Thursday, 22 February 2018

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive - but not how to live.

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted - while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she's avoided all her life.

Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than... fine?

An astonishing story that powerfully depicts the loneliness of life, and the simple power of a little kindness.

When I am browsing the shelves in a book shop or library, I am always a little wary of books which claim to be "hilarious, made me laugh out loud." Conversely, "heartbreaking, I sobbed from start to finish." Not that either of these specific claims were made about this book but I'm sure you understand what I mean in general terms?

Now, I have read books making these sorts of claims in the past and, sometimes, I find that the book has barely made me raise a smile let alone have me reaching for a box of tissues. So, feel free to think I am a cynic but I am rarely impressed by these kinds of grandiose claims.

However, this wonderful book really was hilarious and heartbreaking and I did indeed laugh and cry. Why? Because this is a book full of humanity and compassion and I do not think I have ever rooted for a fictional character in the fifty or so years since I first picked up a book that my beautiful late-sister taught me to read before I had even started school.

This wonderfully evoked book tells the story of the scarred and socially inept Eleanor, who is trapped by her lonely existence with no prospect of that ever changing. Ms. Honeyman has created an outstanding cast of characters, all of whom are extremely well developed and easy to engage with. There is real skill evident in the writing and for a debut novel this is one of the best I have ever read.

I would challenge anyone not to be deeply moved by the chapter where Eleanor visits the hairdresser. I will say no more as I do not want to give anything away and ruin the experience of reading this marvellous book.

I think this book will stay with me for a long time and I do not doubt that I will probably read it again sometime. I could waffle on interminably concerning the virtues of this book as there is so much to like in it. I strongly encourage you to read it as I am sure you will love it every bit as much as I did and I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

ISBN: 978 0008172145

Publisher: Harper Collins

About the Author:

Gail Honeyman wrote her debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, while working a full-time job, and it was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress. She has also been awarded the Scottish Book Trust's Next Chapter Award 2014, was longlisted for BBC Radio 4's Opening Lines, and was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. She lives in Glasgow.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

January Roundup

I have read some fabulous books this month and travelled to some interesting places on my literary travels. If you are not familiar with my world wide book travelling then please read my blog posting The Well Travelled Reader .

I haven't had an opportunity to review all these lovely books yet but they will be coming. In the meantime, please click through on the links below to read the reviews.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson

Judas by Amoz Oz

Histories by Sam Guglani

The Mountain by Luca D'Andrea

So, where have my travels taken me this month? I have been to London twice, Scotland, Israel and Italy.  Histories by Sam Guglani was set in an unspecified location so I have not included that.

How about you? Have you travelled anywhere interesting this month?

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Histories by Sam Guglani

We wear our secrets openly, like diseases

The messy truth of a hospital is laid bare in this interlinked collection of stories; not just the bleeps, the blood, the battles, but the hearts beating behind them. A junior doctor makes a moral judgment; a porter waxes lyrical on his invisibility; a patient swims in and out of consciousness. Over the course of one week, each character pulses round the others - a body fighting its own sickness. A masterwork of diverse ventriloquism, structured like Olive Kitteridge or A Visit from the Goon Squad, with the authenticity and insight of Atul Gawande or Paul Kalinithi.

In prose that's tender and refined, doctor and poet Sam Guglani dissects the ordinary moments that make the difference; taking up that tug or war between medicine and faith, love and fear, life and death.

The lyrical prose in this book make it a joy to read. Each sentence holds meaning and the more I read the more enchanted I became. There is a hypnotic effect to the poetic language and it is no surprise to learn that the author is a poet.

There is a real sense of humanity and compassion to be found within the covers of this slim volume. Each story linking seamlessly into the next to demonstrate these very virtues of the staff and patients caught up in the civilised confusion of a hospital. This is no particular teaching hospital. It could be anywhere, with the emotions described through the various stories, to be found in any location.

The book is both thought provoking and anguished and not sentimentalised in any way. Instead, we get a glimpse into the hearts and minds of those people who are involved in the healing, care and recovery of people within the complex parameters of the current state of medicine.

I can imagine myself dipping in and out of this book in the future for the sheer joy of reading such beautiful writing. This is Dr. Guglani's debut book and I certainly hope it will not be his last.

