The Scent-Keeper by Erica Bauermeister

When I first started reading this book, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it. The writing is lovely, of that there’s no doubt but, initially, the story is opaque and unfolds slowly until…it doesn’t.

In an usual move, the mystery behind young Emmeline’s life on a remote Canadian island with her scientist father who collects and captures scents in bottles, isn’t revealed until about a third of the way through the book. Up to that point, the reader spends each day with Emmeline, comprehending the small world she lives in through her eyes, ears and, as one would expect from the title, her nose. Her life might be defined by the island’s coastline, but in so many ways, it’s a deep and magical existence without borders, limited only by the stories she loves and her father’s and her imagination. 

When Emmeline discovers one of her father’s stories is untrue, her reaction sets in motion a series of life-altering events. Suddenly, the investment in the narrative, in Emmeline and her father, John, becomes more than the worthwhile task it already was. After that point, Emmeline’s life, which has already taken an unexpected turn, continues to move apace. Forced to engage with people beyond her sheltered upbringing, Emmeline at first struggles. She is an unusual and extraordinary young woman who has been taught to understand the world through her olfactory senses (something we all do to a degree and mostly unconsciously). But it’s not until she meets a young man with a secret and learns one about herself that she’s propelled into an exciting future, one where others appreciate not only who she is, but what she can do for them.

Rich in detail, observations about people and objects, but most of all, aromas, Emmeline’s first-person narrative is mesmerizing. Sadness, tragedy, joy, romance, love, longing, jealously, suspicion, trust all make an appearance, but more significantly, have an odour that infuses the story in quite wondrous ways.

I don’t want to say too much for fear of including spoilers except to say that this novel was more than I ever expected and will linger in all your senses long after the last page. Extraordinary.

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Star-Crossed by Minnie Darke

It was reading a glowing review by a writer and reviewer I greatly respect (looking at you, Kate Forsyth), that lead me to buy this book. And I am so glad I did.

Star-Crossed by Minnie Darke is a fabulous, clever and most-often heart-warming romp about a young journalist-in-waiting, Justine, and what she does when the love of her teenage-years – Nick, who is now an actor – re-enters her life in order to ensure he doesn’t exit, stage left, again.

Nick is a great believer in astrology and assiduously reads and follows the advice of his favourite astrologer, Leo who, it so happens, writes for the magazine Justine works for. When Justine is given responsibility for editing the pages that include making sure the horoscopes are entered correctly, she does the unthinkable and edits the copy for Nick’s stars in an effort to steer him into her orbit and away from his model-girlfriend’s. (She really is a model). 

An Aquarian, Nick follows the advice Justine is giving, believing it’s still coming from the renown astrologer, Leo. But there are others following Leo/Justine’s words for Aquarius with alternately heart-aching, warming and hilarious and gratifying results – everyone from a dying man, a quirky florist, and even a one-eyed mutt (with the best name!).

As the story weaves, separates and finally comes together, it explores love, loss, friendship and choices – how sometimes, we allow others to make them for us, instead of aligning not just our stars, but our heads and hearts.

A quick, fun and fulfilling read. 

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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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The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

I have long been a fan of Horowitz’s work – from his screen plays in Midsomer Murders to Foyle’s War, his Sherlock Holmes books and Magpie Murders, so was very excited to read his latest, The Word is Murder.

What an unusual and gripping book it is. Opening with a woman, Diana Cowper who, after planning her own funeral, is found dead hours later, this is not the most captivating element of this engrossing book. The most unusual and fascinating aspect is that Horowitz inserts himself as both narrator and a character into the story.

Drawn into the investigation of Cowper’s murder when it’s used to bait him into writing a book about the lead investigator, a curmudgeonly fellow named Hawthorne, Horowitz finds himself playing reluctant second-fiddle to the irascible and narcissistic ex-copper. Thrown out of the Met some years earlier for something he refuses to discuss with Horowitz, Hawthorne is nonetheless employed on a consultancy basis to run parallel investigations – the murder of Diana Cowper being one such instance. His policing talents, he informs Horowitz, being formidable.

Horowitz finds the story surrounding the murder too compelling and reluctantly agrees to write the book, shadowing the detective who, as the novel progresses, slowly reveals he is more than first impressions indicate.

When another body turns up after Diana’s actual funeral, Horowitz is not only hooked, but finds himself desiring to play detective as well. Only, he’s a far better writer than he is a gum-shoe investigator, and he finds himself putting his foot in it on more than one occasion.

Often self-deprecating, Horowitz’s unreliable narrator-writer-would-be-detective is also highly amusing. Not afraid to name-drop, the reader l

earns of meetings with the likes of Spielberg and Peter Jackson, his agonies over Foyle’s War and his Alex Jackson series of YA novels among many others. His relationship with his agent is woven into the story as are his writerly doubts, ego and undoubted joy in what he does – well, the agony and the ecstasy.

Playing with the genres of autobiography, biography, crime and mystery, Horowitz writes and is written into a book that celebrates and defies all of these. The main plot is intriguing enough to satisfy any crime buff, but what is delightful and extraordinary about this book is Horowitz’s role and the relationship between truth and fiction, characters and their creators, the art of writing versus the business and so much in-between.

