Saturday, June 24, 2017

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

I'll admit, when I started reading Gail Honeyman's debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I thought about issuing a moratorium on quirky characters who can't seem to pick up social cues or are oblivious to how people usually behave when interacting with peers, coworkers, those who provide service, and others. Obviously these are colorful characters to write about—it seems as if the literary world is full of them.

But the more time I spent with Eleanor Oliphant, I realized that her behavior was more the result of circumstance than will, nurture if you will, rather than nature. And then I thought about how boring the world might be if everyone acted the way they were expected to, said the right things, and never expressed their true feelings. (Lord knows if I couldn't roll my eyes, my head might explode.)

Eleanor lives by her routines. She eats the same meals, wears the same clothes, has her weekly chat with Mummy, and has her weekend rituals, which include frozen pizza and enough vodka to keep her pleasantly drunk all weekend. For the most part, she eschews interactions with her coworkers, whom she mostly thinks are daft and lazy. They make fun of her both behind her back and in front of her, and she doesn't really care.

"I do not light up a room when I walk into it. No one longs to see me or hear my voice. I do not feel sorry for myself, not in the least. These are simply statements of fact."

Two things happen which throw her routines off-kilter. First, while attending a concert with a coworker, she spots a handsome musician and is quickly smitten. She has decided that he is the one for her, and starts to ready herself for their first encounter, during which she knows he'll sweep her off her feet and they'll live happily ever after. She needs a makeover and new clothes, and she starts doing research on her soon-to-be-beloved.

Meanwhile, one afternoon she and Raymond, the IT guy from her office, whom she considers poorly groomed and a bit bumbling, save the life of an elderly man who falls in front of them. Saving Sammy's life suddenly gives Eleanor two unexpected relationships, friendships, that she has never had before. She still acts the way she believes to be appropriate, and says things that most wouldn't, but she begins liking the feeling of belonging, of companionship, which she never realized she wanted.

"Some people, weak people, fear solitude. What they fail to understand is that there's something very liberating about it, once you realize that you don't need anyone, you can take care of yourself. That's the thing: it's best just to take care of yourself. You can't protect other people, however hard you try. You try, and you fail, and your world collapses around you, burns down to ashes."

Eleanor's social awkwardness, her lack of a filter, her inability to grasp exactly how people expect her to behave, actually hides a great deal of secret pain, pain and memories even she has hidden. And when she is forced to start recognizing just what a burden she has carried for so much of her life, and who was responsible, it threatens to break her. Suddenly she realizes she may need to do something she never has—depend on others, and reveal things about herself she's always kept hidden, in order to move forward. If she wants to.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is really a special book. Even if some of Eleanor's behaviors are similar to other quirky characters you might have seen, she is totally unique, and while off-putting, just absolutely wonderful. You both marvel and are saddened by the burdens she has carried, and how she copes with them. I found myself becoming protective of her, worrying there would come an instant where someone made a total fool out of her (with her own help, of course).

Honeyman really did a terrific job with Eleanor. Even as she began letting down her guard, Honeyman kept her character consistent, but never let her become unsympathetic. While this is certainly Eleanor's story, I liked the other characters as well, although they certainly didn't get as much attention. I thought the ending was a little too pat for my taste, but I really enjoyed this overall, and don't think I'll be forgetting Eleanor or her story anytime soon.

God bless the people who challenge our notions of "appropriate" and "normal," because they are what keeps our world interesting!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: "A House Among the Trees" by Julia Glass

For me, reading a Julia Glass novel is like returning home after a long trip, or visiting close friends or family. You immediately feel so comfortable, so happy, and so interested in what is going on around you. I've been a fan of hers since her very first book, Three Junes, and while her books aren't always perfect, I love the way she unfurls her stories, and creates immensely memorable characters.

Tomasina "Tommy" Daulair was 12 years old when she first met beloved children's book author Morty Lear. She doesn't know who he is or what he has written, but he becomes immersed in sketching her younger brother while he plays on the playground, and she is caught totally unaware a few years later when she finds out that her brother became the inspiration for the main character in Lear's most famous book.

These encounters serve as the start of a 40+-year relationship, with Tommy serving as Morty's trusted assistant, confidante, and all-around savior. The job, and their relationship, opens Tommy's life to a lot of different opportunities, but despite the fact that Morty is gay and older than she is, her job and Morty's dependence on her serves to close off her life to little but him. And for the most part, she's fine with that fact.

