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The Book Trail: From ‘Artful’ to Footnotes

For today’s Book Trail post, we begin with one of Ali Smith’s lecture series-cum-incredibly readable book, and weave our way through tomes weird and wonderful.

1. Artful by Ali Smith
15811569In February 2012, the novelist Ali Smith delivered the Weidenfeld lectures on European comparative literature at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. Her lectures took the shape of this set of discursive stories. Refusing to be tied down to either fiction or the essay form, Artful is narrated by a character who is haunted—literally—by a former lover, the writer of a series of lectures about art and literature.  A hypnotic dialogue unfolds, a duet between and a meditation on art and storytelling, a book about love, grief, memory, and revitalization. Smith’s heady powers as a fiction writer harmonize with her keen perceptions as a reader and critic to form a living thing that reminds us that life and art are never separate.  Artful is a book about the things art can do, the things art is full of, and the quicksilver nature of all artfulness. It glances off artists and writers from Michelangelo through Dickens, then all the way past postmodernity, exploring every form, from ancient cave painting to 1960s cinema musicals. This kaleidoscope opens up new, inventive, elastic insights—on the relation of aesthetic form to the human mind, the ways we build our minds from stories, the bridges art builds between us. Artful is a celebration of literature’s worth in and to the world and a meaningful contribution to that worth in itself. There has never been a book quite like it.

 

2. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger
In an extraordinary distillation of his gifts as a novelist, poet, art critic, and social historian, John Berger reveals the ties between love and absence, the ways poetry endows language with the assurance of prayer, and the tensions between the forward movement of sexuality.

 

3. The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer 378529
The Ongoing Moment is Dyer’s unique and idiosyncratic history of photography. Seeking to identify their signature styles Dyer looks at the ways that canonical figures such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Kertesz, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus and William Eggleston have photographed the same scenes and objects (benches, hats, hands, roads). In doing so Dyer constructs a narrative in which those photographers – many of whom never met in their lives – constantly come into contact with each other. Great photographs change the way we see the world; The Ongoing Moment changes the way we look at both. It is the most ambitious example to date of a form of writing that Dyer has made his own: the non-fiction work of art.

 

4. Yours Ever: People and Their Letters by Thomas Mallon
Yours Ever explores the offhand masterpieces dispatched through the ages by messenger, postal service, and BlackBerry. Thomas Mallon weaves a remarkable assortment of epistolary riches into his own insightful and eloquent commentary on the circumstances and characters of the world’s most intriguing letter writers. Here are Madame de Sévigné’s devastatingly sharp reports from the court of Louis XIV, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tormented advice to his young daughter, the besotted midlife billets-doux of a suddenly rejuvenated Woodrow Wilson, the casually brilliant spiritual musings of Flannery O’Connor, the lustful boastings of Lord Byron, the cries from prison of Sacco and Vanzetti. Along with the confessions and complaints and revelations sent from battlefields, frontier cabins, and luxury liners, a reader will find Mallon considering travel bulletins, suicide notes, fan letters, and hate mail–forms as varied as the human experiences behind them.  Yours Ever is an exuberant reintroduction to a vast and entertaining literature–a book that will help to revive, in the digital age, this glorious lost art.

 

5. Classics For Pleasure by Michael Dirda
249203In these delightful essays, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Dirda introduces nearly ninety of the world’s most entertaining books. Writing with affection as well as authority, Dirda covers masterpieces of fantasy and science fiction, horror and adventure, as well as epics, history, essay, and children’s literature. Organized thematically, these are works that have shaped our imaginations. Love’s Mysteries moves from Sappho and Arthurian romance to Soren Kierkegaard and Georgette Heyer. In other categories Dirda discusses not only Dracula and Sherlock Holmes but also the Tao Te Ching and Icelandic sagas, Frederick Douglass and Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Whether writing about Petronius or Perelman, Dirda makes literature come alive. Classics for Pleasure is a perfect companion for any reading group or lover of books.

