The Bookseller – Cynthia Swanson

John Murray Press

Rating: 5 stars

I love a Sliding Doors type of novel, one where two or more alternative plot lines mingle and interweave, and confuse the reader into not knowing which – if any – of the versions is reality. Or indeed whether there are multiple realities.

The Bookseller is Cynthia Swanson’s first published novel. Set in Denver in the 1960s, in the opening storyline in 1962 Kitty Miller and her friend Frieda own a bookshop which is struggling to keep going with the rapid expansion of shopping malls set out of town meaning ever-dwindling numbers of customers make their way to their little shop. But they are such good friends that despite the constant money worries they still enjoy what they do and each other’s company. Kitty lives alone with her cat, Aslan, and has a very close relationship with her parents, who are away on the holiday of a lifetime.

Then Kitty starts to get deeply unsettling dreams, ones which seem so real that each day she finds it increasingly hard to cope with the realities of her life.

In her dreams it is 1963, and Katharyn Andersson is married to Lars; they have a rich and fulfilled life with children, many good friends and a beautiful home. In her dreams Kitty feels at times confused as to who or where she is but finds she automatically seems to (mostly) say the right things to each family member, each friend, each shopkeeper she meets. Swanson is excellent on the 1960s’ period details of how people lived or aspired to live.

The lines between the waking and dreaming worlds inevitably soon start to blur and Kitty in her 1962 world tries to make sense of her dreams, often deliberately going out of her way to find people and places she’s been in her dreaming world. She treks around Denver looking for the house where Katharyn lives, the shops she frequents, the sister-in-law who is a hairdresser. In short, she has become obsessed and, like the readers, feels confused about what is dream and what is reality.

This was an unexpected Christmas gift, and one which I devoured before New Year and thoroughly recommend. I can’t and won’t give away any more of the plot. All I can say is: well worth reading.

Daisy Chapter and Verse

Reviewed by Daisy

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The Good Guy – Susan Beale

Rating: 3.5 stars

good guy.jpgThe Good Guy is described on its back cover as a ‘slightly gossipy summer read’ and tells the story of a tyre salesman called Ted who, through absolutely no fault of his own, ends up cheating on his wife Abigail with an impressionable young woman named Penny who he – completely by accident – tells that he is a widower raising a young child alone.

The Good Guy is an interesting read, and I spent the whole book trying to understand why I was (unsuccessfully) being apparently strongarmed into seeing Ted as a decent person when from start to finish he lies to both women and berates his wife for not cleaning the house when she is the sole carer for their young child. He seems to feel entitled to his affair, and again and again the narration seems to be pushing us towards seeing him as a genuine “good guy”. Ted was an interesting character, a portrait of inadequate American masculinity, the crushing pressure of expectation, the ability of ordinary people to commit heinous acts of deception, but what he was not ever was a “good guy”. And yeah it’s set in the 1960s in the suburbs, but that doesn’t make much of a difference.

Then I read the author’s note at the back, and it became clear to me that this book was something of a passion project and deeply personal. I certainly felt a little uneasy about my own readiness to judge this story harshly – it felt, as I read it, like a story I had heard a thousand times before. Perhaps because I read this right after Because I was Lonely, another disheartening story in which men are presented as biologically incapable of fidelity.

I can see what Beale has done here. She has written with compassion for all her characters and created a world in which she genuinely sees everyone as well-intentioned but easily misled. What this book did well was portraying the focus on social appearance vs reality, and the way in which people were trapped by these pressures in the sixties.

My reservations with this book were just that I found it impossible to like Ted, and I didn’t feel like the title was meant to be as ironic as it should have been. But this was an interesting read, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes a vintage aesthetic. And who knows, perhaps many of you won’t judge Ted as harshly as I did. After all, for many people being a “good guy” is in the eye of the beholder.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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