After the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced earlier this year, six reading groups have been reading, discussing and reviewing the shortlisted titles. Keep reading to find out what they thought.
Methley Bookgroup was founded in 2012 and meet each week to discuss their reads over coffee and cake. Supported by Leeds Libraries, this diverse group of readers always have lively and interesting discussions, and their discussion around The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki was no exception, splitting the opinion of the group with individual scores ranging from 3 to 9 out of 10.
The whole group agreed that there were some interesting themes explored in the novel, including bereavement, grief, mental health, the power of literature and consumerism, but the way these were explored was challenging for some readers. Some members of the group enjoyed the unusual and cleverly original mode of storytelling, while others felt this was confusing. A number of the group members felt that the novel was overly long, but others focused on it’s beautiful message, with one reader predicting it could possibly become a modern classic.
Denise said: “Not an easy book to review, it is a multi layered tale covering many modern issues such as capitalism, inter dependency, mental health, consumerism, love, loss, climate change – so many things. Yet very cleverly holding it together is the very human tale of Benny and his mother struggling to cope with grief and the demands of the modern world. Benny moves to diagnosis to diagnosis, his mother adds more clutter to her already crumbling life.”
Peter said: “A very moving story covering family life with psychotic problems and how difficult it becomes throughout the teenage years coupled with a parent with hoarding problems. A book that drew you into the lives of the main characters thereby creating a situation wherein the reader must find out how they ended up. Did they sort out their lives together?”
West Fields Readers
West Fields Readers has been running for four years and formed through a neighbourhood Facebook page. They all live within the same few streets in Newbury, except one member who has moved back to the USA and continues to join the discussions via video chat! The group read Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, a novel about modern love up against the confusing, sad aches of mental illness – with all its highs, lows, humour and misery.
The group said: “We all enjoyed this book a lot. We score all of our reads on readability, story line etc…_Sorrow and Bliss_ received our joint highest rating, and provided one of our best discussions. We particularly admired the characterisation. Even the minor characters are fully rounded, and although Martha is not always pleasant to spend time with, her voice is impressively rendered. The picture of mental illness from the inside feels authentic, including the fact that Martha uses it as an excuse for her bad behaviour, becoming self-absorbed and not seeing how she is affecting others around her. Most of us found the novel very funny, though for one member the sadness was predominant.”
One reader said: “I found Martha’s voice and perspective captivating, racing through the second half of the book in one sitting. Her story is beautifully and very cleverly told; it only became clear to me towards the end the extent to which her self-absorbed viewpoint had obscured the depth of the other characters. The witty, current tone of the novel provided just enough moments of lightness to help work through the many big issues tackled.”
One reader said: “The themes of mental illness and unconditional family love, and clever references, made it a winner for me. Oh, and the writing too. Fingers crossed for it to win.”
The Sound Collective Books and Banter Group
The Sound Collective Books and Banter Group are all members of The Sound Collective Chorus, a large modern community choir based in Essex. During the first lockdown, they continued to sing together over Zoom, while also launching a monthly ‘Books & Banter’ book group as a way of staying connected. They often get into lively debates, and feel that they’ve gained much from reading books they may not have otherwise chosen. They have been reading Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead.
The book divided opinion within the group. Structurally, some thought it was a well-written and well-constructed epic of a novel, both plot and character driven, and with varying levels of pace to keep the reader interested. This was in contrast to those that felt the story jumped around too much. There were also differences of opinion on the characterisation within the novel. For some members, there were just too many characters, which often were not fleshed out in enough details or who were killed off suddenly before the reader had properly got to know them. This was also the case with some members feeling that character responses to plot situations were not often credible.
One reader said: “I loved this book. The amazing story of Marian Graves and her twin brother Jamie. Their lives are chronicled from before they are born through prohibition, the war, and finally Marian’s ambition to fly and ultimately to circumnavigate the world. There are so many different stories and characters within the book which keep you turning the pages, but Marian’s determination and bravery and Jamie’s gentleness stay in the memory.”
One reader said: “The themes I enjoyed were…the allusion it made to being a male dominated world. Plus the fact that the twins were allowed to practically bring themselves up in a rather wild country backdrop and so were allowed to develop naturally without outside pressures, or interference. This, I believe, made them both strong minded and, particularly from Marian, unaccepting that they should adhere to rules and stereotypes both in her career and sexuality.”
