The Secret History, Donna Tartt

[amazon_image id=”1400031702″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Secret History[/amazon_image]Critic A. O. Scott has called Donna Tartt’s novel [amazon_link id=”1400031702″ target=”_blank” ]The Secret History[/amazon_link] “a murder mystery in reverse.” In the first few pages of the novel, narrated by Richard Papen, a student in a small group of classics majors taught by charismatic and myterious Julian Morrow and which includes cold, enigmatic Henry Winter, twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, foppish (he wears a pince-nez, I kid you not) Francis Abernathy, and Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, the reader learns that the group has evidently conspired to murder Bunny and make it look like an accident. What the reader does not know is why. Richard slowly reveals the motive for the murder, as well as the ways in which it reverberates among the members of the group.

After recounting the murder, Richard tells the story more or less chronologically. At the beginning, he transfers to Hampden College in Vermont seemingly to get as far away from his parents in Plano, California, as he can. He becomes intrigued by the classics students, and having studied Greek previously, seeks entry into their exclusive courses. Julian initially denies Richard, and Richard becomes somewhat obsessed with the classics students. One day, he helps some of them with a Greek grammar question, and he is offered a place in their exclusive course of study. Initially, he is somewhat of an outsider in the group, who go on cliquish excursions to Francis’s house in the country and are oddly close-lipped around Richard. Over time, Richard is allowed into the group’s circle of friendship and he discovers a horrible secret about a wild night in the woods near Francis’s country house.

The Secret History is an intriguing thriller. Knowing from the outset that the group will murder one of their friends did nothing to diminish the mystery: quite the reverse, in fact. Initially, the group seem like such logical intellects and scholars that one can hardly imagine what will lead to Bunny’s murder, but as the book progresses, even events that seem outlandish on the surface are rendered in such a plausible way, that the reader hardly questions. (Of course a bunch of highly intelligent classics majors, seeking to get closer to the ancient Greeks they study, would stage a bacchanal. That’s perfectly logical!) Tartt offers an interesting character study into what prompts a murder and how it affects each member of the group differently. The Secret History is as much a character study as anything else, and I think the reader will be surprised by the ending (which did not go where I thought it would, for sure).

Tartt has a gift for description, choosing for her narrator a man who describes his own fatal flaw early in the novel:

Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs. (7)

And Richard describes everything he sees with this rapt beauty, from the run-down room with the hole in the roof in a house owned by an aging hippie where he spends his winter (and nearly dies of pneumonia) to Bunny’s descent into the ravine, windmilling and grasping for something, anything, to prevent his fall. Richard struggles to see things as they really are and renders events as he seems to wish they had occurred. He even admits this flaw near the end, as he tells the reader how he would have liked to have described an event—his description would have rendered it more romantic.

Jenny has a great review of this book (in fact, it was her review that put the book on my radar). She says,

[A]s a classics geek, I love it that this book makes Latin students seem super dangerous and dark and edgy. This is not necessarily the typical portrayal of Latin students, but it appeals to me: Watch out for us classics people. We are loose cannons and might push you off a cliff if you cross us. Or we might not. YOU JUST DO NOT KNOW.

Point taken, Jenny. I’m not sure I’ll be able to turn my back on a classics major ever again. Awesome read, Jenny. Thanks for for recommending it.

Rating: ★★★★★

This Sunday review shared as part of the Sunday Salon.

The Sunday Salon

Full disclosure: I obtained this book from PaperBackSwap.

Reading Challenge Progress


I just took stock of the reading challenges I’ve taken on this year. I am participating in so many challenges, that I was finding it difficult to keep up with them. Luckily, I found a plugin called ProgPress that allows me to create and customize progress meters. Check them out in the sidebar over to the right (RSS feed readers will have to click over to my site).

I’m not doing badly.

First, I set a goal to read 50 books this year. I read 40 last year. So far, I’ve read 27, which puts me slightly ahead of my pace. That’s a good thing because school starts for me again in a few weeks, and I will need to be a little bit ahead.

