Before teaching this class, I never had to differentiate between the sub-genres of mystery to such a fine point. Yes, I knew the difference between a “cozy” and a police procedural, but the distinctions between hard-boiled and noir escaped me, and I didn’t really worry about them, since people who like one bleed over into people who like the other. But now, after reading up on it and then re-examining an example of noir, I get the difference.
Although both are dark, stark, and unsentimental, the hard-boiled mystery stars a detective, bent on solving a crime, defending the innocent and righting wrongs, while noir fiction has a different kind of protagonist—a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Although both sub-genres may feature a particular villain, often in the person of an evil femme fatale, in the hard-boiled book the detective is fighting against the corruption perpetrated by the villain or the system, while in the noir, the protagonist is just trying to survive. What they have in common is inevitability.
In Fun & Games, by Duane Swierczynski, former contractor to the Philly P.D. Charlie Hardie’s latest job is house-sitting an isolated mansion in L.A.’s Hollywood Hills. But when he arrives to start the gig (his description of the specifications of the job include making sure the house doesn’t burn down, while drinking bourbon and watching old movies on DVD), he is surprised to discover an unwanted guest hiding out in the house—a B-movie actress who says she’s being hunted by professional hitmen.
Charlie thinks she’s just high and paranoid. But he’s wrong.
The killers are real. They’ve tracked her to the house. And they’re not letting anyone out alive—including Charlie.
I decided on a re-read, since Mr. Swierczynski is going to be a guest speaker in my class at UCLA next week. This is classic noir: The protagonist, Charlie Hardie, is a self-destructive, hapless victim, caught in a situation he doesn’t understand and didn’t seek out. He just wants to be left alone, to drink and try to forget about the disaster he made of his former life. He’s relateable, but not particularly likeable. His co-victim, B-movie actress Lane Madden, is likewise set up for failure, driven by guilt but with a visceral need to survive. The “bad guy” is a femme fatale, and boy, is she conscienceless and mean! The only way in which it isn’t so noir is that Charlie is turned, willy nilly, into a hero, simply because there is no one else. I’m curious to find out whether “noir” is how Duane characterizes his own book. I also now want to read the two sequels, Hell & Gone, and Point & Shoot!
This coming Monday will be the fourth class out of 10 of the Readers’ Advisory course I am teaching for the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (GSE&IS) at UCLA. To translate that last, I’m teaching the course for graduate students getting their masters in library information studies, to become librarians, and I’m teaching them how to match up readers and books, which sounds simple but isn’t.
We have spent the past three classes talking about the mysteries of readers: how they read, why they read, and what kind of readers they are; and then we have discussed two powerful methods to connect these readers with “their” books. The first is the readers’ advisory interview, which ascertains what books readers have enjoyed and specifically why they have enjoyed them, and attempts then to find other books that will please their reading tastes, based on “appeal factors.” The second is the art of book-talking, which is to find an array of books that might appeal to a particular audience and talk about them as a storyteller would, so persuasively that the listeners’ first question when one is done is to ask “But what happens next?” and be moved to read the book to find out.
In this fourth class, we will be proceeding into an in-depth study of individual genres of popular reading. We’ll be examining one genre each week, and this week is mystery. I have asked my students to read one or more book each week, selecting from the genre we intend to discuss so that they will have read at least one representative example before we break down that genre for discussion. I decided, this week, that I would join them by reading a mystery in preparation for class on Monday, and perhaps discuss it here, and so I have done; I have actually indulged myself in two.
