If She Did It, Jessica Treadway

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The Premise

Hanna was attacked in her own home, but holds no memory of the night that killed her husband and alienated her from her youngest daughter, Dawn, whose boyfriend is held responsible for the attack. With Rud’s successful appeal presenting the need for a new trial, will Hanna’s memory of the attack come back? And, in all honesty, does she want it to, when it might implicate the daughter she has just invited back into her home?

The Verdict

The write up of the novel sounds good – even when summarising it above I was intrigued by the premise. The trouble is, the delivery was not great. I found the book really boring – it’s taken me almost 2 weeks to read it because every time I tried I was just bored by the writing style, the bland characters and the lack of anything happening. Much of the story is told through flashback, with Hanna remembering events leading up to her attack. They are memories that could apply to any situation – her daughter bringing a new boyfriend to her sister’s wedding, family not getting on with the new man in a child’s life, happy family memories and those of friendships coming to an end. There was nothing exceptional about the way they were written or what they portrayed. If Treadway was simply trying to emphasise how normal the family was, she did it so successfully that they simply weren’t interesting to read about.

A few feature of the novel was Dawn’s struggle with her lazy eye, and her inability to make friends. Hanna’s perception of this as a mother is really naive, and the way she and her husband Joe dealt with it is uncomfortable, in the way they refuse her surgery and refer to it. They end up helping her to alienate herself from her peers because they refuse to acknowledge the lazy eye. Perhaps there was more to Dawn’s disability – she definitely struggled socially – but this was not portrayed successfully by Treadway until it was raised in the final pages. It wasn’t a great character development.

Dawn was so obviously the culprit from the first page. I know I often work out the endings of books because I have read so much, but it was so obviously pointing towards her.

The one thing that Treadway did manage to do well was portray a mother’s blind spots. Hanna has a history of trying to protect Dawn from what she is. She cannot see that her daughter needs help beyond that of the fixing of the lazy eye and refuses to accept the criminal behaviour that Dawn exhibited in her teenage years. Treadway shows how a mother can choose what she wants to see in the way that Hanna can’t see that the surgery has totally reversed itself until the final scene with Dawn in the police station. Treadway demonstrates successfully how a mother can refuse to acknowledge the deficits of their children, even at risk to themselves. However, again, this didn’t really come across in the powerful way it had the potential to, but was subtly hinted at throughout.

Overall, I really just didn’t enjoy reading this novel, I found it incredibly boring and tedious. Treadway overplays her characterisation of Hanna and underplays Dawn’s descent into madness, and puts all of that in a mundane and frustrating setting that really has nothing to it. Would not read this author again.

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After I’ve Gone, Linda Green

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The Premise

Jess Mount is a normal woman, with a job, a best friend and some sadness and secrets in her past, until the day she meets Lee. Lee sweeps her off her feet, taking her out for new experiences and adventures and showing her the life she could have. On the day she meets him, her facebook feed starts showing up posts mourning her death… 18 months in the future. Can Jess change the future without jeopardising her relationship with Lee, and the son they will have together? Or are some things guaranteed to happen?

The Verdict – CAUTION WILL IMMEDIATELY CONTAIN SPOILERS

The blurb and premise of this novel are intriguing and Green attempts to hold this throughout the novel, staying true to the framework she has decided to write in. That said, the fascinating literary device of seeing your future on facebook, is not used to its fullest potential. In those blasted book club questions at the back of the book (which always wind me up), the first one queries ‘Does it matter that you never find out how or if the facebook posts are sent from the future?’. Yes, actually, I think it does. This was a really interesting idea that was undermined by constant reference to Jess’ mental state and really under explained and over exploited. Green over stretches herself by showing three timelines – past Jess, present Jess and future facebook Jess. The past Jess wasn’t actually necessary – what those sections told us, we could have worked out, or could have been better ingrained into the main narrative. The facebook posts were interesting and key to the progress of the story, but they were essentially ignored in the conclusion and that was really frustrating.

That said, there is possibly more depth to it than that. Perhaps the facebook posts are a delusion. Jess meets Lee and they immediately strike up a very intense relationship. Perhaps her subconscious mind has judged him correctly immediately (here I will spoil the plot and reveal that Lee is abusive) and is trying to protect Jess from the harm that it recognises that Lee can cause. In that case it could be an interesting pyschoanalytical tool – the posts do reveal new information as Jess learns it (for example, the first post that mentions Emma, Lee’s ex, happens after Jess hears her name from his mother). Jess’ mind is taking the information given to her in the real world and is translating it into a warning.

However, the facebook page becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Jess only says yes to Lee’s proposal of marriage (which is very early in their relationship) BECAUSE the facebook pages have shown that they get married. She allows them to guide her decisions, which really just doesn’t work and is very frustrating. Jess makes one effort to change her future, by deciding to wear a different wedding dress, and gives up the moment this doesn’t work out. Jess stops making her own choices long before Lee’s true character comes to light because of what she has read on the facebook page and because there is no satisfactory explanation of the delusion, or posts, this is inconsistent with the narrative.