ISBN: 978 1786483805

Publisher: Riverrun

About the Author

Sam Guglani is a doctor and writer. His poems have been published in various anthologies and have won prizes. He writes a regular column called 'The Notes' in The Lancet. He completed a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Oxford. He is a Consultant Clinical Oncologist in Cheltenham as well as the Director and Curator of Medicine Unboxed, an event series he founded in 2009 to engage health professionals and the public in conversation around medicine, illuminated through the arts hosting talks with authors such as Henry Marsh, Lionel Shriver, Julian Baggini and Marion Coutts.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson

When Josephine Tey sets out to write a novel about the notorious Finchley baby farmers hanged for their crimes in 1903, she has little idea of the relevance of her research to the modern-day murder of a young seamstress.

Moving between the decadence and glamour of a private women's club in thirties London and the claustrophobia of Holloway Prison, Tey discovers how crimes of the past destroy those left behind - long after justice is done.

I am fast falling head over heels in love with this series of books. I have read the first two, An Expert in Murder and Angel with Two Faces, both really excellent reads, and Two for Sorrow is no exception.

One of the things I really loved about this book is the story within the story. The character of Josephine Tey is based on the real life author of the same name (although this in itself is a pseudonym of Elizabeth Mackintosh). So, the Josephine in our book is writing a fictionalised account of an actual crime which took place in 1903. 

Every word in this book is relevant to the plot. Additionally, the story of the baby farming interweaves in a myriad of ways and demonstrates the aftermath of a crime which was committed almost a generation previously. Cleverly, this all connects with the novel as we read it and the murder of the young seamstress. Ms. Upson intelligently draws all these strands together and just as I approached the denouement and thought I had solved the mystery, in comes a marvellous twist at the end which I had not anticipated.

The haunting front cover, illustrated by Mick Wiggins, cleverly depicts the atmosphere of the prison. The descriptions in the narrative of Holloway Prison are palpable and I could almost experience the claustrophobia that the inmates and visitors felt during their time there. 

I cannot enthuse enough about this book. It is intricately plotted, intelligently written and totally engrossing. I am already looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Fear in the Sunlight.

ISBN: 978 0571846359

Publisher: Faber and Faber

About the Author:

Nicola Upson was born in Suffolk and read English at Downing College, Cambridge. She has worked in theatre and as a freelance journalist, and is the author of two non-fiction works and the recipient of an Escalator Award from the Arts Council England.
Her debut novel, An Expert in Murder, was the first in a series of crime novels whose main character is Josephine Tey - one of the leading authors of Britain's Golden Age of crime writing.
She lives with her partner in Cambridge and spends much of her time in Cornwall, which was the setting for her second novel, Angel with Two FacesTwo for Sorrow is the third book in the Josephine Tey series, followed by Fear in the Sunlight.

Friday, 19 January 2018

The Mountain by Luca D'Andrea (Translated by Howard Curtis)

Jeremiah Salinger blames himself.

The crash was his fault. He was the only survivor. Now only his daughter Clara can put a smile on his face. The depression and the nightmares are closing in.

But when he takes Clara to the Bletterbach - a canyon in the Dolomites rich in fossil remains - he overhears by chance a conversation that gives his life renewed focus. In 1985 three students were murdered there, their bodies savaged, limbs severed and strewn by a killer who was never found.

Salinger, a New Yorker, is far from home, and these Italian mountains, where his wife was born, harbour a close-knit, tight-lipped community whose mistrust of outsiders can turn ugly. All the same, solving this mystery might be the only thing that can keep him sane.

To be honest, when I began reading this I thought this book was not going to be for me. There was something about it I did not like but couldn't quite put my finger on and because I could not be specific about it I decided to read a bit further. So, I gave it a few more pages and then a few more and so on until I realised I was completely hooked and I was in the midst of a great story. 

This book is atmospherically rich. The descriptions of the snowy terrain are almost tangible and the snow covered mountains become a character in their own right.

The majority of the characters are flawed in some way (aren't we all) but Salinger gains much reader sympathy due to his self-awareness. The only character who did not work for me was his daughter, Clara. Whilst, she is described as a precocious child she just did not feel childlike to me. Rather she reads more as a small adult and I had difficulty engaging with her character. However, the relationship between Salinger and his wife and his father-in-law were well developed.

