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

 

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AWF17 Schools Fest: The creative mind of Lauren Child

Lauren Child is such a rock-star, that there are whoops as her name is announced at her session for Intermediate students at Schools Fest for the Auckland Writers Festival. Her series include Ruby Redfort, Clarice Bean, and Charlie and Lola, and each of them are for different ages and audiences.

lauren child

Child is here to talk mostly about a character called Ruby Redfort, the star of her just-completed teen fiction series. Ruby is a brainy 13-year-old American school kid. She is a code-cracker who gets recruited as a secret agent by spy agency Spectrum – but, of course, she has to keep this completely secret. She has a double-life. Ruby Redfort is set in 1973: before technology, to stop the roadblocks that happen in current-time thrillers (cellphones, google) having an impact.

To tell us about Ruby, as it happens, is to take us through all of her other characters, pulling out elements of their character and the story structure that led to Ruby’s character. You get the sense with Child that she needs to take in a spectrum of things for her writing to occur. The dialogue and banter in the Ruby Redfort series, for instance, was inspired by the books of Raymond Chandler and the movies of Alfred Hitchcock.

Ruby Redfort covers.jpgThe character and books about Ruby Redfort came from the Clarice Bean books, because Child wanted Clarice to be excited by getting into a series of books, as she grew up. She thought Clarice would be getting hooked on books in this way, and invented Ruby Redfort as the heroine from these – which led to her writing the books.

When describing Clarice, Child says she is intended to be an ‘every-child’ kind of character, with an annoying younger sister who mirrors Child’s own. One of Clarice’s personality features is the tendency to float off – and Child says, ‘That’s where ideas come from. I do an awful lot of staring out of the window. Letting yourself go, and absorbing what is happening, helps you to come up with really good ideas.’

Child’s love of writing and drawing began through her love of comics – and, like Bixley, she often draws first, then adds the words around the images, drawing her writing into shapes. Also like Bixley, Child suggested several things to get the keen illustrators in the audience engaged: copy what you love, to better understand how the images work. For Charlie Brown, for instance, the characters are clean lines – Charlie and Lola is similarly, simply drawn.

Child’s usual process is that she draws everything in pencil, then colours and cuts the images out. Then she collages her images together. Charlie and Lolawas created using spotty paper, and a wood-look piece of paper, with photos of real food to fill the bowls.

One of the most notable characteristics of the Charlie and Lola books is the way in which they use words to illustrate – using words in patterns, to give the pages more energy and to keep kids on their toes while reading them.

Ruby Redfort’s life with her family is rich, and her parents are rather silly with it. Child likes to create a moneyed background for her books, because it widens the possibilities of the settings. She is inspired by architecture books for settings: a house built on a waterfall, a house on stilts. Child used an all-American ‘everyplace’ as a setting for the Redfort books because of the sense of space that is available to you in the USA. You can be in a bustling city then a desert in a matter of minutes – while in the UK, you don’t drive for long without a building, or a town, or village interrupting you.

A key aspect of the Ruby Redfort books is their use of code. Child doesn’t write the codes – she has a genius mathematician friend who does. There’s a touch code, a braille code, a smell code, a sound code. Codes allow Redfort to lead her double-life. Redfort also gets plenty of gadgets – inspired by Bond.

To write Ruby Redfort, Child spent a lot of time thinking, “What would I do if I were in her shoes?”. This meant fleshing out her world with friends, and an essential for Redfort is a loyal group of contemporaries. And because Redfort is tough, she knew parkour (Child got to meet parkour’s creator!) and what to do in the sea with a shark.

Child’s fascination with tricky situations arises from having seen the JAWS poster when she was nine: it made her never want to go swimming in the sea, ever. She learned from this that an image can be extraordinarily powerful.

f18466a7a69f22d678388adc9e3e4ef6The session with Lauren Child was well-received by the audience, despite its twists and turns and angles. Child is a bit of a genius, I suspect, and her presentation was quite idiosyncratic. But it was a pleasure to be there, and it’s with pleasure that I’ll be picking up a few of her books for the kids (they are already obsessed with Charlie and Lola). Go along on Sunday morning at 10am and you won’t be disappointed.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Her most recent book:

ruby redford blink and you die.jpgRuby Redfort: Blink and you Die
by Lauren Child
Published by HarperCollins
9780007334285

Book Review: The Pretty Delicious Cafe, by Danielle Hawkins

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_pretty_delicious_cafeThe Pretty Delicious Cafe is a light, sweet and tasty treat of a tale. The characters are endearing and interesting, and the setting – Northland, New Zealand – scenic. Our heroine is Lia, overworked and unlucky-in-love, struggling to keep her cafe running whilst also suffering the angst-ridden attentions of her why-won’t-he-just-go-away ex-boyfriend. Things change the night a sexy stranger turns up on her doorstep, first terrifying her out of her wits, then quietly sidling into her affections. But Jed comes with burdens of his own – not so much his 4-year old son, but more the weight of the emotionally-troubled ex-wife. Will Lia allow herself to follow her heart? Or will she allow insecurity to rule?

