In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned CountryIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Still one of my all-time favorite books, period.
I first read In a Sunburned Country ten years ago, and loved it (and folded over page corners like folding was a new skill that was going out of style).
On rereading, which was actually a listen to the audio version read by the author, I still found this love-story to a country to be very, very funny, as well as enchanting, thought-provoking, melancholy, and wise.
What I love about Bryson’s voice is how he’s able to make you laugh really hard-truly-this book should come with a warning label for those who dare to read it in public: “This book WILL cause sudden and unexpected outbursts of laughter which may appear especially unusual if you are in the middle of jogging on a treadmill with a serious expression on your face.”
But also, underneath the humor, Bryson speaks with wonder and curiosity about the world around him. He notices the gigantic lobster sculpture, as well as the Sydney Opera House, he notes the absurdity that frequently accompanies our adventures, historical, and present.
Bryson seems, at heart, to deeply like the world around him, and the people in it. I highly recommend In a Sunburned Country to anyone interested in Australia, travel, or learning something new. Perhaps even more importantly, I’d rank this in my top ten list of books to read when you’re feeling sad. It will brighten your day.

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Daughter by Jane Shemilt

DaughterDaughter by Jane Shemilt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. It’s rare that I would describe a novel as gentle and brutal, delicate, and devastating, but Jane Shemilt’s debut Daughter manages to be all these things and more, making it one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Daughter is a slow burn of a tale which will appeal to fans of Broadchurch and the works of Tana French. The story is told in chapters alternating between the past (mostly set in Bristol) and the present (mostly in Dorset).
Our first person narrator is Jenny, a wife, family-practice doctor, and mother of three teenaged children. Jenny’s husband Ted is a neurosurgeon with a thriving practice in Bristol, Jenny’s daughter Naomi is a bright and lovely 15-year-old with a starring role in the school play, and Jenny’s twin sons Theo and Ed are each their own unique, apparently functional, people.
The kids are showing what Jenny assumes to be normal signs of teenage rebellion, but Jenny knows that she loves them, tries to communicate with them in the times when she is home, and more or less assumes that all is well.
However, when Naomi disappears after her performance as Maria in West Side Story, Jenny’s seemingly reasonable ideas about her family begin to fall apart.
As if she is peeling an onion, and with results which bring real tears, Jenny begins to look carefully for the first time beneath the surface of her daily life. As she searches for answers to her daughter’s disappearance, she uncovers truths about her husband, sons, daughter, and ultimately, about herself, which irrevocably change her world.
In this way, although Daughter has a catastrophic event as its starting place, Naomi’s disappearance is really just the opening that author Jane Shemilt needs to begin to deftly explore the dynamics of family, motherhood, and growing up.
Shemilt is a gifted writer. She is herself a family-practice doctor with children and a husband who is a neurosurgeon. Thus, her descriptions of balancing family and a career, as well as her insight into doctor/patient dynamics are intelligent and thought-provoking.
Shemilt also has a talent for evoking a sense of place. Both Bristol and Dorset are described with affection, familiarity, and an artist’s attention to detail.
Daughter becomes more and more powerful as it progresses, until, in the final pages, I literally could not put it down. It left me feeling emotional, amazed, sad, but also, deeply satisfied. I think that the story will continue to resonate with me for a long time. I highly recommend it.
Thank you to William Morrow/Harper Collins Publishers for the arc of Daughter, by Jane Shemilt.

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Dietland (May 26, 2015)

DietlandDietland by Sarai Walker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once in a decade, a novel comes along with the potential to alter our perception of reality, to change how we see ourselves and to reveal new possibilities in how we can live lives of joy and freedom. For many readers, Sarai Walker’s debut novel Dietland may be just that.
I am someone who rates reading right up there with breathing, eating, and loving, and who begins and ends her day with a book in her hand. But for me, the experience of reading Dietland has been something altogether new and different.
Dietland begins with Alicia “Plum,” a fat woman whose life revolves around her efforts to become her true, thin ‘Alicia,’ self. Plum’s plans are abruptly derailed when a mysterious girl named Leeta writes the word “DIETLAND” on Plum’s palm.
What happens next to Plum is life changing, and nothing that she (or the reader) could expect. I read Dietland with very little knowledge of the plot other than what I’ve shared above, and I would recommend that anyone interested read it (at least at first) in that same, fresh, way.
What I will say for now is that I’ve struggled my whole life with the realization that I don’t fit, and don’t want to try to fit, in a culture which tells me to be smaller. Dietland is the first book to convincingly show me a way in which a life of freedom might be possible. I know I will read Dietland many times in the future, and hope I have the opportunity to talk about it with other readers.
Dietland is a book that is for all women, but it is also a book that is intensely personal. It is very funny, very smart, and utterly absorbing. It contains scenes of graphic violence, but left me feeling comforted and energized. Read Dietland as a love letter to all women, and to yourself.
I received an advanced review edition of Dietland from the publisher through NetGalley.

