Category Archives: Contemporary Fiction

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant has created her own little world where each day is like any other with minimal variations except the weekends where she drinks enough vodka to remain in a stupor until it’s time to go back to work on Monday. Highly intelligent, she views the world from a particular point of view, judging the actions and behaviors of others, usually finding them lacking. A Type A personality to the extreme, her black or white perspective “colors” her approach to any given task, leaving her questioning the random actions of those she encounters in her daily activities. It is no wonder she remains alone, shrugging off the stares of her perplexed coworkers while toiling away at the low paying job she has held since her youth. Then one day Eleanor falls in love and realizes that she must try to “fit in” to establish a relationship. On her quest to acquire the appropriate accoutrements, she suddenly enters a new realm helped along by a randomly based relationship with a coworker who befriends her after they witness a tragic event and find themselves assisting an elderly gentleman in need of their care. This leads to a series of possibilities which might just change the entire demeanor of the stilted Eleanor (or not).

Ultimately, it’s the humor which raises this book to the next level. First time author, Gail Honeyman, has hit a home run in her debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. At times Eleanor’s thoughts mirror those of our own – “That much for a purse which is too small to hold anything but a tissue?” or “Another gift collection for another coworker on another special occasion?”. Her quirkiness makes her despicable characteristics somehow endearing and we start to root for her success, even though we all know she’s doomed to fail. And yet, . . . .

The author has the rare talent of forcing the reader to become emotionally involved, making us hope that somewhere out there is a life for Eleanor which is somewhat better than fine. Then when we think we have everything figured out, there’s a twist which changes our whole perspective. Kudos.

Now our only question to consider is who will play Eleanor in the upcoming movie and will they change the locale from Glasgow, Scotland to somewhere in the United States?

Five stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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The Next Person You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom

In today’s paper there is an article about a young couple who were recently married and killed in a freak roll over car accident on their way to their honeymoon. While there are many such incidents throughout the United States, what makes this one especially tragic is that these were two young people at the pinnacle of their happiness. Nothing is as sacrosanct as a bride and groom. I am silently sending my condolences to their families in this most grievous loss of life.

Perhaps that’s why Mitch Albom used a wedding to start off his newest novel, The Next Person You Meet in Heaven, a sequel to a book by a similar title published in 2003. My first reaction was “Oh, no! Not on their wedding day!” since obviously in order to have a tete a tete in heaven, you must be recently deceased. Albom takes us through that happy time and the series of events which followed sending both lovebirds to the hospital where extraordinary measures are necessary to perhaps preserve a life or two.

Then we are in heaven as the former spouse, sans honeymoon, meets the five individuals who most strongly influenced their past. Through the details revealed in their interchanges we get the backstory which led to this fateful day. Back in real time, we discover what happened to those impacted by the couple whose lives had taken such a tragic turn.

I have a copy of The Five People You Meet in Heaven sitting unread on my bookshelf (my brother gave it to me as a Christmas present, at my request, shortly after it was published). While it was obvious that this book was a sequel, with some common characters to both novels, you don’t need to read the first to understand the second. The language is simple, slowly revealing some reinterpretations of an earthly past which changes the viewpoints of everybody involved, including the reader. While one person might personally take offense at actions (or inactions) from various situations, when secrets are shared both discover that there are perfectly plausible explanations for everything. As understanding dawns, peace can be found, and what better place than heaven to achieve this “life” changing miracle. As the song says “Was blind, but now I see!”.

While Albom shares the Grace of God through his words, the story, almost a fairy tale, seems contrived. At times I want to shake the characters in frustration at their stupidity, or I wonder at the dynamics of some of the situations – “Now, really?” I also felt like Albom was being condescending, forcing us to learn a lesson which we might not want to hear. Yet, there were some interesting aspects to the story with several outlooks we might not have considered on our own. Ultimately, I anticipated the outcome and was grateful I guessed correctly since, despite the tragedy, I was able to leave with a good feeling deep in my soul. What more could you ask about a book with the word “heaven” in the title?

