Reading Women Challenge Wrap-Up

The Reading Women Challenge encourages you to explore women’s writing, reading each previous winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Find out more here.

It feels like years ago that I started this challenge, rather than just… March, but I guess that’s the way of things now. 😅 I decided to do this challenge because I wanted to push myself to read a wider variety of books. Many of the books here, I probably would have picked up myself. But there are also many I would not have. This is particularly true for some of the older stories, which are mainly about character, and therefore require a bit more time to get into.

The 25 prize-winning books I read:

1996: A Spell of Winter

1997: Fugitive Pieces

1998: Larry’s Party

1999: A Crime in the Neighbourhood

2000: When I Lived in Modern Times

2001: The Idea of Perfection

2002: Bel Canto

2003: Property

2004: Small Island

2005: We Need to Talk About Kevin

2006: On Beauty

2007: Half of a Yellow Sun

2008: The Road Home

2009: Home

2010: The Lacuna

2011: The Tiger’s Wife

2012: The Song of Achilles

2013: May We Be Forgiven

2014: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

2015: How to Be Both

2016: The Glorious Heresies

2017: The Power

2018: Home Fire

2019: An American Marriage

+1 2020: Hamnet

If you go to my original post, you’ll see the themes that I grouped each book by. I won’t get into that much here, mostly because it was a pretty basic way of just splitting them up into readable groups. I will say that the most common theme across them all was family, which seems quite obvious, but it almost seemed like the heart of every book, an urgent and insistent presence.

My top 5

It’s always incredibly difficult to define favourites, but the five I enjoyed most would be, in no particular order:

Home – Marilynne Robinson

I mean, I read a whole book before just so I could read this, so maybe I only enjoyed it so much as a byproduct of spending time with these characters. But the writing in this book is so good, so achingly human, that I really tore through this book. If you’re intrigued, I suggest reading my review of the first book, Gilead, first.

The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver

This book is so new. Everything about it is a story I hadn’t read before, and I found myself gripped by every new part, or chapter. I like the way it’s narrated, the characters, even the parts that hurt to read :(. It’s good writing!

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

This story is so easy to read. You just fall into the characters and their circumstances effortlessly, even though it’s all so complex. There is a lot of disharmony in the narrative, mostly characters contrasting with each other, but the writing style does not make this difficult to understand — even when the subject veers into artistic analysis that goes way over my head!

The Idea of Perfection – Kate Grenville

I was going to put this under my ‘most surprising’ reads but I thought it should go here instead. I enjoyed it a lot! I really didn’t know what to expect, but it’s a story filled with the beauty of nature and the beauty of loving yourself, and second chances being able to give you all of that.

We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

I almost forgot how much I enjoyed this book, but looking over my review reminded me just how good it is, actually. The format, the narrator voice, the way the first-person narrative is used to withhold information from the reader to build mystery. A surprisingly quick read, too.

The most surprising

Larry’s Party – Carol Shields

I said much of it in my review of this book last month, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel about a completely ordinary man, living a very ordinary life. I think that subject matter is exactly why it was so good, as the author delves into a simple human experience, the natural ups and downs of life, and the parties we can create of all the people in them.

The Road Home – Rose Tremain

I found I finished this book much quicker than I expected to. It catalogues the story of immigration to the UK, unflinching in its portrayal, and I also really enjoyed the parallel story of how women’s experiences differ. It’s a story about hope and home ultimately, and you really do root for the main characters.

May We Be Forgiven – A. M. Homes

This is on ‘most surprising’ because it was funny. I wasn’t expecting that! It’s… a pretty tragic book, honestly. The protagonist is mired in self-pity quite a bit, but the writing style makes this funny rather than pathetic (even though he is a bit, he tries very hard, which is admirable). 

The most difficult to read

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

To cop from my review: although the pace of this book is quick and confident, that relentless nature builds the kind of dread that makes it a difficult read, mostly because you’re worried about what’s going to happen next most of the time! And thus too busy worrying to enjoy the story.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

This book was a difficult read for two reasons. One, the subject matter itself, which is largely about sex and sexual assault, and doesn’t – by way of unreliable narrator – differentiate between them. Second, as it’s a stream of consciousness style of writing, there’s no punctuation, lots of dialect and many run-on sentences.

A Spell of Winter – Helen Dunmore

I honestly just couldn’t vibe with this book, which you’ll see from the review probably. I didn’t get it, was the problem. Although there was lots of beautiful lyricality in the writing, I think the point of the story passed me by.

This challenge did get difficult at times. Occasionally the last book I wanted to be reading was a complex, character-driven piece of literary fiction that required far more concentration to understand than I had. But I guess that’s why it’s called a ‘challenge’! I really did enjoy the experience of every book I read. Although I would seek out the shortlisted books of the Women’s Fiction Prize anyway, I found that this way allowed me to discover the history of excellence this prize has, as well as reaffirming how good literary fiction is!

I’m definitely going to pay more attention to this and other book awards from now on, if only to pick up books I wouldn’t otherwise resd. I should go back and look at past winners too.

Highly recommend! It was great fun! Do you plan on reading any of these books?

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