 

6. 500 Great Books by Women, edited by Erika Bauermeister
Here is an articulate guide to more than 500 books written by women, a unique resource that allows readers the joy of discovering new authors as well as revisiting familiar favorites. Organized by such themes as Art, Choices, Families, Growing Old, Growing Up, Places and Homes, Power, and Work, this reference book presents classic and contemporary works, from Lady Nijo’s thirteenth-century diaries to books by authors including Toni Morrison, Alice Hoffman, Nadine Gordimer, and Isabel Allende. With annotated entries that capture the flavor of each book and seven cross-referenced indexes, 500 Great Books by Women is a one-of-a-kind guide for all readers and book lovers that celebrates and recommends some of the very best writing by women.

 

7. The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly 329275
In an age when deleted scenes from Adam Sandler movies are saved, it’s sobering to realize that some of the world’s greatest prose and poetry has gone missing. This witty, wry, and unique new book rectifies that wrong. Part detective story, part history lesson, part exposé, The Book of Lost Books is the first guide to literature’s what-ifs and never-weres.  In compulsively readable fashion, Stuart Kelly reveals details about tantalizing vanished works by the famous, the acclaimed, and the influential, from the time of cave drawings to the late twentieth century. Here are the true stories behind stories, poems, and plays that now exist only in imagination.

 

8. Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore by Lawrence Goldstone
More than a sequel, Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore is a companion piece for Used and Rare. A delight for the general reader and book collector alike, it details the Goldstones’ further explorations into the curious world of book collecting. In Slightly Chipped, they get hooked on the correspondence and couplings of Bloomsbury; they track down Bram Stoker’s earliest notes for Dracula; and they are introduced to hyper-moderns. Slightly Chipped is filled with all of the anecdotes and esoterica about the world of book collecting that charmed readers of Used and Rare.

 

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The Book Trail: From the Library to Hollywood

I am beginning this Book Trail with a book by my favourite living author, Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories.  I did try to begin with her 2016 release Autumn, but Goodreads had no recommended fiction to recommend at the time of creating this post.

As always, seven fascinating tomes will follow, all found on consequent ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ pages on Goodreads.  Please let me know if you’ve read any of these, and if you’ve created any of your own Book Trails, I’d love to see them.

1. Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith 9780241974599
A richly inventive new collection of stories from Ali Smith.  Why are books so very powerful?  What do the books we’ve read over our lives – our own personal libraries – make of us?  What does the unravelling of our tradition of public libraries, so hard-won but now in jeopardy, say about us?  The stories in Ali Smith’s new collection are about what we do with books and what they do with us: how they travel with us; how they shock us, change us, challenge us, banish time while making us older, wiser and ageless all at once; how they remind us to pay attention to the world we make.  Public libraries are places of joy, freedom, community and discovery – and right now they are under threat from funding cuts and widespread closures across the UK and further afield. With this brilliantly inventive collection, Ali Smith joins the campaign to save our public libraries and celebrate their true place in our culture and history.

 

75743182. The New York Stories by Elizabeth Hardwick
Elizabeth Hardwick was one of America’s great postwar women of letters, celebrated as a novelist and as an essayist. Until now, however, her slim but remarkable achievement as a writer of short stories has remained largely hidden, with her work tucked away in the pages of the periodicals—such as Partisan Review, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books—in which it originally appeared. This first collection of Hardwick’s short fiction reveals her brilliance as a stylist and as an observer of contemporary life. A young woman returns from New York to her childhood Kentucky home and discovers the world of difference within her. A girl’s boyfriend is not quite good enough, his “silvery eyes, light and cool, revealing nothing except pure possibility, like a coin in hand.” A magazine editor’s life falls strangely to pieces after she loses both her husband and her job. Individual lives and the life of New York, the setting or backdrop for most of these stories, are strikingly and memorably depicted in Hardwick’s beautiful and razor-sharp prose.

