Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineEleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A novel about …. loneliness, trauma, friendship, community, recovery, office politics, mother-daughter relationships. At times very moving, at times hilarious, at times the characters make you cringe in embarrassment. This is a wonderful book which I found grabbed me from the start. It’s Honeyman’s first novel and therefore an incredibly impressive feat to pull off such a polished book.

Eleanor Oliphant is a lonely young woman whose life consists of an office job during the week, and a weekend consuming vodka and pasta, and talking to nobody. She possesses zero social skills and is the brunt of jokes amongst her work colleagues. Once a week she is the subject of a conversation with her mother, in which she is put down, mocked and humiliated.

Early on in the story she becomes infatuated, from a distance, with a pub singer. She is convinced that their futures lie together and formulates a plan which she expects will lead to them becoming life partners. Where this book then becomes more interesting and insightful is in depicting the way in which, against her will almost, Eleanor is exposed to the warmer side of the Glasgow community in which she lives, a warmth that she has never before experienced. It also takes us into her mental state, the dark story behind her childhood, and the route to her salvation.

We have probably all met an Eleanor Oliphant in our lives, and probably been unkind towards her or at best ignored her. This book gives us pause to think about why people are the way they are, and how a kind word or invitation can make a huge difference to people who have rarely experienced them. If it has a weakness it is that perhaps the characters are a bit too black and white – either totally evil, or wonderfully warm and kind. But this does not detract from the power of the story. Highly recommended.

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019


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Book Review: What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and ResistanceWhat You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This brilliant book is Carolyn Forché’s memoir, concentrating on the time she spent in war-torn El Salvador in the late 1970s, and how, incredibly, she became involved with that country. Most people who have heard of Forché will have read her brilliant poem “The Colonel”, (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem…). This is not a book of poetry, it is the story of how a poet becomes active in the fight against a brutal military dictatorship, how she became a “poet of witness”.

I was pretty much unaware of the civil war in El Salvador until seeing the moving film Romero thirty years ago – it depicts the life and death of the charismatic Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8G27j…)

Forché was at home in her apartment in southern California, when a complete stranger, accompanied by his two daughters, knocks on her door, having driven from El Salvador specifically to meet her. At the time, Forché was “a one-book poet in her 20s”. The stranger, Leonel Gómez, turns out to be a cousin of a friend of Forché. He proceeds, over three days, to educate her on the history of central America, drawing stick figures and pencil maps on butchers paper on her dining table. Gómez tells her that a war as big as Vietnam is about to erupt in El Salvador, and that he wants her, as a poet, to witness and record the events. Amazingly, Forché agrees to go to El Salvador. This book is the story of what she witnessed.

Even at the end of the book, it is not 100% clear who Leonel Gómez is. He appears to have a foot in both the military and the guerrilla camps, whilst both sides suspect him of being a CIA agent. He deliberately cultivates uncertainty by being seen to spend time with ambassadors, politicians, churchmen, nuns, campesinos (the poor farmers struggling to survive under near starvation conditions) and members of the resistance. In turn, he encourages Forché to cultivate the same air of mystery as a means of discouraging attacks on her by the right wing death squads that roam El Salvador. What she does know is that Gómez is a coffee farmer, and a man determined to open her eyes to what is going on in front of her. Through Gómez she is able to meet officers in the highest levels of the military, to visit sites of massacres, to narrowly avoid being shot on several occasions, to spend time with the nuns, priests and hierarchy in the Catholic Church who are speaking up against the repression of the campesinos. As usual, the role of the U.S.A. in propping up the brutal right wing military regime as a bulwark against supposed communism, is central to the chaotic situation.

This is a gripping and moving memoir for anyone interested in the history of Central America, the terrible disruption caused by U.S.A. foreign policy and the role that poetry can play in bearing witness to awful events.

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Book Review: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Published in 2004, this has been on my “to read” list for some time and is well worth the wait. I know little about autism, but the author appears to provide a very credible insight into the mind of an autistic boy. The boy in question, Christopher, narrates the tale. The story opens with him finding a dog skewered by a garden fork. He decides to play detective in order to discover the murderer. So the story is part “who dunnit” but then develops into a vivid depiction of marriage breakdown, single parenthood, the challenges for parents and schools of interacting with autistic children, the challenges of being autistic and of being, at times, overwhelmed by the modern world. This sounds very dark, but there is a lot of wry humour here. Christopher is both lovable and infuriating. The story moves at a good pace, keeping the reader engaged right to the end. There are surprising twists and the occasional illustrations provide a further glimpse into the autistic mind. Recommended.

