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‘Survival Lessons’ by Alice Hoffman ****

I purchased Alice Hoffman’s only non-fiction work to date, Survival Lessons, after spotting it on Goodreads.  I very much enjoy her fiction, and find her writing style both immersive and not at all taxing to read.  Survival Lessons is markedly different in its content to her novels; it charts her struggle with breast cancer, and the ensuing feeling which it left about trying to enjoy life in all of its splendour, as well as in heartbreak.

Its blurb says, ‘Wise, gentle, and wry, Alice Hoffman teaches all of us how to choose what matters most’.  I find this description a little disingenuous, sounding, as it does, as though Hoffman is trying to preach to her readers.  What I found in Survival Lessons is something quite different; it is a meditation on life, and all of the tiny pleasures which can be found in our days, despite the adversity we may face on a wider scale.

9781616203146Hoffman immediately begins with an introduction which describes her initial denial at the betrayal of her own body, and the later diagnosis of cancer.  This introduction, whilst brief, feels honest, and is insightful as to both her situation and reasoning.  Her plight gave her, with almost a decade and a half of retrospect added into the mix, the inspiration to write this slim volume: ‘When I found the lump I was convinced I had imagined it.  These things didn’t happen to me.’

At the time of her discovery, Hoffman’s mother was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and her sister-in-law had just passed away from brain cancer.  Of her own diagnosis, she speaks rather honestly of her previous position as caregiver: ‘I was not someone who got cancer.  In fact, I was the person who sat by bedsides, accompanied friends to doctor’s appointments, researched family members’ diseases until I became an expert, went to meetings with lawyers when divorce was the only option, found therapists for depressed teenagers, bought plots at cemeteries, arranged funerals, babysat children and pets.’

It took Hoffman a while to come to terms with her own disease; eventually, she came to recognise that ‘When it comes to sorrow, no one is immune.’  The writing process which Survival Lessons gave her was in itself a form of healing.  Unable to find such a book herself, she decided to put pen to paper in order to try and help others through similar situations, envisaging her work as a ‘guidebook’ or ‘manual’ for trauma survival.

Fifteen years ensued between her diagnosis and the publication of Survival Lessons.  Of the interim, Hoffman states: ‘It took all this time for me to figure out what I would have most wanted to hear when I was newly diagnosed, when I lost the people I loved, when I was deeply disappointed in myself and the turns my life had taken.  In many ways I wrote this book to remind myself of the beauty of life, something that’s all too easy to overlook during the crisis of illness or loss.’

Survival Lessons is varied in terms of its content.  Amongst other things, Hoffman writes about Anne Frank, her childhood hero; the notion of personal tragedy; her parents’ divorce; the loss of her mother; recipes; ageing; grief; and reading.  She urges her readers to ‘read the greats – they’re great for a reason.  They know how to chart the human soul.’  Survival Lessons is made up of a series of short essays and musings, and is therefore easy to dip in and out of.  There are quotes, extracts from poems, illustrations, and accompanying photographs, and this mixed media blends in a lovely and fitting way.  I read Survival Lessons merely because I was curious about its content, but I imagine that it will bring comfort to those in similar situations to Hoffman’s.  Regardless, it is a worthwhile read for everyone; it is so human in its approach, and not exclusive to those who are suffering with anything.  Survival Lessons is a really lovely little book, which I will definitely not be forgetting in a hurry.

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Books Set in Florida

I’m holidaying in and off Florida later this year, and when turning my mind to literature which I’d read with a Floridian setting, I could come up with very little.  I thought, therefore, that I would make a list of ten books of interest to me, and hopefully then motivate myself to read a large chunk of them before and during my holiday.  I can’t promise that I’ll get to all of these, but I’m going to try!

1. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell 8584686
The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline–think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades–and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the “World of Darkness.”  Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve-year-old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the “Underworld,” a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.

