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review 2017-11-18 09:36
"Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman

I was wary of reading this book because I was told it was partly about loneliness and what it does to us and that sounds as much fun as reviewing the final stages of terminal cancer. I picked it up because it was consistently described as being well written.


It's more than well written. It's pretty much perfect.


There is so much understanding here of how day to day life really is, how we struggle with it, how loneliness colonises our lives like a carcinogenic mould until our lives become literally unbearable and how important small acts of kindness and regular honest contact are.


The book is written entirely from Eleanor Oliphant's point of view. It's a point of view quite unique to her, a product of her history, her isolation and the pressure of a trauma that she can only cope with by living a life as free from emotion as she can manage.


If you've ever been the unpopular person, the nutter, the lonely one, the one who genuinely doesn't get parties and small talk and the obsession with pointless television, then there are many points in this book where you will find yourself cringing with muscle-memory recognition of embarrassment and hurt. You can see exactly how Eleanor misreads things or behaves in ways that make other people dislike or dismiss or ridicule her. You know that she knows she's not easily likeable and that she has no idea what to do about it other than endure.


Eleanor starts from a worse place than most of us but many of us have walked parts of this path.


Eleanor is strong. So strong that she rejects help and deals on her own with what has happened to her and how it shapes her daily life. Eleanor is also vulnerable, fragile and in pain. Yet she makes the most of it. She tries to have a life. Most of the time.

In the first half of the book I became acclimatised to Eleanor's coping strategies, her constraints and her small acts of courage and began to hope for her, When bad times arrived they were devastating. There's no sugar-coating. No ducking of the issues. Just a bleak confrontation of reality. It is hard to take but it is worth taking because it feels true.


When better times arrive, not yet good times but much better than the times that preceded them, I could see and feel the slow, painful progress Eleanor was making. Her sessions with a counsellor are wonderfully done. I've always been resistant to the concept of psychotherapy but I understand what is being done here. It's imperfect and limited but so much better than the alternative.


The writing is excellent.  The characterisation is both subtle and clear. Modern life is closely observed and then relayed through the unique filter of Eleanor's perception. The emotions in the book are strong and real but not broadcast in soundbites or flash cards. If this was a movie, there would be no dramatic music, just close-ups of people being people.


This is one of my favourite books this year. I went to see what other Gail Honeyman books I could buy and then discovered that this is her debut novel. That's quite hard to take in. How do you come up with something this good from a standing start?

I listened to the audiobook version which is beautifully done. You can hear a sample below


[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/319244987" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]


I've also included interviews with Gail Honeyman at bookpage.com and The Washington Independant Review of Books


gail honeyman

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review 2017-11-10 14:06
"At Risk - Liz Carlyle #1" by Stella Rimington - fast-paced, plausible espionage thriller
At Risk - Stella Rimington

"At Risk" is the debut thriller by Stella Rimington, former Director General of MI5. I didn't have high hopes of "At Risk" but I picked it up because I was curious to see how a woman with twenty-six years in the service would portray the counter-intelligence world of MI5. I've just bought the next three books in the series so you can count me as a new fan.


"At Risk" has a solid plot with a credible terrorist threat at the heart of it but it wasn't the plot than won me over, it was the point of view.


This isn't the black and white world of Jack Bauer, where our hero is using any mean necessary to defend the free world from evil foreigners intent upon mindless destruction. "At Risk" set in a world that is more nuanced and more complex than Jack Bauer's.


The terrorists in this book are in the UK to kill and to demoralise. They take the lives of anyone who threatens their mission and their mission will inflict death and pain. They are also dedicated, disciplined people who have strong reasons for what they do.


Liz Carlyle, the MI5 counter-intelligence officer hunting down the terrorists, does not carry a gun and no powers of arrest. Her job is to dig through the evidence to find the threat and prevent it. She does this in a down-to-earth methodical way, working closely with the police, the armed forces and MI6. To succeed, she has to find and shape data that will get her inside the heads of the terrorists.


To me, the way the data was assembled and the way the different groups worked together felt authentic. Liz Carlyle is completely believable and I want to see more of her in action. That I felt some empathy for the terrorists by the end and yet still wanted them stopped, shows that the book worked.


Overall, the book is well written, with a strong plot, good pacing, believable action and the ability to immerse me in the counter-terrorist world without drowning me in research.


There were a few places at the start of the book where I found the physical descriptions of the people and their body-language to be a little clumsy but things got much better once the story started to move.


The end of the book is surprising, memorable and refreshingly human. I'm on board for the rest of the ride with other eight books in the series now.



If you're interested in knowing more about the author, I've included Dame Stella Rimington's bio and interviews with BookBrowse and Nowtolove from when "At Risk" was released in 2004. They give some insight into how grounded in reality the book is and explain how MI5 compares to the CIA or FBI.







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review 2017-11-08 19:52
"The Rooster Bar" by John Grisham
The Rooster Bar - John Grisham

There are some good things in the "The Rooster Bar", enough of them that I read the book right to the end in the hope that it would be worth my time. It wasn't.

"The Rooster Bar" starts well. John Grisham quickly got me immersed in the pressure cooker lives of four for-profit Law School students, groaning under a mountain of debt and with little prospect of getting a job that would enable them to pay it back. He used the instability and obsession of the most charismatic of the four to lay-out the "Great Law School Scam" without making it feel like a clumsy infodump and then added a trauma to hook my emotions and make me care.

I relaxed and waited for some kind of clever and cathartic revenge to be extracted in a sort of "The Firm 2.O" way.

Grisham kept my attention and my emotional involvement by adding in a plot about how ICE  (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) the Storm Troopers of  Homeland Security works.

This felt real and got the point across without sounding preachy. The shame of failing to treat people with dignity was made clear.

After that... well, the whole thing fell apart but slowly enough that I never quite gave up hope.

My main problem was that I didn't like and couldn't bring myself to care about the two emotionally distant, testosterone-driven, arrogant and amoral white boys who were positioned as the heroes of the piece.

Their reaction to having let their greed ensnare them in a potentially life-ruining scam was to scam everyone else. They commit crime after crime to make money, sustained by a sort of frat-boy belief that guys like them will never suffer the consequences of their actions. They were called Todd and Mark and I couldn't really tell them apart except that one (I can't remember which) was more willing to help a friend in trouble.

It seems that I was supposed to be cheering for these two would-be alpha male lawyers to out-smart the authorities, get revenge on the bad guys and ride off into a Tequilla-sustained sunset. Personally, I'd have been happy to see them both take their punishment.

Todd and Mark are the moral vacuum at the heart of this book. They're clever, resourceful, hard-working, brave but ruthless and willing to break any law to get their own way.

I could have lived with the moral vacuum if the book had ended with a great reveal or a clever, Mission Impossible slick finish but It didn't. Instead, it slid gently to a stop as it ran out of momentum and I ran out of sympathy.

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review 2017-11-07 05:03
A List of Cages
A List of Cages - Robin Roe

I'm not going to lie; this book will break your heart. To be honest, it knocked me flat every time I returned to it until I finished, but the writing was beautiful and there were plenty of characters to love (and hate) in this wrenching story. I'm not sure what was more overwhelming, the emotional or the physical, but be warned, there is some very graphic violence. But don't be dissuaded by this, it is a compelling story, and sadly, probably not all that far from the truth of some people's stories. It is not all angst and violence, though. There are beautiful relationships and strong bonds and people who are willing to stand up for what's right, which is comforting. Especially around here, lately. Read it and weep.

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review 2017-11-02 16:32
"City of the Lost - Casey Duncan #1" by Kelley Armstrong
The City of the Lost - Kelley Armstrong

I'm a fan of Kelly Armstrong's thrillers.  When she sets the supernatural aside it seems to me that her writing gets grittier and darker and her strong women become more complex. In her Nadia Stafford series, the female lead was an ex-cop turned assassin for hire.  In "City of the Lost" the twenty-something female lead is a homicide detective who shot and killed her former boyfriend when she was eighteen. I love the way Kelley Armstrong navigates the moral fog that this produces and gets beneath the skin of good people who have done bad things.


The premise of "City of the Lost" is one I haven't come across before. Part of the fun of the book is arriving at that premise so I won't share it here beyond saying that it results in our Casey Duncan, our female lead, hunting down a killer in an isolated, primitive environment deep in a vast wilderness of a Canadian forest.


The first third of the book is set in a city and yields Casey's backstory, sets her up for the wilderness and shows us the strong, fierce but haunted person she's become. The writing is powerful. The action is intense. The violence and threat are so vivid that they become hard to take. This is first-rate stuff.


The second third of the book is set in Casey's new environment and is filled with discovery, the possibility of making a fresh start and the reality of multiple, fairly gruesome murders that need to be solved. The pace is more relaxed but the tension is still there and the novelty of Casey's situation and her reaction to it more than compensated for a slow down in the violence. I particularly like Casey's take on how "a climate of expectation" can put women in male-dominated, frontier-type environments at risk.


The third part of the book solves the murder mystery in a reasonably satisfying way and moves forward the relationships between the main characters. For me, it didn't fully deliver on the potential of the first part of the book. The romance parts, although handled well, seemed to be a little too protracted and too fueled by hard to sustain misunderstandings.


Overall, I thought this was an intriguing thriller in an original and compelling setting, populated with believable characters. The women are especially well drawn and the impact of abuse and guilt is shown with skill and empathy but without becoming maudlin or didactic.


There's a second book in the series. This surprised me as the first book seems to tie everything up but I'm sure Kelley Armstrong will have some original twists to offer so I'll be giving it a try.

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