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Gail Honeyman – Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

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Absolutely… positively… really…

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 381
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-17211-4
First Published: 9th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 4th February 2019
Rating: 5/5

Eleanor’s life is orderly, if dull – breakfast, work, dinner, The Archers or television, and bed – but it works. She’s been through a lot but now has her own place to live, and apart from the irritating visits from the social workers who gawp at her when she speaks about her history, and the co-workers who joke behind her back, she reckons life is okay. She has her dependable clothes and her shopper bag/trolley, her plant from her childhood, and her mismatched furniture. But when at a concert she ‘recognises’ the singer as the man she’ll spend her life with; she also meets a new co-worker who takes a genuine interest in her, which is difficult for Eleanor to accept because he dresses far too casually and smokes. Life is about to fall away from its schedule and potentially become a lot better, and Eleanor’s not used to that at all.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a book about the effects on adulthood of childhood trauma and a lack of support.

This is an incredibly well-told story. It offers both a first-hand source (if fictional) and a lot of sub-textual information for the reader about what it’s like to be apart from society for reasons that the person in question has had no control over. It offers a glimpse of how ‘othering’ such situations can be, and requests more emphatic assessments of the wider, factual, world.

Honeyman’s book is powerful, showing all the different factors of Eleanor’s life – the upbringing via memories and impact, the here and now, the pitiful ‘support’ she receives. However it is in the plotting itself and the ‘showing’ in the larger sense – show not tell – that the book is so effective. Through the use of the first-person narrative and never wavering from displaying all the socially awkwardness, ignorance, and learned-intolerance that Eleanor has, you get a complete picture of everything – why Eleanor is as she is, how others react and why. (Eleanor describes people’s reactions to what she says, enabling you to see and fully understand what’s happening even when she doesn’t – which is the usual situation.) Honeyman does all this slowly; never losing sight of the fact a novel should provide entertainment of some sort, she ekes out the story itself whilst being bit swifter when it comes to describing who Eleanor is; even if you get a solid idea early on as to what’s happened, not everything is provided until the end, which leaves Honeyman able to show Eleanor’s progression towards healing and remembering exactly why she was put into care.

Of the foster care and children’s homes of Eleanor’s past, Honeyman is blunt, detailing situations that would still warrant question, such as a child being moved on because her grief and trauma manifested in ways that people couldn’t – or wouldn’t – handle. Honeyman does not analyse the receptions the young Eleanor received, instead her focus is on how an unstable home life continue to impact her. Of the support the character receives in adulthood, Honeyman states clearly in subtext: not good enough. Eleanor’s been given a flat, filled with second-hand, often inappropriate, furniture. She found her own job. The social workers don’t actually do anything beyond showing up infrequently to check she’s okay and – as it’s often a new person – to simply gawp in surprise at what they read in their files. It’s down to society, who doesn’t have the knowledge or experience, to actually help her, and as Honeyman shows, Eleanor is a lucky one, finding people who truly care.

It’s difficult being in the character’s head – her mother taught her intolerance of many different types of people and Eleanor struggles to push away that programming – and for a while in the book, Eleanor’s life is dull, but the writing keeps you going. Due to her mother’s programming, the English is an interesting mix of language, beginning in a fashion most correct and slowly progressing towards a combination of very correct English and very modern phrasing.

Needless to say the characterisation is top-notch, the main characters in particular brought fully to life.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is difficult to take in but not difficult to read, the author wanting her readers to understand everything clearly. And it’s worth every moment, the literary features culminating in a fantastic whole but each being enjoyable – in a literary way – in themselves.

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Eloisa James – When Beauty Tamed The Beast

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Tale as old as 2011.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 372
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-062-02127-4
First Published: 25th January 2011
Date Reviewed: 13th January 2019
Rating: 3/5

Linnet is ruined; having chosen for a social event a dress that she didn’t notice bulged in a particular area, society now assumes she is pregnant, and not without reason – she’d been flirting with a prince. Now with a non-existent baby on the way, she has to marry fast, but who will have her? The sole option is the Earl of Marchant, an impotent doctor whose father is desperate for a grandchild and obsessed with royalty. But Marchant is known to be a difficult man, and Linnet decides she’ll make him fall for her swiftly and then she’ll try to get over the whole thing.

When Beauty Tamed The Beast is James’ 1700s (or so) romance adaptation of the classic story. The second of a series, it’s a standalone amongst other fairy tale re-tellings.