 

2. Tangerine by Edward Bloor
89755Paul Fisher sees the world from behind glasses so thick he looks like a bug-eyed alien. But he’s not so blind that he can’t see there are some very unusual things about his family’s new home in Tangerine County, Florida. Where else does a sinkhole swallow the local school, fire burn underground for years, and lightning strike at the same time every day?The chaos is compounded by constant harassment from his football–star brother, and adjusting to life in Tangerine isn’t easy for Paul—until he joins the soccer team at his middle school. With the help of his new teammates, Paul begins to discover what lies beneath the surface of his strange new hometown. And he also gains the courage to face up to some secrets his family has been keeping from him for far too long. In Tangerine, it seems, anything is possible.;

 

3. The Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
When Fat Charlie’s dad named something, it stuck. Like calling Fat Charlie “Fat Charlie.” 373951Even now, twenty years later, Charlie Nancy can’t shake that name, one of the many embarrassing “gifts” his father bestowed — before he dropped dead on a karaoke stage and ruined Fat Charlie’s life.  Mr. Nancy left Fat Charlie things. Things like the tall, good-looking stranger who appears on Charlie’s doorstep, who appears to be the brother he never knew. A brother as different from Charlie as night is from day, a brother who’s going to show Charlie how to lighten up and have a little fun … just like Dear Old Dad. And all of a sudden, life starts getting very interesting for Fat Charlie.  Because, you see, Charlie’s dad wasn’t just any dad. He was Anansi, a trickster god, the spider-god. Anansi is the spirit of rebellion, able to overturn the social order, create wealth out of thin air, and baffle the devil. Some said he could cheat even Death himself.’

 

4. Turtle Moon by Alice Hoffman
40806Turtle Moon transports the listener to Verity, Florida, a place where anything can happen during the month of May, when migrating sea turtles come to town, mistaking the glow of the streetlights for the moon.  A young single mother is murdered in her apartment and her baby is gone. Keith, a 12-year-old boy in the same apartment building—the self-styled “meanest boy” in town—also disappears. In pursuit of the baby, the boy and the killer, are Keith’s divorced mother and a cop who himself was once considered the meanest boy in town. Their search leads them down the humid byways of a Florida populated almost exclusively by people from somewhere else; emotional refugees seeking sanctuary along the swampy coast.

 

5. To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway 913744
To Have and Have Not is the dramatic story of Harry Morgan, an honest man who is forced into running contraband between Cuba and Key West as a means of keeping his crumbling family financially afloat. His adventures lead him into the world of the wealthy and dissipated yachtsmen who throng the region, and involve him in a strange and unlikely love affair.  Harshly realistic, yet with one of the most subtle and moving relationships in the Hemingway oeuvre, To Have and Have Not is literary high adventure at its finest.

 

85911076. The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
Mara Dyer doesn’t think life can get any stranger than waking up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there.  It can.  She believes there must be more to the accident she can’t remember that killed her friends and left her mysteriously unharmed.  There is.  She doesn’t believe that after everything she’s been through, she can fall in love.
She’s wrong.

 

7. The Everglades: A River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas 2083005
Before 1947, when Marjory Stoneman Douglas named the Everglades a “river of grass,” most people considered the area worthless. She brought the world’s attention to the need to preserve the Everglades. In the Afterword, Michael Grunwald tells us what has happened to them since then. Grunwald points out that in 1947 the government was in the midst of establishing the Everglades National Park and turning loose the Army Corps of Engineers to control floods–both of which seemed like saviors for the Glades. But neither turned out to be the answer. Working from the research he did for his book, The Swamp, Grunwald offers an account of what went wrong and the many attempts to fix it, beginning with Save Our Everglades, which Douglas declared was “not nearly enough.” Grunwald then lays out the intricacies (and inanities) of the more recent and ongoing CERP, the hugely expensive Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

 

8. The Aguero Sisters by Cristina Garcia
376004Reina and Constancia Agüero are Cuban sisters who have been estranged for thirty years. Reina–tall, darkly beautiful, and magnetically sexual–still lives in her homeland. Once a devoted daughter of la revolución, she now basks in the glow of her many admiring suitors, believing only in what she can grasp with her five senses. The pale and very petite Constancia lives in the United States, a beauty expert who sees miracles and portents wherever she looks. After she and her husband retire to Miami, she becomes haunted by the memory of her parents and the unexplained death of her beloved mother so long ago.  Told in the stirring voices of their parents, their daughters, and themselves, The Agüero Sisters tells a mesmerizing story about the power of myth to mask, transform, and finally, reveal the truth–as two women move toward an uncertain, long awaited reunion.

