Hurrah, it's time for the March edition of A Blogging Good Read! And it's World Book Day today. How appropriate.
Joining me this month are two of my favourite people to chat books with: Jenni from Bows, Bangles & Bakes and Sarah from Scandinavian on the Inside. Here's what we read:
Jenni picked The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton:
As this was my choice, obviously I love this book. I love all of Kate Morton's book, but this is probably my favourite by far! These timeline switching books are really my chosen genre at the moment, and this one is set in WW2 which again is right up my little vintage cobbled street. Again I don't very much like Dolly (I seem to have an issue with lead characters somewhere!) and was struggling to see how I was going to empathise with this character as an elderly woman. Obviously this becomes clearer later on. What I also like about this book, perhaps more so over Kate Morton's other books, is that a lot of the investigative work in the future is detailed. Often this is left out, yet the reader knows what happened but it's not clear how the future relative really found out what was going on, and I felt this was done much better in this book than some of the others. I love the author's style of writing, which I know some readers can find overly descriptive, whereas I like this as I can completely visualise everything the author s trying to portray through their writing.
I've read a couple of Kate Morton's books before and although I can never remember which one is which (get some more distinct book covers please!), I know I'm always in for a good read. She's very good at interweaving stories in a natural, enthralling sort of way and The Secret Keeper was no exception. I really don't think I can describe the plot without spoiling it massively, other than to say it's about two main characters, Laurel and her mother Dorothy, and the secrets and mysteries of both of their pasts. A lot of it is set during WW2 and I think the author has got the feel and desperation of London at that time absolutely spot on. Those sections are so vivid and marvellously described that the whole book could have been set then and I'd have been quite happy.
Having said that, I very much enjoyed the way that the modern day sections were written too - you've got to love the process of a good mystery being solved! Everything in this book tied together beautifully in the end and I really appreciate an author who can do that so well and make it seem so effortless. I wish I could talk about the thing I liked best but that would be a major spoiler and I won't do that to you. Um, can you all go and read it please? Then we can go "AHA!" to each other about the ending.
Did Sarah enjoy it?
I’d never heard of The Secret Keeper before having it assigned for BGR, and after looking it up on Goodreads I was extremely enthused by the promise of a ‘spellbinding mix of mystery, thievery, murder, and enduring love’. It seemed like a story I could really get my teeth into and connect with, and although I did think it got off to a bit of a slow start, I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the novel with its many ups and downs, cleverly hidden clues and satisfying conclusion. There isn’t much I can write in terms of a plot summary, as the joy of the story lies in figuring out how all the memories, ties and characters fit together, but basically the outline follows the main character, Laurel, and her thoughts and actions as she investigates a strange and shocking event that she accidentally witnessed as a teenager which has haunted her ever since. The narration switches between 2011 and 1941, when the event took place, and focuses largely on Laurel’s relationship with her dying mother – the only other person who knows the truth about what Laurel saw, and at the time a secretive and impulsive woman with many hidden plans.
The Secret Keeper is undeniably a romantic book, filled with intricate relationships, tragedy, betrayal and lost love, and Kate Morton writes in a way that leaves you fully engaged with and sympathetic to the characters involved. I really enjoyed how the secrets and clues were gradually leaked throughout the story, with nothing being obvious or quite as it first seemed! There’s a lot of hiding in the shadows and a lot of background investigating, which is great for a reader as I felt I was there alongside Laurel, discovering and questioning and remembering a series of disjointed facts relating to her and her mother’s past.
I did feel that at times, things fell into place a little too easily and conveniently – for example, the discovery of a handily placed journal that held the answers to questions that would have been inscrutable otherwise – but even so, it was an interesting and engaging read, filled with genuine surprises and a gentle sense of suspense. I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys conventional ‘contemporary’ novels and mystery fans, as this is a rather clever and rather lovely mix of both.
Sarah chose The Sleeper by Emily Barr:
I chose this book as I’d read it the previous summer and remembered really enjoying the pacy, frustrating and seemingly impossible mystery encased within, and quite fancied a re-read to get a few things straight in my own mind and revisit a few chapters to see if any clever foreshadowing had occurred! Reading it for the first time, I remembered being incredibly confused and lost at a few points along the way, as the narration leaves quite a lot open for interpretation, and I was curious as to what Alex and Jenni would make of it. Basically, the story focuses on the disappearance of Lara from a packed commuter train, with absolutely no trace of her remaining either on the train, at her home in Cornwall or at her office in London. Prior to her disappearance, Lara had a seemingly perfect life, married as she was to devoted partner Sam - but the truth soon comes out that Lara was bored and unhappy in her relationship and had begun an affair with a workmate, also a regular passenger on the sleeper train, a few months before she went AWOL.
As police are baffled and investigate everyone around her, only her friend back in Cornwall Iris sees cause to query the official version of events and begins her own investigation into Lara’s disappearance. It slowly comes clear that everything and everybody in Lara’s life was not as or who they seemed, and that Lara had some dark, murky secrets of her own that spoke of hidden crimes, past mistakes and unsavoury friendships. The book splits between Lara and Iris, and tells of a journey that began long ago, with Iris unravelling bit by bit the deep and terrifying trouble that Lara once found herself in, and that clearly haunted her right up until the day she went missing.
It’s true that The Sleeper is extremely fast paced and far-fetched at times, and there were many instances that caused me to go back and re-read an earlier passage or chapter searching for clues and explanations, but overall I think this was done intentionally by the author to keep the reader in the dark as long as possible – nothing was given away until the very end, and I was completely hooked until I got there! I thought the personal conflicts between Lara and the other characters to be very well written – nobody was clear-cut and everybody was under suspicion as being her accomplice. Iris had an incredibly sad and sympathetic story arc of her own, and by the end of the book I’d really warmed to her as a person, a lot more than I had to Lara. The ending was nothing like you’d expect, given the original premise, and I have heard a lot of people say they were disappointed by it – I can see why, but in a strange way that’s also why I liked it so much. I enjoy books that genuinely surprise me!
What did Jenni think of it?
First of all I want to say I really really enjoyed this book, as my review is probably going to make it sound as though I hated it. I honestly didn't - I just had some niggles with it. First of all, I hated Lara. I never once fully warmed to her throughout the book. I may have had a glimmer of sympathy towards her before the end but overall I found her to be a bit of a self indulged ungrateful wannabe. In contrast I really liked Iris's character and was rather happy with her ending. The first part of the book, which is set on a sleeper train, made me want to go and ride a sleeper train somewhere, but I felt this section of the book was far to long and just made me dislike Lara even more. The second part of the book, I really liked and it gripped me in a way the first section hadn't. Where I felt this book was let down is the ending. I felt the author put far too much time into setting up the story which was in some respects unnecessary and as a result, cut the ending. I felt the ending could have been much more built up, but it all felt a bit rushed and sometimes implausible. There are a number of what I feel are plot holes that I don't want to say too much about for fear of spoiling the ending for other people, but going back to my first point, I really enjoyed this and I will definitely be looking at Emily Barr's other books in the future.
Isn't it funny how you can dislike most of the characters in a book, think that parts of it don't make any sense and still find yourself thoroughly enjoying it? Sarah has done a great job of summarising the book so I won't talk about the plot too much, other than to say that I found the pacing of it really nicely done. Thriller/mystery novels so often belt along at 90 million miles an hour straight from the word go and I liked how this unfolded in a very calm, casual way at first, then got more hectic and twisty in the latter stages.
The Sleeper was a really entertaining read. I didn't mind that the ending was a tad hurried. My main gripe is that there were certain things about it that just didn't stand up to scrutiny. I went along with them at the time but had a couple of headscratching moments at the end once I thought about it properly. Sarah and I had to have an epic and spoilertastic Twitter chat about the way the plot unfolded (sorry again to Jenni who hadn't quite finished it at that point!) which was full of "but why did she have that...?" and "how she did do that?" and "where did he come from?" and "surely the effects of .... would make that impossible?" and "WELL THAT MAKES NO SENSE". Hey, that's a good thing though, right? It might not be perfect but at least it was interesting enough to have us chatting about it for ages after we'd read the last page. Nothing worse than a book that bores you!
