Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.

cover101578-mediumI know it’s only May but I think I’ve probably already found my Book Of The Year in Gail Honeyman’s debut, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.

A bold claim? Maybe. One that could come back to haunt me? Possibly. However, I found this unique, funny and touching book spellbinding from start to finish – and given the buzz it’s already generated, I’m not alone.

I first read the blurb for it in January and immediately put it on my reading list, practically jumping for joy when I received an email stating it was available on NetGalley pre-publication.

My anticipation levels were so high that I was almost nervous to start reading – and I’ll admit the unexpectedly authentic voice took me by surprise at first but it turned out to be so, SO much better than I was hoping.

Before I gush some more, here’s the blurb that got me so excited:

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself.

Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life.

Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than… fine?

Just a few pages in and I was hooked. Eleanor’s observations on life are astute, funny and a little bit heartbreaking all at the same time. She’s a heroine like no other I’ve met before and I found that so exciting.

Witnessing her gradual transformation, like a bud blooming into a flower, was captivating. The fact that it resulted from just a small amount of kindness warmed my heart. I wanted her to thrive, was willing it, and the moment I realised she was heading for a fall, I wanted to leap into the pages and save her the pain.

I find it amazing that Gail was able to keep courageous Eleanor’s voice so strong and true throughout and I struggle to believe this masterful book, written with so much confidence, is her debut.

After I had finished it I found myself on a bus looking at the other passengers and wondering how many were just waiting for someone to really see them?

We never know what’s going on with other people from just the outside, there’s no way you can judge even when – probably especially when – someone says they are fine.

Maybe, in real life, happy endings are not as readily available but surely it’s worth taking a chance – especially with something so easy to do.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is not only a wonderful and compelling story, it also has power within its words, power that opened my heart and mind and changed the way I think.

I don’t think you can ask for much more than that.

Format: Kindle.

Price: £7.99.

My rating: All the stars.

Thank you very much to Harper Collins UK for the ARC in return for my honest opinion.

Things To Do In Norfolk: Banham Zoo.

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Victoria crowned pigeon.

There are so many things I like about Banham Zoo – and that’s before you even get to the animals.

We’ve been visiting once or twice a year since Freya was a baby – more for Mark’s benefit at that time – and she really loves it now, especially because there are two cheetahs among more than 2,000 animals – and Fuli, from The Lion Guard, is her absolute favourite.

Set in 50 acres, it opened in 1968 with a collection of parrots and pheasants before acquiring a colony of monkeys in 1971. Since then it has gone from strength to strength – often crowned Norfolk’s Top Attraction by various organisations – and in 2013 it became part of the Zoological Society of East Anglia, a charity which also owns Africa Alive in Suffolk.

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Sri Lankan Leopards having a play.

The staff, who all seem to do lots of different jobs (when we visited in winter the same lady who painted Freya’s face also drove the train and fed the cheetahs), are always so friendly and happy to answer questions. What’s more they really seem to love all creatures great and small – and are especially invested in the ones they care for. That comes across so well in the way they talk about them with such pride and passion.

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Blue and yellow macaw.

I also want to mention the food, which is simple but oh-so-delicious. I had to compliment the lady who served us on one visit because, even though I only had a jacket potato with cheese and beans with a lovely fresh salad, it was perfection. For some reason I never expected that at a zoo, maybe I should?

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Red panda (cuuuuttttee).

Ok, but what can you see?

Of course, what you really go to the zoo for is the animals. On our most recent visit, it was all about the birds for me so I thought I’d share a few photos here.

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Sam the bald eagle.
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Great grey owl.
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Hooded vulture.
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African Harrier Hawk.
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And again.
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Ruppell’s griffin vulture having a snack.

There are also reptiles, fish, amphibians and invertebrates, such as the red-legged millipede I got to hold on one visit, mammals, like Freya’s favourite below and a Siberian tiger which took me by surprise on a previous trip, and also domestic livestock. You can find a list here.

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If you want a break from walking, there is a fantastic indoor Amazing Animals display, which has been really entertaining every time we’ve been, a birds of prey demonstration, which was very special for our family recently, and various animal feedings to watch.

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Red ruffed lemur.

