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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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‘Mr Mac and Me’ by Esther Freud **

Mr Mac and Me is the newest novel by Esther Freud.  She is the author of seven previous novels, the most famous of which is Hideous Kinky.  Rather than focus upon the contemporary in her new work, Freud has made a foray into historical fiction, and has focused upon the life of artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Mr Mac and Me is set in Walberswick in Suffolk, and begins just before the outbreak of World War One.  The novel’s lovely beginning launches straight into the story: ‘I was born upstairs in the small bedroom, not in the smallest room with the outshot window, where I sleep now, or the main room that is kept for guests…  I was born in winter, the sea storming on the beach beyond, heaving through the night, louder than my mother, whose ninth child I was’.  The narrator, thirteen-year-old Thomas Maggs, the only surviving son of the family, has lived above The Blue Anchor Inn since his sisters, Mary and Ann, ‘were little more than babies’.  He is a ‘cripple’ and has a twisted foot; something for which should make the reader feel sympathetic towards him, but which oddly does not.

Mac, as those in the village refer to Charles Rennie Mackintosh, takes a cottage in which to focus upon his art, ‘puffing on a pipe as if he’s Sherlock Holmes’.  His wife, Margaret, also an artist, is in residence with him.  Their behaviour is viewed as somewhat peculiar: ‘they have parties in [their cottage], sometimes just the two of them’.  The fact that Tom likes to draw is what first ties he and Mac together, and a relationship of sorts soon ensues between them.

Whilst the storyline sounds as though it should be fascinating, and I have such a love for Rennie Mackintosh’s work, I was somehow just not that interested in Mr Mac and Me.  Whilst it started off in a promising manner, there was nothing within it to set it apart from swathes of other historical fiction.  Tom’s narrative voice did not always feel realistic, and it was not quite masculine enough to work.  Stylistically, Mr Mac and Me feels so different to a lot of Freud’s work; the historical context, and the use of a young male protagonist coupled with the first person perspective, for example. Whilst it is interesting for an established author to veer away from the work they are loved for, I do not feel that the whole quite worked in Freud’s case.  If I had read the novel sight unseen, I would never have guessed that Freud was its author; none of her personal stamp was placed into Mr Mac and Me, and that is a real shame.  I am used to very much enjoying Freud’s novels, and to find her newest effort disappointing was rather sad.  Mr Mac and Me is not as compelling as it could have been, and it feels as though Freud’s style is far more suited to contemporary scenes and characters than to historical events and beings.

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