5 Holiday Reads

I love choosing holiday reads: books that relate to the destination, small, portable books and fast-paced crime thrillers for the flight.  Here are 5 current favourites:

Crime

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

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Hal is a young tarot-card reader and receives a large inheritance.  She goes to Cornwall – a large creepy house a la Manderley in Rebecca – and meets the family, but realises it’s a mistake and she’s not the real heir.  Hal is a sympathetic protagonist, and the mysteries kept me turning the page: why is she named in the will?  What is the family hiding?  I loved the settings of Brighton and Cornwall.  A great, twisty plot and fun read.

More crime:

Dark Pines by Will Dean – Scandi noir with an interesting, deaf female journalist Tuva – the start of a series which I’m excited about!

Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh – my go-to author for smart legal thrillers.  This is the fourth in the Eddie Flynn series and I think the best so far.  Un-putdownable.

The Commissario Brunetti series by Donna Leon – if you’re lucky enough to be travelling to Venice

The Detective Armand Gamache series by Louise Penny – for a Canadian adventure.

Small Books

Crudo by Olivia Laing BOd5H5cyRZe0H1jwAmtHFg

A tour de force. Kathy, fiercely independent, is getting married.  She describes this time of change with honesty and wit: she has doubts, fears becoming mellow, loves her husband but fights and screams at him too.  Laing juxtaposes this with world events of 2017.   The idea that we fret about climate change but at the same time eat crab for dinner resonates – Laing has spoken about Twitter and the way we switch between the trivial and the unbearably significant.  This book is extraordinary, on point and fun.  It will keep you on your toes.  A must-read.

More short books:

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson: a perfect gem, set in Bolougne and Venice during the Napoleonic wars.

Moonstone by Sjón: a knockout.  Beautiful, spare story of a boy’s life in 1918 Reykjavík.

Beach Read

The End by Fernanda Torres, translated by Alison Entrekin

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Hedonistic.  The story of five old men in Rio reflecting on their friendships and approaching deaths.  It’s narrated by each in turn .  I enjoyed Torres’ style and humour.  The men feel real, if larger than life, and it’s thought-provoking about age and mortality.  Also, gorgeous cover and small book.  Love it!

Another beach read:

Less by Andrew Sean Greer: a comic novel about a writer who travels the world to avoid his ex-boyfriend’s wedding, this won the 2018 Pulitzer prize.  Amanda loved it more than I did when we discussed it on the podcast, but we both agreed it would be a great holiday read.

Non-Fiction

The Riviera Set by Mary S. Lovell

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This was recommended to me by Laura Kroetsch (former Adelaide Writers’ Week director) who always has the best book tips!  It’s the story of an Art Deco villa on the Côte d’Azur and the people who stayed there from the 1920s to the 1960s, including Winston Churchill, Gianni Agnelli and Rita Hayworth.  It sounds fabulous and is in my suitcase for our holiday next week.

More non-fiction:

Mythos by Stephen Fry: superb, especially as an audio-book, narrated by Stephen Fry himself.  The stories are wonderful and highly entertaining.  With children aged around 12 and up, this would be great for a road-trip!

New Release vs Classic

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

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Not an obvious holiday choice, but the poetic form is so lively and readable that it’s a page-turner.  Perfect for your Greek island holiday.  I think it’s still in hardback but perhaps on audio, or when it comes out in paperback, this is a must.  I’ve done a full review here.

More New Releases:

We’ve read some fantastic new books on the podcast, including The Shepherd’s Hut and Circe – check out our top five here.

Now it’s time to pack.  What are you reading on your next holiday?

 

 

Podcast Highlights: Top 5 Books

Our ‘Books On The Go‘ podcast is live!  Annie, Amanda and I read and discuss a book a week.  Some good, some … interesting … and some real gems. Here are our top 5 so far:

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

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Tim Winton has surpassed himself: this stunning novel grabs you from page one. You know immediately that Jaxie is tough and defiant, but his raw honesty comes through (all this in the first few pages). Winton tells a great yarn and makes you care about his characters. The writing is alive and inventive; Jaxie’s voice is authentic with colourful language and droll humour. Masterful. He manages to say, by story alone, much about boys and masculinity.