I can say I’ve completed the Steampunk Challenge, the GLBT Challenge, and the Once Upon a Time Challenge, as I really only had to read one book to complete these challenges. All of them were low-commitment “just try it and see if you like it” challenges, at least at the level I committed to.

I need to finish one more book to complete the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, but I am not doing well with the YA Historical Fiction Challenge. I guess I don’t read as much YA historical fiction as I thought I did. I don’t think I’ll finish that one, and I’m not going to worry about it if I don’t make much progress there.

I haven’t made much progress on my own challenge—just one book of six. Ditto the Shakespeare Challenge. On the other hand, I’m making steady progress with the Take a Chance Challenge and the Gothic Reading Challenge. I should be able to make good progress on the Gothic Reading Challenge in September and October, when I can combine it with the R.I.P. Challenge.

I haven’t started either the Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge or the Being a Jane Austen Mystery Challenge, yet. Still plan to complete those.

Did you participate in any challenges? How are you doing?

photo credit: Bogdan Suditu

The Tea Rose, Jennifer Donnelly

[amazon_image id=”0312378025″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Tea Rose: A Novel[/amazon_image]Jennifer Donnelly’s novel [amazon_link id=”0312378025″ target=”_blank” ]The Tea Rose[/amazon_link] is the story of Fiona Finnegan, poor but relatively happy with her fiancé Joe and her boisterous Irish family in Whitechapel. But a murderer is stalking their midst. A man known as Jack the Ripper is murdering prostitutes. Fiona’s world is shattered when her father is killed for attempting to organize a union in the tea company he and Fiona work for. In the wake of his death, Fiona loses almost everyone and everything that matters to her and makes her way to New York where she engineers an incredible rags-to-riches story and climbs to the top of the world tea trade.

OK, this book is really, really, really improbable, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it a great deal. Sure I rolled my eyes at the over-the-top coincidences and unbelievable turns of events, but it was a great ride. The plotting is fast-paced; it was difficult to put down. Set against the backdrop of Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel and Edith Wharton’s Old New York, the book brings together many areas of personal interest for me: tea, the Whitechapel murderer, and the Gilded Age. Fiona has spunk, as we are constantly being told by the characters, all of whom adore her on sight for her shrewd business acumen and forthright manner. Donnelly brings the era and settings to vivid life. In the bargain, the reader, through Donnelly’s characters, rubs shoulders with everyone from Gilded Age robber barons and Mark Twain to up-and-coming artists Monet and Van Gogh. It’s an epic sweeping story, but doesn’t try to be anything other than good escapist reading. I can’t wait to read the next two books in Donnelly’s generational saga: [amazon_link id=”1401307469″ target=”_blank” ]The Winter Rose[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”1401301045″ target=”_blank” ]The Wild Rose[/amazon_link] (I was able to obtain a galley from NetGalley, even though the book won’t be released until August). I won’t say I loved it as much as I loved [amazon_link id=”B003F3PN0Q” target=”_blank” ]Revolution[/amazon_link], but it was a gripping summer read. I would recommend it to fans of Diana Gabaldon’s [amazon_link id=”0440423201″ target=”_blank” ]Outlander[/amazon_link] series.

Rating: ★★★★★

A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches: A NovelDeborah Harkness’s debut novel A Discovery of Witches combines several elements I like—a great gothic house (and a castle), supernatural creatures (especially witches; I love witches), and academia. Diana Bishop, a rather reluctant witch and descendant of Bridget Bishop—the first “witch” executed in the Salem Witch Trials, is a professor researching the history of alchemy in Oxford’s Bodleian Library when she is able to call forth a manuscript called Ashmole 782, believed lost for over 150 years. Diana suddenly attracts the attention of several other creatures—witches, daemons, and a vampire named Matthew Clairmont. Soon the two make even more startling discoveries—hidden inside Diana’s DNA are predispositions for just about every magical power witches possess. Together they must discover what Ashmole 782’s secrets are; why her parents were murdered when she was a child; and why daemons, witches, and vampires want to prevent them from discovering anything (and from being together).