My selection was A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness:
I have a different Sarah to thank for introducing me to Patrick Ness. I saw him at a World Book Night talk last year and thought he was fantastic but hadn't actually read any of his books at that point! She recommended I read the Chaos Walking trilogy which I promptly devoured (Manchee! Meep!). I came across A Monster Calls in my local library and, well, I was going to read it anyway, wasn't I? That cover and those stunningly powerful illustrations are just an additional bonus. This is a beautiful book in every sense of the word.
Conor is a teenage boy. His mum is dying of cancer, his dad (and new family) live in America and he's under the well-meaning but not very sympathetic care of his grandmother. Simple premise, right? Well so it seems, at least until the point that a monster appears at his bedroom window. This book is a glorious exploration of grief, loss and story telling. It's simply told but the author's use of language is as sharp as in any of his other, longer books: he can cut you to the quick with a single short sentence. The eerie feeling this book evoked and the use of wild, powerful nature and mythology reminded me a lot of Diana Wynne Jones. There aren't many higher compliments I can pay a book.
Did Jenni approve?
When I read the blurb on this I'll be honest I wasn't all that keen to read it. Having recently gone through a number of bereavements I anticipated that this book would have me sobbing over every page. I don't know if I'm just a cold hearted human, but it didn't get me the way I expected. The ending was understandably somewhat predictable, so by the time it arrived, I may have gotten slightly misty eyed but I wasn't blubbing, as I had expected it throughout the entire book.
I'm not sure I fully got or understood this book. It was interesting enough but it just left me with some unresolved issues; like why everyone suddenly started bullying him. I know bullying happens for no reason, but the author made a big deal of pointing out it only happened after Conor's mum got ill, I expected there to be some revelation about this, yet there wasn't. I actually liked the Monster's stories, and the ending, albeit predictable, was heartfelt and warmly written. Overall I did like this book, and I think this would be very good for a child going through similar circumstances to Conor to help come to terms with things.
And finally, what did Sarah think of it?
I was SO excited to see this on the assigned list as I’ve been wanting and meaning to read a Patrick Ness novel for a while – I’ve heard nothing but good things and magic about his ability as an author, but so far just hadn’t got round to picking any of his titles! However, I’m so glad this was my first, and I’m sure it’s a story I’ll remember for years to come - since putting it down I haven’t really got it out of my mind. A Monster Calls is a metaphorical and moving exploration of a young boy's grief and struggle to understand the cancer that is slowly attacking his mother; and details the different paths that children and adults take when faced with such a tragic and life changing event. Conor realises that having cancer doesn’t just affect his mother’s wellbeing, but also the way in which society views him and their family, and how people who are ‘different’ can become cast out and feared through no fault of their own. Conor turns some of his own fear and confusion inside himself, and finds it hard to distinguish between his own imagination and the hard face of the reality that he wants to avoid and run away from at all costs.
Throughout the book, we see how Conor feels increasingly isolated and scared; with his father seemingly incapable of discussing his ex-wife’s cancer, and his schoolmates pushing him out in a misguided attempt to ignore his misery. This results in Conor concentrating more on his own feelings of loss and isolation rather than his mother’s illness, and leads to some alarming dreams that Conor can’t quite believe aren’t real. Night after night Conor engages with a ‘monster’ who calls his name and tells him stories, and Conor becomes more and more distressed as the time comes to examine and tell his own story in return. Ness writes grief and confusion in an incredibly beautiful, simple and poetic way, and more than once had me drawing a breath at the cleverly chosen words and their implied meanings. At the end, I was in awe at the true meaning behind Ness’s story-weaving, and admit to having a little cry on behalf of everyone who has known this kind of grief, and what it can do to your life, physically and on the inside. This is a true masterpiece, and immediately became one of my favourite books. READ IT.
Thank you Jenni and Sarah for your most excellent book choices! Here's hoping next month is as successful.
I'll be back with two different bloggers and we'll be reading The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, Touching the Void by Joe Simpson and Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. If you'd like to read along with us, your thoughts would be lovely to hear.