The Secret Place

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Review #14: Fiction

The Secret Place by Tana French

Secret Place

*I received this book as an advanced reader’s copy from the Book Expo America convention in New York in May. The hardcover publication date is September 2nd, 2014.

At St. Kilda’s, an all-girls boarding school in Dublin, a boy from the neighboring Colm’s, an all-boys boarding school, was found dead somewhere in the wide lawn surrounding the school. He had been struck in the back of the head and found with nothing on his person but four hyacinths and a condom. The killer was never found.

One year later—Holly Mackey fakes sick from classes and instead walks into Detective Stephen Moran’s office. He’s working Cold Cases, but has been waiting for his shot at Dublin Murder Squad. Holly shows him a picture of the boy who was found dead a year ago, Chris Harper, from when he was still alive, the words, “I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM” cut and pasted across the image. She explains about “The Secret Place,” a board in a hall at St. Kilda’s where the girls write their secrets and pin them anonymously. This is where Holly has found the card. She had been a witness in a trial when she was younger, and Detective Moran had been working with her through it all. Because of that she thought of him when she found the card. And just like that, Detective Moran has his shot at Murder Squad.

He immediately brings the card to the murder detective that was on the Chris Harper case, Detective Conway, who is a badass, no nonsense woman. She allows Moran to continue to work with her, basically on the condition that if she ever feels he’s in her way, or not helping, etc. he gets the boot. Their working relationship plays a big role throughout, but pretty obviously enough they hit a few snags, though each is grateful for the other in the end.

They go up to the school and have to deal with a head mistress that is not too happy to see them and teenage girls who are easily spooked and manipulated. They’ve narrowed down who pinned the card on “The Secret Place” to eight girls: Holly, Becca, Selena, and Julia—Holly’s group of friends and roommates at the boarding school, and a group of four others—Joanne, Gemma, Orla, and Allison—a group that is essentially the arch nemesis of Holly and her friends. The detectives figure they can find out who killed Chris by finding out who posted the card, but this proves to be as hard to figure out as it was to find the killer a year ago. They have to navigate through girls who want to get each other in trouble for the fun of it, girls who are lying to protect themselves, girls who are lying to protect their friends, and those who are being manipulated into doing someone else’s dirty work. Needless to say, it gets real complicated real fast, and the detectives are running out of time. With an angry head mistress trying to keep the girls from leaking any information about Moran and Conway showing up again to any parents, and Holly’s father, another detective who is not too happy to find his daughter caught up in this investigation, in addition to them not really getting the okay to work the case, they need weave through all the lies and figure out who did it before they lose Chris’s killer for good, and possibly their jobs.

There’s a lot of interwoven events in this story. It’s a great mystery, one that had me guessing the killer was someone else probably 3 or 4 times throughout (along with the detectives). But the great thing is that this story is not only about the mystery of who killed Chris Harper, but also why they did it, and how they got away with it (for a year at least). It’s also a heartwarming and heart-wrenching story about friendships, how they change and evolve; how they sometimes fall apart or get brought back together. It’s very deep, has many, many levels and takes you back to those teenage years when all that mattered were your friends, and the real world wasn’t a thing.

We’re also invested in Detective Moran. Will he or won’t he help with this case? Will Conway send him packing? Will he be the one to figure it out? Will Conway acknowledge his help if they figure it out together? Will they both get demoted to a desk job for the rest of their careers for not exactly going by the book in their investigation?

I love that this story was so multifaceted. I cared about everyone: the St. Kilda’s girls and their friendships, Chris Harper and who killed him and why, Detective Moran and his shot at Murder Squat, and Detective Conway and her lost case. I think French was brilliant in making that possible.