Three stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

If you didn’t notice the author of your most current read, it wouldn’t take long before you realized Clock Dance is an Anne Tyler book. Her stories always deal with the nitty gritty of life, focusing on flawed characters who both triumph and fail in their struggles, full of angst with a touch of humor thrown in to keep it interesting.

Willa Drake is a reactionary, not a rebel, but someone used to reacting to any given situation, trying to smooth out the cracks which get in the way of moving forward. First there’s her mom – a difficult woman (probably manic depressive) with wild mood swings who blows up at her family for relatively minor reasons, disappearing until her disposition changes. At one point when it looks like her mom is gone for good, the eleven year old Willa imagines successfully stepping up and filling the void to keep the family intact. This opportunity is over before it really begins, and the hinted abusive relationship continues, with Willa’s father constantly doing the “repaving” necessary to maintain a somewhat placid home life despite the strife. While Willa is able to adapt, her younger sister’s reaction is more rebellious, causing a rift between siblings which is never quite healed. Jump forward in time to Willa’s Junior Year in college, when she and her boyfriend, Dexter, are meeting her parents over the Easter break. We quickly discover that Dexter is domineering, firmly cajoling Willa down the path which is most beneficial to his needs, not hers. Ironically it’s Willa’s mother who calls him out on his selfishness, but the confrontation just pushes Willa farther along into a relationship which leads to more of the same – going along to get along – even if it means forgoing her own dreams. Once again, as a wife and mother, she finds herself placating husband and sons to keep the peace. Fast forward to 2017, with second husband Peter, a “retired” lawyer a bit older than 61 year old Willa (who he deferentially calls “little one”). I’ll let you guess the dynamics of their relationship.

Here is where the story gets interesting. Not particularly close to her two unmarried sons, Willa gets an unexpected phone call which sends her on a mission to Baltimore to assist her oldest boy’s former girlfriend who is in the hospital. Accompanied by a misgiving Peter, she goes to the rescue of this stranger who needs her help in caring for her precocious nine year old daughter, Cheryl (no relationship to her son). Kind of a convoluted mission, but one which just seems right. Finally we are able to see Willa crawl out from the shadow of others, possibly learning how to stand on her own two feet.

A marvelous character study of a wimpy pushover who we hope finds the inner strength to become her own person with an entire cast of quirky characters lending a hand in defining this journey. Tyler brings us back to her beloved Baltimore, as Willa, a somewhat petrified driver, learns how to navigate the streets as she chauffeurs her charges throughout the town. While this is a quick, simple tale, there is a lot of symbolism lurking throughout the narrative which will provide fodder for book club discussions.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

I was happy with this simple, but witty little story of three Australian families. The first wife is struggling with her unfaithful husband, well, not quite unfaithful yet, but thinking about it. It’s who he’s been playing mind games with that has her completely in a dither, so it’s off to Mummy’s with her little boy to sort things out. Then there’s the widow who has never gotten over the tragic death of her teenage daughter. She’s the school secretary who everybody pussyfoots around in deference to her sensibilities. Finally there’s the -oh so perfect wife – who isn’t quite sure how or why she and her husband haven’t done the deed in like forever, or at least six months. Is she losing her appeal? After all, she’s given birth to three daughters who command a lot of her attention and he does travel a lot. Then she finds “the letter”!

These minor crisis were enough to keep my interest, but then, bang, half way through The Husband’s Secret, author Liane Moriarty pulls her first twist and my attention notches up a level or two. Of course, I expected this, after all, twists are this author’s trademark, and I remained open for the next surprise which braided these three lives together. While there is a satisfying resolution, this is not a happily ever after tale, just as life itself isn’t without its complications due to the numerous minute choices we make. An epilogue gives us the “what ifs” that we each can’t but wonder about our own lives.

An engaging, well written novel (even though I listened to the audio version, expertly performed by Caroline Lee who has read other books by this author). My only complaint is that I didn’t get to this book sooner.

Five Stars

The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve

It happens! Not very often, but often enough. A plane crashes! Sometimes in your own “back yard”! I remember that midwinter’s night about nine years ago, bitterly cold and clear, when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence, NY, not even ten miles from my house, even closer to the Buffalo International Airport. Everyone knew someone affected, such as the cantor at the synagogue up the street, the wife of a professor at UB who was teaching a class I was taking at the Teacher Center on Asian Culture. We were discussing the Great Wall of China and I said that was on my bucket list, “what’s that,” he asked; awkwardly I realized my mistake as I explained the term, knowing it was too late for his wife to make such requests.

Pilot error! I thought about the pilots who didn’t realize how quickly those wings would ice up on a Buffalo winter’s evening or how important that they maintain control and not rely on the autopilot so as to avoid the danger of a stall. I thought of their families, their spouses and parents, their friends, and how they all suffered along with those of the other 47 on board (plus the older gentleman in the home where they crashed) on that fateful night just minutes from landing safely.

So when I picked up The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve, I was reading a scenario I had already mentally examined, yet living it through the eyes of fictional character Kathryn Lyons, whose husband was accused of committing suicide at the expense of the 103 passengers and crew on board the Heathrow to Boston flight. This is a heart wrenching tale, pulling the reader into the roller coaster of emotions which result from such a tragedy. Through a flashback of thoughts we are given the details of what appears to be the perfect marriage, yet there are little hints that something was somehow a little off kilter, just mildly, but in retrospect significant. In this way Kathryn starts to piece together the truth with the support of union rep Robert Hart who helps her navigate past the disruptions of the questioning reporters, the investigators from the Safety Board, and even the FBI, as well as assist her in creating enough semblance of normalcy to provide closure through a memorial service and the upcoming Christmas holidays. Kathryn can’t completely fall apart because she has her fifteen year old daughter Mattie to care for, although her grandmother Julie is there for support, just as she was when Kathryn’s parents tragically died.

Well written, full of angst despite some tender moments, and, while not altogether unexpected, there are a few twists and turns in the story that propels us through to the end. Paying attention to the little details might provide enough clues to answer some of the questions left after reading the open ended conclusion, especially since Shreve doesn’t let the plot drag on, but keeps it going just long enough to get the job done.

I would be remiss in not examining the life of the author, Anita Shreve, who died this past August at the age of 71 from a reoccurrence of breast cancer. Shreve, who grew up in Boston but spent her summers in Maine, believed that the focal point of any story should be the family home -“a house with any kind of age has dozens of stories to tell”. The particular residence in The Pilot’s Wife was an 1890s white-clapboard house with a mansard roof located on the coast of southern Maine reminiscent of the place where the author spent her summer vacations. Her love of this childhood spot extended to the sea, a setting which becomes like an additional character in the narrative. When Shreve overheard a conversation about a plane crash, she thought of her father, who was an airplane pilot, and couldn’t help imagining how she would feel if she were the pilot’s wife. That lead to this novel as well as the 2002 screenplay she wrote for the made for television movie.

Jack kept a lot of secrets from his wife, and ironically Shreve also had her share of secrets. Her husband Osborne, a childhood sweetheart she reconnected with in later years, confessed that she was so quiet about her personal life that even he didn’t know the names of two of her former three husbands. Perhaps the need for intimacy is why the author preferred to write her stories in longhand, feeling that it brought her closer to the subject matter than the use of an electronic device.

Her last book, The Stars Are Fire, which I recently read, takes place in the same relative locale in Maine with a vintage house and the sea also playing a major role in that story’s development. It is sad that there will be no further endeavors by this particular author whose name was thrust on to the public’s radar when The Pilot’s Wife was chosen for the Oprah Book Club in 1999.

A compelling read. Four stars.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

What makes Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson so special is not the story, although the plot is full of subtle wit and unforseeable plot twists, but the rich and quirky characterizations of the personalities living in the small town outside London, England.

At first Major Pettigrew seems kind of opinionated and stuffy, but his relationship with Mrs. Allie, the shop keeper of Pakistanee descent, softens his attitude, and making him endearing to the reader. We find ourselves rooting for the Major as he attempts to surreptitiously woo the widow while remaining a perfect gentleman.

To make the enjoyment even more complete, add in a couple of obnoxious, money grubbing in laws, a son who pursues prestige over tradition, a Lord willing to sell out the entire village in order to maintain his decadent lifestyle, a crass, egocentric American Industrialist whose annoying behavior threatens to ruin every gathering he attends, and a woman’s group who between gossiping sessions run many of the social events expounded upon in the novel.

