Review : Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier

Little Secrets

Jennifer Hillier’s latest release Little Secrets seemed to be a favorite with the majority of the bloggers who reviewed it . So , when I saw it on Audible , I decided to go for it  . This is my first Hillier read . A quick summary of the plot before going for my thoughts about the book .

Plot Summary :

Marin had the perfect  life  – she is a successful entrepreneur who owns a chain of upscale salons and is married to a successful entrepreneur . Three days before Christmas , her four year old son Sebastian is taken by a stranger dressed in a Santa suit when they were both doing the last minute Christmas shopping .  A year later , her life is a far cry from the ‘ perfect ‘ life she had before Sebastian went missing  – She and her husband rarely speak . She had attempted suicide once during the initial days when the nightmare had just begun and is undergoing therapy ( although it does not seem to be helping much . Alcohol seems to be doing a much better job than all the support group sessions and the therapy sessions ) . The only thing which kept her going is her hope that one day Sebastian might be found . Now , the PI whom she had hired to keep working on Sebastian ‘ s case after the FBI search went cold has stumbled upon her husband ‘ s affair with a much younger woman .

Kenzie Li  , an  art grad student working part – time as a barista is one of those millennials who think that her life in Instagram posts should emulate a luxury life even if her real life is actually a far cry from the glamorous pics she posts on Instagram . . . That ‘ s why she has had a string of rich , married men as boyfriends – they could help her with the bills ; exotic vacations and expensive gifts were also some of the perks she could expect from these men . Marin ‘ s husband Derek is her latest catch . There is only one cause for concern – she is falling for him , although it was never part of the plan  . . .

Marin is already upto the neck in one of the worst nightmares for any parent . She is not about to lose her husband also now . She is ready to do whatever it takes to save her marriage and all the family she is left with . . .

My thoughts on the book :

The missing child premise is not a wholly new premise in crime fiction . The missing child , the long – grieving mother and her dependence on alcohol & drugs , the father who is ( almost ) finished with grieving and wants to have a fresh start and the resulting distance between the parents threatening their marriage  – all these plot points which are the staples for this premise are there in Hillier ‘ s latest release .

The novel ‘s plot line of finding out how Marin would deal with this stranger who is a threat to her marriage when she is already dealing with the trauma of a  missing child is a promising one . But Hillier ‘ s writing left me wanting more . I was expecting more in – depth characterization (if not some detailed psychological profiling ) of the protagonist and her immediate friends and family .  Instead , the story reads like a pretty decent screenplay for a suspense movie where the dialogues made me wonder if I had not read these lines before .  While the story is well paced and kept me engaged , I felt that it could have been told better . . . However , there were some secondary characters – like Frances ( from the support group ) , whom I felt exuded more genuineness of characterization than even Marin – Kenzie duo who had nothing remotely memorable or original about them . I could easily forget them with all the other crime fiction protagonists I am going to read this year . Marin has the proverbial fury of the scorned woman – only she is keen on punishing her husband ‘ s mistress instead of the husband . Kenzie knows how to play it with the gullible men who fell head – over – heels ” in love ” with her like all every other mistress . Like any other mistress , she also seems to be finally falling for a man who was initially supposed to be yet another fling . Yes , she is beautiful ( Marin thinks so and feels somewhat insecure about her own middle – aged self  like any other wife would do with a mistress . ) . Both Marin & Kenzie are cut -out – of – the – template characters – the woman who had been cheated by the husband &  the other woman with just enough to keep them from becoming downright out – of -the – template characters . . .

There are very few authors who have the knack of feeding the nitty – gritty of the police procedural to the readers without the reader being aware of it or not making it sound like Criminology 101 for Dummies . . . Unfortunately this was another sore point for me with the book  when the author decided to spell out even the smallest thing to the readers .

There were some times when I felt that the character ‘ s actions were determined to align with the goal of having the big reveal . * Spoilers ahead * – The protagonist discovers that someone has been in her house when she was not there . Even if she makes a good guess of who the intruder might be , would it not be only natural that she should report it to the police or atleast let her family know that somebody know the pass-code to the family home ? Even if she is not keen on kicking up a ruckus , wouldn’t she atleast change the pass-code ? There were several such minor details which were overlooked to facilitate the FINAL BIG REVEAL . . . Unsurprisingly , all these loop-holes left me unimpressed with the story – telling even more . . .

