Tag Archives: reading

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 Appeal by Janice Hallett

In a town full of secrets… Someone was murdered. Someone went to prison. And everyone’s a suspect. Can you uncover the truth?

In the small town of Lockwood, a couple recently returned from working with Medicine Sans Frontiers in Africa join a local amateur dramatics society and are cast in their production of All My Sons. At the same time, a two-year-old girl is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and her family launch an appeal to raise money for life-saving treatment from the United States. In the course of these events, a murder is committed. The suspect is in prison, but a QC who worked on the trial believes that the murder is still at large and hiding in plain sight. He instructs two law students to review a portfolio of evidence to see if they too come to the same conclusion.

The Appeal by Janice Hallett is a whodunnit with a difference, with an innovative structure that brings detective stories into the 21st century, the story is told through whatsapp messages, texts and emails, with the build up to the murder thus told by an array of unreliable narrators, in which the victim is voiceless, and the two law students serve to direct the reader’s focus, before acting as the Columbo-like detective figure spelling out what really happened on the night of the murder.

I really enjoyed this book, there’s something a little voyeuristic about picking through the emails, but it’s highly readable and as a format it really works. The characterisation is brilliantly conveyed through the emails the characters themselves write, and they manage to evoke some really strong reactions to various characters throughout the course of the novel. I was a bit of a drama kid growing up, and I’ve always found that local amateur dramatics groups can be a real cesspit of politics and factions, and I thought that Janice Hallet skewered these beautifully in The Appeal. Some of the characters were all too recognisable!

At the end of The Appeal, the reader is invited by the QC to answer 15 questions which will help reveal the killer. Even though I managed a few like which character was never there at all, I have to admit I flunked it, but in the most enjoyable way.

I thought that this was a really fun read, and it’s one of those books which will definitely become one of my go to Christmas and birthday presents for fans of Agatha Christie style crime novels.

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.

How to Make a Bookish Penguin Gift Tag

If you’re friends with a bookworm, the chances are they are a massive penguin fan and will have a collection of vintage penguin books (guilty) or some kind of penguin lifestyle item hanging around their house.

What better way to jazz up a book that you’ve bought them for Christmas than this handmade bookish penguin gift tag which doubles up as a unique bookmark that can be enjoyed long after the rest of the wrapping has gone?

To make a bookish penguin gift tag you will need:

  • Pencil
  • Paper
  • Scissors
  • Old book page
  • Cardboard (I used white watercolour paper and gold card)
  • Black paint
  • Fine paintbrush
  • Glue
  • Decorative twine or ribbon

How to make a bookish penguin gift tag:

  1. Sketch out your penguin onto a piece of plain paper. When you’re happy with the design, turn your paper over and shade heavily with a graphite pencil. Hold this over your book page and pressing heavily on the paper, draw over the penguin so that the image transfers like the one below.

2. Using black paint and a fine brush, carefully go over your pencil lines then fill in the black parts of the penguin on the book page.

3. When your penguin has dried, cut out an oval of paper which fits around the penguin and trace the shape around your penguin to give it a good border. Cut this shape out and stick it onto a white card background.

4. Cut around the oval to create a white border and then stick the bordered oval onto another shade of card of your choice. I chose gold to make it feel Christmassy. Once these have dried, make a small hole in the top of the card and thread with decorative twine or ribbon to allow you to use it as a tag or as a bookmark.

 

The Best Book Subscription Boxes

If you’ve dipped even your little toe in the murky waters of social media recently, I’ll bet that you’ve seen an advert for some kind of subscription service. From make up to meat, surprises to sanitary towels (no, really) it seems that there’s a subscription box for almost everything, though until recently a monthly box for book lovers has been a pipe dream for those in the UK.

But no more! There are now a wide range of book subscription services for bookworms in the UK, so you don’t have to pay a huge postage fee to enjoy a monthly book box from across the pond. And, dare I say it, it seems to me that UK bookworms actually have a more grown up selection of book subscription packages to choose from?

I’ve selflessly gone out of my way to test a few of these (best month ever) and am able to give you a round-up of the best book subscription boxes the UK has to offer. Curated by small teams of imaginative, talented and hardworking bookworms, they really are all fantastic:

Bookishly

bookishly subscription unboxing review

If you’ve ever had wall art envy for an amazing framed literary quote, you’ve probably come across a print from Bookishly. They’ve recently branched out from creating word art with Vintage books and have created a book club that sends out a monthly package containing a vintage book, a luxury tea sample from Jenier World of Tea and a curated item of stationery. If you know a bookworm who loves to curl up with an old book and a cup of tea before writing a thank you note on beautiful stationery, then the Bookishly book subscription is the gift for them. Or you, if you fit that description.

 

Illumicrate

illumicrate subscription unboxing review

Curated by Daphne at Winged Reviews, Illumicrate is the new heavyweight on the book subscription box market and it really packs a punch. Filled with items that match the Illumicrate ethos of “fun, beautiful and geeky” this larger subscription box is released monthly. The perfect gift for a reader who is passionate about their contemporary and young adult literature, the former teacher in me also thinks it would be the perfect way to lure a reluctant reader into exploring literary worlds.

 

Owl and Bear Gift Company

owl and bear gift company book subscription review

If you’re looking for a special gift for a loved one but don’t necessarily share their literary tastes, the Owl and Bear Gift Company Book Subscription service can help you out. Specialists in genre book subscriptions, they have a package to tickle every bookworm’s fancy whether they are young or old, or if their passion is for horror, thrillers or romance. If you’re not even sure exactly what kind of books your intended recipient prefers, they can still help you out with their bespoke subscription service which builds a package based on the recipient’s favourite authors.

 

The Willoughby Book Club

willoughby book club subscription review unboxing

Founded by Adam and Chloe Pollard in 2012, The Willoughby Book Club provides a personalised book subscription service with some really clever package options. Not only do they provide a Contemporary and Classic packages for those who want to hone their reading in a particular direction, they also provide hobby subscription packages for cooks, gardeners and natural historians. The Willoughby package I like the sound of most is, sadly, not for me… The Couples Book Club package which sends out two copies of the same novel so that you can read it together and discuss it. My boyfriend may make wonderful cups of tea and buy me the books I am embarrassed to be seen with in bookshops, but a reader he is not! Still, I think it would make a great gift to share with a close friend and it really is a genius idea.

Quote me on that… a half-finished book

A half-read book is a half-finished love affair

Image based on an original by Jain Basil Aliyas under the terms of Creative Commons license.

I loved Frobischer’s character in David Mitchell’s The Cloud Atlas. Everything about his characterization was perfect but I loved the “A half-read book is a half-finished love affair” line. I think it’s something every reader can relate to. Unless the book was by James Joyce, in which case it was almost certainly a dead-end relationship and you’re better off without it….

I will try reading Joyce’s books again one day. But I will need the world’s biggest cup of tea and a huge plate of biscuits to hand.

1000 novels that everyone must read?

A friend sent me a link to this reading list on The Guardian billed as “1000 books that everyone must read a definitive list” telling me that it made her miserable  because she hadn’t even heard of most of them. Granted that these lists are supposed (I suppose) to be a little aspirational, but it does make you wonder who decides what should be included on these lists. The Guardian’s Review team and a panel of expert judges apparently.

It’s not really an Everyman’s List, and it’s interesting to see that a lot of the “100 Best Books” titles seem to have been left off in favour of a disproportionate amount of the Amises, Perec and Smollet. Which instantly gives you the impression that the panel weren’t looking at populist fiction.

I’m beginning to fear that a lot of these lists are designed to allow a select set of individuals to preen their intellectual plumage rather than offer suggestions for great reads for the rest of us.

Reading Glasses

Reading GlassesI dream of having eyesight good enough to forget my glasses, but really liked this idea that I saw when we went for Sunday dinner in a local pub called The Greyhound recently. Patrons who forget their reading glasses can borrow a pair from the bowl to allow them to enjoy their book/paper while they enjoy their drink or wait for their meal. Perfect!

Quote me on that… people who sneer at fiction

pleasure in a good novel Austen

Picture courtesy of ShutterHack on Flickr

Facebook is pretty annoying, but when you take out the equation the big, worse-than-annoying stuff you see (racism, homophobia, etc.) by unfriending people, one of the most annoying things I’ve ever seen was someone who wrote in their favourite books section: “I don’t read fiction, I prefer to spend my time on things which actually have some relevance in the world.”

I had to count to ten. And breathe deeply. And swore anyway.

It really annoys me when people just dismiss books as being trivial. They aren’t. This is why books are still banned and still get burned. People are scared of the ideas they contain because they have meaning and power. But you’ve no doubt heard this all before so I will leave you with an appropriate put down from Jane Austen, which you must deliver in your best impersonation of Downton Abbey’s Lady Grantham the next time you see someone utter something so dismissive.

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

 

Christmas Book Haul

I’m sure (ahem) that you’ve been waiting in a state of frenzied anticipation to see what books my family and friends got me for Christmas. I’ve finally managed to get my lazy bum in gear and dig out the camera to share the book love… ta da!

How lucky am I?

How lucky am I?

A definite fairytale theme going on. I’m looking forward to reading them all.