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The book starts on the night of an auction, when a long-lost and recently rediscovered painting by famous artist Antoine Watteau is being sold. The prospective buyers are introduced to the reader, and it is clear that there is a huge buzz surrounding this painting.

Cut to six months earlier, when a young lady named Annie McDee, who has no idea whatsoever about art, is looking for a gift for her new boyfriend, and stumbles across a painting in a junk shop. She buys it but has no idea of the adventure that this painting will lead her to. It is also clear that there are others who would dearly love to get their hands on this painting for more nefarious reasons, and at least one person is desperate to get it in order to stop a dark secret being exposed – and he is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve his goal.

I bought this book more or less on a whim, and picked it up to read with not particularly high hopes. However, I have to say that I found it utterly delightful and I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end. Annie is a great character for the story to hinge upon – she has no idea of the picture’s history and significance, so she discovers it at the same time as the reader does. She is a hugely likeable character and very easy to identify with. I also really liked Jesse, the young artist who helps her in discovering the history of the painting, while quite obviously falling for her at the same time.

There are a lot of other characters – if this book was turned into a film, it would need a large cast! – but skilful writing means that it never gets confusing. I also loved the fact that occasional chapters were even narrated by the painting itself – it sounds kooky and gimmicky, but somehow it works.

It’s a great story, imaginative, often funny and very sweet and intriguing – I highly recommend this book, and will definitely look out for more by this author.

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As a teenager, Theo Decker survives a terrorist attack in a museum, which kills his beloved mother. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Theo makes a split second decision and steals a painting which his mother always loved – The Goldfinch. This incident, and indeed the painting itself, sets the course for his life – a life which as a reader, we join him on as he makes friends and enemies, makes bad decisions which reverberate for years, falls in love and in lust, and eventually gets mixed up in the criminal underworld.

Well, this is a brick of a book – coming in at over 850 pages of smallish font – if I’m honest, the size of it put me off reading it for a while, but once I picked it up I was glad I had done so. After reading it, I did what I usually do when finishing a book and went online to read reviews of it. What struck me the most was that it seems to be a very polarising read – people generally loved it or hated it. It certainly seems to be the least well received of all of Donna Tartt’s offerings, and this is good news for me, because if this is the worst she has to offer, then I definitely look forward to reading the best! I enjoyed the book a lot, especially the first two thirds, which cover Theo’s teenage years. It’s fair to say that not all of the characters are particularly likeable (except for Hobie, Theo’s guardian of sorts, who is just adorable), but they are all beautifully drawn and utterly believable.

The writing is elegant and often beautiful – Tartt uses a lot of words to describe the most mundane and ordinary events, and while this can be annoying with some authors (just get to the point!!) here it works really well, because it is just such a pleasure to read lovely prose. The story is told in the first person from Theo’s point of view, which is good because if we had seen Theo from the outside in, I think he would have been much harder to like or understand.

If I’m honest, I did think that the last part of the book paled in comparison to what had gone before, but it still held my attention and at the end, I came away satisfied.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book – don’t be put off by the size…while the story doesn’t always move particularly quickly, the writing does draw you in. I look forward to reading more by Donna Tartt.

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In 1525, Simonetta di Saronno is a young widow who has lost her husband Lorenzo to the Italian wars.  After his death, she discovers that Lorenzo has spent all their money, and she must find a way to make more if she wants to keep hold of her grand home.

Bernardino Luini is a highly talented apprentice of Leonardo da Vinci, who is hired to decorate a church, and offers to pay Simonetta if she will be his model for the Madonna.  Although they initially feel hostility towards one another, they soon end up falling in love,  but their love brings disgrace upon them, as people feel that she has disrespected the memory of her husband.

In a further bid to save her home, Simonetta enlists the help of Manodorata, a Jewish money lender, who helps her to create a drink from the almond trees that grow on her estate.

Will Simonetta and Bernardino ever find happiness together, and will Simonetta manage to save her home?  And what effect can a mute, almost dead soldier have on Simonetta’s future?

I was not sure what to make of this book.  Initially I thought I was going to struggle with it, but I did start to enjoy it.  However, I never felt that the characters were particularly well drawn, and I was not able to connect on any level with them.  The story was interesting enough to hold my attention, but I did guess the twist very early on.

The most interesting and shocking part of the story was the ill-treatment of Jews by the Christians at the time.  Although this was something that I was aware of, it is portrayed very strongly in this book, and for me, this was far more effective than the romantic aspect.

I think most fans of historical fiction would probably enjoy this book, and although I wasn’t as captivated by it as I might have hoped, I would probably read more by this author.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This is a collection of essays by 42 contributors (because as anyone who has read/watched The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy knows, 42 is the meaning of life), all of whom are atheists.  The contributors are mainly British, and come from a range of different backgrounds and viewpoints – some of the contributors are Ed Byrne, Simon le Bon, Lucy Porter, Richard Herring, Brian Cox and Derren Brown.  And what compilation of essays by atheists would be complete without a contribution by Richard Dawkins?!