 

9. Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye 23615823
Huron Key is already weighed down with secrets when a random act of violence and a rush to judgment viscerally tear the town apart. As the little island burns under the sun and the weight of past decisions, a devastating storm based on the third-strongest Atlantic Hurricane on record approaches, matching the anger of men with the full fury of the skies. Beautifully written and seductive, Under a Dark Summer Sky is at once a glorious love story, a fascinating slice of social history, and a mesmerizing account of what it’s like to be in the eye of a hurricane.

 

10. 90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis
13722320When Julian’s parents make the heartbreaking decision to send him and his two brothers away from Cuba to Miami via the Pedro Pan operation, the boys are thrust into a new world where bullies run rampant and it’s not always clear how best to protect themselves

 

Are there any other books which you feel should be on my list?  Which are your favourite tomes set in and around Florida?

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‘The River King’ by Alice Hoffman ****

‘For more than a century, the small town of Haddan, Massachusetts, has been divided, as if by a line drawn down the centre of Main Street, separating those born and bred in the ‘village’ from those who attend the prestigious Haddan School. But one October night the two worlds are thrust together by an inexplicable death and the town’s divided history is revealed in all its complexity. The lives of everyone involved are unravelled: from Carlin Leander, the fifteen-year-old scholarship girl who is as loyal as she is proud, to Betsy Chase, a woman running from her own destiny; from August Pierce, a loner and a misfit at school who unexpectedly finds courage in his darkest hour, to Abel Grey, the police officer who refuses to let unspeakable actions – both past and present – slide by without notice.’

9780099286523I felt – correctly so – that The River King would be a great choice for a Sunday afternoon.  I very much enjoy Hoffman’s work, but hadn’t read any of it for quite some time before picking this tome up.  Her books are rather easy reading, but are well – and intelligently – written.  They also deal with a lot of important themes; here, bullying and the mystery of the death of a teenage student take centre stage.

As in all of Hoffman’s work, there is a strong sense of place, and of society, here.  It is absorbing from the first page, and evident is the way in which Hoffman has the real knack of being able to follow numerous, and realistic, characters almost simultaneously.  Rather than being set within a small town, as have the other Hoffmans which I have read to date, The River King is set largely within a boarding school, in which two students primarily, and a couple members of staff are followed.  Although we learn about other characters around them in later chapters, these four essentially become her focus.

The River King has been nicely structured, and as with her other work, I could barely put it down when I had begun.  The long chapters have been well paced, and the entirety is filled with telling details and small cruelties perpetrated by several secondary characters.  The River King is an achingly human novel, with elements of Hoffman’s trademark magical realism.  It left me spellbound.

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Christmas Book Haul 2016

I have almost entirely moved away from creating BookTube videos, and haven’t written a traditional book haul post in rather a while!  Going forward, I will endeavour to post one of these at the end of each month, so you can see both what I’ve bought and borrowed.  For now, allow me to show you the wonderful books which I received for Christmas!

As I’ve only read two of them so far (the fantastic Speaking in Tongues, and The Little Paris Bookshop, which I read last year and reviewed here), I shall copy the official blurb.  As always, if you’d like full reviews of any of them once I’ve read them, please do let me know.