Circe by Madeline Miller

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A beautiful, generous novel re-imagining the goddess Circe and the myths surrounding her. Madeline Miller stays true to the stories and language, but this feels modern, with much to say about contemporary politics and attitudes to women. Circe is a wonderful character: sharp-tongued, idiosyncratic and brave. We loved the scenes with Hermes and Odysseus but there are many rich details and layers to enjoy. Heart-warming and intelligent.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanhbag

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An elegantly written, spare novel about a family and the nuanced dynamics when one brother’s business becomes very successful. By observing the characters in turn, he shows the complex strings that keep a family in balance; and money’s power to corrupt. The tone is wonderfully engaging, the narrator charming, but he emerges as a passive character, trapped by lack of purpose. Much is happening between the lines.  Deft and thought-provoking.

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

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A brilliant, pithy book set in Boulogne and Venice during the Napoleonic wars. Winterson gets to the heart of being human: to play the game of life, you have to gamble your “valuable and fabulous thing” – your heart. Henri is Napoleon’s chicken chef; Villanelle falls in love with a woman at a Venice casino. Strong, poetic writing. Villanelle is original and spirited, Henri touching and the Bonapartes described with fairness and wit.

Winter by Ali Smith

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Sophia waits in Cornwall for her son Arthur to join her for Christmas. Taking A Christmas Carol as a jumping off point and rejoicing in Shakespearean-like comic dialogue, Ali Smith is an enchanting story-teller. She shows the absurdity of human behaviour, the power of resistance and the beauty of art and nature. Characters are real, the humour dry and the prose is masterful, light, richly layered, but not showy. We loved this.

There are some that almost made this list, which I’ll sneak into my next post on holiday reads. 😉

We’d love you to read along with us!  Up next:

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Wise Children by Angela Carter

News Of The World by Paulette Jiles

Crudo by Olivia Laing

What are your favourite books of 2018 so far?

The Odyssey

Homer’s The Odyssey has long been on my list of ‘Classics to read’ (as opposed to my list of ‘Classics I will not read’ – hello and goodbye, Moby Dick).  It’s the original quest, an epic story and referenced everywhere.  I worried it would be an ancient, dry text, but the new translation by Emily Wilson is wonderful!

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Wilson has stayed faithful to the story and used the same form as Homer.  The language is lively and direct.  The rhythm takes you back to Homer’s time, but the pared back style feels contemporary.

I love the idea of the story being re-told, as it would have been done many times as an epic poem shared orally, before it was first written down.

Odysseus is on a quest to return home to Ithaca and his wife Penelope.  He endures many setbacks:  the Trojan war, battles with Cyclops, the loss of most of his men, and then, before he can reunite with Penelope, he must defeat the suitors who have vied to marry her in his absence.  His uses his strength and wits, but the gods and goddesses also play a role.  Some, such as Athena, help him.  Others, like Poseidon, make his journey difficult.  Hermes the messenger is a great, sassy character.

It’s a terrific story – full of drama, characters who are larger than life, gods who behave like bickering families and mortals who must be godlike in their heroism to succeed.  I actually did not know how it ended until I read the book, so I found I kept turning the page to find out what happened next.  The translation is so clear and has great energy.

Here is Menelaus speaking to Telemachus (Odysseus’s son) and Pisistratus:

“No mortal, my dear boys, can rival Zeus.

His halls and home and property are deathless.”

And telling them of his suffering:

“I cannot eat or sleep, since no one labored

like him – Odysseus.  His destiny

was suffering, and mine the endless pain

of missing him. …”

Heroism is a key theme.  Odysseus  was victorious at Troy, but he relies on his wits more than brute strength to overcome the challenges he faces on his journey.  He is capable of violence and shows arrogance in the scene with Cyclops (to his cost).  But he shows great perseverance and keeps his head.  Penelope is loyal (refusing the suitors’ advances, waiting for Odysseus) and intelligent.

Fate is another theme – the gods are powerful, although they can’t dictate everything that happens: for example, Odysseus might be ‘fated’ to survive the journey so Poseidon cannot kill him.  The mortals like Odysseus can control their fate to some extent, but the gods hold the reins.  They seem to co-exist.  The mortals live on the basis that some things are pre-destined or ‘fated’, but still they strive to do what they want.

I also liked the sense of balance and ‘good life’ that the characters showed (I’m sure there is a Greek word for this).  They might be fighting battles, wreaking revenge, sailing the high seas, but they also show hospitality, always stopping to eat bread, olives and meat, drink wine, take baths and share stories.

