Thoughts on books, family, and life in one impressive package.

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Genre: Mystery; Young Adult
Publication Date: 16 January 2018
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont for the brightest thinkers, inventors, and artists. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, an early twentieth century tycoon, who wanted to make a wonderful place full of riddles, twisting pathways, and gardens. ‘A place,’ he said, ‘where learning is a game.’

Shortly after the school opened, his wife and daughter were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym ‘Truly, Devious.’ It became one of the great unsolved crimes of American history.

True-crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: She will solve this cold case. That is, she will solve the case when she gets a grip on her demanding new school life and her housemates: the inventor, the novelist, the actor, the artist, and the jokester. But something strange is happening. Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy. The past has crawled out of its grave. Someone has gotten away with murder.”

My Thoughts: Truly Devious is not the first mystery novel written by Maureen Johnson, so any reader coming to the novel knows she can write great stories with good characters. In spite of her previous success, Stevie Bell’s quirky charm and the mysteries within the novel come as a surprise because they far surpass what Ms. Johnson has written in the past.

There is so much to love in Truly Devious, and Ms. Johnson does not fail to deliver in every aspect. There are the overlapping mysteries that both occur at Ellingham Academy. There is almost unnatural elegance of the Ellingham estate itself. There is the old-world charm surrounding the academy itself. The characters are all a bit larger than life and a riotous collage of personalities and talents.

Then there is Ms. Stevie Bell herself. Her observational skills and deductive reasoning are on par with Sherlock Holmes, while her fascination with true crimes is a bit macabre. Yet, she becomes one of the highlights of the story. A liberal raised among staunch conservative parents, she is used to feeling like the odd duck. Arriving at Ellingham Academy serves to magnify this feeling as she finds herself among brilliant scientists, artists, and writers. Everyone has felt like the odd man out at one point in time, so it is all too easy to understand Stevie’s insecurities and frustrations. Her wry sense of humor endears her even more to readers as you recognize Ms. Johnson’s own voice peeking out from behind her.

Truly Devious is a fun story. The mysteries are certainly compelling, but it is the characters which are the heart of the novel. Everyone from Stevie to the long-ago students of Ellingham Academy strongly resonate with the reader and make for an engaging story that one is sad to see end. Thankfully, we have two more books in the series to anticipate.

Genre: Literary Fiction
Publication Date: 23 January 2018
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“An astonishingly incisive and suspenseful novel about a scandal amongst Britain’s privileged elite and the women caught up in its wake.

Sophie’s husband James is a loving father, a handsome man, a charismatic and successful public figure. And yet he stands accused of a terrible crime. Sophie is convinced he is innocent and desperate to protect her precious family from the lies that threaten to rip them apart.

Kate is the lawyer hired to prosecute the case: an experienced professional who knows that the law is all about winning the argument. And yet Kate seeks the truth at all times. She is certain James is guilty and is determined he will pay for his crimes.

Who is right about James? Sophie or Kate? And is either of them informed by anything more than instinct and personal experience? Despite her privileged upbringing, Sophie is well aware that her beautiful life is not inviolable. She has known it since she and James were first lovers, at Oxford, and she witnessed how easily pleasure could tip into tragedy.

Most people would prefer not to try to understand what passes between a man and a woman when they are alone: alone in bed, alone in an embrace, alone in an elevator… Or alone in the moonlit courtyard of an Oxford college, where a girl once stood before a boy, heart pounding with excitement, then fear. Sophie never understood why her tutorial partner Holly left Oxford so abruptly. What would she think, if she knew the truth?”

My Thoughts (SPOILERS AHEAD): Based on the synopsis, Sarah Vaughan’s latest novel should be a timely story punctuating the #metoo movement. In reality, Anatomy of a Scandal perpetuates the same attitudes that allow a sexual harassment culture to thrive. Even worse, it hints at the need for more dangerous measures in order for the guilty party to get their just desserts.

Anatomy of a Scandal is a true disappointment. One would think that any novel at the center of which is sexual harassment released these days would not pay tribute to the same old attitudes and lack of justice against which the #metoo movement is fighting. Granted, there is such a thing as realism in novels, and for centuries the reality was that sexual harassment victims were often impotent to obtain any sort of justice against their harasser. In that context, what unfolds in Ms. Vaughan’s story makes sense as frustrating as it is.

The disappointment comes in to the picture because the #metoo movement is not fading. Women continue to speak out about their stories, and there is a growing awareness not only of what constitutes harassment but also that women do not lie when it comes to telling their stories. While it remains a very nuanced topic, one in which we are still trying to feel our way, there are some things which remain clear – those who harass should be punished, preferably by law. Yet that is not what Anatomy of a Scandal presents.

Instead, Kate is the stereotypical shrewish woman with a vendetta, the kind who will jeopardize her career in order to bring about the downfall of her enemy. She violates all sorts of ethical and legal considerations to take on James in court and regrets it not one whit. The reasons for her unflappable resolve and sense of righteousness is one of the many mysteries in the story, the answer to which becomes obvious shortly into the novel. While she is methodical in her court case and in her attempts to be unbiased in her presentation, those scenes in the courtroom have all the feel of an expedition doomed to fail, and indeed she does. Therein lies the biggest frustration of all. Wouldn’t it be nice for once to show the victims of such crimes obtaining justice and not having their story doubted in court? Haven’t we shown in the #metoo movement that good looks, fame, and fortune do not mean a perpetrator is innocent?

What makes Anatomy of a Scandal even worse is the vigilante justice that comes about at the end of the story. It is not even the victims who are the vigilantes. Rather, it is the press that brings about the perpetrator’s doom and not for the reasons you would expect. The women at the heart of the story, once the court case is done, fade into the background as if their stories count not at all. It is such a demoralizing ending to what should have been a great story to show how the #metoo movement is changing society.

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