Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Writing:**** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Tana French said in an interview: “You can be a perfectly healthy person without having kids or having a romantic relationship – you can live a full, happy, healthy life. I’m not sure you can do that without friends.”

Well, I’m not sure if I’d call the group of girls in The Secret Place healthy or happy, necessarily, but there’s no denying that their lives are full, full, full.

Full of each other: Holly, Julia, Selena, and Rebecca don’t care what anybody else thinks. They have each other, a stolen key to the door out of St. Kilda’s, and a vow to stay away from boys while together at school. The four girls consider their group a family, their lives at the prestigious Dublin boarding school the best they could imagine. A future without each other is not worth thinking about – the important things are now. here. together.

Full of magic: chilly nights in a moonlit cyprus grove on St Kilda’s grounds. Light bulbs that burn out when they will it. Something they all feel, four different ways: a balance that needs to be kept at all costs.

Full of secrets. Someone falls in love. Someone meddles. Someone else thinks she knows how to put things right. Someone can’t keep what she suspects to herself. The girls, in trying to keep each other safe, stop sharing everything.

* * * * * * * * * *

Last year, Chris Harper was found dead on the grounds, killed with a garden tool to the head. The groundskeeper they arrested after the fact didn’t do it, but with no other clues, the lead detectives moved on.

Then Holly Mackey goes to the police with a card off St. Kilda’s confessional post board, “The Secret Place.” Unlike the boob jobs and shoplifting on most cards to be found there, this one has a photo of Chris and the message “I know who killed him.”

This is detective Stephen Moran’s chance to get out of Cold Cases and into Murder. He knows Holly from when she was a witness in a case years ago. (I guess this was in French’s previous book, The Faithful Place, which I haven’t read.) Moran figures he can get the St. Kilda’s girls comfortable enough to talk to him, while the belligerent, insensitive, ultra-clever Antoinette Conway takes charge. Conway’s not easy or fun, but she could be his ticket into Murder. Dodging Mrs. McKenna’s iron rule over the students and reputation of St. Kilda’s, the two of them narrow their pool of interest down to eight girls. Two cliques: Holly’s friends and the bitch-princess Joanna Heffernan’s. While they originally suspect one of these girls as the confessional card maker, one excruciating day investigating and interrogating leads them to be sure that one of the eight girls is actually their murderer. No amount of Stephen’s charm or Conway’s doggedness will get the truth out easily, though, because these girls will lie to protect their own even when they don’t know the truth themselves.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Secret Place dragged me into its claustrophobic little world after around fifty pages, and was constantly on my mind. Police procedurals aren’t my usual jam at all, but I’d heard great things about Tana French, and this book in particular. Someone at a dinner party recommended The Secret Place during a conversation about how much we all loved boarding school books. Her suggestion was so spot on.

The novel’s timeline was spliced up interestingly: the detectives’ time on campus takes place over one single day, while alternating chapters lay out the whole year previous to their involvement. I’ll admit that whenever a sentence stated, so casually, “Chris Harper has X number of weeks to live,” I felt a little chill. Once the story hooked me, the St. Kilda’s girls, the Colm’s boys, even the hallowed halls seemed like my own personal acquaintances. Such a reminder of cruel fate seemed unfair.

 Unfairness is a prevailing theme, here. When a girl tries to do the right thing, or makes a difficult choice, things should work out for the best from then on. They are so loyal, the believe so hard, and the damned world just doesn’t reciprocate. I’m only just growing out of those convictions myself, and it’s painful. Tana French has done a wonderful job balancing between cold realism and sympathy in showing how teenage girls’ inner lives can’t protect them forever.

There were, of course, some things I didn’t understand. I haven’t read any of the other Dublin Murder Squad books, so the stuff about Holly’s past as a witness left me curious. Our main gang of girls – the four we live with for a year and more – develop some strange powers that may or may not be real, but we’re left hanging on the subject by the end. I liked the surreal touch of magic, myself, but I wonder if more specific crime readers might find it frustrating. Detective Moran’s easy repartee with young people didn’t quite match up with his calculating, almost desperate, interior monologue.

The detecting chapters that didn’t focus intensely on the girls or the school weren’t nearly so vivid as the chapters leading up to the murder, though I did love the alternating format as sometimes it let the reader know more than the characters, sometimes less. Sometimes I thought I knew something, only to learn one hundred pages on that I was very wrong indeed. You’ll never have a chance to get comfortable while reading this book, but you’ll want to stay in it for a long time anyway.

* * * * * * * * * *

This is the first book to grab me and not let me go since I finished The Raven Cycle while I was in Scotland. Tana French’s writing isn’t quite so sharp and lyrical as Maggie Stiefvater’s, but she has a similar grasp on the intense bonds of friendship, the lengths to which which teenagers are willing to go, the real magic of secrets and trust. This is definitely a book written for adults, but older teenagers still nursing a series-hangover after The Raven King might find some distraction in the dorm rooms and midnight grounds of St. Kilda’s.

I’ll finish now with a stanza from the Katherine Philips poem that hangs over Rebecca’s bed in their dorm room, because it is so appropriate:

“Why should we entertain a feare?

Love cares not how the world is turn’d.

If crowds of dangers should appeare,

Yet friendship can be unconcern’d.”

Near the end of the book, Detective Moran remembers that poem, but its meaning has chanced after they face three hundred pages of secrets and revelations:

“…That doesn’t mean nothing bad can happen, if you’ve got proper friends. It just means you can take whatever goes wrong, as long as you’ve got the. They matter more.” (p. 429)

So much bad happens in this story. But the sentiment proves true, and so we never fall into complete despair: they matter more. Intense? Yes. Unsustainable? Maybe. Who cares? The Secret Place reminded me how real and powerful even the smallest details can be when you’re young and your friends are your entire world. So even the wild overreactions and incomprehensible lies make sense. It’s all to protect something too rare and magical and important to let go without a fight.

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Book Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: This isn’t really YA, but could (and should) be read by teenagers, too.

This book tripped me sideways and tossed me back into the world of vintage SciFi and Fantasy. You know those short-sh books with the weirdly illustrated covers and titles that don’t always correlate with the stories inside? Books like these:

SfFcoversAmong Others is basically a love-letter to that genre, and it made me want to love those books, too. I filled up four notebook pages trying to write down every reference to a book Morwenna Phelps writes in her diary. And I’m sure I missed quite a few. The book-devouring young teenager who narrates Walton’s story through her candid, enthralling journal entries is definitely more well-read in that genre than I am. There was an awful lot to read in the late 1970s! She even gives room-mate Rosie some close competition. Instead of feeling alienated by all the references (and I only got maybe 1/3 of them) I’m newly curious to read more. Books about books are so often marvelous.

Among Others is also a love-letter to libraries. Here’s the dedication:

among others dedication

I liked it so much I had to take a picture

The whole book was a fantastic reminder that we should appreciate the fact that libraries let us read whatever books we want, for free, without judging us or giving us trouble. Librarians want you to read, and they want to get you the books you’re looking for. Could there be anything better in life? As Mori writes,

“Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.” (p. 59)

I’ll probably buy Among Others from my bookshop, as I liked it enough to own it, but I’m pleased to have borrowed it from the library for my first reading experience.

Morwenna is half a set of twins, but nobody at the chilly boarding school she’s been shipped to knows that. Her mother was a witch overtaken by the desire for unnatural power, and Mori’s sister Morganna (called Mor) was killed as the girls attempted to stop their mother the previous Autumn. The “accident” that killed Mor crippled Morwenna, and leaves her carrying the weight of Mor’s memory everywhere in life. (The closeness of their names is confusing at first, but also shows how inseparable they were. Mori was defined by Mor, and remains so in her absence.)

