Marie’s Reading: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

EleanorEleanor Oliphant is fine.  Completely fine.  Or at least, that’s what she tells herself, when the loneliness starts to be too much or when she has yet another awkward encounter with another person.  As quickly becomes clear in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine.

Eleanor is in her early thirties and she lives a solitary life.  She’s held the same office job for almost a decade.  She gets a weekly phone call from her volatile mother.  She’s socially inept, with real difficulty reading cues and interacting with other people.  She keeps to a strict daily routine and her weekends are a blur of vodka-haze.  Day after day, week after week, this is Eleanor’s life.

Until one day when she and a co-worker happen upon an elderly stranger who needs assistance.  From there, Eleanor’s routines are upended, and she suddenly has plans for the future and more human contact than she’s used to.

There’s a dark layer in this book that I wasn’t expecting.  Eleanor’s got a terrible, sad secret in her past, one that is uncovered as the book goes on.  She’s solitary and disconnected for a good reason.  However, this darkness makes the light at the story’s end that much brighter–there’s real weight and import in Eleanor’s growth as a person.  She’s not quirky.  She’s struggling to cope and to heal.

Which does not mean that she isn’t fun to read about.  This is a very amusing book, and extremely heartwarming, too.  There’s catharsis and change, but there’s also always a sturdy friend and hope for the future.  Her voice is original and perfectly individual.

Eleanor’s relationship with Ray, the scruffy IT guy from her office, is gold.  Ray is a kind, affable guy, and his patience with and affection for Eleanor is great to read about.   Their friendship shows how much kindness can make a huge difference.

If you liked The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, or A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, give this one a try!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Behind Her Eyes” by Sarah Pinborough

behind-her-eyesI assumed this thriller has a mind-blowing, unpredictable tweest.  The jacket copy asks you first thing: “Why is everyone talking about the ending of Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes?”

I love this kind of guessing game!  Uh, let’s see:

  • It was Earth all along
  • Turns out it’s man
  • It’s made of people
  • Nicole Kidman was the ghost the whole time
  • The entire novel was a dream
  • The entire novel was a paranoid delusion
  • The entire novel was a fantasy played out in a snowglobe
  • Identical twins
  • Christopher Walken is a robot
  • They’ve been dead the entire time
  • It’s the sled
  • He’s been dressing up like his dead mom
  • There are two killers
  • It was an Army test
  • It was aliens

Is there a prize if I guess correctly?

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough is an engaging and twisty thriller with plenty of psychological suspense and tension.  Pinborough has a background in writing horror and dark fantasy, and it really shows here.  The story involves Louise, a single mother in London.  One night she meets a guy named David in a bar, who confesses he’s married.  And then it turns out that David is Louise’s new boss, and they both find it difficult to deny their attraction.  On top of that, Louise becomes friends with Adele, David’s troubled and mysterious wife.

Louise gets dragged into the dysfunctional relationship between David and Adele, and she’s not sure which of them she can trust.  If she can trust either of them to be telling the truth about their backgrounds and pasts.

The narrative goes back and forth between Adele and Louise, and with Adele in particular, you’re never quite sure how much to believe.  As the book goes on, you’re drawn into an intense triangle between these characters–the friendship between Louise and Adele, the passionate affair between Louise and David, the mysterious and perhaps sinister marriage of David and Adele.  The plot is intricate, playing with past and present, with perceptions and secrets, until the final confrontation and shocker ending.

Yeah, about that ending.  I don’t want to spoil it, but I will tell you this, my fellow thriller and mystery fans: it’s definitely unpredictable.  Dirty pool.  So blatantly entirely impossible that you’d ever figure it out that this is all I could think of after finishing:

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“You’ve all been so clever for so long you’ve forgotten to be humble!  You tricked and fooled your readers for years.  You’ve tortured us all with surprise endings that make no sense!”

My Lionel Twain-esque initial reaction aside, though, I did enjoy this novel immensely.  It’s well-engineered, it’s atmospheric, it’s twisty, and the cat-and-mouse aspect is great fun.  I liked the growing sense of dread and unease, and the crazily building tension.

