Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Wow! Another great book!  This one defies easy description – the book jacket blurb doesn’t do it justice at all.  Eleanor Oliphant, as the title suggests, is completely fine but really isn’t.  Having survived a truly traumatic event in her childhood (which we learn about via small hints because even she has completely repressed the memory) she is simply ill prepared for living, even though she goes through the motions.

Eleanor is very smart with a huge vocabulary, an interest in the classics, perfect pitch and a complete disinterest in the opinions and practices of those around her.  The story is told in her voice – reminiscent of the narrator of The Rosie Project – as she works her way through the landscape of human interaction and practices like the proverbial man from Mars. The mood is humorous with moment of tear-inducing poignancy – not heavy handed or depressing but the warm impact of even the simplest kind word or touch.

A chance encounter with a handsome, would-be rock star stimulates Eleanor to embark on a project to bring about true love with the man she has identified as The One.  Don’t be fooled, this is not a rom-com, and Eleanor has serious work to do to learn how to actually wake up and live her life (hint:  the rock star, while triggering this desire to live, does not figure highly in the result – I meant it when I said no rom-com!)

A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass

I love Julia Glass’ books – she is one of those authors who can spin a tale around characters that can both surprise me and make me happy to have their acquaintance. Every novel draws the reader in with the rich inner lives of multiple thought-provoking characters paraded through unexpected situations and events.

A House Among the Trees revolves around a character who is dead before the book begins. Mort Lear is a very successful children’s author and illustrator (think Maurice Sendak in terms of fame) who dies suddenly when he falls off a roof while trying to fix something. The impact of his life (and his untimely death) on a number of characters is explored throughout the novel. Tommie – Tomasina Daulair – has been Lear’s assistant and platonic living partner for over 20 years and has been made executor of his estate, a position she finds overwhelming; Nicholas Greene is a famous British movie star who has been hired to play Mort in an upcoming film called “The Inner Lear” based on an interview Mort gave years ago alluding to abuse in a garden shed in Tucson where he and his mother were living; Merry is the curator of a new museum devoted to children’s literature who expects to receive all of Mort’s artwork and papers (and doesn’t).

Each chapter progresses a day or two as the characters try to move forward on projects that have been rudely shocked by Lear’s death. Important backstories are inserted as needed explaining how Tommie was first drawn into Lear’s orbit, how previous loss has prepared each of them, and how the AIDS epidemic influenced Lear’s life and writing.

High marks for plot, character development, and writing style – it’s not often that you get all three!

South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby

Cooper Gosling receives an Artist & Writers great from the NSF to join an eclectic group of intense scientists (“Beakers”) and maintenance staff (“Nailheads”) at the South Pole for a year in order to find inspiration and come to terms with the recent suicide of her twin brother. But that is only the tip of the iceberg (ha ha) of the plot for this deeply engaging and satisfying novel.

There are several different plot lines –  in addition to Cooper and her artistic struggles, there is a detailed story line devoted to the competing theories about the origins of the Universe, along with the scientists espousing them and the experiments designed to prove them.  This is well described and aligns with reality (according to Stanford News from March 17, 2014).  Also a lot of great description of the station(s), the people who fund them, maintain them, and work in them. Throw in some interesting political and ethical issues in the form of a climate skeptic who has been given research funds to disprove climate change due to human activity and the way he is treated by other researchers at the Pole and you have an engrossing set of stories.  Compelling from start to finish.

SPOILER ALERT – I have one small issue with the book. Frank Pavano, the climate skeptic, is at first presented as a reasonable man with some reasonable arguments for the research he is pursuing looking for alternate causes (heliocentric) for global warming.  There is some great discussion about how he is treated by the other researchers and how objectivity in science should be maintained.  However, towards the end the author made it clear that he was on the take from a group of politicians and oil companies and threw a whole conspiracy theory slant into what had been interesting scientific debate.  She also painted an unrealistic (to me) portrait of how Dr. Pavano became this dishonest scientist. It made me realize how much I rely on the author’s imagination and experience to paint portraits of people in different environments. In this particular case I think she did a really poor job – not up to the level of her other characters and story arcs.

That aside, South Pole Station was a fascinating read and I highly recommend it.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

Lydia has established a life for herself after suffering a particularly traumatic event as a child. She works in the Bright Ideas Bookstore (named for the light bulb factory previously in residence) and collects “Book Frogs” – lost souls who inhabit the book store and find the same solace in reading as she does.  One day, seemingly of nowhere, Joey, her favorite Book Frog, hangs himself from the third floor just after closing.

Alternating between the present and her childhood we are presented with two mysteries that slowly resolve together.  More of a novel than a standard mystery, there is real attention to character, motivation, and tangled relationships. Books, libraries, librarians and a love of reading are ubiquitous.   Many of the characters are troubled and  a lot of effort is made to motivate their actions from their experiences. I found many of these connections be a bit too pat, more following a script based on current assumptions around the causes of social problems rather than any real experiences or insight.  However, that aside, it’s an easy, interesting, and a real page turner PLUS the author is a long time bookstore employee and is married to a librarian so he definitely walks the walk!

A Distant View of Everything by Alexander McCall Smith

An apt title for this 12th installment of the Scotland based, Isabel Dalhousie series  There are many McCall Smith fans who shy away from these books.  This is understandable.  Isabel is not warm like Precious Ramotswe nor is she quirky like the denizens of 44 Scotland Street.  Isabel is a Philosopher, she is editor-in-chief (and owner) of the Review of Applied Ethics.  She is a good person, a moral person, even a generous person, but she is reserved and absurdly lucky in life (independently wealthy and cohabiting with a gorgeous, younger, musician who is head over heels for her).  In this book, another character tells her she is “muted” and she is surprised and a little hurt, but it is absolutely true!

The novel does have a thin layer of plot – Isabel is asked to look into the moral character of a man who has reputedly extracted money from wealthy women through nefarious means – but it is even more thin than usual. However, Isabel’s main activity is musing.  In fact, “Isabelle Muses” would be an apt subtitle for the series. She muses when she should be paying attention to people, her work, or the world around her.  I love her musings – they are far reaching, exploratory, and center around the kinds of things I like to think about myself.  A sampling of topics from this volume: population growth, enlightened capitalism, poetry, Churchill’s growl, psychopaths vs sociopaths, selfies, neuroscience, the generous obfuscation of titles, and the letters column of The Scotsman which is the “spiritual home of the combative and the contrary”. So while I don’t open these books in anticipation of spending time with a close personal friend, I do anticipate meeting with a very interesting conversationalist and this is why I remain a fan of this series.

Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

I was completely surprised by how much I liked the first book in this (now finished) trilogy and both sequels have been equally fun.  While it’s not high literature (nor does it claim to be) Kwan’s writing is really good, the (many) storylines surprising and intriguing, and his characters are oddly realistic, though clearly exaggerated.  Lots of brand references which frankly go right over my head, but mostly I just keep turning the pages while laughing out loud at the soap opera satire.

In this third installment, Su-Yi, the grand dame of the extraordinarily wealthy Shang-Young clan, dies at the ripe old age of 94. The story covers the in-fighting of the family post-funeral, the honest emotions of the many who actually loved her, fascinating stories of Su Yi’s time during WWII in Singapore, and plenty of other integrated dramas.  Unlike typical soap operas, I never find the stories stupid or ridiculous – a real testament to Kwan’s writing prowess.

You can read this one without the others but why would you do that?  Go start at the beginning!  (By the way, the Crazy Rich Asians movie is in post-production – looks well cast (release date still TBD sadly).