Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Sometimes, Gansey forgot how much he liked school and how good he was at it. But he couldn’t forget it on mornings like this one—fall fog rising out of the fields and lifting out of the mountains, the Pig running cool and loud, Ronan climbing out of the passenger seat and knocking knuckles on the roof with teeth flashing, dewy grass misting the black toes of his shoes, bag slung over his blazer, narrow-eyed Adam bumping fists as they met on the sidewalk, boys around them laughing and calling to one another, making space for the three of them because this had been a thing for so long: Gansey-Lynch-Parrish. Mornings like this one were made for memories.

There would be nothing to ruin the crisp perfection of it if not for the presence of Greenmantle somewhere and the non-presence of Maura. If not for Gwenllian and Blue’s hands and looming caves full of promises and threats. If not for everything. It was so difficult for these two worlds to co-exist.

Blue-Lily-Lily-BlueMaggie Stiefvater can paint word pictures, that’s for sure.

In this, the third of four books in her Raven Cycle series, she continues the story of Gansey, Ronan, Adam, Noah, and Blue and their quest to find and awaken Owen Glendower, believed to be buried somewhere along the ley line in Henrietta, a town in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Much of the book involves the characters learning to understand their own abilities and their own desires and to determine how to control both. It’s a coming-of-age story with a supernatural twist, but Stiefvater wisely avoids turning their growing skills into obvious metaphors for teenage problems. The story is of teenagers learning who they are—but in this case, some of them have magical abilities. The magic complicates the growing-up business, which is complicated enough, but it also makes aspects of it easier. It’s seamlessly integrated into their lives, even if, as Gansey observes in the quote above, they sometimes have trouble balancing the many different aspects of their lives.

The way magic is seamlessly woven into the story is one of the things that I enjoy about this series. It takes place in our world, where magical abilities are not the norm, but these characters are able to roll with the experiences and talents that come with living on a ley line. They don’t deny the magic or spend a lot of time marveling at it. They just accept it and get to doing it. It’s not that they see it as unremarkable; they know it’s strange, and they have questions about what it means for their lives. But those questions don’t bog down the plot in a lot of magic info-dumps. Adam is the voice of the forest. OK. Ronan can retrieve objects from dreams. OK. Blue can power others’ magic. OK. Gansey. Well, Gansey can study. And Noah … well, that would be spoiling it. Anyway, the characters spend a lot more time stewing over their relationships than they do fretting about their powers.

But I don’t want to give the impression that this is a teen romance with a magic plot laid across the top. Yes, there is a presumably ill-fated romance, but that, too, is not a focus. Blue and Gansey worry over their growing feelings and the prophesy that when Blue kisses her true love, he will die. They try to keep the romance a secret from the others, partly because of Adam’s feelings about Blue but also, I think, because they don’t quite want to make it real. The romance gets a lot of attention, but so do the friendships among all the characters.

I appreciate that Stiefvater takes friendship relationships (and family ones!) every bit as seriously as romantic ones. These friends all care deeply about each other, but each relationship is a little different, and the characters themselves are different, depending on who they’re with. The people we’re surrounded with, whether by choice or circumstance, shape who we become, and this series does really well at showing characters in the process of becoming together. There’s a marvelous scene in which two characters come to the support of another in a concrete way that he never would have asked for or accepted in the past, and seeing him recognize the gesture for what it is instead of resenting that they could help is just wonderful. The book is filled with wonderful moments of friendship teaching people to be their best selves.

So now that I’ve finished the latest book, I’ll be joining the throngs of fans waiting for the final book. This book ends with a major development (one of which was obvious and one of which was not), and the mythology that undergirds the story is getting increasingly complicated. I am filled with questions about how it might all play out—and just as many worries for the characters I’m becoming attached to. It seems like Henrietta is filled with stories, more than one more book might be able to hold. I want more of the Lynch family—they could have their own series. (Where was Declan?) And I’d read all about the Dittleys. Maybe there’s a way to beef up Greenmantle’s story. (You embed Greenman in a character’s name, and my expectations go up.) I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve found a new favorite fictional world, with lots of scope for the imagination.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

mr penumbraClay Jannon has lost his job in the Great Recession, and he really needs to keep a roof over his head. (Not just any roof, either: he lives in San Francisco.) So when he sees a Help Wanted sign in Mr. Penumbra’s very odd bookstore, he walks in and asks for the job. When the job turns out to be extremely peculiar — less of a bookstore clerk and more of a librarian to an ancient society of codebreakers — Clay doesn’t mind; he’s good-natured and curious and likes involving his friends, who have a mind-boggling array of talents. (One works for Google, one makes intricate model cities and monsters for films, one owns a software company that… well, I’ll let you find out for yourself what it does.) Gradually, solving the puzzles and breaking the codes becomes the Big Question for Clay and for everyone around him. Can they help Mr. Penumbra solve the Founder’s secret of eternal life?

