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!

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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.

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!

The Stranger in my Home, Adele Parks

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In all honesty, I’m really disappointed by this novel and wish I had picked up something better. It was just so… average. I thought it would be a lot more practical. It didn’t need the dark turn of an insane father; just exploring the journey that had led us to the shocking revelation that two children were swapped at birth, and the impact of this discovery, would have been enough.

I get that Parks wanted to keep her ‘twist’ secret for as long as possible, and there were some really subtle hints, but they were almost too subtle for too long. I was incredibly bored just under a quarter of the way through the novel and skipped to the end to see what was going to happen. Soon after, I started noticing the hints a little more, but without knowing what was coming, it’s doubtful that I would have picked up on them. It’s almost like Parks has tried to write a book that you need to read twice, but the book itself is so boring that I wouldn’t put myself through that just to see where things started to go wrong.

The premise sounded fascinating – what do you do when you discover your teenage daughter was swapped as a baby and you’ve been raising someone else’s child? The tagline of the novel, however,: ‘I thought she was my daughter. I was wrong’ is incredibly misleading. It sounds more like something from a horror film than the introduction to an average family, an average novel with average characters which basically achieve nothing and make no personal gains throughout the period the novel covers.

Parks tries to create an interesting history for Alison, but half way through, it’s like she’s forgotten that she intended to do that. We lose the chapters in italics and gather together information so piecemeal that none of it seems relevant. I didn’t care that Alison didn’t pass her GCSEs or O Levels, because it was just so boring to read about and at no point was relevant to the more important story that we were following.

The first person narration was incredibly dull, and whilst I believe Parks must think that she’s written a believable, realistic character, she just hasn’t. I understand the love of a mother for her child is indescribable and that a mother would do anything for her child. But Alison was just so boring. She had no appeal other than through Katherine, and having her narrate the book undermined that love, because it was confused and obsessive. I’m actually more concerned about Alison’s mental health than I ever was about Tom’s.

The book addresses issues such as adoption, cancer and parenthood in far too callous a manner. Tom uses cancer and the death of his wife for sympathy WHEN ANNABEL DIDN’T EVEN DIE. This is brushed over in a horrific manner, and Jeff and Alison are far too accepting of it all.

Whilst Parks attempts to create sympathy for Alison through the tale of her teenage self giving birth and putting up for adoption a son, the journey that she has doesn’t have ANY RELEVANCE TO THE DAMN STORY!! It just doesn’t matter. It was so frustrating because none of it mattered. There was no coherent plot structure, linking threads or purposeful narration.

Books like this are why I spent a long time avoiding popular literature because they just make me so mad. The writing was average, the book was about 400 pages longer than it needed to be, the characters were unbelievable, undynamic (is that a word?) and annoying, and mostly the content was padding rather than necessity. Perhaps Parks should just stick to writing short stories, that grip and let go, without worrying about making it a novel. I shall not be reading anything by this author any time soon, because I really have better things to be reading.

Thirty Six and a Half Motives, Denise Grover Swank

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Ah, it’s been a long and fascinating journey travelling with Rose Gardner from the downtrodden 24 year old girl to the brave, mystery solving 25 year old woman who has a tendency to find, and solve, trouble. And Denise Grover Swank certainly didn’t disappoint with this novel – I was on tenterhooks most of the way through, and despite the many surprises in the previous 8 books, there were plenty of twists and turns to keep me guessing!

Caution! Spoilers!

Rose is finally single! As much as I appreciate Grover Swank’s development of Rose as an independent young woman, she has always been too dependent on being loved and manipulated by the men in her life. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Mason. He is wonderful and kind and absolutely wrong for Rose. Joe was always a source of contention for me. And James (Skeeter) Malcolm, well, let’s just say that’d never work out. No, Rose and Neely-Kate are perfectly capable of striking out on their own, and I think this was an appropriate end to the series.

The Simmons family is all wrapped up. About time too, let’s be honest, since JR was the cause of Rose’s and Joe’s break up many, many books ago. Every mystery was solved – Rose’s father, the father of Hilary’s baby, Kate’s reason for seeking revenge… I question the pure evil that Grover Swank creates in the character of JR, who shows no remorse, or fear or restraint and who can only be defeated by being killed. I’m not sure I appreciate the one dimensional nature of his character – grasping constantly for money and control. However, Kate’s descent into madness is well represented, and the reasons for it were well hidden up until the end. Hilary’s changes seemed temperamental and entirely dependent on who she was talking to, but you were able to develop some sympathy for her. Only Joe really came out on top. He finally let Rose go, he was making an effort to be a better person to Hilary, and he saved Rose in the final showdown. That said, I wouldn’t want to be associated with any of them!

Overall I just feel a little deflated. I adored the original few Rose Gardner novels, but I think I’m done with her now. I have found with Grover Swank’s other novels that they are often very similar, following on mildly different story lines, and I loved Rose because she stood out. But now Rose is following the same pattern within her own novels, and the idea of a mystery series is very… Nancy Drew. One of the things I really loved was Rose’s visionary abilities, but these never really came up in this novel, except to save Jed’s life, and I don’t think they’re really going to shine in a mystery solving series. So, as much as I’ve enjoyed the novels, I am done for now, though I think that as a mystery series, if Grover Swank can focus on the crime solving, then Rose will do well with a teenage audience.

The one person in the novel who really deserves a shout out is Skeeter Malcolm! He is an in depth, likable antagonist, a man with many layers and loyalty. Aside from Rose, I really feel like he was the only character fully explored by Grover Swank to the greatest depth. His development from when we first met him to his final interaction with Rose was well crafted and thought through.

The series, and the author, have lost their shine for me a bit. It doesn’t help that as kindle publishing authors, she releases several ‘novellas’ which you should be able to cope without but which always hold important information before the next novel comes out. It’s all a bit too commercial for me.

Grover Swank’s writing style is clear and simple, and she builds suspense well. Her protagonists are always well developed and her stories always have an interesting and unexpected twist.

Thanks for 9 books of Rose Gardner. I’m glad that she’s finally able to stand on her own two feet.