The Good Guy by Susan Beale

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: marriage, deception, suburban, New England, intentions

The Good Guy is a fantastic debut. It is packed with passion and emotion; an example of what happens when an author has a personal story that they just have to write about.

The Good Guy is set in 1960s New England and is based on the author’s family history. It shows how Ted, a loving husband, becomes involved with another woman. The way society treated divorcees, single parents, and those who’ve had affairs was examined; giving an impressive insight into the culture of the era.

I loved the period detail. Events, like buying their first colour television set, were fascinating to me. I wasn’t born until the late 70s so it was interesting to discover their attitude to objects that we now take for granted. I suspect that those who did live through this decade will enjoy reminiscing about trying things like fondue for the first time and buying “bold orange and olive-green furnishings”!

I was also impressed by the structure of the novel – especially the way alternate chapters were written from the male and female perspective. This showed how misunderstandings in a relationship occur and allowed the reader to bond with all the characters involved. Many parts of the book reminded me of Night Waking by Sarah Moss, in that they showed the difficulties and isolation of childcare. It was interesting to compare the two books, showing what has (and hasn’t!) changed in the last 50 years.

Mindy scooped water up. Her face was bathe in confusion, as if she couldn’t understand why it dripped away. She tried again and again, pressing her hands together, closing the gaps between her fingers but the water always found its way out. Mindy’s brow furrowed in frustration that Abigail understood perfectly. It was just like her battle with the housework – every day, an endless to-do list of cooking, cleaning, laundry and grocery shopping. She never stopped and yet always, at the end of the day, her hands were empty.

My only problem with the novel was that it was too predictable. It accurately showed the way people reacted, and I admired the way the plot stayed focused, but I’d have liked to see a few additional story elements to complicate things a bit.

Overall this was an impressive piece of fiction. It perfectly captured 1960s suburban life and I look forward to watching this author’s career develop over the coming years.

 

Christ’s Entry Into Brussels by Dimitri Verhulst

   Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

Five words from the blurb: Jesus, Belgium, publicity, welcoming, committee

Christ’s Entry Into Brussels is a novella that satirises modern society by imaging what would happen if Jesus Christ were to announce his second-coming. It shows the way authorities would panic at the thought of the global media descending, the fights over who would be able to meet Jesus, and the way the public react to this happy news.

I was worried that this book might be overly religious, or offensive in some way. Luckily it was neither – it simply mocked our way of life, particularly the political system.

It was hardly surprising: everyone of any name or fame was dying to be photographed next to a man who shared his DNA with Gold Almighty. Any deeds of nobility that could be conjured up were worthwhile; there was no arse so filthy it wasn’t worth kissing; no pride too small or too big that it couldn’t be pushed aside to clear the way for some craven toadying.

I loved the informal, chatty style of writing and the way the narrator directly addressed the reader. It would probably grate over a longer book, but was perfect for this novella.

My only problem was that some references to the Belgium political system went over my head. I think I got the general gist of these jokes, but suspect that anyone familiar with the country would enjoy it even more.

Christ’s Entry Into Brussels is a short, but entertaining book and I look forward to investigating Dimitri Verhulst’s other books.

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March/April Summary and Plans for May

I got my reading mojo back recently and have read a lot in the last few weeks. This is mainly because we still haven’t sold our house, so we’re in a boring limbo which involves lots of cleaning and sitting around whilst people wander around our house. Hopefully someone will buy it soon so that we can move onto the next stage of our lives.

Books of the Month

There were two stand-out books this month:

I highly recommend reading both of them!

Books reviewed in March/April

It’s All In Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan 

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler  

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot 

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave  

Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent 

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins 

Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld, Illustrated by Joe Sumner 

The Villa Rouge by Maggie Ross 

Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla 

Shtum by Jem Lester 

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay 

Stork Mountain by Mirislav Penkov 

Black Milk by Elif Shafak 

The Best Thing That Can Happen to a Croissant by Pablo Tusset 

When the Floods Came by Clare Morrall 

Plans For May

I’m hoping that I’ll continue to read regularly and plan to read/review most of the following books soon:

Walkabout by James Vance Marshall

Long Night of White Chickens by Francisco Goldman

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

The War Of The Worlds by HG Wells

Christ’s Entry into Brussels by Dimitri Verhulst

Marching Powder by Rusty Young

The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner

I’ll also pick up a few random books from my shelves. Hopefully I’ll discover a gem or two. Have a wonderful May!

