Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Review and Interview: The Secret Keeper by Paul Harris

Book: The Secret Keeper by Paul Harris

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Rating: A-

For: TLC Book Tours

The book begins with a heart-stopping scene in which our hero, Danny, is suffering terrible abuse at the hands of an unknown enemy. It was quite the intense foreshadowing moment.

Next, we learn that Danny had been a war correspondent in Sierra Leone for quite some time, several years before this opening incident. While there, he fell in love with a girl, Maria, who was also working there, though not as a reporter. He little later, he learns that she is trying to rescue the child soldiers; boys kidnapped from their families and forced to fight, including killing their own families.

In the opening chapter, Danny gets a letter from Maria that, in part, says:


I need you. I'm in trouble. I know it's been too long. I'm sorry. It's my fault and I hope you forgive me...... I need you to come to Freetown to help me. I'll explain it all then.
All my love as ever,

So he leaves his life behind once again, even if it is a life full of all sorts of its own problems, to head back to Sierra Leone in order to help his friend. When he gets there, he finds out that he's too late. She has been murdered.

The story then jumps back and forth between the first time he was there, in 2000, and his second trip made in 2004. In the 2000 segments, we learn how he met Maria, some of the war situations he found himself in, and how they parted ways. The 2004 segments are about his mad frenzy to solve the mystery of what's happened to Maria, his struggles with his current girlfriend and his father, and his ongoing fascination with the country of Sierra Leone.

I must say the whole time I was reading, I was anticipating catching up to that first prologue scene... anxious for it and a little bit dreading it. But it did keep me on the edge of my seat that's for sure!

I enjoyed the book simply because I knew nothing about this conflict in Sierra Leone. It was all quite eye-opening. I was also fascinated to read about the life of a war correspondent, and how they seem to live for the danger, to want to get always closer to the action, and that they seem to have no fear. Let me just say, I don't think I could do it. Oh, and the only caution I would give to readers of this book, beware the F-words!

As part of the blog tour today, I've been able to ask the author, Paul Harris, a few questions. Having himself worked as a war correspondent in Sierra Leone, there was one question that I couldn't get out of my head the whole time I was reading. So even though I know it's the same question everyone else is asking, it's the first one on my list. Then, please be sure to read on to see the new feature I'm introducing with this interview!

Suey: The whole time I was reading Danny's adventure, I constantly wondered if you personally lived the same experiences first hand. So which, if any, experiences did the two of you share?

Paul: I don't want to give away too many plot points, but I think I can answer this question without spoilers. Basically, some of the incidents come straight from my own experiences and some have roots in my own experiences that I have then drawn out and expanded. For example, a scene where Danny attends an anti-rebel march at which several protesters were killed was almost the same as my own experience of being there. A scene at the end where Danny ends up in a town where a battle suddenly breaks out was also pretty close in a lot of details to what happened to me. Some of the characters (especially Kam) are drawn exactly to match real people I knew.Others, such as Ali, were inspired by real people but very much took on a life of their own. The romance between Danny and Maria was inspired by a love affair that a colleague in Sierra Leone was rumored to have been having with an aid worker. It was not based in my own experience! That was something I had to explain to my girlfriend when she read the first draft!

Suey: I'm glad you cleared that up about the love affair, because you know I was wondering THAT too!

The scenes with the child soldiers were really heart wrenching to say the least. Were there really those who were trying to save them? Do you know how things stand now for those kids?

Paul: There were some 5,000 to 10,000 child soldiers who fought in the war. There were then and are now numerous charities and individuals who sought to help, either by setting up orphanages or other institutions to care for them and treat their problems and eventually rehabilitate them and their society. They still face problems now. Funds are often short and needs are great. There is also still great local social prejudice against them. Here is a link to a story about them from a charity called SOS Children's Villages .

Suey: Thank you for that link. I think that was the thing that hit me the hardest about this story.

For those of us who are quite clueless to world affairs, describe briefly what was behind the conflict in Sierra Leone and is it all resolved today?

Paul: The war in Sierra Leone has both long-term and short-term reasons. Like all countries essentially created by colonialism and Western involvement in Africa, Sierra Leone ended up as an independent nation full of competing ethnicities and interests who did not necessarily feel the same national awareness that, say, the French or Germans do. That leads to an unstable country, corruption and a competition for resources, in this case usually diamonds. That's a recipe for civil war. The short-term reasons began in1991 when rebels, backed by Liberia, and led by a former army officer called Foday Sankoh, started attacking government facilities. It was theoretically a rebellion aimed at fighting corruption and the domination of traditional elite groups. It ended up a bloody free-for-all that lasted for ten years and destroyed the country. Fortunately, things are better now. After British military intervention in 2000 (described in The Secret Keeper) the rebels were ultimately defeated and Sankoh arrested. Since then peace and stability have returned, elections have been held and economic recovery has begun. It is a slow process. But is it is progress and, most importantly, it is peace.

Suey: I'm so happy that things are looking a little more optimistic these days.

So, now what are your plans for future books? Will you be basing them on more journalistic experiences?

Paul: I'm just starting a second book that will be set against the backdrop of a US presidential primary campaign. That will draw on my journalistic coverage of the 2004 and 2008 elections which should give me a lot of personal experiences to draw upon.

Suey: That sounds like it could be quite intriguing.

And along more personal lines, what would a perfect day be like for you? Orin other words, if you could have a whole day to do whatever you wanted,how would you spend the time?

Paul: What a great question! But hard to answer as I think it varies so much from day to day and one's mood. I have just returned from a week with my family in England and - amazingly - the weather was superb and reminded me how stunning England can be. So at this moment I would say a perfect day would involve rising early, having some strong coffee and then walking through the English countryside on a beautiful sunny day. At the end of the day, I would arrive in a village, tucked away in the hills, and get a room in a B&B next to a good pub, where I would spend my evening chatting to the locals.

Suey: Ah, England! That does sound like a perfect day.

Finally, something new I'd like to start on my blog called Authors Pick Five, which is basically a list of authors' top five most influential/important books they've read. So, what five books would you put on that list? Five books that have greatly influenced you, had some importance in your life, or are simply near and dear to your heart.


1) The Therapy of Avram Blok, by Simon Louvish. I discovered this book by accident when I was about 15 years old. It is a strange, rambling hilarious tale that is impossible to describe. I love it.

2) High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby This is the only book that I have read for the first time and then immediately started it again. Perhaps it was the age I was (mid-20s). But it felt like it was a book that spoke intelligently, warmly and above all honestly about what men feel about love.

3) The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien What can I say? I was a fantasy geek and this was the ultimate hit. Still stands as one of the greatest works of human imagination.

4) Animal Farm, by George Orwell Brilliant and devastating political satire through the medium of animals on a farm. As true and relevant now as it was when it was written.

5) The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold I read this while traveling on holiday in Europe. It was just heartbreaking stuff. I must have looked a sight groaning and sniffling to myself at a variety of restaurants in Central Europe as I was gripped by the tragic beauty of it (marred only by a slightly off-key ending).

Suey: Great list! Thanks so much for these wonderful answers and for visiting my blog today.

For more information, visit Paul Harris' website.
For a list of all the blog tour stops, click TLC Blog Tours website.


  1. I read and reviewed this book earlier this week and I loved it. I thought your questions to Paul were interesting, and I especially love your new feature. What fun to know that Paul is a fantasy geek just like me!

  2. This was such a great book, wasn't it? I am so glad I got the chance to read it. I also enjoyed reading the interview between you and the author, Suey. I am glad so much is being done to try and help the child soldiers. Hopefully they can continue to get the help they need--and more. I know resources are not what they could be.



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