Tag: book review

Review of Gail Honeyman’s ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’

by Guest Reviewer, and author of ‘Helios Sphere‘, Eleanor Duvivier

It has been a long time since I’ve felt compelled to write down my thoughts about a book.

Eleanor and I (also called Eleanor) connected.  We went on an adventure together through the ink and the turn of the page.  I should have known, it’s not often you come across a heroine called Eleanor.  Eleanor is not a conventional heroine and at times it’s hard to see her as a heroine at all.  In fact, at first I felt sure that she would be revealed as a psychopath.  This balance on the line of character profiles is truly intriguing.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is about a woman who thinks she is fine and is quite happy plodding along in that bubble until events start happening at her which makes her realise that she really isn’t fine at all.  For those, like me, with mental health issues that would worry about reading due to the last bit please don’t worry.  The author is empathetic and it isn’t used as a plot twist and moved on without proper appreciation and treatment.  Eleanor’s moving on is given such care and attention that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

Gail Honeyman, author (image from Goodreads)

Despite the book being about Eleanor there is a network of solid characters in this novel.  Eleanor learns to converse with people, make friends and care for others as well as herself.  It is a story about how Eleanor loves herself to love others.  This in itself is unconventional. It isn’t necessarily a story about Eleanor falling in love with a specific person although one could be fooled to think that at first.  When you struggle you know the first step is self-love and acceptance.  We can’t give from an empty cup after all.

What resonated with me was that Eleanor has scars on the same side of her face as I do mine due to a fire.  I shan’t say why Eleanor’s fire started.  When I was in primary school camping with Mum we got caught up in a tent fire and the end result was we were hospitalised with scars that we would share for life.  My flowery dress got caught upon the tent pole and my Mum had to tear melting tent apart with her hand to free me. 

For years I was bullied for surviving and called all manner of things for having scars.  Early on the scars were rigid and pink like mountains across my dark skin, in time they have paled.  It is small reactions that Eleanor does: showing the best side of her face, fearing the hairdresser, fearing the wielder of the makeup brush, not feeling perfect and being afraid of perfection.  These truly resonate with me.  There is a way that you act when you have scars that you hope no one notices.

It was the first book in a long time that I have laughed, cried, contemplated my own life, stayed up late to finish, oo’d, ahh’d and genuinely annoyed the other people around me about whilst reading.  I will read it again once I have time, just so that I can digest it all.

£20 note!

Since I started post-Uni summer I’ve been catching up with my reading list.  I’ve got books from three Christmases ago that I need to get round to.  This treat was the first on the list and in it I found a twenty pound note from my Mum – thanks Mum!  That’s what I get for taking so long to get round to a book, eh?  A little surprise in the pages. 

When you’ve been reading extracts of books and Uni reading for what feels like forever getting stuck into a book for pleasure was a real gift.  It was difficult to avoid spoilers during my Creative Writing MA as everyone was starting threads about it and was reading it that winter.  I can see why they were so obsessed.  This book was a gift in itself, had a gift in it, and was given as a gift. 

#eleanorduvivier, #heliossphere, #eleanoroliphant, #scottmartinproductions, #lesleyatherton, #review, #bookreview

Review of ‘The Last Runaway’ by Tracy Chevalier

‘The Last Runaway’ was written in 2013 and was selected for me to read by my teenage daughter. She was hovering around the historical fiction shelf, which is usually the least likely location for my own hoverings, and she emerged with this book through an entirely random choice. Our guinea pig was also rather taken by it, as he ate a few inches of its cover when I put it down on the sofa to make a trip to the kitchen.

Anyway, the story’s a good and powerful one. In the year 1850, Honor agrees to accompany her sister on a one-way trip from England to America. Grace dies before she meets up with her betrothed – the marriage being their reason for travel. But she feels as if she can’t return to England, and instead continues her journey and moves in with her sister’s intended. Her own intended, back in England had broken off their relationship to marry outside their shared Quaker faith.

Though life in American isn’t easy for Honor, she meets new people, lives a good life and eventually meets the man she will marry, farmer Jack Haymaker. An article on the Publishers Weekly website summarises as follows: ‘They marry and Honor, drawn by her sympathies into helping the Underground Railroad, is forced to choose between living her beliefs and merely speaking them. The birth of her own child raises the stakes, and she takes a unique stand in her untenable situation. Honor’s aching loneliness, overwhelming kindness, and stubborn convictions are beautifully rendered, as are the complexities of all the supporting characters and the vastness of the harsh landscape. Honor’s quiet determination provides a stark contrast to the roiling emotions of the slave issue, the abolitionist fight, and the often personal consequences. Chevalier’s thought-provoking, lyrical novel doesn’t allow any of her characters an easy way out’. I’ve quoted that in its entirety as it basically covers the entire plot of the book without giving too much away.