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Book Review: “Ordinary People” by Diana Evans

Ordinary PeopleOrdinary People by Diana Evans

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“Selected by the New Yorker, Financial Times and New Statesman as a Book of the Year’. Well this book annoyed me and I ploughed through nine of its fifteen chapters before saying “Oh sod it, I can’t be bothered”.

The book revolves around the relationship issues of two couples living in or near London at the time Obama became U.S.A President. The couples are African / American / West Indian, so the issue of race is a major one in the book. But mostly it’s about their deteriorating marriages. At first I was quite interested in the author’s insights into the things that can cause a long-term relationship to go cold. But my interest was not maintained.

For me the book fails on two levels. One is the excess of detail. Detail is good, detail is fine, but there are parts of this book where the detail adds zero to the story, zero to what you know about the characters and their situation, and just becomes tedious. The extended description of the perfume department in a store, the long sequence around the children’s play gym come to mind. The second is that there is just plain bad writing: excessively long sentences and bad grammar. Some of the descriptions seem like attempts to show off a wide vocabulary, but are just irritating:

“he always felt overly conspicuous yet circumferential in their multitudinous presence”.

“he would accentuate the smallness of her breastplate by laying his head against it” – she uses “breastplate” quite a bit. I kept thinking of Boadicea.

“… her shining teeth, her cream-coloured neck. She was virtually off the hizzle.” WTF is a hizzle? I googled it and the urban dictionary says it means ‘a house’ as in “Fo shizzle, get up out dis hizzle”. Makes sense? Not to me

“I want to make your zoom zoom go boom boom”. That’s one of Michael’s thoughts apparently.

I could go on. There are mixed metaphors aplenty e.g. “along a mental washing line leading towards a final eclipse”.

I’d expect a “book of the year” to be moderately well written. This is not. Very disappointing.

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Book Review: “Milkman” by Anna Burns

MilkmanMilkman by Anna Burns

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Milkman” was a Christmas present from my sister, who lives in Northern Ireland. It’s a perhaps contentious winner of the 2018 Booker Prize. It’s drawn a mixed critical reception and at least one friend has told me it’s “terrible”. Well, in one sense it is “terrible” in that it ingeniously gets inside the head of a young woman living through terrible times: The Troubles. I think I’m right in saying that no place names, and only one character name (Peggy) are used in the whole the book. We never learn the name of the main character. She is referred to as “third sister”. Other family members are Ma, Da, Wee Sisters, Eldest sister, third brother-in-law, Somebody McSomebody, maybe-boyfriend etc. Her persecutor, “Milkman” is not a real milkman, but there is another character called “real milkman”, also referred to under other names such as “the man who didn’t love anybody”. Belfast is not mentioned, but I’m assuming the action takes place in that city, where Anna Burns’ grew up. Places are referred to obtusely: top-end reservoir, the ten-minute area, most-popular-drinking club, the hutment.

What Burns does brilliantly is to capture the insularity, the suspicion, the distrust, the incestuousness of that city at that time. She shows how people shut down, conform, deny and are prepared to believe the worst of other people. In particular she shows how a woman can be intimidated by a stalker with little effort by the stalker himself. The menacing figure of the Milkman appears only a handful of times in the book, and yet looms over her as an ever-present threat, reinforced by the gossip and mean-spiritedness of the community. A woman who reads a book in public, a man who is interested in cooking, another man who collects pieces of British cars are all regarded with suspicion, as “beyond the pale”. Intimidation by armed men, whether Army or paramilitaries also pervades the community. Violent deaths and suicides are everyday events. Men believe they can bully women into submission. Women are drawn to violent men.

This is not necessarily an easy read, although there is a great deal of humour throughout. Perhaps it requires some knowledge of The Troubles to appreciate the achievement of portraying those times. But I think she has done it brilliantly.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019




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Book Review: “The Rules of Backyard Cricket” by Jock Serong

The Rules of Backyard CricketThe Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a terrific read, gripping from start to finish. It describes the rise and fall of brothers who become two of the leading Australian cricketers. Serong says that the characters are not based on real cricketers, but he writes with an insider’s authority. The events are almost completely believable apart from some unlikely twists that stretch credulity.