I think my reading of this book was greatly impaired by my expectations of it. I want a book about a bookstore to be about the love of books, first and foremost. Instead, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, is mostly about computers. I have to share with you that I am so bored (SO BORED) with the endless barrage of articles questioning whether the Internet is going to kill books/ reading as we know it/ the independent bookstore/ the large bookstore/ our attention span / my pet hamster.  Please! Folks! I’m reading over here! So when this novel turned out to be largely about the excitements of 3-D modeling and data visualization and OCR and large array codebreaking, I was annoyed. There was almost no one in the novel who was the least interested in the content of books, since most of the ones they were dealing with were either the encrypted means-to-an-end or the Potemkin bookstore hiding it.

I was also frankly quite irritated by the narrator. He’s inoffensive enough, I guess, friendly guy, harmless bookstore clerk suddenly embroiled in ancient mystery. But when he meets Kat, a brilliant woman who works at Google and who is interested in technology as afterlife, there was just not one single thing she said, no matter how smart or relevant, that he didn’t respond to (internally) with “cute” or “jealous.”

This girl is a Googler. So she really is a genius. Also, one of her teeth is chipped in a really cute way.

“At Google, we do them for search logs,” she says. “It’s cool — you’ll see some new idea flash across the world, like a little epidemic. Then it burns out in a week.” This sounds very interesting to me, but mostly because this girl is very interesting to me.

“Personally, I think the big change is going to be our brains,” Kat says, tapping just above her ear, which is pink and cute.

Arrrrrgh! Stop it! That would be irritating even if I thought it was well-written.

There were some good and interesting things about this book, of course. (Read the blurbs! Everyone liked it except me.) As I mentioned in my last review, for some reason I’ve recently had a run of reading that deals with books and immortality. Kat is devastated by the idea that our lives are so short. How do we counteract that? Vitamins, cryogenics, space bubbles? When she thinks the secret might lie in books, she puts all of Google’s mighty powers to work on Mr. Penumbra’s secret. The parts about typography were good, as well, and the crazy section about the storage warehouse.

Have you read this one? Am I wrong about it? I’m afraid I liked the book I expected it to be much better than the book it actually was.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 12 Comments

A Stranger in Olondria

stranger in olondriaJevick is from Tyom, a small village in the Tea Islands. He has lived here all his childhood, learning the delicate art of pepper-growing from his father, hardly understanding his own isolation, until one day his father brings back something new from the mainland: an Olondrian tutor named Lunre. Lunre teaches Jevick to read, to love the printed word, to see it as immortality; and he teaches him to long for the country the books come from, as well. Upon his father’s death, Jevick leaves for Olondria and the fabled city of Bain, believing that now, his real life can begin.

Despite his  brief encounter with a red-headed island girl dying from kyitna, an inherited wasting disease, Jevick dives into his new life in Bain, noticing every lush detail.

Housed on the site of ancient horse and cattle auctions, the vast covered markets, with their arched leather roofs made to keep out the rain, form a jumbled labyrinth that stretches almost to the harbor. Here in the shadows the lavish, open sacks display their contents: the dark cumin redolent of mountains, the dried, crushed red pepper colored richly as iron ore, and turmeric, “the element of weddings.”… There are herbs, fresh and dried — mint, marjoram, and basil; there are dark cones and mud-like blocks of incense; there are odors in the air that seem to speak to one another, as though the market were filled with violent ghosts.

Jevick pays less and less attention to his pepper trade and more and more to wandering in Bain, until one feast day, walking in the streets, he is caught up in the frenzied cult-worship of the ancient goddess Avalei. In the aftermath, his head aching, in desperate need of a shower, he has a deeply frightening experience he can’t explain. Then another. And another. And finally he comes to a conclusion he can neither believe nor deny: he is being haunted by the red-headed girl he met on the boat. And the ghost (referred to in Olondria as an angel) wants him to write a book.

You know how these things sometimes happen — I’ve read three books in a row now that deal with books and immortality. A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar, is certainly the most complex of them. If the written word promises eternal life, as Jevick has been taught to believe, then what happens when he is haunted by the ghost of an illiterate girl? What are we to make of the many examples of oral culture in the book — stories within the story — epics, fairy tales, ballads, songs, myths? What happens if libraries are destroyed? Is there such a thing as the tyranny of the written word? What arises when a previously oral culture gains an alphabet and someone writes it down? What about barriers of language, culture, class? What happens to memory and tradition in a culture without books?

Stylistically, A Stranger in Olondria is different than most contemporary novels you’ll read. A lot happens in this book, but it feels slow and measured. There are long passages of description and not a lot of dialogue, and while it’s a ghost story, it’s also a story about power dynamics and belief systems. It’s a book that takes more of its storytelling tradition from Africa and the Middle East than from northern Europe — and that, too, is unusual, for the landscape of most fantasy novels.

I found myself thinking about this book long after I’d finished it. I was still digesting it: thinking about the different religions in it, the structures that had decreed that the “cult of angels” (i.e. being haunted by a ghost”) was mental illness and was outlawed. It’s a book that keeps on at you. It’s highly recommended. Here, if you like, is a short story of Samatar’s that I also enjoyed: “Selkie Stories Are for Losers.” Try it and see what you think, and let me know.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

The Likeness

the likenessLast year, my mystery book club (we read mysteries, rather than being shrouded in mystery ourselves) read Tana French’s In the Woods. I admit that I was a bit prejudiced against it from the beginning, since it’s a) about a child’s murder, b) contemporary, and c) popular. But it pulled me in, suckered me, made me love it. French’s prose is very good, her plotting is excellent, and her sense for human relationships — the places in our psychology that make us long for connection and then screw that connection all to hell — is absolutely unerring. I had one or two reservations about In the Woods, but I had the strong feeling that those might be debut-novel problems, so I put her second novel on my TBR.

The Likeness begins with an absolutely preposterous premise — right up front! It doesn’t spring anything on you! — and builds an amazing mystery-thriller out of it. For this book, French brings back detective Cassie Maddox, who was one of the partners who solved the case in In the Woods. This time, the novel is from her point of view, as she goes undercover to solve the murder of Lexie Madison. The catch? Lexie Madison isn’t — or wasn’t — a real person; she was a former undercover identity of Cassie’s. Now, she’s shown up as a real dead body, and she looks as if she could be Cassie’s identical twin. (Cassie was an only child.) Cassie steps into Lexie’s life (only who is she really?) in the tight-knit group of housemates at Whitethorn House, to try to find out where all the tangled threads may lead.

You see what I mean, right? The doppelgänger thing is right out of Wilkie Collins or somewhere; I expected mesmerism next; and at first, the group of housemates, all postgrad students at Trinity College in Dublin, leaned a little too heavily on Donna Tartt. But French is too talented to let it stay that way. Cassie’s fierce love of the freedom of undercover work, and the fuse that lights in her; the interweaving personalities of the four housemates; the undercurrent of Lexie’s life and the actions leading to her death — all this is done with vividness and delicacy. French lets us see the beauty of those friendships, but also the way people can know each other so well that they drown each other. I mentioned that she’s good at the fragility of human relationships, and this book reinforces that in more ways than one.

This was a very satisfying mystery, beautifully written and breathlessly suspenseful. It was dark, but not because the detective was hopelessly depressed (*cough* Henning Mankell *cough*). To my own surprise, I think I’ve found a new favorite mystery author, huzzah!

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Mysteries | 20 Comments

The Nursing-Home Murder

nursing home murderThis novel is the third of Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries. I know I blaspheme by saying this, but I have never been that fond of most of Agatha Christie’s novels; with a few exceptions I find them too formulaic and two-dimensional to be enjoyable. The best of Christie’s, though, have interesting suspects and exceptional puzzle-making, lifting them out of the common run. The Nursing-Home Murder gives me all of that, and Roderick Alleyn besides.

This book runs along fairly familiar lines. The victim (this time the Home Secretary!) turns out to have at least five or six people with very good reason to kill him, and indeed three who’d recently expressed a formal desire to do so. Easy pickings for the police, you’d think, but in fact it’s more complicated, and in the end a complete reconstruction of the crime, which took place in an operating theatre, is necessary to jog the memories of the witnesses. The book was originally published in 1935, and I think the solution to the crime is especially interesting in that light. But you’ll have to read it yourself to see if you agree with me!

