdie?

So what made me pick up Gail Honeyman’s novel? What hooked me was the dust jacket blurb, the description on the flap. I can still be swayed by blurbs. Getting burned six or seven times out of ten should have taught me not to touch that stove, but every now and then I think maybe the result will be different (SEE: insanity, definition of).


She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.


It’s so understated, not what you’ll find on the flaps of most IT books. If the verbiage had been over-the-top nonsense, I wouldn’t have bothered. If the greater percentage of the blurb is slobbery praise, and not enticements taken from the actual plot and/or characterization, BEWARE.

What’s grabby about Eleanor Oliphant is its characterization of a socially awkward, obsessive-compulsive character who acts too old, cranky and set in her ways for her age. The way she speaks is overly formal, the way she acts judgemental and, at times, shockingly inappropriate.

Flawed characters are most interesting of all.

Her background is as dark as it gets. Growing up in the foster care system due to her mother having committed a horrific crime that’s made it impossible for her to care for her daughter, she’s had to grow up alone and quickly. In contact with her mother by phone once a week for fifteen minutes at a time, she endures alternating cloying, false concern and verbal abuse.

Eleanor Oliphant has never known authentic love. As an adult, her first major romantic relationship was with a man who physically and emotionally abused her. And now, as we meet her, she’s fallen into an infatuation with a singer she’s never met, based solely on seeing him perform. Fate, she believes, will bring them together in a way she can’t anticipate.

As the plot deepens, we come to understand Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine. She maintains the appearance of calm and order, performs her job expertly and never takes a sick day, but Eleanor Oliphant does not have the first clue how to interact in the world.

It’s unsurprising she doesn’t. Her childhood was brutal, her young adult life no better. She’s been beaten and scarred, literally and figuratively. Terrified of fire, it’s not until much later in the book the reader finds out why. By that point, Eleanor is a woman on the brink, stretched so tightly it’s inevitable she’ll either break or be forced to turn her life around.

Up to the three-quarters point I was gripped. I love characters in turmoil, and tensely thrumming plots. It’s the tension that keeps the reader turning pages. Eleanor’s implosion had been crafted perfectly. We find out she’s been a completely unreliable narrator as her life falls around her, learn her secrets, and expect disaster. It should have been a disaster, or at the least a stumbling path to recovery.

Instead, Honeyman takes an improbable turn, an abrupt about-face ringing so false it nearly spoiled the entire book. I’ll stop short of saying it ruined the story, but it’s as if she wrote two different books, then smashed them together – the second markedly inferior to the first. It’s jarringly incongruous.

I’m disappointed, yet the craft and skill of most of the book warrant a recommendation – with reservations.

I’ll be curious to see how the projected film adaptation works out. Or to hear about it; I can’t guarantee I’ll want to spend the money. The book had a pat Hollywood ending. I’m not a fan of pat Hollywood endings. Yeah, maybe I’ll take a pass.

What I’m reading, what I’m writing

“A philosophical question: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? And if a woman who’s wholly alone occasionally talks to a pot plant, is she certifiable? I think that it is perfectly normal to talk to oneself occasionally. It’s not as though I’m expecting a reply. I’m fully aware that Polly is a houseplant.”

  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine


On the reviewing pile.

Having recently signed on with the Glasgow Review of Books, I’m patiently awaiting the arrival of my first assignment. It’s a reprint of a “forgotten” writer’s autobiography, a writer I’ve never heard of but found so intriguing I was happy to say aye.

Reading and more reading.

Meanwhile, I’m engaged in lots of other literary pursuits, natch. I’m working on a review of Ever Dundas’s remarkable Goblin, as well as a pending interview with this gifted debut novelist. Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – the IT novel of Summer 2017 – kept me enthralled throughout. I have Muriel Spark’s The Comforters simmering on the back burner, and just started Jenni Daiches’s Borrowed Time. On the Kindle there’s, a review copy of Rushdie’s upcoming The Golden House, featuring a satisfyingly sly portrait of a certain orange president.

Daaaang this was a good read.

Author events wise, Gail Honeyman’s appearing in Edinburgh this week. You don’t need to ask if I’m planning to go, because I’m planning to go.

As for July, current plans are to hit the road late in the month for Austen, Woolf and Bronte country. My son’s visiting the UK for a couple of weeks in early August, then the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Stellar lot of authors this year, but I haven’t picked my must-sees. Best fast-track that.

My reading plate’s full to overflowing, covered in comfort food. It’s a big ol’ buffet full of mashed potatoes, meatloaf and macaroni and cheese that isn’t flourescent orange and doesn’t come from a box. And is that chocolate cake I see on the dessert table?

I think it is (galloping noises).

Incoming! New books on the shelf this week.

When the dollar rose against the pound, I took advantage. Now that it’s inevitably fallen very ouchly, post-UK election kerfuffle, I need to consider cutting back on book purchases.

[Need. Such a vague word, isn’t it? Food, water, clothing, shelter… Got those, but do we not have other needs, less about pure survival, but nevertheless crucial?]


But it feels so right


Graeme Macrae Burnet climbed atop Mt. TBR after last year’s Man Booker Prize featured his His Bloody Project on its shortlist. If you’ve not heard of it, trot out and find it. I bought The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau because it’s his first novel. I’m planning to read everything he’s written, partly because I’m eyeing the Bloody Scotland literary event in September, and partly because he’s a writer just breaking out into the big time. He’s also the author Ian Rankin recommended when I asked which new Scottish authors should I make sure to read.

The Shore by Sara Taylor, Hotel World by Ali Smith, and Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood are three books consisting of inter-connected short stories recommended to me by trusted reading friends. It’s a side project of mine, an interest in studying how writers use this particular framework. They all sound fantastic.

Am writing.

In my free time, I’ve been working on a fiction project of my own, and is it ever slow going. It’s not the first fiction I’ve written, but working on it reminds me how bleeping hard the craft truly is. And the easier prose looks, the tougher it was to write. A writer can’t keep that from allowing a steady flow of absolute shite in the all-important first draft. It’s awful, oh god it’s awful, but it’s supposed to be.

I apply every bit as much severity to what I write as I do the writing of others, and expect the same scrutiny from fellow reviewers. More, actually, because I am an unabashed reading snob, expecting a very high level of quality in published fiction. I jealously guard my reading time. It’s limited, and I refuse to squander it. An advocate of struggling writers, every time I see another sub-par writer published I know dozens more far more talented have been slighted. It makes me very, very angry. I hope other reviewers feel the same, judging accordingly.

It’s a blustery day in Scotland. No better time to curl up and read.

Until next time, happy reading!