Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_eleanor_oiliphant_is_completely_fine.jpgWhat an absolute joy to read this was, definitely one I will keep, share with others, and put into book club.

Eleanor is almost thirty, she lives in Glasgow, she works for a graphics design company in what could loosely be termed admin, she has worked there for nearly ten years. She has no friends. Her work colleagues think she is odd, they know very little if anything about her and can’t really be bothered to find out more. Every Friday night she leaves work, goes to Tesco, buys two pizzas and two bottles of Vodka. She goes home, demolishes the lot over the weekend, then turns up at work, bang on time Monday morning for another week the same as the previous. She is completely fine. These are her good days.

To the reader, her loneliness is extreme, the walls she has built around herself painful to see. It is hard to fathom the depth of loneliness that people can feel in their lives, and if this is a voluntary state, an enforced state, or a combination of the two. Is there a mental illness of sorts going on here, does she have a personality disorder, has something happened to her to have her life turn out like this at not even thirty? Slowly, page by page, we learn about Eleanor and the carefully structured life and walls she has built around herself over the years. We learn that from about the age of eleven she was in foster care, that she had a boyfriend who was violent to her, that she has a very controlling mother in prison with whom she talks once a week.

Life takes a sudden turn when she bizarrely falls madly for a wannabe rock star, her perfect man. To attract said man’s attention she pays a visit to a beautician, buys some swanky new clothes. She also befriends a work colleague who is forced upon her as the repairer of her work computer. By chance they are out during their lunch hour and assist an elderly man who falls over in front of them. These minutely small human connections are the beginning of the budding and flowering of the wonderful Eleanor. There are some hiccups along the way, as she struggles with her reconnection with the world, letting people into her small tightly held bubble – there are bad days, until finally we reach better days. And of course, we find out all about Eleanor’s early life that put her into foster care at eleven and explains why she has become this strange, out of touch, and odd person.

Eleanor is a wonder to behold. Being so little involved in others’ lives, having no social network or friends, having no need to deal with people in her work, she has lost all the social filters that most of us develop over the years of interacting with others. Our socially conditioned and finely tuned antennae tell us when we say or do something out of kilter, not so Eleanor. Her conversational exchanges are hilarious and endearing, if they weren’t quite so sad; her observations of those around her and how they behave equally wicked and funny, although of course she does not see it like that!

The writing is wonderful, and being narrated in the first person the reader is right inside Eleanor’s head. We root for Eleanor all the way even when she is frustrating the whatever out of us, as do the people she meets in the course of this story. She may be tetchy, difficult to talk with, unpredictable, but all the characters love her, from her colleague Raymond, to the elderly man, to her hairdresser, to her boss – it is as if they can all see the potential in this young woman, but just don’t know how to tap into it. I want to read this book again, it is just great, and gives a tender and sensitive insight into the loneliness that many people must live in. Heart-warmingly wonderful.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008172121

 

Book Review: The New Animals, by Pip Adam

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_new_animalsPip Adam’s new book is both astute observation and raw imagining of what life is like when involved in the fashion world in Auckland. And it makes me want to run like hell in the other direction. The shallow lives of the characters, the consumption and micro-examinations of self and other (without reaching any kind of depth of understanding) seem representative of the mass consumerism and solipsism that can be found in such spheres of life.

Carla is the first character we are introduced to. She’s not altogether likeable or appealing: ‘Her skin was wrecked, her eyes, her nerves. But the powders and pills and tongue scraping and cleansing made it possible for her to pay the barista, smile at the child, look down as she left the cafe …’ Later, there is Sharona and Duey, the latter masturbating to porn in boredom and panic at work, and the former somewhat dismissive of the fashion world in which her friends have centred their lives around.

They are all purposefully awful in some way. And are they really even friends? It’s hard to say. They are always questioning what others think and reflecting on past decisions, like nervous, twitchy rats in a cage. In fact, it seems that each character just tolerates others for the sake of scraping through the shallow life that’s been chosen, whether older (Generation X) or younger: ‘ Now Carla was scoffing. He could see it, the way her mind ticked … she was wrong and now he couldn’t say anything because that would be a dick move’. The addition of a dog named Doug who pretty much wants to kill her owner Carla, and who is locked in a crappy little apartment all day has the reader feeling a real dis-ease representative of the sickness of these people’s lives.

Everyone seems to be sleeping with make-up artist Elodie, who, on the surface at least, is an easy-going pleaser. The book makes a sudden veer in the magic realist direction in the second half, when Elodie seems to have a breakdown (or revelation of truth?), and steals Doug to head out into the ocean. Literally. Well, like, literally in the book, but not, one would imagine, in the story. She encounters the grotesque on her journey, a metaphorical representation of the grotesque of the fashion world.

Even though I found it hard to enjoy when reading (I really disliked the characters and the interactions they were having, although it is of course unnecessary to always like characters) this book stayed with me. The imagery of Doug the feral dog, who was once tame, and Elodie’s oceanic experiences were haunting. The title refers to such things; this book is animalistic. I would say prepare to feel uncomfortable.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

The New Animals
by Pip Adam
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561162

Book Review: The Chalk Rainbow, by Deborah Kelly and Gwynneth Jones

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_chalk_rainbowIt is exciting to see so many books for children, which deal with diversity. As a teacher, I have always found that stories are the best way to approach the challenges of difference in our world. By sharing and discussing through stories, we are able to introduce a more open attitude as well as dealing with how to respond. Wonder, (Pelacio) did this brilliantly for older readers.

The Chalk Rainbow leads us into the autistic world of Zane through the eyes of his sister. She explains the everyday difficulties faced by her brother: his made-up language, fear of black, his meltdowns and the way he lines things up. We see the frustrations of his parents as they try to help. Finally, it is Zane’s older sister who helps us to see differently, through her chalk rainbows.