Just open your mind to the idea that you’re in a psychological thriller that doesn’t play by the usual rules.  Once you get over the shock, it’s actually pretty refreshing!

–Marie

Halloween Read: “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” by Grady Hendrix

You might remember Grady Hendrix from such quirky horror novels as Horrorstor, in which retail employees fend off ghosts and torture devices in a big box store.  In My Best Friend’s Exorcism, a night of drugs and skinny-dipping leads to demonic possession.

best-friends-exorcism

Abby and Gretchen have been friends since they were kids.  But now that they’re in high school, something between them has shifted.  Gretchen’s acting awfully weird, and despite everyone saying it’s just a teenage girl phase, Abby’s convinced it’s something much darker than that.  And she’s willing to do anything to save her best friend.

This novel does a lot less with framing than Horrorstor, but the yearbook endpages are spot-on gold.  And the exorcism scene toward the end is suitably disturbing and moving.  Hendrix is great with blending creepiness, action, and humor, and it’s all used to very good effect here.

At its heart, this is the story of a friendship, and that core holds the novel together.  You really care about Abby and Gretchen, and you want their friendship to succeed against all odds.  Possession works incredibly well as a metaphor for adolescence, and while Hendrix doesn’t beat you over the head with it, that element plays a big part in the story.

If you like 80’s flicks and possession stories, give this one a try!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The After Party” by Anton DiSclafani

after partyA tale of friendship among the power set in 1950’s Houston, The After Party by Anton DiSclafani is filled with the detail of everyday life, and the details of a dysfunctional friendship.

At the center of the story are Cece and Joan.  Joan is the golden girl, Cece her handmaiden (she describes herself as a “lady-in-waiting”).  They’ve been friends ever since they were tiny, and as the years pass, Cece remains almost obsessively devoted to Joan.  Joan is always the party girl, the one who runs away and keeps secrets, the one constantly flitting from man to man.  Cece is the one who cleans up the messes Joan leaves behind.

The writing is simple but evocative.  DiScalani’s great strengths are with atmosphere and characterization.  The plot, such that it is, is secondary to the exploration of a very specific time and society (upper-class Houston in 1957) and the people who live in it. The relationship between Cece and Joan is especially well-crafted–it’s utterly believable in its one-sidedness, in the way Cece needs Joan so terribly (or has convinced herself that she does), and in the way that she feels responsible for Joan’s behavior.  Watching Cece try to evolve, to try to come to terms with the secrets she uncovers, and to overcome her past, is the backbone of the book.

For Cece, the life of a young housewife and mother, which Joan finds so stifling, provides protection, security, and identity.  Her struggle when caught between her husband and Joan feels very real and immediate.  How much of her hard-earned life is Cece willing to put on the line for Joan?  Or lose entirely?

The After Party is a great novel to kick off your summer with–filled with dynamic characters and lush scenery, simple but clear and honest writing, and a plot that’s full of secrets but ultimately second-fiddle to the people and their relationships.

–Marie

26 Books to Read in 2015: #19

#19: A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t.

My memory of school reading in elementary school is a blur of boring and stupid.  The Giver is the only book I really loved from that time period, followed closely by Sign of the Beaver.  I still re-read Shiloh, a book from third grade, from time to time.  I remember the books I read on my own more than the classics that were being shoved down my throat in grades four through six.  I wanted Goosebumps and Felicity Saves the Day and The Boxcar Children: That One Where They Live in a Lighthouse for the Summer.  As far as I was concerned school could keep their Sing Down the Moons and their Bridge to Terabithias and their Phantom Tollbooths.

“Deformed? Why didn’t you say so?! They should call this book ‘Johnny Deformed.'”

This is why I’m not a school librarian, guys.

