The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I’ve had this book finished for a while, but I’ve been having trouble figuring out what to say about it. My friend Monica recommended it to me several times over the last year because of my love for The Likeness, which Tana French has said is partly based on The Secret History. I can definitely see the basis there, but I think I was expecting too much The Likeness and just couldn’t get behind Tartt’s story.

Tartt starts with the end, with our hero Richard Papen remembering the time he helped to kill one of his college friends, whose name is — well, was — Bunny. Lovely, yes? Papen then zooms himself back in time to tell us all about how he ended up at a small rich-kid college in Vermont, where he stumbled into a very strange learning situation, with basically one professor and five classmates studying ancient Greek. He recalls breaking slowly into the tight-knit group of five, learning all of their idiosyncrasies, and then of course helping in the murder of one of them.

The Secret History necessarily focuses hugely on the interpersonal dramas between Richard and the group and all permutations of members in the group, which is a bit slow, but it makes up the pace a bit when Bunny’s death is being investigated and the suspense kicks up. But then, and this is what really killed the book for me, that intensity dies down and we’re back to the interpersonal shenanigans. These shenanigans are certainly interesting, and I was curious to know what would happen, but after a while I just felt like I didn’t really care anymore if it meant I had to trudge through so many more pages.

I’m still not sure if I liked this book, though I can certainly say I’m glad it exists if it sparked Tana French’s writing! I think perhaps this will be another of those books that grows on me with time.

Recommendation: For the interpersonal melodrama crowd, and also anyone who gets a kick out of boarding-school-style novels.

Rating: 7/10
(A to Z Challenge, Chunkster Challenge)

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

I mentioned on Sunday that I was reading and greatly enjoying this book, and while it took me several days longer than I thought it would to finish it, I did end up retaining that enjoyment throughout. So, yay! Of course, it’s no Fingersmith, but I think I was plenty warned about that going in. 🙂

So this is a creepy little story that I still think is most closely related to The Fall of the House of Usher and The Haunting of Hill House, largely because the house itself is a main character of the book. On the Poe side, you also have a house-going-mad/family-going-mad connection; on the Jackson side you have people being drawn to this house like flies to flypaper (that is, reluctantly at first, but then SMOOSH).

But of course, this isn’t either of those books, so many other things happen. The general plot here is that our intrepid narrator, a Dr. Faraday, finds himself the new family doctor of the Ayreses, who live in an awesome house called Hundreds Hall that Faraday has been attracted to since he was a child. It’s a beauty — or it was until World War II happened and all the money went away and Mrs. Ayres and her two children and her two servants couldn’t keep the thing up properly. Faraday is having fun hanging out in his idolized house and being friends with high society people, right up until things start to go CRAZY. And by CRAZY, I just mean that some bad things start to happen, like dogs biting and war veterans going a little daft, and strange smudges show up and no one who actually lives in Hundreds actually likes being there all that much, but Faraday just thinks that they’re all a little touched in the head, there’s nothing creepy at all about mirrors walking on their own or the telephone ringing in the dead of night with no one on the other end.

Ahem. It’s a little creepy. And the creepiest part of all of it is that you’re never quite sure what’s actually going on. I, at least, was like, “Oh, the house is haunted. Or maybe it’s not. No, it definitely is. No, that’s crazy, everyone else is just haunted,” for pretty much the whole book.

And I thought that everything resolved itself quite appropriately (if not terribly informatively) at the end of chapter 14. But then there is a tiny little epilogue chapter, which is something that I hate, and which is not really especially useful here, so I recommend you just go ahead and skip that and know that nothing really happens after the end of chapter 14. 🙂

Recommendation: For fans of Shirley Jackson, Edgar Allan Poe, other people who do interesting psychologically scary stories. Not for people who like plots wrapped up with a bow.