 

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

 Source: Library

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Shortlisted for 2016 MAN Booker International Prize

Five words from the blurb: mountain, valley, change, solitude, great

A Whole Life is only 150 pages long, but it contains a beautiful, perfectly formed, story about the life of one man.

Andreas Egger lives in a remote mountain valley. One day his life is changed by the arrival of a company planning to build a cable car up the slopes. The book shows how this simple change slowly alters the feel of the valley, bringing tourists and skiers into this once peaceful place.

The writing in this book was outstanding and I frequently found myself noting down passages:

He had already been so long in the world: he had seen it change and seem to spin faster with every passing year, and he felt like a remnant from some long-buried time, a thorny weed still stretching up, for as long as it possibly could, towards the sun.

Andreas Egger was described in such a vivid way that I felt I knew him. I understood his fears and felt a deep compassion whenever he was faced with difficulty.

This book also manages to encapsulate the history of the region. We see the introduction of paved roads, cars and hotels – and also the impact of war. It’s amazing how much has been included in this book without it ever feeling cluttered – it takes immense skill to create such a slow, but rich piece of the writing.

In fact, I can’t find fault with anything in this little book. It is perfection in novella form!

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Gluten-Free Girl by Shauna James Ahern

 Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: pain, avoid, bread, embrace, fresh

Shauna James Ahern was diagnosed with celiac disease at the age of 38. This meant that if she ingested any gluten her small intestine would be damaged. She had to completely change her diet – avoiding bread, pasta and processed foods in which gluten could be hiding. Rather than become upset by the food she’d be missing, Shauna took the news positively – looking at it as an opportunity to improve her cooking skills and investigate new recipes.

Gluten-Free Girl isn’t just a book for people who’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease – anyone who enjoys reading about food will love it. Her passion for new ingredients and recipes shines throughout. She describes food in one of the most vivid ways I’ve ever encountered:

There is simply nothing like real butter. The first taste is smooth and full and has a certain cleanness. Then comes rushing in a hint of richness, as the butter starts to melt around the tongue. High, clear notes sing out. Like good cheese, butter has a taste of its origins – pastures, sunlight, green grass, and a farmer who wakes up early to milk the cows,

Unfortunately the recipes let this book down. Many were very basic and their only adaptation to being gluten-free was the word ‘gluten-free’ before ‘flour’ or ‘pasta’ in the ingredients list. I wish she’d included recipes for naturally gluten free dishes – especially the ones involving millet, amaranth and sorghum that she described so well within the text.

The only recipe that sounded tempting enough to make was the chocolate and banana bread, but unfortunately the inclusion of rice flour in the recipe meant it tasted gritty. I think gluten-free cookery has advanced a lot since this book was published and I’m sure that Shauna’s own recipes have progressed from this initial publication in 2007.

Luckily the recipes are only a minor aspect of this book and they should not put you off reading it. I recommend Gluten-Free Girl for the way it passionately encourages people to experiment in the kitchen.

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Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: WWII, London, teacher, love, triumphs

I loved Chris Cleave’s debut novel, The Other Hand, but his subsequent books haven’t been in the same league. With Everyone Brave Is Forgiven he has returned to form. The fact this is based on the experiences of his relatives has ignited a special spark in his writing – the passion and emotion shines through. I even discovered a few more facts about WWII!

The book begins in London at the start of WWII, with Mary North volunteering to become a spy. To her disappointment she is assigned to teach in a primary school, taking over the job from a man who is sent away on war business. Mary forms a bond with the children, particularly Zachary, the son of a black minstrel. But the main focus of the novel is love and the way war impacts on the relationships that are formed during this difficult time.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven is very well researched and I loved learning about a slightly different aspect of WWII. There were a few disturbing scenes, but these were balanced by the humour present in the rest of the novel. It was lovely to see how the British public coped with the terrible situation by making light of their plight – the dialogue was fantastic and most of the jokes were new to me.

The imagery was also particularly vivid:

They were all turning to stone from hunger. They took  cover behind stone walls. They painted their trucks and their helmets and their guns to resemble stone blocks, as if by sympathetic magic some hardness might accrue. They saw rubble walls when they closed their eyes at night. Sometimes, when one was particularly hungry, the omnipresent yellow limestone had the exact hue of cheddar, and when the enemy’s paratroopers finally came it would afford about as much protection.

This book covers a subject that has been written about thousands of times before, but somehow Chris Cleave shows it to us in a fresh light. I’m sure it will be on a few prize shortlists later this year.