 

3. My Fantoms by Theophile Gautier
Romantic provocateur, flamboyant bohemian, precocious novelist, perfect poet—not to mention an inexhaustible journalist, critic, and man-about-town—Théophile Gautier is one of the major figures, and great characters, of French literature.  In My Fantoms Richard Holmes, the celebrated biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, has found a brilliantly effective new way to bring this great bu too-little-known writer into English. My Fantoms assembles seven stories spanning the whole of Gautier’s career into a unified work that captures the essence of his adventurous life and subtle art. From the erotic awakening of “The Adolescent” through “The Poet,” a piercing recollection of the mad genius Gérard de Nerval, the great friend of Gautier’s youth, My Fantoms celebrates the senses and illuminates the strange disguises of the spirit, while taking readers on a tour of modernity at its most mysterious. ”What ever would the Devil find to do in Paris?” Gautier wonders. “He would meet people just as diabolical as he, and find himself taken for some naïve provincial…”  Tapestries, statues, and corpses come to life; young men dream their way into ruin; and Gautier keeps his faith in the power of imagination: “No one is truly dead, until they are no longer loved.”

 

4. Witch Grass by Raymond Queneau 28371
Seated in a Paris café, a man glimpses another man, a shadowy figure hurrying for the train: Who is he? he wonders, How does he live? And instantly the shadow comes to life, precipitating a series of comic run-ins among a range of disreputable and heartwarming characters living on the sleazy outskirts of the city of lights. Witch Grass (previously titled The Bark Tree) is a philosophical farce, an epic comedy, a mesmerizing book about the daily grind that is an enchantment itself.

 

5. Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars
At once truly appalling and appallingly funny, Blaise Cendrars’s Moravagine bears comparison with Naked Lunch—except that it’s a lot more entertaining to read. Heir to an immense aristocratic fortune, mental and physical mutant Moravagine is a monster, a man in pursuit of a theorem that will justify his every desire. Released from a hospital for the criminally insane by his starstruck psychiatrist (the narrator of the book), who foresees a companionship in crime that will also be an unprecedented scientific collaboration, Moravagine travels from Moscow to San Antonio to deepest Amazonia, engaged in schemes and scams as, among other things, terrorist, speculator, gold prospector, and pilot. He also enjoys a busy sideline in rape and murder. At last, the two friends return to Europe—just in time for World War I, when “the whole world was doing a Moravagine.”

 

3959606. Mouchette by Georges Bernanos
One of the great mavericks of French literature, Georges Bernanos combined raw realism with a spiritual focus of visionary intensity. Mouchette stands with his celebrated Diary of a Country Priest as the perfection of his singular art.  “Nothing but a little savage” is how the village school-teacher describes fourteen-year-old Mouchette, and that view is echoed by every right-thinking local citizen. Mouchette herself doesn’t bother to contradict it; ragged, foulmouthed, dirt-poor, a born liar and loser, she knows herself to be, in the words of the story, “alone, completely alone, against everyone.” Hers is a tale of “tragic solitude” in which despair and salvation appear to be inextricably intertwined.   Bernanos uncompromising genius was a powerful inspiration to Flannery O’Connor, and Mouchette was the source of a celebrated movie by Robert Bresson.

 

7. Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke
Short Letter, Long Farewell is one the most inventive and exhilarating of the great Peter Handke’s novels. Full of seedy noir atmospherics and boasting an air of generalized delirium, the book starts by introducing us to a nameless young German who has just arrived in America, where he hopes to get over the collapse of his marriage. No sooner has he arrived, however, than he discovers that his ex-wife is pursuing him. He flees, she follows, and soon the couple is running circles around each other across the length of America—from Philadelphia to St. Louis to the Arizona desert, and from Portland, Oregon, to L.A. Is it love or vengeance that they want from each other? Everything’s spectacularly unclear in a book that is travelogue, suspense story, domestic comedy, and Western showdown, with a totally unexpected Hollywood twist at the end. Above all, Short Letter, Long Farewell is a love letter to America, its landscapes and popular culture, the invitation and the threat of its newness and wildness and emptiness, with the promise of a new life—or the corpse of an old one—lying just around the corner.

 

8. A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien 439731
The hero of Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a child of Hollywood, and once his life was a glittery dream. His father starred in Westerns. His mother was a goddess of the silver screen. The family enjoyed the high life on their estate, Casa Fiesta. But his parents’ careers have crashed since then, and their marriage has broken up too.  Lovesick and sex-crazed, the mother sets out on an intercontinental quest for the right—or wrong—man, while her mild-mannered but manipulative former husband clings to his memories in California. And their teenage son? How he struggles both to keep faith with his family and to get by himself, and what in the end he must do to break free, makes for a classic coming-of-age story—a novel that combines keen insight and devastating wit to hilarious and heartbreaking effect.