Two of my favourite things are the lemur encounter, where you can walk through their enclosure and get very close, and also Eureka! Anamazing Oasis. The latter is always so warm that my camera steams up but on our most recent trip it was a bit cooler in the afternoon and I managed to get some photos, including of the Victorian Crowned Pigeon at the very top and this Postman butterfly.

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The eagle-eyed might also spot a sloth among the exotic trees and plants. You can find out more about the animals in this area here.

Freya, who has endless energy, also loves the outdoor children’s play area and the small indoor softplay area, where she also gets her face painted.

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If your legs get tired from all the walking/playing you can also take a ride on the safari road train (although it’s worth doing this anyway for the accompanying talk).

All in all, it’s a great day out for all ages.

What does it cost?

Discounted tickets can be booked online before you go, all the details are here.

In May 2017 online prices were – adults, £18.15, children (three – 15), £12.95 and there are various concessions. Season tickets are also available.

The zoo runs both on-the-day and pre-bookable animal experiences, which look a lot of fun. As do the birthday parties (am I too old?).

For details of how to get there and everything else, please click here.

Hopefully I have all the names of the animals correct but I’m no expert so if you spot one you think is wrong, please let me know.

A Look Behind The Book With Susanna Bavin.

S Bavin 2Batman might have featured in Susanna Bavin’s childhood stories but she has turned her attention towards more everyday heroes for her family sagas – the first of which, The Deserter’s Daughter, is published next month.

With a deadline of just six months to complete her second, I’m even more grateful to Susanna, who lives in North Wales, for taking time out to answer my questions for Behind The Book.

It’s amazing to be able to tap into all her experience – and she offers some great insight into getting a book (or two) published (as well as some top tips for along the way).

Before we get to the Q&A, here’s the blurb for The Deserter’s Daughter:

1920, Chorlton, Manchester.

As her wedding day approaches, Carrie Jenkins is trying on her dress and eagerly anticipating becoming Mrs Billy Shipton. But all too soon she is reeling from the news that her beloved pa was shot for desertion during the Great War. When Carrie is jilted and the close-knit community turns its back on her, her half-sister Evadne and their mother, the plans Carrie nurtured are destroyed.

Desperate to overcome her private troubles as well as the public humiliation, Carrie accepts the unsettling advances of the well-to-do antiques dealer, Ralph Armstrong. Through Ralph, Evadne meets the aristocratic Alex Larter, who seems to be the answer to her matrimonial ambitions.

But the sisters have chosen men who are not to be trusted and they must face physical danger and personal heartache before they can find the happiness they deserve.

When did you start writing? Is it now your full-time job? If not, what do you do?

I was a child writer. My first story was about Batman (!) but my great love was writing boarding school stories, because that was what I adored reading. Is writing now my full-time job? I wish! My first career was as a librarian specialising in work with schools and children; then I became a teacher. After we came to Wales I moved into the care sector, firstly as a carer and now I have a part-time job as a cook in sheltered accommodation.

Have you always been a saga fan? What do you enjoy about them? 

When we were 14, my best friend discovered Victoria Holt’s books and she got me reading them – and I was hooked. Throughout my teens I wrote gothic stories and this soon morphed into writing sagas – not because I was reading them at that point, but simply because that was the way my story-telling naturally developed.

I enjoy reading thrillers, psychological suspense and US cosy crime, but my favourite fiction is the saga. I especially love books by Anna Jacobs and Carol Rivers. In a saga, there is so much material to become immersed in, both as a reader and as a writer. The traditional format of the saga is to follow the heroine as she faces and bit by bit overcomes her troubles, with various sub-plots adding further depth and intrigue to the story. I love the exploration of the characters’ lives – their relationships, ambitions, successes and failures, all the things that make them tick. The tiny details of a life can take on such significance. Sagas are about relationships of all kinds – family ties and divisions, friendships, enmity and love.

Sagas have an historical setting too, which has always appealed to me, again both as a reader and as a writer. For me, the delight of the saga is seeing the heroine having to deal with challenging situations within the social and legal context of the day.

deserter's daughterYour debut novel is set in 1920. Were you already a fan of that era?

Thanks to a wonderful teacher called Miss Smith, history was my favourite subject at school; and I went on a do a degree in history. My particular interest is social history – specifically women’s lives; and domestic history – costume, food, furniture etc.

