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How to Keep a Secret – Sarah Morgan

Posted in Books, Reviews, Three Star
on June 14, 2018
How To Keep A Secret

 

I received an ARC copy in exchange for a fair review.

I’ve read a couple of Sarah Morgan’s books over the years. How to Keep A Secret is a departure from her previous style – and a welcome one.

The story is based around three generations of women from the Stewart family. Grandmother Nancy has always seemed a little distant to her daughters. Lauren appears to have the perfect family life in London, but her daughter Mack, is starting to act out. Jenna married the perfect man, and seems to have it all. But when tragedy hits, and Lauren finds herself back in her old family home in Martha’s Vineyard, the secrets that have pulled them apart start to unravel.

Each chapter starts from a different perspective, so we know what the characters are hiding before they reveal it to their family. And boy, are there a lot of secrets going on with the Stewarts. You do sometimes wonder if they have ever spoken frankly to one another! It’s devastating at times to see their carefully crafted lives crumbling apart. It takes time, but eventually they all manage to channel their anger, hurt, frustrations, betrayal – I could go on – into something much more positive.

Although positioned as a romance book – and there are romances in it – this is much more a book about family, friendships and moving on from things that seem too big to ever get over (be it a past, a betrayal, or a future plan that seems out of grasp). How one event can shake you to your core and effect your future forever. And mosty, how keeping a secret can harm you, instead of helping.

There is a lot going on in How To Keep A Secret but Martha’s friendship with Alice is one of the elements I wanted to highlight because it has been clearly thought about. In a book like this, if one friend wrongs the other in the way Alice wrongs Martha, she would be unforgivable – unredeemable – from thenceforth stricken from the narrative except to be spoken about in unflattering tones. However, here, Martha tries to rebuild the friendship in quite a positive way. I think that’s a lot more realistic, and a lot more powerful. It showed greater character development and strength from Martha than casting her lifelong friend out would have. It was very enjoyable to read.

A couple of minor points are undeveloped. Lauren’s love interests are a little unbelievable, for different reasons which will become apparent when you read it. The relationship with Scott in particular is altogether rather too convenient. It was a little predictable in parts, and I felt the ending was lacking a little energy compared to the beginning – but that was only a very slight niggle.

I enjoyed that not everything is quite wrapped up in the end, but there is an acceptance that it’s okay for things not to be. So much of the characters’ struggles have been brought about because they desired so much to appear outwardly perfect. Jenna, Lauren, Martha and Mack have been through too much to really have a ‘happy’ ending, but in its place they have found female solidarity, a closer family unit, and found that sharing is better than concealing.

Overall, an enjoyable book, and one I will doubtless re-read, with a couple of limitations. I’d give it three and a half stars if I could, but I can’t so it’ll have to be 3.

Little Liar by Julia Gray

Posted in Books, Four Star
on June 13, 2018

I received an ARC from Penguin Random House UK Children’s in exchange for an honest review.

This book reminded me why I am so fond of Young Adult fiction, despite being (sadly!) now far from technically being in the Young Adult demographic myself these days. I devoured it in two days. It was addictive. And clever. So clever.

Nora, our protagonist, is a little liar. She lies about her father, she lies about the art assistant, she lies to her mother – she can’t seem to stop lying. Her lies get bigger and bigger throughout the novel, and you start to understand a little bit behind why she is the way she is. She’s a troublesome character, there’s something innately likable about her, despite her behaviour, and at times callous actions. One of her charms is that she is acutely aware that the way she is behaving is wrong, yet can’t seem to stop herself. It’s an interesting portrayal of that mixed-up teenage time, where you’re not a child but not quite an adult. And sometimes trying to pretend you’re more grown up than you are, can have undesirable effects.

The novel open with the lie that begins it all, about an incident with the art assistant, Jonah Trace. A lie about the teacher and the student. It’s started out of revenge when he sleights her in class, and escalates, ultimately resulting in his dismissal. Exactly as Nora had planned. This lie is the tipping point in many respects; it changes Nora’s reputation at school, it opens up new avenues for her; she realises the power of lies and believes herself able to control the future. It also starts to eat her up as she realises that when you lie too often, you start to lose a grasp of the truth – and yourself.

When Nora meets Bel, a firecracker of a character, her life changes once more. Bel wants nothing more than to follow her late mother’s footsteps into acting, and drags Nora along for the ride. She’s a flighty, unstable and easily manipulated character, which suits Nora in many ways. Bel introduce Nora to acting – a healthy way to channel her lies – but this opens up a new ambition. She not only wants to act, but she wants to steal Bel’s part. It makes for uncomfortable reading, as Nora tries to manipulate Bel, while Bel’s family look at her as if she’s a saviour come to rescue Bel from herself.

In fact, Nora is somewhere in between the Iago she’s aspiring to be, and the good influence she’s assumed to be. This novel focuses on the shades of grey – no character is wholly good or wholly bad, and that is one of the many things that make this such an interesting book. We’re not always sure if we should like Nora, or whether her behaviour has finally crossed over into the unacceptable. Nora, indeed, is often harder on herself than the reader is. Her reaction to Mr Trace, though fairly emotionless in the carrying out of her plan, is fraught with guilt and wretchedness after he has been dismissed. And yet, even when we learn the truth, he still seems very much more the guilty party, and not someone who should have ever been teaching in school. His behaviour is dangerous and predatory. The game that Nora was playing was a risky one, but it worked. By honey trapping him (not that he took much encouragement) she perhaps saved a more vulnerable person from a difficult situation.

