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Nightwoods: A Novel

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There's nothing very original about this story of a killer on the loose and looking for revenge in a small town in the North Carolina woods, it's Charles Frazier's genius with words that lifts it above the ordinary. The story is so slight it could quite easily have been told in three hundred words - it takes Frazier 272 pages and still leaves you hungry for more. The language is incandescent, there's not a single paragraph that needs more telling, or less, each sentence seems tightly and beautifully wrought, each paragraph perfectly polished. An ostensibly simple story of love and revenge, told on a multitude of levels. In my opinion, this is as close to perfection as storytelling gets.
Everything Beautiful Began After

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This is an extraordinary book, 4 books in one, each quite distinct from the others. The story follows a group of friends, three lost souls who meet by chance, in Athens and become inseparable, even by death. The story follows them through the years as their lives weave together, unravel, knit together again. All the characters are remarkably real; none of them are perfect, all have their share of everyday failings, all annoy and fascinate equally, all are truly human.Everything Beautiful Began After is the most poetic un-put-downable page-turner I think I've ever read. Often a book can be beautifully written, literary and gorgeous-of-language - and usually, such a book is a hard read, something to be taken in small doses. Other books are compulsively readable, so well-plotted you have to keep going long after you should have turned out the light and gone to bed, you have to find out what happens next. This book has both attributes in spades; an eminently readable thriller written in the language of a poet.I've rarely read so remarkable a book.
The Light Between Oceans

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It begins slowly – which is not to say it’s dull in any way, only that the opening chapters open gently, like a flower, organically, naturally - as we grow to know first Tom, then Isabel, and get to know their insular, isolated island world. Then the baby arrives and the scene is set - though it’s not until almost half-way through the book that the real story begins to unfurl as Tom and Isabel’s perfect life unravels with surprising speed. The Light Between Oceans is not a thriller by any means, but the plot twists and turns as if it were.It is a stunning work of fiction. Every character is completely believable; their motives, their actions - all entirely sane and credible, utterly realistic. Though every one of the main characters were at odds, everyone was sympathetic, every action and motive was understandable: you could truly feel for them all. Of course, there is no pat, easy, happy ending; the ending - like the beginning and the middle - is quietly surprising, wonderfully well executed and absolutely real.The glorious writing, the feel for character, the consistently surprising plot, the delightful artistry and skill - are even more astonishing when you find that this is a debut novel. I expect to find The Light Between Oceans on more than one awards list. I can’t imagine how it won’t be one of my top novels of this year, and LM Stedman is definitely a writer to watch.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

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A poignant parable to remind us all never to underestimate humanity, because even the most ordinary, apparently mundane and unexciting people have incredible stories to tell.Most of us are haunted by the ghosts of our pasts, a multitude of joys and regrets; one such man is Harold Fry. Harold is living an apparently routinely quiet retirement after a lifetime of dullness, conformity and underachievement when he suddenly, without warning, decides to do something extraordinary. Setting out to post a letter to a dying friend, he decides not to trust his message to the post, but to take it himself, on foot, walking 627 miles, from his Devon home to a hospice in Berwick on Tweed. Like a Zen monk, he begins to give away his possessions and lives on the kindness of strangers. His walk becomes a kind of pilgrimage to himself as relives the events of his surprisingly tragic life, coming to a kind of understanding of his long-repressed and deep-buried grief. As he walks, his mood turns, from shy uncertainty to joyous confidence, through hope and happiness and self-belief, then anguish and fear and finally, at the very end, a strange and hopeful joy.Harold's tale is told alongside that of his wife, Maureen. Left alone, she too, has her own inner pilgrimage, forced to come to terms with her own sorrows, and the coldness she uses as a barrier to shield herself from tragedy; helped on by the friendship of kindly Rex, the next-door neighbour of many years that she and Harold barely know.The first half of this story reminded me more than a little of an old TV miniseries that I also loved, The Missing Postman (which I urge anyone who enjoyed this book to seek out – and why is it not on DVD?), but the second half develops a very different tone. Harold’s joyous journey of self-discovery takes a decided downturn when the media get hold of his story and a predictable group of 'Others' come to join him on his walk - a very believable and keenly observed set of characters, though I would have liked to have seen more of Kate, she was the only character in the book who deserved more development than we got, every other character, all the people (and the dog) Harold meets along the way, were beautifully well-rounded and drawn.I’ve rarely been so touched by a novel as I was by The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I was expecting a lightly fantastical, pleasant and heart-warming tale along the lines of Major Pettigrew or The Missing Postman, but this is no slight tale of an ageing man’s accidental pilgrimage. Though the writing is consistently and beautifully understated, Harold and Maureen’s emotions are not, they are raw and real. The predictable end is not in the least bit ‘bigged-up’ or over-blown, it is small and perfect, poignant and heartbreaking, entirely in keeping with the unassuming - and very English - tone of this remarkable book.
The Teleportation Accident: A Novel

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This is such an unusual book; what is it really about? Is it really about the Teleportation Device invented by of the 17th century Venetian inventor Lavicini, a event shrouded in mystery and intrigue? Is it about the attempts of various scientists to recreate Lavicini’s teleportation device for use in WW2? Or is it really just the story of Egon Loeser’s failing life, his failure to have the girl of his dreams, his failure to have any sex at all, or even find a new copy of his favourite pornographic book, his failure to understand anything of what is happening in his Berlin hometown, becoming a `refugee’ by accident.I honestly do not know. The Teleportation Accident is as perplexing as it is confusing as it is strange. I was more than halfway through before I had any idea at all what was happening, or even begin to really get inside the story – was there a story? I still can’t tell you that there was. What story there was mainly about Loeser’s attempts to bed the girl of his dreams, who seemingly sleeps with every man she meets except poor Loeser. And what on Earth was the last chapter about? I ended up feeling it was best not to question anything but simply enjoy the glittering ride.I loved the characters, Egon Loeser especially, who is wonderfully ineffectual, lazy and useless. His story flits and leaps through time and space by means of a linguistic style that is gymnastic, elastic, brilliant. The massive cast of characters are delightfully mixed and strange. It’s a sort of comic novel, I think – I’m pretty sure, it seemed very funny to me; calling the love interest (with shades of The Dangerous Brothers) ‘Adele Hitler (no relation)’ was a typical example of this book’s genius.There are many wonderful quotes I could use to illustrate Ned Beuman’s extraordinary style but will settle for:`That wasn’t actually Brecht by the way, said Achleitner. `It was Vanel, but he happened to be wearing one of those long red overcoats like Brecht always wears.’`So where was there all that commotion by the door?’`It turned out he had a corkscrew on him.’In short, I enjoyed it enormously. I still haven’t a clue what it was about.
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Heft

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I’m a sucker for recluses and wounded souls so I couldn’t wait to get hold of Heft, the story of lonely Arthur Orr, former college professor, who hasn’t left his house since 9/11. Arthur now weights 550 pounds, his only solace is food and TV, his only friend, an occassional penpal, Charlene, one of his former students whose close friendship cost him his job. Arthur has never told Charlene about his problems, his weight, that he hasn’t worked for eighteen years – until he suddenly feels the need to tell the truth. He sends Charlene a confessional letter. It’s been a year since Charlene last wrote, but in response, she contacts Arthur and tells him she has a secret too, an eighteen year old son, Kel. Kel needs help, will Arthur help him? Believing he will have to shelter Kel for a while, Arthur realises he needs to sort out his dirty and neglected house. He hires a maid, Yolanda. Yolanda has family troubles of her own, and is pregnant…Heft is a story of the gradual thawing of the lives of two people frozen by loneliness, the gradual re-connect to real life and the lives of others. A small story in many ways, an every day tale of people who could not connect with their parents and grew up damaged, somehow; wounded by life.I can’t claim I ever felt connected to Arthur or Kel, but I never ceased to care about them or wonder what would happen next; Heft is a very readable novel, the story gently gripping. Arthur and Kel have distinct voices, reflecting their - apparently - very different lives, but there's a thread of disconnect and deep loneliness that connects them both, as does Kel’s mother, Charlene, Arthur’s never-forgotten friend, who's the loneliest and most wounded of all.The two stories eventually turn back upon themselves: similarities in the lives of Kel and Arthur emerge; they are more alike than they could ever know. The story circles, Arthur and Kel finally meet - a meeting we don’t get to see, because that’s where Heft ends; perfectly. There’s no neat, pat joyous ending with all the threads tied up in a neat bundle; that would not be honest or real, and Heft is never less than totally honest, entirely real. It ends on a note of hope and a fresh anticipation of new life: Arthur and Kel do have a future, but what those futures hold, is up to you.
The Land of Decoration; A Novel

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Using nature's debris, litter and anything else she can find, ten year old Judith builds a perfect fantasy world on the floor of her room - The Land of Decoration, a place she goes to escape from the harsh realities of school bullies, a home-life coloured by rigorous old school religion and a father still grieving for the wife he lost when Judith was born.For the first few pages, I thought this was going to be a fairly light fantasy, a cosy tale of a child who escapes cold reality in a perfect world made of found-stuff and rubbish. Not so; the story takes on much darker tones when a visiting preacher inspires Judith to try her hand at making miracles while her father is crossing the picket lines and losing his religion, and Judith's miracles appear to be working, at least on the much-hated school bully who, it seems, has home-life troubles of his own.The Land of Decoration is a well-observed and finely-written tale that's not at all what it seems on the surface. At times I was reminded of Mark Haddon, in the well-observed naiveté of a child's mind and language, and of Jeanette Winterson, in the strange, all-embracing, world-excluding religiosity that colours every moment of a friendless child's lonely life. There's a dark and terrible sadness that seeps across the narrative, a dreadful emptiness, of unheated rooms, cold lino and fly-stained, naked forty-watt bulbs - and not just for Judith, other families seem just as unhappy, all looking to fill the holes in their lives with something - drink, religion, violence, fantasy worlds...I have to say, this is nothing like the work of genius some of the testimonials on the cover would try to have you believe, but it is an absorbing, intriguing, highly original and genuinely exciting tale from a fine new writer. I can't wait to see what Grace McCleen writes next.
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