A quick side note :

The missing child premise  brought to mind two other books which had dealt with it superbly . Jane Casey ‘ s debut , THE MISSING , traced the fracturing of the family when the tween son  goes missing and the subsequent descent of his mother into alcoholism who keeps the boy ‘ s room like a shrine ,  waiting and wanting only to know what happened to her son . While , the final reveal left me somewhat underwhelmed , it has excellent psychological profiling of the missing child ‘ s younger sister and  mother . .

Another is The Queen of Suspense ‘ s Daddy ‘ s Little Girl which had similar themes like THE MISSING . It dealt with the revisiting of the murder of a teenager by her younger sister ( who is an investigative journalist now ) when the convicted killer is up for parole  so that she could put the man whom she believes to be the killer behind bars once and for all  . While Mary H . Clark is not into too – much psychological profiling , she still gives her characters  enough traits & quirks to give the reader a good picture about their character  and tells one hell of a great story . . .

I would definitely recommend the above mentioned books over Little Secrets any day . . .

Rating : 3 . 5 / 5

If you have already read the book , let me know in the comments section about your thoughts on the book  . . . Until the next review then . .

Review : Arthur & George by Julian Barnes


Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2005

Plot Summary :

While Arthur ( Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ) does not need any introduction , George will definitely need one . George Edalji ( pronounced Ay-dl-ji ) , an English solicitor  was the son of the Vicar of  Great Wyrley , Shapurji Edalji . Shapurji was a Parsi convert from India who married a woman of Scottish descent and the niece of a brother clergyman . Wikipedia says that the appointment to the position of  Vicar at St . Mark ‘ s  ( Great Wyrley ) was a wedding present from Mrs . Edalji ‘ s uncle .

When the Edaljis begin to receive vicious anonymous letters , the family puts it down to racial prejudice . They appeal to the police , to no less than the Chief Constable , but to their dismay he appears to suspect George of being the letters’ author . Then someone starts slashing horses and livestock  . Again George becomes a key suspect for the GW police force who seem to set their eyes no farther than the Vicarage and its inhabitants , primarily George who has acquired some Boo Radley-esque reputation among the members of the local police force , thanks to the Chief Constable ‘ s wariness about his Parsi antecedents .   After a particularly gruesome slashing of a pit – pony , he is arrested and , on the flimsiest evidence , sent to trial , found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour . However , he was  released after serving  three years . . .

Arthur is mourning his first wife ( having been in love for the past ten years with the woman who was to become his second ) when he gets to know about the Edjali case from an ‘obscure newspaper article ‘ which was a statement of the case . Atleast that ‘ s what , he would say in his autobiography . Actually , George wrote to him a covering letter enclosing all the relevant newspaper articles including the one Arthur referred to in his autobiography .  Incensed at this obvious miscarriage of justice , Arthur steps into the shoes of his creation , Sherlock Holmes and clears George ‘ s name and even gives the name of the man who could be a better candidate as a suspect for livestock maiming and also writing the vicious , sometimes even blasphemous letters  . . .

My thoughts on the book :

Julian Barnes does a fantastic job of delving into the psyche of his central characters , considering the fact that both of them were REAL men . . . Another reason why this might be almost a feat is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one of the most famous men in his times – while it might easier to research about this man , the same can ‘ t be said of portraying this man ‘ s psyche convincingly . The author needs to bring the REAL Sir Arthur on the paper and not some man who looked like Sir Arthur and sounded too much like his famous detective which would have been the case with any less competent author . It would have been only too tempting and an easy work to endow the creator of a fictional character with some of the characteristics of his creation itself  because , readers are only too used to equating the creator itself as the primary inspiration for the character .

When it comes to George Edalji , I suspect that the author might as well have been on his own , considering that all that came from this case was infamy . They don ‘ t report the character profiles  of  the  defendants in a case , you know  . . . Post Sir Arthur clearing George ‘ s name , after making a lot of noise , the young solicitor was happy to return to his practice and was not interested in grabbing the opportunities like addressing meetings , writing to the newspapers or give interviews which his new found fame afforded . . .

The detailed research is evident from the writing which subtly hints at the aspects of Doyle ‘ s life which do not concern the primary narrative threads like Doyle working on the Edalji case or his ‘ love story ‘ with his to – be – second – wife . I  feel that the implication is that the second Lady Conan Doyle was somewhat pretentious and very keen to ingratiate herself with the family members closest to her would – be husband  prior to their marriage  . My guess was proved correct when I read several articles how she was the fairy-tale stepmother who would not have Sir Arthur allow even the most simple requests from his daughter Mary Conan Doyle ( from his first marriage . . ) . Perhaps , his fight for justice for several others like George , might help the public impression of  a champion of justice but it does little to assuage the feeling that his conduct towards the children of his first marriage was not very honorable .

While several others in Sir Arthur ‘ s closest circle could discern that Miss Leckie was not the angel as Sir Arthur made her out to be after some time , the man ‘ in love ‘  could not discern even the slightest hint of it , even after eight years of clandestine courtship . This extract is about the feelings of Alfred H. Wood  – a friend , private secretary and business manager  to Sir Arthur . . .

He thought it might take him a while to adjust himself to Miss Leckie – though he doubted she would still be using her maiden name by the end of the next twelvemonth . He would serve the second Lady Conan Doyle as assiduously as he had served the first one ; though with less immediate wholeheartedness . He was not sure how much he liked Jean Leckie . This was , he knew quite unimportant . You did not , as a schoolmaster , have to like the headmaster ‘s wife . And he would never be required to give his opinion . But over the eight or nine years she had been coming to Undershaw , he had often caught himself wondering if there was not something a little false about her . At a certain moment  she had become aware of his importance in the daily running of Sir Arthur ‘ s life ; whereupon she had made a point a point of being agreeable to him . More than agreeable . A hand had been placed upon his arm , and she had even in imitation of Sir Arthur , called him Woodie . He thought this  intimacy she had failed to earn . Even Mrs Doyle – as he always thought of her – would not call him that .

[ . . . ] it seemed to Wood that sports played you a lot straighter than most women .

Talking about failing to spot the obvious ( atleast a man in love might be excused ) , one thing which intrigued and somewhat impressed me about George Edalji is the fact he did not play the racial – prejudice card . He could have very well done so if he had wished it . There were , in fact ,  a few who were biased against the Edalji family ( unsurprisingly ) , which Sir Doyle and the others fighting for George could discern easily but George himself continuously denied it . In this day and age when people are quick to take offense and quite often , interpret any random incident as having ” hurt their sentiments greatly ” ( I don ‘ t want to deflect into politics and the new norm of what can be or cannot be deemed as offensive . . .  ) , George Edalji is and will be a rarity I guess .

Here is George ‘ s  argument on why racial bias was not a factor in his case  :

” I was brought up as an English man . I went to school , I studied the law, I did my articles , I became a solicitor . Did anyone try to hold me back from this progress ? On the contrary . My schoolmasters encouraged me , my partners at Sangster , Vickery & Speight took notice of me , my father ‘ s congregation uttered words of praise when I qualified . No clients refused my advice at Newhall Street on the grounds of my origin . “

[ . . . ] There have been as I said , occasional slights . There were teasings and jokes . I am not so naive as to be unaware that some people look at me differently . I am a lawyer , Sir Arthur . What evidence do I have that anyone has acted against me because of race prejudice ? Sergeant Upton used to try and frighten me , but no doubt he frightened other boys as well .  ” 

Sir Doyle ‘ s affair raised an interesting question for me to ponder about – Why is that a man needs a dutiful and obedient wife who shadows him during the early years when he is working towards realizing his dreams and climbing the social ladder and when he finally achieved everything he had dreamed for , he starts to look for ‘ intelligence ‘ in his partner and wants her to walk along his side ( when the wife was always walking a step behind him in all these years of their marriage . . . ) There have been umpteen fictional affairs where a successful man falls for another much younger woman  because the lady can hold a conversation ‘ intellectually ‘. Duh!!

I specially loved the narrative style of showing  how the formative years and the lives of both the men had been in stark contrast by switching the chapters between the two men – Arthur grows up with the ambition of providing adequately for this family when he is grown – up having been a witness to the family ‘ s genteel poverty from an early age . George seemingly does not have any high ambitions but is happy to do the job he loves .  Arthur , from an early age , is groomed to be the ” man of the house ” ; George , on the other hand  does not have the responsibility to look out for his family ‘s finances . If there is any expectation from George , it is to have a decent career ; Arthur  is not happy in the marriage when his wife becomes terminally ill and begins an affair with a much younger woman . George ” aspires to that situation ” in his 30 s but comfortably settles down as a bachelor because ” he has seen too much in his practice ” . . .

Final thoughts :

This was one of the best reads of the year for me and is highly recommended from me . There were a few characters like Horace Edalji about whom I wanted to know how they turned out in detail but I understand that this book is about When Arthur Met George ( or should it be the other way round ? ) . I might pick up more of Julian Barnes ‘ work . . Also , the questions which the book raised , the introduction to this milestone case and the wonderful writing easily make this book stand out from all the other reads this year .

Here is one of my favourite passages from the book  which I MUST quote:

” He [ George ] would have sent them [ his parents ] on a dismal journey of self questioning . Today , we know George and we know him innocent . But perhaps in three months : we think we know George and we believe him innocent . And then in a year : we realize we did not know George , yet we still think him innocent . Who could blame anyone for this declension ? “

Rating : 4 / 5

If you have already read the book , let me know in the comments section about your thoughts on the book  . . . Until the next review then . .

Articles you might want to have a look at –

Adultery, my dear Watson: Writer betrayed his dying wife with younger lover

Revealed: the cruelty of Conan Doyle to his eldest daughter

Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Review : Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park

Plot synopsis from Goodreads :

Adopted into the household of her uncle – by – marriage , Sir Thomas Bertram , Fanny Price grows up a meek outsider among her cousins in the unaccustomed elegance of Mansfield Park . Soon after Sir Thomas absents himself on estate business in Antigua (the family’s investment in slavery and sugar is considered in the Introduction in a new , post-colonial light ) , Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive at Mansfield , bringing with them London glamour, and the seductive taste for flirtation and theatre that precipitates a crisis .

My thoughts on the book :

While several reviewers have too often moaned about Fanny Price ‘ s  ‘ inferiority ‘  to the other Austen heroines , I think that they simply do not consider the fact that Fanny ‘ s social standing is very different from the rest . The chief complaint which everybody seems to have is this Fanny is too timid . Do these readers who complain that Fanny is  ‘ a creepmouse ‘ expect her to have Elizabeth Bennet’s vivacity or Emma Woodhouse’s self assuredness while she is residing under her uncle ‘ s roof because her parents cannot afford to raise her ? A poor relation is only above the servants of the great house and has nothing to give herself airs about if you need some enlightening about how the society operated in Jane Austen ‘ s time . Sometimes , it is also upto  the readers to get the expectations right . . .

But these not – so – favorable  reviews actually helped me to get started with the book without much expections about the heroine and helped me to finish it without much regret . This should be the prime takeaway from this review – Have no great expectations and you will get through the book comfortably . Otherwise , you are definitely going to be disappointed . . .

One scathing observation  from a critic quoted by Claire Tomalin in her Austen biography  ( review here ) says that he found Fanny repellent : cold , self – righteous , rigid with prejudice , ‘ the most terrible incarnation we have of a the female prig – pharisee ‘ .

