Harbour Street, Vera Stanhope #6 by Anne Cleeves

Harbour Street was yet another book in this series I love and which I thought, having seen and loved this episode of the TV series, I might ‘know’. No. I was wrong. Again. While there are, of course, similarities, in plot and characterisation, the book can take you places the TV series can only dream of going.

The story here centres around an elegant old lady who is mysteriously killed on a train. The clincher is that it’s Joe Ashworth’s eldest daughter who finds the body. Enter, or rather, lumber, our beloved Vera, stage left. Larger than life, kind and sharp, a woman who doesn’t suffer fools but loves to appear one so people constantly underestimate her (which some do to their detriment), Vera knows there’s more to this dead woman, Margaret, than meets the eye, pet. Learning that she lived in a B&B on Harbour Street, sharing responsibility with a young woman, Kate, who has two teenage children, Vera starts to unearth a rather complicated past for our Margaret.

As the novel progresses, more and more people enter the scene and become not just parts of Margaret’s colourful and chequered past, but suspects as well. Cautious around the police, it takes all Vera’s charm and cunning along with the dogged determination of the rest of the team, Joe, Holly and Charlie, to discover not only what people are hiding, but what they fear.

When another body turns up, and Vera guesses the killings aren’t over yet, tracking down the murderer becomes not only a matter of professional pride, but time – and it’s running out.

Cleeves has done it again with a wonderfully evocative, richly character-driven novel from which the people leap fully-formed. Vera is fleshed out even more and it’s so rewarding for those who read the series in order to not only understand and predict how Vera will act in a given situation, but be proven wrong as well. Likewise, Joe, Holly and Charlie are given more complex roles, and their back stories are slowly filled in too.

But it’s place that also takes a lead role here – Harbour Street, full of colour intensity, and locals with their parochial attitudes, reluctance to embrace newcomers, suspicion of the police, and ambivalent relationship with the past they both hide and can’t shed.

And, as I hoped, the plot does steer away from the TV one, so it’s like enjoying two amazing, beautifully structured stories filled with people you invest in and adore in the same setting. Cleeves has done it again – written a cracker of a book.

 

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The Other Wife by Michael Robotham

The latest book in the Joseph O’Loughlin series, The Other Wife is a cracker of a read that I dare you to be able to put down once you start. I forced myself only so I could savour the joy of a great story with characters I’ve grown to know and love and who are embroiled in a plot both dark and, for Joe at least, deeply, personal.

The book opens with Joe relocated to London with youngest daughter Emma, contemplating life after the death of his wife, when he receives the call adult children both dread and half anticipate: his eminent surgeon father has been admitted to hospital and is on life support.

Racing to be by his father’s side, Joe reflects upon this cold, distant and judgemental man he barely knew and yet whose approval he endlessly sought. When he arrives at ICU, his father is not alone. A younger, lovely woman is sitting by his side, clutching his father’s inert hand. But it’s when she tells Joe who she is, that his world is turned upside down and inside out.

Everything Joe thought he knew is now unstable and with each new piece of information, he seems to lurch from one discovery and response to another. Not even the grounding presence and help of Vincent Ruiz, retired cop and now a corporate investigator, provides the stability Joe needs.

The more Joe delves into his own and other’s histories, the more suspicious he becomes about what really happened to his father and why, but when the truth is finally revealed, not even Joe is prepared for the consequences.

Superbly written, tight, fast-paced and emotionally fraught yet always true, this is a magnificent book that puts family and personal histories under the microscope and doesn’t hold back. It’s explores the assumptions we make – about those we think we know and those we don’t. How unfair and self-righteous these sometimes are and the terrible outcomes that can occur when we’re swift to judge.

No-one is more honest or raw in his judgements than Joe – especially about himself. I think that’s what makes his character rich, real and so appealing. Flawed, vulnerable and yet with a strength he isn’t always aware of, this book really has him centre stage, placed in an oft-cruel spotlight under which he still manages to star.