I didn’t feel like making a second trek to the library this week, so I cast about within my own collection for something to read, and decided to indulge nostalgia by re-reading a couple of Dick Francis novels. Both I and my father were horse lovers and mystery readers. Dad always said he’d like to move to Montana and have a horse ranch (although if you knew my mother, you knew that would never happen), and I was a typical horse-mad pre-teen who had to deal with a particularly horrible birthday one year when my grandfather, a Central Valley farmer equipped with fondness but little sense, bought me an unbroken yearling stallion at auction as my gift and then had to return it when my parents, who lived with me in SoCal suburbia, flatly refused to let me accept him. (It took me a while to forgive them.) Dad and I greatly enjoyed all of Dick Francis’s books; in fact, over the course of many birthdays and Father’s Days and Christmases, I managed to gift Dad with the entire collection, start to finish, some as tattered old paperbacks and others as pristine first editions. He read them over and over again, as do I; and it was that fact that made me pick them up this week.
Often, someone who is gifted in one career will be significantly less so in another; but Dick Francis seems to have had an impressive career as a “jump jockey” (a steeplechase rider), his ultimate achievements becoming champion jockey in the National Hunt 1953-54 season, and then jockey to Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s stable. Then, after his retirement at age 36 (a typical age for jockeys to cease practicing this dangerous and exceedingly taxing pursuit), he became a journalist and began writing horse-racing novels, becoming an explosive success as a mystery writer of sport-related books. He wrote one book a year thereafter, from 1962 to 2010, the year he died. On many of the early books, he collaborated with his wife, Mary Margaret Brenchley, who did quite extensive research surrounding the plots (including teaching herself photography and how to fly a plane), and after Mary’s death in 2000, his son Felix collaborated with him on his last four.
I am giving all this background information because I am attempting to puzzle out exactly why these books retain their appeal through several re-reads for so many people. Although I am definitely a reader who re-reads favorites, there are few authors—Georgette Heyer, Margaret Whalen Turner, and Dick Francis—whose works hold up for me again and again, even when either vaguely or completely familiar. But these same authors must hold a similar appeal for others, since they are among those considered worthy of a re-release of their novels, with new covers, in trade paperback form.
The interesting thing I find about Francis’s books is that, while they are all solidly oriented in the world of horse racing, not all, or even most, of his protagonists are jockeys. He has done an extraordinary job of exploring with his characters not just every facet of horse racing life by casting jockeys, trainers, breeders, and owners as his protagonists, but also by bringing in other only tangentially related careers, such as an air taxi service pilot, ferrying horsey people to distant races; an artist who paints portraits of winning jockeys and horses; a Jockey Club investigator; an adventure book writer; a wine merchant; a banker; a jewel merchant; and more. But all of them preserve that tie to the sport that allows Francis to include the sure-fire fast-paced scene of the breathless progression of man and horse over daunting jumps and along the flat to victory at the tapes.
Francis could definitely be characterized as a “formula” writer; while he seldom repeated the same protagonist (he wrote four books starring Sid Halley and the two I just re-read featuring Kit Fielding, out of more than 40), all of his protagonists were similar: Men between 28 and 40, with a certain kind of smart, intrepid, ethical, persistent personality combined with a light-hearted charm; a love interest usually between 19 and 28, often becoming important to the protagonist within first or second meeting; and a situation that has to be figured out, confronted and overcome, usually featuring one or more villains intent on having their own way at everyone else’s expense. But although they are formula, Francis writes them as complete individuals, with personal quirks that make them stand-out characters, and most of his plot lines are clever, convoluted, and engaging.
The two books I read this week were Break In and Bolt, a duo starring the same protagonist, jump jockey Kit Fielding. What makes Kit so interesting is his associations: First of all, he is the end product of a long line of Fielding horse trainers, with a twin sister, Holly, who is married to the last scion of a competing family of horse trainers named Allardeck who, up until this marriage, were bitter enemies of his family. And while the youngest members—Kit, Holly, and her husband, Bobby—have mostly resolved their feud, other members of the family are still hotly opposed to any association between the two clans, who have been undercutting one another for multiple generations. The second thing that makes Kit’s life interesting is that he is chief jockey to a European princess-in-exile, Princess Casilia de Brescou, and this connection forms a considerable amount of the plot of both books.
