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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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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The Paying Guests: Spotlight on Sarah Waters

The Paying GuestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of Sarah Waters’ novels. Waters is one of those authors who I think is truly exceptional and extraordinary.
There are a lot of things about Waters’ fiction that, to my mind, make it something precious. Here, in no particular order, are what come to mind.
First, her amazing, meticulous, meaningful, attention to detail. Waters’ novels are long, and they are dense. But the thing is, when you read them slowly, and literally pay attention to the details of place, and what the characters are doing in every ordinary moment, it matters.
Whereas a lot of authors of historical fiction (or fiction in general) rely on generalities to create a sense of place…for example, throwing a few words around, say, “misty moors” or “crumbling old mansion” and expect readers to mentally fill in a generic sense of place, Waters describes her world in particular, carefully chosen detail. When Waters writes, no description of washing dishes, or cleaning the stairs, is ever just the thing itself. It is an opportunity to create the feeling of being there, with the character, in that moment in history and in their life.
Second of all, Waters is a master of creating bubbling, under the surface, menace. In The Paying Guests, especially, this darkness is so woven into the fabric of the ordinary, that it is all the more chilling.
Waters’ thrillers are powerful in that they are not melodramatic (except when she does this purposefully). The Paying Guests is always about “real” people. There are no utter villains, no monsters. The characters are all flawed and human. They show impulses to love, but they also suffer cowardice, selfishness, and fear.
One underlying theme in The Paying Guests is the exploration of grief. Waters places this novel historically after World War I, when the world, and individuals, were grieving the loss of so very much. The menace that Waters creates in The Paying Guests, the secrets, and guilt, and fear, are related to her exploration of life in London after the Great War. Waters’ characters are struggling with the loss of the geographical boundaries of the world as they knew it, as well as the loss of a way of life and a class and gender system that is falling apart. They are grieving the loss of their brothers and lovers and sons. And in The Paying Guests, the main characters of Frances and Lilian are grieving a loss of their own innocence and of their own dreams.
Which brings me to the plot of The Paying Guests, which, as with pretty much every novel I’ve read by Sarah Waters, is not what it first appears. The basic premise is that Miss Wray-Francis-and her widowed mother, have fallen on hard times after the War, and, unhappily, find it necessary to allow lodgers to live in their home, in order to make ends meet. These lodgers, whom the Wrays refer to as “paying guests,” are a young married couple named Lilian and Leonard Barber. When the Barbers enter the Wrays’ home, all their lives will change in irrevocable and unimaginable ways.
What you need to know about The Paying Guests, if you’re considering reading it, is that, on the good side, it is among the very best of Sarah Waters’ work in its creation of a powerful, intimate sense of place. After reading this novel, I’m picking up historical fiction by other authors, and finding that the characters and their world feel like shadows in comparison. This creation of a wholly absorbing, authentic, fictional reality, is one of Waters’ great talents. As I read The Paying Guests, I thought (whimsically) that her characters must really exist, in some parallel universe.
On the other hand, Waters’ world and character building takes a lot of words. It can be an exhausting pleasure to read.
Also, if you’re considering reading The Paying Guests, you should know that, having read Affinity and Fingersmith previously, I found this novel to be less “shocking twist” and more grave and thoughtful in tone. When I think of Fingersmith, I think of fun, “oh my gosh!” moments of revelation, and a (with reservations) happy, hopeful ending. When I think of Affinity, I think of wonderful eerie spookiness, but also, great emotion and loss. Both these novels contained major twists I didn’t see coming.
To my mind, The Paying Guests didn’t have that twist aspect, at least not to the same degree. The last third of the novel was almost more of a courtroom drama. And I think, some of the choices that Frances and Lilian made, and even, especially, the options they had, made me sad. In the end, The Paying Guests had a plot that resonated with the postwar setting and the themes of grief, loss, change, and living with an uncertain future. But these themes are not easy ones to confront. As such, I found myself feeling sad at the end of the novel, feeling unsettled.
The Paying Guests is extraordinary, but it is also exhausting. When you start The Paying Guests, make sure you’ve got something light and bright to read or watch after.

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Affinity by Sarah Waters

AffinityAffinity by Sarah Waters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Affinity back in June of this year, and it’s one of those few books that continues to haunt me months later. The descriptions of the labyrinthine Millbank women’s prison in Victorian London, and of the longing for beauty and connection in a world of despair, are exquisite.

The ending, in particular, really affected me. It’s hard to say more without giving things away, but, although the situation is completely different from my life (thank goodness!) in some way, I empathized painfully, truthfully, with the final, climactic night of the novel.

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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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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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