A review on Amazon describes this as a combination of The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, and a romance, which is just about right, except I’d throw Twilight into the mix. It’s certainly better written than The Da Vinci Code and perhaps Twilight, but not Harry Potter. It must be hard to write about vampires right about now. For one thing, we want the strange Byronic dangerousness of the vampire, but we don’t like the whole murdering people to eat deal. We have, if you’ll pardon the pun, taken the fangs out of our vampires. Edward Cullen is a great example of this phenomenon, and Matthew Clairmont is not terribly different. Despite the author’s attempts to tell us otherwise, he never comes across the page as very dangerous. Nor do any of his “family.” The vampires that do seem frightening are all bad guys. Despite lacking some teeth, they are fairly charming. I particularly liked Marcus. For astute readers, there’s a reference to another famous vampire in chapter 13 (I think—it’s hard to keep track when you’re listening) that vampire fans will enjoy. Harkness also dispenses with some of the vampire myths—her vampires can go out in the sun without incinerating (or sparkling).

I actually liked the witches much better, especially Diana’s aunts Sarah and Em. Sarah has a sort of hardened no-nonsense way of speaking, and Em is just sweet. I absolutely love their house. I won’t spoil it for those of you who want to read it. The daemons confuse me. I can’t tell what they are that makes them different from humans except for exceptional creativity and intelligence. They don’t seem to have any supernatural powers like vampires or witches. Harkness’s witches, I understand, but I would have liked to have understood her vampires better.

I think I enjoyed this book on audio perhaps more than I might have in print because Jennifer Ikeda was such a great reader. She can do a variety of accents easily—French, Australian, and Scottish. She made each character sound different and instantly recognizable. I did find myself wishing I were reading the hardcover in some parts so I could easily flip around and check things.

However, I admit I don’t care a lot for the main characters, Diana and Matthew. Are they just grown up versions of Bella and Edward? Well, kind of. Diana is Bella with a little bit more self-esteem and attitude, maybe. The descriptions of the places, the food, and the other characters made me keep listening, and I enjoyed it enough to read the sequel, which I might enjoy more because of where it will be set (a bit spoilery, so I won’t give it away). Diana and Matthew are a strange couple. They seem a little forced together as though they were set up by a good friend and are trying to make a go of it without really feeling any sparks.

It’s a worthy debut, and I think it will likely be fairly popular. Despite my feelings about the main characters, I did enjoy the book and look forward to the next one.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Diana’s aunts Sarah and Em and Matthew’s best friend Hamish qualify this book for the GLBT Challenge. The supernatural elements and ancient houses make for a great Gothic Reading Challenge read. I need to read 17 more books for the Gothic Reading Challenge.

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land (P.S.)John Crowley’s novel Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land has its origin in a famous storytelling contest. In the Year Without a Summer (1816), Byron rented the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland and met up with friends Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley. Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire Clairmont was traveling with the Shelleys, who had eloped together from England, and John Polidori, Byron’s doctor, was traveling with Byron, who was fleeing infamy. Unable to pursue outdoor recreations, the company grew bored and restless. Conversation turned to dark subjects such as ghosts and Erasmus Darwin’s experiments with galvanism. Byron suggested a supernatural story-writing contest. Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein, while Dr. Polidori wrote The Vampyre, which would later inspire Bram Stoker’s own vampiric tale, Dracula, and through Dracula, just about every other vampire story written. Polidori is believed to have based his vampire, Count Ruthven, on Byron himself. (Have you met a literary vampire who is not Byronic? I haven’t.) The two major poets, Byron and Shelley, are not believed to have produced anything of note. Crowley’s premise is that Byron did indeed produce a completed novel, The Evening Land, that was suppressed by his estranged wife Lady Byron. Crowley imagined that the novel was preserved by Byron’s daughter, Ada Byron King, Countess Lovelace, who is widely acknowledged to be the first computer programmer (P.S. March 24 is Ada Lovelace Day). Crowley’s Lovelace is forced to burn the manuscript of The Evening Land by her mother, but she enciphers it first. Enter Alexandra “Smith” Novak, a web programmer for the website She and one of the website’s benefactors are given a mysterious bequest by a mysterious man. It turns out to be the enciphered novel. Smith engages her own estranged (and notorious) father, a former Byron scholar turned filmmaker exiled from the United States because of a past nearly as sordid as Byron’s, and her partner, Dr. Thea Spann, a mathematician, to help her decode the cipher. In the process, Crowley discusses the complex relationships between both fathers—Byron and Lee Novak—and their daughters—Ada and Smith.

