Tag Archives: joanne harris

The Strawberry Thief

Fourth installment in the “Chocolat” series

Warning: this review contains spoilers for “Chocolat”, “The Lollypop Shoes” and “Peaches for Monsieur le Curé”

I’m an enormous Joanne Harris fan, and I’ve been reading her books since I came across one in a house my family stayed at in the south of France when I was a teenager. I loved the first book in this series, and it was probably one of my earliest forays into magic realism. As more books in the series have been released sporadically over the years, I’ve religiously bought and read them. I didn’t think there was going to be another one, but as soon as I saw that there was, I rushed to the bookstore to buy it. Unfortunately, I was a couple of days to soon for the release date, so I tried again a few days later and secured myself a copy.

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“The Strawberry Thief” by Joanne Harris is the fourth installment in the “Chocolat” series. In this book, Vianne Rocher is back living in the French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. Although she is back working in a chocolate shop, Vianne is going through a transition phase. Her daughter Anouk has moved away to Paris to live with her boyfriend, her other daughter Rosette, isolated by her disability, is spending more and more time alone and Roux seems to be pulling away from her. When a tattoo artist called Morgane moves into the shop across the way, Vianne fears that someone else has come to try to steal her daughters away from her. However, when Rosette inherits a piece of land, the community is thrown into a spin and the unlikely person left to solve the mystery of the recently deceased Narcisse is the local priest Raynaud.

Harris is an exquisite writer, and I love how this series has grown over time. When “Chocolat” was first published, Vianne was strong, feisty and idealistic. She blew into Lansquenet on a wild wind with Anouk with big plans. As time goes on, and she has a daughter with a disability, Vianne changes. She becomes more concerned with fitting in, with being accepted, and somewhere along the line she changes from being a mysterious witch to a small business owner. Even though she loves her daughters more than anything, she is starting to grieve their transition into adulthood and is finding it hard to imagine her life without them. Vianne also experiences a lot of guilt as a mother of a child with disability.  I thought that Harris really captured Vianne’s point of view in a way that would resonate with a lot of people.

This book is also really the first book that has shown Rosette’s perspective as a person with disability. Rosette has cri du chat syndrome, and because of her appearance and difficulties with verbal speech, she struggles to find acceptance. I felt that Harris did a really good job of balancing Rosette’s inner voice with her outer voice, and how she goes through the motions of trying to find her own independent life.

I think that the one thing that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with was the way that Harris connected magic with Rosette’s disability. Without giving too much away, there is a part in the book that suggests that Rosette’s disability is caused by some kind of cantrip and that if the spell can be broken, her disability will, if not cured, be significantly reduced. I completely see what Harris was trying to do and tie in the themes of the series together with the realities of living with and parenting someone with a disability. I think that despite the way Harris approached the rest of the book, it was this part that suggested that Rosette’s problem was her difficulties in communicating, and not the failure of her community to adapt, make adjustments and include her.

This series has changed over time, but at its heart it is a series about motherhood. Harris is a flexible and beautiful writer and each book grows and explores new issues as society grows. This is a perfect pick-me-up over a cup of hot chocolate.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism

The Blue Salt Road

Novella retelling seafaring folklore

About a year ago, I found out that one of my favourite authors was retelling British folklore. I was excited then, and I was just as excited a couple of months ago when I saw that she had released a second book in a similar theme. Just as pretty, with a deep blue hardcover and nautical imagery in silver detail, I knew I had to have it.

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“The Blue Salt Road” by Joanne M. Harris is a fantasy novella about a young man of the Grey Seal clan, the most playful of the selkies, and he the wildest of them all. Tempted by the adventure of walking among the Folk who live on land, he casts off his seal skin one night at the call of a red-haired lass. After meeting her under the moonlight several times, the young man is tricked, his sealskin stolen and his memories gone. With no memory of his former life, the young man must try to make the best of a new life thrust upon him. However, when he is asked to do the unthinkable and with no knowledge of how to return to his home, the young man soon finds himself with nowhere to go.

