The Fate of the Tearling, Erika Johansen

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Dear Erika,

Unfortunately, due to the nature of this concluding novel, I do not feel comfortable writing a generic blog post, so I’ve decided to write you a letter.

As an author, you created a contract with me, which started when you wrote your first novel and continued after I bought and read it. I invested in your books, you, as the author and creator, wouldn’t let me down.

Well, let me tell you now, Erika, you have let me down, deeply. The conclusion to your series was not of the standard I was expecting. I will caution everyone who has not yet read the finish to look away now, because the next sentence will spoil the ending if they decide to risk the surprise.

YOU CAN’T USE TIME TRAVEL TO ERADICATE ALL THAT YOU HAVE WRITTEN!

Kill characters off, that’s fine and I’d be disappointed if you didn’t. Break their hearts, make me cry, make my heart break… but don’t put me through all that only to make it so worthless. It’s like you literally watched Days of Future Past (an extremely sore point of a movie that my friends are scared to talk to me about) and thought ‘oh, I know, I’ll create a whole world AND MAKE IT WORTHLESS’. I mean, you literally had quotes from history books running through the series, from start to end, but you made all of that history, all of that research and passionate planning and historical development pointless.

Time travel is a risky device in the best of novels and has blown up in many an author’s face. I don’t really understand why you felt the need to risk it. Your story was fantastic. Your protagonist had gone on such a brilliant journey of change and growth. The power of the sapphires was overwhelming and their mystery intact. All of your antagonists – The Red Queen, Row ‘the orphan’, Brenna… they all had well developed pasts, shades of grey that they struggled to over come. They weren’t the two dimensional disappointment of Voldemort or Sauron, but rather solid, multi faceted characters that you both hated and pitied. Kelsea wasn’t perfect – she committed murder, she made poor decisions and she was pig headed. Your characters were so well formed and so realistic throughout.

I’ll pause here to give you credit that you deserve. What I said previously is true. Your characters are some of the best formed in a short fantasy series that I have read for a long time. You manage to fit in the depth that Robert Jordan creates with his characters in a very short amount of time. Your techniques are a little elementary – a lot of flashback and exposition – but you did so well creating those gritty, uncomfortable characters that make your audience sit back and think, not only with your main characters, but with others such as the Mace, who were important to the story line, but in less able authors’ work, often left to the side in terms of depth. I felt for you characters – I loved them, spent time with them and understood their struggles. In that lies your greatest strength.

You got very preachy, though. That was probably my first warning sign. There was a lot of anti-religious propaganda spread throughout. I’m a little at a loss that you managed to write this series without a single mention of a religion outside of Christianity. Surely, if Tear truly had selected the ‘best’ for his journey, there would be equal representation. Instead, you focus on Christianity, followers of Jesus, and you condemn them throughout. It is clear that in your version of utopia, religion cannot play a part. But you can’t simply write out other religions to get to that point. There will always be faith, and it won’t be quieted just because the Tears are killed. I found this very unbalanced and single minded.

Secondly, you created a final world where it seemed that Tear’s vision had worked. He had to be dead, both his sons had to be dead, but the vision that he had succeeded. It is unrealistic and against human nature. Row gave other people a purpose, an outlet for their discontent, but that discontent wasn’t going to go away just because Caitlyn created a constitution or ruled well for 70 years. Human kind can achieve a lot in 300 years, but they wouldn’t be able to do it under the strictures that Tear’s paradise laid down. You create a utopia which goes against the grain of humanity.

Which brings me to my biggest issue. Kelsea. I don’t understand how time travel works, which is why it makes me so mad as a story telling device, but I don’t think Kelsea or her mother would exist as they do, and by concluding the novel from her perspective, you lose the power of the time travel. Nothing would be the same. Kelsea would not exist. The Mace would not exist. Nothing and no one would be as Kelsea remembers because the world wouldn’t have journeyed that way. Assuming that Kelsea is descended from Katie’s child – how did that happen? With the monarchy being abolished, many of the marriages and alliances that led to Kelsea’s birth would not have happened. It simply doesn’t make sense, and as a result the final ten pages of the novel are nonsense.

Also, the anti-climax of the identity of Kelsea’s father was unacceptable. You can’t just decide that it was some minor character she killed a little while back after you’ve made such a big deal of it throughout the novel. He had no purpose; he was no more a part of Kelsea’s identity than I was. It’s okay to keep a secret and then reveal it to be something unexpected, if that change of pace had a purpose. For example, Row or Fetch or even Aisa’s father would have made really good but surprising choices, but you went with a side character we could barely remember. It was too obvious a shock tactic, and I was really disappointed in you – and this was before it became clear what you were going to do with the time travel.

