The Betrayals, Fiona Neill

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After the incredible conclusion to Blood Sisters by Jane Corry, I knew that my next book was going to be a disappointment no matter what. I was surprised, therefore, to find that I didn’t mind Fiona Neill’s cross between mystery fiction and teen angst fiction, but also a bit disappointed at the mundane nature of it.

The Premise

Nick and Rosie were happy until the breakdown of their best friends’ marriage led to Nick falling in love with Lisa and the life long friendship of their children falling apart. Or were they? Daughter Daisy is in an ongoing fight with OCD, brought on by her obsessive nature and the tumultuous changes of her teenage years. Son Max holds himself responsible for the consequences of their final holiday together in Norfolk. But Lisa is dying, and she wants to see Rosie one last time, and she has something to tell her that can’t be shared by letter. The children struggle to protect their mother while their own memories, sanity and motives are called into question as Lisa slowly grows more and more ill.

The Verdict

This was less a novel about betrayal and more a novel about the fallibility of memory. From the outset, the same moment is presented by one character before being recalled in a mildly different way by another character. This creates an immediate atmosphere of doubt as the reader isn’t sure whether the children are remembering things differently, or their parents. This could actually have been done very subtly and very well, but Neill over-plays her hand by making Nick a research specialist into the fallibility of memory and its pitfalls. It is repeated far too often for comfort, meaning that Neill signposts the most impressive part of the plot of the narrative far too early, and far to obviously. As a result, the ultimate revelation that the event that Daisy witnessed that pushed her over the edge didn’t actually happen as she remembered it a massive anticlimax, and as a result it is not dealt with as well as it could have been.

Neill’s characterisation is thorough, but bland. Nick’s infidelity is repeated, and this is the great secret that Lisa wants to share with Rosie. It, like Daisy’s realisation, was a huge anticlimax. I felt like Neill had been building up to more and my expectations weren’t quite met. The most well developed character was most definitely Max, who showed progression from blindly supporting his sister to focusing on his own life at the expense of his family. He is still relatively uncomplicated, however, and this meant that I felt ambivalent towards him rather than sympathetic.

What Neill does do well, however, is portray Daisy’s OCD. Whilst Daisy herself is disappointingly two dimensional, the portrayal of her illness is heart wrenching, thought provoking and genuine. I hope that Neill did thorough research into the condition before using it as a narrative ploy, because I started reading the book with very little knowledge of the condition other than its popular hype and Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry and certainly feel that a lot of my preconceptions have been vanquished – I certainly shall never use the phrase ‘I just have OCD’ as a joke again. Neill successfully portrays the anxiety disorder’s ability to take over not only Daisy’s life, but also Max’s and Rosie’s, in a really powerful way. As someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, it was eye opening to witness it in its severity, and I give Neill a huge thumbs up for portraying it so honestly.

I’m surprised there was nothing from Lisa’s point of view, as her act of suicide at the conclusion of the novel really came from nowhere, although with retrospect it was hinted at. I dislike that Max witnessed it and made a conscious choice not to intervene, choosing his sister’s health over another human’s life, and I felt that Lisa was very unrepresented in a book that was really about her. In the ‘book club’ questions at the back of the novel (which seriously bug me, unless you’ve been dead 50 years, stop assuming that people are going to read your work and want to discuss it, but that’s an issue for another day) Neill puts forward the questions ‘why do you think none of the story was told from her point of view’. Metaphorically speaking, it’s because she was already dead. Her husband was seeking comfort elsewhere, her children hated her for leaving their father, her step children wanted nothing to do with her, her best friend hadn’t spoken to her for eight years and the cancer was rigorous in its attack on her body… Throughout the story, Lisa is simply a ghost that frightens and torments others, but she is not really portrayed as a real person, and any discussion of her is idealistic, from Nick’s point of view, or hateful, from everyone else’s. It’s unfortunate, as there was rich story to tell there, but Neill decided to leave it out.