In short, the Major finds himself having difficulty dealing with the death of his brother and Mrs. Allie, the local shop keeper, who happens to be in the right place at the right time, is able to comfort the man. There is a spark between the two and as they both deal with their own personal challenges involving the embarrassing indiscretions of various family members, they find a moments relief and even joy in each other’s company.

A major focal point in the tale is the story of the two matched rifles, Churchills, which were presented to the Major’s grandfather by an Indian Maharaja, as a reward for protecting his daughter from harm by some rebels. While the Major expected to inherit the pair, his father gave one to his brother with the expectation the two would be reunited upon one of their deaths. No such stipulation was written into the will and much to his horror, his sister in law is mentally spending the money to be earned by selling the family heirloom(s). The Churchills seem to drive the plot forward, somehow relating to the various interactions of the characters throughout the plot.

While there is a bit of action, along with a few plot twists, most of the story focuses upon the life of the Major as he pursues his interests (such as plotting the ways he can keep both Churchills) while trying to advance his relationship with the alluring Mrs. Allee. His clever, deprecating remarks to the questionable comments of his fellow townspeople result in numerous laugh out loud moments, a personal barometer of a book destined to be a favorite. The contentious relationship between father and son also inexplicably brings a smile to my face as despite their different viewpoints on life, they reluctantly share a love which goes beyond kinship. Kudos to Simonson for a superb debut novel as well as to Peter Altschuler who was the spectacular reader of the audiotape.

My five star rating shouldn’t be a surprise and I hope the movie version lives up to the cleverness of the author’s original text.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Days When Birds Come Back by Deborah Reed

Instant attraction! An overwhelming emotion which keeps cluttering the mind with questions such as “what should I say”, “should I do this”, “will I see them today”, “did I make a fool of myself”, etc. This unrequited obsession goes on and on, even if the other person is oblivious to the emotions they provoke, even if the words are never spoken or feelings ever revealed. Yet, there is a palpable connection which the reader can feel without any graphic sexual content. It’s the unspoken romance which keeps us engaged.

That’s how it us between June and Jameson in The Days When Birds Come Back by Deborah Reed, two lost souls whose past hurts have overwhelmed their lives, destroying relationships and making day to day interactions almost intolerable. Two souls caught up in the solace found in nature who are finally able to reveal their innermost traumas to each other without fear of judgement, because of a basic understanding of having been there in one form or another.

A romance of a simple touch or smile, or even a post card – but it’s enough.

June who formerly found relief at the bottom of a bottle turns to her “seven comforts, none of which were a drink”. Finding herself back home in rural Oregon by the coast where it all started, she needs someone to renovate her grandparents next door cottage so she can sell it. Enter Jameson (same as the whiskey) who is also returning to the “scene of the crime”, but he finds peace in this home where he now lives while he works, appreciating the ambience of the surrounding wildlife. June, just an eyesight away, keeps her distance, yet there is a nonverbal communication even before they find their commonality. In spite of their new found affinity, Jameson has a wife, Sarah Anne, waiting for him seven hours away back home with their new foster son. June’s ex is in Australia, sent away while she was in a drunken rage. And so the summer goes, from June to September as the house takes shape and it’s time to move on.

Told through introspections interspersed with dialogue we discover the secrets haunting the two thirty five year olds who have somehow found a way to share the formerly closeted details of their damaged lives. There’s no telling here, just a gentle leaning towards the truth. Not for those who like a narrative to explain what’s happening, in this one the reader must glean the facts and come to their own conclusions.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

And one more thing, I’ve included a poem by Emily Dickinson with a similar title for your perusal. If you think the two are related, fine, if not, enjoy anyway:

These are the Days When Birds Come Back
By Emily Dickinson

These are the days when Birds come back—
A very few—a Bird or two—
To take a backward look.

These are the days when skies resume
The old—old sophestries of June—
A blue and gold mistake.

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee—
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear—
And softly thro’ the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.

Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze—
Permit a child to join.

Thy sacred emblems to partake—
They consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!