10/12/2019

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (by Gail Honeyman)


I’m not usually a fan of literary fiction, or unexpected best-sellers. So although I saw Gail Honeyman’s debut novel ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ advertised several times a couple of years ago, I didn’t think it would appeal. However I then read several positive reviews from people whose opinions I respect, and I also spotted it on very special offer from Amazon in the spring. So I decided to try it.

The book sat on my to-be-read shelf for many months but I finally picked it up a few days ago. I was immediately drawn into the story. It’s told in the first person by a thirty-year-old woman, who - at first glance - appears to be on the autistic spectrum. Her life follows a clear pattern: she goes to work, buys a ready-meal in her lunch break, clocks off at the same time each day and goes back to her flat. She cooks similar evening meals every day, solves cryptic crosswords, and goes to bed. At the weekend she drinks a lot of vodka, and sees nobody.

It soon becomes clear that, far from being autistic, Eleanor is an extremely lonely person who was both neglected and abused as a child. She has clamped down rigidly on her emotions and expectations in order to survive, and it has become an engrained habit. She is considered weird at her workplace, but doesn’t seem to mind. She has no ambition, and excessively low self-esteem. The worst point of her week is the regular Wednesday evening chat with her mother, who appears to be in some kind of institution.

Then Eleanor falls in a big way for a singer she sees on stage, and decides that she needs to re-make herself to be more attractive. We learn so much about her as she visits various places, starting with an extremely painful - and expensive - bikini wax. She is naive in the extreme, but some of her observations are tinged with humour. She comments, quite reasonably, that other people’s expectations and the demands of fashion are far more bizarre than her own ideas and habits.

I don’t know quite what it is about this character-driven book that appealed to me so strongly. Eleanor’s background is horrendous. Hints early in the book mean that when it’s all finally uncovered, there are few surprises. Indeed, there’s only one revelation towards the end of the book which I was not expecting. It’s very cleverly written, the reader seeing so much more than the narrator.

Despite the theme, it’s an uplifting book. Through various circumstances Eleanor slowly becomes aware of positive feelings: caring about others, gift-giving, affection, wanting the best. She meets some delightful people. While it’s deeply sad that she expects the worst - assuming they will dislike or reject her - her growing awareness of the reality of friendship, of genuinely ‘nice’ people, is very moving.

Criticism has been made that the author is trying to deal with serious psychiatric illness in rather a trite way; but that seems to me to miss the point. Eleanor is not congenitally psychiatrically ill. She is seriously screwed up due to a terrible childhood, and convinced that she is an unlovable person. So it seems entirely reasonable to me that overtures of friendship and the uncovering of some of her repressed memories will help her to move forward.

It may be a painful book for anyone who has suffered as Eleanor Oliphant did. No details are given, but the overview is bad enough. Overall, though, I thought it was a positive, encouraging book. The author wisely does not give us a trite or happy-ever-after ending, but one that has hope for the future, enabling the reader to make their own decision.

There's some bad language and plenty of references (albeit without detail) to both sexual and physical abuse; but nothing gratuitous. It's decidedly not for children or younger teens. But for adults or older teenagers, looking for a character-based book that’s different from most and has a lot of depth, I would recommend this very highly.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

07/12/2019

Over Sea, Under Stone (by Susan Cooper)

I first heard of Susan Cooper when my sons, aged 11 and 9, were given a copy of ‘Over Sea, Under Stone’ by a family whose children had grown up. As far as I remember, I read it aloud to them - a habit we continued until the older one left home - and we liked it so much that we managed to find copies of the other four books in the ‘Dark is Rising’ sequence.

However I had not read them again, although my sons re-read them more than once. But when I realised that I had entirely forgotten the storyline, over twenty years later, I thought it time to read it again.

The story involves three children: Simon, Jane and Barnabas. Their ages are not given, but from the pictures and the context, I imagine Simon is about twelve, Jane eleven (we’re told she’s not much younger) and Barney perhaps nine. They go to stay in a cottage in a Cornish village with their parents, and their Great Uncle Merry.

Uncle Merry isn’t in fact a blood relative, but a kind of adopted uncle, or perhaps a godfather, to the children’s father. He’s quite old, but very lively and they like him very much. He’s a historian, and often vanishes unexpectedly; this holiday is no exception. It’s evident he’s looking for something but he doesn’t tell them what it is.

The children decide, one day, to explore the house and discover a hidden room, and, under the floorboards, an ancient document… this starts them on a quest which is both exciting and extremely dangerous, because there are some ominous and unpleasant people who are searching for the same thing.

This book was first published in 1965, so inevitably the surroundings are somewhat dated: cars are old-fashioned, phones are attached to the walls, and middle-class households have someone from the village to cook and clean for them. The only thing that actually jarred for me was when a sum of a hundred pounds is mentioned towards the end, with the clear implication that it was a very large sum as far as the children were concerned - quick research afterwards told me that it’s roughly equivalent to two thousands pounds in today’s money.