This story is simply told, and the illustrations support the text with detail and colour. We are led out into the streets the rainbows and Zane follows. Here is a story of trust, where we learn that unconditional love can help us to view things differently.

I would love to read this story to my classes as we discuss difference and prejudice.
There are many ways of solving problems and sometimes it is important to follow that rainbow.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Chalk Rainbow
By Deborah Kelly and Gwynneth Jones
Published by EK Books
ISBN 9781925335453

Book Review: A Talent For Murder, by Andrew Wilson

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_talent_for_murder.jpgThe author has merged so well with Agatha Christie the novel reads as grippingly as any of her works. Meticulously researched, he adopts Ms Christie’s persona in this tale of her famed missing eleven days.

Anxiety and panic attacks fill Mrs Christie as she relates the events of what is readily plausible in that time and in her world of crime novels.

Wilson teases us with characters she meets; we want to keep reading to know them, to know more about them. We are in suspense as we read on and learn more. How each character involves with and revolves around each other, and the plot, is breath-holding – in the sense of building our feelings of foreboding, and character empathy.

This book was so well written I devoted two evenings to completing it. Christie, as character, reads people, actions and settings, and records them in such detail that it is easy to believe this story is truth. She shares her emotions – bereavement, stress, loss, anger, desperation – in reasoned detail. Her voice builds reader empathy

Wilson’s re-creation of Christie’s work is exceptional; and, what good news – he is working on the next Agatha Christie Adventure, A Different Kind of Evil.

Reviewed by Lynne McAnulty-Street

A Talent For Murder
by Andrew Wilson
Published by Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 9781471148224
eBook: 9781471148231

Book Review: We’re off to Find a Kiwi by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Kate Wilkinson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_were_off_to_find_a_kiwiEveryone in New Zealand dreams of seeing a kiwi, but very few of us in fact have seen one. In this delightful picture book Louie and his older sister set off to find a kiwi.

The author uses an excellent rhyming method to carry the children from their street into the city where they meet a tui who offers advice.

From there they go to a farm, then up a mountain, where a kea tells them to look in a dimmer place.

They try a forest and hear,
A scratch – a rustle – something close …
I feel the need to wee-wee!
It’s coming near! I freeze in fear!
And then we see a … KIWI.

It’s a wonderful story for the 3-7 age group: my 3-year-old grandson loves it. The week before this book arrived we had been walking in the Orokonui Sanctuary looking for birds, kiwi included, and other wildlife, so this book continues our adventures.

Juliette MacIver has created a wonderful New Zealand story, introducing children to some of our finest native birds and with the subtle illustrations by Kate Wilkinson, children can learn about the special places which are home to these birds.

The last page includes facts about kiwi, good discussion points for parents and teachers.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

We’re off to Find a Kiwi
by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Kate Wilkinson
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775433750

Book Review: Black Faggot and other plays, by Victor Rodger

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_Black_Faggot_Reading playscripts is something I used to do for pleasure as a teenager. (Fair to say I was maybe a bit besotted with theatre then, not to mention being a bit of an oddball as well!)

So putting my hand up to read some about 60 years later is either a sign of regressing, or a renewed interest.  I’m going for renewed interest.

It was absolutely fascinating to read a script again. Victor Rodger certainly packs a punch in his dialogue, but it’s what lies beneath the script that provides the real substance – values, stereotypes, pre- and mis-conceptions are all challenged in these three plays.

They are sometimes shocking, often funny, and above all they challenge the reader in many ways, so I can only guess at the power which must emanate from the stage productions when the challenge is really laid down.

Black Faggot, (the book title, and the first play) grew from a response to Destiny Church and their position on same-sex marriage, and it’s a powerful and thought-provoking work. VUP has kindly allowed me to quote from the comments by Tanu Gago:

‘I never understood what it took to love another man until I was transformed by the love of another man…………………….on the other side of all that pain and fear we are also capable of experiencing real love. The type of love that saves our lives.’

This, to me, is the essence of Black Faggot. There is a very positive message here for young men, in particular, struggling with their gender identity.

The other plays, At the Wake and Club Paradiso give equally thought-provoking messages. At the Wake shows the difficulty some of us have with acceptance of the other, in whatever shape or persona that comes, and again is a deeply moving play.

Club Paradiso challenged me more; the violence is too much for me and the play shocked me deeply on several fronts – the mindless violence, fuelled presumably by methamphetamine, the sexual bullying and the graphic details depict a kind of place where, fortunately, I have never been. However the play has a innate truthfulness, and that is perhaps why I struggled with it – as a straight pakeha woman of a certain age, I hate to think that behaviour like this exists, even though I know that it does.

More power to Victor Rodger, is all I can say. It takes a brave and accomplished writer to deliver work like this.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Black Faggot and other plays
by Victor Rodger
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561032

 

 

Book Review: Boo!, by Ben Newman

cv_boo.jpgAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

This is the kind of book youngsters love; short and pithy with graphic pictures, and a narrative that even the littlest child can sense is going to end in a bang.

Ben Newman has his audience in the palm of his hand from the start, from the garishly coloured cover with its cut out eyes spelling “Boo” through to the ending which is funny and expected but also not expected, by an audience of the littlest. The five- and seven-year-old loved it and the older ones pretended not to, while looking over the shoulder of the reader and trying not to laugh at the unabated mirth of their siblings after each rendition.

I have to confess I enjoyed it too. Books like this one build a foundation for an ongoing love of reading in children, as well as developing in them a desire to discover things. The words and pictures may be simple but the message they teach is that it’s fun to learn, and that something unexpected is just around the corner if we keep on going.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Boo!
by Ben Newman
Published by Flying Eye Books
ISBN 9781911171058