Overall, whilst the book was generally disappointing and I won’t be looking out for Neill again, I did enjoy reading it and whilst the secrets and revelations were laboured and predictable, it did keep me turning the pages quickly until the very end.

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Blood Sisters, Jane Corry

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I have been reading my entire life – with an older sister I was always reading ahead of my age recommendations, and the love that I inherited from my father has never once waned. As a result, when I read books, it’s very rare that anything surprises me, and whilst I still love reading, I’m used to predicting the route of the book without too many surprises. As a result, I am delighted to announce that Jane Corry surprised me not once, but twice in the duration of this novel, and one of the surprises was in the final pages. As a result, if you haven’t read this novel before, I strongly suggest that you don’t read on yet – please go and experience the novel first, as this review will contain spoilers.

The Premise

Alison, Kitty and Vanessa were heading to school when a horrible accident left one child dead, one severely physically injured and the third with psychological scars. Now an art teacher, Alison’s first person narration portrays a period of transition in her life. The third person narration that follows Kitty, alongside the occasional first person insight, shows a similar period of change in Kitty’s life, and the development of her relationships with others as well as her journey to receiving the technology she needs in order to be able to communicate. Alison’s new job in a prison, and Kitty’s unexpected pregnancy, frame key aspects of the action, as the girls travel to developing a new relationship with each other.

The Verdict

The front cover and tag line ‘three little girls. One good. One bad. One dead’ are actually very deceptive. The ‘three little girls’ are 18 and 11, and whilst one did die, the judgement of ‘one good, one bad’ is an extremely poor representation of the complexities of the novel. Whilst it did draw me in, as I am often guilty of choosing a novel from its front cover and tag line, it actually doesn’t do Corry’s novel justice, and I would look to change this in the future should this ever be re-released.

Alison was introduced as a troubled, well-meaning character, whose love for art rescued her from a life of self-flagellation and self-pity. Her passion for art, especially stain glassed windows, leads her to take a job in a prison in order to pay her penance and better the lives of criminals… or so it seems. Which leads us to the reveal which floored me… ALISON KNEW! She knew that Crispin would be transferred to the prison and she knew what she wanted to do. She planned to fake an attack on her person, whilst pretending not to recognise the supposed driver of the car, but more importantly, her rapist. I’d have to read through the novel again to be certain, but I know that Corry placed small hints throughout the novel that there was more going on – a brief mention of the lawyer’s letter, the fact that her scarf is tightening when no one is near by – but these things fell by the wayside with so much more action taking place. It isn’t until she admits to the reader, though not to any person, that she allowed herself to go to prison for something that wasn’t her fault, partly because of her role in the events leading up to the accident but also because of some further, unspoken secret. Corry kept the intrigue going, with her clues so subtle its only with hindsight that I’m even thinking of them now. To be able to realistically keep something like that back as part of a first person narration is a serious skill, and I really can’t wait to read something else by Corry to see if she pulls something similar off again.

The second surprise, although chronologically the first, was that Crispin wasn’t actually driving the car. This revelation reveals much more about Alison’s manipulative side than I initially considered. She was angry at Crispin for raping her, and rightfully so, but her malicious attempt to give him sole responsibility for an accident that wasn’t actually his fault added layers of depth to Alison’s character that I hadn’t been expecting. She fools herself, and others, into believing things that aren’t true, and she deems her own form of justice as more valid than anything the public correctional centres could offer. It was a warning I missed with regards to Alison’s character.

The final phrase in the book:

Squeaky-clean school shoes
Shoulder bags bobbing.
Blonde plaits flapping.
Two pairs of feet. One slightly larger.
‘Come on. We’re going to be late.’
There. Safe.
For now.’

is actually incredibly sinister. It refers to the two cousins, Kitty and Alison’s children, walking to school together and follows the pattern that has continued throughout the book of Kitty re-discovering her memories leading up to the event of the accident. As manipulative, jealous, cruel Alison is raising the two girls, it does seem a little frightening and the parallels of Vanessa having violin lessons and Florence wanting them is deliberately provocative and representative of the complications between Alison, Kitty and Vanessa.