Children have a great deal of freedom too - the three roam around, not always together, and generally expect to be safe. That’s not the case in this book as they’re up against some dangerous enemies, but this is clearly unusual.

The writing is excellent; it’s the kind of book that is appealing to adults as well as children, with deeper themes of good vs evil that probably wouldn’t be fully appreciated by many children or even younger teens. I found the children entirely believable. Simon is a bit impatient and arrogant, and often rude to his siblings; yet when crises hit, or he has to take charge, he becomes a good leader. Barney is thoughtful and intuitive, and Jane quite practically minded.

There’s also a strong King Arthur connection underlying the quest. Barney is already aware of many of the legends, and the story assumes that many of them are true. There’s an interesting aside when Uncle Merry explains how legends arise, and how truth and fiction often become mixed as the decades and centuries pass.

It works as an adventure story, with plenty of tension and some fact action, and I think is probably ideal reading for children of about nine and upwards. I enjoyed re-reading it, and look forward to re-reading the later books in the series, probably in the first months of next year.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

04/12/2019

Picking up the Pieces (by Mary Sheepshanks)

I do like Mary Sheepshanks’ novels! She only wrote four under this name, and another two under the name of Mary Nickson. I’m re-reading them at the rate of about one a month, and just finished ‘Picking up the Pieces’. I had no idea, when I first read it in 2001, that it’s a sort of sequel to ‘A Price for Everything’. It doesn’t involve the same main characters, but some of them reappear in more minor roles.

Kate, a 55-year-old grandmother, is the main protagonist of this story. Back when I first read it, I had just turned 41, so thought of Kate as a mature, older woman. Now, nearly five years older than Kate, with grandchildren of my own, I see her as a contemporary. Not that it matters. She’s a very likeable person with a good sense of humour, but her self-confidence is very low. The reasons for that become gradually clearer over the course of the book.

We meet Kate on the anniversary of her husband Oliver’s death. She’s at a lunch party with some people she doesn’t much like, and leaves early. She decides to go for a drive, and then takes her dog for a walk in the grounds of a mansion which she knows is empty. She sees a place that looks like the house of her dreams, albeit very run down, and when she sits down for a rest, she drops off to sleep. She wakes to find herself being observed…

Kate lives with her mother-in-law Cecily, a strong-minded lady in her eighties whose conversation is peppered with amusing malapropisms. Kate and Cecily get along very well; unfortunately Kate doesn’t get along so well with her daughter Jo. Jo is a prickly kind of person, immensely talented at cooking and organising, but she carries a secret that isn’t revealed until near the end. Jo has three children: the teenage Harriet, whose father is unknown, and two younger children with her husband Mike. She struggles to deal with motherhood, particularly with Harriet.

So there are four generations involved in this book, and the author succeeds in making them all believable, well-rounded characters. Harriet has an excellent relationship with Kate, and that aggravates Jo. I could almost hear some of their conversations, and felt so sorry for Harriet, going through teenage angst and feeling unwanted. Yet Jo, despite her prickliness, is also a very realistic person.

It’s primarily character-driven, as the people in the book explore relationships, make decisions, are willing to compromise, and find love, sometimes in unexpected places. A marriage founders, two teenagers behave rebelliously, and various people discover new talents.

I had entirely forgotten the plot of this story, so there were a couple of surprises that I was not expecting at all - perhaps it’s good to put a book aside for eighteen years, although I like to think that I’ll read it again before I’m getting close to Cecily’s age. The pace is good, the writing excellent, and by the time I was half way through I could barely put the book down. I chuckled a couple of times, and I was very moved in some of the sections towards the end.

The only part about the book that seemed out of place was a meeting when Kate and her friends go to visit a supposed spiritualist couple hosted by Lady Rosamund (one of the main characters of ‘A Price for Everything’). The scene is somewhat ridiculous, the author making a mockery of the people concerned, so perhaps it was there for the humour value; yet it didn’t add to the story at all.

Other than that, though, I loved 'Picking up the Pieces' and would recommend it very highly to anyone who likes women’s fiction.  Sadly it's no longer in print, but it's fairly often available second-hand.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

01/12/2019

To the Moon and Back (by Jill Mansell)


I had read three of Jill Mansell’s novels, initially recommended by a friend, and was surprised to like them all better than I had expected to, despite unappealing covers. But not enough that I added more of her books to my wishlist, or went out of my way to look for them. However when I saw ‘To the Moon and Back’ at a church book sale, with a very appealing cover, it was not a difficult decision to spend fifty cents to buy it.

I’ve just finished it, rather more quickly than I intended to, having only started it on Friday night. It’s a bit depressing at first. We meet Ellie, happily married to the delightful Jamie, her soulmate who even does her ironing. I knew from the blurb on the back that tragedy was going to overtake them rather quickly - so I didn’t at all enjoy the first couple of chapters, which ended with a grieving Ellie, and her father-in-law Tony.

