Different Class: Joanne Harris

★★★½

The Malbry Novels: Book 3

At one point in this novel, a character comments that nothing ever happens in Malbry. I can only assume they were being ironic, or haven’t been paying attention, because this Yorkshire village has recently played host to intrigue, murders, scams and full-on psychopathy. We return to the world of Gentlemen & Players and blueeyedboy for a third time, slipping back within the walls of St Oswald’s School and back into the company of the tweedy Latin master Roy Straitley. It’s the year after the events in Gentlemen & Players and the school is still struggling to recover, with a new Head taking over the reins in an attempt to bring the school into the modern era and to brush off unpleasant associations. Many of the new initiatives are anathema to Straitley, but it isn’t just the corporate-speak of the modern education system that makes him feel threatened. For Straitley recognises the new Head – a man who was a boy at St Oswald’s thirty years ago, at another time of scandal and misfortune – and senses that all is not well. It clearly isn’t accidental that Johnny Harrington is back; but what’s his plan?

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Blueeyedboy: Joanne Harris

★★★

On a web-journal mailing list, blueeyedboy holds court. He is the ringmaster of his own little circus, the svengali to his audience of adoring readers, the puppetmaster of their fantasies. World-weary and nihilistic, he begins to tell the fable-like story of three brothers, brought up by their widowed mother and each, for ease, given their own signature colour: Black; Brown; and Blue. Struggling against each other, and against the mercurial furies of their dangerous, unpredictable mother, the boys try to carve out their own identities in their bleak little town. But this isn’t just a story of three boys coming of age. It’s a tale of ambition, obsession and, most fascinating of all, murder. Don’t get over-excited, though, blueeyedboy coyly reassures his readers: it’s only a story. The problem is that not everyone seems to believe him. Setting her story in the same town as her St Oswald’s novels, though in a far less privileged neighbourhood, Joanne Harris invites us to come down the rabbithole of internet anonymity, where everyone wears avatars and usernames, and no one is quite what they seem.

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Gentlemen & Players: Joanne Harris

★★★★

It’s funny really: I’ve spent most of my life with completely the wrong impression of Joanne Harris, writing her off as an author of cutesy French tales like Chocolat (which perhaps isn’t particularly cutesy itself; I must reread it). And yet she’s so much more than that. She’s written ironic mythical fantasy (The Gospel of Loki), nuanced historical fiction (Holy Fools) and now, I discover, gripping thrillers. I came to Gentlemen & Players because I have a soft spot for fiction set in schools (blame The History Boys, I suppose), and I was attracted by this book’s setting at St Oswald’s: a self-consciously old-fashioned private school for boys. But I stayed for the increasingly compelling tale of Machiavellian revenge, as the school unwittingly nurtures a viper in its bosom: someone with an old grudge against St Oswald’s, who has finally decided to take down the school bit by bit from within. And, when I finished the book, I was sorely tempted to go right back to the beginning and start again, because Harris pulls off a piece of narrative legerdemain that is so completely brilliant that I wanted to revisit everything with full understanding.

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Holy Fools: Joanne Harris

★★★½

For five years, Juliette has lived in peaceful isolation at the convent of Sainte Marie-de-la-Mer, on the island of Noirs Moustiers (modern Noirmoutier) in eastern France. Within the abbey walls, she has reinvented herself as Soeur Auguste, a young widow who has sought sanctuary with her little girl Fleur. None of her sisters knows her true identity. But others do, and Fate – or God – works in mysterious ways. When the old Abbess dies, her replacement arrives with a confessor in tow: a glamorous, silver-tongued, charismatic man who Juliette knows, only too well. Against her will, she finds herself being drawn back into a dangerous game she thought she’d escaped long ago… for her dark nemesis is a gambler and this time he is prepared to play with sanity, faith and even lives at stake.

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The Gospel of Loki: Joanne M. Harris

★★★½

I’ve only ever read one book by Joanne Harris and that (predictably) was Chocolat, many moons ago. As a result, I was intrigued when huge posters appeared all over the Underground advertising her most recent novel, her first foray into what the publicists call ‘fantasy’ but which is actually revisionist mythology. Naturally there was no way I could resist it. I’ve always loved clever, creative, not-entirely-trustworthy heroes and it’s a given that the devil always gets the best lines. Moreover, with the Vikings exhibition looming at the British Museum it seemed the perfect moment to brush up on my Norse mythology. And, although Harris would (apparently) prefer us not to mention it / him and simply to judge the book against the myths themselves, there’s always that pop-culture elephant lurking in the corner of the room. Loki is very much the man of the moment.

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