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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History by Donna Tartt has sat on my bookshelf for years untouched. I’d obviously picked it up somewhere, quite fancied the blurb which promised a story of university students going “beyond the bounds of normal morality”, just not enough to pick it up when other books suited my mood better, and there it languished, gathering dust and very literal cobwebs in a corner out of sight.

Then I decided to take part in a bookstagram dark academia challenge, and The Secret History seemed like a natural book to start with as the book that effectively spawned the dark academia genre (and no, I’m not accepting Harry Potter novels as serious examples of dark academia). All of which is to say, I can see how wanting to join in and git in leads you to behave in unusual ways – it finally got me to read The Secret History after all.

Inspired by Donna Tartt’s time at Bennington College, touted by Esquire as the 1980’s most decadent college, and thinly fictionalised in the book as Hampden college in the book, The Secret History follows a group of Classics students under the tutelage of the Miss Jean Brodie-esque Julian Morrow – a Classics professor who hand pick his own cohort of five students on the basis of their youth, wealth and beauty. The narrator Richard has studied classics at another school, but is rejected from the Hampden Classics class until he overhears members of the group struggling with an esoteric point off Ancient Greek grammar in their translation, and is spoken for by the clique leader, a Rochester style brooding hero, Henry. At Richard’s next meeting with Julian, he turns up wearing designer tweeds and gold cufflinks, aping the privilege of the current Classics cohort, and is soon inducted into their world.

The novel opens with quite the hook – one of the group has been killed and the others have covered up their knowledge of the death – but the novel segues from there into an account of Richard’s strained relationship with his parents, the circumstances that lead to him gaining a place at Hampden college, and from there to the heart of it’s Classics department. I found this section of the novel quite slow – it’s weirdly timeless. We know that it’s set in the mid-1980s from the cultural references, all Grateful Dead and frosted perms, but the writing style and Richard’s narrative voice are weirdly timeless. They feel like they belong to another era, almost Fitzgerald like as Richard writes and rewrites his personal history to draw himself closer to the privilege and beauty that he, like Julian, so admires.

The characterisation in The Secret History is so extreme it should feel parodic – the academic encouraging the young minds in his care to experiment with drug binges and bacchanalia to fully immerse themselves in their studies of Ancient Greece; a clique of students keeping apart from their peers and dressing like they’re attending Oxbridge in the 1920s contrasted with the 1980s brats in sports cars snorting coke and popping any pill they can steal at a funeral. It should feel parodic but it works.  If anything, the wild characterisation is the glue that holds the vaguely surreal plot together through the bacchanalia, the winter freezing in an empty warehouse, the murder, the funeral, the rapid spiralling away from any veneer of control because somehow the improbable characters make the events somehow more possible.

It’s a funny novel, slowly gripping you with the fussy reserve of the great American novels from another era, before dragging your through the frantic disintegration at the end of the novel but it works. As a read, I enjoyed it a huge amount when the pace finally began to pick up. That said, I’ve had The Goldfinch on my shelf for quite some time now, and I’m still not sure that it will make me pick that up any faster.

One thing I did wonder, reading about the Bad Art Friend this week, was how those known to have influenced The Secret History felt about that at the time, or now.

The Skylight by Louise Candlish for Quick Reads 2021

Simone has a secret.

She likes to stand at her bathroom window and spy on the perfect couple downstairs, living their perfect lives through their skylight. She knows what they eat for breakfast, who they have over for dinner, all the minute details of their lives.

Which seems harmless until voyeuristic Simone realises that her partner, Josh, is having an affair with downstairs neighbour Alina whenever her husband is away on business, and decides to teach her a lesson….

Happy 15th Anniversary to Quick Reads from The Reading Agency! I was gifted a copy of The Skylight by Louise Candlish as a promotion of this scheme but have ordered the remaining titles from Waterstones because I think it’s such an wonderful idea. One in six adults in the UK finds reading difficult, and quick reads is designed to support these readers by offering inspiring books for emergent readers who have fallen out of the reading habit.