Tony is a famous actor who mostly lives in the United States, but Jamie was his only son and he’s very fond of Ellie. So their paths cross fairly regularly, and when he realises what a state her apartment building is in, he offers to buy himself a much nicer flat, for her to caretake.

As she moves slowly through the first stages of grief, she realises that she doesn’t like being treated like a widow, with people worried about what they can say. So she isn’t very forthcoming about the unhappy end to her marriage. She makes friends with a neighbour known as Roo who was once - briefly - a well-known singer, and is now involved in an adulterous relationship.

Ellie is also persuaded to apply for another job, nearer to her new home, where nobody knows her circumstances. What she doesn’t know is that her new boss, Zack, is excessively attracted to her. Zack is a very likeable young man, with a part share in a boisterous dog, and a great sense of humour. He’s a well-off and successful businessman, and his previous PAs have been middle-aged and comfortably built. So his girlfriend Louisa is suspicious of the younger and rather attractive Ellie… but Ellie is not interested in Zack.

There are some caricatured people in this book; I couldn’t believe in Roo, for instance, nor in the sudden transformation she goes through when she realises how much she has hurt other people. She doesn’t just make amends, she goes overboard into self-sacrifice and minimalism. I’m not sure if it was intended to be humorous; it felt more as if she were making a deliberate martyr of herself in an exaggerated way to make a point.

However, I liked Ellie very much, and Zack too. They feel realistic, and three-dimensional, not caught up in materialism and one-upmanship, but enjoying ordinary activities such as playing with children, and walking dogs. Ellie’s father-in-law Tony is a nice guy, as well, as is Todd, who was Jamie’s best friend, although Ellie does not want to see him at first after the accident.

In the first part of the book there was perhaps a tad too much introspection, but by the time I was half-way through it was difficult to put down. The main story works well, two people hiding their attraction to each other, regularly missing out on opportunities to get together, and the interaction with side stories and other characters is also skilfully done, weaving together an enjoyable ‘chick-lit’ novel.

Recommended if you like light women’s fiction. ‘To the Moon and Back’ would make a good holiday read.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

30/11/2019

The Divine Conspiracy (by Dallas Willard)

I had never read anything by Dallas Willard, but I had come across his name more than once, highly recommended by other Christian authors whose writing I like. So a couple of years ago I put Willard’s best-known book, ‘The Divine Conspiracy’ on my wishlist, and was given it for my birthday last year. It sat on my to-read shelf, looking rather daunting (it’s not a short book!) for nearly twelve months, but I started reading it in April this year.

The main theme of the book - I think - is that we are living in the Kingdom of God now, if we are Christian believers. There is much we can do to develop and grow, so long as we accept ourselves for who we are, and attempt seriously to follow in the way of Jesus.

I say ‘I think’ because I found the book quite heavy going, and only ever read a few pages at a time. In the summer I was away for over a month, and didn’t take it with me, so that didn’t help either. And it’s an American book, so I didn’t always relate to what the author said about contemporary Christianity; I have read many other books that focus on the Kingdom of God among us now, and indeed that’s pretty much what I grew up understanding, albeit in a limited way. I didn’t come across simple modernist evangelicalism until my mid teens, and grew out of it perhaps twenty years later.

Still, I found a lot to ponder in this book, and hope to re-read it before too long, to discover what I missed. The author starts with an exposition of the so-called ‘Sermon on the Mount’, taking just a few verses at a time. He gives his own loose translations along with references, and although the book is twenty years old now, it feels quite relevant to modern society.

Dallas Willard takes the words of Jesus very seriously, and refutes some of the more popular interpretations or understandings of parts of the sermon - the ‘discourse on the hill’, as he calls it. I’ve heard many sermons on the beatitudes, but none explained or drew them out as well as this book does. The author mixes anecdotes, news stories and cultural commentary in with his biblical exposition, and does it in a masterly way. While I found it heavy going in places, that’s at least partly because I read it first thing in the mornings, before being fully awake.

While I don’t remember much of what I read six months ago, I do recall that much of it was profound; I don’t think there was anything I disagreed with, or any place where I felt the author was exaggerating. I appreciated his emphasis on finding more structure to life, of imposing some kind of discipline on oneself, whether fasting and spending time alone, or worshipping and reaching out to others.

I particularly liked the final chapter, on what we can expect to find after we finish with our earthly bodies. The author writes without sentimentality, in a way that I found immensely encouraging. Apparently he was a philosopher primarily, and I think that come across: the book is quite abstract, albeit with real-life examples, and the language quite involved and theoretical.

This review doesn’t begin to do justice to such a thought-provoking and well-written book. I would recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about the Christian life, and willing to get into something rather deeper than many of the more popular contemporary Christian books.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews