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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.

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.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan – Review

Posted in Reviews, Three Star
on January 21, 2018

Interesting. That’s the word that springs to mind when trying to sum up my thoughts on Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. It is very interesting.

It is an interesting concept; the idea of modern-day Hamlet as foetus. And it works. Assuming, that is, that you suspend your disbelief for a moment, and go along with the idea that a foetus is capable of cognitive thought. (My favourite review of this book refers to it as a ‘Womb with a View’. Very droll).

I’ve been trying to write my review of this for a while. I keep circling back to it – not quite sure on which side of the fence I am sitting on. (How very Hamlet of me, indeed). For the most part, I enjoyed it, but there was something that wasn’t quite right at the same time.

But let us start at the beginning.

Nutshell is set in the present(ish) day. We find Trudy, 9 months pregnant with Hamlet as foetus. She has left her husband, John, a struggling poet, but taken up residence in his multi-million pound, but dilapidated townhouse in London. She has taken as a lover, Claude, playing out the betrayal we see in the play, and the novel follows the course of their relationship as they decide how to eliminate John (and his claim to the house) from their lives.

In Nutshell the betrayal is very much more tangible than in the play of Hamlet. For starters, Trudy has actively betrayed her still living husband – not the memory of him. And, as the book unfolds, we see the differences between Trudy and Gertrude. Trudy is a much less sympathetic character, actively complicit – indeed a driving force – for her ex-husband’s murder. The motivation of Claude and Trudy are much simpler, being as they are purely financial. It’s not just Trudy who has different characteristics than the book. John is a weak character, easily pushed about – unlike what we hear of Old Hamlet in the play. The inactiveness of Hamlet himself is down to physical restrictions, rather than mental. Claude is often closer to Polonius than Claudius, with his self indulgent pontifications.

Ay, there’s the rub. Nutshell is similar yet different to its source material. Hamlet, itself, is a very complex play, full of intricacies, double-meaning, and bits to puzzle out, so by changing and simplifying the plot in the way that McEwan has, you are going to lose a lot of this. Even by just removing the royal-family element of the plot and replacing it with financial gain, you lose the complexity of court life, and the real motivation of usurping power. And with a purely financial agreement, the story and the motivation is, by implication, weaker. Added too that we have a Hamlet in the know, indeed a Hamlet trying to prevent, rather than revenge – which turns the original on its head. So much of Hamlet is about him learning who he can trust, and indeed, doubting what he has seen – this is not the case for the self-assured Foetus Hamlet that we meet in Nutshell.

Perhaps then, it is this which has had me sitting on the fence, because Nutshell is a very clever book in a number of ways, but it falls down in comparison to the original. Shakespeare is a lot to live up to; Hamlet itself has a huge heritage. It is a lot to live up to. It is impossible to view Nutshell without comparing it – and indeed comparison should be welcome (since why would you write something like this if it wasn’t). But it will always be a harsh comparison. For me, some of McEwan’s authorial decisions weaken the overall novel. But, nevertheless, there are still a number of interesting elements to the book that has been written.

Firstly, of course, the concept of Foetus as narrator. I believe this has been explored before – but I have to confess, I’ve not read anything which uses this device. Now you have to take this, and the “science”, with a pinch of salt. The foetus is clearly biased, and we are relying on his interpretation of events (which mirrors the play, where the audience is told much more than it ever sees). However, the interpretation is much more straightforward in many respects,  because it is peppered with events which are also reported in a fairly straight manner (more on them, later). The foetus – just as play Hamlet does – has an obsessional love for his mother. He overlooks many of her failings (her over-indulgence in wine, lots of wine, at nine months pregnant, for example) and although he does reprimand her for certain things, his anger is largely directed at Claude. So far so similar, but then of course, it diverges. As a foetus, he has what play Hamlet so desires – utter closeness to his mother. He is literally at one with her. Where she goes, he goes; they cannot be separated (until he is born, which does seem to cause him some anxiety); she is his.

And that changes things. He is complicit in his father’s murder. He sees their plotting. He knows the plan. It’s the opposite to the play because we meet Hamlet before. Whereas play-Hamlet is paralysed from acting after from his own indecision, and his fear of what may happen next, book-hamlet is paralysed physically. Although he knows what is going to happen, he is unable to stop it because there is a physical barrier between him and the world in which the action takes place. The future is more certain – at some point Hamlet will be born, and they will murder his father – and it is the foetus’ powerlessness that we feel very keenly as readers. Though he does consider devising a plan of action to save his father, it is ultimately his loyalty to his mother which wins.

There are further costs to him being so close to his mother. The things that Play-Hamlet accuses Gertrude of are literally played out in the book. The relationship with Claude; the ‘frailty’ of women – all of it. In many respects, the closeness that Play Hamlet dreams of, is also his worst nightmare. We see his breakdown in the play when he thinks of Gertrude and Claudius together – and there he only has supposition and assumption. Here, he has a front row seat – literally. He is there when they make love. He is there when they plot. He is always there and he cannot escape.

Because Hamlet is always there, and because of the setting of the novel, it does lose a lot of the play’s metaphorical power. One example – being poisoned in the ear has the double meaning of words and act.  A glycol laced smoothie is far too millenial for that. The grand and impressive Hamlet’s father is reduced to a snivelling and somewhat pathetic shell of its origin character. It’s hard for us – and indeed for Hamlet – to admire him. There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, stemming from the poison in the ears and in the minds of the characters in the play. This is not so here – a delipidated house does not have the same power. Neither does the motive of money. Trudy stands only to lose, not gain, from her ex-husband (a man so clearly besotted with her that he will let her have anything if it means she will not leave him). That Trudy is so involved with the murder seems a little forced. She becomes almost the Lady Macbeth to Claude’s Polonius.

Something else I feel is a little lacking is in the characterisation. Trudy lacks the emotional and intellectual nuances that we see from Gertrude. She doesn’t go through the state of realisation that Gertrude does as she starts to see Claudius for who he really is. Perhaps this is a deliberate tactic, but for me a large part of the tragedy in Hamlet is that for all their flaws, there are some sympathetic characters and with a little more understanding, perhaps a different ending may have been possible. I can’t see that in Nutshell. It’s a shame too to miss out on the more endearing or steady characters (Ophelia, Laertes, Horatio, and Gertrude as she is portrayed in the play). Without these  Without these buffers the whole cast is dangerously close to being completely unlikeable, self-absorbed and selfish.

For all my criticisms, I do think it is an exceptionally clever book – if a little unsatisfying to read. It is not designed to be a copy of the play, so perhaps it is a little unfair of me to contrast it so sharply. Being a short novel, based off the longest Shakespearian play comes into it too. If you were to explore all the themes set up by Shakespeare you would need something along the lines of War and Peace in length! Hamlet has a lot of heritage, it is a particularly well studied play, and it was a particularly ambitious project with McEwan chose. Bearing that in mind, should I even be surprised that the idea was better than the execution? One of the next books I intend to read is Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, her retelling of The Tempest. I’ll be interested to see how that compares….

3 out of 5 Stars.