The first few novels I wrote had a Victorian setting and I built up a lot of knowledge. Then I looked at the market and saw that, while Victorian-based novels were still being published, there was far more concentration on the 20th Century, so I made the decision to move my next book into the 1900s… but not too far in. Hence 1920. It was a bit of a wrench at the time, but now, having immersed myself in the history of the day, it feels right and comfortable.

How did you learn your publisher was interested in a (two-book) deal? What was that moment like?

It wasn’t so much a moment as a prolonged series of moments. First of all, the offer from Allison & Busby was to publish The Deserter’s Daughter and to have first refusal on my next book. Then I received an email saying that A&B wanted to see a synopsis for book two. Fortunately for me, my agent, Laura Longrigg at MBA, had already got me to write a synopsis for a second 1920s saga and had advised me to ditch an enormous sub-plot and concentrate on the main plot so that the reader could become immersed in the story of Nell, the heroine. It was at that point that A&B wanted to see the synopsis. I had to drop everything and work on a revised version.

On the strength of that synopsis, I was offered a two-book deal. This happened a few days before Christmas. The best Christmas present ever!

Telling everyone and receiving all those congratulations and good wishes was very special. If you’re a not-yet-published writer reading this, I hope it happens to you one day.

How far into book two are you? Is it going well? 

A mere six months to complete a saga – wow! The Deserter’s Daughter is just under 126,000 words and the follow-up will be the same sort of length. I’m about two-thirds of the way through, so I need to get a move on.

For me, the pressure is associated with all the other things I have to do, rather than the writing itself. Moreover, I am not a writer who writes straight onto the screen. I use pen and paper. I don’t write in perfect copperplate – I scrawl my own shorthand. But unlike a writer who composes on-screen, the typing is a separate part of the process for me and has to be factored into the deadline.

As for the story itself, I’m very happy with it. Laura was absolutely right to tell me to ditch the big sub-plot and make it Nell’s story. This has enabled me to delve deeply into her life and the lives of the people most important to her. As a reader, I appreciate depth in a novel and I hope this what I provide as a writer.

How invested do you get in your characters? Do you think about them even when you’re not writing?

Deeply. And yes.

Most characters arrive in my head fully formed, right down to the last detail of their back-story. This was what happened with Carrie and Evadne, the sisters in The Deserter’s Daughter, and also with Ralph, the villain. Other characters might take a little longer to develop inside my mind, but I end up knowing so much about these people that I can’t help getting drawn into their lives. Writing about them in such a way as to make the reader understand exactly why they do or think or want a particular thing is hugely satisfying. As a reader, you don’t have to like a character in order to understand them, but you do have to understand them thoroughly for the story to be successful.

Are you nervous about publication? What will you do on the big day?

I don’t think ‘nervous’ is the right word, but I am very aware that my book is going to be a hardback and therefore expensive. Don’t get me wrong: I’m thrilled to be published in hardback before the paperback comes out. That doesn’t happen to everyone these days, and especially not to a first-time author. I feel privileged.

I hope lots of people will be interested enough to request The Deserter’s Daughter at their local public libraries. Coming from a family of lifelong library-users, and speaking as a former librarian, it makes me feel proud to think of my book – my book! – being on public library shelves.

As for publication day, there will be an afternoon tea with friends at one of the hotels on Llandudno’s promenade. My husband and I did some rather delicious market research before we chose the afternoon tea we liked best. It’s going to be a lovely occasion.

Any advice for writers working on their own novels and maybe in need of some encouragement?

In blogs and interviews I have read, writers often give general advice on the importance of perseverance, which of course is important, but I am going to give some practical tips that I hope will be useful.

writingtips.pngThank you so much to Susanna for her time and effort. It’s been so nice to connect with her and I loved reading her answers, which I found so interesting and inspiring. I’ve already written tip number two on the whiteboard next to my desk.

Please check out Susanna’s website, which also has a brilliant (and very useful) section on writing. You can also follow her on Twitter and, of course, please request The Deserter’s Daughter, which is published in hardback on June 22, from your local library.

Lastly, a big thank you to Catherine at Cultural Wednesdays for introducing us.