Wednesday, 28 November 2012

W...W...W...Wednesdays #1

Join the fun at Should Be Reading
So it seems that it's already Wednesday!  Given that the first half of my week has somehow disappeared without my quite getting round to bumbling through an update on my reading, we're doing it mid-week instead.  Plus, I've been thinking about trying some new memes and shaking things up around here so that's two things in one.  Boom.

To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…
• What are you currently reading?
• What did you recently finish reading?
• What do you think you’ll read next?

What am I currently reading?

I've just about finished Red Gloves by Beth Vaughan, which is the first in the Epic of Palins trilogy.  When I picked it up from the library, I didn't know that there was a trilogy prior to it that was set in the same world (the Chronicles of the Warlands trilogy).  As it turns out, it doesn't matter and I've been pretty well and truly swept up over the past few days.  It's a bit rough around the edges and definitely isn't YA but it's also really quite good.  As soon as I've posted this, I'm planning on scuttling off to finish it!

What did I recently finish reading?

I read 0.4 by Mike Lancaster last week and it was SO GOOD.  I read it pretty much in a single mind-bending day and really enjoyed it.  I haven't branched off from fantasy into science fiction very much but after 0.4 it's something I'll be doing more often.  I may have already bought the next in the series, 1.4...

On Sunday, I finished The White Forest by Adam McOmber, which was a random pick from NetGalley that also turned out to be brilliant.  It was quite a slow-moving book but was fabulously written - if "literary fantasy" were a genre, this would be a wonderful example.

What do I think I'll read next?

This one's always tricky, isn't it?!  I have a couple of NetGalley books lingering on my eReader that I'm looking forward to it will probably be either Scent of Magic by Maria V. Snyder or John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk.  I read the first in Snyder's Healer series, Touch of Power, last December (review here) and really enjoyed it.  When I got approved for the next instalment, I was a happy reader indeed.  BUT I've read some glowing reviews of John Saturnall's Feast too and it's about withchy-foody stuff so...I don't know!  Watch this space, I guess!

Now it's your turn - tell me what you have been/are/are about to read!

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Festive YA Book Review: 'Dash & Lily's Book of Dares' by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Synopsis courtesy of GoodReads

“I’ve left some clues for you.
If you want them, turn the page.
If you don’t, put the book back on the shelf, please.”

So begins the latest whirlwind romance from the bestselling authors of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Lily has left a red notebook full of challenges on a favorite bookstore shelf, waiting for just the right guy to come along and accept its dares. But is Dash that right guy? Or are Dash and Lily only destined to trade dares, dreams, and desires in the notebook they pass back and forth at locations across New York? Could their in-person selves possibly connect as well as their notebook versions? Or will they be a comic mismatch of disastrous proportions?


I read *tons* of good reviews for this last Christmas but for what I'm sure was a very good reason at the time, didn't get round to reading it.  Actually, I think it's because it was released in the US in October 2011 but not released over in the UK until October 2012.  I could have still grabbed an eBook copy (I think...) but after January rolled around, I put it out of my  mind.  No matter how much I love Love Actually (which is a lot...), I only ever watch it in December if I'm feeling in need of a little festive cheer.  I neglected Dash & Lily all year for the same reason.  The happy news?  I am wise and saving this for when Christmas sparkle was seeping its way back into the world was perfect.

I was an easy sell for the first few chapters because they were set in a bookshop that I dragged (almost literally) Boyfriend into when we were in New York, Strand Book Store.  I could have spent days amongst its 18 miles of books and been perfectly happy.  I was so excited about reading about somewhere that I'd actually been that I would have forgiven a great deal.  Sure, I'd been cracking a few smiles but would they continue when I was no longer giddy on happy memories?  Thankfully, yes.  For the most part.

Having two authors writing the two characters sounded like a great idea but I wasn't expecting it to work as well in practice as it actually does.  I obviously preferred one style over the other (Levithan's, if you're wondering) but the shift between chapters was never particularly disorientating or jarring.  Both characters have a similarly sarcastic sense of humour and both are clearly more intelligent than the vast majority of teenagers.  Dash (written by Levithan), however, hates Christmas and all of the "forced" joviality and is generally a lot more cynical; Lily (written by Cohn) is a huge fan of everything festive and comes across as a lot more open-hearted, if a little naive.  Personally, I fall into the latter camp and LOVE everything about Christmas but even I could appreciate that Dash's cynicism actually stops the whole novel becoming too sickly sweet.  The balance means that Dash and Lily's escapades made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, grin like a moron and feel in desperate need of some tinsel.

