Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

This quirky slice of life novel is so good I never wanted it to end. Eleanor Oliphant is Scottish and the woman no one wants to be: socially awkward, dowdy, unsuccessful and all alone. At first, it’s hard to like her because Eleanor is very set in her ways and more than a little judgmental. She spends her time working, avoiding human contact outside the office, chatting with her mother on the phone once a week and getting blitzed on vodka every weekend. But when glimpses of her deeply troubled childhood begin to surface, it’s hard not to respect the fact that she’s somehow managed to survive. Enter Raymond, the office IT guy who’s far from handsome, but has a heart of gold. Raymond seems to have no problem overlooking Eleanor’s weird behavior and it isn’t long before association with him has her reaching for a different kind of life. This book is exceptionally well written, the Glasgow setting giving it an added element of charm. I found myself rooting for Eleanor hard and did not see the twist coming at the end of the book at all. Highly recommend.

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Contagion – Erin Bowman

This is one of the best YA books I’ve ever read! It’s heart pounding action from beginning to end and not the mindless kind with no character development. Althea Sadik is working as an intern for renowned microbiologist Dr. Lisbeth Tarlow when circumstances force them to answer a distress call from a drill operation on a distant planet which never rotates to face the sun. On dark Achlys, they discover a missing crew with only the body of an engineer and a cryptic message scrawled in blood. Desperate to find her father stationed on the planet, the captain orders a search despite the crew’s reluctance. What they find are corpses and a lone minor whose survival is too good to be true. This is a two book series and I can’t wait for the sequel as I haven’t read as exciting a last fifty pages since Michael Crichton’s The Lost World. Equal parts Aliens and Resident Evil, the intricate plot, spare yet effective character development, world building and escalating pace make for a truly exceptional novel. 

Orphan Monster Spy – Matt Killeen

This is a sensational young adult book; a unique take on an old theme. Stories about WWII aren’t my favorite, maybe because Nazi behavior is so extreme, but enter a new heroine named Sarah-a smart, sassy, blue-eyed blonde Jew struggling to survive in 1939 Germany. The action starts right away when Nazi’s shoot Sarah’s mom at a checkpoint. Fifteen-year-old Sarah escapes, meeting a mysterious yet kind man with a luxurious Berlin apartment. Using her ingenuity, she quickly learns he’s part of the Resistance. Rage at what’s happening in Germany prompts her to accept his assignment to befriend the daughter of a top Nazi scientist at an elite boarding school to discover what’s going on behind the well-guarded walls of their estate. Sarah’s classmates prove vicious, trained to prop up Third Reich ideology. She’s soon in yet another battle to survive, but woe to anyone who underestimates this cherubic looking girl. The book’s premise is farfetched but there were teenage spies during WWII, and the pacing’s so smart it’s never a problem. You’ll quickly find yourself rooting for Sarah to beat the Nazis at their own game. My highest recommendation.

 

Educated – Tara Westover

In this real life memoir, Tara Westover describes beautifully the difficult journey from primitive existence to the elite world of academia. Born to survivalists in Idaho, she spent her childhood stockpiling food for a disaster that never comes, helping her mother prepare herbal potions used in lieu of traditional medicine, and salvaging metal for money in her father’s dangerous junkyard. There is no healthcare, no education and she must cope with a father bent on destruction, an abusive older brother and a mother who turns a blind eye. When a sibling rebels and goes to college, Tara gets a glimpse of the outside world. With mixed emotion, she teaches herself enough to get admitted to Brigham Young. There, she takes her first steps away from dysfunction, doing so well she is ultimately admitted to both Cambridge and Harvard. But she struggles with relationships, bedeviled by religious restrictions and family abnormality reinforced every time she goes home. This biography is an intense look into the struggle of one woman to overcome impossible odds on the road to self invention. It’s a story of loyalty and the grief which ensues from severing our most basic of human ties.

Circe – Madeline Miller

Circe, known in mythology only for her brief encounter with Odysseus, is fully realized in this inventive lush novel. A daughter of the Sun God and his alluring nymph bride, Circe is lonely as a child, too compassionate for the world of Gods. She’s also late to discover her power which is awakened only when another nymph steals her first love. Banished to an uninhabited island ostensibly for using magic to turn her rival into a monster, the reality is her witchcraft scares the mightiest Gods who fear her power might rival their own. On the island, she hones her ability taming wild beasts and crossing paths with famous figures in mythology like Hermes, the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, murderous Media and, of course, sly Odysseus. Far from a footnote, this fierce Circe turns men into pigs because they deserve it. In all honesty, I thought the premise of this book iffy, but I’m so glad I took the risk. The writing and creativity are beyond exception. The only good thing about finishing was finding she has another book titled, Song of Achilles. Yay. 

The Great Alone – Kristin Hannah

Leni has it hard. Her dad, Ernt, a Vietnam POW, and her mom, Cora, who gave birth way too young, have a tie as intense as it is toxic. Ernt can’t hold a job and is always moving the family as he chases the next big idea. The one enduring constant in Leni’s life is the love she shares with her mom. When Ernt finds he’s been left an Alaskan homestead he thinks their problems are solved. Cora and Leni are less certain given the remoteness. Unprepared for Alaska’s long cold, isolating winters, they learn to adapt with the help of locals, including Matthew-Leni’s first real friend. Unfortunately, the harsh conditions bring out the worst in Ernt whose paranoia dominates their lives. The book follows Leni from teen years into early adulthood as she copes with her father’s increasing violence and her mom’s refusal to leave. It’s both a love song to Alaska, and the bond between mothers and daughters. A shorter beginning would have improved pacing, and the end is too neatly resolved, but like every Hannah book it sucks you in and leaves you wanting more when finished.

Calypso – David Sedaris

David Sedaris is a humorist who writes about his life, making unique observations which resonate. I picked up one of his books a few years ago and wasn’t impressed. I found him arrogant and the laughs sparse. However, a review of Calypso said it focused primarily on aging and mortality so I decided to give him another go. I’m glad I did. This is a funny book. I laughed out loud more than once. Make no mistake, Sedaris has a strange offensive brand of humor so he’s definitely not for everyone. For me, I was happy to find someone who’s ideas are quirkier than my own. For instance, Sedaris has a benign tumor which needs removing. He asks the doctor if he can keep it, with the idea of feeding it to a snapping turtle near his North Carolina vacation home, but the doctor says no it’s against federal law. So he allows a Hispanic woman he meets at one of his book lectures do it in less than ideal conditions. Weird, I know, but oddly satisfying. If you like funny; you’ll love Calypso.

How to Change Your Mind – Michael Pollan

Weirdly fascinating non-fiction book charting the history of psychedelic drug use by the 1960s counterculture, and the resulting backlash, to the recent resurgence of LSD as a tool to help with mental illness. Pollan explores how such drugs were invented as well as the more traditional use of plant-based psychedelics like mushrooms. It came as news to me but research into these substances is being conducted by many respected medical institutes like Johns Hopkins. Clinical trials suggest psychedelics help with depression, addiction and the terror that accompanies terminal illness. The author also looks at mystical aspects, with many test subjects reporting a better understand of God and collective consciousness. In the right circumstances, psychedelics can open the mind to experiences our brains shut down as we age and neural pathways become fixed. Authenticity is provided by Pollan having tried several of these substances himself. Fear would probably prevent me from volunteering for this kind of research, but I enjoyed reading about the possibilities. While the book stalls sometimes due to excessive detail, like the mind numbing discussion of mushroom species, it’s a unique, well-written read.

 

 

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

I resisted reading this book for a long time because the main character-cranky old Swedish guy-didn’t sound very appealing. I’m so glad I finally took the plunge. Ove is the angry old man next door. He’s a curmudgeon with sometimes strange principles set in stone. (Only people who drive Saabs are to be trusted.) He has a strict routine and a short fuse. He distrusts the modern world and isn’t afraid to say so. But Ove’s well-ordered yet stark world is upended one day when a young couple with two small children move into the neighborhood. Suddenly, he’s confronted with seemingly endless requests, a stray cat who looks like the devil but won’t go away, and an old enemy who can’t fight anymore and is in desperate need of help. This is a funny book, but one with tons of heart. Set in Sweden, it could really take place anywhere because we all have an Ove in our lives. At its core, the book’s about community and serves as a reminder life is only worth living when shared with others.