Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Joanne Harris’

A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris

A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris is the latest (and possibly the last) book in the St Oswald’s school or Malbry township series. I can’t tell you how I know this, because that would be a spoiler. If you’re a Joanne Harris fan you’ll figure out the reason for yourself when you read A Narrow Door.

Times have changed since the last book in the series. St Oswalds Grammar School for Boys is now called St Oswalds Grammar and has a female Head of the school and female students.

Some things haven’t changed though. Roy Straitly is still teaching Latin to students whose character he watches develop as each school year passes.

This story begins with a group of Roy’s ‘Brodie Boys’ finding what they think might be a body on a construction site for a swimming pool on the school grounds. They tell their story to Roy and together they investigate, later Roy reports the matter to Rebecca Buckfast, the new Head.

Rebecca doesn’t report the body, or the clump of mud and old clothes, or whatever it might be right away. Instead, she tells Roy a story bit by bit over the next few weeks, which intrigues him enough that he doesn’t visit the police station to voice his suspicions. Well, that and the fact that Roy became so ill that he had to be hospitalised.

This story belongs to Rebecca, whose chapters are told alternately with those of Roy’s. Rebecca tells of her childhood and the disappearance of her teenage brother Conrad from King Henry’s Grammar School for Boys when she was very small. She tells of her parent’s descent into madness after years of hoping and pretending Conrad is still alive, and regularly being conned out of their money by people pretending to be their beloved son.

Rebecca tells Roy that she grew up to be a teacher, then took a position teaching at King Henry’s Grammar School for Boys where she learned the truth about what happened to her brother. Rebecca also told Roy about the difficulties she had to overcome as a female in a time and place where women were not respected. The ‘narrow door’ of this book’s title refers to entry in any capacity to St Oswald’s or King Henry’s, where a boy or man can walk right in, but where a woman had to smile and scheme and be twice as clever as a man to gain entry.

Rebecca represents the future and Roy the past in this story, but in many ways they also represent black and white or good and evil. Roy’s chapters are headed by a white bishop and Rebecca’s by a black queen.

As always with Joanne Harris novels, I found the book unputdownable, particularly towards the end. Our Sunday night tea was actually late because I had to finish the story before I could start cooking our eggs on toast.

A Narrow Door could be read without having read the other St Oswald’s books, but there is a lot of pleasure that comes from knowing various character’s back stories and meeting up with old favourites.

I hope that I’m wrong about A Narrow Door being the last in the St Oswald’s series, but if it is, this was a fitting finish.

The Strawberry Thief by Joanne Harris

I was charmed by The Strawberry Thief, the fourth book by Joanne Harris featuring the characters from Chocolat. Vianne Rocher is still making chocolate with a dusting of magic in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, but now her daughter Anouk has grown up and gone to Paris. In this once upon a time, Vianne’s younger daughter, Rosette, is the main girl when the wind begins to blow.

Rosette is a delightful heroine. She is Vianne’s ‘special child’ and prone to ‘Accidents’ which happen when her magical powers get out of hand. Rosette doesn’t go to school and rarely speaks, instead communicating with her mother, friends and community by making bird noises or somehow inserting her words into other people’s heads.

The story begins with the death of Narcisse, who was the florist from across the square. Narcisse surprised everyone by leaving some land to Rosette in his will, knowing she would treasure the woods which house a strawberry patch and an old well. This infuriated Narcisse’s daughter, who inherited the rest of Narcisse’s estate, which was far less valuable for her to sell without the wood.

Almost overnight, a mysterious stranger opened a tattoo parlour in Narcisse’s old shop, enticing many of the town people, including Reynaud the priest, Vianne’s lover Roux and her dear friend Josephine to get a tattoo. Vianne is the only one who is wary of the tattooist and warns Rosette to stay away from the tattooist and her magic.

The Strawberry Thief is a lighter, quicker read than some of the other books in the Chocolat series, but makes up for this with its bewitching charm. As usual with Joanne Harris’ books, for me this was one I didn’t want to put down.

Different Class by Joanne Harris

different

Different Class by Joanne Harris is a psychological thriller which left me guessing, almost to the very end of the book.

The story is set in St Oswalds Grammar, a boys school in Mawbry, a fictional town in England. Joanne Harris’s Gentlemen & Players and Blueeyedboy are also set in Mawbry and share some characters, although Different Class can be read alone.

The story is alternately told by two narrators, whose chapters are represented by a white or a black chess king. The white king’s chapters are told by an elderly Latin teacher, Roy Straitley, who has taught at St Oswalds for over thirty years. Mr Straitley is a traditionalist, who has few interests outside of the school. He is passionate about St Oswalds, teaching and his form, who are known as his ‘Brodie Boys’.

The black king is more of an unknown quality. I didn’t know who he was almost until the end of the book, despite guessing at his identity throughout. The black king was a former pupil at St Oswalds and is clearly troubled, with a history of killing animals and possibly even other children.

The story swings back and forth in time between when the black king was a student of Mr Straitley’s during the 1980’s, and the present, where St Oswalds is undergoing huge changes to try to stay relevant and, more importantly, to remain financially solvent. An old student of Mr Straitley’s, Johnny Harrington, has recently become the Head Master, much to Mr Straitley’s dismay, and the school’s old traditions are being cast aside willy-nilly.

The black king becomes more and more dangerous as the book continues through time until the present, with the anticipation building as the black king’s state of mental health becomes more unsettled. A former English Master’s death, after having been jailed for twenty years after being found guilty of sexually abusing a student at St Oswalds, sets the drama in motion.

I read Different Class over a few days, and there was a patch in the second half of the book where I felt as if I couldn’t put the book down. I have enjoyed most of Joanne Harris’s books, some more than others, but I rate Different Class as a favourite and Roy Straitley as a favourite character.

 

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