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Tarnished by Julia Crouch

TarnishedTarnished by Julia Crouch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here’s a brief(ish) review of Tarnished, the third book I’ve read by gifted author Julia Crouch.
First of all, I’ve read Crouch’s novels out of order. I read Cuckoo (2011) first, and enjoyed it, feeling that the character depth distinguished Cuckoo from other thrillers in the domestic-noir genre.
Then, I read The Long Fall (2014), Crouch’s most recent novel. I absolutely loved this dual-time, dual-place mind-bender, and consider it one of my favorite books published this year.  The Long Fall contained fluent, beautiful writing, incredible travel escapism (one setting being the remote Greek island of Ikaria), and a page-turning plot. I also enjoyed reading about one character’s “makeover” from  being a naïve, hopeful, backpacking teenager, to that as a wealthy, elegant woman appearing to live the first-world dream.
I was also impressed at how unique Cuckoo and The Long Fall were from each other.  Which brings me to the main subject of this review, Tarnished.
It was with a bit of trepidation that I picked up Tarnished, which was published in 2013. I was worried that nothing could live up to the vicarious travel and glamour that The Long Fall had described so well. Tarnished was in fact very different Cuckoo and from The Long Fall, but in its own way, it was a bit of a masterpiece.
Rarely do I think of the word “saga” when I am reading a novel I would also categorize as domestic noir, but in Tarnished, I saw how the two words could be positively compatible.
The main thing that makes Tarnished (and really, all of the novels I have read by Crouch) extra special is how absolutely real and complex her characters feel.
In Tarnished, this characterization was especially impressive. Reading about Peg (our main character) and her girlfriend Loz, I felt like I got to know them as if they were real-life friends. Crouch seems to know her characters inside and out, and has the ability to share them powerfully through the written word.

At 375 pages in length, Tarnished is not a short novel. But as I flew through the story, I was totally sucked in to Peg’s world, and the mystery of her own past, and her family secrets.
One big difference between Tarnished and The Long Fall is that Tarnished is gritty pretty much all the time. The story takes place in a crowded, dirty, smelly home, in a hospital, and in a McMansion that despite being built with lots of money, stinks from an open cesspit nearby. Crouch is adept at describing grime, sickness, and poverty.
Tarnished gave me none of the holiday escapism that I loved in The Long Fall.  But this was as it should be, as Tarnished was its own, absorbing and unique story.
As a final note, I loved the scenes in Tarnished with Parker, the ex-military rogue with a heart-of-gold, and the setting in which Peg and Loz encounter him. To me, these episodes, as well as the seaside setting, with its driving cold rain and shifting tides, were almost cinematic in their vividness. I loved the experience of reading Tarnished. I hope Julia Crouch is writing away at this moment, creating her next addictive story to share with readers.

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The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter

 

The Swallow: A Ghost StoryThe Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Swallow: A Ghost Story, is such a wonderful, special book that I would pretty much recommend it to anyone.
This novel by Charis Cotter tells the story of the friendship between two 12-year-old girls living in Toronto in 1963. Polly is outgoing, bubbly, and passionate, with a love for books and chocolate, and a huge, busy family. Rose is introverted, pale, quiet, and loves to sing. Rose lives in a house adjoining Polly’s, and spends her time more or less alone, as her parents work long hours, and their housekeeper, Kendrick is a silent, brooding presence.
One afternoon, the two girls meet each other unexpectedly (in a very funny scene, which I won’t give away) and a very special friendship develops between these two seemingly opposite, but both, lonely, souls.
What follows is a story that is hard to describe, part mystery, part drama, part ghost story, but ultimately, a tale about friendship that transcends time and place.
In The Swallow, Charis Cotter has created something magical, something ineffable. Her story contains something that is more than the sum of its parts, or of its words and plot. The Swallow walks this fine line, like the crack between two worlds, or the mysterious space between life and death. The beautiful book cover captures the feel of this enchanting, ghostly, sad yet joyous novel perfectly.
The Swallow is the best of books, a middle grade novel that will appeal to adults as well as children, and a book that takes its readers into the creative space of imagination, in which anything is possible.