Your books excited me. They created a world I could engage with and enjoyed reading about. They were always a bit preachy, a bit obvious, but you were innovative and interesting. Instead, you’ve turned yourself into a let-down of an author who has fallen back on a traditional trope because you backed yourself into a corner. Unfortunately, as result, despite the strong start your series had, the innovative tale that you told and your impressive characterisation, I can’t trust you as an author again. This was the series that made me want to write my blog again, that inspired me back to reading after depression had taken that joy away from me, and you’ve ruined it.

I was looking forwards to this conclusion for a long time, and I feel incredibly let down by the final effort. If you haven’t started this series yet, don’t bother.

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The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

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I saw The Woman in Black performed by a two man drama group many years ago, and whilst I remembered a lot about the dramatic techniques used etc, I could remember nothing of the story! So when I discovered that The Woman in Black is on my reading list, I was pretty eager to read it to see where that drama had come from. I do feel as if I’ve had to read it quite quickly… partly because the third and final Tearling novel is burning a hole in my bookshelf, and partly because there are so many other curriculum texts to read also sat on my bookcase. But it was good to read this and get a real sense of the original text.

The Premise

After the death of Mrs Alice Drablow, Arthur Kipps heads to Eel Marsh House to sort through her papers and begin to sell her property. He is surprised to discover that the residents of Crythin Gifford are reluctant to even discuss the reclusive deceased and even more surprised when the sole mourner at her funeral disappears without a trace. Arthur tries to hold onto his logical beliefs, but they are slowly eroded by the few, repetitive manifestations that plague his visits to Eel Marsh House. Will they lead to his greatest tragedy, or can he escape the curse of the Woman in Black?

The Verdict

I was surprised at how un-scary this was as a text. From the hype that the Daniel Radcliffe film received, and my vague memories of the play I watched, I would have thought there was a lot more suspense and action. Because ultimately, Arthur survives 3 days before he becomes too afraid to return, and the ultimate death of his family is recorded in an after-note following the main story.

The first person narrative does help to build tension as the use of foreshadowing points to the more sinister aspects of the story, but it didn’t really do much for me in regard to the Daily Express review on the front of my copy… ‘heartstoppingly chilling’.

The story was quite basic, and the writing simplistic. I’m not really sure of the value in studying it in school. That said, for pupils a little more afraid of 20th texts that they are unfamiliar with, perhaps the ease of the reading is a nice introduction for them to unfamiliar reading. The story is intriguing. We’ve been learning about ‘Whooshes’ today in lectures, I can see how I would utilise that technique to revise the story, though I wouldn’t want to ruin the ending of course!

Overall, whilst I was disappointed with the text as a whole, I can actually see the value of teaching it. I think I’ll look into more ways of teaching in online, and reserve my judgement till then.

Definitely a classic, and as a result a must read, I’d recommend this for an easy read and prepare yourself for disappointment!

The Friend, Dorothy Koomson

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I worship the paper that Dorothy Koomson writes on.

That’s almost all I want to say, but I would be doing her, and you the reader, a disservice by not expanding just a little bit. But trust me when I tell you, I adore every work that Koomson writes, and if you take nothing from this, then please go and read one of her books. Make sure you have a strong disposition though – the content of the stories is traumatic.

The Premise

Cece, new to town with her distant husband, teenage daughter and twin boys, enrols her youngest two children in a school where a brutal attack has just taken place. Yvonne, the popular mother hen of the playground, was severely beaten and lies in a coma. Cece befriends Hazel, Maxie and Anaya without realising that Yvonne’s three closest friends are also suspects in the investigation. Not only that, but they all have secrets of their own to keep – secrets that many people would kill for.

The Verdict

I truly believe that Koomson is one of the most gifted writers of our time. As I said when reviewing When I was Invisible, the topics she writes on are not easy to stomach. It was interesting in this novel that the focus was less on the trauma of childhood, although it was explored through Anaya a little, but rather the difficulties that come with adulthood.

Spoilers (seriously, don’t read until you’ve read the book!)

Maxie kidnapped her son, a child she had as a surrogate who she rescued from the narcissistic home he would have grown up in. Trapped in a loveless marriage subsumed by guilt, her secret leads her to be willing to kill to protect her son. It is only chance, really, that prevents her from murdering Yvonne. The exploration of what it means to be a mother, even one who has handed over responsibility of her children, is harrowing and heart breaking. I was relieved that Maxie and Ed were able to survive the turbulence and find their kernel of love in the end.

