Category Archives: Four Star

‘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.

‘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.

‘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 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.

‘Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration’ by Ed Catmull

Need a Christmas gift for the ‘business/leadership’ person in your life? I really enjoyed this memoir by the head of Pixar Animation Studios. Catmull’s personal story is engaging and well written. It is full of great advice about how creativity and excellence can be fostered in the workplace. As head of Pixar (later bought out by Disney Studios), Catmull was a good friend and partner of Steve Jobs and other great talents in computer technology. He had an intuitive sense about how to give storytellers and filmmakers the freedom to develop ideas and make mistakes, and how to get these diverse people to work together, thereby arriving at the creative culture that brought us great films like Ratatouille, Up, Toy StoryFinding Nemo, and many more.

Even though there are lots of background reveals about the makings of these much admired animated films in the book, the focus is primarily on how the business evolved. There are amazing insights and sound advice along the way for leaders in any business or industry, who are interested in being intentional about managing innovation.

‘I Found You’ by Lisa Jewell

The title of this book could be what your family members exclaim when they discover where you have hidden to read ‘just a few’ more pages or chapters–that’s how compulsively readable this suspense thriller is. I couldn’t put it down.

Here’s the story line about two decades of secrets, a missing husband, and a man with no memory…

“In a windswept British seaside town, single mom Alice Lake finds a man sitting on the beach outside her house. He has no name, no jacket, and no idea how he got there. Against her better judgment, she invites him inside.

Meanwhile, in a suburb of London, twenty-one-year-old Lily Monrose has only been married for three weeks. When her new husband fails to come home from work one night she is left stranded in a new country where she knows no one. Then the police tell her that her husband never existed.

Twenty-three years earlier, Gray and Kirsty are teenagers on a summer holiday with their parents. Their annual trip to the quaint seaside town is passing by uneventfully, until an enigmatic young man starts paying extra attention to Kirsty. Something about him makes Gray uncomfortable–and it’s not just that he’s playing the role of protective older brother.”

‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles

Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov is placed under house arrest in a small room in the Metropol, a grand hotel across from the Kremlin in Moscow. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. ‘Exile at home’ is the worst kind of punishment because it’s impossible to leave and begin anew. He finds ways to pass the time, make himself useful, forge meaningful relationships, and yes, be a little subversive. He befriends a spirited young girl called Nina who joins him on adventures in the  hotel and later on, also her daughter Sofia. The story unfolds beautifully and has a great deal of old world charm. Towles has an elegant way of creating a sophisticated ambience with his writing style, but it is also brimming with humour. The ending was perfect.

To be honest, I found parts of the book a tad slow, but then those sections would be followed by some exquisite prose that would take my breath away, and all would be forgiven. Though not difficult to follow, not everyone will have the patience for this book, but if you do, you will be richly rewarded. I actually did love it, but wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. It reminded me of the The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which was also received as brilliant by some, and left others wondering what the fuss was about. I loved that one too. So it’s definitely a “if you like that, you’ll love this” situation. Here is a sample of the writing which also hints at the fascinating political undercurrents ever present in the novel.

“For years now, with a bit of smile, the Count had remarked that this or that was behind him–like his days of poetry or travel or romance. But in so doing, he had never really believed it. In his heart of hearts, he had imagined that, even if unattended to, these aspects of his life were lingering somewhere on the periphery, waiting to be recalled. But looking at the bottle in his hand, the Count was struck by the realization that, in fact, it was all behind him. Because the Bolsheviks, who were so intent upon recasting the future from a mold of their own making, would not rest until every last vestige of his Russia had been uprooted, shattered, or erased.”

Whether you decide to read the book or not, this trailer for it is worth a view: