In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

I did something I don’t normally do with books. I folded down a corner of a page because I wanted to come back to something.

 

“Nurse Margaret had not heard what I was really saying, which is what kindness there is in the things our mothers do.”

 

Our main character Etta thought this at the age of eleven, back in 1941.

 

I had intended to come back to it for this blog to talk about how some of the language of the book doesn’t match the age of the character.

 

I can well believe that an old lady, someone born in 1930 would speak like that at the age of 80, but I find it hard to believe that such an eloquence of language exists in an eleven year old, no matter what year they were born.

 

However towards the end of the book, we learn that the story is being written by Etta as a slightly older character, one who has been through more than you imagine at the beginning of the book. Coming back to this sentence, once I’d finished the book, the choice of language makes more sense.

 

The language is not distracting at all, and this was my only real quibble with the book. It was a nicely written tale of a group of schoolgirls at a boarding school in China during World War 2.

 

The girls grow up like any normal girls, forming groups, shunning outcasts, measuring breasts. I imagine that last bit is normal, I wouldn’t know, and frankly, I don’t really want to know.

 

Their lives change dramatically when they end up in a Prisoner of War camp, but this occurs nearly two thirds of the way through the book, and from there we race through from age eleven up to the age of fifteen when Etta is on her way back to England, to a home she has never known before.

 

It’s enjoyable and inoffensive, but there wasn’t anything in this that particularly stood out to me. But I can imagine to some, people with similar backgrounds, young women, there is much about this book that will resonate.

 

The novel’s sense of place could be stronger. Although not an alien world to Etta having spent her entire life in China, we are presented with a small boarding school nestled in the mountains. There is a sense of isolation, and nearly no sense of being in a stranger’s land. There is little interaction with the native Chinese.

 

I’m struggling to form my feelings on the book – it’s a solid story, and I don’t regret reading it, but perhaps the reason I’m struggling to reconcile my feelings, is that it didn’t really invoke any.

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The Widow by Fiona Barton

“The ultimate psychological thriller.”

Ok.

 

“Shortlisted for Richard and Judy Search for a bestseller competition”

Interesting.

 

“If you liked the Girl on the Train, you’ll love The Widow.”

Oh.

 

Oh dear.

 

Before I started reading it, I wanted to like The Widow, there’s a little bit of a buzz about it in the industry, and I love it when a book becomes a huge success, but regular readers will know that likening something to The Girl on the Train is not going to massively enthuse me.

 

On a side note, it’s really irritating when people say things like “2016’s Girl on the Train”

 

For a start Girl on the Train was not 2015’s anything, it stood on it’s own merit.

 

Secondly, nobody remembers what 2014’s Gone Girl was (mostly because Gone Girl was still selling).

 

Thirdly, you’re only setting the readers up for disappointment. Either they hated Girl on the Train and so won’t buy this, or they loved it – and this doesn’t love up to it.

 

I was disappointed by Girl on The Train (she kept getting off the train, for one) and so with some trepidation I sat down to begin The Widow.

 

We’ll start with the positives… mostly because there are some.

 

It was a total page-turner which pushes the reader on, right to the end.

 

Kate, the reporter, is a very well drawn character and the scenes involving her and the photographer are the most realistic of the whole book. Not surprising considering the previous occupation of the author (clue: it rhymes with preporter).

 

Despite being set across several years, and jumping about in time in no discernible pattern, the book actually flows quite well. The time jumps are not jarring as they easily could have been – and often are in other books.

 

There are other positives, but they involve the resolution of the plot and so I’m not going to go into too much detail on those.

 

Onto the negatives, and in truth, it’s not negatives plural, there’s one thing wrong with this book.

 

The writing is lazy.

 

Jean and Glen, the couple at the heart of the story, are written as if they’re in their late fifties, sixties – but the writer for absolutely no reason has insisted on putting them in their thirties. Every time their young age is referenced, it shatters the illusion, the image that has formed in the mind.

 

The writing is spot on… for an older couple. And there is no benefit to pretending they’re young.

 

This is the biggest problem with the writing, but there are various other things that don’t quite work.

 

For example, our police officer gains a new colleague during the book named Zara, she is classed as thirty five, and then the writer suggests she is named such as her parents were probably fans of the Royal Family.

 

That’ll be Zara Phillips they’re referencing who isn’t even thirty five now, let alone in 2008 when that particular scene was set.

 

It took me ten seconds on the internet to work out the maths of that, but once again, it was a moment that took me out of the book, because it didn’t seem quite right.

 

And once again, there was no need for it. She could have just been called Zara with no further reference as to why and the book would have carried on fine.

 

There are lots of little things like this throughout and it’s so disappointing because this could have been a really good book.

 

Ultimately, it’s ok. It’s annoying when you read it, but you do want to read it, and you do want to find out what happened. It’s a great read for passing some time on a plane, or by a pool, and by that measure it will sell really well, but you probably won’t remember it a week later.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling

There’s something about time travel, that I struggle to resist.

A good time-travel story is like a farce – in fact, I’m specifically thinking of an episode of Frasier named The Ski Lodge, which sees the characters going skiing for the weekend.

Both Frasier and Niles are hoping to get their end away, and the girls they’re with as well as the handsome gay ski instructor are all hoping for the same. The sad thing is that none of them want to sleep with the one who wants to sleep with them.