Every year, a new selection of quick reads across a range of genres is published, and for every title sold until July 31st 2021, the Reading Agency donates a title to help support adult readers. Each title only costs £1 so for the cost of a standard paperback, you could net six new books while donating the same number to those who need them most. This year’s selection of titles includes:

The Baby is Mine by Oyinkan Braithwaite

The Skylight by Louise Candlish

Saving the Day by Katie Fforde

Wish You Were Dead by Peter James

How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

The Motive by Khurrum Rahman

The Quick Reads books are chosen with the intention of inspiring less confident adult readers, but the writing is still of an excellent quality, with stories that pack a punch in short novella form. I’d argue that they aren’t just great for adults seeking to improve their literacy but anyone who finds themselves pushed for time to read – I know these would have been a life line for me when my daughters were tiny, and the small format means that they’re light and easy to carry around in a handbag or changing bag.

Best Bookish Jewellery Gifts 2020

Eeeek, it’s almost December already and this year is going to be a tricky one for shopping, even if you do feel comfortable going to the shops. Socially distanced Christmas shopping anyone? The whole thing is stressful enough anyway without the added complication of a pandemic. I think it’s really important this year to support local shops and small businesses, so I’ve put together my traditional bookish gift list with Etsy to highlight some gorgeous book themed jewellery from independent makers and seller.

This post contains affiliate links so I may earn a small amount of commission if you click through and buy any of these pieces.

little prince fox silver necklace“But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”

I love this silver fox necklace which has been inspired by the fox in Le Petit Prince or The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Not overtly bookish at first glance, I like the idea that it could be something of a secret message to the person who receives it. Just remember, you become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.

Starless Sea Layered Necklace with bee, key and sword“Occasionally, Fate pulls itself together again and Time is always waiting.”

The book I loved the most last year was Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, so I was so excited to find this triple strand necklace with the motifs of a bee, a key and a sword the bee for the acolytes, the key for the keepers and the sword for the guardians of the stories, because who could choose just one role. There’s also a single strand version available.

Jane Austen Personalised Charm Bracelet“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope…I have loved none but you.”

I didn’t used to be much of a fan of Jane Austen, but was given a folio set of her books for my 30th birthday, and reading Persuasion forced me to reconsider my position on that. Then of course there was seeing the new adaptation of Emma before lockdown earlier this year, and I may be a late convert. This Jane Austen charm bracelet is very much a one of a kind talking piece, and may well be the ultimate gift for a true Jane Austen fan.

Princess Bride Charm Bracelet“My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!”

Yet again, it might be that you prefer your charm bracelets more cult than classic, in which case, maybe you could have fun storming the castle in this quirky charm bracelet based on William Golding’s novel The Princess Bride. It’s inconceivable that anyone could receive it and not love it. Of course, love is many things none of them logical…

Outlander wedding ring“Ye are Blood of my Blood, and Bone of my Bone,
I give ye my Body, that we Two might be One.
I give ye my Spirit, ’til our Life shall be Done.”

Right, giving the Outlander wedding ring as a Christmas present might not be a subtle gesture, but it’s 2020 and all bets are off so do it. Or treat yourself to a ring from one of the most popular book boyfriends/husbands out there. In the name of self-care. You’ve nearly made it to the end of 2020, so you definitely deserve it.

Steam punk book locket with dragonfly“Your science can save a man’s life, but imagination makes it worth living.”

I thought this steam punk book locket with moving parts and a gorgeous dragonfly was beautiful and it really reminded me of Natasha Pulley’s Keita Mori novels. If you know a fan, this is a good stand in, as the description sounds a little like that of Grace Carrow’s pocket watch. Today, the necklacce, tomorrow, Katsu the clockwork octopus.

Geometric book necklace for bookworms“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”

Get one up on Lemony Snickett and take a book everywhere you go with this lovely geometric book necklace. It’s quirky enough to get attention, but would be versatile enough to go with any outfit while always showing your bookworm stripes.

Dragon's eye pendant ice dragon game of thrones priory of the orange tree“My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”

Who doesn’t love a dragon? Honestly, if they don’t like dragons, why are you even thinking about buying them a Christmas present? Literary dragons are not without pedigree, but I’ve had to choose a Tolkien quote to marry up with this seriously chilling but incredibly beautiful dragon’s eye pendant. Go in to 2021 with big dragon energy, I’m very tempted to get this for myself but I’d have to fight my daughters for it and I fear that they would win.

I hope that you like this year’s Bookish Jewellery selection, if you’re looking for a gift that will arrive in time for Christmas, I’d really recommend looking at Etsy’s Ready to Ship Gift Guide which really does have something for everyone.


World Book Day 2018

Before I had Phoebe, I always imagined that I’d be really into planning dress up and coming up with costume ideas for World Book Day. After all, books and fancy dress are two of my “things”. Then she arrived and, who knew toddlers could be so opinionated and their mothers so tired that making a World Book Day costume for a preschooler would become a hassle rather than pure fun?

This year, Phoebe wanted to dress up as Kwazii from the Octonauts, but she watches that as her sole TV privilege (then spends the rest of her time role-playing it with me generally cast in the role of a Colossal Squid or Sperm Whale, thanks daughter dearest) instead of reading the books and I was a bit fundamental about insisting that for World Book Day she dressed as a book character. I was willing to compromise at dressing as a Pirate because she does love The Night Pirates with the rough, tough little girl pirates who steal the grown up pirates’ treasure but in the end, she decided that she would like to dress as…..

Room on the broom costumeThe Witch from Room on The Broom. I think she was expecting the full cauldron, cat, dog, bird and frog works, but I didn’t have the stamina for that. It’s hard enough finding a broomstick in February! She had a nice time making an exact replica wand herself (with a little help), and already had the skirt and t shirt. The cloak and hat will come for Halloween and dress up play, and since the cloak is reversible, she can play Little Red Riding Hood in it as well.

I think she looks very proud of her work in the end. I’d imagine she’s cast a lot of spells at nursery today!



Ten Secret Santa and Stocking Filler books for under £15

It’s that time of year again. You know, less than a month to Christmas and a lack of ideas for secret santa presents or stocking fillers has you panic buying “funny secret santa presents” like stressticles or office voodoo dolls which the recipient will throw in the bin by January 1st. I’m here to make a plea that you save the planet from the extra plastic waste, and for under £15 buy them book that they will enjoy for at least three hours, if not a lot longer.

The best bit? These will all be available at your local bookshop for a last minute Christmas gift.

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust

For readers of a certain age (my age) the release of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman , the first in a new trilogy which is set to be a companion to his Northern Lights trilogy was probably the publishing event of the year. Hailed as a tidal wave of imagination, though darker and more savage than the original trilogy, it’s a safe bet for any lover of fantasy.




The Power

The most powerful work of speculative fiction that I’ve read in a long time, Naomi Alderman’s The Power is a must read for any fan of Margaret Atwood. I keep meaning to write a review of this, but my mind is still processing the emotions I felt reading it. It’s a safe present for any woman who hasn’t read it, and it’s always interesting to listen to people’s post-read dissections.



The Wildlife Gardener

I was delighted to see the new edition of Kate Bradbury’s best-selling The Wildlife Gardener publish this year and swiftly bought myself a copy. It’s the perfect present for any gardener or wildlife enthusiast, and gives fun, practical advice for creating a home for wildlife in what outside space you have available. Saving the planet starts here, folks.



The Lost Words

Remember when Oxford University Press decided that children no longer needed to be able to look up words like acorn and bramble in the dictionary? Well that outrageous act inspired Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris to create The Lost Words, this beautifully illustrated volume of poetry. A spell book which reminds adults and children alike about the power of words, reading the poems brings the words back to life and gives nature power and relevance for a new generation.


Lincoln in the Bardo

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2017, and shortlisted for multiple awards and honours besides, Lincoln in the Bardo is a safe fiction bet for anyone who likes to read the current big novel. This first novel is an experimental work of fiction, a story of love after death which looks at a problem which faces all humans, how do you find the courage to love when it means you will face loss?



Hortense and the Shadow

A beautifully illustrated picture book, with a story in the tradition of the old fairy tales, Hortense and the Shadow is dark and exhilarating at the same time. This is set to become an instant children’s classic which adults will love as well. I’ll be adding it to my collection.




Last Stop on The Reindeer Express

I loved Last Stop on the Reindeer Express so much when it published that I bought it only a month later to read with my daughter on Christmas Eve. It would make an ideal Christmas present for any picture book lover or younger gift recipient. A little girl who is missing her Daddy discovers a world within a post box and goes on a beautifully illustrated lift the flap and peep through the pages adventure. I can’t wait to read it as a family before Santa visits.


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

In case you worried that you’d run out of presents to buy for Harry Potter fans, the launch of the Fantastic Beasts film franchise has also lead to the publication of this beautiful Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them book which reminds me of the Tolkein’s bestiary that I had as a child, with the names, descriptions and magical illustrations of all the fantasy creatures you encounter in the Potter novels.