My only disappointment (as always happens with Robotham) is that I now have to bloody well wait for his next book. Please don’t leave me waiting too long. This was stunning.

 

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Finn’s Feather by Rachel Noble and Illustrated by Zoey Abbott

What do you do when a book reaches into your soul and squeezes it so hard you’re left breathless and filled with a wondrous ache and yet the marvel of hope and the beauty of sorrow? You dry your eyes, still your weeping and read it all over again – this time, more slowly, taking in the deceptively simple and heart-warming prose and the gentle joy of the illustrations.

So it was when I had the amazing experience of reading Rachel Noble’s utterly lovely book for children, Finn’s Feather. This is a stark, moving and gorgeous tale about a boy named Finn who, when he finds a perfect white feather on his doorstep one day, believes it is a gift from his dead brother Hamish. I know… right?

The story is about how Finn, thrilled with his brother’s gift, can’t understand his mother’s or teacher’s reaction. His mother hugs him and sighs, his teacher takes a deep breath and smiles (and God, how I hurt when I read their reactions – it was a visceral response). It’s left to his best friend, Lucas to find, with Finn, the pleasure in his brother’s gift and the message it sends: to continue to laugh, love and never forget.

This exquisitely rendered tale of grief and loss, is told very much through a child’s eyes and how they process sorrow so differently. It is so sensitively rendered, so positive in its scope and the message and, believe it or not, happiness it offers (as well as the unbelievably touching acknowledgment of loss) that it should be read widely by everyone who has a child or who has experienced the death of a beloved.

I have been so touched by this story, but also rightly impressed with how it has been told – the care and love that has gone into a difficult and yet important tale in a society that generally doesn’t handle discussions of death at all well. Rachel Noble is to be commended and, indeed, praised for this elegant, poignant work – and for the ways in which she’s used her own experiences to give it such veracity and depth.

Let me give you a bit of background. In October 20102, Rachel lost her son Hamish in a terrible accident at home. As a way of trying to make sense of what happened, of Hamish’s death, as a professional writer, she turned to her craft: she wrote – and wrote and wrote. Knowing she wanted to write a picture book to honour Hamish and everything he means to her and her family, it wasn’t until she came home one-day and found a feather on her doorstep that Finn’s Feather took shape.

Snapped up by a US publisher – the phenomenal Enchanted Lion books, a family owned enterprise, it comes out June this year, including in Australia.

This is such an important book, such a lovely addition to any child’s and family’s library, I cannot recommend it enough. In sharing her emotions, her family’s story in such an accessible and meaningful way, Rachel has given voice to what is so hard to express and, along with Zoey Abbott, given death and loss a tender garment  for us all to don and cherish.

I loved Finn’s Feather and all the complex emotions it stirred, and the big, aching heart at its beautiful centre.

Thank you.

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The Break by Marian Keyes

Never having read a Marian Keyes book before I was uncertain what to expect. However, a glowing review about The Break from a friend (who’s also a huge fan of Keye’s work) made me keen to start. Well, what a glorious, heart-wrenching, warm, funny and fundamentally human novel this is. I found it so hard to tear myself away from and then felt bereft when I’d finished.

Ostensibly the story of the happily married Amy and Hugh who experience a relationship crisis when Hugh decides that though he loves Amy, he wants a “break”, it’s also a great deal more than that. Striding into middle age and all its cosy familiarity, for some people, this stage of life can also breed contempt – mostly for the self. Wondering if we’ve reached our potential or if this is indeed “it” for whatever more time we’re granted, it’s easy to understand why middle age can sometimes be the autumn of so many people’s discontent.