 

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
9781760291877Winner of Best Fiction and Overall Book of the Year at the Independent Bookseller Awards / Shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award / Longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award

‘She hears her own thick voice deep inside her ears when she says, ‘I need to know where I am.’ The man stands there, tall and narrow, hand still on the doorknob, surprised. He says, almost in sympathy, ‘Oh, sweetie. You need to know what you are.’ Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in a broken-down property in the middle of a desert. Strangers to each other, they have no idea where they are or how they came to be there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a ‘nurse’. The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? Who is the mysterious security company responsible for this desolate place with its brutal rules, its total isolation from the contemporary world? Doing hard labour under a sweltering sun, the prisoners soon learn what links them: in each girl’s past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. They pray for rescue – but when the food starts running out it becomes clear that the jailers have also become the jailed. The girls can only rescue themselves.’

 

Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson 9780143128229
‘Mara Wilson has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, the first daughter in a house full of boys, the sole clinically depressed member of the cheerleading squad, a valley girl in New York and a neurotic in California, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex on the set of Melrose Place, to losing her mother at a young age, to getting her first kiss (or was it kisses?) on a celebrity canoe trip, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity. But they also illuminate a universal struggle: learning to accept yourself, and figuring out who you are and where you belong. Exquisitely crafted, revelatory, and full of the crack comic timing that has made Mara Wilson a sought-after live storyteller and Twitter star, Where Am I Now? introduces a witty, perceptive, and refreshingly candid new literary voice.

 

Tru & Nelle by G. Neri
51tb2cayyfl-_sx319_bo1204203200_‘Long before they became famous writers, Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) were childhood friends in Monroeville, Alabama. This fictionalized account of their time together opens at the beginning of the Great Depression, when Tru is seven and Nelle is six. They love playing pirates, but they like playing Sherlock and Watson-style detectives even more. It s their pursuit of a case of drugstore theft that lands the daring duo in real trouble. Humor and heartache intermingle in this lively look at two budding writers in the 1930s South.’

 

Speaking in Tongues: Curious Expressions from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders 9781910931264
‘Ever feel like you are pedalling in the choucroute? Been caught with your beard in the mailbox again? Or maybe you just wish everyone would stop ironing your head? Speaking in Tongues brings the weird, wonderful and surprising nuanced beauty of language to life with over fifty gorgeous watercolour and ink illustrations. Here you will find the perfect romantic expression, such as the Spanish tu eres mi media naranja, or ‘you are the love of my life, my soulmate’, and the bizarre, including dancing bears and broken pots, feeding donkeys sponge cake, a head full of crickets, and clouds and radishes. All encourage new ways of thinking about the world around us, and breathe magnificent life into the everyday. These phrases from across the world are ageless and endlessly enchanting, passed down through generations. Now they are yours.’

 

The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg
9780224101950‘From the author who brought you The Encyclopedia of Early Earth comes another Epic Tale of Derring-Do. Prepare to be dazzled once more by the overwhelming power of stories and see Love prevail in the face of Terrible Adversity! You will read of betrayal, loyalty, madness, bad husbands, lovers both faithful and unfaithful, wise old crones, moons who come out of the sky, musical instruments that won’t stay quiet, friends and brothers and fathers and mothers and above all, many, many sisters.’

 

Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington 9781910263105
‘Set at Cadenabbia on Lake Como in September 1906, Madame Solario (1956) evokes the leisure of the pre-1914 world and the sensuous delights of Italy: the chestnut woods, the shuttered villas, the garden paths encroached by oleanders: ‘the almost excessive beauty of the winding lake surrounded by mountains, the shores gemmed with golden-yellow villages and classical villas standing among cypress trees.’ When the mysterious Natalia Solario arrives at the Belle Vue Hotel, there are disquieting rumours about her past life and about her excessively close relationship to her brother.’

 

The River King by Alice Hoffman
9780099286523‘For more than a century, the small town of Haddan, Massachusetts, has been divided, as if by a line drawn down the centre of Main Street, separating those born and bred in the ‘village’ from those who attend the prestigious Haddan School. But one October night the two worlds are thrust together by an inexplicable death and the town’s divided history is revealed in all its complexity. The lives of everyone involved are unravelled: from Carlin Leander, the fifteen-year-old scholarship girl who is as loyal as she is proud, to Betsy Chase, a woman running from her own destiny; from August Pierce, a loner and a misfit at school who unexpectedly finds courage in his darkest hour, to Abel Grey, the police officer who refuses to let unspeakable actions – both past and present – slide by without notice.’