Alleyn is a curiosity to me. Christie, of course, had two private detectives (Poirot having left a career in the Brussels police because of the war.) Campion is a high-born hobbyist and an adventurer. Wimsey, similarly, is of noble blood; others see his crime-solving as mere dilettantism. Alleyn, by contrast, is a gentleman — the right schools, the right family — but he’s gainfully employed by Scotland Yard. This gives him entree into two worlds: upper-class people won’t dismiss him as a servant, but he still has the power to put his very own handcuffs on them if he likes. What was Marsh doing, exactly? It looks as if she was pushing back against a notion that it was a bit low to be part of the police force (see Sherlock Holmes.) Alleyn smartens the place up a bit.

I’m thoroughly enjoying Marsh’s novels. They’re not Dorothy Sayers, but they’re great Golden Age reads. Have you read these? Do you have a favorite?

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 18 Comments

Thomas Hardy

Thomas HardyI was irrationally worried when I started reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy. You see, Hardy is my favorite writer, and I didn’t want to find out he was terrible, that he kicked puppies or something. Generally, I don’t mind reading books my people I don’t like much, but still, the idea that my favorite author could be a puppy-kicker … it made me nervous.

In Tomalin’s telling, I’m happy to report, Hardy is not a perfect man, but he was a generally decent man. The UK edition has the subtitle, “The Time-Torn Man,” a phrase the speaker uses to describe himself in Hardy’s poem “A Broken Appointment.” The poem refers to a lovers’ meeting that didn’t happen, and Tomalin says that it is commonly believed to be about his love for a woman named Florence Henniker. Henniker is one of several women for whom Hardy suffered love or lack of it. And, in a way, all of his love affairs seem “time-torn” because there is often love, but it is torn away by time or the time when it could be shared is torn away.

Tomalin begins her biography with the death of one of the principal women in Thomas Hardy’s life, his first wife, Emma, before moving back to tell his story from the beginning. Thomas and Emma’s marriage had been troubled toward the end, with Emma moving into the attic and having no more to do with Thomas than she had to. Tomalin writes with compassion about the growing discontent that followed what seemed a lively and romantic courtship in which the couple held strong to their love despite their families’ disapproval. She notes the reasons each one might have had to be unhappy and never quite comes down on one side or the other. But she does show that there was love there—or something like love.

Other women are part of the reason for the marriage’s faltering. Hardy enjoyed flirting with the pretty women who loved his books, yet he also seemed to continue to seem attached to Emma. After her death, he wrote poem after poem expressing his regrets and sadness, yet, as Tomalin tells it, Emma rejected him as much as he rejected her. His second marriage is tainted by his memory of Emma, although, again, there is love, both before and after the marriage.

Tomalin’s ability to see more than one point of view is one of the strengths of this biography. Tomalin does an admirable job of sticking to the known facts as much as possible, even including a robust notes section (with endnote numbers in the text!). Her choice of facts will perhaps reveal her biases to those more aware of whatever controversies exist surrounding Hardy’s life story, but she doesn’t appear to have an agenda, and it’s clear when she’s speculating. Speculation of the type Tomalin engages in, considering why Emma might have been unhappy, for example, can be useful in a biography, but I don’t have much interest in biographies built entirely on speculation. With Tomalin, I always felt I was in good hands.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book were the chapters describing the novels—I think I just like thinking about Hardy’s novels! Tomalin puts his books in context of the time, commenting on how he compared to his literary peers and how his work was received. It’s clear that she loves his novels, and her insights reminded me of love much I love these books, even though I take issue with her complaints about the final words of Jude the Obscure, which I think are meant to convey a feeling experienced by this character in this moment, not a universal fact.

The trouble with reading this book is that now I want to continue in my project of reading all Hardy’s novels—and I want to reread Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge. A steady diet of Thomas Hardy couldn’t possibly be a bad thing, could it?

Posted in Biography, Nonfiction | 8 Comments

Which Witch?

which witchJenny at Reading the End has been recommending Eva Ibbotson for years and years, and particularly as a comfort read. While I recognize that comfort reads work better if you’re re-reading, I thought that since I was in need of something of that sort myself, I’d give it a try. What could it possibly hurt? Our library has half a shelf of her books, so I picked Which Witch? almost at random, and took it home. It begins:

As soon as he was born, Mr. and Mrs. Canker knew that their baby was not like other people’s children.

For one thing, he was born with a full set of teeth and would lie in his pram for hours, chewing huge mutton bones to shreds or snapping at the noses of old ladies fool enough to kiss him. For another, though he screamed with temper when they changed his nappies, his eyes never actually filled with tears. Also — and perhaps this was strangest of all — as soon as they brought him home from the hospital and lit a nice, bright fire in the sitting room, the smoke from their chimney began to blow against the wind.

