Review: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

the-end-we-start-fromPremise: in a dystopian version of the UK (like that isn’t what we’re actually experiencing in real-life), London is submerged by a massive flood, causing widespread homelessness and displacement. A woman gives birth and is forced to abandon her home, traveling further and further in search of safety and a future for her family.

Thoughts: firstly, this book is only 160 pages long. I point this out early because I didn’t realise this until my Kindle told me it would only take me an hour to read and I wondered if it was about to explode or something. Sometimes a short book is great (particularly for those of us with massive Goodreads challenges); it just wasn’t what I anticipated. Also, if, like me, your brain is still replaying the greatest indie songs of 2007, you are quite likely to continually confuse The End We Start From with the Editors’ song, An End Has a Start, which is a bit distracting.

Because of the brevity of the book, things seem to move quite quickly at times, before barely moving at all, which seems an adequate reflection of events in the story; the narrator leave London in a hurry and are, initially, frenzied in their movements, before settling in a variety of different, often unsatisfying camps, where there’s nothing to do except worry about the future. I don’t know if the formatting is specific to the e-ARC I read, but the writing is sparse, with a sentence making up a whole paragraph; this did make it quite difficult for me to fully immerse myself in the story. As far as I can tell, the narrator was never named, which is something I’m not a huge fan of; I wanted to feel really involved in the story, but due to this name-related distance and the short length, it didn’t really happen.

The story itself is really intriguing; I have a child and the thought of having to look after her in such an unpredictable and frightening landscape did unnerve me. I was reminded of Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus while reading The End We Start From, with its strange relationships and urgency surrounding the care of a small child, as well as the environmental disaster that precipitates the plot (look – a weather pun! I am funny). I’d have liked to see more development, probably with at least another 150 pages; I find it quite hard to be fully satisfied by a novella rather than a full novel.

In Conclusion: really intriguing, with an original writing style, The End We Start From is a book which packs a punch. I’d have liked to see some more development, but I’m sure its brevity will appeal to readers who aren’t as picky as me. I’d recommend to fans of The End of the World Running Club too.

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

eleanor oliphant.pngThe Premise: Eleanor is a creature of routine: she wears the same clothes every day to the same job she’s been doing since leaving university; she drinks the same vodka alone every weekend, and she speaks to her mother at the same time every Wednesday. She doesn’t engage with other people; she doesn’t quite understand other people and they definitely don’t understand her. Eleanor assumes her life will carry on in the same way forever, until inadvertently becoming involved in someone else’s life gives her a new perspective.

Thoughts: that synopsis in no way represents how wonderful and surprising this book is, but I don’t want to spoil it and so want all humans to read it, so that will have to do. I loved this book; it made me laugh more than once during the first half and made me cry in the second. Having seen Eleanor Oliphant compared to Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, I was prepared for social misunderstandings and general awkwardness; like Don in that book, Eleanor seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, although this is never actually stated. Eleanor is far more disarming than Don, however, and I felt tremendous affection for her from very early on. Her befuddlement concerning other people and the things they enjoy is mainly funny, although sometimes heartbreaking, as it reveals the depth of her isolation. Eleanor lives alone in a flat, counting a house-plant as her only friend: a situation obviously imbued with pathos, even before the other complications of Eleanor’s life are revealed.

The majority of Eleanor Oliphant sees its titular character navigating social occasions, making some bad decisions based on romantic inexperience, and exhibiting confusion about the behaviour of her colleagues. But there’s always a hint of sadness in the amusement; a funny shopping trip to obtain ‘normal’ clothes is set against her weekly trips to the local shop to buy enough vodka to see her through the weekend, and Eleanor’s isolation is palpable. Honeyman does a tremendous job of finding humour in Eleanor’s lack of social training, while also hinting at the tragedies in her past which rendered her so isolated. Eleanor’s narrative voice is hugely engaging, and her naivety gave me a developing sense of dread, as I found myself feeling protective towards her; she’s such a brilliantly realised protagonist, it’s hard to think of her as being fictional.

I don’t want to say anything more about the plot, because the surprises should remain exactly that, but I feel duty-bound to highlight the extraordinary shift in tone which Honeyman executes quite late on; I’m not often surprised by books, because all I do is read so there are few plot twists which can catch me off guard, but the about-turn Eleanor Oliphant takes gave me a sense of having been very abruptly and unpleasantly thrown off a rollercoaster. It’s a very discombobulating moment and one which I think Honeyman manages magnificently.

In Conclusion: obviously, I loved this book. It will be my new go-to recommendation for discerning people who seek suggestions, and I will definitely have to buy a copy of my own, having read an e-ARC in the first instance (thank you to the power of a million to HarperCollins and NetGalley, by the way). Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is gloriously written, by turns witty and disturbing, and contains more than a few twists to engage even the most hard-to-please reader. You really, really need to read this book.