A terrific page-turner of a novel that once you start, you’ll find impossible to put down.

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The Vizard Mask by Diana Norman

imgres-2When I first started reading this long book, The Vizard Mask by Diana Norman, I didn’t think I’d be able to finish it. By the time I reached the 20% mark on my Kindle, I didn’t want it to end – so captivating was the story. The reason for my initial reaction was a combination of the style of writing (which is rich if not dense in detail) and the heroine, a Puritan named Penitence Hurd who, frankly, I couldn’t warm to at all. Not at first. Then she gripped my heart and didn’t let go…

Forced to leave her home in a fledgling colony in America and travel to London to find her Aunt, a woman whose existence her devout family denies, Penitence arrives on English soil the same day as the plague. Discovering her Aunt lives in St-Giles-in-the-Fields, a den of inequity and poverty outside the city walls, Penitence manages to find her house only to learn not only is her Aunt likely dead, but her abode is actually a whore house. The woman in charge, a formidable and harsh woman known has “her Ladyship” takes in the shocked and confused Penitence, protecting her from the usual work of the women under her roof. Much to the other women’s chagrin, Pen is given other duties, and proceeds to cast dire judgements and disapproval on all who come her way as she desperately tries to reconcile her Puritan beliefs with this shocking, disgusting and inappropriate place she has come to.

When the plague attacks in force, Pen finds not only her beliefs challenged, but also her faith in humanity restored and broken over and over. Humbled by what she witnesses, devastated by the losses the disease wreaks, Pen finds allies and enemies in unlikely places. But this is just the beginning of the incredible transformation this young woman must undergo if she is to survive, not just illness, disease, the unwanted attention of lecherous men, and the injustices heaped upon women, but Restoration London.

King-charles-ii-king-charles-ii-25010100-333-400The days of the Republic are over; Cromwell is dead and Charles II is back on the throne and determined not to waste a day or a woman if he can help it. Theatre is alive and well, women are on stage, and the arts generally are flourishing. The seeking of pleasure is the goal of the classes that can and the envy of those who cannot. Religious dissent bubbles away and gossip and politics are never far from anyone’s minds or lips. If it’s not true, then it will be made up and, as she rises up the ranks of London Society, Pen finds how hurtful and damaging this type of talk and the scandal in its wake can be.

I don’t want to say too much more about this book for fear of spoiling it or not doing it justice. It is stunning. An epic in every sense, it slowly and carefully introduces the reader to this uptight and devout young woman and with flashbacks to her past in the Americas, allows us to come to get to know, accept and finally love Pen and who she becomes. Valiant, loyal, smart and with a difficulty she overcomes with help, Pen is a heroine for any age.

Against a backdrop of Charles II’s reign and beyond; the plague, Great Fire, death of a king, terrible war, religious discord and the rise of another king, his fall and the final reclamation of the throne by William and Mary, we follow Pen’s life and that of those who enter her orbit throughout one of the most fascinating and tumultuous periods of English history.

Norman, once a journalist and renown for her historical accuracy has done an amazing job of weaving fiction and fact. Attributing actions and words to her (based on real-life) characters that were actually said by them, recreating known events but also humanising them, this book is so hard to put down. Not only that, but the character of Pen is based on a real life figure as well (I won’t reveal), whose early years are unknown, allowing Norman to colour them in fantastical and vivid detail. Pen is brought to life in spectacular and heart-breaking ways, as is the city she finds herself in and the other places she dwells in as well.

As always with this type of female-centred historical fiction, it’s hard for modern readers to stomach what happened to women in these eras. The notion of women being objects and chattels are lived and shocking experiences for which the women had no recourse. Norman does a terrific job of relaying not only how the women coped with this, but exploring those who were complicit in their subordination and those who learned ways to rise above it. She also portrays how men were also confined but empowered by the rigid gender roles and how both sexes suffered (and some thrived) as a consequence. Norman also offers an unforgiving portrait of class differences as well as prejudices.

tumblr_lv08b8NVwL1qbohcko1_500But it’s not all suffering and there are some fabulous moments in this book that allow your heart to soar, while others make your pulse quicken with anxiety. Likewise, the language I at first found a bit intense (mainly because Pen has a habit of quoting the Bible so much) became one of the joys of the book. Norman’s turn of phrase, her ability to capture a sensation, a thought, a feeling as well as physical descriptions are just magical and poetical.

There are parts that are slow, but these are the times when Norman allows us breathing space and the opportunity to get to know not just the fascinating and flawed people populating her novel and the period – from kings to playwrights to printers and farmers and soldiers, but the places as well; her descriptions are magnificent and place you firmly in the moment.

So, far from casting the book aside, I immersed myself in it. Read concurrently with Antonia Fraser’s biography of King Charles II, I can attest to the level of research (as well as other books I am reading on the period) and am in awe of Norman’s ability to weave fact and fiction so seamlessly and entertainingly.

I confess, like so many others, I fell in love with the unlikely heroine with the debilitating stutter. She captured my heart, as has Norman’s writing. I cannot wait to explore her other books, including those she wrote under a different pen name. That she died in 2011 was a great loss to literature and lovers of history and historical fiction. I hope someone penned her a deserving epitaph and I am so grateful we continue to gain pleasure from her wonderful imagination and research.

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