What I mostly took away from this book is that Mr D'Andrea has excellent storytelling skills and the book appears to have been well translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis. Mr Curtis won an award for his translation of In the Sea There are Crocodiles in 2010.

This book will appeal to readers who like mysteries and thrillers alongside human interest. It is appropriately paced and well plotted. An enjoyable novel that I recommend.

ISBN: 978 0857056900

Publisher: MacLehose Press

About the Author:

Luca D'Andrea lives with his family in Bolzano, Italy, where he was born in 1979. The Mountain, also known as Beneath the Mountain is his first thriller and is published in thirty countries.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Mildred Lathbury is one of those 'excellent women' who is often taken for granted. She is a godsend, 'capable of dealing with most of the stock situations of life - birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sales, the garden fete spoiled by bad weather'.

As such, she often gets herself embroiled in other people's lives - especially those of her glamorous new neighbours, the Napiers, whose marriage seems to be on the rocks. One cannot take sides in these matters, though it is tricky, especially as Mildred, teetering on the edge of spinsterhood, has a soft spot for dashing young Rockingham Napier. This is Barbara Pym's world at its funniest and most touching.

I have been aware of Barbara Pym as an author for some time but have never got around to sampling her work. So, when I recently read The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler (click here for my review) he made mention of Barbara Pym as having fallen out of fashion, although she made something of a resurgence during the 1970's. However, reading his book gave me a little nudge to try one of her books which I already had on my shelf.

First published in 1952 this humorous book which is set in the Pimlico area of London is wonderful to read and provides the reader with a slice of English social history and a people gone by. It has a quintessentially English feel and I loved every word.

As a twenty-first century reader the blatant sexism is a little hard to swallow. The book would have been preceded by early feminism and the idea that a woman just over thirty is relegated to the life of lonely spinster who can only be an 'excellent woman' is ridiculous to our modern western eyes. However, as a piece of writing of it's time the author has written a wonderful comedy of manners and class that is just irresistible. I laughed many times whilst reading this book and if it is typical of Barbara Pym's writing then I want to read everything else she has written.

I also have to mention the edition that I read which has a very sound introduction by A.N. Wilson. I found my copy of this in a second-hand bookshop in Hungerford, Wiltshire a few months ago and it is such a beautiful edition that I want to share just a couple of photos with you. It is published by the Folio Society so comes in a lovely brown slip case. However, it is the cover and illustrations within by Debra McFarlane that are so exquisitely detailed that they enhanced my reading of this book and brought it to life. I have included an extract from the first page of this book so that you will get a little flavour of the joy of reading this fine novel.

I highly recommend this novel and feel it is one that I may well read again. I am very inclined towards trying some of her other works too. Have you read anything by Barbara Pym and if so what do you recommend that I should read next?

ISBN:  978 1844084517

Publisher:  Virago


Chapter One

"Ah, you ladies!" Always on the spot when there's something happening!" The voice belonged to Mr Mallett, one of our churchwardens, and its roguish tone made me start guiltily, almost as if I had no right to be discovered outside my own front door.
   "New people moving in? The presence of a furniture van would seem to suggest it, " he went on pompously. "I expect you know all about it."
   "Well, yes, one usually does," I said feeling rather annoyed at his presumption. "It is rather difficult not to know such things."
   I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one one might really say that there is no hope for her.
   "Well, well, tempus fugit" as the poet says," called out Mr Mallett as he hurried on.
   I had to agree that it did, but I dawdled long enough to see the furniture men set down a couple of chairs on the pavement, and as I walked up the stairs to my flat I heard the footsteps, of a person in the empty rooms below me, pacing about on the bare boards, deciding where each piece should go.
   Mrs Napier, I thought, for I had noticed a letter addressed to somebody of that name, marked 'To Await Arrival'. But now that she had materialsed I felt, perversely, that I did not want to see her, so I hurried into my own rooms and began tidying out my kitchen.
   I met her for the first time by the dustbins, later that afternoon. The dustbins were in the basement and everybody in the house shared them. There were offices on the ground floor and above them the two flats, not properly self-contained and without every convenience. "I have to share a bathroom," I had so often murmured, almost with shame, as if I personally had been found unworthy of a bathroom of my own.
   I bent low over the bin and scrabbled a few tea leaves and potato peelings out of the bottom of my bucket. I was embarrassed that we should meet like this. I had meant to ask Mrs Napier to coffee one evening. It was to have been a gracious, civilised occasion, with my best coffee cups and biscuits on little silver dishes. And now here I was standing awkwardly in my oldest clothes, carrying a bucket and a waste-paper.

About the author:

After studying English at St Hilda's College, Oxford, she served in the Women's Royal Naval Service during World War II. 

The turning point for Pym came with a famous article in the Times Literary Supplement in which two prominent names, Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin, nominated her as the most underrated writer of the century. Pym and Larkin had kept up a private correspondence over a period of many years. Her comeback novel, Quartet in Autumn, was nominated for the Booker Prize. Another novel, The Sweet Dove Died, previously rejected by many publishers, was subsequently published to critical acclaim, and several of her previously unpublished novels were published after her death.

Pym worked at the International African Institute in London for some years, and played a large part in the editing of its scholarly journal, Africa, hence the frequency with which anthropologists crop up in her novels. She never married, despite several close relationships with men, notably Henry Harvey, a fellow Oxford student, and the future politician, Julian Amery. After her retirement, she moved into Barn Cottage at Finstock in Oxfordshire with her younger sister, Hilary, who continued to live there until her death in February 2005. A blue plaque was placed on the cottage in 2006. The sisters played an active role in the social life of the village.

Several strong themes link the works in the Pym "canon", which are more notable for their style and characterisation than for their plots. A superficial reading gives the impression that they are sketches of village or suburban life, with excessive significance being attached to social activities connected with the Anglican church (in particular its Anglo-Catholic incarnation). However, the dialogue is often deeply ironic, and a tragic undercurrent runs through some of the later novels, especially Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Costa Book Awards 2017

I was very excited to see the Costa Book Award Winners last night when they were announced. Congratulations to the authors and publishers who's books were chosen.

Have you read any of these books? I would love to hear your thoughts.


Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything. One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life. Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely anything is better than...fine?

This book is sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. Keep an eye out for my review soon.


Midwinter in the early years of this century. A teenage girl on holiday has gone missing in the hills at the heart of England. The villagers are called up to join the search, fanning out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on their usually quiet home. Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed. The search for the missing girl goes on, but so does everyday life. As it must. As the seasons unfold, there are those who leave the village and those who are pulled back; those who come together or break apart. There are births and deaths; secrets kept and exposed; livelihoods made and lost; small kindnesses and unanticipated betrayals.

I am a big fan of Jon McGregor and was fortunate enough to meet him some years ago. I have read this book but did not have an opportunity to write a review of it at the time. I really enjoyed it and I highly recommend this one.


As Rebecca Stott’s father lay dying, he begged her to help him write the memoir he'd been struggling with for years. He wanted to tell the story of their family who for generations had all been members of a fundamentalist Christian sect. Yet each time he reached a certain point, he became tangled in a thicket of painful memories and couldn't go on. The Exclusive Brethren were a closed community who believed the world is ruled by Satan: non-Brethren books were banned, women were made to wear headscarves and those who disobeyed the rules were punished. Rebecca’s father, like her grandfather, had been an influential Brethren Minister: he preached in the ‘Iron Room’ of their meeting houses and made choices that would eventually come to haunt him. Rebecca was born into the Brethren, yet as an intelligent, enquiring child she was always asking dangerous questions. She would discover that her father had been asking them too, and that the fault line between faith and doubt had almost engulfed him.

I have this book on order and cannot wait to read it.


To be alive is to be inside the wave, always travelling until it breaks and is gone. These poems are concerned with the borderline between the living and the dead – the underworld and the human living world – and the exquisitely intense being of both. They possess a spare, eloquent lyricism as they explore the bliss and anguish of the voyage. 


After crashing hundreds of miles from civilisation in the Amazon rainforest, Fred, Con, Lila and Max are utterly alone and in grave danger. They have no food, no water and no chance of being rescued. But they are alive and they have hope. As they negotiate the wild jungle they begin to find signs that something - someone - has been there before them. Could there possibly be a way out after all?