 

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‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith *****

Warning: gushing will ensue.  Please proceed with caution.

Well, it was no great surprise that Ali Smith’s Autumn is incredible.  I had originally asked my boyfriend to buy me a copy as my Christmas gift, and whilst he was happy to do so, I simply could not pass up the opportunity of reading a galley.  I am far too impatient when a new Ali Smith is released; she is my favourite living author, as I’m sure everyone knows by now, and meeting her whilst studying at King’s College London is the only time in my life that I have felt starstruck.

9780241207000Autumn is the first of four books in a seasonal sequence, and in my mind, it is the best choice to begin such a series with.  I adore all of the seasons, but autumn is a real joy; there is so much beauty around.  The novel has also been billed as a serious post-Brexit novel.  Brexit – that horrible word that my laptop is intent upon changing to the more kindly ‘Brett’ – is a decision which I still cannot believe has occurred; I find myself saddened by my fellow man, that such a wonderful and secure alliance could be severed so easily.  I have a feeling that these are Smith’s feelings too; the inference here, particularly when one takes the character of Elisabeth’s mother into account, are that Britain has made a mistake of great enormity, which will affect everyone in horrid ways.  Of the novel, in fact, she stated the following in a recent interview: ‘It’s a pivotal moment…  a question of what happens culturally when something is built on a lie’.

As anyone who has read her work before will know, Smith is incredibly sharp, and she has created, once again, a fantastic range of characters to people her latest novel.  The conversational patterns which strike up between them feel both unusual and realistic.  As always, Smith says a wealth of incredibly important things – about society, and humankind, and decision making, and friendship, and love.  She writes of the young and the old, the past and the future.

Smith’s prose, as always, is both stunning, and often profound: ‘It is a privilege, to watch someone sleep, Elisabeth tells herself.  It is a privilege to be able to witness someone both here and not here.  To be included in someone’s absence, it is an honour, and it asks quiet.  It asks respect’.  I could happily quote extensively here to further prove my point, so I shall.  ‘Time travel is real, Daniel said.  We do it all the time.  Moment to moment, minute to minute’.  The prose about Daniel’s younger sister was particularly compelling:

‘She dances round the room shouting the word he can hardly say himself in her presence.
She is mad.
But she is uncannily right about that story.
She is brilliant.
She is a whole new level of the world true.
She is dangerous and shining.’

Unlike the Brexit result, Autumn is perfect.  The material is incredibly well handled, and it is certainly one of her very best books to date; perhaps the very best, in fact.  I keep thinking that she can never get any better with each new release, and lo and behold, she does.  The novel’s wordplay is exhilarating.  Autumn is a triumph; compulsive and compelling, timely and timeless.  It is a wonderful, wondrous book.  When I reached the all to brief end, I was tempted to go right back to the beginning and read it all over again.

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First Novels

I often find that when reading through the oeuvres of my favourite contemporary writers, I often do not begin with their first books.  Whilst I do not make this choice intentionally, I find it fascinating to read later efforts, and then go back to the beginning to see how a particular author’s style has changed over time.  With that said, I thought I would showcase five first novels by some of my favourite contemporary authors, all of which (aside from the McGregor) I read when already familiar with a lot of their other work.