 

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George 9780553418798
‘Monsieur Perdu can prescribe the perfect book for a broken heart. But can he fix his own? Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself; he’s still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened. After Perdu is finally tempted to read the letter, he hauls anchor and departs on a mission to the south of France, hoping to make peace with his loss and discover the end of the story. Joined by a bestselling but blocked author and a lovelorn Italian chef, Perdu travels along the country s rivers, dispensing his wisdom and his books, showing that the literary world can take the human soul on a journey to heal itself. Internationally bestselling and filled with warmth and adventure, The Little Paris Bookshop is a love letter to books, meant for anyone who believes in the power of stories to shape people’s lives. ‘

 

Unless by Carol Shields
9780007137695‘Reta Winters has a loving family, good friends, and growing success as a writer of light fiction. Then her eldest daughter suddenly withdraws from the world, abandoning university to sit on a street corner, wearing a sign that reads only ‘Goodness’. As Reta seeks the causes of her daughter’s retreat, her enquiry turns into an unflinching, often very funny meditation on society and where we find meaning and hope. ‘Unless’ is a dazzling and daring novel from the undisputed master of extraordinary fictions about so-called ‘ordinary’ lives.’

 

The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh 9781848546509
‘Jane and Petra have been together for six years and after deciding to have a child, they move to Petra’s hometown, Berlin. But things do not quite go according to plan. Jane, at six months pregnant, finds herself increasingly isolated and preoccupied with the monuments and reminders of the Holocaust which echo around the city – imagining the horrors that happened in the spaces around her. She becomes uneasy in the apartment and conceives a dread of the derelict backhouse across the courtyard. She also begins to suspect their neighbour, Alban Mann, of sexually assaulting his daughter, and places a phone call to the police which holds more significance than she can ever have known …’

 

The Philosophy of Beards by Thomas S. Gowing
9780712357661”The absence of Beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness.’ ‘Take two drawings of the head of a lion, one with and the other without the mane. You will see how much of the majesty of the king of the woods, as well as that of the lord of the earth, dwells in this free-flowing appendage.’ ‘There is scarcely a more naturally disgusting object than a beardless old man. The Beard keeps gradually covering, varying and beautifying, and imparts new graces even to decay, by heightening all that is still pleasing, veiling all that is repulsive.’ This eccentric Victorian book argues a strong case for the universal wearing of a beard – that essential symbol of manly distinction since ancient times. Thomas S. Gowing contrasts the vigour and daring of bearded men through history with the undeniable effeminacy of the clean-shaven. He reminds the modern man that ‘ladies, by their very nature, like everything manly’, and cannot fail to be charmed by a ‘fine flow of curling comeliness’. Gowing’s book is now republished for the first time since 1850, accompanied by illustrations of impressive beards from history.’

 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang 9781846276033
‘Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree. Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.’

 

A fantastic haul, I’m sure you’ll agree!  Thanks so much to everyone who gifted me a book this year.  Have you read any of these?

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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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Short Story Series: Part Three

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like.  I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections.  Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb.  I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. Tales from the Secret Annex by Anne Frank
‘The candid, poignant, unforgettable writing of the young girl whose own life story has become an everlasting source of courage and inspiration. Hiding from the Nazis in the ” Secret Annex” of an old office building in Amsterdam, a thirteen-year-old girl named Anne Frank became a writer. The now famous diary of her private life and thoughts reveals only part of Anne’s story, however. This book rounds out the portrait of this remarkable and talented young author. Newly translated, complete, and restored to the original order in which Anne herself wrote them in her notebook, Tales from the Secret Annex is a collection of Anne Frank’s lesser-known writings: short stories, fables, personal reminiscences, and an unfinished novel, Cady’s Life.’

2. M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman
‘In this collection of wonderful stories, which range between fantasy, humour, science fiction and a sprinkling of horror, the reader will relish the range and skill of Neil Gaiman’s writing. Be prepared to laugh at the detective story about Humpty Dumpty’s demise, spooked by the sinister jack-in -the-box who haunts the lives of the children who own it, and intrigued by the boy who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard in this collection of bite-sized narrative pleasures.’

3. The Persephone Book of Short Stories
This is an absolutely marvellous collection of short stories, featuring a plethora of different authors.

4. The Wordsworth Collection of Classic Short Stories
‘Poignant, wry, chilling, challenging, amusing, thought-provoking and always intriguing, these accomplished tales from the pens of great writers are object-lessons in the art of creating a literary masterpiece on a small canvas. From the straightforwardly anecdotal to the more analytical of human behaviour, all are guaranteed to capture the imagination, stir the emotions, linger in the memory and whet the reader’s appetite for more. In this book, Wordsworth Editions presents the modern reader with a rich variety of short stories by a host of towering literary figures ranging from Arnold Bennett to Virginia Woolf. This disparate and distinguished company of writers has rarely – if ever – met within the pages of one volume: the result is a positive feast.’

5. Stories to Get You Through the Night, edited by Helen Dunmore
‘”Stories to Get You Through the Night” is a collection to remedy life’s stresses and strains. Inside you will find writing from the greatest of classic and contemporary authors; stories that will brighten and inspire, move and delight, soothe and restore in equal measure. This is an anthology to devour or to savour at your leisure, each story a perfectly imagined whole to be read and reread, and each a journey to transport the reader away from the everyday. Immersed in the pages, you will follow lovers to midnight trysts, accompany old friends on new adventures, be thrilled by ghostly delights, overcome heartbreak, loss and longing, and be warmed by tales of redemption, and of hope and happiness. Whether as a cure for insomnia, to while away the hours on a midnight journey, or as a brief moment of escapism before you turn in, the stories contained in this remarkable collection provide the perfect antidote to the frenetic pace of modern life – a rich and calming selection guaranteed to see you through the night. It features stories by: Katherine Mansfield, Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, Oscar Wilde, Haruki Murakami, Wilkie Collins, Kate Chopin, Elizabeth Gaskell, The Brothers Grimm, John Cheever, Arthur Conan Doyle, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, Helen Simpson, Richard Yates, James Lasdun, Martin Amis, Angela Carter, Somerset Maugham and Julian Barnes.’

6. Cliffs of Fall by Shirley Hazzard
‘From the author of “The Great Fire,” a collection of stories about love and acceptance, expectations and disappointment Shirley Hazzard’s stories are sharp, sensitive portrayals of moments of crisis. Whether they are set in the Italian countryside or suburban Connecticut, the stories deal with real people and real problems. In the title piece, a young widow is surprised and ashamed by her lack of grief for her husband. In “A Place in the Country,” a young woman has a passionate, guilty affair with her cousin’s husband. In “Harold,” a gawky, lonely young man finds acceptance and respect through his poetry. Moving and evocative, these ten stories are written with subtlety, humor, and a keen understanding of the relationships between men and women.’

You can find my review here.

7. The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman
‘”The Red Garden” introduces us to the luminous and haunting world of Blackwell, Massachusetts, capturing the unexpected turns in its history and in our own lives. In exquisite prose, Hoffman offers a transforming glimpse of small-town America, presenting us with some three hundred years of passion, dark secrets, loyalty, and redemption in a web of tales where characters’ lives are intertwined by fate and by their own actions. From the town’s founder, a brave young woman from England who has no fear of blizzards or bears, to the young man who runs away to New York City with only his dog for company, the characters in “The Red Garden” are extraordinary and vivid: a young wounded Civil War soldier who is saved by a passionate neighbor, a woman who meets a fiercely human historical character, a poet who falls in love with a blind man, a mysterious traveler who comes to town in the year when summer never arrives. At the center of everyone’s life is a mysterious garden where only red plants can grow, and where the truth can be found by those who dare to look. Beautifully crafted, shimmering with magic, “The Red Garden” is as unforgettable as it is moving.’