The episode works for two reasons. The first, a setting designed to allow the story to take place without hinder it (a large ski lodge with three bedrooms and interconnecting doors) and tight plotting, which results not in a flat sitcom performance, but a well choreographed dance.

The best time travel plots have to be like that as well. They contain plots that revisit the same scenes over and over again, viewed from a slightly different perspective, with the added danger of the characters running into a future or past version of themselves.

The plotting has to be tight and the setting has to be established, or else you risk running up with a mess.

That is exactly what you get in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – which before re-reading it I would have said was probably my favourite instalment of the Harry Potter series.

Now, having re-read it, I can tell you, it IS my favourite. The whole novel, short though it may be in comparison to the subsequent books, spends its time building up to the climax, the moment that begins at the point where Hermione, complete with a melodramatic lip tremble (I imagine) informs the boys that Hagrid lost the appeal for his Hippogriff Buckbeak.

From there, Rowling barrels through plot twists and developments that she’s had simmering along nicely, some since the first and second books, with a wonderful time travel section that I just adore.

However, my favourite part of the book, and maybe my favourite part of the series comes early on. Shortly after escaping the Dursleys and being put up in the Leaky Cauldron, Harry spends his last two weeks of the summer holidays in Diagon Alley.

It seems to me, that when Harry was looking for his happy memory in order to conjure his Patronus, he should have looked to that sunny fortnight in London. It’s the first moment of the series where we truly get a sense of Harry being happy, he is carefree and without responsibility.

In retrospect, it’s also the last time before the end of the series where it feels Harry experiences happiness, a true care-free time. It could be argued that his trip to the Quidditch World Cup (pre the Death Eaters arrival) in Goblet of Fire is a happy time for Harry, but it struck me as I was reading this chapter, how tense he seems to be when with his friends.

He always seems to have a responsibility to his friends, to be the middle-man in the sniping between Ron and Hermione. To downplay parts of himself to make them both feel more comfortable – one of the biggest recurring themes in the books is Harry feeling uncomfortable at having money when Ron doesn’t.

During his ‘holiday’ in Diagon Alley, the biggest worry Harry has is that his hair won’t stay flat. This wonderful little bubble only bursts when Ron and Hermione descend on the Leaky Cauldron.

The Prisoner of Azkaban is a turning point for the series. It marks the end of Harry’s more innocent years, but also fires the starting pistol for the rest of the series. It’s clear from the end of this book that the series is only going to get darker and more epic.

It’s no wonder that the Harry Potter hype that was starting to sweep the world really took hold after the release of Azkaban, it’s probably JK Rowling’s finest piece.

The Secrets We Keep by Jonathan Harvey

I don’t know what I was expecting from this book, I’d never read any of Harvey’s previous novels, but I knew the name.

For those that don’t, he is the man behind ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’, ‘Beautiful Thing’ and ‘Beautiful People’ as well as having written over two hundred episodes of ITV soap ‘Coronation Street’.

I think it’s fair to say that his comedy in ‘Beautiful People’ and certainly in ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’ was broad and far from subtle. Don’t get me wrong, I loved both, but it was these that I had in mind when I came to reading his latest novel.

I’d forgotten all about the touching, sensitive ‘Beautiful Thing’.

The Secrets We Keep, while very funny in places, was between Beautiful People and Beautiful Thing on the spectrum of Harvey’s writing,

Writing for television and plays is a very different thing than writing for novels, but why I was surprised that a professional writer should be able to write, I’ll never know.

He was, as I should have expected, very good.

The book is about a family who, five years on from the disappearance of their father/husband, move away from their family home to a new area. This drags everything up as their new neighbours recognise them as the minor celebrities they became during Danny’s initial disappearance.

They seem like a normal family. Exasperated mother, gay son in a relationship breaking down and a bratty teenage daughter who feels like the world is against her. Danny, the missing part of their lives, seems like a normal, suburban father, who, one day, just went missing near the cliffs at Beachy Head.

As the book progresses, we start to realise that Owen, Danny’s son, knows something more, while Cally, his daughter, is determined to flee home to become a model.

And then we learn about Danny, from his perspective. We hear his life story from the eighties, right up until he disappeared. The writing is realistic, totally believable, but at the same time, it’s hard to imagine this man belonging in the family we’ve been getting to know.

Ultimately, that’s something that doesn’t ever feel a hundred per cent right. Once we know the truth behind his disappearance, the man he became doesn’t quite match up to the boy and young man he was.

Perhaps that’s the point, perhaps it’s a commentary on how life, how family changes us. Owen and Cally certainly change, with the latter being the most annoying character early on, but becoming one of the most sympathetic characters towards the end.

Cally is growing up, at the age of sixteen, she’s left it late, and what she’s growing up from is the most horrendous teenage girl you’ve ever come across, but she does start to evolve, even finally starting to bond with her mother.

The ending is an interesting choice and while I won’t spoil it here, I’m undecided whether I liked it or not. Things are left hanging, as if there’s a final chapter missing.

The Secrets We Keep is a brilliantly written novel, with many laugh out loud moments, but be prepared to suspend belief slightly for some soapy plot twists and coincidences.