Unexpectedly, Morty dies in a freak accident while Tommy is out running his errands. She is completely shocked to find that Morty has left her their Connecticut home and all of his possessions, and while she is overwhelmed by his generosity, when she realizes that he also intended for her to carry out many of his complicated, confusing, and sometimes surprising requests he outlined in his will, she resents having to do his dirty work one last time.

As she tries to figure out what her future holds, since so much of her life was lived on Morty's terms, she must deal with several different people, each of whom wants something else from her, or from Morty's estate. From her estranged younger brother, Dani, who has always resented her relationship with Morty, especially after learning he was the author's inspiration all those years ago and got nothing for it, to Meredith Galarza, the museum director to whom Morty all but promised much of his work, only to find he changed his mind without telling her, and Nick Greene, the handsome, Oscar-winning actor cast as Morty in a film about his life, to whom Morty disclosed secrets he never even shared with Tommy, these encounters will force Tommy to deal with Morty's legacy, and what he meant to her, in many different ways.

"It was invigorating to be indispensable to a man like Morty; at times it was a source of pride—even vanity. But equally vain was her notion that to meet his expectations would permit her to know him inside and out; to know, as the filmmakers believe they do, the inner Lear."

Spanning the years of their relationship, from their first encounter through the tumultuous times of Morty's life, including the death of his lover from AIDS, A House Among the Trees is an indelible portrait of life with an artist, and how easily dependency can merge into codependency, on both sides. It's the story of a woman struggling to find herself after so long of having her life defined by her job, which was so much more than a job, and it's also an interesting exploration of how much we truly know someone, even after working and living with them for more than 40 years.

Morty's character bears some slight similarities to Maurice Sendak, but this is hardly a fictionalized account of that man's life. Once again, I loved the way Glass told this story, and I loved the emotions she evoked in its telling. While I liked Tommy's encounters with Nick, Meredith, and Dani, at times when the story shifted to Nick or Meredith's perspective, it seemed a little jarring, and I wanted to get back to the core of the story. The pacing can be a little slow at times, but I felt this book in my heart and my mind, and overall, really enjoyed it.

There's a warmth to this story, and to most of Glass' writing, that I am so enamored of. If you like Glass' books, this is another one to savor; if you've never read her before, she's definitely an author worth exploring.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Book Review: "Final Girls" by Riley Sager

This book kicked some serious ass!

"We were, for whatever reason, the lucky ones who survived when no one else had. Pretty girls covered in blood. As such, we were each in turn treated like something rare and exotic. A beautiful bird that spreads its bright wings only once a decade."

Ten years ago, Quincy Carpenter went to the woods with five of her friends to celebrate her best friend's birthday. But instead of the carefree celebration they planned, that night turned out to be something out of her worst nightmares. She was the only one to survive a brutal massacre. She can't seem to remember what happened, nor does she want to—all she remembers is being covered in blood and being rescued by a policeman after outsmarting a killer she can only refer to as "Him."

With that incident she became part of a group the press called the "Final Girls," with two other sole survivors of massacre-style attacks—Lisa, who witnessed an attack on her sorority house which left nine of her sorority sisters dead, and Samantha, who survived a late-night attack at the motel where she worked. The three girls want nothing more than to put their lives back together and somehow shake the memories that haunt them, as well as the guilt that they survived when their friends or others did not.

"Even before Pine Cottage, I never liked to watch scary movies because of the fake blood, the rubber knives, the characters who made decisions so stupid I guiltily thought they deserved to die. Only, what happened to us wasn't a movie. It was real life. Our lives. The blood wasn't fake. The knives were steel and nightmare-sharp. And those who died definitely didn't deserve it. But somehow we screamed louder, ran faster, fought harder. We survived.

Quincy has done fairly well pulling her life together, thanks in large part to her Xanax prescription, which helps keep any lingering anxiety at bay. She has a successful baking blog and a handsome, steadfast boyfriend, Jeff. She also knows that Coop, the policeman who saved her life all those years ago is always looking out for her, ready to come if she needs him.

But then Quincy finds out that Lisa, one of her fellow "Final Girls," has apparently committed suicide, despite how hard she fought to survive all those years ago. If that isn't enough to cause Quincy to lose her composure, it turns out Lisa emailed her right before she died, trying to make contact with Quincy. And then Samantha shows up, ostensibly to check up on Quincy once she heard about Lisa's death (despite the fact that they've never met).

