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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The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth

The Friday GospelsThe Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Friday Gospels, a story of a Mormon family in Lancashire, England, on the eve of their adult son’s homecoming from his mission, is a beautiful, searing, look inside the heads of five people growing and trying to make sense of the world and their place in it.
The Friday Gospels is a very different novel than A Kind of Intimacy, which I read earlier this year and absolutely loved. A Kind of Intimacy is the chilling story of a woman who appears almost normal at first glance, but who, we discover, over the course of the novel, is something else entirely. It is psychological suspense at its very best, and a brilliant character study. And the writing itself, the way in which Jenn Ashworth subtly and masterfully reveals what is really going on, is one of the greatest strengths of the novel.
The Friday Gospels is in some ways gentler in tone and focus, with none of the “aha!” moments which make A Kind of Intimacy so much fun. But rather than being disappointed by this, I found myself impressed that the author could write two such different, brilliant, novels.
The main characters in The Friday Gospels are Gary, the missionary returning home from America, Julian, the troubled oldest brother who still lives at home, Jeannie, the teenager struggling with a devastating secret, Martin, the husband who feels trapped, and Pauline, the nagging wife and mother who suffers from a mysterious condition that leaves her incontinent and mostly wheelchair bound.
The chapters are told in the alternating voices of the different family members, and Jenn Ashworth excels at creating distinct voices for each of her characters. I found some of the characters (and therefore, some of the chapters) more compelling than others. But I felt that Ashworth’s narrative choice was an integral part of the story itself; the reader was privy to the inner thoughts of each character, the things that they were unable to communicate to each other, and which were tearing them apart.
Ashworth spoke with Mormons and also ex-church members before writing this book, and her research shows. The Friday Gospels gives fascinating insight into a way of life that most people know little about. One of the greatest accomplishments of the novel, to my mind, is that Ashworth is able to walk the fine line of not judging the religion one way or another. She avoids stereotypes, and all her characters are complex, and therefore, impossible to pigeonhole.
Another strength of the novel is that Ashworth successfully weaves the disparate plot elements into a satisfying and believable culmination. And furthermore, I found it interesting how, despite some genuinely horrifying scenes in the novel, the story itself left me feeling tentatively, gently, hopeful.
In the same way that Ashworth is able to masterfully reveal horror behind apparent normality in A Kind of Intimacy, in The Friday Gospels, she hits a perfect pitch in which she is able to describe tragic events, and yet also, believably demonstrate that altruism, and hope, can exist in unexpected places.
I’ve often thought that whether a story leaves me feeling depressed or uplifted has more to do with the way it is told, than the actual events themselves. In The Friday Gospels, Ashworth is able to make us genuinely interested in deeply flawed characters, and to leave us feeling satisfied with a world which is still, ultimately inexplicable.
The Friday Gospels is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I look forward to reading and reviewing Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth in the near future.

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