Of course, the baby is a wizard, and grows up to be Arriman the Awful, smiting and blighting wherever he goes. Eventually, however, all this begins to pall, and he wants to pass on his heritage to a son — which, unfortunately, necessitates a wife. Arriman decides that the best way to find a wife is to have a contest: the witches of Todcaster will vie for his hand by casting their blackest spells. Too bad the witch who is most in love with him is a white witch…

About three chapters into this book, I began to feel a little outraged. Why on earth had I never heard of this author? This is exactly the kind of book I’d have loved as a child. It’s both clever and funny, with references to things children might have heard of but could figure out if they hadn’t, like the Kraken. It’s well-written and well-plotted, with lots of interesting characters (I particularly loved a genie in a bottle called Mr. Chatterjee.) It’s got quite genuinely scary bits in it, but nothing so overwhelming that the target audience would have nightmares (I’m looking at you, John Bellairs.) The ending is so satisfying and lovely that it actually brought a warm glow to my jaded, cinder-blackened heart. So why was this the first book of Eva Ibbotson’s I’d ever read? Ridiculous! I blame, in this order, my parents, Nature, the Will of God, and the Burke Branch Public Library.

Now, however, it’s my job to read more of her work, and I think I’ll do it by reading it aloud to my children before bedtime. They’re just the right age for it (7 and 9) and that way, no one will have to explain to their therapists how I never introduced them to Eva Ibbotson…

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 12 Comments

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket

jarrell.2Over the past few years, I’ve made it a point to read as much of Randall Jarrell’s poetry criticism as I can. He was a very good poet himself (although maybe not absolutely top-tier), and he was, maybe, the most astute critic of his time. His work established or resuscitated the reputations of certain poets: Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell. Try reading some of his essays, like “To the Laodiceans,” his profound appreciation of the greatness of Robert Frost, when all that is Yankee-hokeyness has been wiped away. He is generous and eager, and his criticism always points, not to himself as critic, and not to criticism as an end in itself, but to the work. You always leave Jarrell wanting to read. Perhaps most astonishing of all is the way he was always right. Many critics fit in with the taste of their age. It is one critic in thousands who is still showing us the truth of poetry a couple of generations later.

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket is a collection of Jarrell’s essays on a pretty fair variety of topics, though not quite as diverse as they were in the marvelous Poetry and the Age. The first few (“The Intellectual in America,” “The Taste of the Age,” “The Schools of Yesteryear,” and “A Sad Heart at the Supermarket,”) are wry accounts of how literary matters are going to hell in a handbasket in America today (that would be 1962.) Jarrell points out from different angles that literature, and perhaps particularly the reading of poetry, is now considered “over-intellectual” or “too difficult,” though just a few years ago schoolchildren did it all the time. One of my favorite passages compares our unhappy state to that of Queen Victoria:

If the young Queen Victoria had said the Duke of Wellington: “Sir, the Bureau of Public Relations is in a deplorable state,” he would have answered, “What is a Bureau of Public Relations, ma’am?” When he and his generals wanted to tell lies, they had to tell them themselves; there was no organized institution set up to do it for them….People gossiped about her, but not in gossip columns; she had never heard a commentator, a soap opera, a quiz program. Queen Victoria — think of it! — had never heard a singing commercial, never seen an advertisement beginning: Science says… When Disraeli and Gladstone made speeches for her government, the speeches weren’t written for them by ghost-writers; when Disraeli and Gladstone sent her lovingly or respectfully inscribed copies of their new books, they had written the books themselves. …

Queen Victoria never went to the movies and had an epic costing eight million dollars injected into her veins — she never went to the movies. She never read a drugstore book by Mickey Spillane; even if she had had a moral breakdown and had read a Bad Book, it would just have been Under Two Flags or something by Marie Corelli. She had never been interviewed by, or read the findings of, a Gallup Poll….

And all the other people in the world were just like Queen Victoria.

Jarrell puts a humorous cast on the state of affairs, but he is quite serious about the effects a consumerist society may have on poetry and on literature more generally — on writers, on readers, and on critics.

There are also some blessed critical essays in this book. They are all wonderful, but my favorite is “On Preparing to Read Kipling.” Kipling enjoys much the same reputation today that he did in Jarrell’s time: either people consider him a writer for children (The Jungle Book, Kim) or they veer away from the straw man they’ve made of his colonialist opinions. He’s one of the people We Are Too Virtuous to Read.