In the first, Break In, someone is targeting Bobby and Holly’s horse training business, to the point where they may lose it if they don’t find out who and why. Malicious bits of gossip about them have been published in the local paper, and someone has taken the trouble to circle the gossip in red and hand deliver it to all the merchants to whom they owe money and to all their owners who have horses in their training lot. Kit comes to the rescue and begins to believe after a while that his sister and her husband are suffering the unfortunate fallout of a plot that is actually aimed at discrediting Bobby’s father, Maynard Allardeck. Once this theory occurs to him and he goes looking, all sorts of skeletons fall out of closets, and Maynard, who maintains the vicious attitude of “death to all Fieldings” as a loyal Allardeck should, proves to be a formidable opponent. But he is not the only villain involved…
The love interest in this book is the Princess Casilia’s husband’s niece, Danielle de Brescou, an American working in London as a programmer at a major news outlet. Kit meets her when she comes to the races with her aunt, and although there aren’t immediate sparks, there is definitely interest on both sides that may progress as the book unfolds.
In Bolt, the focus is more on Roland and Casilia de Brescou. Henri Navarre, the son of Roland’s long-time business partner in France, petitions Roland to sign papers that will allow their company to manufacture plastic guns. Roland, former royalty and an old-fashioned aristocrat, is horrified at the idea of having his family name associated with weapons manufacture, and refuses. Navarre, who is a brash, greedy bully determined to have his way, proceeds to threaten everyone in Roland’s household. Roland is elderly, frail, and disabled, so Princess Casilia reaches out to Kit for support. Roland’s obnoxious sister, Beatrix, who wishes Roland to sign so that she can live yet more comfortably from the family fortune than she already does on her quarterly allowance from Roland, comes to stay with the family and acts as a rat, giving away vital details about where and when everyone will be, and Navarre carries out his threats to the point where Kit and others in the family must unite to figure out how to outwit Navarre and get rid of the threat. The book is punctuated by Kit’s exciting rides in various races on the princess’s horses, and the saga of the continuing up-and-down relationship between Kit and Danielle, which is being influenced by the presence of the suave, mature and cultured Prince Litsi, a nephew of Casilia’s. And the menacing form of Maynard Allardeck still hovers in the background, intending to do Kit harm…
I feel like one of the charms of Francis’s books is their “old-fashioned” standard of upright ethical behavior. The profession of horse-racing itself is fraught with opportunities for cheating, from drugging horses to bribing jockeys or trainers to fixing things somehow at the bookies’. But Francis, while taking all that into account, pictures his protagonists as people with a genuine, innocent relationship to the center of the sport—the horses—and a pure love for their job that keeps them going despite bad weather, bad luck, and injury. When he describes the union of horse and rider up on the Downs while the horses are being exercised or schooled, there’s an idyllic quality to the whole scene that pulls in the reader, as does his narration of the exciting points of each race in which the protagonist rides. Further, the main characters possess a dedication to logic and justice that is satisfying in its resolution against the badly behaved villains of each book. And although some of the early love interests were misogynistic in their details, as he continued to write, the women in his books made progress and became individuals in their own right, which you can’t say for some writers of mystery series. The dialogue is clear and simple, touched with humor, and the plots are in many cases labyrinthine and clever. Being myself horse mad, I can’t say for sure that someone who had no affinity for horses would enjoy these books the way that I have. But Dick Francis certainly had the aptitude to make you care what happens to his characters, and that, I feel, is the one thing that makes these books so re-readable.
When I first finished reading All the Crooked Saints, by Maggie Stiefvater, I was eager to put my thoughts about it down on paper. But when I actually sat down to write, I realized that I couldn’t figure out what I thought of this book. Part of me thought “It was amazing…” but on reflection, I didn’t know if I liked it. Let me try to make more sense.
I am a pragmatic person who isn’t really into saints, miracles, or allegorical tales about same, so I wasn’t sure I even wanted to read this book. I have intensely disliked such books as Paolo Coehlo’s The Alchemist and Dan Millman’s Way of the Peaceful Warrior, and wondered, based on some reviews, if that was where Maggie was going. (I also presumed VOYA magazine was way over the top in comparing it to Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, and I have read a few dissents about appropriation of other people’s culture that I took somewhat seriously when approaching this book.)