I received an advanced review copy of The Swallow: A Ghost Story, from the publisher via NetGalley.

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Georgette Heyer’s Regency World by Jennifer Kloester

Georgette Heyer's Regency WorldGeorgette Heyer’s Regency World by Jennifer Kloester

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yesterday I wrote an absolutely brilliant review of this novel. A mind-blowing, Pulitzer-prize worthy, emotionally moving and poetic once-in a-lifetime review.
And then I tried to insert a link and deleted the whole thing.
24 hours later, with my literary masterpiece floating somewhere in cyberspace, I have dragged myself out of a deep depression, and will try to write again about Georgette Heyer’s Regency World.
This time, my goal is simply to write a review that I do not delete. So please, lower your expectations accordingly. :p
All joking aside, this nonfiction book is great, something I would recommend to all fans of Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, or anyone who wants to know more about the time period in which their stories take place.
It was only recently that I realized that Jane Austen’s books are set in a much earlier time period than the work of Charles Dickens, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot. Austen’s novels are firmly rooted in the brief but brilliant Regency period, which lasted from 1811 to 1820. The other authors mentioned all wrote during the Victorian era which followed, a time known for its repressive morals, constrictive clothing, and increasing industrialization.
As someone who often wishes that there were a real Austenland (minus the flamboyance of the film) that I could visit, I loved reading all about the Regency era in Jennifer Kloester’s book.
Georgette Heyer’s Regency World is set up in easy to digest chapters, with subjects such as class, fashion, food, and transportation. It also contains lovely black and white illustrations by Graeme Tavendale.
I enjoyed some chapters more than others; for example, I was less interested in those dealing with business and the military. But I can’t fault Kloester for including information which gave a more well-rounded picture of this time in history. My favorite chapters dealt with fashion, women’s lives, and “who’s who” in the Regency.
I wish Kloester had included more detail about fashion, religion, music, and how women spent their days. But all in all, this book was a wonderful place to start when learning about the Regency era.
Just as the title suggests, this author frequently mentions characters and storylines in Georgette Heyer’s novels, showing how they relate to the historical Regency.
As someone who is primarily interested in learning about the Regency era itself, I could have done without these examples. But anyone who is a fan of Georgette Heyer will undoubtedly enjoy how Kloester inserts these fictional references.
All in all, Georgette Heyer’s Regency World lives up to its title, and is a well-researched, clearly written, fascinating introduction to the Regency era. Highly recommended.

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Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

FingersmithFingersmith by Sarah Waters

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So.
I read Affinity, my first Sarah Waters book, a couple of weeks ago, and liked it a lot. I then ordered Fingersmith, and read it with complete delight, absorption, and obsession. I finished Fingersmith several days ago and am still thinking about, and missing, the characters of this wonderful story.
Fingersmith delighted me in so many ways, and I wrote a long and formal review of all its good qualities (which I may revise, and post, at some point in future.)
But the thing I want to share, right now, is that I keep thinking about Fingersmith; I keep thinking, primarily, of the characters of Sue and Maud, and the way this story is, at its very heart about two souls on their difficult, painful, journey towards each other.
Fingersmith is brilliant in that it sucked me into a visceral Dickensian world that felt utterly authentic. It is also brilliant in its plot, twists, dialogue, and depiction of the desperate, hopeless lives of women and the poor.
But don’t let all these elements, both wonderful, and sometimes disturbing, fool you.
Fingersmith is, first and foremost, a love story. And I, in turn, have fallen in love with the writing of Sarah Waters, and look forward impatiently to the release of her new novel, The Paying Guests, in September 2014.

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