In her diary, Mori writes fantastical memories of the sisters running errands for fairies in the ruined factories of their Welsh home. The fairies weren’t the dainty little figures her school-mates would probably imagine. Speaking in twisted phrases; more natural than supernatural; and unreliable at best; the fairies in Aberdare seem to lend their power to whomever knows how to ask for it. So Mori’s mother can manifest evil using the same energy that the young girls could use to destroy factories or protect themselves from harm. Magic works by coincidence, in ways that could almost be explained away by someone who didn’t see what Mori can see. The fairies are a part of the natural order of things, and see how to alter reality with little nudges here and there. Mori and Mor did magic for the fairies without fully understanding it when they were young, and now at Arlinghurst Mori must to find a way to access that power again. As real life obliges to shape itself into what she requests, though, the moral complications of altering the future become worrisome. Can friends you find after magically requesting a “karass” (like those cosmically-linked people in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle) truly like you, or are they obliged by external powers beyond their comprehension? Is it worth it to bear the knowledge that she’s shaped reality for her own means?

“It’s not magic that reaches into the world and changes things. It’s all inside my body. I thought, sitting there, that everything is magic. Using things connects them to you, being in the world connects you to the world… Fairies are more in the magic than in the world, and people are more in the world than in the magic…. That’s why messing with magic so often becomes evil, because it’s going against that pattern.” (p 294)

Her cunning mother tries to manipulate her from afar, the girls at school do rotten things to newcomers, and the fairies in England don’t even speak Welsh! (On that note, I loved the atmospheric differences between Wales and England. The different settings really made the natural magic more accessible to imagine.) Among Others, for all its references to Sci Fi and Fantasy books with epic journeys and cosmic scopes, is mostly a novel about a girl who turns to fiction for guidance as her life becomes harder and harder to believe. Books save her in multiple ways. So many book-ish characters find purpose through literature and hope in other people’s stories. That’s a common trend in novels that I usually enjoy. But Walton takes that lifeline two steps further, here. During one heart-wrenching scene in which Mori has to confront the mortal barrier between herself and her sister, a fairy friend reminds her that she is “half way.”

“… He didn’t mean I was half dead without her or that she was halfway through or any of that, he meant that I was halfway through Babel 17 and if I went on I would never find out how it came out.

There may be stranger reasons for being alive.” (p 89)

I loved Among Others for its unashamedly nerdy main character, and for its glorification of Fantasy as a means to shape young people’s lives. The fairy magic was subtle and fairly organic: enchanted rocks and doorways made of branches instead of big crazy incantations. I’m still unsure what, exactly, Mori’s mother was up to with her manipulative magic and cruel behavior. She rarely appears in the actual narrative, messing with her daughter’s life from afar, instead. This made the book’s climax a little jarring. The magical philosophies could have been developed a little further for my tastes, too, and would have made this into more of a Fantasy book to be read alongside those which Mori’s SF/F book club analyzes so enthusiastically. But since I’m a firm believer that the worlds and actions of fairies should remain inexplicable to human minds, I was happy to go with the flow of how Mori’s understanding of magic grew and changed.

Mori herself grows and changes drastically between September, 1979 and February of 1980. It was a pleasure to read along as she learned how to become her own person, not just a product of her past. Making friends who share her passion and intelligence, forcing herself to admit that there were things she didn’t know, voicing pragmatic quips about the rather silly ways adults can treat handicapped young people: I was constantly delighted by her presence of mind and her emotional integrity. That’s not to say she couldn’t be a bit of a brat or a know-it-all sometimes. But this is her diary, after all. Compared to many of the novels I’ve read in a similar format, Morwenna Phelps’s version of her own story is wonderful to visit for several very happy hours of reading.

Immediately after finishing Among Others I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens Of Titan to get back into the spirit of things. That review will have to wait for another day, but I think I enjoyed it even better thanks to the praise of Science Fiction that Walton had planted in my head. I doubt I’ll ever make it through the 200-ish books Mori mentions, and that’s ok. The exaltation of all those stories was enough to re-kindle my interest in my own favorites from that genre. (For example, I want to get back into LeGuin, Stewart, and Zelazny. It’s been a while.) My book-ish childhood was very different from Morwenna’s, but I recognize a kindred spirit in how her reading colors her view of the world. I recommend Among Others to adults who remember leading vivid fantasy lives as young people, and to teenagers who are getting passionate about Fantasy and Science Fiction. Morwenna becomes a fast friend of the reader; you will feel like part of her “karass” by the time you read her last diary entry. There’s a certain joy known to lonely children who find solace in literature, and an even greater felicity in reading a book that turns that joy into real magical experiences.

Book Review: Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

This new children’s novel by Katherine Rundell (author of my much-beloved Rooftoppers) came out in August.  I read an advance reader’s copy, so some details may have changed before publication.  The UK title of this book is The Girl Savage.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age rage recommendation: 8 – 12

Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms begins in Zimbabwe, a land I don’t know much about and have never before encountered in a children’s book.  So that’s an intriguing start, right away.  Will – Willhelmina Silver – has grown up free and happy on an African farm owned by a fun old fellow called the Captain. Her days are full of sunshine and dust, racing her best friend Simon on horseback; never cutting her hair; and sleeping in the bush like a wildcat whenever she pleases.  Will’s like a wild cat all over, actually.  She can fight and run and bounce back from most hurts.  But when Will Silver the eldest – the father she utterly adores – dies and the farm owner’s new wife wants to sell the land, Will finds herself shipped off to boarding school in London.  London is not a wildcat’s ideal territory.  The rain falls in a grey drizzle – a “grizzle”, the school girls are heartless, and adults refuse to understand why she has to get back to Africa. An escape, a night in the zoo, and a quest for freedom take Will all around London, but through it all she manages to keep cartwheeling and singing and following the Captain’s parting advice:

“Don’t you get out of the habit of bravery. Even if you think nobody’s seeing, hey? It’s still so important, Will, my girl.”

I thought this was a lovely book, but not quite as good as Rooftoppers. The narrative didn’t flow quite so well, ambling slowly in some parts and then bursting forth without always moving the story along. The plot took a while to get going, though the scenes of Will’s joyful life in Zimbabwe were so fun to read that I didn’t really mind the lag too much. Once misfortune fell and the despicable Cynthia was introduced to life on the farm, it was easier to see how Will might have to adapt and grow instead of just standing her ground. She was a stubborn, improper young heroine – untidy and without a filter– and much as I liked her at the beginning I was interested to see how her perceptions would change.

The pranks and little defiances which Will and Simon employ against Cynthia were quite entertaining. I could have happily read a whole book about the farm hands and children re-claiming the farm, but Rundell does a good job of showing how adults and rich people can do away with narrative justice just by virtue of claiming control. Unfair indeed, but that’s what life is like when you’re a free-spirited child. (Both Cartwheeling and Rooftoppers highlight how cruel the world of regulated civility can be to children who are happy in unusual situations. It’s a theme that will never get old, in my opinion.) I found the spiteful atmosphere at Leewood School a little less convincing, but with a little time a few of the mean girls and harsh teachers did show surprising depths.

A lot of Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms is about surprising depths, actually. People, places, and situations turn out to have more to them than Will initially sees. She’s not a perfect lens through which to see Africa or England: one is perfect in her eyes and the other a horror. So when a pretty sight or fiercely protective old lady give her a glimmer of hope, the landscape itself almost seems to change its hue. I found that the action in this book wasn’t nearly so mesmerizing as the precarious journey which Sophie undertakes in Rooftoppers. Instead, it’s the solace Will finds in Zimbabwe and the strangeness of England which make Rundell’s second novel so appealing. She has a way with words that can make a place which is utterly foreign to me feel like home after only a few pages, while turning a city I can picture easily into an incomprehensible jungle. That skill of writing – as well as the bolstering mantras and pep-talks Will gives herself now and then, which made me laugh; and smile; and file them away for later use myself – easily justifies the occasionally imbalanced pacing and a few shallow characterizations.

I have recommended this book to children who liked Rundell’s first book, but also to a girl who liked mature writing but nothing too scary. I sold it to a family who needed something good to read aloud, and suggested it to kids who like books full of mischief but want more depth than mere silly hijinks. It’s a fun book – a crazy journey with a wildcat for a tour guide – told in beautiful language which should resonate with smart kids and imaginative grown-ups alike.

(Seriously, buy and read Rooftoppers as soon as you can. ‘Cause this book was charming, but that one is gorgeous.)