Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History  Donna Tartt is one of those authors people talk about in hallowed tones.  She has written three books: The Secret History, The Little Friend, and most recently, The GoldfinchThe Secret History is considered something of a gold standard, which is even more remarkable given it was Tartt's debut effort.  With the publication of Tartt's latest novel getting so much press and attention I thought it was time to find out what all the fuss was about.  Since people adore The Secret History and it came first I decided to start there and work my way through Tartt's books from there.

The plot is relatively simple and yet it is a complex story.  Richard is the narrator and the newest member of an insular group of students attending Hampden College in Vermont.  They are all studying Greek and Latin under the tutelage of Julian.  It wasn't clear to me until the end why the students loved him so much, but near the end Richard notes that Julian had a way of taking a person with an inferiority complex and making him or her feel superior and better than anyone else.  Such is the case with Henry, Francis, twins Charles and Camilla, Bunny, and later Richard.  Julian convinces them and the school to let him take control of their academic careers such that the six students take all or nearly all of their classes with him, effectively cutting them off from the rest of the student body.

Henry seems the most enthralled with and the most like Julian.  He is intellectual and distant.  It is difficult to know what he's thinking.  If he is nice one wonders if it genuine kindness or part of manipulative plan.  Francis is gay and while not exactly in the closet, isn't entirely open about it either.   At the beginning of the novel Charles is a budding alcoholic and by the end he has fully committed to it.  Camilla is nice, pretty, and smart, but along with her twin, is very secretive.  Bunny is the odd man out.  He doesn't seem as intellectually inclined toward studying Greek and Latin as the others and yet he does.  Unlike the others, he isn't so cut off from the rest of the school, dating and otherwise making friends outside the Greek-Latin club.  He is loud, annoying and always asking the rest of the group to foot the bill.  Enter Richard, a transfer from California.  Seeking to escape his working class background and the parents he has little connection with, he propels himself to Hampden College through sheer force of will and determination. 

*** Spoiler Alert: I usually try to avoid spoiling a book but it is hard to talk about this book without spoiling it.  Besides, it has been out more than 20 years so I don't feel too bad about spoiling it.  In any case consider this fair warning.***

You've heard or seen this story before.  A group of friends commit a murder and at first appear to get away with it but how long will it be before they start turning on each other?  In an attempt to recreate a Bacchanal experience where they can lose themselves in the moment, Henry, Francis, Charles, and Camilla inadvertently kill a local farmer.  Richard hadn't been invited because at that point the others didn't know him that well.  Bunny was also excluded, but eventually connects his friends to the unsolved murder mentioned in the newspaper.  He doesn't exactly threaten or blackmail them outright, but he becomes ten times more annoying.  Bunny is the type of person who will figure out your weak spot and then go out of his way to poke it on a regular basis.  With the knowledge of the killing he pokes his friends' weak spots until they are red and raw.  He makes thinly veiled references to the farmer's death in public.  He invades people's privacy.  Bunny is like a child jumping up and down trying to get his parent's attention.  So the others decide to kill him and this time Richard, who is eventually told about the Bacchanal by Henry, helps.  It all goes down hill from there.

The first killing was an accident.  Henry, Francis, Charles, and Camilla feel bad about it.  Not so bad that they are willing to confess and go to jail over it, but they do feel bad.  With Bunny they cannot pretend it was anything other than murder.  The police investigate. The FBI is called in.  The four plus Richard live in a panic that their crime will be discovered. But it isn't the police or the FBI they have to fear.  It is each other and their own conscience.  Francis starts having panic attacks.  Charles'  drinking escalates to an alarming degree.  Charles and Henry start feuding.  Camilla finds herself caught between Charles and Henry.  Richard is generally the most level headed.  Though he is now a member of the group, he is still a little bit of an outsider and doesn't discover until later the reasons for much of the fighting among Charles, Henry, and Camilla.

The Secret History is a very cerebral book.  The two deaths that occur are just set pieces while the focus is on how the people involved handle it.  It takes a toll on all of them psychologically and even physically.  Everything happens quickly and slowly at the same time.  Their secret binds them together while at the same time tearing them apart.  Beyond their terrible secret, it isn't clear that some of these students would be capable of surviving on their own.  Francis is willing to marry a woman to avoid being cut of financially from his family, as the thought of having to support himself is untenable.  Charles and Camilla's job experience seems to be limited to clerking at a relative's law firm and even they admit the job doesn't entail much.  Henry, the unspoken leader, seems the most capable of surviving a college and becoming a fully realized adult but in the present, Richard is the only one who has really had to work for anything.  In short, they are so incredibly fragile.  Without Julian and his Greek-Latin classes, it is hard to imagine how any of them, with the exception of Richard and Bunny, would have survived college let alone life after college.  (Bunny would have survived on the goodwill of friends and girlfriends.) The addition of the secret all but crushes them.

