Telling Tales by Ann Cleeves

The second book in the Vera Stanhope series, Telling Tales, centres on a cold case – the murder of young, rather promiscuous and self-confident young girl, Abigail Mantel, who is found dead on a moor. The killer, a Jeannie Long, the former girlfriend of Abigail’s father, the known and a little bit shady womaniser, Keith Mantel, is jailed for the crime she swears she didn’t commit. Fast forward 10 years, and Jeannie’s alibi is found to be solid. Alas, it’s too little, too late as this information comes after Jeannie commits suicide in jail.

Enter Vera Stanhope, untidy, nosy, larger-than-life and strong mentally and physically, who travels to the small, fictional village of Elvet with her partner Joe Ashworth to look into what is now an unsolved cold case to see if she can track down the killer. Not made to feel welcome by local colleagues, Vera nonetheless perseveres. What she finds in Elvet, apart from those who knew Abigail all those years ago including her best friend, Emma, and her family as well as the police in charge of the initial investigation but who are now retired, is a village full of intense, strange people with a propensity to tell stories about themselves and each other. It’s up to Vera to sort out fact from fiction. When someone else connected the old case is found dead, Vera needs to work harder than ever before the killer strikes again.

Wonderfully atmospheric with powerful characterisations, this novel is a treat for crime and mystery lovers, but also those who enjoy a story that lets you really sink your teeth into the people and the place. You can see the houses people live in, smell the flowers growing in the fields and hear the crack of frost upon the ground. In this second book, Vera comes into her own and what makes her tick, her self-doubts, inner convictions as well as the way she relates to people is really fleshed out.

Cleeves is such a terrific writer and I am devouring this series (like the Shetland one) with a mixture of longing and regret. Longing because I am enjoying every single word and regret because I know it will soon come to an end.

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Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland

A book about a second-hand bookshop with a quirky owner and the dry, snippy young woman who has sentences from books tattooed on various parts of her body who works for him? Set in England? With a mystery and, maybe, a love story as well? With references to literary and genre greats? That celebrates the written word? What’s not to love? Certainly, the wonderfully titled Lost for Words is a book to capture your heart.

Centred on Loveday Cardew, a woman with a mysterious past and an inability to speak of it, we follow her slow awakening to trust and her dark memories. Invited to a poetry reading – more a slam contest – in an old pub in the village where she works, Loveday attends against her better judgement. Listening to the words of others, and one person in particular, Loveday finds herself, as many of us do through the power of words, transported and moved. Over time, she slowly begins to understand she’s not the only one with an uncomfortable past and memories she’s tried to forget. Nor is she the only person afraid of heartbreak and loneliness.

But it’s not until, through a great act of courage and sacrifice, that Loveday learns the most important lesson of all.

Beautifully written and filled with whimsical, clever and unforgettable characters, this is a rich and haunting book that will move and charm you and often both at the same time. When I’d finished it, there was a sense of loss so great, I almost started reading it again so I didn’t have to leave this wonderful world Stephanie Butland has created. Delightful and deep.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Oh. My. Where do I begin with this utterly original, completely heart-wrenching and beautiful story that kept me awake until the wee hours as I simply had to finish it? I have actually delayed writing a review because I am concerned I won’t do this magic novel justice. But I will try.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a debut novel by Gail Honeyman. It tells the tale of the socially inept, friendless, simple (as in uncomplicated) Eleanor, who’s worked at the same place for almost a decade, eaten the same things, drunk a couple of bottles of vodka every weekend, and followed, with minor aberrations, the same routine for years. This routine includes a weekly telephone call to her cruel institutionalised mother, who appears to have an unnatural and unhealthy hold over her daughter.

When one of Eleanor’s co-workers accompanies Eleanor down the street after work one day and they witness an accident, their subsequent kindness leads to some extraordinary and slow alterations in Eleanor’s life. Suddenly, Eleanor is forced to face the fact her life might be “fine” but is it complete? What she finds when the answers start to come is something unexpected, thrilling and totally frightening.

Beautifully written, sparse and yet, laden with meaning, it is both sweetness and light as well as darkness and horror all at once. Reading was akin to riding an emotional roller-coaster, but one I didn’t want to step from. Your heart aches for Eleanor and those who enter her sphere. As for the mystery that is her past, as it slowly unravels, you quake for Eleanor and what she must face.

This is about inner strength and the demons that try to weaken even the bravest of souls. It’s about friendship, and unexpected and simple acts of kindness and empathy, that come when you least expect it, but often most need them. It’s about fear of change, of the past, but also how both need to be embraced in order to alter the future.

Unsentimental, yet totally heart-warming, it is bitter-sweet as well. You yearn for Eleanor and for the light of hope that flickers through the pages never to be extinguished, though there are moments where it dims dangerously.

