Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

Just before my sunny holiday in Hawaii, I read the rather bleak Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena – in summary, avoid it if you need cheering up, as it’s about repression, mental health, addiction, and fraught mother-daughter relationships.

It’s set in the Soviet-ruled Baltics between 1969 and 1989 and examines the impact of Soviet rule on a girl and her family (predominantly her mother and grandmother). Some of the story is told from the mother’s perspective, as her education and opportunities were quite different to those ultimately available to her daughter. At the beginning, we learn of the mother’s efforts to follow her calling as a doctor.

She would be a doctor and a scientist, come what may. For the moment she easily manages to regurgitate the official programme, while simultaneously acquiring a totally different, prohibited education. Continue reading

The Margot Affair by Sanaë Lemoine

Firstly, if you’re hungry, proceed with caution reading The Margot Affair by Sanaë Lemoine. It’s not a book about food – it’s actually about a teenager named Margot, the product of a long affair – but I was quite distracted by whatever Margot et al were eating (from mussels in white wine and gratin dauphinois to cheeses, asparagus soup and pear clafoutis).

It’s difficult to say much about this story without spoilers but essentially, Margot is the child of Anouk, a stage actress who is successful in Paris; and Bertrand, a senior politician, who has ambitions to be president. Continue reading

Stella Prize 2023 Shortlist – Hydra by Adriane Howell

Hydra by Adriane Howell is true to its title – a beast that is hard to contain. It’s loosely Australian gothic, and tells of Anja, a young, ambitious antiquarian, whose specialty is mid-century furniture.

We learn a few important things about Anja early in the story – her rival at the auction house where she works is Fran; her marriage ended on a recent trip to Greece; and she is intent on classifying objects based on emotional response (as opposed to origin or period).

Teapots, I decided, were connected to storytelling, belonging to the Department of Once Upon a Time. Continue reading

Stella Prize 2023 Longlist Reading – Iris by Fiona Kelly McGregor

In the first few years of the Stella Prize, I put my head down in March and ripped through the entire longlist. But over the last year or two, my enthusiasm has waned, and this year I’ve been distracted by Reading Ireland Month and books on the Women’s Prize longlist, so my Stella reading has been patchy.

I selected Iris by Fiona Kelly McGregor after reading Lisa’s glowing review. Continue reading

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant

I’ll cut straight to it – Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant was a massive disappointment.

The right ingredients were there – campus-lit, a tight group of friends, an incident that disrupts their university bliss – all with a seventies backdrop. What I actually got was a story as bland as the drab concrete buildings that populated Grant’s imagined campus. Continue reading

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

There’s usually lots that peeves me about historical fiction (actually, I covered the majority of it here). But when historical fiction is done well, it can be absolutely captivating, and I frequently find myself more engrossed in these stories than if I were reading something contemporary, perhaps because I become absorbed in the imagined time and place. And that certainly applies to Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel, The Marriage Portrait. Continue reading