The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth

friday-gospelsThe main reason I read The Friday Gospels was because author Jenn Ashworth was speaking with Peggy Riley at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Aside from that, I had never heard of Ashworth, though this is her third book. It seems that her talent has not really crossed the ocean over to North America. Her books maybe a struggle to find over there, but if The Friday Gospels is anything to judge by, it is worth the effort of seeking her books out.

I really liked The Friday Gospels. It contains a number of elements that I covet in a good novel: family tensions and crises, odd characters, and struggles with faith and identity. The story takes place over the course of a single day in which Gary, the adored son, is to return from his Mormon mission in Utah. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different of the family – Jeannie the youngest child who idolizes Gary, Julian the oldest son who has turned his back on Mormonism, Pauline the proud mother, Martin the indifferent dad who is looking to leave the family, and Gary who views himself as a failure. Perhaps the most astounding thing about Ashworth’s writing is how each character has a truly distinctive voice, character and point of view.

The novel was a fast read. It seems that each character has a crisis of some sort that comes to a head as they are waiting for Gary to arrive. I do not want to give too much away, but as as you read further more of each characters’ struggle is revealed and it makes the book hard to put down.

Ashworth, who is startlingly young, was raised a Mormon in England. Although she is no longer a member of the faith, her experiences and exposure to the intricacies of Mormonism certainly inform The Friday Gospels. During her talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival she spoke of the differences between Mormons in America and Britain. The characters she portrays in her novel reflect some of these differences. Mormons in Britain are much more concerned with conformity because the community is so small. The influence of community has a greater bearing on your family life.

Who would like this book? One of the reasons I was attracted to The Friday Gospels is because I enjoy novels that deal with struggles of faith and religion. In particular, I liked the insight it gave into Mormonism outside of the United States. In North America I think we have a fairly rigid view of Mormons. We see them either as a polygamous cult as portrayed salaciously in the media or as the conservatively dressed proselytizers who come knocking on our doors. This mold is also broken by Elders, another Mormon focused novel that i recently reviewed.

This House is Haunted by John Boyne

this-house-is- hauntedI don’t think I’ll be giving anything away by telling you that This House is Haunted is about a haunted house. It is a darkly told gothic tale of a governess and the secrets she uncovers at the house where she is employed. Sound like you’ve read this book before? Well, you haven’t. Boyne gives a good twist on a familiar story.

John Boyne is probably most well know for his bestseller The Boy in Stripped Pyjamas. I have not read that book, but from what I understand This House is Haunted does not bear much comparison to his previous work. Boyne appears to be a writer who reinvents himself with every novel he writes. The one thing that is consistent, however, is the high quality of writing.  This novel feels like a book written in the Victorian era.

Truthfully, I am not a big fan of gothic ghost stories, but felt compelled to read this as it was given to me by a friend at Random House Canada. However, if you enjoy this genre, and I know that many do, I believe that This House is Haunted is a quality example of what can be done.

Who would like this book? If you enjoy a good old ghost story told in a crumbling English Manor house this book is for you. It reminded me of classics like the Brontes to a certain extent, but also to more recently written gothic tales such as The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfeild (btw she has a new novel coming out in November). I also have the feeling that This House is Haunted will be nominated for an award or two. I could be wrong, but that is the feeling I get.

This book was given to me by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. 

Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera

marriagematerialI picked up Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera on a bit of a whim. I hadn’t heard anything about it, and had not read (or even heard of) Sanghera’s earlier works. Further research revealed that Sanghera is an accomplished journalist and writer in the UK. His journalistic background comes through in the crafting of the novel, which is full of startling news items about racial relations in the Midlands of England in the 1970s, 1980s and beyond. As a Canadian, I often forget or overlook the turbulence in England during that period.

From the first sentence I read I knew that I was going to like Marriage Material. Sanghera’s writing is both breathtaking and revealing. It effortlessly transport the reader to a different time and place. Each of his characters have a distinctive way of speaking which reveals as much about them as any actions they may take. There are native Punjabi speakers struggling to grasp the Queen’s English, young aping American Hip Hop artists and blooming political agitators spouting words meant to inflame. One character in particular is amusing in his ability to speak Punjabi to his elders, British Hip Hop slang to his friends and in one or two key scenes, plain old English.

Marriage Material tells two parallel stories: one of two Punjabi sisters growing up in Wolverhampton in the 1970s; the second of the son of one of the two sisters returning to Wolverhampton after his father’s death. The interplay of the two story lines illustrates how little things have changed for immigrants and minorities in the UK. As a relative newcomer to the UK I have found the class and immigrant issues to be viewed in a much different way than in Canada. Marriage Material did an enormous amount to educate me further upon these issues. In particular, Sanghera introduced me to the infamous British Parliamentarian Enoch Powell and his inflammatory “Rivers of Blood” speech on immigration.

Who would like this book? I found Marriage Material to be a much weightier book than the cover or title suggests.  It is not chick lit with an ethnic element! I would make favorable comparisons to White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Brick Lane by Monica Ali – all deal with complex issues and challenging themes. It is a book that will make the reader think and hopefully stimulate discussion. It has also made me re-evaluate how I view the owners of small shops in my neighborhood. Their lives and struggles are far more complex than I had previously considered.

Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin

golden boyThere is so much I want to say about Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin, but I don’t want to ruin the story for you. What I can say is – go out and read it! Max is the Golden Boy of the Walker family. He is everything parents could want in a child – good looking, smart, athletic, compassionate and well behaved. And then something changes. Although Golden Boy tells the story of one boy’s teenage struggles, it is really about how a family unravels in the face of unimaginable complications.

I did not want to put Golden Boy down for the first 100 pages. Tarttelin dangles little details of the story above your head in such a way as to make it impossible for you to turn away from the book. The story unwinds as you read along. At times it is like a car crash that you can’t look away from, at other times the thoughts of the characters wrap you up and won’t let you go.

Each chapter in Golden Boy is told from a different point of view. These points of view include Max and his family, his girlfriend and a doctor. In general, I like when novels unfold in this way and Tarttelin does a fabulous job at recounting events from more than one point of view. Really getting into the head of each character is one her strengths and she presents each character’s motivations and feelings with ease. Tarttelin herself is only 25 and I thought she did a wonderful job of getting inside the heads of parents. Less convincing was her portrayal of Max and his girlfriend. In many ways they were mature and wise beyond their years. In particular, Max could explain things to his younger brother with insight and precision that few adults can achieve.

Who would like this book? So far Golden Boy has garnered a lot of comparisons to Annabel by Kathleen Winter and Middlesex by Jeff Eugenides, both of which are superb books. The reasoning behind this is that all three deal with intersex children coming of age. And for that reason this book may not be to everyone’s taste. I would put Golden Boy in the same category as The Dinner by Hermann Koch, one of my favorite books of this year, because of the way it is written and how a single issue can tear apart a family. In terms of how the story unfolds it also reminds of The Yohanlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani, which I will review on Thursday.