Anyway.  The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman.

whipping-boy

As I said, the assigned reading during these years is hazy at this date.  But I’m pretty sure The Whipping Boy was a reading group assignment in fourth grade.  Maybe third, but I refuse to blame Mr. Morin for The Whipping Boy.  I don’t recall reading groups in sixth grade, but it’s possible–I mostly remember the science units from that year.  At any rate, at some point during my later elementary years I was supposed to read The Whipping Boy and I didn’t because I thought it was boring and confusing and then I had to fudge my way through the response sheet and discussion at school.  Several times.

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Did I read the book? I’m insulted! Is this a book report or a witch hunt?!

I decided to go ahead and give The Whipping Boy a fair shake.  So I took it home last night and read it.  I kept an open mind, and brought my adult reading sensibilities and comprehension to the work.  Perhaps I’d just been in the wrong headspace for it when I was in school.  Maybe other homework had been getting in the way.  Maybe I just didn’t get it or something.

The story is about the horrible bratty Prince Horace and his whipping boy, Jemmy.  As it is not fitting for a prince to be beaten, it’s the whipping boy’s job to take a thrashing whenever the prince misbehaves.  The idea was that, since a prince and whipping boy were brought up and educated together, the prince would not want to see a friend get whipped and he would behave.  You can imagine how well this works out for Jemmy.  So he decides he’s going to make a run for it–only Prince Horace is running away, too.  Horace and Jemmy run into some highwaymen, which leads to them inadvertently switching places prince and pauper style.  From there it’s a run from highwaymen and a journey of personal growth, with lots of characters and adventures thrown in.

Would you believe it? I got bored and wanted to stop in the exact same place as I did when I was a kid!

Clearly, this is a case of personal preference over judgment.  The Whipping Boy is a good story with a nice quick pace, good characters that develop nicely, funny bits and moving bits.  As a grown-up I think I had more appreciation for the relationship that develops between Jemmy, the whipping boy, and Prince Horace.  It’s actually very well-done and believable how they come to an understanding and come to respect each other.  The narration is primarily through Jemmy’s eyes and his voice is perfect.  The bumbling villains are fun.  It deserved its Newbery Award.  I’m just the wrong reader for this one.

At least I can say I finally fulfilled a homework assignment that’s been on the shelf for nearly a decade!  All thanks to the Reading Challenge.

P.S.

No joke, while I was researching this post and reading about The Whipping Boy, I got distracted and started reading a blog about Goosebumps Old habits, man.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Whistling Past the Graveyard” by Susan Crandall

whistling Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall invites comparison with Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Plot-wise, it is Huckleberry Finn, more or less, just set during the Civil Rights era and with a female cast.

The story: Starla is a sassy red-headed kid who lives with her grandmother, Mamie, in 1960’s Mississippi.  After getting grounded yet again for un-ladylike behavior, Starla decides she’s had enough of Mamie.  She’s going to hitch her way to Nashville, where her mother is a country singer, and live with her instead.  But who should pick Starla up but a young black woman named Eula…who just happens to have a white baby in tow.  From there it’s a coming of age story intertwined with a road trip tale, examining race, love, and loyalty along the way.

Read More »

“Skary Childrin and the Carousel of Sorrow” by Katy Towell

I did a post about Katy Towell and her amazing work last week, and I finished her novel, Skary Childrin and the Carousel of Sorrow a few days ago.  I loved it just as much as her animations.  If you’re a Lemony Snicket and/or Tim Burton fan, you might like it, too.

The story is about three oddball children who are mercilessly picked on by their peers.  They live in the spooky, otherworldly town of Widowsbury, where many bad things can (and do) happen on a regular basis.  Like a mysterious carousel suddenly appearing in the woods just outside town.  Followed by the arrival of a stranger who sets up a candy stand.  And then, people begin disappearing.  It’s up to the three girls, bound together by their other-ness, to save the town from the dark secrets of the carousel.

Like Towell’s other work, this story is creepy and dark, with plenty of genuinely frightening and gory moments.  Towell’s black and white sketches add a great dimension, but her prose definitely paints a scary enough picture on its own.   There’s also an element of melancholy here which works beautifully–it’s a story about powerlessness and rejection and human darkness, and how we cope (or not) with those dark realities.

Enjoy your last full reading day before Halloween!

–Marie