It appears Samantha has other motives in mind, too, as she is intent on getting Quincy to relive that night at Pine Cottage 10 years before, and challenges Quincy's carefully composed life. The more she forces Quincy out of her comfort zone, the more Quincy wonders why Samantha really appeared, and whether everyone else in her life is right to be suspicious. When new information about Lisa's death is revealed, Quincy doesn't know where to turn, or whom to trust, and whether she can handle reopening her memories to the trauma she survived 10 years ago.

Final Girls is full of suspense and twists and turns. Riley Sager is definitely a talented storyteller, and she knows how to throw a few misdirections the reader's way, so you don't know how things will be resolved in the end. She does a great job illustrating the dichotomy of Quincy's life, and how quickly the calm she has come to know can be shattered. I also like the way she developed Quincy and Sam's characters—I don't feel as if the other characters were given the same complexity and depth.

This is definitely one of those books which will make a terrific movie. I really enjoyed this a great deal, although some of the shifting back and forth between past and present was a little more jarring than it should have been. If you're a fan of suspense novels, this is one you'll want to pick up. It certainly will make you think the next time you hear about a sole survivor of a horrific incident.

NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Dutton provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Book Review: "The Rope Swing: Stories" by Jonathan Corcoran

I've become such an enormous fan of short stories over the years. They allow talented authors to develop a world in miniature, to quickly draw you into a story and endear their characters to you, and tie everything up (or leave it purposely ambiguous), all in the span of a relatively small number of pages. They can experiment with different narrative styles or themes, or link their stories around a particular set of characters, setting, and/or time period. When it all works, short stories can be breathtaking, sometimes even more than a full-length novel.

A number of the stories in Jonathan Corcoran's collection, The Rope Swing, reached that level for me. The characters in these stories are at a pivotal moment in their lives—the railroad for which their once-successful town was known has taken its last ride, they must make a critical decision about a relationship, they're faced with grief, uncertainty, bitterness, and pain. Each of the stories is either based in a small West Virginia town, or the characters have their roots there, and many of the characters overlap in several of the stories.

My favorites in this 10-story collection included: "Corporeal," in which a relatively sheltered teenager must confront her father's suicide, and decides this is the moment to start bucking her mother's overprotectiveness; "Pauly's Girl," about a woman trying to find her way after her platonic life partner has died; "Felicitations," which tells of a genetic counselor in rural West Virginia facing some critical decisions of her own; "Appalachian Swan Song," about a once-booming town watching the very end of its railroad; "Through the Still Hours," in which one-half of a gay couple tries to figure out why his relationship no longer satisfies him any longer, and what he should do; and my absolute favorite, the title story, about two young men on the cusp of admitting their secrets to one another, but one is unsure of what taking that first (or last) step could mean.

I found this collection when I saw it had been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. (I found this somewhat ironic because I think there were fewer gay-related stories in here than anything else, but I could have lost count.) Corcoran is really a fantastic storyteller. It's amazing how he can imbue his stories with such powerful emotions in such a small number of pages, and how he makes you feel them just as strongly as his characters do. Only one or two stories didn't work for me, and it wasn't that they weren't well-written, but rather that I just didn't feel as immersed in those as I did the others.

I've had conversations with a number of Goodreads friends as to why they love short stories, or why they don't appeal to them. I can definitely say up until about 15-16 years ago I definitely was in the latter camp, but now I am hooked. There is so much talent out there writing beautiful stories, so if you're willing to give it a try, The Rope Swing may be a great way to ease you in.

Me? I'll be waiting for the next step in Corcoran's career.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Book Review: "The Appointment: Lost & Found (Book 1)" by Luke P. Narlee

Man oh man, I won't be able to get this one out of my head for a while...

It's funny; I used to read a ton of dystopian novels. I remember marveling just how far-fetched they all seemed, how hopeless the authors made life out to be, and how change could be inspired by the resistance of one person. And then (pardon my editorializing) the events of the last few months has brought the far-fetched a little closer. While I'm not ready to volunteer as a tribute, the idea of our country hacked to bits in a battle between the haves and the have-nots, a world where pollution is more the rule than the exception, and people find themselves without food, healthcare, jobs hits a little closer to home for me.

Luke Narlee's The Appointment: Lost & Found isn't quite like that, but there are dystopian elements which seem eerily prescient considering when he must have been writing this. But beyond that, this book is like a cloud formation or one of those Magic Eye puzzles—you aren't quite sure what you're seeing at first, and everyone has a slightly different perspective, but you can't look away, because you're utterly transfixed. And can you ask for much more from a book than that?

The human race is on Lockdown, imprisoned behind a wall which is protected by trigger-happy guards. The expression of emotions is no longer allowed, and to ensure this remains the rule, any form of entertainment—smartphones, music, even photographs—have been forbidden. People shuffle aimlessly through their miserable existence, not making eye contact and barely reacting to the world and the other misanthropes around them.

Jacob Johansen is one of them, but he hasn't completely surrendered to the bleakness even though he knows he should. He keeps seeing these glimpses of memory—people, places, situations—which he has a feeling once meant something to him, but he cannot remember enough, and that makes him both disheartened and frustrated.

One day he receives an invitation to an appointment. He doesn't know who has invited him and what this invitation really means, but he knows he has nothing left to lose, except more time shuffling around in abject boredom and depression. It turns out, however, Jacob has been selected for a "special" project, one which will open up his mind again to what he could be, and remind him of who he once was.

And that's when this book totally takes off. Jacob finds himself in many different situations, perhaps in different worlds, where his life has gone in a wholly new direction. It has almost a Dark Matter-esque feel to it, as you wonder whether there are multiple Jacobs in multiple universes, if these are real memories, or some sort of manipulations. It's just such a cool concept, so vividly told and it really captures your imagination.

One of the great things about this book is I had absolutely no idea what to expect, so I'm being fairly vague in my plot summary so you can enjoy the way it all unfolds. (I'll be honest—I'm still not 100 percent sure what happened but I think Narlee has left some room for interpretation, which is even cooler, in my opinion.) In thinking of the best way to describe this book, I found an old quote:

Narlee's first book, Guest Bed (see my review), also packed a few punches, but it was a completely different type of story. The fact that the same author wrote these two totally different books just proves how talented Narlee is. Not only is the plot complex and memorable, but so are the characters. The book takes a little while to get rolling, but once it does it never lets up.

This may not be a book for everyone, but if you're willing to step outside your comfort zone, I think you'll be richly rewarded, and like me, you'll be ready for Book 2!!

The author provided me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Review: "Give a Girl a Knife" by Amy Thielen

About 14-15 years ago (how can that be?) I went to culinary school, and worked as a personal chef for about 18 months until the economy started tanking. At that time, I always had this dream of opening a little restaurant, nothing super fancy. Of course, once I worked at a restaurant for a brief period, that dream died quickly—I thrive on pressure and chaos, but the frenetic pace of cooking in a restaurant, not to mention the pressure of having to always get everything right, would have driven me insane.

That journey in self-discovery is reinforced whenever I read a chef's memoir. Just hearing about the frenetic nature of readying plates in a high-end restaurant is enough to send me reaching for a Xanax. (Check out Michael Gibney's excellent Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line for a great example of this.)

"Cooking wasn't just a job; it was a life—what looked to all outsiders, including my own boyfriend, like a pretty terrible life. It was, as Aaron feared, a real affliction. And possibly, a dysfunctional relationship."

While Amy Thielen's terrific new book, Give a Girl a Knife, dips into this territory, as it chronicled her tenure cooking for some of the finest chefs—David Bouley, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, and Shea Gallante—in some of New York's most famous restaurants, it didn't dwell on this exclusively. The more time Thielen spent working on fabled, complex dishes, with ingredients and techniques not often seen in everyday kitchens, the more she realized that behind every fancy plate are the backbones of her Midwestern culinary heritage—potatoes, onion, bacon, and butter—lots of butter.

Thielen grew up in Northern Minnesota, in a town known as the home of the nation's largest French fry factory. Her mother, like generations of women before her, reveled in cooking homey, delicious, yet seemingly uncomplicated dishes reflective of Midwestern culture and the German, Austrian, and French heritage of their ancestors. Dishes like pork roast, spaetzle, fermented sour pickles, poppy seed coffee cake, and the infamous hotdishes, laden with bacon and (quite often) cheese, were part of almost every meal for Thielen and her family, yet when she decided to go to culinary school and pursue a career as a chef in New York City, she couldn't get far enough away from those elements, until she realized how truly interrelated everything was.

Give a Girl a Knife juxtaposes Thielen's culinary career with a chronicle of her growing up surrounded by food and the magnificent women who brought the food to delectable life. It also dealt with her struggles as she and her boyfriend (and eventual husband) Aaron tried to bring their dream of living in an off-the-grid, hand-built cabin deep in the Minnesota woods to life. It is during their time in the cabin that awakens Amy's love of food, of coaxing beauty, as well as both subtlety and vibrance, from homegrown fruits and vegetables, as well as meats.