What I will say is that ‘The Last Runaway’ won the Ohioana Book Award and was in the Richard and Judy Book Club, autumn 2013. Though it isn’t Chevalier’s most well-known novel (that honour goes to ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’ which was made into a film with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson) it is certainly popular and well-respected, even amongst other writers. For instance, on Amazon, Rose Tremain says ‘I have always admired Tracy Chevalier’s un-showy brilliance, and this moving story of a young English Quaker girl trapped between duty and conscience in 1850s Ohio is the best thing she’s written since Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, which can be quite difficult in a book review. So, I had a look on Tracy Chevalier’s website instead and found some really interesting points of reference for reading groups – about the constant sense of movement (from the Underground Slave Railroad), and the feeling that home is not a permanent place, about survival and the importance of silence,  about relationships outside the Quaker community, about the horrors of Honor’s journey and her history, about the differences between the UK and the US and how they are reflected within their patchwork styles, and about dealing with  both loss and hope.

Chevalier’s website also shows us how deeply she was emerged in the world she’d extracted for Honor. She learned to make a quilt in the traditional Quaker style that Honor would have used, and she also undertook masses of research about the town, Oberlin, which was an important stop on the runaway slave escape network – the Underground Railroad, which enabled slaves to move from the south to the safer north.

The story is sensitively written and descriptive, but not boring and self-congratulatory as is often the case with historical novels.  Honor is an interesting and complex character who is living in an equally interesting and complex time of US history. I don’t like historical fiction, but I did like this book very much.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, but also to those who don’t. The story is of social expectations, rebellion, love and frustration, and these are universal themes, no matter what your religion or your time of living.

Interview with Lesley Atherton about her book, ‘Past Present Tense’

Interview with Lesley Atherton re: ‘Past Present Tense’

A: This book is about hoarding and nastiness as well as being about family and relationships. It’s an obvious question, but why on earth would anyone want to write (or read) about hoarding?!

L: Well, it’s down to my own personality really. I’m a natural acquirer of unnecessary items but have always managed to stop short of becoming a hoarder. I’m more of a clutterer. Give me a wall and I will put things on it.
Give me a shelf and I’ll fill it. I wish I wasn’t like this, but I am.
Waste Not, Want Not. Make Do and Mend.
So this led me to begin watching programmes about hoarding and getting some deep compassion and understanding of the sufferers as well as those who must live with a mess not of their making.

The main character of ‘Past Present Tense’ is Tanya, who discovers that the dad she thought was dead is actually alive, and is buried under his own clutter in his own hoarded house. I was able to put myself in her position. I was able to also put myself in his position. I hope that’s come over in the writing. There is so much misunderstanding of the reasons behind hoarding. I know that one of the fallacies is that the people just need to get up off their bums and start to clean.

But for the majority of hoarders, it isn’t laziness that causes the collections and clutter, it is more a feeling of connection to the items, and to the memories and feelings those items hold. There are elements of anthropomorphism too. Hoarders don’t just feel responsible for the items they own, but also feel compassionate towards them and often their relationships with the objects are more meaningful than many of the relationships they have with other humans.

Like I say, I’m not a hoarder, but I do understand where the hoarding motivation comes from. I currently own 76 musical instruments. I play only 3 of them regularly, and play none of them daily. Why do I not sell them? Because I like them and enjoy the ownership of them. I like them to be there when I’m ready for them. And there are so many other reasons too: creativity, appreciation of beauty, appreciation of usefulness, and the desire to be able to entertain myself!

I know I’ll never be a minimalist. Blank spaces irritate me. But I really do need to have far less stuff. I hoped that writing about hoarding in this way might interest those people who live with hoarding, either their own or that of others.

A: Is the writing based on the work of anyone else in particular?

L: No. Just me, though one of my reviewers felt that the inner dialogues of the early chapters were reminiscent of Sartre’s ‘Nausea’. It’s odd really, but in recent years my reading has definitely taken back place to my writing. On the plus side, it means I’m not overly influenced by new books I’m reading, but on the negative side, I’m also behind the times. But that works for me. I don’t mind being retro. I can’t imagine being anything else.

A: That’s your personality?

L: It is. I don’t really do trends. I am who I am.

A: I understand you’re working on another book at the moment.

L: Yes, I’m finishing the manuscript for my novel, ‘The Waggon’. It requires completion before September 2019 as I will be submitting it as the final assessment for my Masters Degree in Creative Writing. It’s currently at the 65,000 word stage, but there’s quite a way still to go. After that, I’m going to be starting on a book about teenage Aspergers, and will continue with my publication of other peoples’ work through Scott Martin Productions. I have a few ideas for novelettes and many ideas for short stories, and will also be working on my blog.