For me , while Fanny is rightly characterized as the creepmouse who is only too happy to sit sit unobserved and  observe the drama around her , the fact that her internal monologues almost always run along  the lines of ‘ Is this right  ? Is this wrong ? ‘ seemed a little absurd and was really exasperating . Considering the characters of her companions at Mansfield Park ( with the exception of Edmund ) , it seems very odd that she should be obsessed with the rights & wrongs like this . I also felt that it was a bit uncharacteristic for Fanny to wax eloquent at times when time and again the reader is reminded  that her education was not on par with the daughters of the house . . . I was able to overlook  her out – of – character , almost – too – poetic raptures  but even I had enough of Fanny ‘ s constant moralizing or her judgemental opinions ( regarding Mary Crawford particularly )  that I fully agree with the critic on every point except for finding her repulsive .  Any reader would recognize the underlying jealousy ( which Fanny stubbornly refuses to acknowledge even to herself  ) in the case of Mary Crawford – Fanny tends to play  up even the slightest hint of a vice in Mary Crawford to Edmund particularly , while she comfortably remains mum on the subject of her cousins ‘ scandalous elopements . . .

Atleast for me , Fanny ‘ s inferiority is in the fact that she does not get or never got  or probably would not get much love from the readers like the other Jane Austen heroines . We are not able to root for her like we did for every other Austen heroine – in fact despite all of Mary Crawford ‘ s ‘ deviousness ‘ as Fanny & Edmund would say , I wanted her to get married to the man whom she loved . But coming to think of it now , it ‘ s a match made in heaven between the two cousins . . .

That ‘ s enough of a rant about Fanny Price I guess . Now , lets talk about her love story .

I am not the first ( or going to be the last  ) reader who has this complaint – Fanny ‘ s love for Edmund is always hinted but the same Edmund who exclaimed ‘ My only sister ‘ on seeing Fanny  ( shortly after Mariah ‘ s elopement ) should fall in love with her some three or so chapters later is very much unlike Jane Austen who gave us Pride & Prejudice , Persuasion , Sense & Sensibility . If Austen had hinted at a budding romance halfway through the novel , I could have easily made peace with this romantic pair . The only problem with this lead pair is that nowhere in the book a keen reader would discern anything romantic in the interactions between the two until the big reveal . It seems that Jane Austen desperately wanted a happy ending for her book . With all other young people married or banished from Mansfield Park , she had no other people to pair up except for these two . .

Another sore point about Mansfield Park  was the writing . There were too many overly long sentences that wrapping my head around those was a trial . It was becoming quite tedious reading about Edmund and Fanny discussing the Crawfords & their merits / vices at length . . . Austen heroines who were more insightful than Fanny ( like Anne Elliot ) did not bore the readers with discussions about the characters of their neighbours . I enjoyed the chapters on Sotherton excursion , Fanny visiting her family and any other family drama very much after plodding through yet another discussion between Fanny & Edmund or even worse , Fanny ‘ s thoughts . .

* Just an idea *

Another thing which struck me after reading about Lady Bertram & Mrs . Price is that Jane Austen prefers having only the silly or sometimes indifferent parent(s) or sometimes guardians ( like Lady Bertram as in Fanny ‘ s case ) around her heroine – If you think about Mrs . & Mr . Bennet , Sir Elliot , Mr . Woodhouse , Mrs . & Mr. Price , you might also begin to see the pattern . If Austen chooses to have both the parents instead of only one ( as in Persuasion & Emma ) , then it means that both have varying levels of idiocy or eccentricity . I wonder why Austen chose to characterize the heroine ‘ s parents as people who could use some of their offspring ‘ s intelligence . . .

Final thoughts

On the whole , Mansfield Park is not going to be one of my Austen favorites . I still  have Northanger Abbey and  Sense & Sensibility  to read and having seen much positive response to  S & S , only  Northanger Abbey will decide the final rankings for Austen novels . I am confident that  in my rankings , no other Austen novel is going to beat Persuasion for the top spot . . .

Rating : 2 . 75 / 5

If you have already read the book , let me know in the comments section about your thoughts on the book  . . . Until the next review then . . .

P . S : I think that the current situation is the best time to tackle some classics . I don ‘ t think I would have had enough patience with Mansfield Park if I had read it during ” old  normal times ” . Here are  my discussion posts on Wuthering HeightsPart-1 , Part-2 if you want to check it out . . .