Here is Circe addressing Odysseus:

“I know you and your men have suffered greatly,

out on the fish-filled sea, and on dry land

from hostile men.  But it is time to eat

and drink some wine. …”

It give you a good idea of how the Greeks lived in ancient times, but the story has universal themes – which explains its longevity.  We still show hospitality to visitors, persevere in the face of struggle and have a capacity for both friendship and war.

These are amplified in The Odyssey (in a way that we have come to associate with Greek ‘drama’) – it does now shy away from love, hate or revenge in extreme forms.  This makes it memorable.

I highly recommend it.  Now I just need to sail to a Greek island!

 

 

 

Top Six Autumn Books

Finally it’s cooling down!  Here are my top six autumn reads.

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Autumn by Ali Smith

Post Brexit England: Elisabeth cares for her old neighbour Daniel. Scenes of her reading to him, or (comically) applying for a passport, cut to the past and reflections on nature, art and death. Poetic but restrained, Smith’s rich prose is inventive, fun and on point. Despite seeming whimsical there is a clear story and strong themes of inclusiveness, the way humans turn on each other and the hope that, like nature, we might renew in the next season.  Shortlisted for the Booker in 2017. Ali Smith is iconic but accessible: highly recommended.

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Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

Tim Winton has surpassed himself: this stunning novel grabs you from page one. You know immediately that Jaxie is tough, but his raw honesty and youth come through (all this in the first few pages). Winton tells a great yarn and makes you care about his characters. The writing is alive and inventive, and Jaxie’s voice authentic with colourful language & droll humour. Masterful.  Winton manages to say, by story alone, much about boys and masculinity.

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The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

A murder mystery set in Galway, Ireland. It started slowly for me as we meet Aisling, a trainee doctor, and several characters at the police station. But then it clicked and I couldn’t put it down!  The number of characters pays off: the murder is strongly plotted but there are other stories at play and this complexity makes it a rich, rewarding read as well as a page-turner. I enjoyed the Irish setting and dialogue too.

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Rather His Own Man by Geoffrey Robertson

Not seasonal as such (unless from a life perspective) but a great read.  Geoffrey Robertson has accomplished much in a legal career advancing free press and human rights. His memoir is wonderfully engaging. You may not always agree with him but he’s intelligent and thought-provoking, can laugh at himself and writes lovingly about his family. His active, curious mind and sense of compassion and humanity run through the book. Also fabulous name-dropping: it’s like hearing all the best dinner party stories (plus some law 😉).

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The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal

I thoroughly enjoyed this and read it in one sitting. Mona is 60 and a doll-maker. Her life is routine by design, but this changes when she befriends an elegant neighbour and faces her memories of the past. An engaging read, great story with original characters who surprise you – I loved that it wasn’t predictable.  The dialogue and setting feel real.  An easy writing style, de Waal handles serious matters with warmth – it’s also beautifully moving. Long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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Circe by Madeline Miller

A beautiful, generous novel reimagining the goddess Circe and the myths surrounding her.  Madeline Miller stays true to the stories and language, but this feels modern, with much to say about contemporary politics and attitudes to women. Circe is a wonderful character: sharp-tongued, idiosyncratic and brave. I loved the scenes with Hermes and Odysseus but there are many rich details and layers to enjoy. Heart-warming and intelligent.

What are you reading at the moment?

Sight by Jessie Greengrass Review

Another one of those “this needs a full review” moments.

Sight is a beautiful, singular novel by Jessie Greengrass.  Reading it is like entering an intricate, secret world with the narrator, who is as curious as you are to unlock its mysteries.

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Narrated by a woman who is pregnant with her second child, it is partly a meditation on motherhood.  As she grapples with the choice whether to have a baby, it is really asking how can we fully see ourselves, understand the people close to us and cope with the sense of nostalgia that there is a better life, or version of us, just out of reach.

Greengrass is unflinchingly honest on the question of being a mother and a daughter. The narrator is ambivalent about becoming a parent, struggles with the changes to her body and self-identity.  Her marriage, too, is realistically depicted.  Here she describes missing her husband, Johannes, when away, but she knows that on her return,

“I would walk back through the door and all this certainty of love would fade behind the unwashed windows and the unbought milk to the usual chafing familiarity with one another.”

Her prose is exquisite: long, lyrical sentences with a rhythm that propels you forward.  The musicality and attention to thought reminded me of Virginia Woolf, especially Mrs Dalloway walking through London, and the realism and honesty are a little like Elena Ferrante, but having said that, her voice and style feel original.