As the title suggests, many of the essays are regarding Christmas – just because someone is an atheist doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy Christmas; after all, most of the rituals associated with Christmas are derived from pagan rituals in the first place.  Most of the essays – but not all of them – naturally also deal with the subject of atheism, but thankfully nobody here is trying to convert anyone to atheism, or encourage anyone to give up on their religion.

The contributions are divided into six categories – stories, science, how to, philosophy, arts and events.  I’ll be honest and say that a couple of the science contributions seemed to be a collection of long words put together in an order that I struggled to make sense of, but for the most part this is a collection of enjoyable, thought provoking, and occasionally hilarious stories and anecdotes.  ‘God Trumps’ by Christina Martin, where she describes making her own Top Trumps card set, featuring various religions, made me burst out laughing, as did (on several occasions) ‘A Day In The Life of a Godless Magazine’ by Caspar Melville and Paul Sims.  This particular essay, while fictional, contained snippets of various genuine letters sent to the New Humanist magazine – brilliantly funny.

Lucy Porter provides a list of recommended Christmas viewing/listening/reading, which can be enjoyed by the whole family, Derren Brown talks about how we should be kind to each other all year round rather than just at Christmas, and Simon le Bon describes how he gradually lost his faith – but how losing faith does not mean that he should or can not enjoy Church music or many of the rituals of a religious Christmas.

There is not enough room to mention each and every contribution, but my particular favourites are listed above.  As with all collections, some contributions are better than others, but there are very few entries which I didn’t find some enjoyment in.  I also don’t believe that this book is in any way offensive to people of any religion – as mentioned earlier, it isn’t an attempt to convert anyone – although some people are bound to be offended by it anyway.

Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this book, but I can see myself picking it up again in future years, to at least read some of my favourite entries.  Definitely recommended.

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This beautifully written novel tells the story of approximately one year in the life of Erica Mason, a 23 year old American girl who has been living in Mexico for two years. Set in the 1970s, while America and the world was still suffering from the effects of the Vietnam war, and at a time when the world is changing (women’s lib movement, gay rights and legal abortion), this book powerfully captures the spirit of the time, as well as showing the reader Erica’s own personal experiences.

Erica initially moved to Mexico to hopefully develop as an artist, and to find out who she really was and who she wanted to be. Living in Merida, in the Yucatan part of Mexico, she finds many distractions – in the form of drugs, unsuitable men and the poverty surrounding her – which hinder her ability to work on her art or herself. Indeed Erica realises that far from being a social indulgence, the drugs she takes are becoming an addiction to her, especially the Quaaludes (downers) which she takes to calm her.

Linda Dahl describes the lifestyle in Mexico at the time in question, with real skill, so that the sights, sounds and scents which surrounded Erica seemed to almost jump off the page. Dahl apparently spent a lot of time in Mexico in the 1970s, and it certainly shows in this book, with an authentic feel of the place, and especially of the Yucatan area where Erica spends much of her time. The people of the area and their culture are portrayed with great understanding.

Erica herself is also portrayed wonderfully, so that she becomes a character who the reader cannot help but care about and empathise with, as she struggles with her journey through life, in the hope of finding peace with herself.

This is a character driven rather than a plot driven book. The reader sees the world through Erica’s eyes, and becomes well acquainted with her friends and the people who pass through her life.

The story paints a vivid portrait of a young woman in turmoil, in a country facing many problems, at a turbulent time for the world. Highly recommended.

(I would like to thank the author for sending me this book to review.  Linda Dahl’s website can be found here.)

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This book tells the story of Pan Yuliang, a young Chinese orphan girl, who in 1913, when she is 14 years old, is sold by her opium addicted, heavily in debt uncle, to a brothel in Wuhu.  After spending two horrific years at the brothel, under the watchful eye of the manager, known as Godmother, Yuliang manages to escape when a young Government Official named Pan Zanhua, rescues her and takes her away.  Yuliang discovers that she has a flair for painting, and wants to cultivate her new found talent. However, she discovers that she is living in dangerous times for a female artist who wants to push boundaries…

I enjoyed this book very much.  Pan Yuliang was a real person, but this book is not intended so much as a biography, as a novel based on Yuliang’s life.  The writing is beautiful – as artistic and enjoyable as the work of Yuliang herself. The main character is entirely believable – portrayed as a woman in conflict with the traditional standards of the society she lives in, but who also loves her country very much. While she is not always portrayed as a likeable person, she is always deserving of admiration, and I found it impossible not to root for her.

This is the first full length novel from Jennifer Cody Epstein, and it is eloquently written.  It manages to be descriptive, yet never boring.  The story moves along at a fair pace, but never feels hurried.  I will await more work by this author, with great interest.

(NB: My copy of this book is called The Painter of Shanghai, but it also appears to have been widely published under the name The Painter from Shanghai).

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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