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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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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Greta & Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly
This is so refreshing for a New Zealand book—hooray for getting away from the cliché that all kiwis are boring monoglot parochials. Here’s a great new cast of characters, a whole blended extended Vladisavljevic whanau of Russian, Māori, Catalans, some other eastern Europeans I think – Romanian? There’s a complicated relationship with this lot, academics and students at Auckland Uni woven around the main unit of Greta and her brother Valdin, who are our storytellers. I’ve never met people like them but wish I had. The dinner time conversations are epic. ‘The first time I brought you round to my parents’ house I told everyone to act like regular people and V threw the remote out the window so no one could change the channel from Eurovision and a squid had exploded on my dad at work.’ There’s a confusing series of relationships across the group, bi, straight and gay—an uncle’s husband’s brother is the boyfriend of Valdin and a brother-in-law’s husband a straight ex-lover (ex?). I had to draw a curly family tree to get it straight. Like life. It’s complicated.
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Sorrow and Bliss is a lively and intelligent book. The author uses her vocabulary well and can summon up a hundred ways to describe ‘awkward’. A lesser author might tell you that a couple sat on sofa and she felt awkward. Mason says: ‘He was sitting at one end of the sofa. I sat down and folded my legs underneath me. Facing him, the posture felt beseeching and I put one foot back on the floor.’ How wonderful is that complicated word–beseeching, and how perfectly it describes this character. There are words and descriptions to admire all thorough this book. ‘The Germans have a word for heartbreak, Martha. Liebeskummer. Isn’t it awful?’
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Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
Woman’s liberation in the 1960s has never been so powerfully portrayed as in this book, where a woman is up against the male world of scientific research. Elizabeth Zott wants to study abiogenesis for God’s sake, no less than the origins of life, but that goes pear shape because she’s a woman and the very worst obstacles are thrown in her way along with endless casual misogyny. So she makes her name on the telly, teaching cookery as you’ve never known it before – as a science.
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The Seven Sisters, by Lucinda Riley
Yes, shivers run down spines and everyone is fabulously rich, mysterious and beautiful so put aside all hope for a literary experience, embrace the superlatives and read this for the sheer joy of a long and complicated story, well told.
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Whose bloody idea of entertainment is this?
Our culture is made up of the stories we tell. What do our 2020 stories say about us?
I’ve recently been engaged in debates about fiction versus non-fiction and have been firmly on the side of fiction being a useful tool to expand our understanding of the world, to inspire empathy and to learn by seeing the world how others see it. Squid Game has changed that.
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