The story is relatively light fare, a quick and easy escapism. Liberally sprinkled with wry humour, witty dialogue and dusted with a touch of the bittersweet. There are some darker moments too, when one considers the nature of Jed’s previous relationship, and with the ex-boyfriend skulking in the background. The four-year old son is an absolute delight, charming his way into this cynical reader’s heart.

Pretty Delicious is a story of determination, of love, of allowing oneself the freedom to follow their dreams rather than allow themselves to be restrained by self-doubt or burdened by that which they cannot control. It is a story of friendship – Lia and Anna – and the power of reconciliation and forgiveness. The characters, with their flaws and neuroses are heart-breakingly real, and thus easy to identify with.

Also includes some mouth-watering recipes, so if the descriptions of the food in the cafe make you hungry, then you can try some out for yourself!

Danielle Hawkins is a New Zealand author, and her style should appeal to fans of Bridget Jones’s Diary, Josephine Moon and Monica McInerney. Her stories are rich with small town charm and a delight to read. I am an avid supporter of local authors that write for the more commercial market, and look forward to reading more.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Pretty Delicious Cafe
by Danielle Hawkins
Published by HarperCollins
9781460752586

Book Review: The Cloud Leopard’s Daughter, by Deborah Challinor

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_cloud_leopards_daughterSet in 1863, the story begins on the Otago Goldfields where the daughter of a Chinese Tong master is kidnapped and whisked off to China and a forced marriage.

We meet up with Kitty and Rian Farrell sailing into Dunedin harbour in their schooner Katipo 111 to meet with their friend Wong Fu who is based at Lawrence, very unwell, and concerned for the wellbeing of his daughter Bao.

The couple agree to sail to China to find the girl and the reader is taken on a fascinating journey which includes pirates, another kidnapping and the opium trade into China.
When their daughter Amber is taken from a hotel in Cebu, Phillipines, Kitty is devastated as this is the fourth time in her life that Amber has been kidnapped. She wonders if she “were being made to pay for plucking Amber from the streets of Auckland when she had been tiny”.

This is the fourth book in the The Smuggler’s Wife Series which are all based on the high seas in the Pacific. This title is easily a stand alone book as I had not read any of the previous books and was soon absorbed into the adventures of the very real, colourful characters brought to life by the descriptive writing.

The author has done a great deal of research into the opium trade into China which has given an interesting depth to the story of an era which has almost been forgotten. In the author notes at the rear of the book Challinor says, “The British reluctantly paid for their pekoe, teacups and bolts of silk in bullion, but, concerned at the amount of silver in particular leaving England, soon realised there was a ready market for opium in china”.

The peaceful but rugged coastline on the front cover of The Cloud Leopard’s Daughter enticed me into this book, I learned a lot about the opium trade, and I believe anyone who likes a family saga with some adventure in it will enjoy it as much as I did.

Deborah Challinor lives in New Zealand with her husband. While at University she did a PhD in military history and when her thesis was described by one of her university supervisors as readable she sent it to a publisher, and came away with a book deal. She has now published fourteen novels in fifteen years. She has also written one young adult novel and two non fiction books.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Cloud Leopard’s Daughter
by Deborah Challinor
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781460751572

Book Review: The Diamond Horse, by Stacy Gregg

cv_the_diamond_horseAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

THIS BOOK IS AMAZING!! Stacy Gregg has, once again, left me gobsmacked. After reading one of her previous novels The Princess And The Foal, I was excited to read this one. Gregg has put an extreme amount of research into this novel, and I felt as if I had been transported halfway across the world, experiencing this story first hand next to Anna.

The Diamond Horse is based on a Russian girl, Anna Orlov, whose father breeds animals and works for the Empress Catherine. When Anna’s father buys a new horse Anna is the one to break him in, but after the horse dies, Anna’s father orders that his son, a three-day-old foal is killed because of his unique appearance. When Anna’s mother dies she gives her a black diamond necklace that holds a secret.

I really enjoyed the persistence and courage that Anna showed throughout the novel, and would recommend The Diamond Horse to anyone who loves horses or anybody between the ages of 7 – 10.

