‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman

 This is a beautiful heartfelt debut novel which at first glance seemed similar to The Rosie Project or Me Before You, but in the end was much more than a story about an unlikely romance. In fact the book is not about romance at all, which is why I really liked it. It’s an affecting book about deep human connection and how community and genuine compassion can heal, like in A Man Called Ove. Looking at a number of similar novels recently, I think publishers know that sad/funny/quirky characters are memorable and intriguing–Eleanor is no exception, though I hesitate to liken this novel to any other because it has its own strength and value. Thanks for the recommendation Laura, I loved this one!

Eleanor Oliphant struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she is thinking. She does her job well at work, chats with her Mother once a week, but on the weekends her companions are frozen pizza and a big bottle of vodka. However, if you ask her, Eleanor’s life is fine, just fine, completely fine, thank you very much. She doesn’t need anything else in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact. But everything changes when she meets Raymond, a bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. Together they rescue Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen unconscious on the street. The story takes unexpected turns and is entirely unpredictable.

‘Jabari Jumps’ by Gaia Cornwall

Jabari is finished his swimming lessons and has passed his swim test. Now there is one more thing he wants to do, but … maybe he should do some stretches first. Even though it looks easy, when Jabari is faced with the height and depth of the jump itself, he is going to need some courage. His wise Dad comes to the rescue with the best encouragement of all. He tells Jabari to think of it as a ‘surprise’ rather than a scary new thing, and that makes all the difference.

When I was taking piano lessons, my teacher Judy taught me a valuable life lesson on courage. When I was afraid that nerves would hamper my piano exam, she said something that has stood me in good stead ever since. She said, “Instead of dreading it, just try looking forward to it. See it as something that you can’t wait to get to.” Like Jabari, the positive twist of thinking of the scary thing as a ‘surprise’ was the key to helping him make the big splash.

Gaia Cornwall loved swimming when she was little and Jabari Jumps is her first picture book. I loved the illustrations which are beautifully done in warm water colours! The pictures capture the excitement and fun of a day’s outing to the pool. Road tested by a teacher friend of mine, kids love this book, evidenced by the neat student work they produced. Here is a sample!

‘Hum If You Don’t Know the Words’ by Bianca Marais

The dedication to this novel of South Africa, drew me in immediately and hinted at the beautiful perspective in this work of fiction:

“For Maurna, my beloved Old Duck, and for Eunice, Puleng and Nomthandazo who taught me that even though human beings can be segregated, their hearts cannot because love is colour-blind and can walk through walls.”

The Soweto Uprising of 1976 leaves both Robin, a young white girl, and Beauty, an Xhosa teacher, grieving unimaginable loss. Their parallel interwoven narratives tell the story of racial conflict and the emotions and tensions at the heart of apartheid-era South Africa. In the aftermath of tragedy, Beauty comes to care for Robin and the two forge a bond through deep personal losses. But Robin knows that if Beauty reunites with her daughter, Robin could lose her new caretaker forever, and that is something she cannot bear. She makes a desperate decision with devastating consequences. Readers who enjoyed The Help and The Secret Life of Bees, might like this one as well.

Good character development and an authentic knowledge of the country of South Africa are strengths of this novel which is highly readable and has, in my opinion, been left wide open for a sequel. Bianca Marais studied at the University of Toronto and now lives in that city, but is originally from South Africa and has done volunteer work in Soweto.

‘Life’ by Cynthia Rylant and Brendan Wenzel

Happy 2018!

Another year of reading and conversations about books coming up! Looking forward to it! Thanks for journeying together on this adventure! Can’t think of a better way to start the New Year than with an Annie Dillard quote and a children’s picture book about Life (thanks for the suggestion Nel)! Happy reading!

There is so much to love about life.

Stunning unique illustrations are a graceful backdrop for a few simple words about the wonders of being alive in the world. The narrative is honest about the ups and downs that are inevitable in life, but encourages readers to have hope–there are always new roads to take after a time in the wilderness. This is a gorgeous picture book with a good perspective on life that stresses the beauty of the natural world. A great addition to any young child’s library because it will also appeal to adults!

Rylant is an award winning children’s book author. She has written more than 100 children’s books. Here is her website.

An ardent conservationist, Brendan Wenzel is a proud collaborator with many organizations working to ensure the future of wild places and threatened species, especially within Southeast Asia. For a taste of his illustrations, here is a clip of They All Saw a Cat.

‘The Child Finder’ by Rene Denfeld

“Where are you, Madison Culver? Flying with the angels, a silver speck on a wing? Are you dreaming, buried under snow? Or—is it possible—you are still alive?”

A little girl disappears in the snowy woods on an expedition to cut a Christmas tree with her parents. One moment Madison is running ahead and playing in the snow, and the next she is gone. Three years later, a woman is determined to find her, convinced that she is alive. Naomi is a private investigator specializing in missing children…because she was once one herself. Despite the dark and disturbing subject matter of kidnapping and child abuse, there is a wave of hope and healing rippling through this book, although it may still be too sensitive a topic for those who have first hand experience with this unfortunate reality.

Alternating narratives between the child and the finder are beautifully and skillfully written–the lyrical prose not in any way bogging down the thriller quality, keeping the pace unstoppable. The author also deals very carefully with the difficult bits, not dwelling unnecessarily, but telling the story all the same. I think this is what helps her achieve the hopeful tone despite the subject matter. Yes, it is a thriller about child abuse, but it is also about love, compassion, survival, strength, rehabilitation, and healing. It is clearly a cut above the psychological thrillers so prevalent today because it has suspense and substance in equal measure–it illuminates in the darkness, and that is a significantly valuable role that literature can play in our lives.

‘The House of Unexpected Sisters’ by Alexander McCall Smith

The usual investigative crew is at it again, with many of the usual friends and villains. Tea is served and the story continues. Botswana is once again richly portrayed and described. The African sunsets are magnificent and a simple serene backdrop to the complicated activities of humans, especially those in need of  The No. 1 Ladies Detectives Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi!

Precious and Grace trip through the mysteries with the help of an extended family which should by now be familiar to you if you have followed the series. Mma Ramotswe learns some unexpected things about herself in this 18th instalment and has to face up to some unsettling stuff, which she of course does with her usual wisdom, grace, and style. Mma Makutsi’s  husband’s furniture store name describes this series best–‘double comfort.’ Like I always say, we all need a series at times! 🙂

‘The Prisoner and the Chaplain’ by Michelle Berry

” The Prisoner and the Chaplain is about two men; one man awaiting execution, the other man listening to his story. As the hours drain away, the chaplain must decide if the prisoner’s story is an off-the-cuff confession or a last bid for salvation. As the chaplain listens he realizes a life has many stories, and he has his own story to tell. Each man is guilty in his own way, and their stories have led them to the same room, a room that only one of them will leave alive. If you had only twelve hours left to live, what would you have to say?”

I’ve always loved the simplicity of books or movies that take place in one room with only two characters. When done well it can be a very effective setting for a story to unfold. This one was well done. There is a suspenseful intensity that drives the novel forward, because the clock is literally ticking during this prisoner’s last 12 hours. I liked the humble nature of the Chaplain and though there are some brutal moments in some of the scenes, albeit it gently handled (we are talking death row here folks), it  is a reflective probe into the life of one criminal.

Incidentally, the author, a teacher of creative writing at the University of Toronto, also runs a bookstore in Peterborough called Hunter Street Books.