I don’t want to talk too much about plot, because I think this is one story where every little detail brings you into the story and moves you along from page one, and I don’t want to be the one to give away even a spec of evidence if you’re like me and trying to play along at home with the investigation. The one thing I will say, and this is the only area that turned me off just a bit, is that there’s a strange sub-plot that brings in some supernatural happenings. Holly’s group of friends have found a way to sneak out into the glade at night. The first night they do this, Julia tells them about a boy from Colm’s who groped her without her consent, and then and there they all make a vow to not get involved with any guys from Colm’s or anywhere else, until they’ve left St. Kilda’s. They make some sort of pack that feels like it involves more than just the four of them, somehow taking into account the moon and the mysterious, hidden location of the glade (which they have claimed as “their place” from then on, a location that gives the title a double meaning). After this happens, the girls are able to do things with their mind, they are essentially becoming telekinetic; they can turn lights on and off, make light bulbs burst, levitate objects in their hands, heat things, and spark fire, etc. Not that I’m against supernatural story lines, this one was just not fleshed out enough for me. It came up every so often, softly, just little hints of it, though it didn’t play a major part in the story. It affected a few things, but I think I would have rather seen it expanded upon exponentially and been a main focus of the story, or had it removed altogether and had another way to have certain things happen. Like I said, it was a small grievance, and really didn’t make the story worse, just made me wonder and therefore pulled me out of the narrative sometimes.

Tana French writes this from both the past and the present, alternating every other chapter. The way she sets up the story, the present is at one end of a line while the past is at the other, and each chapter brings the reader closer and closer to the middle where the answers lay. The most impressive part is that the present is told from Detective Moran’s view point, written with attention paid to the adult world, the Murder Squad world of the story, while the past is written from the POV of various girls from St. Kilda’s – mainly Holly, Becca, Selena, and Julia. The way French writes, it is easy to slip back and forth from past to present as well as from adult mentality to teenage mentality. She gets the dialogue exactly right, especially with the teen sections. She includes some text talk, using the OMGs and the WTFs and the Amazeballs here and there, sometimes seriously, sometimes in a mocking sort of way, but also gives the girls’ intelligent and complex conversations and thoughts. She really captures that middle ground between childhood and adulthood and uses the dialogue perfectly to do it. She does not make them all stereotypical boarding school bratty airheads, but makes each of them their own character, well-rounded and unique.

Overall, I really liked the story. It kept me guessing and interested, and wasn’t at a break neck pace, trying to fit too many clues and twists in constantly. It was relatable from all points of view, and the writing was beautiful. Tana French has a way with words, setting scenes and creating characters and scenarios like very few authors I’ve read can do. I am looking forward to checking out the other books in her Dublin Murder Series (this is the 5th, though they do not seem to need to be read in order).

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

*Cover art from Amazon.com

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The Young World

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Review #13 – Fiction

The Young World by Chris Weitz

YoungWorld

*I received this book as an Advance Reader’s Copy while attending Book Expo America in New York in May. It has since become available in print (July 29th, 2014).

I’m not sure where to start this post. Let’s just say I was not altogether impressed.

The premise of The Young World is that some kind of virus (“the Sickness”) was released and killed off all the adults and young children in the world. Basically those left are kids/teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18 or so. And they’re not safe, because the virus is held at bay in their system by hormones that show up around age 12 and fade around age 18, so everyone will eventually die by becoming an adult. This story takes place in New York City, focusing on a bunch of the teenagers who are living in make-shift communities, basically just surviving, about 2 years after “What Happened”.

Our main group of teens have made Washington Square their home, and after his older brother (and leader of the group) Washington turns 18 and immediately succumbs to “the Sickness” and dies, Jefferson is chosen to take his place as leader. Jefferson’s brainiac friend (aptly choosing the new name Brainbox for himself) says he found an article abstract in the nearby library that may shed light on “What Happened” and possibly lead to a cure. Of course, this means the full article needs to be found, so Jefferson rounds up a group of five people (himself, Brainbox, Donna, Peter, and SeeThrough) to make the journey to the Mid-Town library to find it.

As is expected, they find opposition from other groups of teens along the way, moving through territory that has been claimed by others. Upon reaching the library, they eventually find the whole article and Brainbox works out the location of a lab on Long Island that may be the place of origin of this virus and therefore the place where they could possibly find a cure. It wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t decide to make the trip, so they head off on this new adventure.

Again, they have to make their way through several other already occupied/claimed territories, finding trouble among a make-shift market that has taken over Grand Central, roam through abandoned subway tunnels, escape wild animals in Central Park, and move uptown into Harlem in search of way to Long Island.

The group they meet in Harlem agrees to take them to LI in exchange for the cure if they find it. This Harlem group has a boat, and they set out. Once there, they are all taken hostage by a drugged out group of tweens (no one over 14) and brought to the very lab they were searching for. They find the person running the lab – “The Old Man” – someone they had only heard rumors of. This man has some sort of hormone imbalance/condition that stopped him from getting the virus and also knows how it was created and why (biological warfare, clearly), and has been working on the cure. However, our Washington Square heroes have now been taken hostage and will be used as human guinea pigs to test his work. Brainbox is able to save his life in exchange for helping The Old Man with his work and within a few days they think they’ve found the cure. However, The Old Man is in no hurry to let anyone go in order to keep testing, and Brainbox is forced to trick him, kill him, and help his friends escape, because he knows something no one else does – [SPOILER] the adults are not really all dead! And a Navy chopper full of adults is making its way down to the lab, which is where we find the end of this book.

Obviously something like this had to happen, otherwise I don’t know how this was supposed to be a trilogy, but it all just seems very played out. I think it’s safe to say that dystopian novels are getting to be a dime a dozen, and they need to be extremely new and fresh in order to stand out in the over-saturated field. This novel does not do that. The plot is alright, it feels a little under developed and a little too familiar. And the writing didn’t really help.

The story is told from two points of view throughout, alternating every other chapter. These points of view are Jefferson’s and Donna’s. Jefferson’s parts were good. I liked him as a character, as a doesn’t-want-to-be leader (though this is a character that has been done time and time again, I think it still works), and as the voice of not giving up and surviving even if they’re all only going to live to be 18. Donna’s chapters, however, were tough to get through.

It was as if Donna was made up of every teenage girl stereotype Weitz could think of, and then to make things interesting, he made a point to tell us she is a feminist. Throughout Donna’s account of the events that are happening around her, we are subjected to her constantly worrying about her looks, whether or not she loves Jefferson (or Washington for a while), and the word ‘like,’ the phrase ‘or whatever,’ and tons of text abbreviation. Chris Weitz is also a screen writer, and it comes across (in a bad way) by his lack of understanding that people do not read the way they talk. Dialogue that will be read aloud to the audience is different than dialogue that the audience is delivering internally to themselves.

This screen writer mentality also comes out in the way the dialogue is presented in Donna’s sections. When characters were talking in Donna’s POV chapters, it looked like this:
Me: “Dialogue.”
Peter: “Dialogue.”
Jefferson: “Dialogue.”
Me (feeling embarrassed): “Dialogue.”

I think it was quite possibly the most annoying thing I’ve come across in a book for some time. It took me right out of the story. I would read the name as if it were the beginning of a sentence, or someone else was saying the name, and then have to regroup and tell myself that was the name of the person speaking. It would be a lot different if this were the way all the dialogue throughout the book was, but it wasn’t; this only happened every other chapter.

I could probably go on and on about Donna as a character and how she turned me off to this book. I’ll try to keep it short. She begins by addressing the reader, breaking the character/audience wall and telling us she will try to be a reliable narrator. I don’t understand; is she aware that people could be reading? Are her sections of the book a journal or something? We don’t find out, at least not in this book. Also, she isn’t in love with Jefferson until another girl shows up and gets his attention, and then she does love him (and she begins referring to this other girl by names like Sexy Mcsexerton and Tits McGhee – super feminist of her.) She was my least favorite character, and she narrates half the book. It was difficult to get through the whole thing.

Other than Donna, and the overdone feel of the dystopian world, the book was also pretty grim. There was a lot of violence; violence against animals, violence against girls (I’d say women, but the whole point is that no one is over the age of 17, which made it that much worse.) The whole thing had a very misogynistic and rapey vibe to it. I know the book is a YA and these tend to deal with more mature content and all that, but at 25 if I’m baulking at certain scenes, I can’t imagine how the 15 year olds (this book is suggested for ages 15 and up) are taking it.

I don’t want to come off like there’s nothing good about this book. The pacing was done well; as a dystopian novel the whole point is survival, and therefore you need a lot of obstacles that threaten the survival of your characters to move the story along. Chris Weitz gives us obstacle after obstacle for these characters to get through. He sets up a clear objective—get to the Long Island lab—and then he makes it really difficult for the group to get there (and he does it using the world he built and with obstacles and complications that made sense.) If you’re into dystopian stories and don’t mind if they overlap in areas of subject matter, you might like this. If you don’t mind some graphic violence, you might like this. If you don’t mind under-developed and one-dimensional characters, you might like this. I like dystopian and I don’t mind some violence, but I could not get passed Donna. Maybe if she hadn’t been a co-narrator and only showed up as a character from Jefferson’s point of view it would have worked better for me. Actually, I’m sure I would have had a much more positive reaction to this book had it been narrated entirely by Jefferson. As it is, I highly doubt I’ll be picking up the next one to see what all these not-dead adults are up to.

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

*Cover art from Amazon.com

The Monuments Men

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Review #12: Non-Fiction

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel

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I have always been fascinated by World War II and Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler and the whys and hows of the atrocities he inflicted on the world. After seeing the film based on this book (which I thought was great) I immediately tracked a copy down at my local library.

I think whether your interests lie with art history or art conservation, or with WWII in general, you will devour this book. To me it was like discovering a new element of the war, a new tragedy that occurred (one that could have been much worse, with unimaginable consequences).

As you may or may not know, Adolf Hitler loved art; he was an artist himself, and was rejected from an art school in Vienna (by a board of people he assumed were Jewish) before turning is attention to Germany and Politics. During the war, he directed Nazi troops to steal and hoard various precious and priceless works of art from around Europe for his own collection, the collections of some of his men, and for a public collection — his ultimate Fuhrer museum. He also had much of the art work destroyed, pieces he deemed, as he did with people, degenerate and inferior. Artwork that was stolen included pieces by Michelangelo, Raphael, Vermeer, Picasso, Degas, and van Gogh, among hundreds more. Although, thanks to the efforts of the Monuments Men in the 1940s through the 1960s much of this artwork was found and returned to the rightful owners (some merely found, but rightful owners unknown) much of it is still lost, and many assume destroyed.

I think the real story here revolves around a few facts: One, these men (and women) were not all soldiers — in fact many of them were curators, art historians, and museum directors — who risked their lives to find and return these precious pieces. Two, this story and the missions these people went on get largely trumped by the other atrocities of the war. Missing paintings do not compare to millions being rounded up and slaughtered. However, this book does a great job of linking the two to the same goal — destroying an entire culture deemed to be inferior. Not only artwork was taken, but religious relics (even stained glass windows and tapestries from churches) and personal belongings; really anything that could define a culture, stolen in order to belong to the believed superior race, or destroyed to completely remove hundreds of years of cultural history from the world — wiping their existence out entirely. And three, that it is completely unfathomable to think about what the world would be like had these men (and women) not done what they did. Had all of that artwork been lost forever, either destroyed or hidden and never found, so much more than just painting and sculptures would have been lost.

The Mona Lisa was moved several times throughout the war to assure it’s safety, other pieces of art that now hang in the Louvre were stolen and eventually recovered and returned. When I visited the museum years ago, before knowing this story, I don’t think I felt the proper appreciation. I don’t think I’ll ever look at artwork the same again.

Edsel tells this amazing story of bravery and courage and conviction with an engaging narrative and uses personal letters and diaries to really make it relatable. The book not only details the work these men and women did in the war, but also their background and their lives after their missions. Edsel presents letters to and from home, care packages, and their own personal words describing the Monuments Men’s efforts as well as their experience in war-torn and occupied cities along the way. Though the story is not about the Holocaust per se, these men and women were in the thick of it, they saw towns and villages that were reduced to nothing more than crumbling buildings and dislocated civilians, and were also witnesses to work camps and death camps and came in contact with victims and survivors while fulfilling their missions. Some Monuments Men even lost their lives trying to save these cultural icons.

Edsel’s book is informative and honest, thrilling and captivating, with just the right amount of the personal lives of these men and women woven in. It is not a book about any one man, or any one effort, but a story of how the Monuments Men came to be, what their overall mission and goal was, and how they were able to accomplish it with far less resources than any other area of the military.

The one thing I was a little put off by while reading was the time line. For the most part it was chronological, however, with the men in the group being split up and located in various parts of Europe throughout the war, when going from one group to another, Edsel would back track a few years or so to tell what was happening with another group of men during the same time. So, I’d be reading about something that was happening in France between late 1944 and early 1945, and then he’d take us back to 1938 to when a different member was just joining the force and learning his orders, etc. Not that it changed the story, I just prefer, especially with non-fiction historical texts, to move chronologically. It’s a personal preference that I think others will not mind at all.

I feel this is a very important story, and it’s told with great care and an unimaginable amount of research. I would recommend this to anyone interested in art history or conservation, and WWII or the Nazi influence in Europe. But really, I think it’s something everyone should at least be aware of; it’s a great addition to the historical context of the war.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

*cover art from Amazon.com