Reviewed by Isabelle Ralston (age 14)

The Diamond Horse
by Stacy Gregg
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008124397

Stacy Gregg will be in-store at Paper Plus Bethlehem for NZ Bookshop Day.

Book Review: Working Class Boy, by Jimmy Barnes

cv_working_class_boyAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Jimmy Barnes says of his writing this account of his early life: “the time I have spent writing this book has caused me a lot of pain.” He was born in Scotland, one of six children. His father was an alcoholic who drank away his wages, and the children learned to fear the violent rows that ensued when his mother confronted him each time she was faced with having to scratch to feed the family. The area of Glasgow where they lived was mired in poverty, and drunken fights and mindless violence, even amongst the children, were horrifyingly common. Jimmy, at four, survived a life threatening attack by boys not much older than he by running away as fast as he could. His friend wasn’t as lucky. The youngster was pelted with rocks and bottles and finally set on fire. He ended up in hospital for a long time and Jimmy still carries guilt for leaving him behind.

The family eventually became “ten pound tourists,” so called because that was what it cost for such ones to emigrate to Australia to become Australian citizens. Arriving in the “lucky country” in 1962 when Jimmy was five, things went from bad to worse. Dwindling money, fraying tempers and too much alcohol gave way to more violence and finally, despair. The mother who had sworn she would never leave them, left one night without a sound. The children woke to find that they were effectively on their own.

The loneliness of the young boy as he struggles to deal with the neglect and the chaos makes for hard reading, but Jimmy, the adult, tells the story with a candour and humour that imbues it with a sense of hope. Many times that hope would have been difficult for Jimmy and his siblings to imagine, especially as they grew into their teens in the hellish conditions of the Adelaide suburbs where drugs and alcohol-fuelled violence in the streets as well as in the home.

Jimmy left his home to join a band and that’s where his account ends. It’s not where his story ends though, as those of us who have listened to his songs over the years know.

Reading about his harrowing early life gives a greater understanding of both the belting lyrics and the softer, sometimes haunting, music he has produced. As Sam Neill writes in his own review of this book, “Remarkably, out of all this bedlam one of the best men I know emerges – a great artist, a terrific friend and – how does this happen- a devoted loving family man.”

This moving account of Jimmy Barnes’ early life is an example of how a terrible childhood doesn’t necessarily doom one to a life of misery. But it also shows in grim detail the enormous effort Jimmy had to put in to become the man he is.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Working Class Boy
by Jimmy Barnes
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781460752135

Book Review: Acts of Valour: The History of the Victoria Cross and New Zealand, by Glyn Harper & Colin Richardson

Peace, not war, shall be our boast,
But should foes assail our coast,
Make us then a mighty host,
God defend our free land.
Lord of battles in Thy might,
Put our enemies to flight,
Let our cause be just and right,
God defend New Zealand.

cv_acts_of_valourThe seldom-sung third verse of “God Defend New Zealand” is a poignant reminder to all of us what it means to be a New Zealander. These words struck a chord when I read them on the first page of this book.

The original Royal Warrant for the VC, signed by Queen Victoria on 29 January 1856 specified that the award was to be made to ‘to those officers and men who … in the presence of the enemy shall have performed some signal act of valour or devotion to their country’. By a consolidating warrant of 1920, the criteria for receiving a VC was redefined to read ‘ for most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.’

There have been more than 40 service personnel with New Zealand connections that have become recipients of the Victoria Cross for outstanding acts of gallantry; the first one awarded to a New Zealander was to Captain Charles Heaphy in 1867; Charles Upham received two, one in 1941 with his second in 1942, and our most recent one on 26 July 2007 to Willie Apiata.

Heroes come in different guises but all have one thing in common – bravery without any thought to their own safety. The stories of these brave, brave men are ones that should never be forgotten. The sacrifices they all made fighting for freedom make me proud to be a New Zealander.

The process of being recognised with the Victoria Cross is not an easy one. The Victoria Cross requires an act of gallantry to be witnessed, investigated by a commissioned officer, and written up so that it meets the requirements of the prevailing warrants. It then has to be passed through several layers of military command and various committees until it finally reaches the sovereign for his or her approval. Posthumous awards were not originally covered by the Victoria Cross warrant but this has changed over the years and in more recent times awarded posthumously to soldiers during the 1982 Falklands campaign.

The stories highlighted in this book are ones of extraordinary human beings.

This is the 10th anniversary edition of a best-selling book updated with the story of Willie Apiata and the bizarre theft of the VC medals. While I found some of the military history a bit over my head, it’s still a fascinating read and one that I certainly would recommend highly to readers.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Acts of Valour: The history of the Victoria Cross and New Zealand
by Glyn Harper and Colin Richardson
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781775540502