Of course, Nora doesn’t see it like that. She is all too acutely aware that she started that game out of pure vengeance and so even if the outcome is for the greater good, she cannot quite forgive herself for it. It is this that makes Nora such a human character. She doesn’t necessarily set out to be unkind or do such horrible things, but she gets caught up in the moment and forgets to think about consequences. Indeed, the moment when she realises quite how far down the rabbit hole she’s fallen, is a particularly poignant one.

This is also, then, a story about grief. About Nora’s grief, her mother’s grief – of the ghosts of the past that haunt them (almost literally, when her mother decides to visit a psychic). You come to realise that the reason Nora lies so much is because some truths are just too much to bear. It is also about the grief of missed potential – of what might have been, of what people give up without realising they have. There is so much going on, and so many shades of characters – everyone has some darkness in them, but everyone also has some light. Nora concentrates on her negative traits, seeing herself as a puppet master who works people for her own ends, and underestimates her good traits.

There is so much more I could write about Little Liar as it is packed full. It is an unique story – one that I enjoyed very much. It devastated and thrilled me in equal parts, as Nora started to learn that lies can always be unpicked – but real truth is in power. I didn’t see the end coming, though I suspect on a second read I might pick up a few more hints. It’s a well written book, with well observed, unpredictable characters. I’d recommend to anyone who asked. Four stars.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely…Meh

Posted in Books, Reviews, Three Star
on May 27, 2018
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I should learn. I really should.

I almost never  really enjoy books that have won certain awards.

When these books also receive high ratings on GoodReads it’s almost certain I’m not going to like it.

I almost never remember this when I’m browsing for a new book to read.

I can almost never place my finger on why.

And so it is with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s a completely bad book. It is certainly not as bad as half the drivel that gets published, and so it was nice to pick up something that was actually readable. It’s just, as the title of this blog suggests, I found it rather ‘Meh.’

And about half-way through the book, I did start reading from a perspective of just wanting to know the answers and how things would unravel, rather than from a ‘I’m really enjoying this’ perspective. Which is a shame.

Eleanor Oliphant is a creature of habit. She goes to work. She comes home. She drinks two litres of vodka every weekend, and eats a frozen pizza. That’s her lot, and she’s happy with it (or so it seems), until, that is, a chance encounter changes everything.

One thing in this book’s favour is Gail Honeyman’s characterisation – which is strong, if a little caricature-esque at times. Eleanor herself, is an interesting creation – which is not quite the same as an interesting person. (See above – she does the same thing day in, day out). She is strange, isolated from people, but able to function, somewhat, in the real world. Indeed, she doesn’t seem to realise what she’s been missing from her lack of social interactions until she starts to develop a few. But even then, she’s not sure of the rules. As a portrait of isolation, and loneliness, Eleanor’s character could be devastating. She doesn’t know how to behave in the most mundane of everyday situations, and her behaviour drives people further away, or position her as the subject of ridicule. Yet, because she is so extreme (her speech is old fashioned, she doesn’t understand technology – at times she is as affected as a Victorian dowager) – any power it could have had is lost.

It is sad that it only takes a little kindness – first from Eleanor herself, with a little prompting – and then as it is returned to her, many fold, for her life to change. We start to see a lighter Eleanor as she is freed from her self-imposed limitations. We start to understand why she’s decided why not to let anyone in. Her realisation of what she’s lacked so far, and how little it takes to change that, is a very sad one. Yet, there is hope – always hope. Eleanor protests that she’s happy with her lot, but she’s open to change. All she needs is a couple of nudges in the right direction, and her life starts to transform. Again, this would be a lot more powerful is she wasn’t such a caricature – if she was more believable and a truly tragic character, not just a hyperbolic one.

There is comedy in Eleanor’s misunderstanding of the modern world, but it does feel a little like a cheap laugh. At times she acts like an eighty year old woman. But there are things that don’t quite add up. It’s stated that she went to university, and got a good degree – yet she doesn’t understand terminology that her fellow students would have used. Even if she’d never fratenised with them – something of their speech would have rubbed off.  The comedy of her ignorance of things (what a bikini wax entails, what Top Gear is etc) is enjoyable, but it assumes a character who has not only shunned technology completely – but who has also never opened their eyes on the way to work, or overheard a conversation. Additionally, it’s never quite explained how Eleanor did so well academically – not just because of what we know of her background. She doesn’t seem to have the motivation, or the determination to succeed that you’d need to achieve a degree of such high standing. When the rest of the novel is written in such a realistic manner, these glaring inconsistencies did hit me full throttle. And yes, she is clearly written as having some form of aspergers or similar – but that portrayal isn’t quite right either. There’s just something that doesn’t fit. (Though I am sure many would disagree with me. Indeed, most reviewers do).