This book is split roughly 50-50 in terms of adaptation content, where half the time the story falls in line with the rest of James’ work, and the rest of the time is spent conforming to the adaptation enough that it switches between very-loosely-based-on and fairly-faithful retelling. It’s often funny, there are truly silly moments, it’s well-written, and time is spent developing the relationship. Some of the literary devices to create the fairy tale come naturally, such as the old castle, which James’ chosen time period gels with well, but there are a noticeable number of elements and scenes where the classic tale is shoehorned in, such as the hero’s exclamations of “I’m a/the beast!”.

‘Hero’ is open to interpretation here – many will love Piers, who is James’ bookish take on Hugh Laurie’s character, House; others will perhaps take a step back, often. (This reviewer had not seen House M.D. until reaching James’ acknowledgements, but 3 minutes on YouTube was enough to see that Piers and House are one and the same, history aside.) The Hugh Laurie context by itself works very well, and if you read the book with that in mind it may be easier, however with the romance and ‘uninspired’, so to speak, heroine, it may give you pause – Piers is not a great person, and whilst the backing of the fairy tale says a lot, he can go a little too far. Linnet, whilst not a great person to begin with, very quickly falls in beside Piers, so you’ve effectively got two not-great characters but with an added vibe to Piers that can be difficult to read about.

The inclusion of a physical disability, another aspect of House, is well presented in terms of reality, and James tends to balance the pain and upset (and, in this case, in keeping to the tale, anger) with your regular personality. There is a point towards the end where it gets a bit too… inspirational (and the heroine’s plight only adds to this), but that’s at least a short section. More to the point is the penultimate conflict towards the end, the chapters of illness and making the heroine ugly to help inform the balance of the relationship – unnecessary, given the conclusion is hardly going to end on a sad note. It’s also too long.

The best part of the book is the first half – though humour runs throughout, it’s in the first half that the story works well and the literary devices for the sake of the re-telling aren’t hammered home.

However, for all it could have been a bit more original in its re-telling – oxymoron intended – When Beauty Tamed The Beast succeeds in being an enjoyable quick read. Just consider Beauty and Beast to be a mere idea, the library (of this book) bog standard compared to Disney’s 1991 version, and replace ‘Tamed’ with ‘Gamed’ for a better fit.

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Diana Gabaldon – Outlander

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Make certain the period you are researching was peaceful…

Publisher: Arrow (Random House)
Pages: 851
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-75137-1
First Published: 1st June 1991
Date Reviewed: 8th January 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Reunited after WWII, Claire and Frank travel from Oxfordshire to the Scottish Highlands. It’s part second honeymoon, part research trip to find out more about Frank’s six-times great-grandfather who was a British officer for the army in the 1740s. Early one morning, the couple visit an ancient stone circle to witness a pagan ritual and it’s an interesting enough event, but when Claire decides to spend more time at the circle and touches the centre stone, she is whisked inside it; upon waking she is once more in the stone circle but there’s a battle going on outside between a band of kilted men and a small English patrol of Red Coats.

Outlander is an epic historical fantasy romance1 that takes a 1940s nurse back in time to the period her husband is researching. Creating for Claire a new life, including a second marriage, and written from her perspective, it stays exclusively in the 1740s.

The first in what is currently a series of eight books with another in the works, Outlander is a lengthy work, and mostly focused on the relationship Claire has with Highlander Jamie. This is to say that while it is a time travel and includes a lot of historical information, the romantic element is paramount and thus the aspect of fantasy far less used.

The history here is very good; whilst not always completely accurate, and not always developed where you might expect it to have been, Gabaldon’s research is evident. Often the reason any one section is slow – there are a fair few of these sections in the first half of the book – is due to the author’s focus on either information or the wish to detail the day-to-day of Claire’s new life as she settles in (or, rather, settles in whilst still planning to escape back to the stones). There is little info-dumping in the book – Gabaldon includes information well – and apart from the few issues with language the history in the book is enjoyable.

In terms of the language it’s 50/50 between highly believable conversation (word choice and phrasing for the time periods) and not so well written in terms of grammar and general phrasing. There are some sentences that use modern phrasing from across the pond that likely skipped through unnoticed, but overall Claire’s descriptions read well. There are a few Gaelic words and Scots words included, the former not necessarily meant to be understood, the latter easy enough to pick up in a short amount of time.

