Best Served Cold

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Gentlemen and Players - Joanne Harris, book review“The place is St Oswald’s, an old and long-established boys’ grammar school in the north of England. A new year has just begun, and for the staff and boys of the School, a wind of unwelcome change is blowing. Suits, paperwork and Information Technology rule the world; and Roy Straitley, Latin master, eccentric, and veteran of St Oswald’s, is finally – reluctantly – contemplating retirement. But beneath the little rivalries, petty disputes and everyday crises of the School, a darker undercurrent stirs. And a bitter grudge, hidden and carefully nurtured for fifteen years, is about to erupt. Who is “Mole”, the mysterious insider, whose cruel practical jokes are gradually escalating …? And how can an old and half-forgotten scandal become the stone that brings down a giant?” This is a partial quote of the plot of Joanne Harris’ novel, Gentlemen and Players, as described on her web page (http://www.joanne-harris.co.uk/), and what a story it is!

Joanne Harris has always had a very good knack for telling a compelling story. Together with this, Harris knows how to build characters strongly, and use them to drive the story rather than the other way around. In order to do this, Joanne takes a first person voice and speaks to the readers through the characters. While this is easy to do when you’re writing through the eyes of only one character, it is more difficult when doing the same through two or more persons. One way is to make the “voices” so distinctive that it is impossible to mix them up. In “Gentlemen and Players” Harris took the easier method of indicating the character speaking at the start of each chapter heading. Mind you, her method of indication was more subtle than naming the person – Harris instead used a symbol as a code – in this case, a drawing of a pawn (as in the game of chess) – where the white one was the protagonist and the black one was the antagonist.

There is one obvious advantage to using two first-person narratives, and that is the writer can use one character to describe the physical aspects of the other. This is in lieu of third-person descriptions, which are often boring and usually distract from the characters and progress of the story. Harris does this so well that if Roy Straitley was a real person, you could pick him out of a crowd. She is less successful with her antagonist, but this was because she needed to keep as much of an air of mystery about the “Mole” as was humanly possible – since some of the mystery behind this ‘trouble-maker’ is even withheld from the readers until near the end of the book.

There is a reason for sounding illusive here. While previous novels by Harris have concentrated on conflicts that were mostly out in the open, this book borders on being a mystery novel. While the antagonist speaks directly to the reader, and from early on in the book, lays out the plan for St. Oswald’s destruction as it occurs, the truth behind the problems is kept from the other characters while very little is kept from the reader. Of course, with a good mystery, there are always things that one guesses at one point or another; only to find out we were wrong as the action progresses, and this is no exception.

With all this praise, there are a few minor niggles with this book. Firstly, the use of the black and white pawns to indicate the narrator wasn’t obvious, and the reader might not be able to distinguish between them. Another small other problem was that there are occasional inserts of Latin that aren’t translated which the reader might not understand. Still, this isn’t enough to reduce the enjoyment of this book, and in fact, the Latin works well with the level of language that she uses. Harris writes with a very simple but sophisticated style that isn’t overly flowery or poetic, but also isn’t overly simplistic either. In other words, she doesn’t write ‘down’ to her readers but she also doesn’t write over their heads. This is a fine line to tread, but has been one she has repeatedly achieved with aplomb in all her books, and is something I have always admired.

In sum, this book is arguably Joanna Harris’s best novel yet. She has a very compelling story that while not being a true mystery novel, has enough twists to make any mystery genre lover very happy. The characters are strongly written and develop within the action of the book in a natural and believable fashion. The language she uses is perfectly balanced, making this a very well rounded tale indeed. This book deserves four and a half stars out of five (due to my few niggles), and comes highly recommended.


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Gentlemen and Players
by Joanne Harris

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Written by Davida Chazan
Davida Chazan

Davida Chazan (aka The Chocolate Lady) was born in the USA and moved to Israel over 30 years ago. She's been reviewing books on the internet for over 12 years on various sites, including Dooyoo, Ciao and Yahoo! Contributor Network. Davida works as a Resource Development Associate for a Non-Profit Organization and lives in Jerusalem with her husband and three grown-up children. Davida is also a published poet as well as a gourmet of chocolate!

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