But…I have always enjoyed good magical realism (Alice Hoffman and Anna-Marie McLemore come to mind), and I presumed that Maggie Stiefvater, with all her speculation about Welsh kings and making something out of nothing, would possibly do a good job at this. Also, I was intrigued by an essay she wrote on her Facebook page talking about the extreme difficulty with which she birthed this book, given that she was suffering from a severe, initially undiagnosed autoimmune disease. So I picked it up.
At first, the sheer number of incidences of magical realism overwhelmed the story for me. It was too much, too fast, and way too facile, and I felt like I wanted to quit reading. But gradually, I was intrigued enough by some of the characters that I wanted to know what happened to them, so I kept going. I didn’t find it an easy book to read, perhaps because my skepticism of the outcome was high, so it took me a lot longer than I expected this slight volume to last. (Although it is 323 pages long, the type is set generously with about 1.5 line spacing—leading, if you want the technical word—between lines. So if it were single-spaced, it would probably have been about 200 pages.)
Ultimately, I was beguiled by this book, for several reasons. The first was the language and the way Stiefvater sets about exploring the miraculous within the mundane through the agency of her characters. I actually copied a couple of quotes from the book, after they had forced me to read them three or four times, savoring them more with each reading.
“The problem with ideas is that they never come all at once. They emerge like prairie dogs. An edge of ear, or the tip of a nose, and sometimes even the whole head. But if you look straight at an idea too fast, it can vanish back into the ground before you’re even sure of what you’ve seen. Instead, you have to sneak up on it slowly, looking out of the corner of your eye, and then and only then you might glance up to get a clear look.”
The second was the epiphanies experienced—or made—by both the Soria family and the pilgrims who seek them out. They seemed simultaneously true to life and completely allegorical, which I believe was the author’s intent, although perhaps she was more fixated on storytelling than I believed when I first finished reading. Certainly it turns out to be a gripping story, but so permeated by meaning it almost overflows.
I also loved the folklorish use she makes of the natural world—the owls in particular, but also the overwhelming atmosphere of the desert, the black roses desired so persistently by Francisco, the rain and butterflies that follow Marisita—and their parallels to emotion.
After I read this book, but before I wrote this, I went on Goodreads and looked up a couple of the books mentioned in my second paragraph—the ones people think of as a combination of allegorical revelation and self-help. In a comment about The Alchemist, one reader said, “This is either a beautifully written and fable-like illustration of simple and universal truths, or a load of crap.” One could probably react in the same way to All the Crooked Saints—but ultimately, I don’t believe either of those summations. It’s a story. If you read it first just as story and then come to appreciate the other mysterious and lyrical elements hidden within, I believe it deserves the encomiums it has received from reviewers. Readers of Barbara Kingsolver might also enjoy this.
One warning: It’s not like anything else Stiefvater has written, so if you go into it expecting that it will be, you will be disappointed. Also, I would in no way categorize this as young adult fiction. Some teens may read and appreciate it; but it is not specifically written for that market, even if that was the author’s intent (which I find hard to believe). It’s just the next story to come out of the complex being who is Maggie Stiefvater.
Because I read so many authors and follow so many series, I don’t always pay too close attention to how long it takes between books; but even I had noticed that it had been a really long time since the last Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. When the book finally arrived, I realized that although the first three in the series had been published just one year apart (2013, 2014, 2015), book #4, Lethal White, took three long years to produce! Rowling says in her acknowledgements to the book that she wrote it during the same time period she was writing a play and two screenplays, so that is a partial explanation. The other, of course, is that the book is just shy of 650 pages long, which is almost exactly 200 pages longer than any of the other three.
