The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
It is Renaissance Florence, and Lucrezia de’ Medici is married off at the age of 13 to Alfonso, 23, the dashing, wealthy Duke of Ferrara. She’d met him once, when he was engaged to her older sister and he passed her on a walk. Their eyes met and they both felt cupid’s arrow. When the sister dies, Lucrezia gets the call.
The plot line and characters sound straight out of some Mills-and-Boon-type romance but the comparison ends there. This is a superbly written novel with gloriously textured descriptions and some pretty luscious history, and the hate him/love him of popular romance is reversed; the sweet romancer turning into a chilling murderer. The child bride can’t make sense of her husband, the dashing Duke Alfonzo who is intuitive and caring to Lucrezia one minute, and brutally cruel the next. The family needs an heir – as they always do, without ever having a plan B – and Alfonzo takes to his task with dedication. Gentle and caring at first, and then not so much. He is fighting to maintain his throne and his family is part of the power play.
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Through the Lonseome Dark, by Paddy Richardson
It’s the early 1900s and Pansy is living poor on the West Coast in Blackball, which apparently is a charming town these days. Pansy’s a smart kid. Smarter than her pa. Today you’d hope this would be a positive thing and she would be given every opportunity to make use of her talents, to be educated and offered the chances that would help a small town girl rise to fulfill her potential. You’d hope that someone would notice the bruising on her face and not turn away.
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This is a family story where an off-the-rails daughter living in a caravan gives birth to a fish. Our narrator (first person, never named, so I’ll call him the Fish’s uncle) is pretty clear about this. The thing being held up to be admired is an oddity, slightly revolting, not quite human. A thing with a gulping lips, a rubbery mouth. With gills, and an overwhelming fishy smell. What kind of creature the baby is we never really learn and this makes the whole story intensely curious. Although the Fish’s uncle refers to ‘it’ and ‘the Fish’ or ‘our Fish’ throughout, the others give it a masculine pronoun and the Fish is named after his grandfather, Colin Montgomery. The Fish grows up and goes to school, leaves school, goes to work in the family junk yard, goes on holiday. He may be a boy with some kind of horrendous congenital disability or the horror may belong to the view of the Fish’s uncle but we, the readers, are unwillingly (for me, anyway) made complicit in the relegation of the Fish to ‘freak’. The Fish is part of the family and loved even, with a kind of every-family-has-its-cross-to bear embarrassment, but an object who is is given no internal life of his own. We meet him as onlookers – never communicate directly with him, never try to understand.
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Still Life, by Sarah Winman
After a strange first chapter this book leaps into absolute gorgeousness and oh God! It helps that I read it in Italy. The Allied Troops are waiting to enter Florence. With them, is a young man, Ulysses Temper, and his Captain Darnley. Darnley has seen to it that the younger man should fall in love with Italy. “A little over a month before, they’d driven up to Orvieto, a city built on a huge rock overlooking the Paglia Valley. They’d sat on the bonnet of the jeep and drunk red wine out of their canteens as bombers roared overhead towards Mount Cetona, the boundary of Tuscany. They’d stumbled into the cathedral, into the San Brizio chapel, where Luca Signorelli’s masterpiece of the Last Judgement could be found. Neither of them believers, the images had still held them to account.” As they drive away their jeep is waved down by Evelyn Skinner, art historian, who needs a lift.
The dialogue between Evelyn and Ulysses is perfect. English, clipped, wry funny, understated. You can tell these two are going to be friends for life. In the fast way of two people who click but realise they will probably never meet again, Evelyn sums herself up. Kent. Sixty-four. Unmarried. Childless. We feel she’s also posh, independent and full of zing. He’s: London. Twenty-four. Married, no kids. He tells her he’s the son of a globe maker. “Find a Temper & Son globe and you’ll find my mum’s name hidden somewhere on the surface.” Lots of little villages called Nora. How romantic is that?
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The Paper Palace, by Miranda Cowley Heller
This felt like an over-crafted book from the start. We get the climax scene (haha, literally) and then, in dribs-and-drabs, the day that builds up to it and the day that follows, jabbed through with a long (and perhaps irrelevant?) history of the protagonist, her mother, her grandmother, her father – so many back-story characters slowing down the read. I just wanted to skip over them and get back to the main plot.
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The Reindeer Hunters, by Lars Mytting
It’s been a while since I read The Bell in the Lake (which I loved). The Reindeer Hunters is the second in Mytting’s Sister Bells trilogy and I do recommend you read/refresh the opening novel first, mainly because it’s so damn good but also because this next would be hard to navigate without the earlier history of the Stave Church and how it came to be in Dresden and what happened to Astrid and the bells and who were the Henke Sisters…and so on. It is a complicated plot spanning a few generations and secrets.
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Oh William! By Elizabeth Strout
I read this in one sitting (long haul flight) and was totally consumed. Our narrator Lucy talks directly to the reader, repeating herself, I mean, repeating herself like a speaker would, telling you what she’s going to tell you, and then telling it, and there’s an easy rhythm to her chat. This is an intimate memoir of New Yorker, Lucy Barton, and her ongoing affection for her ex-husband, the titular William, with the oh! representing all the times she feels sorrow for him, or frustration, or exasperation, or pathos. There’s a lot of Oh Williams! because she does still care, deeply, about this man, the father of their two daughters who, after they split, went on to other wives and lovers and then found himself, in his seventies, alone, with no one to tell him his trousers are too short. Oh William!
(My kids ‘oh Mum!’ me. I know how many different ways there are to say it).
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A Fish in the Swim of the World, by Ben Brown
Ben Brown (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Korokī, Ngāti Paoa) is a story teller. His stories are philosophical and luminous and funny and intellectual and they plunge from one mood to the other without missing a beat. I spent a week in a van driving around Taranaki with him recently and our conversations changed me, though it’s hard to say exactly how.
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Under a Big Sky, by Tim Saunders
I’ve been back with Tim and his family for another farm holiday and it’s been great. I spent about a week in the book this time, not much has changed since I met them all in This Farming Life, but I think I will always enjoy the shepherds dragging astonished sheep from their pens for a morning shear and the way the magpies gargle with laughter when his dad tells a joke, and the big bird, Kāhu, who clutches the new day in rust coloured talons. These are the author’s expressions, of course. Who else could write so evocatively about daily life on a farm?
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Three Women and a Boat, by Anne Youngson
Inspired, of course, by Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, but updated and given a gender twist, Three Women and a Boat is a feminist book. All three of the women characters (four, including a young friend) are out in the world without being beholden to, or reliant on men. They’re complete. There are men around, but the story is not about their relationships, but the women themselves. And there’s a dog like the one in Jerome’s version, who sparks some of the action, as dogs tend to do.
Anastasia has lived most of her life on a canal barge. But she’s ill, needs to take a break for treatments and is looking for someone to take her boat, The Number One, north to the yards in Uxbridge to get overhauled.
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