The main characters, Darren and Walley Keefe, could almost parallel the Waugh twins – one dour and professional, the other a maverick. Serong extends the differences in personalities for the Keefe brothers, one becoming more of a Shane Warne character and the other a seemingly dour Bradman.

The book takes us inside the cosseted world of the elite sportsmen – the hangers-on, the corruption, the drugs, the media circus, the betting – as well as the excitement of the brothers progress from child prodigies to national figures.

The writing is of a high standard. Each chapter commences with a short update of Darren’s current predicament and then goes chronologically through the series of events which led the brothers to their current impasse. There are well delineated supporting characters, which add colour and credibility to the story.

Recommended, especially if you are or were into cricket and like a rollicking thriller.

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Book Review: “Meet My Mother” by Louise Nicholas

Meet My MotherMeet My Mother by Louise Nicholas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Louise Nicholas is a much-loved and admired Adelaide based poet. This book, about her mother Dorothy, builds on the writing of her mother, and supplements it with Louise’s recollections of her relationship with her mother. There are poems by Louise about her mother, poetic letters which her mother wrote to her in Louise’s adult travelling years, and sections of prose providing a timeline through her mother’s life.

Louise describes her mother’s life, in a non-pejorative way, as ‘a little life’. Most of us indeed lead little lives, without achieving or experiencing anything world shattering, getting through life as best we can. This book shows that a little life can still be an incredibly rich life, where the day-to-day challenges of childhood, family and ageing are wrestled with. It is written with the gentle humour and accessibility which characterises Louise’s poetry. And in Dorothy’s poetic letters to Louise, one can detect the seeds of Louise’s poetic style – just one of the many gifts that her mother left her.

A lovely book.

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Book Review: “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

The Things They CarriedThe Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tim O’Brien was conscripted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam. This book is a series of vignettes, not claiming to be fact, which detail the life, the events, the state of mind of a soldier and his colleagues before, during and after the Vietnam war. It is completely engrossing, partly because it is incredibly well-written and partly because it gives such insight into the minds of the men he describes. The events cover the full gamut of what we now know happens in war – the brutality, the incredible endurance, the tenderness, the cruelty, the dehumanisation. Some of the most touching stories take place in the U.S.A. when the main character is only a child and falls in love, and later when he is grappling with the possibility of escaping to Canada and dodging the draft.

The stories stand alone, but together form a rich picture of one man’s incredible experiences, his fight with his conscience and his battle to retain his sanity. This is not a standard war memoir; this is a complex insight into the effect of war on ordinary men.

Highly, highly recommended.

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Book Review: “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy BartonMy Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A deceptively simple story of an author finding her writing identity whilst suffering a serious illness. During the illness she reconnects with her mother. The family had suffered extreme poverty and her father had been traumatised by his war experience.

The setting is America in the late 90s / early 2ooos. AIDS is taking its toll, the twin towers are about to be destroyed. Lucy Barton is in hospital for an undisclosed, serious illness. She details her relationship with her husband, flashes back to her childhood, has lengthy, entertaining reminiscences with her mother, who sits at the end of the hospital bed, refusing to ever sleep.

The episodes in writing workshops appealed to me, depicting some of the difficult characters who may be encountered at such events

Although the subject matter is intense, the short chapters and captivating writing style make this an enjoyable read. Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge” was serialised for TV and, for the most part, was captivating. This book will encourage you to read more of her work if you haven’t already.

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Book Review: “We are Not Ourselves”, Matthew Thomas

We Are Not OurselvesWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very moving, well-written story, especially considering this is his first novel. It tracks the life of a girl, Eileen Tumulty, growing up in an Irish family in New York and her subsequent adult married life. It is a story about early-onset Alzheimers. It is a story about the reactions of friends and family to the devastating diagnosis, of the challenges of continuing to try to live as normal a life as possible as the disease takes hold, of the struggles of negotiating the American health system, the difficulties of juggling job and carer responsibilities, the self-centredness of youth, the challenging relationship between parents and son. All of these things are woven into the timeline of the progressing illness.

The book is long: 101 chapters, though many of them are just a few pages long. However, I found it gripping from the start. The characters are well depicted, with empathy but without making them flawless. We see Eileen’s dedication and her tendency to be spendthrift. We see her husband Ed’s intelligence as well as his obsessive personality. We see their son’s slow realisation of how much his parents have done for him, after years of being an ingrate.

It is a terrific book about a difficult subject; a subject many of us worry about whenever we forget where we put the keys or can’t recall the name of a famous actor. Well worth reading.

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