Anaya, manipulated at sixteen into taking pornographic pictures after being drugged, and being black mailed by those pictures years later, takes us on a journey of self doubt and loathing. Koomson is not overly sensitive in her exploration of Sanjay and his mother, and her cultural stereotypes read a little cold when compared with the depth and thought in the rest of the novel, but Anaya is Koomson’s stock character – a warning of what happens when children are not brought up to know how to protect themselves.

Hazel, abused and broken down by her ex-husband, Walter, brings a man with a horrible secret into her house. Her desperation for love, and the brokenness of her spirit after years of abuse, mean that his secret (being on the sexual offenders register) does not deter her from welcoming him into her home. However, his secret is a lie, used to manipulate Hazel so that she doesn’t notice the fraud that he is perpetrating in her name. Domestic abuse is a hidden crime that we are so often unaware of, and I felt that Koomson’s exploration of life after that abusive relationship was well used and sensitively explored. Hazel is potentially the strongest character in the novel, able to love again in spite of her hurt, and she overcomes a lot to stand and smile and be grateful to Cece at the end of the novel. I liked Hazel a lot, and felt for her strongly.

The Conclusion

And of course we can’t get away without thinking about the ending…

Confession time:

I read the last page

It’s a bad habit. But I knew that Cece’s friends didn’t attack Yvonne. But I didn’t know who did! So whilst I was certain throughout that the group were innocent, I had NO idea who it was until the very last moment – literally until Cece smelled the perfume and put two and two together! I’m not going to tell you whodunnit. It was a valid and interesting surprise. I was a little disappointed by the backstory – it simply wasn’t as well crafted or told as everything else – but it’s rare that I’m surprised so I’m glad that it happened as it did.

Read Koomson. Read this, fall in love with her, and read more! I cannot recommend it strongly enough!

An Inspector Calls, J.B. Priestley

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Another curriculum text under my belt, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually really engaged with this play, despite year 8 ruining the ending for me unexpectedly! As is commonly the theme at the moment, I read it for the purpose of potentially teaching it during my training experience, but I have come to like it in my own way.

The Premise

Eva Smith has committed suicide, and Inspector Goole is determined to lay the blame at the feet of the Birling family. He questions each member of the family individually, guiding them to see their culpability in the death of a young girl with no where to go. But who is Inspector Goole?

The Verdict

Priestley writes with a social conscience that cannot be missed. His anger at the class divide, and his passion for responsibility, are clear through his mouthpiece – Inspector Goole. He condemns the rich for their blind existence and their thoughtless actions, and pities the poor for their lack of a way out. I have found it really interesting to consider who Inspector Goole is. My favourite idea is that is Eva’s brother who, on finding her suffering and knowing there was nothing he could do, went to those responsible to prepare them to take responsibility for their actions. However, Priestley muddies this water by questioning whether it was the same girl they all treated that way, meaning that any solution, however plausible, is never totally proved.

Sheila is the character who undergoes the most development through the play. From her doe eyed, childish attitude, she seems the only one capable of effecting real change. She owns up to the impact of her attitude and entitlement, and whilst it isn’t clear whether this is lasting (with other characters suggesting she’ll forget in the morning, and her never truly ending her relationship with Croft), she does hold onto the lessons she has learned even after it is revealed that Goole was, in fact, not an inspector and no girl had committed suicide.

I find the conclusion to the play fascinating – the phone call informing them that a girl has just been brought into the infirmary and that an inspector is on his way to take their statements. It opens up the play to so much more interpretation, as it’s never explored any further.

Overall, I can see why pupils love this play (which has been fed back to me by several teachers and a university lecturer). It helps them to question themselves and society, to look at it and debate whether the world has changed from Priestley’s perception of 1912 to the present day. Priestley uses cultural references to place his characters’ attitudes on a spectrum which allows the audience to make their own judgements. I look forwards to teaching this play and seeing what it can bring out.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne

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Well, considering that the next text I have to read is Romeo and Juliet, it certainly seems like I am in for a depressing weekend. I’ll be glad to get back to work on Monday! But emotional instability aside, it’s time to take a more critical look at this harrowing piece of literature.

The Overview

Bruno returns home one day to find his maid packing up his room, and his whole family relocating to the remote and unfriendly ‘Out-With’. Whilst he hates the idea, he eventually resigns himself to living in a house of only three stories (his last one had five) when he meets a friend – the mysterious boy in the striped pyjamas. Their secret friendship develops over the period of a year, and its tragic ending is an indictment of war, anti-antisemitism and ignorance, all at once.