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

Adam Kay is a comedian and former junior doctor, and This is Going to Hurt is his frank memoir of life on the front line of the NHS. Hilarious and heart-breaking, it gives you an insight into what life is really like for the junior doctors keeping us and the NHS ticking along.



Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling

I always find it fascinating when an author I admire writes an exposition on their craft. Philip Pullman is indisputably something of a master storyteller, and in Daemon Voices, a collection of thirty essays, he lets his readers peer behind the veil to learn about his views on storytelling, including such topics as the origins of his own stories, the art of writing, and the storytellers who have meant the most to him. A great gift for readers, and aspiring writers.

Peter Rabbit: Mischief and Mayhem, Henley River and Rowing Museum

To say that Phoebe has an obsession with Peter Rabbit is something of an understatement. She lives and breathes Peter Rabbit, be it the books, the TV series with Nimah Cussack that I enjoyed as a child and found on Amazon, or the Nickelodeon series which created the admirable Lily Bobtail to go alongside the traditional male characters.

She wakes up in the morning and tells me she’s dreamt about Peter Rabbit, runs around the house looking for the fierce bad rabbit, and shows me the best places to hide from Mr McGregor after we’ve stolen radishes from his garden. At the end of all this, she falls asleep cuddling Benjamin Bunny.

You can imagine then that when I saw that Henley River and Rowing Museum were running a Peter Rabbit: Mischief and Mayhem exhibition, with everything from original Beatrix Potter illustrations and vintage toys, to interactive exhibits ideal for tiny rabbit addicts.

We had a lovely day at the museum. The ground floor exhibition area had a fairly traditional museum display with beautiful original illustrations, vintage toys, first edition books etc. in glass cabinets, which would have the potential to be a little dull for your typical toddler, but the museum had added a lovely little reading area, colouring table and post office in which children could write letters to their favourite Beatrix Potter characters. They also had a shelf of cuddly toys based on Beatrix Potter characters so the little ones could choose a friend to look around with, Phoebe chose Squirrel Nutkin (or Scwerl Nutkah, if you will).

Upstairs, there was a wonderful hands on exhibit for little children. They could serve customers in Ginger and Pickles shop, peg washing on Mrs Tiggywinkle’s line, plant and harvest carrots in Mr McGregor’s garden, play in Peter Rabbit’s burrow, and play puppets with Mr Tod, Tommy Brock and Diggory Delvet in a puppet theatre.

The museum entry cost about £25 for two adults, with free entry for children. On the face of it, that’s a pretty expensive day out, but this gives you entry to the museum for a year, and I’m already planning to go back to check out their Wind in the Willows exhibition. I was really impressed by how child friendly the exhibit was so, I’ll be keeping an eye out for what else is coming up in the future.


The Best Love Letter in Literature

If you took a straw poll to determine the greatest love letter in literature, I’d wager that Frederick Wentworth’s letter to Anne Elliot towards the end of Jane Austen’s Persuasion would come out on top.

Estranged former lovers, Anne harbours a massive flame for Frederick Wentworth but has resigned herself to the fact that he doesn’t feel the same after she gave him up eight years before. Until she receives this hastily written, unsigned letter which is personally delivered with a meaningful look….

Frederick Wentworth's Letter to Anne Elliot

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

For the Classics Challenge 2016, February edition, I decided to hunt through my to read pile (part of my bid to spend less money on books by reading the ones I already have, rocket science, I know) and came up with Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. I may or may not have been swayed to choose this modern classic, ranked 41 in Le Monde’s 100 books of the century, because its short length matched the shortness of the month….

Bonjour Tristesse, narrated by seventeen year old Cecile, tells the events of a summer she spends on the French Riviera with her vain, self-indulgent father and his mistress, Elsa. When Anne, a family friend, comes to stay and threatens Cecile’s cosy, vapid existence and bourgeoning love affair with a local boy, she begins plotting to be rid of her.

As classics go, this novel is small but perfectly formed. Although she initially appears naïve and innocent, Cecile is one of the most detestable narrators I’ve ever encountered- loaded with a raging Electra complex, vindictive and self-excusing. The skill with which Sagan manipulates the reader’s feelings from supporting Cecile and seeing Anne as the villain of the piece at the novel’s opening to a total inversion of this by the end. When you consider that Sagan was only 18 when she wrote this novel… pretty incredible.

If you’re looking to dip a toe in the classics with an accessible read, or a fan of unreliable narrators and characters that you love to hate, this is a great read for you.