8. Art in Nature by Tove Jansson
‘An elderly caretaker at a large outdoor exhibition, called Art in Nature, finds that a couple have lingered on to bicker about the value of a picture; he has a surprising suggestion that will resolve both their row and his own ambivalence about the art market. A draughtsman’s obsession with drawing locomotives provides a dark twist to a love story. A cartoonist takes over the work of a colleague who has suffered a nervous breakdown only to discover that his own sanity is in danger. In these witty, sharp, often disquieting stories, Tove Jansson reveals the fault-lines in our relationship with art, both as artists and as consumers. Obsession, ambition, and the discouragement of critics are all brought into focus in these wise and cautionary tales.’

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2

Flash Reviews (14th April 2014)

‘The Ice Queen’ by Alice Hoffman

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman ****
Alice Hoffman’s The Ice Queen is another of the library books which I borrowed during my first trip there for quite a while.  I have long been a fan of Hoffman’s work, and was so pleased to see that my branch stocks so many of her novels, many of which I shall be borrowing in the future.  She somehow manages to write incredibly intelligent novels without making them feel too heavy in their style or tone, most of which can be read in just a few hours.  A review on the book’s blurb writes of Hoffman favourably, and states – quite rightly, I feel – that her work can be compared to that of writers like Carol Shields and Alice Munro.  It has the same brand of distinctiveness and power which their writing is suffused with.

The Ice Queen is intriguing from the very first page.  It centres upon a female narrator, who is struck by lightning after wishing it upon herself.  Everything becomes the ‘colour of ice’ in consequence.  She works a librarian and moves from New Jersey to Florida after her grandmother’s death, in order to live closer to her brother, who becomes her only living relative.  Our protagonist believes that she is cursed, and that she wished death upon her mother when she screamed in a childish fit of fury that she never wanted to see her again.  Her mother was killed in a car crash that very night.

The way in which the narrator remains nameless works well.  She is a strong enough presence that she does not have to be defined by a name, and an almost enigmatic quality surrounds her because of it.  The Ice Queen is a wonderfully absorbing novel, and I for one am so glad that Hoffman is such a prolific writer.

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Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie ***

Apparently, Death Comes as the End is the only one of Agatha Christie’s novels to have an historical setting.  It is set in Egypt – on the West Bank of the River Nile at Thebes, to be precise – in 2000BC, ‘where death gives meaning to life’.  The novel begins with a widow named Renisenb, who has returned to her childhood home with her child, Teti.

From the very beginning, Christie sets out the familial relationship within Renisenb’s home rather well.  Unlike some of her other novels, the murder in Death Comes as the End does not come to the fore until around a third of the way in.  Instead, the sense of place and the building of the characters have been focused upon.  Whilst the setting has been well considered, the novel does not feel as though it has been entirely fixed in time.  Parts of it seem suspended without any real, concrete details, and could quite easily relate to a different time period entirely.  Nothing really made it feel as though it was fixed within Ancient Egypt, as I was expecting it to.

Whilst the plot of Death Comes at the End was rather clever, I must admit that I did guess it whilst it was still quite a way from the end.  It is not my favourite of Christie’s works by any means, but it was interesting to see how an historical setting both inspired and affected her work.

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‘The Lessons of the Master’ by Henry James

The Lesson of the Master by Henry James ****
I really enjoy Henry James’ work, and spotted this lovely Hesperus edition quite by chance in the library.  Whilst I had heard of it, I did not know anything about the novella before I began to read.  Colm Toibin’s foreword provides a nice little introduction to the story, and also sets out the details which drove James to write.  The Lesson of the Master was first published in 1888, but parts of it feel as though they are of a far more modern era.

The story’s protagonist, Paul Overt, is an ambitious young author, who has had work published.  The ‘master’ of the novella’s title is an established and revered novelist named Henry St. George, who quite happily decides to take the surprised Paul under his wing, so to speak.  I much admired the way in which the characters throughout were portrayed, Paul particularly.  He is such a believable creature that one could imagine walking around a corner and bumping into him as he sauntered out of his club.  The way in which he presents different characters is quite splendid.  When speaking of Henry’s wife, James writes: ‘She looked as if she had put on her best clothes to go to church and then had decided they were too good for that and had stayed at home’.

James has such a marvellous grasp of language, and demonstrates his skill tremendously throughout.  The Lesson of the Master is a very character driven work.  Whilst part of it is quite a tasteful love story of sorts, it is still ultimately an impression of the cast of protagonists which one comes away with.  The novella is an enjoyable one; a great classic work which can easily be read in just a couple of hours, and which will leave you with a thirst for James’ other work.

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4

Flash Reviews (15th November 2013)

‘The Red Garden’ by Alice Hoffman

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman ****
Before beginning this beautifully titled book, I had no idea that Hoffman had turned her hand to short story writing, so I was rather intrigued to see how she would use the shorter fictional form to her advantage.  I have found with previous books of hers which I’ve read that she creates clever and well-rounded plots and realistic characters, and she is adept at writing about small town life in America.  I am pleased to say that this book contains all of the elements mentioned above, and it certainly met my expectations.  Hoffman’s descriptions particularly shine in The Red Garden.

The stories which she has woven here are both lovely and thoughtful.  I really liked the way in which she linked the seemingly separate tales too.  All are set at various points in history in the same small town in Massachusetts.  The different families and the relationships they forge with one another are the concrete which have made a cohesive whole of these tales.  I very much enjoyed The Red Garden and would recommend it highly, particularly if you are a newcomer to Hoffman’s work.

Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear ***
I am really beginning to enjoy murder mysteries, and know that Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is very well liked.  When I saw several of her books in The Works as part of a 3 books for £5 deal, I thought I would give one of her stories a go.  I chose this one merely because the plot intrigued me.  I was not sure which book in the series this was when I picked it up (it transpires that it is the ninth).  Throughout, I found that Winspear set the social and historical scene of the early 1930s well.  It is not a very well written book at times, and it was sadly rather lacking in correct punctuation (the eternal quibble of proofreaders worldwide, it seems).  The dialogue did not always fit with the time period, and aside from the constant assertion of events and objects which Winspear included, on this basis it could have been set anywhere, and during many different time periods.  I did not warm to Maisie Dobbs, the investigator of this series, as much as I thought I would, but it is by no means the best crime book I have read of late.  The plot was a little drawn out and there was no very clever twist which I did not see coming.  Overall, I found Elegy for Eddie mildly enjoyable, but I do not think I will carry on with the rest of the series on the strength of this book alone.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil **
Narcopolis begins with a stream of consciousness; the prologue is essentially one long sentence, which has barely been broken up.  It then moves into a more traditional style of prose (with full stops and everything!) when the first chapter begins.  I found the overall feeling of the novel to be rather gritty.  Thayil does not show many – well, any, really – of the positive elements of Indian society, but focuses instead upon elements such as brothels, drug taking, addiction, and corruption.  In this way, he has highlighted the brutality of Bombay during the 1970s, and he does well in showing that such violence affects those from all walks of life.  This, for me, was the definite strength of the novel.

Unfortunately, I found that Narcopolis felt rather too matter-of-fact at times, particularly with regard to the many episodes of drug-taking (which made me feel a little queasy), and the pain experienced by the protagonists.  Throughout, even the few positives which his characters are faced with are tinged with sadness and cruelty.  Whilst I was not enamoured with any of those whom Thayil had crafted, they were all rather enigmatic and did intrigue me in different ways.  I neither liked nor disliked Narcopolis, and shall end only by saying that it wasn’t really my thing.  Note to self: do not be so taken in with brightly coloured covers and books adorned with ‘Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize’ slogans in future.