YA Review: Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith

windfall.jpgThe Premise: everyone dreams of winning the lottery, but what do you do when that actually happens? That’s the question that Teddy must answer when his best friend, Alice, buys him a lottery ticket for his 18th birthday and it results in a multi-million dollar windfall. Oh, and Alice is secretly in love with Teddy. Obviously.

Thoughts: I must begin by saying I really, really liked this book. I read it in one sitting  at a point when I’d already read 7 books in 2 days (I was home alone and barely left the house), so I was surprised that it grabbed me as strongly as it did.

I think the idea of winning the lottery is something that everyone has contemplated at some point, which makes a lot of Windfall universally appealing. Teddy lives in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment with his mum, after his dad lost all their money and left a few years before, so his sudden enormous fortune makes a huge difference; immediately, he’s buying sports cars and paying for his jock buddies to spend Spring Break in Mexico. It’s relatable; surely these are the kinds of things everyone would do? Because he’s a decent guy, he also tries to make Alice take half the money; she bought the ticket after all, so it seems only fair. She says no, creating another ‘what would I do?’ scenario for the reader; I like coming across these kinds of things, especially in YA where I usually feel too old and boring to fully relate to what’s going on.

Windfall is far less fluffy than its synopsis might imply; both Alice and Teddy have suffered terrible losses, which create some really emotional moments. Their friendship, completed with Alice’s cousin Leo, is one of the highlights of the book; although Alice’s feelings for Teddy complicate things, their banter sounds authentic and their bond is obvious. Nearly all the parents on show, unusually for YA, are excellent; funny and supportive and like real, actual people. I liked this.

In Conclusion: Windfall is, basically, really lovely. Jennifer E. Smith takes a fantastical but possible scenario and weaves it into a story about love, family and loyalty, about finding your own way and learning what’s really important. It reminded me of Meg Leder’s The Museum of Heartbreak, one of my favourite YA reads of 2016. I recommend Windfall; it’s sweet and thought-provoking, sometimes at the same time, which is pretty impressive.

Thanks very much to My Kinda Book for the proof copy of Windfall. This in no way influenced my opinion. It’s just a really good book.

Review: Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

anything is possible.jpgThe Premise: Elizabeth Strout’s previous novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, was a beautifully subtle look at how its title character was affected by her less than lovely upbringing. Anything is Possible acts as a kind of companion piece, focusing on the small town Lucy came from and its people, with some of them reminiscing about Lucy as she becomes a famous novelist.

Thoughts: I loved My Name Is Lucy Barton (if you’re unfamiliar with the book, you can find my review here) so I was very excited to read Anything is Possible. Part of what I enjoyed about Lucy was its intimate scope; it’s a really close character study, with a huge part of the novel taking place in one room and focusing on just two characters – Lucy and her mother. Anything is Possible takes a different approach, with a much more numerous cast of characters and, although some sections venture out of the small town location, most of the book takes place in Amgash, Illinois. So it’s a slightly different proposition, although the links between the two books make it seem somehow familiar and comforting (even as the recollections of the characters are less than appealing).

Anything is Possible reads more like a series of interconnected short stories than a novel; there are lots of overlaps between the sections, particularly as the different characters recall Lucy and reflect on her newfound success. The book begins with Tommy Guptill, a high school janitor who shared a bond with Lucy, based on his sympathy for her home life, which was covered in more detail in My Name is Lucy Barton. It’s a clever way for Strout to establish the links between the two books, while still introducing new characters and situations, and it’s a technique which is repeated throughout.

A key feature of the first book was Lucy’s empty relationship with her cold and distant mother, and this idea is reflected in Anything is Possible, with a handful of mothers who left their families. I’ve not read any of Strout’s other books, but I’d be interested to do so and see if this theme of mothers and daughters is repeated elsewhere in her work. In Anything is Possible, for example, we see a grown-up daughter trying to reestablish her relationship with her mother after the latter leaves the family home for a new marriage in Italy; as in Lucy Barton, Strout seems to emphasise the fragility of these bonds, while at the same time showing their perseverance. In Anything is Possible, you’ll also find disintegrating marriages and their associated crises, family feuds and simmering feelings, both affectionate and less so.

In Conclusion: like Lucy Barton, Anything is Possible is subtle and beautifully written, with the same sparsity and lack of melodrama as the first book, even as the scope widens to include more characters. The recurring themes of mundane unhappiness and the difficulty of escaping it are a further link between the two books, and the way in which different characters respond to Lucy’s apparent achievement in escaping is one of the most intriguing parts of the book. It’s not all about Lucy though, so, if you haven’t read My Name Is Lucy Barton, that shouldn’t be an obstacle to reading Strout’s new book (although you should definitely read both, obviously).