Greengrass relates stories of Rontgen, who invented the X-ray, Freud’s psychoanalysis and John Hunter’s surgical experiments.  She tries to see how things really are – in pregnancy, marriage and family – and seems to find comfort in these pioneers who tried to pierce the surface and really see our bodies and minds.  These examples illuminate her thoughts and enrich the story.

Throughout, we see humans imperfectly striving to ‘see’ better – “but the price of sight is wonder’s diminishment”.

The narrator faces moments of transition – her mother passing from life to death; her pregnancy to birth; and from not-seeing to the sight of bones through an X-ray.  But she is also aware of the transitory nature of life – all the ephemeral moments, silences and mistakes.  Slowly she comes to terms with the value of these in-between times, from the things left unsaid between her and her mother to the cold drinks she shared with her grandmother, Doctor K.  Her relationship with Johannes contains gaps and silences:

“… somewhere in the space between us, the uncertain image of our future shivered.”

The scientists are a key to this insight.  They are doers: in their search for truth they experiment and, if that experiment does not succeed, the next one might.  John Hunter tried and failed to perform a Caesarean operation; after he died, his pupil carried on his work.

Here she reflects on how we choose our life (moment by moment):

“… how easily, how unwittingly we might break each possible future in favour of another and how, looking back, in place of what had been possible we would see only that thin contingent line, what happened, rising through the vast and empty darkness of what did not.”

Art and literature seek truly to see and describe elements of who we are, and I loved the juxtaposition of scientists doing the same.  It was uplifting to think of those great figures of history stumbling but persevering.  Life is a series of acts, failures and transitions to our fully realised selves.

Sight has been long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and is my tip to win (although, caveat – I won’t have a chance to read the whole list so my opinion is wildly unqualified!).

What are you reading at the moment?

 

Women’s Prize Longlist Predictions

The Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Bailey’s prize) is one of my favourites, so I’m looking forward to the longlist being announced on 8 March.  Here are my predictions.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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I loved this. Eleanor is a singular character, sympathetic even though she is tactless and anti-social. Her weekends spent drinking vodka alone in her flat are sad and cast light on loneliness, something we can all relate to on some level. I expected a bleak story (and there is one) but it’s also drily funny and I laughed out loud often. Raymond and his mother are too perfect, and her mother too evil, but it still rang true.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower

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This lived up to the hype. I was drawn in immediately to 18th century London: Mr Hancock anxiously awaiting his ship and famed courtesan Angelica Neal trying to live independently. Beautifully written (but doesn’t feel overwritten); Gowar used to work in museums and her descriptions of objects and materials give texture to the story.  She also finds the comical side. It’s not too supernatural despite the mermaid, although I found the second half less convincing than the first. A wonderful debut.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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There is a lot of heart and soul in this book. Good portrayal of privileged and troubled teens, white-bread parents, artist Mia with daughter Pearl and the town of Shaker Heights (suburbia on steroids). Mystery surrounds Mia and an adoption dispute affects them all. It felt contrived at times, Mia too saintly, Mrs Richardson too brittle & overall I thought it tried to do too much. Points of view changed so I didn’t become attached to any one character.  Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington are adapting this for television – I think it will be fabulous on screen.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

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Extremely good.  A re-telling of Antigone set in contemporary London, the sister is the story’s hero. Her brother is a jihadist – I wanted to empathise with him more, but even so, Shamsie succeeds in putting the reader in this family’s shoes: I haven’t read anything like it (Orhan Pamuk perhaps).  Engaging writing and has the high drama of Greek tragedy.  It grew on me as it went on and ended strongly.  Recommended.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

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This left me a little bit broken. I resisted the sentimentality at first, but the characters Ellis, Michael and Anne drew me in and I could not put it down. A story of friends grappling with love in Oxford and London, told with great care, truth and occasional humour. Incredibly moving throughout. The scenes of neighbours and friends helping each other through tough times (death; the AIDS crisis) were simply told, but heart-warming.  This is a refined, accomplished work. I like the economy of language and how deftly Sarah Winman moves between scenes and characters. Less is more, things are left unsaid, but she is careful to show us the good side of people. I appreciated this optimism in a book with so much sadness tugging at its heart!