Several people on Goodreads expressed their hope that this series wouldn’t follow the lead of the Harry Potter books, in which each book became longer than the previous one; and while I agree with that sentiment as regards that series, I can’t really fault her for going a bit longer here. While there were probably areas that could have been edited out or tightened up without damage to the book, the truth is that the elements of this story were so complex, involving at least three separate mystery story lines as well as requiring its characters to confront the extreme messiness of their personal lives, that I doubt she could have come in under 600 pages. Still, I will hope with the other readers that the next book doesn’t run to 800!
I was completely enthralled by everything about this book, and there were few passages I rushed through to get to the next good bit. The initial mystery, of the mentally ill homeless man who has fastened onto the fame of detective Cormoran Strike and touchingly believes that only he can ferret out the truth about something the man witnessed as a child, is just the kind of thing that Cormoran latches onto like a dog with a chew toy and won’t let go until he’s thoroughly decimated it. But then, to have not one but two more cases to solve, both of which go somewhat against the usual principles that Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott consult before taking on a client, boosts up the energy exponentially, particularly when they all seem to have certain elements tying them together.
Speaking of ties that bind, the book picks up right where book #3 (Career of Evil) left off, which was immediately after the wedding ceremony in which Robin (against most of her better judgement) tied the knot with the conventional and whiny Matthew Cunliffe. The description of what happens next in her relationship is satisfyingly detailed, and the reader spends most of the rest of the book wondering just when she’s going to wise up for good and ditch this guy. Of course, being in equal parts embarrassed that she went through with the wedding and guilty for not being truly committed to making it work, Robin keeps all of this to herself, and suffers both Matthew’s complaints and her own panic attacks (generated by her close call in the last book) to herself. Meanwhile, Cormoran has taken the fact of the marriage ceremony as a sign that Robin is permanently off limits to him, and although he has invited her back to work as his partner, he also labors to keep their private lives carefully separate, and seeks distraction with several other women to keep from thinking of Robin in “that way.” It gives a delicious simultaneous sensation of frustration and anticipation to have all of this happening as back story during the complex work the two are doing, and definitely amps up the reading experience.
All in all, I’m a bigger fan than ever after Lethal White, and hope that the next one (back to 455 pages but still just as riveting) arrives in a lot less than three more years!
One question I have never heard answered and would like to know is, why Robert Galbraith? The tradition of the pseudonym for famous authors who are trying their hand at another age group or genre is well established; but I have to say I am disappointed, given the history of women subsuming their gender for the sake of credibility, that the woman who has perhaps the best credibility of anyone as an author didn’t pick a woman’s identity as her nom de plume. I did see in an interview that Rowling commented that she was “channeling her inner bloke” when writing this series, so maybe it’s as simple as that. Still, there are so many successful male writers out there; we could have used another female one to represent.
In early 2017, on the recommendation of a librarian friend who shares sci fi love, I picked up Lock In, by John Scalzi. It was a set-up that wouldn’t seem too unlikely in the near future: A contagious virus invades society, taking down everyone who catches it with headaches, fever, and other flu-like symptoms; but a certain small but significant percentage of those who contract it are then afflicted with a follow-up condition termed “lock in.” They are completely and terrifyingly awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to any kind of stimulus. The disease, which is named Haden’s Syndrome after its most famous victim (the First Lady), attacks indiscriminately, affecting people across all spectrums.
Because of the high profile of some of its victims, researchers go all out to solve the various problems of Haden’s Syndrome. Although they haven’t yet come up with a cure, they develop several “work-arounds,” including the implantation of a neural network in the brain of its sufferers that allows them to project their conscious selves—brain, personality, however you want to term it—into mobile units or robots called “threeps” (after, of course, C3PO). Additionally, there are also certain humans who can act as “Integrators” and carry the personality of the Haden within their head, so that a Haden could hire the services of a human with this ability and training and use their body to, say, attend a business meeting, have a romantic evening, or what have you.