Brunch Book Club
Since July 2019, Brunch Book Club has been reading books and brunching across London. What began as shy enquiry on Facebook has grown into a fully-fledged community of book-loving, mimosa-drinking women. The Brunch Book Club were reading Lisa Allen-Agostini’s The Bread the Devil Knead.
Most of the group, if not all, rated it 5 out of 5, finding it deeply moving and, whilst a tough read because of the scenes of abuse and violence, a story worth telling. They all had different takeaways, but were all enamoured by the author and the story. They all agreed that the style and prose were exceptional.
Pia said: “When I read the blurb on the back cover of this book, I was immediately intrigued – the main character, Alethea is feisty and independent, yet remains in an abusive relationship. Although there are a million reasons why women stay with men who hurt them, often there is a long history of abuse and neglect that goes back to childhood and that is very much the case here. Alethea’s story is deeply sad, and yet the book is also fantastically funny and uplifting, which is not really a surprise considering the author also performs stand-up comedy in addition to writing.”
Kayleigh said: “After a long hiatus from reading, The Bread the Devil Knead threw me right back in and reminded me how a fantastically written book can make you feel.”
Fran said: “ The Bread the Devil Knead, if not easy to read – especially the most harrowing pages – was important and incredibly informative. I was super happy for Brunch Book Club to have been given this book to review for the Women’s Prize, and it delivered above and beyond. It was a joy to learn more about Trinidadian culture, and the use of Trinidadian Creole was so interesting; I truly feel like this book has helped me grow my understanding of this culture in an authentic way. The Bread the Devil Knead is a book that will stay with me, a book that makes me yearn to read more of Lisa Allen-Agostini’s work.”
Coventry City Council Readers’ Group
Coventry City Council Readers’ Group was started in 2018, by Nicole Collins, a Council employee who loved reading and wanted to bring together similar people. The group includes people from all over the council, from trainees and apprentices, to senior managers and Councillors. The group gives work colleagues a chance to come together and share similar interests whilst also informally networking and making friends. The group read The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak.
The majority of the group enjoyed the book, although around half found it difficult to relate to a tree as a narrator. Some enjoyed the refugee aspect and it touched many of those reading it. It was an honest view of a difficult part of history but felt reflective, open and with heart.
One reader said: “As usual, Elif Shafak never fails to disappoint. This beautifully written tale of young forbidden love, civil unrest, home, secrets, memories and untold stories, is truly enchanting, deep and educational. The fig tree, who is the narrator of this story is a stroke of genius by Shafak. I thought it unusual at first that the tree should be narrating however, it seemed completely natural as I read further into the book. How apt for the fig tree as the book includes not only love and war with its effects on humans, but also how these events effect nature and the beauty around us.”
One reader said: “I found it interesting to read about the culture differences, but more about how similar the tradition and cultures are. Trees are a mystery, but hold important and relevance to everyone everywhere. I know in our culture trees are used by saints when mediating and also worshipped by women – tying a red string around the branches, when they have a longing for something (longlife of a husband, a child, illness) etc. I’m looking forward to finishing the book to understand the real reasons behind Kostas burying the Fig tree and what happens to Dafne and him as they meet again and whether they manage to reconnect with Yusuf!”
The Illuminated Manuscript
The Illuminated Manuscript is a radiant circle of people drawn together by a love of books, and the ability of words to enlighten and develop our understanding of the world around us. They welcome members of all backgrounds from all over the world, and have a multicultural focus. The group read The Sentence by Louise Erdrich.
One reader said: “This is a thought provoking book that addresses major themes including death, motherhood, sexuality and privilege. The start is almost comedic but the book quickly settles into a more realistic observation of life mainly from the perspective of the main character and her community."
One reader said: “Another big and frequently humorous theme in the book is the hijacking of American Indian culture by just about everyone – much as many people in the UK and US from all walks of life claim Irish descent. In The Sentence everyone has an American Indian story to tell. And the title phrase could be interpreted in both judicial and literary senses.”
Have you read any of the shortlisted titles? Head to the book’s pages to share your thoughts and leave a review.
The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki has now been announced as the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Find out more about the winning title here. To promote the winning title in your library, order the promotional Digital Pack from our shop.