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

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I loved these stories, based in the same town and whose characters are loosely connected. It’s comforting meeting characters more than once, and the gentle atmosphere despite the dark subjects. The spare prose is beautifully restrained. And while town life moves slowly, the stories are vivid and propel you forward. Family, loneliness and redemption are explored, with heartfelt characters: flawed, overweight, creepy, but she treats them with compassion.

Winter by Ali Smith

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The second in Ali Smith’s series of seasonal books.  The first, Autumn, is on my shelves and will be my next read I think.  And then I’m very much looking forward to Winter – everyone is raving about it so I have no doubt it will make the long-list.

Sight by Jessie Greengrass

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This is my current read.  It’s exquisite so far, with lyrical but precise sentences that remind me of Virginia Woolf.  Max Porter has compared it to Shirley Hazzard (one of my favourite authors) and it has a similar, careful beauty and intelligence that feeds your mind as you read.  Loving it.  Eric from Lonesome Reader has tipped this to win the Booker prize so we shall see!

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

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This is on my shelf to read.  I’m including it on the strength of A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan’s earlier book which I absolutely loved.

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

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The story of a woman’s crisis in her marriage and faith, this sounds intense.  But it’s getting some high praise so I’ll be intrigued to see if it makes the long-list.

How many do you think I’ll get right? I’d love to hear your predictions.

Happy International Women’s Day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top Holiday Reads

I’ve had some friends ask me for book recommendations for the holidays, so here are my top summer reads.

Non-fiction

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The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krassnostein

A true story I can’t stop thinking about.  I noticed that Imprints and Matilda Books’ booksellers rated this among their best books of 2017.  It’s beautifully written and unlike anything else you’ll read.  Extraordinary.

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Mythos by Stephen Fry

I’m currently listening to and loving this as an audiobook, narrated by Stephen Fry. I always regretted not studying Greek mythology at school (especially now that I’ve married a Greek!) but now I’m glad I didn’t.  There is no more fun way to learn these stories: this book – especially read aloud in Stephen Fry’s inimitable way – is a joy.  Highly recommended and apart from the odd fruity bit, suitable for all the family (from around age 11 or 12).

Crime (always good for beach reading!)

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Still Life, Chief Inspector Gamache series (book 1) by Louise Penny

Cosy crime set in Quebec.  I love her diverse characters and the comfort factor.  Dead Cold is also great and I’m keen to read more from the series.

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Force of Nature (Aaron Falk book 2) by Jane Harper

Rural Australian crime, apparently even better than The Dry, which I enjoyed and has been taking the UK by storm recently.

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An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire

More (literary) rural Australian crime, shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award and Stella prize 2017.  I highly recommend this for its en pointe writing and feminist sensibility.

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The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

A good page-turner a la Agatha Christie meets The Girl on the Train, this is being adapted for film and would be a perfect beach read.  I loved Ruth Ware’s first book, In a Dark Dark Wood, and The Woman in Cabin Ten is also on my TBR.

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The Liar (Eddie Flynn, book 3) by Steve Cavanagh

This is on my wish-list, after I read and loved The Defence and The Plea.  Intelligent, pacy legal thrillers set in New York, by Irish author Steve Cavanagh.  I discovered him after listening to his podcast with Luca Veste, Two Crime Writers and a Microphone (very funny, I recommend).

Buzzy Books

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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Might be my book of the year.  I absolutely loved it.  So worthy of its Booker prize win.  I heard Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales say on Chat 10 Looks 3 that they could not get into this, so if you struggle I highly recommend his short story collection Tenth of December.   I just finished it and was blown away. The man is a genius (but an approachable, funny, warm and engaging one).

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celese Ng

I found this a bit contrived but it’s interesting and discussion worthy, and is being adapted for screen by Reese Witherspoon.

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Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

A re-telling of Antigone set in contemporary London.  Very current, well-written and with Muslim characters and point of view, I don’t think there are enough books like this.  Kamila Shamsie is also an excellent speaker and is coming to Adelaide Writers’ Week in March.

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Tin Man by Sarah Winman

This has been generating much buzz in the UK.  I found it sentimental at first but I was quickly drawn in.  Heart-breaking.  Sarah Winman is coming to Adelaide Writers’ Week too (as are Sarah Krassnostein and Louise Penny – it will be a big week).

What have you packed in your suitcase?

I’ve just been given Autumn by Ali Smith (much anticipated, and overdue as her next one Winter is out now) and Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne, set on the Greek island of Hydra.  Both are definitely coming with me to the beach!