The scientific explanation for exactly how all of this works is a bit hazy; but the effect of the science is such a fun concept to play around with that the reader is able to suspend disbelief and go with it. The current story to which all of this is background is a police procedural in which two FBI agents, one a Haden, the other a former Integrator, are assigned a case in which a Haden-related murder may have been committed. Think of the added complexity of solving a murder in which someone else’s personality may have been “driving” the body that committed the crime!
I loved this first book. It was a delightful combination of science fiction and murder mystery—it felt like Asimov’s ‘Lige Bailey and Daneel Olivaw were back, but younger, wittier, fresh. I loved the complexity created by people who could jump from threep to threep and thereby travel wherever, or Integrate to “ride” in someone else’s head/body—it made it difficult to solve crime, that’s for sure. I also enjoyed the widening of the plot to include the changing world of the Haden society.
Last week, I discovered there was a sequel to Lock In on the library shelf and eagerly checked it out. Head On is billed as a stand-alone, but I personally don’t think you could read it without having more knowledge about this world-built view than is given in the opening synopsis.
FBI agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann are back, investigating the mysterious death of a professional athlete during a game of Hilketa, a rather medieval sport in which all the players are Haden’s Syndrome folks, using “threeps” to play the game. (It features swords and hammers, and a lot of tearing off and punting of heads through goalposts. Yes, literal robot heads.) What follows is a multi-city investigation involving adultery, deception, personal and corporate speculation, and a sports league in which suddenly murder and violent crime are everywhere, as someone desperately tries to cover up their plan to pervert the sport for their own profit.
I enjoyed this; but not with quite the same pure sense of enjoyment I had from the first book. Again, it’s more of a police procedural than it is a science fiction novel, but with the novelty of Haden’s people being able to jump from town to car to office as long as there is a threep available to receive them, while not being able to do some of the things regular people consider second nature. As a vehicle for speculation about such wide-ranging themes as sexism, ableism, socioeconomic status, and so on, it was admirable; but for me, the story got unnecessarily convoluted with the addition of shady character after red herring after reluctant ally, to the point where I got the corporate guys’ lawyer’s name mixed up with that of a Haden caregiver’s, and misunderstood one passage rather badly until I got that straightened out. I did enjoy all the mayhem, but felt like I needed to understand a little better what was going on as it happened, instead of waiting for the big reveal at the end.
It’s an odd hybrid of fast pacing with extensive explication that I’m not sure would work for either someone in search of a thriller or someone who wanted a complex sci fi story, so a reader needs to be either a fan of both those genres, or have tolerance for one while reading it for the other. As a fan of both, I enjoyed it quite a bit.
“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resides, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that beats only in the chest of another.”
—Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (2013)
Today, September 19, has been decreed (by two guys in Albany, Oregon) to be Talk Like A Pirate Day. While I enjoy the whimsicality of that, since my mind always goes to books I wondered what books would suit if it were READ Like A Pirate Day. So I decided to explore that idea.
There are, of course, the classics: Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Captain Blood, by Rafael Sabatini. Who doesn’t remember those with fondness? But what books would a modern pirate read?
Perhaps, being a pirate with a somewhat busy lifestyle, he hasn’t had much time for literacy, so starting with a children’s book might be in order until he gets the hang of this reading thing. For instance, How I Became A Pirate, by David Shannon and Melinda Long, could be a great introduction. He might, however, be a vain pirate not fond of a character who claims that all pirates have green teeth. So perhaps moving on to a young adult novel would be wise.
One could find enough reading to ride out the winter in the comfort of the captain’s cabin by perusing the Bloody Jack series, by L. A. Meyer. Jacky Faber is a ship’s boy on board HMS Dolphin. The only initial challenge is to keep the fact that “Jacky” is actually named Mary a secret from the rest of the crew. In a series of wild adventures that include shipwreck, boarding school, slavery, and piracy, Mary “Jacky” Faber spends a 12-book series getting herself and her friends into and out of hot water.