The twist is the part of the novel which is most clumsily dealt with for me. This is on two levels, and this is going to be hard to discuss without spoilers. Partly it felt necessary. Yes, clearly there was some trauma in Eleanor’s past life, but the level to which the twist goes, and the depth of these events and the aftermath feels a bit ridiculous. Also, I think it’s somewhat crudely dealt with in terms of how Eleanor is almost meant to feel magically better at the end of it. It doesn’t hang together for me, and the symptoms of Eleanor’s self-destructive behaviour are all too conveniently brushed under the table (her frankly dangerous drinking habit, for example). It didn’t need the added trauma, as it could have worked perfectly fine being simply addressing the topic of loneliness, especially when the twist is somewhat contrite and not well researched enough. It seems fashionable these days to put in extra twists to try and elevate books to some deeper level of seriousness. Is this a tactic to be nominated for prizes? At any rate, I wish authors wouldn’t do this – because sometimes simplicity is better. It certainly would have been in this case.

So just like Eleanor seems always on the cusp of society, the novel, for me, is always on the cusp of achieving its full potential. So yes, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine – and that is about it. Still, I’m sure the irony is not missed that a book on loneliness has gained its author huge popularity. Though Eleanor Oliphant was not wholly to my taste, I will keep an eye out for the next offering from Gail Honeyman and reserve full judgement on her authorial style until I can read that.

Three stars. (Just).

The Zero And The One

Posted in Books, Reviews, Three Star
on May 9, 2018

I received an ARC from Legend Press in exchange for an honest review.

A bookish scholarship student, Owen Whiting has high hopes of Oxford, only to find himself immediately out of place. Then he meets Zachary Foedern from New York. Rich and charismatic, Zach takes Owen under his wing, introducing him to a world Owen has only ever read about.

From Oxford to the seedy underbelly of Berlin, they dare each other to transgress the boundaries of convention and morality, until Zach proposes the greatest transgression of all: a suicide pact. But when Zach’s plans go horribly awry, Owen is left to pick up the pieces and navigate the boundaries between illusion and reality to preserve a hold on his once bright future.

I galloped my way through about 80% of this book. It’s intriguing, with a sense of tragic mystery, and you want to understand what has happened. However, as I got closer to the denouement, my pace slowed down somewhat. And I’m going to try and unpack why in this review.

This is a dark, coming of age, novel, with a twist. Our protagonist Owen, is a classic outsider. He doesn’t fit in at Oxford, and, because he’s gone to Oxford, he doesn’t really fit in with his family anymore. So, understandably, when Zachary appears – all confidence, cleverness and self-assurance – it’s understandable that Owen is all too eager to be taken under his wing. Zach pushes Owen, and at first it’s good – he brings him out of his shell. But all too soon it gets riskier, and darker, until he proposes their final dramatic act – a suicide pact – an idea conceived apparently on the basis of philosophy and how suicide is a perfect act.

Of course there’s rather more to it than this.

There are shades of Brideshead Revisited throughout, though one rather gets the feeling that Ruby intended his work to be a more intellectual version of it. And as it gets darker, the claustrophobic nature of it reminds me a little of Christopher Isherwood’s Alone in Berlin. Ruby is clearly well read, and has taken influence from a vast spectrum of literature. You can tell this in the way that it is written – the prose itself its very good. But it does lack the follow through.

The novel dips between the present and the past. It begins with Owen on his way to Zach’s funeral, so everything we hear about Zach is told via flashback. This almost works, it’s almost a confessional, it’s almost very clever – but it doesn’t quite get there. It is a sympathetic way of writing – everyone who has been bereaved will understand the need to revisit memories – but it fails to really bring anything new to the story. We don’t get the impression that Owen might be hiding anything until right at the end of the book, he’s far too parrot like in his reporting of life with Zach. It’s a compulsive confessional in many ways, except you don’t see the final confession coming.

It has to be said that none of the characters in this novel are particularly likeable. At first you so desperately want to root for Owen – the shy, unassuming person who has just lost his best friend – but as it goes on you learn that he’s actually quite unfeeling and callous. It makes it hard to empathise with him. Zach is extreme, and brash. When we meet Zach’s twin Vera, she is equally bizarre and unsympathetic. When you have a novel which is made up of entirely unsympathetic characters like this, it does make it hard to care about the outcome and this is what I found happening as The Zero And The One reached its denouement. What should have been thrilling ended up seeming a little bit flat. It should of been dramatic, but because I didn’t care enough about what happened to the characters, it didn’t work, for me at least.

Ultimately, this book thinks it is more clever than it actually is. It’s not bad – the writing itself is good, if a little pretentious in places. Some parts are better thought out than others. The faux philosophy and quotes from the fictitious Hans Abendroth The Zero and the One book are some of the best bits of this novel. There are some aspects which make the reader feel uncomfortable – which isn’t in itself a bad thing. However, as bits start to unravel it does start to become a bit… ridiculous. There’s enough plot in the latter chapters for at least three books, and so some of it becomes superfluous. And it’s not believable.I’d give the first part of this book 4*s, but unfortunately the ending really does let it down – so its 3* from me.