The Verdict

I find it hard to believe that schools are teaching this novel to Year 7. I’m a grown adult and it reduces me to tears and is emotionally traumatising. I have seen the film previously, and I think I may have read the book and then decided I was never going to want to read it again and given it away, as aspects of the narrative were really familiar to me.

Boyne writes from the perspective of a nine year old boy, and occasionally a twelve year old girl, with skill and finesse, despite using the third person narrative. Simple techniques such as ‘Out-With’ and the ‘Fury’ for well known words immediately draw the reader into Bruno’s world of ignorance. Boyne’s skill in story telling is well honed, and the reader embarks on Bruno’s journey as if they are alongside him.

Boyne writes a difficult subject with sensitivity and honsety. Too often we try to hide from children how violent and horrid the war was, but it is important that people feel uncomfortable when they read Holocaust literature. It’s like the opening to Saving Private Ryan, it’s only so memorable and effective because it’s so believable and gruesome. Boyne doesn’t try to hide from the reader that horrible things went on. Any ignorance we maintain is only because, as a child, Bruno can’t give us the information because he doesn’t have it himself. I really respect Boyne for sticking to the honest truth of the Holocaust.

The characters are well thought through, and again, as they are described from Bruono’s point of view, they are necessarily two dimensional. Only Gretel is really released from Bruno’s bias, and that in the final chapter, where she is seen to mourn his absence from her life. Otherwise, Bruno is loyal and looks up to his father, is coddled a little by his mother, sees the ‘bad soldiers’ as separate to his father and Shmuel as his friend. Their lack of in depth character development is necessary, however Boyne does address this by saying things like ‘Gretel was going through a phase – Mother’s words – and tended to keep out of his way’. Through his perception of events, we can fill in the blanks and follow the character changes.

Bruno himself does not seem to change much. He is delightfully ignorant, yet I feel awful saying that. So many of the atrocities of WW2 happened because we were ignorant and closed our eyes to them. But Bruno is only nine. His ignorance, his friendship with Shmuel and his rose tinted view of the world, remind us of the innocence of children. It is only through the development of this innocence that Boyne is able to shock the reader with the death of the two boys at the end without coming across as hateful.

Overall, I’m a little worried about teaching The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas because it is such an upsetting and harrowing novel. But I appreciate that we are not shying away from the horrors of war, and agree that ignorance is no excuse.

Labyrinth, Kate Mosse

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It’s been a while since I read any historical fiction, and always this departure from my more common picks was recommended by my boyfriend, who decided that I had read too much teaching theory and far too many curriculum texts and needed a break! Since I have now started my teacher’s training, it has taken me a while to get to the end of the novel, and then a few days to actually get round to reviewing it, but it’s Saturday and I’m procrastinating, so is there ever going to be a better time?!

The Overview

The story follows Alice Tanner as she discovers cave containing two bodies whilst volunteering on an archaeological dig in France. She is surprised at the anger and intrigue that surrounds the discovery, and quickly realises that the place she has discovered is familiar, although she knows she has never been there before. With many factions vying to use the cave and call on its power, Alice must solve the mystery before it’s too late.

The Verdict

This was a really enjoyable novel. It was described to me as similar to Dan Brown, and I would agree in theory. There is a search for the grail, protected by a secret sect, and the power the grail provides can be utilised for good and evil. Its protection is paramount to the survival of mankind. But Kate takes such a different story line to Dan Brown that it does her a disservice to compare the others beyond the initial concept.

I really enjoyed the parallelism of Alice and Alais, but I thought this was cheapened by their shared memory. It would have been equally effective if the story had simply been told as it is, without Alice passing out and having recurrent nightmares about Alais’ life. I never really felt like this was adequately explained, and alongside Sajhe’s eight hundred years of life, was extremely unnecessary in furthering the plot. Just the passing down of the traditions and stories would have been enough.

Labyrinth gets off to a bit of a slow start, and there are places where the descriptions could be cut down. But the action doesn’t take too long to begin, and as you journey with the characters, there was never a moment where I thought ‘NO I don’t care about him, what’s happening to her’ which means that Mosse structured her story really well and without too much unbearable suspense.

Overall, it was an interesting, historically accurate and well structured novel, with a driving plot, really well developed characters and excellent writing. Despite the obvious twist and unexplained nature of long life and reincarnation, overall it was an excellent story. I recommend reading it if historical fiction is your thing!