Randall Jarrell wants to change your mind. In fact, he wants to stoppeth one of three, and take you by the lapels, and explain to you at great length, while you miss the wedding, why you ought to love Kipling: because Kipling is one of the world’s great story-writers, that’s why. Henry James thought Kipling was a genius, he says, by way of support, but most of the essay is dissection: look at the piles of proof that show what a master storyteller he was. I grew up on Kipling, from the children’s books to Stalky & Co. to the poetry to the many astonishing short stories. I couldn’t agree more with Jarrell. But his essay left me wanting to go straight back and begin again, the morrow morn.

And now, sadly, I’ve reached the end of Jarrell’s criticism: I’ve read all the essays that good-humored, passionate, fascinating, accurate essayist had to write. What critic should I try now? Who will give me sharp insight on literature, and make me want to read more? All suggestions welcome.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 12 Comments

Elsewhere

TheRavenCyclebyMaggieStiefvater_zpsc4df7303Some of you may remember that last year I read and enjoyed the first of Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle novels, The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves. The fourth book in the quartet, Blue Lily, Lily Blue is being published in the U.S. tomorrow, and in anticipation, Ana, Aarti, Memory, Jenny, and I swapped theories (and hopes) about where the story might go. Check out our conversation at Lady Business.

And Jenny has a review of the new book up at Reading the End. I hope to get my own copy this weekend, when Maggie Stiefvater is in town for a signing at One More Page Books.

If you’re a fan of Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising sequence, you should check these out. They’re more mature books (Young Adult rather than Middle Grade), but they draw from the same Welsh mythology.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

The Secret History

secret historyOne of the great mysteries of the book world (to me, anyway) is how books get sorted into categories. Margaret Atwood’s futuristic novels are general fiction, but Octavia Butler’s are science fiction. Emily St. John Mandel’s zombie and contagion novel gets nominated for a National Book Award, but Stephen King still gets dismissed as just a horror novelist. And Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a literary darling, while Ruth Rendell’s novels are often noticed only by readers of crime fiction.

I read Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend when it first came out and liked it more than most seemed to (although I didn’t love it). People kept telling me that her debut, The Secret History, is so much better, and it certainly seemed like the kind of book I liked. It’s a crime novel in which the murderer confesses right up front and the book shows why and how the murder was done. This is one of my favorite kinds of crime novel. And that’s what The Secret History is, a very good crime novel.

I say this not to cast aspersions on crime novels (I love them!) or on The Secret History  (which I enjoyed) but to express my puzzlement at why this book got so much widespread praise when really excellent taut psychological thrillers get tucked away in crime fiction, read only by fans of the genre. This plot could come straight out of a Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) novel. (Rendell, in fact, provided a blurb for The Secret History.) If Rendell wrote it, the book would be at least 100 pages shorter, which would probably improve it. (Read A Fatal Inversion, which she wrote as Barbara Vine. You’ll see what I mean.)

The Secret History is the story of a tight-knit group of classics students at a small New England college. Our narrator, Richard Papen, has transferred into the college and managed to wheedle his way into the exclusive classics program, which includes only five students and the professor Julian Morrow. We know from the beginning that somehow Richard and his classmates will end up killing another classmate, Bunny, but it takes a few hundred pages to learn why or how. As we journey to the conclusion we know is coming,  we’re immersed in a world of alcohol, drugs, class consciousness, and 20-somethings’ quests for identity, put in a pressure cooker and set on high.

One of the things I enjoyed about the book was the angle on class and how much the characters’ desire to belong affected their actions. These people egg each other on toward actions that become increasingly destructive. The specific actions that lead to their first fatal error are presented as part of a pursuit of knowledge, but that’s just how they set their violence apart from what might arise at the less academically inclined bacchanals going on all over campus. When Richard breaks off from the group and goes to more typical university parties, what happens seems somehow healthier and less sordid, perhaps because it’s more honest. They’re kids, goofing around—irresponsibly but less destructively than the toxic classics coterie.

I read the book in a day and enjoyed it, but the plot did get preposterous at times. There were times when the characters’ secrecy (and lack of it) seemed not just over the top, but implausible. Some of their actions could be chalked up to being young and arrogant and under stress, but I wonder if I read more slowly and took time to think about it whether the plot might fall apart. But as I was reading, I was having too much fun watching the story come together to do anything other than shake off my reservations and just let myself be entertained.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 22 Comments