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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Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

FingersmithFingersmith by Sarah Waters

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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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Lacey’s House by Joanne Graham

Lacey's HouseLacey’s House by Joanne Graham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved this beautiful little book by Joanne Graham. I requested it on a bit of a whim from Legend Press on NetGalley, because I have really enjoyed several other of their titles, and because a story of female friendship in the south of England appealed to me.
I hoped I might enjoy this debut novel, but I had no idea it would be one of my favorite books I’ve read thus far this year.
   Lacey’s House tells the story of Rachel, a young woman who has recently miscarried, and who lives an isolated life, with memories of a tragic childhood. After she loses her baby, she decides to move somewhere new, to run away from her demons, and try to make a fresh start.
Rachel buys a cottage in a small village in Devon. Shortly after moving in, she meets her closest neighbor, an old woman named Lacey. Lacey is the town “witch,” someone who has always been a little different, and who has therefore been the victim of children’s pranks, and who is treated with contempt by most of her neighbors. Lacey also has a sad past, with multiple secrets that haunt her.
When Lacey and Rachel meet, the two women, although different in age, and with very different life experiences, sense a kinship in one another. The friendship that develops between them will heal and change them both in ways they could never have imagined.
Lacey’s House is a gentle novel; the author dedicated it to her grandmother, and the story conveys a sense of love in the value it places on female friendships.
But despite the fact that the novel, for the most part, chronicles seemingly ordinary events, it is unexpectedly moving and powerful.
And the story is strongest in its final chapters, which literally brought a lump to my throat and made me cry. Lacey’s House ends with lyrical writing, and leaves the reader with a sense of joy. It is a novel about grief, about healing, about friendship, and about the value of every human being, no matter how invisible they may appear to the world at large.
I am so glad that Joanne Graham wrote Lacey’s House, and hope she continues to share her gift of storytelling in the future.

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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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