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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Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth: a review and some realizations

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Here’s the thing about Animals, which I liked far more than you might assume and exactly as much as I expected: it showed me what my life might be like right now, if I’d made different (worse?) decisions just out of University. Had I not moved back to America and started a job I enjoyed in a bookstore I love, would I have ended up in a cramped, chaotic apartment in Manchester? Would I be crawling from my best friend’s more comfortable bed, wracked with hangover, reaching for a bottle of wine while she — glamorous creature — lounged in the back garden with sunglasses and poetry? Would we rail against our impending 30s, our upcoming nuptials, our successful siblings by partying like we did when we were 21? Steal drugs not out of addiction, but just because the scary dealer-lady accidentally left one of us alone in the room? Struggle between dizzying, joyful, reckless friendship and jealousy that aches like bruises do: painful but sometimes out-of-mind?

Probably not in Manchester, probably not the drugs, and definitely none of the questionable sexual decisions. But I can see an alternative reality in which I live with my room-mate and best friend from my Uni years well through our late 20s. (In Animals, Laura and Tyler actually meet after University; Tyler quotes Chaucer in a cafe and Laura likes her immediately. Who wouldn’t? But the intensity of their friendship is very much like ours.) I can see myself, like Laura, getting too tipsy at a daytime literary presentation in a library. I can picture it because it’s happened. I can imagine a group of us getting in over our heads at an underground Spanish bar, accidentally making enemies, knowing we need to get out, not knowing how. I remember what it’s like to spend the week’s last remaining 20 pounds in the pub just for somewhere comfortable and lively to while away the hours. The only reason we never disobeyed the rules and broke into events at the Edinburgh Fringe was that we never attended. We would most certainly behave badly at a family-friendly christening, but make friends with the vicar while we’re at it. No question.

Laura and Tyler’s specific antics don’t necessarily feature in this prediction of what might have been. Nor do the more serious problems they must face: Laura’s fraying relationship with her sweet fiancee who can only handle so much immaturity, Tyler’s bruises and black eyes when her wit and charm can’t get her through a fraught situation. The plot of Animals could only happen to Laura and Tyler themselves, who are as messy and real and memorable as any friends I’ve had. Emma Jane Unsworth has created something entirely believable in her novel, just with snappier dialogue and better timing than my life or (probably) yours. The situations, the characters themselves, are entirely hers.

I saw flashes and reflections of myself and my closest college friend in the emotional terms of their relationship, and honestly these moments were what kept me hooked (even when my Victorian eyes had to be averted from time to time). Their happy moments shine with the same hysterical glow as our happiest moments.

“I’d arrived at the pub to find Tyler resplendent on a picnic bench with a bottle of wine in an ice bucket on the table in front of her.
‘GREETINGS’ she shouted across the beer garden.
Oh god, I thought, she’s doing Christian Slater in Heathers. We’re already there, are we?” (p 42)

This was us. This is still us. This is how we used to be, when we were together, every day.

But then there are moments in Animals that reminded me how friendships this close – in proximity as well as devotion – can get shaken by growing up. Real life insists upon intruding and asking, “Do you really want to stay like this for the rest of your adult existence?” I wonder what have happened to us if we’d shrugged and grinned and answered yes. Would it be similar? Would the desires for safety and romance and stability pull one of us ever so slightly away from the other? Would I end up, like Laura, feeling adrift and alone, testing out too late how to be by myself, my own person, by the end of our story? (Would our story be published in an attractive package by Europa?) Would feelings get hurt?

Laura explains her reasons for wanting to get married:

” ‘So I want to be part of a new team against the world.’ I quailed at my own schmaltziness but I knew it was true – the idea, at any rate.
‘Teams are awful. Families are awful. People are awful. Why perpetuate the awfulness?’
‘So why don’t you live alone? Why have me around?’
Neither of us said it because it was there, unspoken. It flashed through her eyes at the same time it went through my head but I was afraid of saying it and I knew she was too. We used to be a team.” (p 93)

Lucky for me – and happy am I – this isn’t going to be a problem for us. We didn’t stick around with jobs we hated in a crumbling flat, spicing up the day with bottles and chemicals, trying to remember what we loved about our lives. We had fun as young people, together, and now we have slightly less fun as slightly less young people, apart. But whenever she and I find ourselves in the same room, it’s as though we’re back in our old flat in Scotland, above the grocery store on Market Street. Back in the cold living room where all the furniture was so short, you had to sit on the floor to eat from the table. The door handles were down by our knees. Now we drink cocktails flavored with herbs and laugh and tell secrets that maybe we once knew but have sense forgotten. We get into trouble sometimes, still. We can live without each other, even though we’d rather not. We are best friends without ever having to prove it. I hope that Laura and Tyler, if they were real, would have developed this sort of bond after Animals ended.

It was wonderful, almost addictive, to read about their misadventures as they backpedaled from adulthood at all costs, but I’m relieved to have taken a slightly different path after all. I gave Animals to my friend when she came to visit this past weekend — easily the greatest two days of 2016 so far. Maybe now we’ll both know what we’re missing by pretending to be grown-ups, and maybe just reading about it will be enough.

World Book Night: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Friends, cohorts, everyone-but-my-mortal-enemies, I invite you to celebrate World Book Night with me! By “celebrate World Book Night,” I here mean: I have twenty copies of a really excellent book that I’m giving out for free – do you want one?

 

World Book Night is an annual celebration of books and the joy of reading. On this night, volunteer book-givers wander around with special copies of certain popular books which they hand out for free. The goal is to get books into the hands of people who might not otherwise be avid readers.

source: wikipedia

April 23rd is also Shakespeare’s birthday. (Happy 450th, William. Here, have this book about spies.)

No spare cash to go to the bookstore? Not sure if a certain story is going to be worth your valuable time? Are you waiting for a sign to literally land in your lap, declaring “This is a book you will love and you should read it!” Here’s your sign. I’m handing out a book that I loved – a really fast read with great characters and a thrilling twist – and you don’t have to buy it or remember to return it or anything. Read it, spill coffee on it, lose it in your car somewhere. Whatever. Free books are pretty great, especially when the story’s as good as this one is.

Here’s why I LOVED Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein:

  • Kick-ass girls in WWII: one foul-mouthed and aristocratic Scottish spy, one brilliant and earnest English pilot. Both of them are utterly wonderful, and they’re even better when they’re together.

 

  • Best-friendships are better than romantic relationships. This is a book about two young people trusting one another even when they’re using code-names and flying under blackouts and suffering through Nazi interrogation. There’s no mushy nonsense about star-crossed love or waiting for one’s boyfriend to come home from the war. The fierce friendship between these girls, thrown together in desperate circumstances, is way more powerful than any sentimental entanglements which might happen on the sidelines.

 

  • Inventive story-telling. Code Name Verity begins with one girl’s written memories of how they met and got started in the military. She’s being held prisoner by the Nazis and, under torture and threats, is turning over bits of code and whatever information she can recall, as long as she can have time and paper to write them down. Her confessions take the form of a memoir, with a vivid voice and plenty of anger behind each word. (Also plenty of cursing-out the Nazis, which is well deserved.) But then it switches: after the backstory of their friendship and the drama of military training, the story moves moves forward to a really harrowing denouement. With all the secret missions and coded communications flying around, it’s really interesting to see various angles of the war: from life in England, to the bases, to prisons, to scenes behind enemy lines.

 

  • On that note: Unreliable narrators! Thrilling plot twists! This is the sort of book you’ll want to read a second time, if you haven’t ruined it with your tears or crumpled pages in suspense. There are false leads and hidden messages, double-agents double-crossing each other, cunning misdirections, and secrets everywhere. This is a spy novel, after all. The plot isn’t particularly complicated or difficult to follow – I get easily confused/frustrated by war thrillers but found Code Name Verity to be an easy read. It’s just that once you see how everything comes together in the end you’ll want to go through and see all the clever details working in action.

 

  • A complete story. ‘Cause I, for one, am damned tired of extended YA series. There’s technically a companion novel to Code Name Verity called Rose Under Fire, but this is a book you can read on its own. No slamming the covers shut in frustration after an enormous cliff-hanger ending. No trilogy set-up just to make as much money as possible. The book is exciting and upsetting and a fantastic piece of literature unto itself. So no worries even if you’re a slow reader or are reluctant to get into a book. This one will grab your attention and not leave you feeling cheated at the end.

Who will enjoy Code Name Verity?

  • Anyone who wonders if they’d have the courage to sacrifice their comfortable lives for scary, lonely missions in dangerous locations. (After reading the book, I don’t think I would.)
  • Anyone who has a best friend and knows how that bond can be stronger than patriotism or romance or fear.
  • Anyone who can appreciate a war story focused on the individuals involved as well as the bigger picture. The book features Englishmen, Scots, French resistance fighters, farmers, Nazi interrogators, turncoats, American radio presenters, nameless government officers, and a passel of tiny Glaswegian evacuees who made me laugh when I thought I would be holding my breath forever. You love some characters and despise some others, and then realize near the end that nearly everyone has a side you didn’t see. War turns everyone into an enigma, and this book gets that exactly right.
  • And anyone who likes the idea of young people flying planes, parachuting into war zones, sassing their interrogators, and cracking codes, all the while managing to find something hopeful in their surroundings and comrades. Basically, anyone who looks for something to hold on to in the worst of times.

So, do you want to read Code Name Verity? Do you live within a reasonable distance from me? Get in touch and I’ll try to get it to you tonight. I promise it’s good, and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t appreciate the story and the characters. Anyway, it’s free. The worst that can happen is you might stay up a little too late, desperate to know what fate has in store for the heroines. Just know that while fate can be cruel and war always sucks, there are always brave people to celebrate. And I haven’t read about braver characters in a very long time.