Inspired by the ballad “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry“, this story takes the most well-known version of the selkie myth, where a man steals a selkie-woman’s skin to make her his bride, and turns it on its head. Harris, in her trademark immersive style, takes the coastal landscape and examines it from every angle: a watery wonderland, a cold and inhospitable climate, a place of fear, a place of love. In the same way, she takes the selkie’s relationship and examines it from every angle: a place of lust, a place of betrayal, a place of understanding, and a place of love.

This book made me a lot more uneasy than her previous one in this collection. I think part of it was that the story of a man tricking a woman to be with him is so pervasive, but the story of a woman tricking a man to be with her is much less common. For some reason, men pursuing women by any means is normalised but women pursuing men by any means feels wrong. Without going into spoilers, the ending made me even more uneasy. I felt that Harris explored an interesting motive behind the red-haired woman’s actions, but ultimately I found the successive breaches of trust a bit hard to deal with. I get that Harris is going for a dark interpretation, but I there was something about the ending left me much more unsettled than the previous one.

A beautifully rendered story with a hint of bitterness, Harris challenges our understanding of gender through this traditional tale.

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The Blue Salt Road

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy

A Pocketful of Crows

I have been a fan of Joanne Harris‘ work for a very long time, so I was very surprised when I first found out about this book by seeing its gorgeous cover in a bookshop. It’s a beautiful hardcover edition with a black dust jacket and gold detail. This was my first read of 2018 and because I have already lent it out, today’s photograph is a guest photo by my friend Annie.

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“A Pocketful of Crows” by Joanne Harris is a fantasy novella about a wild girl with nut brown skin, crow wing hair and no name who runs with the deer and flies with the hawk and hunts with the vixen. However, when she meets a young human man and falls desperately in love with him, she allows herself to be tamed and named. Turning her back on her people, the Travelling Folk, she despairs when nature begins to turns its back on her and the man she sacrificed everything for is not as true as he promised.

This is truly an exquisite book. Drawing heavily on English and Scottish folklore, this book is dark and light in all the right places. The wild girl is an incredible character and although her ways are both enchanting and feral to the human reader, Harris forces us to empathise with her the entire way. I was absolutely captivated with this book and raced through the vivid prose and illustrations in a day.

Another thing I really liked was the signature complex way in which Harris depicts women. The wild girl defies the social conventions of the humans and the Travelling Folk, but is nevertheless bound by the consequences of her actions. I also enjoyed the way Harris explored the tension between fetishisation of the “exotic” and white beauty ideals.

There really isn’t much more to say about this book – it really does speak for itself. My only regret is that I didn’t realise it was coming out sooner.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Pretty Books

Different Class

I had been looking forward to this book for a long time. Joanne Harris is one of my all-time favourite authors. Her Malbry Cycle books are a delightful and dark departure from her much more whimsical French novels, and when she announced that she was writing a third book set in the rather sinister town of Malbry, I was stoked.

“Different Class” by Joanne Harris revisits St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, and the Latin master Roy Straitley who in an increasingly modernised world is the school’s unlikely keystone. When a new principal is appointed, and a number of changes are introduced, Straitley finds himself reminded of some sinister events that happened decades ago. The parallels become too much of a coincidence, and Straitley finds himself making some unusual alliances to protect the school, his students and ultimately himself.

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I don’t really want to give too much away, but this is Harris at her finest. Joanne Harris is a master of the literary slight of hand, and with narration swapping between Straitley and the mysterious and murderous author of an old diary, this novel is full of surprises and the perfect amount of tension. After reading her other novels in this series, I was not disappointed and devoured this book in no time at all.

Harris says herself that you don’t need to read the books in order of publication in order to enjoy them, and I think that’s probably true. However if you’re a stickler for order, I’d start with “Gentlemen and Players” then “Blueeyedboy” before finishing with “Different Class”. So, if you’re in the mood for an extremely well-written thriller in an unusual setting with social issues expertly woven in throughout, I cannot recommend this book enough.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction