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.

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!

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.

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.