There are downsides to the book (Lily's first experience of schnapps being one for me) but on the whole I was more than happy to overlook them and focus on the fun!  The characters also seemed a little older to me than their alleged 15 years (which is something I have seen other reviewers mention too, so I'm not just being old!) - they both have a pretty sophisticated way of speaking for teenagers (remember Dawson's Creek? Like that) and are running around New York at Christmas time largely unchecked.  Like when I watched Dawson's Creek, however, I was happy to go with it and gladly followed Dash and Lily around Manhattan in pursuit of a happy ending.

Overall:  Not a perfect book but an excellent seasonal interlude.  There's a whole host of kooky family members and friends that pop up (it is Christmas, after all...) and it's just so warm that it's almost impossible not to end up smiling.  Like all good romantic comedies, there are ups and there are downs but there's always enough ups to leave you feeling good about the world.  Enjoy with a blanket, mulled wine and a mince pie :)

Date finished:  28 October 2012
Format:  eBook
Source:  Received from the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review
Genre:  YA fiction; CHRISTMAS fiction
Published (in the UK): by Harlequin (UK) Limited in October 2012

Monday, 19 November 2012

Historical Fiction Review: 'The Lincoln Conspiracy: A Novel' by Timothy L. O'Brien

Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars


A nation shattered by its president’s murder. Two diaries that reveal the true scope of an American conspiracy. A detective determined to bring the truth to light, no matter what it costs him

From award-winning journalist Timothy L. O’Brien comes a gripping historical thriller that poses a provocative question: What if the plot to assassinate President Lincoln was wider and more sinister than we ever imagined?

In late spring of 1865, as America mourns the death of its leader, Washington, D.C., police detective Temple McFadden makes a startling discovery. Strapped to the body of a dead man at the B&O Railroad station are two diaries, two documents that together reveal the true depth of the Lincoln conspiracy. Securing the diaries will put Temple’s life in jeopardy—and will endanger the fragile peace of a nation still torn by war.

Bristling with twists and building to a climax that will leave readers gasping, The Lincoln Conspiracy offers a riveting new account of what truly motivated the assassination of one of America’s most beloved presidents—and who participated in the plot to derail the train of liberty that Lincoln set in motion.


I was really looking forward to reading this because I find American history at the time Abraham Lincoln was President of the USA fascinating.  My limited knowledge was mostly accrued on holiday recently and was of political upheaval and unrest following the American Civil War and in the face of huge legal changes and rapid development of the country's infrastructure.  Add a conspiracy theory to the mix and I expected greatness.

A lot of what the novel's synopsis promised was delivered but the experience of reading it wasn't always a smooth process.  Since it's a matter of historical fiction that John Wilkes Booth was the perpetrator of President Lincoln's assassination, any author trying to add mystery has to work pretty hard.  In this case, I thought that the conspiracy angle was a little bit weak; detective Temple McFadden comes across some intriguing diaries almost by accident and becomes gripped by a need to reveal their secrets.  For me, there was an imbalance between the amount that Temple seemed to be prepared to sacrifice to retain the diaries.  I'm hesitant to blame the author entirely because I think that a lot of the tension is likely to be built around twists on history, the more subtle of which I missed entirely because I'm British and have only a basic knowledge of America's history.  That said, relying so heavily on prior knowledge means that the "characters" aren't fully drawn and are hard to get to grips with when you don't already have some expectations or understanding of them.  Readers with a similar level of prior knowledge to mine might feel a little adrift too.

The exceptions to that are Temple McFadden and his wife and friends.  Perhaps that's because they were the fictional element and so had to be drawn more fully.  Fiona was a particular highlight for me.  I loved how plucky and resourceful she was and I respected Temple a lot more for the faith he put in his wife's abilities, letting her help him and herself rather than trying to save her all the time.  Augustus and Nail were great additions too and there were some moments that really made my heart hurt for them all.

The plot's pace varied quite a lot: there were times that I was cramming as many pages as possible into my train journey and evenings; there were others when I would put my eReader aside and then wouldn't feel overly inclined to pick it back up again.  The blend between thriller and historical fiction didn't always feel very natural, with some characters reminiscing to weave in some historical context.  The background was interesting but didn't help the story maintain its momentum or focus.  After such a detailed build-up, the ending was quite abrupt.  There's a fairly significant revelation late on that made me double-take but more could have been made of it and very shortly after it, everything was done and dusted and I was left wondering what the point of the twist actually was if it wasn't going to be used more.

A health warning for more sensitive readers: the author doesn't shy away from the harsher language and terms that are all but unheard in modern society.  It lends a certain authenticity to the novel's tone but reading the word n**ger can be jarring.

Overall:  A very detailed and well-written thriller, The Lincoln Conspiracy: A Novel will appeal to those interested in American history, the politics behind the abolition of slavery and, of course, the assassination of President Lincoln.  Just remember that if either you aren't American or you need a little refresh of your history, I would recommend spending a few minutes having a quick catch-up on the key political players at the time if you want to get the most out of the story.

Date finished:  14 November 2012
Format:  eBook
Source:  Received from the publisher as part of a HF Virtual Book Tour in return for an honest review
Genre:  Historical fiction; Thriller
Published: by Ballantine Books on 18 September 2012

Check out the rest of the stops on the HF Virtual Book Tour here or check in on Twitter using the hashtag #LincolnConspiracyTour

About the Author

Timothy L. O’Brien is the Executive Editor of The Huffington Post, where he edited the 2012 Pulitzer Prize–winning series about wounded war veterans, “Beyond the Battlefield.” Previously, he was an editor and reporter at The New York Times. There, he helped to lead a team of Times reporters that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Public Service in 2009 for coverage of the financial crisis. O’Brien, a graduate of Georgetown University, holds three master's degrees -- in US History,Business and Journalism -- all from Columbia University. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with his wife and two children.

Monday, 12 November 2012

YA Book Review: 'The Name of the Star' by Maureen Johnson

Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Synopsis courtesy of Goodreads
The day Louisiana teenager Rory Deveaux arrives in London marks a memorable occasion. For Rory, it's the start of a new life at a London boarding school. But for many, this will be remembered as the day a series of brutal murders broke out across the city, gruesome crimes mimicking the horrific Jack the Ripper events of more than a century ago. 

Soon “Rippermania” takes hold of modern-day London, and the police are left with few leads and no witnesses. Except one. Rory spotted the man police believe to be the prime suspect. But she is the only one who saw him. Even her roommate, who was walking with her at the time, didn't notice the mysterious man. So why can only Rory see him? And more urgently, why has Rory become his next target? In this edge-of-your-seat thriller, full of suspense, humor, and romance, Rory will learn the truth about the secret ghost police of London and discover her own shocking abilities.


When it was released, this book seemed to cause quite a stir and wherever the cover appeared, a deluge of praise wasn't too far behind.  And so it was with high expectations that I finally started reading The Name of the Star on the plane to America.  It was with high expectations that I read through the first few chapters and the first gory appearance of an apparent victim of Jack the Ripper.  As the chapters went by, those expectations held until I realised that I was about half way through and was still expecting something great, rather than reading something great.

It isn't that The Name of the Star was bad, rather that it was an average book labouring under the weight of my lofty expectations.  The first third or so of the book is less devilish paranormal thriller and more angsty teen drama.  Rory is great as far as teenage girls go and imbues her story with a healthy dose of sarcasm and wit.  She was charming and fun and I loved reading her American perceptions of England (because yes, it really is that cold, even to those of us who live here...) but in the end, she's a teenage girl at boarding school, mostly with teenage-girl-at-boarding-school problems.  Once upon a time, I would have gladly swallowed up the proof that I wasn't the only one who worried about fitting in, finding friends and kissing boys.  At 26, I found myself struggling to connect.  I mean, sure, I've been kept awake until midnight trying to write that perfect text that demonstrates everything that makes me good in 160 characters as much as the next girl, but now?  *shrugs and feels old*

Fortunately, scattered throughout Rory's boarding school trials and tribulations are some pretty gory murders.  Johnson does a tremendous job of describing a London gripped by fear and confusion and I particularly liked how she highlighted the role of the media frenzy in creating and sustaining hysteria.  There are occasionally very small chapters told from the perspective of a relevant expert (an expert in the history of Jack the Ripper and  the woman that designed the CCTV system that fails to catch the current killer etc.) and I wish that there had been more of them.  For better or worse, there is something morbidly fascinating about the Victorian menace and I would have enjoyed The Name of the Star if more had been made of the historical aspects that were often mentioned in passing.

Much though I don't relish descriptions of disembowelments, it was a shame when the tense atmosphere was shattered.  I won't say too much more (because it's really hard to without getting spoiler-y) but ultimately I came away feeling disappointed that such a superb idea eventually became quite generic,  lacklustre romantic sub-plot and all:  A serial killer seemingly mimicking Jack the Ripper is on the loose: what do you do?   Why, break out of the apparently safe building that you're in and sneak around in the dark to see a boy that you barely know, of course!  REALLY, RORY?!  Really.

Overall:  Sort of recommended to the older end of the YA market - I don't doubt that I would have loved this when I was a teenager and going through a Point Horror phase and eagerly awaited the next instalment, The Madness Underneath, set for release in March 2013.  As it is, I probably won't be seeking it out because I'm not hugely fond of the direction that the series looks to be going in but if someone could let me know how things pan out, that'd be swell.

Date finished:  24 September 2012
Format:  eBook
Source:  Bought
Genre:  YA fiction; Paranormal fiction; Thrillers
Pictured edition published: by Harper Collins in September 2011

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Crime Book Review: 'The Beekeeper's Apprentice' by Laurie R. King

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Synopsis (Courtesy of GoodReads)

In 1915, long since retired from his crime-fighting days, Sherlock Holmes is engaged in a reclusive study of honeybees on the Sussex Downs. Never did the Victorian detective think to meet an intellect matching his own–until his acquaintance with Miss Mary Russell, a young twentieth-century lady whose mental acuity is equalled only by her penchant for deduction, disguises, and danger. 

Under Holmes’s reluctant tutelage, Russell embarks on a case involving a landowner’s mysterious fever and the kidnapping of an American senator’s daughter in the wilds of Wales. Then a near-fatal bomb on her doorstep–and another on Holmes’s–sends the two sleuths on the trail of a murderer who scatters bizarre clues and seems utterly without motive. The villain’s objective, however, is quite unequivocal: to end Russell and Holmes’s partnership–and then their lives.


I've had half an eye on this series for a while now but was a little dubious about it at the same time.  Sherlock Holmes is so iconic that playing around with the characters and the stories with which so many people are familiar is always a risky business.  Then it appeared in an eBook sale for £1.99 and my arm was twisted.  Fortunately, King blends just the right amount of the traditional with the new and creates something that is really rather good.

The opening is a little strange and sets up an unnecessary "Oh, look at these manuscripts I have found in this random abandoned trunk - it looks as though they are telling stories about Sherlock Holmes" premise.  Since the rest of the book is told very strongly in Mary Russell's voice, I just don't see the point of starting out on such a weak note.  If you pick this up and are put off by the first chapter or so, just ignore it.  It's not referred to again so you wouldn't be missing anything at all by skipping it entirely (which is not something that I would usually condone).

So, characters.  A lot of them are obviously familiar - as well as Sherlock Holmes, there are also cameos by Dr Watson and Sherlock's brother, Mycroft Holmes.  Each of them is subtly different to the "originals", though, which didn't bother me because it works and means that King is free to develop her story without trying to stick too rigidly to the Conan Doyle's outline.  The obvious key addition is Mary Russell.  I loved Mary.  I read one review that criticised her as "too intelligent" - you're reading a book about Sherlock Holmes! Genius is the whole point!  She stands up to Sherlock Holmes in a way that doesn't make her seem petty and ridiculous because she's so intelligent.  Watching an idiot verbally spar with him would just be embarrassing.  She also has a quite sarcastic sense of humour that has her challenging her male counterparts with style.  That reads as though I have a bit of a girl crush on her, actually, doesn't it...?

The plot wasn't quite what I was expecting but it was a nice surprise.  From the afternoon that Mary trips over Sherlock Holmes while walking and reading at the same time (a feat of co-ordination I will not be attempting!), they strike up a friendship that morphs into an apprenticeship and eventually into partnership.  As Mary is learning from the master, she ends up solving petty crimes and smaller mysteries in her local area under Holmes' watchful eye.  An over-arching mystery does materialise though, with some neat links to earlier events that keep it from being too much like a series of random events.  Because I am a nerd, I liked reading about the methods of detection and watching the characters and their relationships develop but those of you looking for a more traditional mystery story with just one cheeky villain might be a little frustrated by all of the meandering.

In amongst the fake beards, rogues and adventuring, there is also some lovely writing.  Mary's narration is completely charming and King has done a really remarkable job of ageing her as the story goes - the tone of the early chapters is that of a precocious teenager and it gradually grows in maturity throughout Mary's time at Oxford University and beyond.  Younger Mary and Sherlock Holmes banter about in a witty and entertaining fashion, while mature-Mary is a little more introspective and serious:

"The First World War has deteriorated into a handful of quaint songs and sepia images, occasionally powerful but immeasurably distant; there is death in that war, but no blood.  The twenties have become a caricature, the clothing we wore is now in museums, and those of us who remember the beginnings of this godforsaken century are beginning to falter.  With us will go our memories." 
[Page 12 in my eBook copy]

Oh, and the more eagle-eyed Sherlock Holmes fans might be wondering how he has managed to retire to keeping bees in the country after the ending of The Final Solution.  It is mentioned and explained after a fashion but the explanation isn't particularly substantial so if you're prone to finding such things irritating, you have been warned :)

Overall:  So far there are 12 books in this series, all of which I will hunt down and devour  happily if they are as good as this one.  The Beekeeper's Apprentice maybe won't sit well with devout Sir Conan Doyle fans but if you can stand to look slightly differently at the famous detective and his friends and family, you're in for a treat.

Date finished:  14 October 2012
Format:  eBook
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Detective fiction; crime/mystery fiction
Pictured edition published: by Allison & Busby in June 2010 (Originally published in 1994)

If you're feeling in the mood for something a little more traditional, my thoughts on  the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet can be found here

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

YA Book Review: 'This Is Not A Test' by Courtney Summers

Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars


It’s the end of the world. Six students have taken cover in Cortege High but shelter is little comfort when the dead outside won’t stop pounding on the doors. One bite is all it takes to kill a person and bring them back as a monstrous version of their former self. To Sloane Price, that doesn’t sound so bad. Six months ago, her world collapsed and since then, she’s failed to find a reason to keep going. Now seems like the perfect time to give up. As Sloane eagerly waits for the barricades to fall, she’s forced to witness the apocalypse through the eyes of five people who actually want to live. But as the days crawl by, the motivations for survival change in startling ways and soon the group’s fate is determined less and less by what’s happening outside and more and more by the unpredictable and violent bids for life—and death—inside. When everything is gone, what do you hold on to?


I read this during the Bout of Books read-a-thon over the summer and it was perfect read-a-thon fodder.  As I mentioned recently, I am not too brave when it comes to horror.  In the same way that I might be persuaded to see a "horror" film that was rated 12A, I was persuaded by the many, many positive reviews to read this YA take on zombies.  In this case, that doesn't mean that the zombies are any less walking-dead-creepy but that they feature less often and that I wasn't subjected to too many descriptions of their brain eating exploits.  Instead, the story focuses on what happens to a bunch of teenagers that wake up to find that many of their friends and family are rather more zombie-ish than they were before.

The best thing about this book is the tension that Summers manages to build.  The writing isn't particularly sophisticated and there were very few characters I would actually want to ride out a zombie-based apocalypse with but I'll be damned if I wasn't glued to the pages of This Is Not A Test and reading as though my own life depended on it. There are plenty of hold-your-breath moments hiding around dark corridors and edge-of-your-seat moments out with the zombies.  The desperation the teenagers inevitably feel seeps into every page and means that even preparing breakfast is a source of much drama.

Having a main character fighting for her life that doesn't actually want to fight for her life is an interesting twist and one that works most of the time.  Sloane has been through a lot and is vulnerable and shortly before the zombie apocalypse was planning on committing suicide.  Her lack of desire to try means that she makes some unpredictable decisions and takes the plot in some quirky directions without anyone having to become too self-sacrificingly righteous.  That said, she struggles to relate to her fellow survivors and has quite a bleak outlook even for someone whose world is coming to an end, which means that I felt as though there was a kind of disconnection that stopped me getting completely behind Sloane and the others.  

After a while, my sympathy with Sloane waned and I wanted to shake her.  It isn't that Sloane is whiny, because she isn't particularly.  It was just that I couldn't understand her or really like her.  She talks a lot about how depressed she was/is and how tired she is of the world and everything in it and I just wanted her to "put up or shut up".  I know, harsh.  Sorry.  I think that maybe the story might have worked even better if the story had been narrated by one of the other characters, maybe Rhys.

The sad thing is, if you'd asked me to rate This Is Not A Test when I was three quarters of the way through, I would have given it a higher score. Well, half a star more at least.  The last few chapters read as though Summers suddenly got bored of her idea and just wanted to be done with it.  Most of the book is very well-paced; the end section is ridiculously rushed.  I expected an action-packed finale and a certain increase in pace, obviously, but the last few chapters stumbled over themselves and I closed the final page feeling a bit dazed and short-changed.

Overall:  Despite the final part not quite meeting its potential, I definitely enjoyed my first foray into zombie fiction.  It isn't without its flaws but it was great fun to read and I was completely hooked, which can only be a good thing.  Just remember to brace yourself for the ending!

Date finished:  17 August 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre:  YA fiction; zombie fiction
Published: by St Martin's Griffin in June 2012

Monday, 5 November 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? #10

I knew that it had been quite a while since I've taken part in Book Journey's  Monday meme but when I just looked back to the last post to see which number I was on, it turned out that my last was actually JULY! How did that happen?!  Actually, it was partly because I didn't want to keep posting meme posts when I didn't have the time to post reviews but  still...July! 

Now that I'm actually getting some of those written and ready to be posted, I can join in "guilt-free" - HURRAH! 

Let's get on with the books :)

What have I been reading?

Don't worry - this isn't going to include everything that I've been reading since July! Actually, this week saw me finish...*drumroll* 50th book of 2012!  Ok, so by many of you bloggers' standards, that is small fry but for me, that's good going!  I think in 2010 and 2011 I pretty much averaged a book a week.  I wanted to increase that a little bit this year - job done! :)  The lucky 50th was The Gunslinger by Stephen King. It was...strange.  I am reliably informed that the series improves in later books and I liked some of it enough to soldier on but still, strange!  Before that I read the adorable Dash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan - a very cute little bundle of festive joy that I kind of wish I'd read nearer Christmas but enjoyed all the same.  Plus, it features some of the places that I recently visited in New York which had me getting over-excited in recognition.  I'm not the biggest contemporary romance fan but this had enough seasonal cheer to balance it out.

What am I reading now?

I'm taking a walk in the shoes of a conspiracy theorist and reading The Lincoln Conspiracy: A Novel by Timothy L. O'Brien.  It has a fairly unique style, which took some getting used to but now that I'm about a third of the way in, it's shaping up to be a good story.  I'll no doubt mention it in my review when the time comes but there's a lot of the use of the word ni**er - even though reading it as a modern reader is jarring, I can see that it's done to achieve a certain authenticity in tone.  Hopefully the second two-thirds will live up to the fairly strong start.

What will I be reading next?

I put together a little shortlist for the month in my November TBR Pile so I'll be getting stuck into that.  I think that first up will be The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood - it comes highly recommended by a LOT of people and I've never read anything by Atwood so I'm keen to get started.  I'm off on Wednesday too so I'm thinking that maybe I'll scoop up 0.4 by Mike Lancaster and hunker down for the day!  

All of that well-intentionally said, I'm already being lured away from my lovingly crafted TBR straight and narrow - Hanna has been bigging up 11.22.63 by Stephen King (writing the date that way round never gets easier!) today and I have it on my eReader all ready to go so the temptation is strong, people!  Either way, I know I'm in for a great start to November!

What books are brightening up this gloomy Monday for you, fellow readers?  Whatever it is, I hope it's fabulous!  Happy reading :) 

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Literary Fiction Review: 'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis (Courtesy of GoodReads)

 misfit at an exclusive New England college, Richard finds kindred spirits in the five eccentric students of his ancient Greek class. But his new friends have a horrific secret. When blackmail and violence threaten to blow their privileged lives apart, they drag Richard into the nightmare that engulfs them. And soon they enter a terrifying heart of darkness from which they may never return....


There is no way that I will be able to convey how beautifully and devilishly complex The Secret History is in this review.  Instead, just trust me when I say that whatever positive impression you take away from reading this, the book is better.  Much better.

The opening chapter sets out pretty clearly where Richard Papen's story is heading.  There are some surprises along the way but this book is mostly about the journey.  Tartt's writing is elegant, verging upon the poetic.  Every turn in the weather and every shift in the atmosphere is perfectly evoked, to the extent that getting wrapped up in the story actually had the power to affect my own temperament.  The pace varies wildly but the writing is such a pleasure to read that I was as happy when I was tangled up in pages of descriptions dedicated to one day as I was when weeks were flying by in the same space.

When I read the first few chapters, I just couldn't see how the story could move convincingly from Richard's first shy days at college to murder.  By the time the narrative spiralled around to the crucial moment, I was almost disturbed to find that I wasn't as repulsed as I probably should have been.  Bunny isn't a character that inspires affection, true, but does that really mean that his murder is acceptable?  Ordinarily, I'd say absolutely not.  It's further testament to the strength of Tartt as an author that I wasn't shocked and appalled but teetering upon understanding, submerged as I was in Richard's concepts of morality and justice and wanton disregard for much beyond his idolatry of Henry and his fellow Greek scholars.

Points that I might have criticised as oversights in other works here just added to the intrigue.  Take Richard's parents, for example.  Richard seems to harbour an irrational almost-hatred of them, to the extent that freezing to death is more appealing than spending winter with them.  There isn't any real reason given for the disdain, beyond a difference in outlook and priorities for life.  My initial reaction was that, for all of the time that I spent in Richard's mind, there were still parts of his character that were under-developed.  On reflection, however, I am more inclined to think that this is owing instead to the framing of the novel as Richard's recollection of his past.  Since it seems that Richard's character is determined more by the events of his college career than his earlier childhood, it actually starts to make a twisted sort of sense that his parents pale into insignificance.

As an extension of the same idea, I suppose, it also makes sense that Henry, Francis and Camilla and Charles are hard to get a handle on, viewed as they are from Richard's sycophantic viewpoint.  Although I will admit to wanting to know more about Henry's Machiavellian genius and being a little disappointed that Camilla remained almost entirely a mystery, it's clear that the story isn't really about them; their mystique is what Richard just can't let go of and what pulls him beyond his comfort zone and into the sinister.  I alternated between wanting to hug him and help him through his pervasive feelings of inferiority and wanting to punch him for being so malleable.  There are some of his actions that can still infuriate me over a week after reading the closing paragraphs. This is just that haunting a book.  Read it.

"Some things are too terrible to grasp at once.  Other things - naked, spluttering, indelible in their horror - are too terrible to really ever grasp at all.  It is only later, in solitude, in memory, that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself - quite to one's surprise - in an entirely different world" 
[Page 312]

Overall:  Don't go into this expecting a short, sharp hit; be ready to spend some of the long dark evenings that seem so plentiful at the moment curled up, absorbed in some delicious writing.  I borrowed the copy that I read from the local library and will be buying my own copy very soon so that I can be reminded on a regular basis of what truly great fiction is all about.  Take a trip to the dark side with this book and I promise that you won't regret it.

Date finished:  25 October 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Borrowed from my local library
Genre:  Literary fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Penguin in 1993