  1. Like by Ali Smith (1997) 9781860493171
    ‘There’s Amy and there’s Ash. There’s ice and there’s fire. There’s England and there’s Scotland. Ali Smith evokes the twin spirits of time and place in an extraordinarily powerful first novel, which teases out the connections between people, the attractions, the ghostly repercussions. By turns funny, haunting and disconcertingly moving, Like soars across hidden borders between cultures, countries, families, friends and lovers. Subtle and complex, it confounds expectations about fiction and truths.’
  2. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2004)
    The Namesake is the story of a boy brought up Indian in America. ‘When her grandmother learned of Ashima’s pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family’s first sahib. And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes…’ For now, the label on his hospital cot reads simply ‘BABY BOY GANGULI’. But as time passes and still no letter arrives from India, American bureaucracy takes over and demands that ‘baby boy Ganguli’ be given a name. In a panic, his father decides to nickname him ‘Gogol’ – after his favourite writer. Brought up as an Indian in suburban America, Gogol Ganguli soon finds himself itching to cast off his awkward name, just as he longs to leave behind the inherited values of his Bengali parents. And so he sets off on his own path through life, a path strewn with conflicting loyalties, love and loss… Spanning three decades and crossing continents, Jhumpa Lahiri’s much-anticipated first novel is a triumph of humane story-telling. Elegant, subtle and moving.’
  3. 9780747561576If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (2002)
    ‘On a street in a town in the North of England, ordinary people are going through the motions of their everyday existence – street cricket, barbecues, painting windows… A young man is in love with a neighbour who does not even know his name. An old couple make their way up to the nearby bus stop. But then a terrible event shatters the quiet of the early summer evening. That this remarkable and horrific event is only poignant to those who saw it, not even meriting a mention on the local news, means that those who witness it will be altered for ever. Jon McGregor’s first novel brilliantly evokes the histories and lives of the people in the street to build up an unforgettable human panorama. Breathtakingly original, humane and moving, the novel is an astonishing debut.’
  4. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985)
    ‘This is the story of Jeanette, adopted and brought up by her mother as one of God’s elect. Zealous and passionate, she seems destined for life as a missionary, but then she falls for one of her converts. At sixteen, Jeanette decides to leave the church, her home and her family, for the young woman she loves. Innovative, punchy and tender, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a few days ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess and human obsession.’
  5. Everything You Know by Zoe Heller (1999) 9780141039992
    ‘The women in Willy Muller’s life are trouble. His mother insists he eat tofu. His dopey girlfriend, Penny, wants him to overcome his personal space issues – while Karen, his other, even dopier, girlfriend, just wants more sex. Meanwhile, his oldest daughter, Sophie, wants him to finance her husband’s drug habit. But it’s his youngest daughter, Sadie, who’s giving him the biggest headache. Just before committing suicide three months ago, she sent Willy her diaries. Poring over the record of her empty life, he feels pangs of something unexpected …remorse. But isn’t it a bit late for such sentimental guff? Set in London, Hollywood and Mexico, Everything You Know is a supremely witty take on love, death and the age-old battle of the sexes.’

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‘Public Library and Other Stories’ by Ali Smith ****

Ali Smith’s fabulous new collection of short stories revolves around the theme of books, and why they ‘mean the world to us’.  The tales which can be found within Public Library and Other Stories are ‘about what we do with books and what they do with us; how they shock us, change us, challenge us, banish time while making us older, wiser and ageless all at once; how they remind us to pay attention to the world we make’.

The power of stories, then, is what Smith focuses upon here; or, at a more basic level, the power of the written word itself.  Public Library and Other Stories consists of twelve tales in all, which have been bookended with twelve insightful pieces of commentary, the majority of which muse upon the importance of the library.  Segments range from thoughts about a ‘Library’ in Covent Garden, which resembles a ‘fancy shop’ and turns out to be a private members’ club, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s use of a library card as a weapon, to the way in which ‘libraries have always been a part of any civilisation, [and as such] they are not negotiable.  They are part of our inheritance’.

Smith has also borrowed the stories of friends regarding their stance on the public library.  Her partner, Sarah Wood, responded with the following: ‘I can’t tell you what the opening of that library was like where we lived – it was an event…  The brand new building brought with it the idea that our local history was important – that books were important, but also that we were too, and that where we lived was, that it had a heritage and a future that mattered’.

The figures whom we encounter whilst reading Smith’s newest work are both imagined and real, and sometimes a clever blend of the two, from poet Olive Fraser, to the ashes of controversial author D.H. Lawrence.  There are stories in the collection about linguistics, about companionship, and about bookish criminality: ‘So she’d taken the book and she’d thrown it across the room and when it hit the wall and then fell to the floor with its pages open it nearly broke, which was one of the worst things you could do, maybe a worse thing even than saying a blasphemous curse, no, than saying a blasphemous curse in a church, or near a church, to break a book’.

As I invariably find with Smith’s work, beautiful and profound phrases are woven throughout, and often have the power to make the reader stop and think.  The central theme within Public Library and Other Stories has allowed Smith a lot of creativity, whilst still allowing her to produce a thematic and connected collection.  Her commentary which has been threaded between the stories strengthens the whole, and ties it together in a thoughtful and measured manner.  To borrow a phrase of Smith’s own making, Public Library and Other Stories is made up of ‘endless stories, all crossing across each other’.

Ali Smith very deservingly – and finally! – won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year with her stunningly creative novel How to be both.  There is a reason as to why Smith is at the very to of her profession; she is a wonderfully gifted and distinctive writer, who surprises at turns, and who understands, more than anyone, the importance of the book.  Each tale in her newest collection is constructed entirely of strengths.  Public Library and Other Stories is just as profound as the aforementioned, and is guaranteed to leave established fans of her work content, as well as bringing new readers to the fore.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Whole Story and Other Stories’ by Ali Smith ****

First published in May 2014.

Merely to be a gushing Ali Smith fangirly, I thought that I would begin this review by saying that it is really cool to open a library book written by someone so prolific and to see ‘local author’ scrawled on the front page.  If you had not guessed from this, I adore Smith’s quirky writing and creative stories, and she is certainly one of my favourite authors. 

Before I begin each one of Smith’s short story collections, I know that I will very much enjoy every single tale which has been included within its pages, often for very different reasons.  As I very much – and rather predictably – loved or very much enjoyed every story in The Whole Story and Other Stories, I thought that I would jot down a few thoughts about each story, and the reasons as to why I liked them so much.

– ‘The Universal Story’: I loved the conversational stream-of-consciousness style; the way in which Smith describes how one can adore books and the promise of treasures in secondhand bookshops; one man’s admiration for The Great Gatsby, and the collection of copies of the novel.
– ‘Gothic’: the personification of personality traits; the growth of the story’s protagonist.
– ‘Being Quick’: the use of the reader as a character of sorts; the use of two different first person narrators; the fact that the couple who feature as the protagonists are nameless.
– ‘May’: an original idea; I have read this story several times before and still find its beauty striking.
– ‘Paradise’: the use of very long but perfectly constructed sentences; the imagery which Smith builds.
– ‘Erosive’: the sheer number of characters and the way in which they were introduced so seamlessly.
– ‘The Book Club’: the structure, which cleverly told both a present day story and a backstory.
– ‘Believe Me’: the skill and tightness of the conversation between the protagonists.
– ‘Scottish Love Songs’: the very contemporary style of the prose.
– ‘The Shortlist Season’: thoughtful and urgent.
– ‘The Start of Things’: the dual perspective of the same event.

Please, if you have not done so before, go and pick up one of Ali Smith’s books.  Whether you read a novel, a short story collection or a work of non-fiction, she is a novelist who is well worth discovering.

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Ten Fiction Picks

I am rather pushed for time at present, and thought that I would put together a list of ten fiction books which I have very much enjoyed of late, but have no time to blog about.  For each, I have added my own personal star rating, and copied the official blurb.  Apologies for this cop out of sorts, but I hope that you find something wondrous to read below!

1. Local Girls by Alice Hoffman ****
“Told from Gretel Samuelson’s sly and knowing perspective, Local Girls charts her progress as she navigates from childhood to the brink of womanhood, picking her way though the tragedies and absurdities of everyday life in a family which is rocked by divorce and disaster, bad judgement and fierce attachments.”
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2. Hotel World by Ali Smith **** 
“Ali Smith’s masterful, ambitious Hotel World was short-listed for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize. Five people: four are living, three are strangers, two are sisters, one is dead. In her highly acclaimed and most ambitious book to date, the brilliant young Scottish writer Ali Smith brings alive five unforgettable characters and traces their intersecting lives. This is a short novel with big themes (time, chance, money, death) but an eye for tiny detail: the taste of dust, the weight of a few coins in the hand, the pleasurable pain of a stone in one’s shoe…
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3. Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud ****
“Two little girls are taken by their mother to Morocco on a 1960s pilgrimage of self-discovery. For Mum, it is not just an escape from the grinding conventions of English life but a quest for personal fulfilment; her children, however, seek something more solid and stable amidst the shifting desert sands.”
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4. The Shore by Sara Taylor ***
“The Shore. A collection of small islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean that has been home to generations of fierce and resilient women. Sanctuary to some but nightmare to others, it’s a place they’ve inhabited, fled, and returned to for hundreds of years. From a brave girl’s determination to protect her younger sister as methamphetamine ravages their family, to a lesson in summoning storm clouds to help end a drought, these women struggle against domestic violence, savage wilderness, and the corrosive effects of poverty and addiction to secure a sense of well-being for themselves and for those they love. Their interconnecting stories form a deeply affecting legacy of two island families, illuminating the small miracles and miseries of a community of outsiders, and the bonds of blood and fate that connect them all. Dreamlike and yet impossibly real, profound and playful, The Shore is a richly unique, breathtakingly ambitious and accomplished debut novel by a young writer of astonishing gifts.”
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5. The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde by Peter Ackroyd ****
“Oscar Wilde never wrote a last testament during his isolation in Paris. This book takes the known facts about Oscar Wilde and converts them into a fictional portrait of the artist and memoir of a life of great contrast – a career which ended with a catastrophic fall from public favour.”