I have nothing bad to say about this book. I was surprised, disgusted and shocked more than once. The story was coherent and believable. It didn’t play down the rape or the accident, or the culpability of the sisters pushing each other into the road. The twists were sometimes predictable, sometimes not, but all in keeping with the characters Corry developed. I’m off to go order ‘My Husband’s Wife’, and I look forwards to reading more by Corry in the future!

Ostrich Boys, Keith Gray

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I had never heard of Ostrich Boys prior to attending placement days in my school were I’ll be starting work as a trainee teacher in September, but on hearing that I would be teaching it to year 8 in the first half term of teaching, it became quite the priority to read. Keith Gray was also a mystery to me. A quote from The Herald on the back of the copy of the novel that I’ve read said ‘one can’t help thinking that if there were more writers like Keith Gray more teenagers would read’. I can’t help but think that it’s quite an accurate statement, as towards the end of the novel I was turning those pages as fast as I was the first time I read Nancy Drew.

The Premise

Blake, Sim and Kenny, disappointed by the funeral their best friend Ross received, decide to steal his ashes and take Ross to Ross, a small village in Scotland. Their spur of the moment decision results in them being immediately chased by Ross’ family as they head to the train station, and eventually being chased by the police. What should have been a simple train journey with plenty of supplies turns into a bit of a nightmare when Kenny loses his back, which contained not only all his cash but also his train ticket. The boys do what they can to continue heading north, from getting a lift with young men with a taxi, to bungee jumping to stealing scooters. As they travel, more is revealed about Ross and the role that each of them played in his death, which is later revealed to be a suicide. Angered by Ross’ sacrifice of life, Sim abandons the mission, but Kenny and Blake succeed in taking Ross’ ashes to Ross, leaving a part of him there as their final farewell.

The Verdict

Ostrich Boys far exceeded my expectations. Instead of the normal, sugar coated reality that teen fiction often portrays, this was a brutally honest portrayal of life, death and mourning. The first person narration of the smart, overweight and straight forward Blake meant that the reader didn’t discover all that had happened to Ross straight away, or from a removed third person perspective. As Blake came to understand his own part in his friend’s suicide, the reader slowly came to realise that the perfect painting of a life that his friends put forwards was far removed from the truth. Each member of the group played their own part in Ross’ death, and whilst they struggle to come to terms with that, it is obvious that they had no idea how bad the rest of his life was or how difficult he was finding it. The first real indication to me that they were ‘protesting too much’, to paraphrase Shakespeare, was when they talked about a story that Ross had written about a boy being torn apart by his parents’ different expectations. Up until then, I believed, along with the boys, that it was just the driver making up stories to assuage his guilt, but it became more obvious that Ross was actually a very troubled character. Gray doesn’t sugar coat any part of the suicide, or the boys’ reactions to it. It is a very real, very raw and emotional scene when they discover the truth.

The tried and tested trope of boys going on a physical journey that runs alongside their emotional journey is a little over done. Each barrier that they face physically is matched by an emotional one. Whilst for a young person reading the novel this might not be quite so tiresome, for me it was a little too much parallelism. However, it worked for Tolkein, so I supposed I can’t complain too much.

Overall, however, I can see how this is a valuable text for study by tweens and teens. Whilst the subject matter is quite challenging and heart-wrenching, actually it could be used as a therapeutic way of teaching them about suicide, friendship and depression. I’m a little stuck on how I would teach it, I’m going to have to put a lot of thought into it over the next couple of weeks. We’re often told as teachers to ensure that pupils know the story first before we teach it, but I don’t think I actually want pupils to read it with the knowledge that Ross committed suicide, as the revelation is quite important to how you review the story after you’ve read it.

Gray is an exciting author for young people, and I’ll definitely be looking out for others books by him to read. I’m looking forwards to teaching this novel, although I am going to go and read something a little happier in the meantime!