I enjoyed The Secret History.  It was entertaining and thought provoking.  Even though it is revealed on the first page that a murder was committed and by whom, I was still compelled to read on.  It takes a lot of good writing to keep a reader reading when they already know who did it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Industrial Magic by Kelley Armstrong

Industrial Magic (Women of the Otherworld Series #4)  Industrial Magic is the fourth book in Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series.  Like the previous entry in the series, Dime Store Magic, this book is written from the point of view of Paige Winterbourne, a witch.  In Dime Store Paige began dating Lucas Cortez, son of Benicio Cortez and heir apparent to the Cortez Cabal.  Lucas has spent his adult life avoiding his father and fighting in his small way, against the Cabals, but when someone starts killing the children of Cabal members and employees Paige finds herself drawn into the search for killer.  And once Paige is involved, Lucas won't be far behind.

I really enjoyed Industrial MagicDime Store Magic started off a little slow,  but Industrial Magic captured my attention pretty quickly and kept it.  The complicated relationship between Lucas and his father was better drawn in this book.  In the previous book their relationship was very black-and-white: the cabals are bad, therefore Benicio is bad and Lucas, with his anti-cabal crusade, is good.  Here their relationship was a bit more complex, which I appreciated.

Industrial Magic also introduced a new character to the Otherworld universe - Jaime Vegas, a necromancer and Savannah's favorite television personality.  (Savannah is the kid Paige took in in the previous book.)  Jaime and Jeremy Danvers (a werewolf from the two first books in the series, Bitten and Stolen) meet for the first time in this book.  I have a feeling something good is in store for these two.  Unfortunately I think I have to wait until book 7 to find out.  On the upside, that means there are several more books in this series to look forward to.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall 

Wolf Hall is a retelling of Henry VIII's attempts to annul his marriage from Queen Katherine so that he may marry Anne Boleyn.  It won the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Critics Award, and a bunch of other awards.  There is royalty, palace intrigue, and jousts, and yet, Wolf Hall just didn’t work for me.  It took a mountain of effort to get through this book.  For the first time in a long time I seriously thought about not finishing a book.  

One of the things I struggled with as the lack of a strong point of view from any of the characters.  It made it hard to ever get invested in the story.  Wolf Hall is supposed to tell the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn through Thomas Cromwell’s eyes, so one would think that the character of Cromwell would come through really well.  It does in pieces, the early part about his childhood was illuminating, but overall I don’t feel that I know or understand much more about Cromwell than before reading this book.  I also found the writing rather confusing.  If I hadn’t already been familiar with the history, I’m not sure I would have known what was going on for large chunks of the story.  
The Other Boleyn GirlThe experience of reading Wolf Hall was really disappointing.  I am interested in this area of history and had been looking forward to reading it for a long time.  I already bought the second book but it will be a long while before I attempt it.

A few years ago I read another take on this part of Tudor History called The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory.  It tells the story of the Tudors from Mary Boleyn's point of view - Mary is Anne’s sister.  That I enjoyed immensely and would recommend to anyone who finds getting through Wolf Hall to be a struggle.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Killer Librarian by Mary Lou Kirwin

Killer Librarian Killer Librarian is about a librarian who not only loves mysteries, but finds herself in the middle of one. How could I not buy this?  

Karen, librarian, mystery lover and Anglophile, is all packed for her first ever tip to London, with her boyfriend Dave.  Instead of picking her up as planned, Dave unceremoniously dumps her with a phone call.  Karen decides to go to London anyway.  At the quaint bed and breakfast where she has decided to stay while in London she meets fellow book lover and B and B owner Caldwell Perkins, Betty and Barb two elder ladies with a passion for flowers, and husband and wife, Howard and Annette.  Howard loves flowers and has even named his newest hybrid after his wife.  His wife is less enthusiastic about flowers and her husband's passion for them.  When Howard dies suddenly, some question whether his death was simple due to age or whether there is a more sinister reason. 

Killer Librarian is totally fluff and absolutely delightful.  The last book I read touched on sex trafficking and my next book is all about Henry VIII and his succession of wives, so delightful fluff was just what needed in between.  If you're looking for a light read and cozy mystery this will do the trick.