I am still thinking about this book days after reading it and cannot recommend it highly enough. A treasure of a story.

 

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The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

imgres-1This was a delightful, heart-warming novel about the power of books to inspire, offer reflections upon life and people as well as escapism, and above all heal those who read them – especially if a person reads the right one. Enter the protagonist, Monsieur Perdu, a rather lost man who owns a floating bookshop on the Seine, a barge named Lulu, filled with 8000 books, which he gallantly tries to match to the right reader. You see, Perdu has a gift: calling himself the “literary apothecary”, he is able to find the exact book to cure almost any ailment or agitation of the heart and soul.

Despite his gift for connecting stories and readers, Perdu cannot help himself or heal the broken heart he stubbornly nurses. A lonesome creature, he lives in a barren apartment, trapped in the past and the memories of the free-spirited and magnificent Manon, a married woman with whom he had a passionate affair over twenty years earlier and who left him with nary an explanation, only a letter which he has never read, he endures.

It is not until an attractive neighbour, Catherine, convinces him to read Manon’s letter that he uproots himself, his barge and sails along the southern waterways of his country, determined to discover the whole story of which he possesses only the beginning and an end. Accompanied by a young bestselling author, Max Jordan, besieged with crippling doubt and unable to embark on his next work, and two contrary cats, Perdu encounters others on his journey, including a lovelorn Italian chef who becomes an intrinsic part of the motley crew.

Perdu spends months cruising the rivers and learning more stories, dispensing books like currency as well as medicine, and encountering folk who challenge, embrace, and accept him. Passing through remote and popular villages, he’s encouraged to participate in rituals, traditions, dine at tables with families and, after so much water under the bridge (pun intended) step up and into the kind of life he only ever knew through his beloved books. As a consequence, Perdu undergoes a physical, emotional and psychological transformation, literally fleshing out his yet-to-be-completed story that ceased when Manon left.

I thoroughly enjoyed this love-story/coming of middle age tale and the characters that people it as well as the wonderful cross-references to other literature, classical, contemporary and everything in between.

 

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Book Reviw: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

You know you are in the hands of a masterful storyteller when you put a book down only because you have no choice – life drags you away aA Thousand Splendid Sunsnd it’s a physical and emotional wrench to let it go, even for a moment. When all you can think as you go about compulsory tasks are the story and the characters. While you are away, you wonder what they are doing, where the narrator is going to take them and you care about their fates deeply. Such is the effect of A Thousand Splendid Suns. The characters live beyond the pages – not merely at the end, but throughout the reading experience, so realistically and gorgeously have they been drawn.

Just as the sublime The Kite Runner told the tale of doomed male friendship, ATSS tells the story of two very different Afghani women: Mariam – shy, subservient, filled with self-doubt and yet, despite what life has meted out, is also honest and possessed of an innocence that is both her greatest strength and weakness. Then there is the beautiful, smart and kind Laila. Raised under very different roofs and with different expectations of their future, fate in the form of political and sectarian upheaval throws these women together and what happens before, during and after is heart-wrenchingly bitter-sweet.

Hosseini knows not only how to capture the reader’s imagination but our hearts as well. Told without sentimentality but nonetheless with an almost unbearable sweetness and pathos, ATSS unapologetically describes what the women of Afghanistan (and many men, children, families and thus communities) were forced to endure. The rampant misogyny, sexism and horrific abuses; terror, hope, the loss, the grind, the joy in the smallest and simplest of things; their constant sacrifices. Their resilience is formidable and humbling; their strength amazing – as is their capacity to forgive. By focussing primarily on Mariam and Laila (and those who play important roles in shaping who and what they become) Hosseini gives us a searing insight into not only the plight of those who are helpless pawns in a brutal battle for control of a weakened state, but Western prejudices, sense of entitlement and misunderstanding as well as revealing the ugliness and terrible beauty of a culture so few of us understand except through snatches from sensationalized news bulletins or from foreign correspondents with a brief to fill. That there are those resistant to as well as complicit in oppression, suffer because of willful ignorance and the brutality of others; the way in which religion and culture can impose horrific restraints when reduced to power struggles while at the same time gesturing to a proud nobility is evident in the novel. Inevitably, as is the case when religion, sex and gender become politicized, there are scapegoats who pay for the hubris and cruelty of others – for more than a lifetime. The damage inflicted can last for generations.

I didn’t want this book to end. My heart soared, it plummeted; I gasped, cried, held my breath and as I read felt physically pummeled then embraced, experiencing the 30 years the tale covers as a visceral thing that left me psychologically and imaginatively battered but richer in ways that count. But, I also felt ashamed. Ashamed for thoughts I may have harboured deep down, for prejudices I may not have even realized I held until this novel exposed them to me, and for that, I am grateful.

This is a beautiful, deeply moving book that I cannot recommend highly enough. It was a privilege to read and now to share.

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