If the pirate wanted a break from sword fights and grog, Daphne du Maurier wrote a gripping romance set in Restoration England in which Lady Dona St. Colomb, sick of her indulgent life with her silly and ineffectual husband, takes the children and retreats to their estate in Cornwall, where the discovery of Frenchman’s Creek sets her on an adventure with a daring French pirate. But what happens when the adventurous have to come back to earth and recognize their responsibilities? Now the pirate is depressed. He needs some derring do, a bit of mayhem to get him out of the glumphs.
The perfect remedy is Empire of Blue Water, whose subtitle could itself take the pirate a day or two to parse: Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws’ Bloody Reign (whew!), by Stephan Talty. Although no extra description is necessary, let me just add that this is the real story of the pirates of the Caribbean, with terror, devastation, and political intrigue galore, enough to satisfy the most bloodthirsty of readers.
What is your favorite pirate tale? There are many more for the reading: This Goodreads list contains 537!
Get out there today and roll your rrrrrrrrrrrrs!
This is a story about a 7th-grade girl (Bridge), her two best girlfriends (Emily and Tab), and her new friend-who-is-a-boy, Sherm. Beyond that description, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about. It’s a record of Bridge’s experiences with school, with her friends, and with her family, interspersed with letters from Sherm to his grandfather, and chapters written in second person by an unknown protagonist who lives in Bridge’s universe but who is perhaps a bit older, and who is obviously unhappy about something…but what?
It’s an odd little book. If you read it purely on the surface, you may get frustrated with it as “story.” It meanders. It wanders from Bridge’s friendships and day-to-day experiences to Sherm’s grandfather’s desertion to the unknown older teenager taking her “day-cation” from school to ponder recent events, giving equal weight to all of them, and if you are looking at it just as a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, at first you feel a bit unmoored. Is there a story here? Is there a point at which the author means you to arrive? You might feel a little impatient with it and want to say Hey, what’s the plot here? even when you are halfway through the book.
But if you read this book more philosophically, you see that everyone in it is struggling with their sense of self, and not in the way many people portray that, where something happens and the character’s personality magically and immediately solidifies around that event. This book is really dealing with life as it is lived, where people have small realizations and epiphanies as they go along, most of the time not even realizing until afterwards that something has changed; and there are no big “Aha!” moments, there are just shifts in perspective that gradually (perhaps glacially) take you further towards a realization of who you are, or want to be, or can afford to be.
So while this book is definitely written for a middle school audience—not angsty teenagers but really for 6th and 7th-graders—I am wondering if they are seeing in it what I, as an adult, am seeing in it? Maybe I am being condescending, though—maybe they see it and get it much more easily and clearly than I do! Sometimes our expectations of writing and story interfere with our appreciation of something new or different in structure or feeling, and the middle-schoolers won’t have the predispositions that I do.
I ended up really appreciating this book. You could describe it as a slice of life story, but it’s more than that. Not a lot more, but the distance beyond is what’s important about it. It’s truly “coming of age,” but not with the idea that coming of age has some magic arrival point at which you are finally you. Instead, it shows that even grandfathers are still groping for identity after decades of feeling like they were who they were forever. A significant message in a seemingly innocuous little package.
Every once in a while, I like to pick up something that is being lauded as a bestseller, just to check in with what’s popular at the moment. Honestly, I much prefer to discover the dark horses on the library shelf than to go with the crowd onto the holds list; but several of my friends had bookmarked Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine as “to read” on Goodreads, so I decided to do likewise.
Many times, I am discouraged by my foray into popular fiction. I didn’t enjoy The Girl on the Train; wasn’t a fan of the Christian Grey saga; and am less engaged with each subsequent Dan Brown tome that emerges. So I never approach bestsellers with either faith or anticipation. But this time I wasn’t disappointed.