Looking at descriptions, it could well be said that the book would have been better had it been written in the third person. Claire isn’t particularly compelling – in fact she’s often downright irritating – and because Gabaldon sticks to her perspective, lots of elements you might have expected to be included are very short on the ground. Claire doesn’t often compare her new life to her old one or find any difficulties with it; apart from the times when she decides she wants to escape what is otherwise being developed by the author as a comfortable, romantic, new life, and apart from the handful of times when she knows the medical treatment she is giving to a patient won’t actually help, she doesn’t think of Frank, the 1940s, or modernity anywhere near as much as you would expect.

Due to all this, you never once hear about how Frank is doing back in the 1940s – once Claire time travels, he drops out of the story, to be referred to only in thought. This means that the development of Claire’s relationship with Jamie is a lot easier. Another literary device comes in the form of Jamie’s lack of sexual experience, which neatly side-steps the requirement to discuss STIs, which would surely have otherwise entered Claire’s medical mind.

Romance, but mainly the sexual aspect, is a huge part of the book and generally included ‘just because’ rather than to advance the story. The book is essentially an erotic romance, extremely explicit in places, rarely leaving anything to the imagination. As the book continues, it goes further than consensual sex, with scenes of dubious consent, and graphic, violent, rape (the non-sexual violence is also extreme, and there comes a point near the end when it could be called intolerable2 (and means that something minor in terms of story but crucial to the historical context is left out3).

For this then, then, it is difficult to say that Outlander is a general romance, and it’s not only the concentration on lust at the expense of love but the fact of perspective to blame here. Is there romance in the book? Yes, and a fair amount, but given Claire’s indecision, the romance is mostly in Jamie’s court where development and content is concerned. With no time for Jamie’s perspective, this all has to be filtered through dialogue. (Jamie’s perspective, and more historical context, would have helped explain the clash of cultures that forms one of the common criticisms of the book, which cites a man’s punishment of his wife.) The chemistry between the characters is evident, but not portrayed as well as it could have been, especially as Jamie has no real competition due to Frank’s exit stage right.

Outlander definitely has its good – excellent, in fact – moments, and there are patches of terrific humour to be found as well as a steady sense of duty, family, and kin, but it does spend a lot of time on moments that do not move the narrative forward and on things that don’t inform the premise of the story (there are well over 40 sex scenes in the book, both fully consensual and not) and would have been better edited down by a few hundred pages; suffice to say that when Gabaldon returns from the bedroom to the narrative, the effect on proceedings is immediate, and the story continues well. And the positives do out-way the negatives.

Footnotes

1 The author has noted both that as she was writing the book for herself she didn’t limit what she included (Gabaldon, n.d) and that the book has been shelved in shops under a vast variety of genres (Gabaldon, 2016).
2 On page 735 of the novel, Gabaldon does say the following, through Claire, which goes a fair way towards explaining the reason for the inclusion:

One never stops to think what underlies romance. Tragedy and terror, transmuted by time. Add a little art in the telling and voilà! a stirring romance, to make the blood run fast and maidens sigh.

3 Due to the focus on violence, Christmas comes and goes, indeed the days are spent at a Catholic monastery, with absolutely no mention of it by anyone.

Online References

Gabaldon, Diana (n.d.) The Outlander Series, Diana Gabaldon.com, accessed 9th January 2019
Gabaldon, Diana (2016) Outlander, Diana Gabaldon.com, accessed 9th January 2019

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Eloisa James – A Duke Of Her Own

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Searching for a lady worthy of receiving the Spice Girls’ ‘Mama’ on compact disc.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages:
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-62683-8
First Published: 28th July 2009
Date Reviewed: 18th December 2018
Rating: 5/5

The Duke of Villiers needs to find a wife and mother for five of his six illegitimate children. Most women are either already married or want nothing to do with the whole thing, particularly as the Duke is not the average person. There are but two women left on the list: Eleanor, who he is incredibly attracted to but doesn’t strike Villiers as the motherly sort, and Lisette, who is considered mad but loves children. He’ll have to spend time with them both… but if it’s anything to do with Eleanor, she’ll have him herself.

A Duke Of Her Own is the sixth and final story of the Desperate Duchesses series and ends the set spectacularly.

This book is no longer than any of the others, but it uses its time better than the rest; the other books aren’t lacking in story, but the sheer amount of things covered and the number of characters involved make it a more ‘complete’ story and with much more going for it than simply the romance.

The character development in the book in general is good, with Villiers and Eleanor, and Lisette, though to a lesser extent simply because she’s in-between main and secondary on the character list, understandably well-drawn. (Admittedly, Villiers has had a good few books’ worth of development but until the introduction to this book – included in the previous – he had been mostly relegated to ‘chess player’ status only. That said, he was also more intelligent in the previous books.) The chemistry is thus very good, too, with James creating a very believable romance. Villiers does sometimes get a bit too caught up in wondering whether he should instead marry the woman who he thinks would make the better mother (Lisette) but it doesn’t become overbearing.

This – the fact it doesn’t become overbearing – is due in part to James’ deft plotting. As the novel continues, Lisette’s supposed ‘madness’ is slowly shown to the reader for what it truly is, which means that Villiers’ umming and ahhing becomes more a question of ‘when is he going to see what others can see?’ rather than simple angst. The other reason it’s not overbearing is because it just doesn’t happen too much – once he starts to like Eleanor chunks of the book go by without question.

(And when James explains Lisette openly, it’s the satisfying conclusion to that subplot that you were hoping for.)

The addition of Villiers’ children in the book is fantastic. This isn’t to say that the previous books, which rarely featured children, didn’t work – it’s that the children themselves have inherited Villiers’ better traits, at least in terms of bookish interest. They are most often devious and clever, matching and generally trumping Villiers’ personality in terms of reader interest, and they help speed up his realisations of what is best for him, bringing in extra comedy and a different, lovely, feel to the book. The children are cunning thieves, strong youngsters in the face of the horrid adversity they’ve lived with, and James dedicates time to their settling into what is a completely different world for them. (All were abandoned by both parents and Villiers had previously left any upkeep to a person who effectively pocketed the money.)

There are of course moments that aren’t quite in keeping with the history – mostly due to James’ desire to bring in a bit of present-day thinking into her stories – and also a few silly moments, but these are both fleeting.

A Duke Of Her Own begins well, ends on a triumph, and manages to seem as though it’s from a completely different series whilst still adhering to the general atmosphere and mood of its companions. It is a superb finale to the set, and a fabulous book in itself.

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Jenny Colgan – Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop

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Couldn’t miss this one this year.

Publisher: Little Brown (Hachette)
Pages: 389
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-751-55180-8
First Published: 7th November 2013
Date Reviewed: 17th October 2018
Rating: 4/5

Rosie is looking forward to Christmas. Having moved from London to a small rural town (having broken up with her non-committal boyfriend and finding someone better), she’s ready to experience the season in her little house and community. But Stephen’s mother, the lady of the manor, is still frosty towards her, and, now adding to the stress, Rosie’s family want to visit from Australia. It’ll be a trial fitting her family into the house and ensuring her shop stays afloat with the prospect of snow on the way.

Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop is a cute story that, given its advent setting, makes a great book for the weeks prior to Christmas.

Colgan exploits all the stereotypes to good effect: snow; little town; big cold houses; a bustling community. She even throws in the idea of Australians experiencing snow. This she does well, using easy language that’s nevertheless not nonliterary, and getting the balance between conflict and good company just right. It’s all very cosy, down to the traditionalism of the big glass jars in the sweet shop and the joviality of most characters. Development happens but suffice to say that whilst the plot works and the characters are the main aspect, you don’t mind not being blown away by either. The plot devices bring people together and are well solved; one device works as it does precisely because it’s in a Christmas book.

There are but a couple of low points. Firstly, the arrival of Rosie’s family means the arrival of some difficult characters, smarmy people with smarmy children who it’s hard to reconcile with the rest of the novel. And secondly, there is the use of the derogatory term ‘mong’ (‘a person with Downs Syndrome’; Oxford Dictionaries defines it as ‘a person who is stupid or who has learning difficulties’). This word is used by Stephen when he’s recovering from an accident and is in hospital, high on pain reliever – what we’d now call ‘out of it’. This obviously brings in prejudice where it was not needed and does not gel with Stephen’s personality (otherwise incredibly emphatic).

Besides this, and in general, the book is a really good seasonal read, and exactly the kind of chick-lit you want at Christmas; it’s the second in a series but stands fully alone – you may want to read the first (either before or after would work equally well) but you certainly don’t have to.

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