Thus it is with Hugh. A decent, good man (and Amy’s second husband), he nonetheless feels the need to take a hiatus from what he’s become and may yet be becoming. Shocked, horrified and in disbelief by what Hugh intends and unable to prevent him (even if she really wanted to), Amy struggles with the cliché her marriage is turning into. Trying to understand Hugh while feeling a mixture of grief, anger, loathing and every other emotion there is, as well as trying to balance her professional life with the wreck of her personal and the unwelcome return of her narcissistic her ex-husband and his claims, Amy undergoes her own sort of crisis. Juggling her wonderfully messy family and their demands, catastrophes and triumphs, and the chaos that ensues in Hugh’s departure’s wake, Amy’s enforced break almost becomes a breakdown.

The characters are so real, their emotions raw, complex and simple. You ache for them all – Hugh, Amy, the children they share, the mad grandmother and curmudgeonly father and the rainbow of brothers and sisters Amy possesses as well as her business partners. Slowly, Amy realises that if Hugh is on a break, then it means she is as well – with all the liberties and restrictions, difficulties and pleasures, painful memories and daring hopes that entails.

If you’re looking for a book that will make you laugh, cry, think deeply and look afresh at your own life and choices, that features witty, authentic and flawed people and mad Irish humour, then don’t go past this sensitively explored, thoroughly entertaining and downright marvellous book.

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Sisters of the Fire by Kim Wilkins

29937614The second book in the Blood and Gold series, Sister of the Fire is set a few years after the thrilling events of the first book, Daughters of the Storm, conclude. Once more, we’re drawn into the lives of the five very different sisters as they hurdle towards their unknown and dark destinies. Whether it’s the fierce and loyal Bluebell who’s on a mission to locate a sword that’s been crafted for the purpose of slaying her and which she fears one of her sister’s possesses; or forlorn Rose, the princess set aside by her Trimartyr husband, King Wengest, and who’s forced to live away from the man she loves and with her aunt and son – that is, until she learns the life of her daughter, the indefatigable Rowan, is in danger. We also follow the struggles of Ash as she comes to terms with the terrible power she wields, the fate she sees for the realm and will do anything to prevent. Then there are the twins, Ivy and Willow. Weak and ineffectual in comparison to her sisters, Ivy has been given in marriage to a man she doesn’t love and whose chronic illness threatens to unbalance the city she holds in care for her beloved sons. Then there’s the zealot, Willow. Having turned her back on the faith she was born into, Willow has become a warrior-priestess for Maava and, in her efforts to prove herself worthy of her cruel god’s love, will do anything – even betray the family and kingdom who remain steadfast to her.

Vast in scope and setting (the reader is taken from rocky shores, craggy islands, deserted towns, bustling cities to mystical forests and arcane castles), Sisters of the Storm is a tour de force of the imagination. Each of the main women in the story, and the men who either exploit or love them fearlessly, as well as the children the women love unconditionally (if not always well), are masterfully realised and sometimes brutally rendered. Wilkins doesn’t shy away from exposing their great strengths and tragic and even irritating weaknesses. You believe in these people, these flawed, majestic beings and the goals they pursue, and their need to forge or at least control their fates to the best of their ability. Just as they love with great ardour and conviction, so the reader does too, as we segue from one sister’s path before stumbling upon another’s, championing their individual or collective causes or mourning their dreadful decisions. The prose is evocative, moving and, at time, violent.

There’s no doubt, Wilkins, as story-teller par excellence, has a flair with words – a few well chosen ones conjure the depths of despair, the ache of maternal or passionate love, the fury of betrayal. Likewise, landscape is rendered minimally but with no less impact. You hear the ocean, smell the forest, and enter the bloody battles with your heart racing and your senses afire. The novel is imbued with wildness, mystery and beauty and these are carried through every page of this marvellous conclusion to a terrific series.

I also appreciated the fact that as you reach the final lines, not all doors are closed, not all paths end. I hope Wilkins returns one day to tell more tales about these divergent, complex sisters’ and their families, and the epic, but always recognisable world she’s created.

PS. I also have to say, I think the cover is simply stunning and reflects the contents beautifully…

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