These two books were both recommended to me, and I am happy to recommend them to you. They are both enjoyable and engaging, although they are very different in style and tone. One is about staying in a home town and the other is about travelling all over the country.
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
Olive Kitteridge is the kind of woman who lives by the adage; tell the truth and shame the devil. She is outspoken even when what she has to say is hard to hear. This approach to life has caused her to sometimes hurt the ones she loves and to alienate even those who respect her.
In the previous novel, Olive Kitteridge, she gradually changes her perceptions of her friends and neighbours as she adjusts to her retirement from teaching seventh-grade math. In Olive Again she mellows even further to the point where she sometimes even admits to herself that she might have been wrong about some people.
We see a much softer side to Olive in this latter story as she cares about the sick, the lonely, and the misunderstood. She still has an inability to soften her opinions, but now she sometimes keeps them to herself.
If Facebook were to give Olive a montage of the previous ten years of her life, it would look like this book. Each chapter shows us a different friend, relative, or neighbour and gives us a glimpse of their connections to Olive. She is the thread that joins them all together, but it is a very loosely woven tapestry. She only drops into people’s lives occasionally, but when she does it is memorable for both them and Olive.
Each encounter and each new understanding give both Olive and the reader reason to stop, think, and reassess. I found myself having second thoughts about my own attitudes at the end of every chapter.
Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
This World War II spy thriller is a suspenseful journey around various parts of England and Scotland in a bid to outrun a clever German spy who is known as The Needle because of the stiletto blade that he uses to kill people who get in his way.
The Needle, Henry Faber, has discovered a secret. The British are deceiving the Germans about the location of their planned landing in France on D-Day, and Faber needs to get that information to Hitler. This deception is a historical fact but the story about The Needle is fiction, as explained in the book’s Preface.
In trying to reach an off-shore U-boat by a designated date and time, Faber uses nearly every form of transportation available to people in England during the war: car, barge, walking, hitchhiking, and train. Each brings him to different experiences of the geography and people, and each brings its own advantages and frustrations. He tries to hide his identity at every stage, but most people who see his face end up dead.
The English MI5, the police, and various other security agencies all cooperate with each other in trying to stop Faber from reaching his goal. The justification for this effort and its urgency is often lost on the rank-and-file members because the secret cannot be shared with them. Dutifully, and with classic underdog humour, though, they do as they are told.
This robustly masculine tale describes a world filled with tension and fear and the reader shares in the dangers such as driving at night during a blackout and having a car break down in the middle of the desolate countryside.
With one notable and important exception, there are very few women in this story, which is a pity. Women played a major role in keeping the factories, businesses, hospitals, and families functioning during the war, so it seems odd that they are noticeably absent here. Even so, it is a great yarn and I thoroughly enjoyed the dramatic climax.