6. The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate *** 
“It is 1913 – just prior to England’s entry into World War I – and Edwardian England is about to vanish into history. A group of men and women gather at Sir Randolph Nettleby’s estate for a shooting party. Opulent, adulterous, moving assuredly through the rituals of eating and slaughter, they are a dazzlingly obtuse and brilliantly decorative finale of an era.”
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7. The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith ****
The First Person and Other Stories effortlessly appeals to our hearts, heads and funny bones. Always intellectually playful, but also very moving and funny, Smith explores the ways and whys of storytelling. In one, a middle-aged woman conducts a poignant conversation with her gauche fourteen-year-old self. In another, an innocent supermarket shopper finds in her trolley a foul-mouthed, insulting and beautiful child. Challenging the boundaries between fiction and reality, a third presents its narrator, ‘Ali’, as she drinks tea, phones a friend and muses on the relationship between the short story and – a nymph. Innovative, sophisticated and intelligent, the stories in The First Person and Other Stories are packed full of ideas, jokes, nuance and compassion. Ali Smith and the short story are made for each other.”
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8. Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan ****
Tender Morsels is a dark and vivid story, set in two worlds and worrying at the border between them. Liga lives modestly in her own personal heaven, a world given to her in exchange for her earthly life. Her two daughters grow up in this soft place, protected from the violence that once harmed their mother. But the real world cannot be denied forever–magicked men and wild bears break down the borders of Liga’s refuge. Now, having known Heaven, how will these three women survive in a world where beauty and brutality lie side by side?”
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9. Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen ****
“A sparkling summer debut of love and reawakening that transports the classic The Enchanted April to a picture-perfect island in Maine It s a rainy summer in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when two unhappily married women, Lottie Wilkinson and Rose Arbuthnot, spot a tattered ad on their children’s preschool bulletin board: “Hopewell Cottage Little Lost Island, Maine. Old pretty cottage to rent Spring water, blueberries, sea glass. August.” Neither can afford it, but they are smitten. To share expenses, they find two companions: Caroline Dester, the exquisite darling of the independent movie scene, and elderly Beverly Fisher, who is recovering from heartbreaking loss. Transformed by the refreshing summer breezes, steamed lobsters, and cocktail hours on the wrap-around porch, the unlikely quartet gradually begin to open up to one another, and ultimately rediscover their capacity to love and be loved. With a cast of quirky and endearing characters set against the beauty of an idyllic New England summer, Enchanted August brilliantly updates a beloved classic and offers readers a universal fantasy: one glorious summer month away from it all.”
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10. Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness **** 
“Abandoned as a baby, Alfgrimur is content to spend his days as a fisherman living in the turf cottage outside Reykjavik with the elderly couple he calls grandmother and grandfather. There he shares the mid-loft with a motley bunch of eccentrics and philosophers who find refuge in the simple respect for their fellow men that is the ethos at the Brekkukot. But the narrow horizons of Alfgrimur’s idyllic childhood are challenged when he starts school and meets Iceland’s most famous singer, the mysterious Garoar Holm. Garoar encourages him to aim for the “one true note”, but how can he attain it without leaving behind the world that he loves?”
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