My initial reaction to the first third of this book (despite some clues in the opening pages that would have led me elsewhere had I been paying sufficient attention) was that it reminded me of The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. Socially awkward protagonist with no friends, wedded to routine, on whom a random suggestion acts as a catalyst to start changing things up, check. Protagonist meets someone completely outside their wheelhouse and makes an unexpected connection, check. But that’s not quite how this book ended up going. The two books share a sense of humor, and their protagonists share the quality of being literal and inept at human relations and thus unintentionally funny (and sometimes pathetic) as they attempt to navigate their way through life. But the reasons behind their similar states are different, as are the resolutions.
There are lots of books out there (fiction and nonfiction) about various kinds of mental health issues. Not many of them, however, address the situation of profound loneliness as either a cause or an outcome. Eleanor believes that she is completely self-sufficient–after all, all of her physical needs are being met, and in all her years in the foster care system, she didn’t get a chance to indulge any emotional needs, or even recognize that she had any. But when she has two chance encounters that change her focus, these events and the people connected with them worm their way into her formerly solitary existence and begin to show her that she had very little idea what a full life could be like.
Eleanor is, in many ways, profoundly broken, and her metamorphosis depends on courage that she wouldn’t have found without making some human connections, but it is not a romantic book, for which I was grateful. This is a book about Eleanor, and Gail Honeyman doesn’t fall into the trap of leading her out of her unhappiness by making her fall in love. Her story is told in a tender, sweet, and humorous way that isn’t manipulative and never descends into mawkishness, that pulls both Eleanor and the reader out of melancholy into hopefulness. I was impressed that this is the author’s debut novel: The language, the characters, and the world in which she places them are smart and engaging, and she writes with confidence.
I have encountered only a few books that, the minute I turned the last page, I wanted to go back and re-read to see what I missed or to re-experience the emotions brought forth by the story. This was one of them.
If You Find Me, by Emily Murdoch, is a somewhat difficult book to read, but fascinating nonetheless. As it opens, we see Carey busy with dinner preparation for herself and her little sister, Jenessa, outside the old camper they call home, in a clearing deep inside a national forest in Tennessee. They live there with their mother, a mentally ill meth addict, who is absent more than she’s present, “running errands” in town and leaving the girls to fend for themselves, on a diet of canned food and whatever they can catch or scrounge from the woods around them. Carey has been there since she was about six, and Jenessa was born in the woods, so this subsistence-style life is mostly all they have known.
Then, one day, after their mother has been gone a worryingly long time and they are almost down to their last can of beans, two strangers show up in their clearing, and suddenly everything in life changes, as they are taken out of their hideaway and into the real world of people, bright lights and (for Carey) high school.
Now Carey has to confront her past and decide whether her abduction by her mother was really for the reasons her mother told her all these years. She also has to deal with the secret, the dreadful thing that caused her sister Jenessa to quit talking almost a year ago. But if she opens up about all of it, will her new family reject her as her mother has?
The writing style and the Tennessee dialect immediately pulled me in to this story. I related to the fact that these children (particularly Carey) were mostly self-educated; she spoke in an old-fashioned, stilted way that you would learn from books, not from contact with other people, and that’s what I was like growing up—I absorbed language from all the books I read, and came out with unexpected anachronisms that made people laugh at me because I learned my language and grammar from Regency romance novels, fairy tales, and classic poetry. I loved how the author infused the book with references to Winnie the Pooh, Tennyson, Dickinson, etc. The story was gripping, and I appreciated that although terrible things happened, they were mostly revealed visually by snippets of scenes, not by bald descriptions.
I did have some trouble with some factual things in the book that didn’t ring true. The child welfare system works a certain way, and the author violated many of the rules that it follows. I can see why she did it, but to sentimentalize and soften parts of its functionality in favor of her plot actually did the book a disservice, in my opinion. Otherwise, though, the story rings true. Carey’s conflicting emotions, guilt, fear, the secretive behavior, the inability to let herself believe she deserves good things, the confusion at letting go of the picture her mother had painted of her father, all felt genuine. This was a deeply affecting book. Grades 9 and up would be the appropriate age group.
Also, kudos on the cover–this girl is just as described in the book (except she might have had brown eyes?).