A: You’re unstoppable. Do you still have time to attend writing groups?

L: I do. Currently I go to two weekly groups, and two monthly groups. I also attend two monthly reading groups. Why do you ask?

A: I was just wondering if you still find them of use, now you’re published and have more writing experience. Isn’t it something you grow out of as time goes on and you know what you’re doing?

L: In my case, no. My Tuesday group, in particular, is like family. I don’t know what I’d do without them
socially, and they give me great confidence creatively too. My advice to anyone who wants to write, is to
engage with other interested souls online and in person. Once you get over the first feelings of fear at
sharing your work, it really is liberating!

A: I can see that. Thanks so much for answering my questions!

L: Thanks. It’s been fun 🙂

‘Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play’ by Mark Forster

I love books like this. They basically buy into what I’ve always felt – that work and play are seriously allied. Work is best when seen as a form of play, and play benefits from being taken as seriously as work. It is all about getting a balance. The book recommends we all increase our ‘depth’ activities such as walking, yoga and reading, but mainly it is about useful activity.
As is the case with many of these books, much of the advice seems logical – like decide on one thing you’ll do the next day (work or leisure related) without fail. Or start small with organisation and become a little more demanding with yourself day by day, pushing yourself only to your maximum capacity.
One of the statements that really resonated with me was that you can’t manage time (because time just ‘is’) but that you can manage what you give attention to. It is easy to be busy without achieving much – because you’ve been taken over by trivia. We need to know the big picture and where we want to be. This way, we don’t avoid trivia and stress, we just deal with them in a focused way.
What I took away from this book was the importance of dealing with your own resistance to the big, scary, important tasks. I know that I can spend happy hours on paperwork, but when it comes to something more scary, I always feel like I need a clean desk before I can even approach it. Hence important stuff does not get done with the priority it deserves.   
Real effectiveness depends on the ability to cut through to what really matters and to concentrate on that. I know this, because the alternative is unthinkable…
When you follow the disorganised path of least resistance, the way you live your life is almost completely the result of outward stimuli – connected with other peoples’ disapproval and expectations. But if you overcome resistance and take action before resistance builds up, if you break large tasks into smaller ones and increase the pains of not doing the task, resistance is more pointless. You need to get resistance working for you by setting up good routines and as much automation as possible.
Say NO, in order to make space in your life for new projects. You need to focus on the right things – not the insignificant busy-making tasks which take attention from the bigger picture.  The author recommends you cost out the activities you deploy your attention on. Split things into must do, should do and could do, and do the ‘musts’ first! Start a daunting project TODAY. Do the thing you fear most first, and this just makes everything else seem relatively easy. We will only change something if the pain of doing it is greater than the pain of changing.
Free-flowing tasks which don’t have time scale are often those for which we have the most resistance. Natural inertia prevents us from starting, but it is also what keeps us going thereafter. The best antidote for fear is action.
When you use resistance as a guide and a motivator, what is important gets actioned first, days become easier, anxiety and tension are dispersed, procrastination is eliminated, real work gets done, ‘busy’ work withers away, concentration is maintained, and crises are prevented. If you don’t use this as a guide, the entire opposite happens.
I took a lot from this book the first time I read it. I still listen to the advice now.
Resistance is FUTILE!

‘Past Present Tense’ – Brilliant Review Comments

“Good pace. Takes its time to reflect in intriguing fashion.”

“May not suit readers of the ‘Wham Bam’ genres. Will suit readers wanting more depth and more 3D characterisation. A lot of interior verbalisation and feeling.”

“Motifs ; Sartrean existential angst. No way to anticipate direction of story because of unpredictability of players.”

“Fear, insecurity. anxiety. loneliness v aloneness. strong but vulnerable characters causing conflict within and outwardly.”

“House belonging to Edward, another ‘character’ in its own right, reflects mental turmoil and needs at the time. For father it is an anchor to a wavering reality. It is a symbolic order (in a Kristevian sense ) but a symbolic disorder. Abject. Revolt. Chaotic thoughts and action or non-action.”

“Search by all characters for Home or sanctuary. For the villian, Craig, his is violent efforts to control or he is lost at sea.”

“Action is woven into interior monologues. In the case of Craig it is difficult to detect any residual charm that had first won Natalie but his violence paradoxically shows weakness.”

“Concept of Home = Concept of identity. Gregarious human need v Need for individual creativity and protection of one’s integrity.”

“Finally there is an acceptance and value of valuable pluralist connections, choices and ideas.” 