This book is an amazing achievement. I’ve read enough Romantic-era novels and Byronic poetry to hear Byron’s authentic voice in the novel uncovered in the frame narrative of its discovery. Even Harold Bloom, that illustrious champion of Romantic poetry (and dead white males) enjoyed the novel and gave it a positive blurb:

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land is an extraordinary confluence of High Romanticism and our Information Era: every note in it rings with authenticity. ‘The Evening Land’ is a novel Byron indeed might have written, and his daughter, Ada, as created by Crowley, is vividly memorable, worthy of her exuberant father.

If I can be allowed one quick digression, that last line smacks of all kinds of sexism to me, but that’s Harold Bloom for you. The fact is, Crowley’s Ada is “vividly memorable,” as is her “exuberant father.” The novel is a thinly veiled retelling of Byron’s own life in many respects, and through her preservation of the novel, Ada comes to make peace with her father. Crowley’s story certainly explains one of the great mysteries of Byron’s legacy—Why would his daughter, taught to hate her father by a mother poisoned by her own ill will for Byron, wish to be buried beside the father she had never met?

The emails between Lee and Smith, as well as between Smith and Thea, among other letters, form an epistolary frame in which Byron’s novel and Ada’s commentary are enclosed and share a similar story. Smith, like Ada, rediscovers her estranged father through his work, but the difference is that her father is still alive, and she has, if she chooses, the opportunity to end the estrangement.

I struggled with how to rate this novel because as an authentic Romantic novel, the parts containing Byron’s “writing” were dense, overblown, and worthy of Sir Walter Scott. Sometimes I had to plow through those sections even while admiring how much like Byron Crowley managed to write. The emails and letters were, on the other hand, quick reads. I like the format of the novel, the frame narrative and epistolary interchange. In the end, Byron’s novel was as good as any other Romantic novel I’ve read, and that’s saying something of Crowley’s achievement. I can’t think of too many writers who could pull off a feat like this, and whether I was able to put the book down at times or not, I have to tip my hat to his talent.

Rating: ★★★★★

I read this novel as part of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, the Gothic Reading Challenge, and the GLBT Challenge (Byron was bisexual, and this part of his character was expressed in the novel, and the characters Smith and Thea are lesbians). I have ten more books to go to complete the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, and eighteen more for the Gothic Reading Challenge (I really bit off more than I can chew with that one). The GLBT Challenge has no set number of books, so if I were so inclined, I could call the challenge met, but I’m not so inclined.

Gothic Reading Challenge

More Reading Challenges

I have located a couple more reading challenges to participate in for 2010-2011. And now that I have graduated—earned my master’s from VA Tech!—I might have a little more time to read.

Gothic Reading Challenge

The first is the Gothic Reading Challenge. Not sure what I’ll read yet, but I love a great gothic read! Bonus: anything I read during September and October should also count for the R.I.P. Challenge when it comes around again. I’m going for broke and shooting for “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know”—20 novels with gothic elements. By the way, that phrase was coined by Lady Caroline Lamb. She was describing her lover, Lord Byron. I’ll bet he was. Seriously, though, check him out.

Lord Byron


The second is the GLBT Challenge. Again, not sure what I’ll read. I went to a great session at NCTE on GLBT YA literature.

GLBT Challenge

Also, it’s not a reading challenge per sé, but I found out my city is reading My Name is Mary Sutter in 2011. I am looking forward to reading it—the Civil War is endlessly fascinating. Thanks to Coach at my school for letting me know about it.

I have a lot of good books lined up. What about you? You participating in any challenges you want to share? Any great books you’re reading?