Harsh criticism aside, Green really portrays the early stages of an abusive relationship with emotional power. Lee’s actions – taking Jess on a surprise trip, proposing after a few months, buying her clothes etc. – all come across as relatively romantic, but with hindsight demonstrate a controlling and demanding personality. This was especially poignant when Jess has agreed to go to her best friends sister’s birthday party and can’t spend her one evening off with Lee. Instead of going to the party, Lee appears with an offer Jess can’t turn down, bribing her with gifts, sex and a work meal to go out with him instead of her friend. This is in the early stages of the relationship and represents the isolation that Lee is determined Jess needs from her social circles. It is later echoed when he doesn’t allow Jess to attend her mother’s grave on Christmas day. What Green captures especially well is the abuse before it becomes physical. We only see Lee hit Jess once, and that’s enough for her – she decides to leave because she knows what is coming. Prior to that, she has had all the evidence before her in the facebook posts, which she truly believes in, and has not managed to leave. She keeps making excuses for Lee, hoping that he will be different when their married, or when their son is born. Having never been in an abusive relationship, I can’t say for certain, but from what I understand, this is a common mindset – especially when Lee is apologetic and spoils her after his outbursts.

I was infuriated by Angela’s comment towards the end of the novel when Jess tells her that Lee hit her: ‘yes, but he hated himself for it’. Throughout the novel, Angela is so desperate to be with her grandson that she puts Jess’ life at risk, even physically assaulting her. She claims that Lee hated himself for hitting Jessica, however, this is a symptom of the abuser. We know from Emma’s earlier testimony (through the facebook posts) that he hit her and the first time he was apologetic afterwards. Despite finally seeing the habit has passed from father to son, Angela is still in denial and still eager to protect her son from what he has done. I felt like this undermined the progression Angela had made, and did not bode well for any of Lee’s future relationships.

Overall it was an intriguing premise which didn’t live up to expectations. I feel like the novel was powerful enough in its portrayal of domestic abuse, without having to use a gimmick to draw the reader’s interest initially. I have mixed feelings over whether I’d read a Linda Green book again – I wouldn’t not pick it up but I certainly shan’t be looking for it.

Before I Go To Sleep, S J Watson

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CAUTION – THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS

Christine wakes up every morning with no recollection of the past almost 30 years of her life. She wakes up expecting to be a child, but is in fact a middle aged woman with a husband and a incurable diagnosis of amnesia – a unique kind that not only wipes out memories from her past but prevents her from moving memories from the short term into the long term. She is meeting, without telling her husband, with Dr Nash, to test her memory. When she meets him at the start of the novel he gives her a journal that she has been keeping, and she reads the entries that she made but has no memory of. Who is lying to her? And what are their real secrets?

Review

I love reading debut novels because there is no expectation put on them to perform – they are simply a person’s first expression and if they’re good then great, but if they’re not then it isn’t too hurtful (not like when a certain author uses time travel and ruins a perfectly good trilogy (Erika Johansen)). SJ Watson writes with the skill of a practised author, leaving clues and hints reminiscent of a mystery or crime novel throughout the story, and wrapping it up with a thriller coating, many of that foreshadowing so subtle that even I, an experienced reader who prides herself on always knowing what’s coming next, didn’t actually work out the twist until it was blatantly obvious!

Watson’s characterisation of Christine is complex and thorough. It is an impossible task to set yourself, writing a character who remembers nothing but needs to remember something in order for the story to make sense. I think that Watson relied too heavily on the journal which told most of the story, and could have built in more time with Christine feeling confused and disorientated. Too much would be boring, but too little meant that I didn’t really feel like I was experiencing the novel from her perspective like the first person narrative should have enabled me to do, because Watson didn’t build in enough realistic experience for me. The amnesia was used purely as a story telling tool, rather than a real part of a real person. It’s hard to tell the difference, I know, and it’s a picky criticism, but when illnesses like that are written well, you know about it!

Watson’s greatest skill is in his hint dropping and keeping the secret to the end. On reflection, throughout the novel there are aspects which, with the knowledge of the ending that I have now, I can see were there to guide me to that conclusion, but I missed most of them! That might be partly due to the fact that I read the first 200 pages in A&E whilst waiting for a diagnosis on a sprained achilles, but also they are so embedded and natural that you take them for granted. The experience I had with the twist at the end made me feel like I was Christine – like I had taken every word written as the truth because that was the only information I had, and actually the basic truth that I had accepted from the blurb WAS A LIE! It was an impressive and daring move, and it worked really well.

It is unfortunate that from that moment onwards, Watson falls into the familiar trope of a jealous lover spurned by their other half who not only attacks them but then stalks and cares for them until the truth comes out. This is an overused, overplayed storyline and one which perhaps Watson should have done without. There were other ways to keep the thriller moving without making (MASSIVE SPOILER) the man we all assumed was Christine’s husband into the jealous ex-lover. I would like to see Watson moving out of that comfort and towards a more innovative twist next time, because with his skill at keeping secrets, this is something he could excel at!

Overall, this was a good read, and a nice distraction from pain an injury. Definitely an author I would read again, though I would be worried that now he has found a strategy that works he might stick to it. But Watson’s writing style, descriptions and characterisation have a lot of potential.

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!

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.