‘Get Rich Blogging’ (by Zoe Griffin from ‘Live Like a VIP’)

‘Get Rich Blogging’ by Zoe Griffin is a chunky paperback book by a Sunday Mirror former showbiz gossip columnist which is touted as the only thing you need (apart from a laptop and an internet connection) to blog your way to wealth. Zoe’s blog, ‘Live like A VIP’ is clearly based on lifestyle tips and superficial celebrity chat. These kinds of celebrity sites do absolutely nothing for me, but apparently they sell.

The book begins with a summary of what Zoe wishes she’d known before she began. Quite early on it became clear that the book wasn’t going to give me what I thought I needed. I’ve never been much of a fan of PR and marketing, even when I’ve really needed to do it. But I LOVE writing and that is why I blog. But, according to this book, it is only possible to make any kind of income from your blog if you include a LOT of advertising and follow some fairly rigorous rules. It also seems to indicate that the only reason for blogging is to make huge wads of cash. Of course, I should have guessed from the book’s title. Durrrr.
 
But this is what gets me down, as does the fact that the blogs the author focuses on are those which mirror her own interests. The final third of the book comprises of sections on different types of blog: fashion, beauty, parenting, technology and business, food and drink, and film, music and celebrities. Of course, this is necessarily reductionist but it was also irritating. What about those who review and test power tools or kids’ toys or those that talk about literature or sport or walking routes?
 
Having said all this, if you were to replace the word ‘blog’ with ‘website’ or ‘business’ then a lot of the advice would be equally valid – and there is quite a lot of decent advice in there. I learnt a lot that I didn’t even think I wanted to know.   
 
I picked up the book, wanting to read about good writing, but what you get in this book is marketing, advertising, engagement and advice on selling yourself. Zoe talks about how it is important to update, to index and to ensure your new posts generally feature at the top of the page. She talks about how important it is to create something readable, with wow elements, how to promote other bloggers so they will reciprocate, and how to look for indirect revenue through collaboration, public appearances etc. She goes into flagship content, consistency, style and so much more.
 
In general, the advice is good, for example, how it is important to know what to blog about, in the same way as businesses have to know their target customers and how to satisfy their needs. Also it’s important (but kind of common sense) to know that if you blog on a subject you love and other people care about, it has far more chance of growing. With this in mind, the book gives readers exercises to work out what they care about then asks them the questions: 1) Can you contribute anything unique? 2) Will anyone care in 12 months? And 3) Can I start conversations about my blog?
 
Though I found it disappointing to read that you MUST have ads on a site to make money from a blog, I was not at all surprised. And much of the other stuff was self evident. Unfortunately when I am confronted with something so prescriptive I always want to rebel. I don’t want to write about things that celebrity-loving people want to read. I want to write what I want to write, and hope that someone interested eventually comes along.  
 
I’m not in this for the money. I’m in this for the fun(ny).
 
With the knowledge that this was definitely where I was going wrong, I closed the book, sighed, and prepared for a big rethink! Perhaps the book didn’t give me what I thought I needed, but instead gave me a way to change and see how things could be if I tried a different angle. I may or may not do anything about this, but – like I said – BIG RETHINK!

‘Light Reading vol 2’ (by Peter McGeehan)


I have heard Peter McGeehan read his work in person on a great many occasions, and his touching and humorous short stories are always worth hearing, especially when read by the man himself.

As you’d expect from Peter’s work, there’s an easy balance to the tales in ‘Light Reading 2’ – from the poignant sensitivity of ‘Ode to the Poor’ to the self-deprecating humour of ‘Knight on the Train’ (the story that kicks off ‘Light Reading 2’). The balance comes from Peter having got the mix right in the variety of styles, the variety of genres, and the variety of emotional states he transports us to. We have his unexpected poetic bent in ‘Celtic Woman Perform Fields of Gold’ and the crazy-beautiful world of ‘Where there’s a Will, there’s a Way’ – in which revenge comes unknowingly and in an unexpected manner.

There’s a lot to this little book – badger stories, a spider story, a dream story, 100-word stories, the suffering of a witch, God meeting the devil and even six traffic light stories (in which the original concept goes off in six different directions).

I’ve always found Peter McGeehan’s writing to be engaging, and the contents of this book are no exception as Peter picks up on some interesting scenarios – the humour of talking sandals, a firing squad action taking place just five hours before the end of World War 1, homophobia, and an elderly gentleman being directed round in circles when his bin goes missing – to name just a few.

Though Peter’s humour and down-to-earth writing are the backbone of the book, I was surprised to discover the unexpected poetry and descriptive glories of some of the work within. Consider this quote from ‘Rain Forest’ – “Cold air attacks the valley, drawing a new veil of mist over the trees. One orchestra is replaced by another, the symphony of night”. Wonderful.

This is a lovely, gentle and thought-provoking book. Good on you, Peter.