But the time she spends in New York City, as much as she feels it embraces her talents, leaves her longing for the solitude of their cabin, and inspires her journey to better understand her culinary heritage from the beginning. It's a journey that shapes her and her career, as well as her path for her future.

"I'd spent years trying to erase those homely flavors from my past, but when I gave my nostalgia an inch, it ran down the road a mile. Like an archaeologist picking in the hard-packed clay, I felt a need to return home to excavate the old flavors and all the feelings I'd ever tied to them."

At one point when she is trying to decide what to do with her life, Thielen considers being a food writer. It's certainly another career path which would bring her success, because she is a tremendously talented writer, able to paint sensory pictures in your mind's eye with her words. Of course, my snap reaction to this book, with its vivid, beautiful descriptions of complex gourmet dishes, comfort foods, fresh fruits and vegetables?

Beyond wanting to gnaw the seat of the airline passenger in front of me (serves him right for trying to recline his seat back into my lap anyway), I loved the emotions and the ideas that this book conveyed. You can certainly see why Thielen has succeeded in her career, and it was enjoyable to read about her artist husband and how his dream of the cabin in the woods really inspired her life's work. They're certainly a remarkable pair!

My one criticism of the book is the jumbled timeline—one second Thielen is working in New York, then she and Aaron are moving to Minnesota, then she's a teenager, then she's back in New York—at times it just got very confusing.

But in the end, that's a small price to pay because the book is so compelling, so enjoyable, and so hunger-inducing. If you're fascinated by chef stories, if you're a foodie, or if you just to like to eat, pick up Give a Girl a Knife. And have some food nearby!!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Review: "Lovecraft Country" by Matt Ruff

Yeah, Tina, that's how I felt after reading this book. This was one crazy, creative, confusing ride!!

In 1954, the U.S. was still deep in the throes of segregation and blatant racism. When Korean War veteran Atticus Turner finds out his estranged father Montrose has gone missing, accompanying a young, confident-looking white man to a small town in New England, Atticus knows he must find him and see what trouble he has gotten himself into. Accompanied by his Uncle George, publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, and his childhood friend Letitia, the trio experience more than their share of racist and dangerous encounters along the way, as they travel in and out of less open-minded communities.

"White people in his experience were far more transparent. The most hateful rarely bothered to conceal their hostility, and when for some reason they did try to hide their feelings, they generally exhibited all the guile of five-year-olds, who cannot imagine that the world sees them other than as they wish to be seen."

When they arrive in the small town of Ardham, Massachusetts, and the sprawling manor home of Samuel Braithwhite (who happens to be the ancestor of those who owned Atticus' grandmother), they are somewhat shocked to find Montrose kept prisoner in the cellar of an Ardham building. Braithwhite and his son Caleb are part of a secret order called the Order of the Ancient Dawn, and the group has very interesting plans for a ritual to regain their power—a ritual that involves Atticus. And while Atticus may have a trump card to play, using it may unleash years of danger upon his family and friends.

What follows are interconnected chapters involving Atticus, George, George's wife Hippolyta and his son Horace, as well as Letitia and her sister, Ruby. The chapters involve all sorts of magic, occult, ghosts, racism, space and time travel, social commentary, and threats of violence, as one who was once in power tries to establish his dominance again. These are wild stories for which you'll need to seriously suspend your disbelief, but Matt Ruff tries to provide pointed commentary on how racism can destroy the fabric of our country and cause people to do things they know they shouldn't.

Lovecraft Country pays homage to the horror novelist (and racist) H.P. Lovecraft. It's well-written and creative, but it just gets too unhinged after a while. The narrative in each section seems disjointed and the pacing at times moves slower than I would have liked. But when the book starts barreling toward its conclusion, it makes you feel a little breathless, as you wonder how Ruff will tie everything up.

Matt Ruff's first novel, Fool on the Hill, a fantasy totally unlike this book, is one of my favorite books of all time. His subsequent books definitely challenge your perceptions of reality and are tremendously thought-provoking. I know that this was the objective here, too, but it just didn't quite click for me. But if a combination of social commentary, allegory, and the occult sounds irresistible to you, definitely pick this up, because combined with Ruff's storytelling talent, it may be a home run for you.