Rating: 8/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Chunkster Challenge)

See also:
Book Addiction
things mean a lot

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Another frame story! This is becoming a theme, it seems…

And darn this frame story all to heck. I picked up this book not knowing too much about it except that a) I keep seeing people mentioning it as a pretty awesome book and b) it was published in 2007 and therefore necessary for my Countdown Challenge. So when it started in all epic fantasy with its innkeeper with a shady past and creepy spider things that are not demons but are probably something more terrifying, I was like, “All right. This will be fun.” AND THEN YOU NEVER FIND OUT ANYTHING MORE ABOUT THE SPIDERS.


One of my pet peeves in epic fantasy is this conceit of showing the reader a gun in Act I and then waiting until act, like, XVII to have it go off. This is only meant to be a three-book series, so I suppose there won’t be that much waiting, but UGH.

Anyway, after the whole spiders thing happens, it turns out that one of the characters is some famous scribe who writes down the lives of other famous people, and also that the innkeeper with the shady past is a formerly Very Famous Person now languishing in Do You Remember That Guy land. After the scribe works some psychological magic on the innkeeper, the innkeeper is like, “Fine. I will tell you my story. It will take three days. Hope you don’t have carpal tunnel.”

This book is Day One of the story-telling, and here the story veers away from Epic Fantasy and settles into a more Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire land, with the long rambling stories that don’t really have anything driving them (see: Quidditch World Cup). It is also similar in that most of Kvothe’s story here takes place at an Academy, where Kvothe is like the smartest kid there, but waaay too cocky, and also very poor, and he’s like Hermione and Harry and Ron all rolled into one, with even a vicious Draco to play against.

But… I liked the Harry Potter book. For all the long rambling quidditch and the ridiculous school antics, I at least knew that something was going to happen, and the things that happen generally lead toward that something. The Name of the Wind is just a set of stories about Kvothe’s life, from being a gypsy kid to going to the Academy to trying to track down the thing what killed his parents. But there’s never anything really driving the action, and for all I hoped that there would be spiders in the end, there were not. I’m sure that this is all building up toward something in the second and third books, but I’m the kind of reader who has to have at least some little morsel now, if you’re going to keep me interested for another couple of 700-page books. And I don’t feel like I got that.

Recommendation: Don’t go into this expecting classic epic fantasy, but read this if you have the patience for that sort of story that’s going to ramble on for a few books.

Rating: 6/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2007, Support Your Local Library Challenge, Chunkster Challenge)

See also:
books i done read
medieval bookworm
reading is my superpower

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith is an odd sort of book. It is really spectacularly long (500-ish pages, which is a lot to me), and for long stretches there isn’t much in the way of action, and there’s not a ton of character development or anything, but I’m still kind of in love with it.

This is probably because it is Victorian-inspired and therefore a little ridiculous and also crazy. The book is split into three parts, and the first is fairly boring and took me a long time to get through. But basically there are some thief-types, and one of them convinces another, called Sue, to do a sweet little undercover gig that’ll earn Sue a bazillionty twelve dollars (I think that’s the exchange rate on 3000 pounds circa 1900, yes?), and she goes to do it. Yay. But all the while, Sue is like, “I did this and this and this other thing, and if only I had known then what I know now!” and I was like, tell me more, but she doesn’t, and then at the end of the first part it’s made relatively clear and I was like, “Damn.”

Seriously. An excellent finish… and then there’s more! Two whole more parts! And there are more crazy twists and turns and scandal and babies and knives (not together) and madhouses and escapes and if this run-on sentence isn’t intriguing you in the least bit, you’re probably not going to like the book.

But I did very much like it, and in fact while looking for the image for this post I found out that there is a BBC adaptation of this book and I immediately added it to my Netflix queue. I am very interested to see how some of the scenes in this book get adapted to the screen, and how much of the first part gets cut in favor of scandal and pretty dresses.

Rating: 9/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Chunkster Challenge)

See also:
The Written World
Trish’s Reading Nook
things mean a lot

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Likeness, by Tana French

So after I finished In the Woods, I had a dilemma. Should I just read Faithful Place, French’s new book about a character introduced in her second book, since the books are definitely standalone? Or should I go read those 450 pages of The Likeness again? Obviously, I chose the latter, mainly because I get twitchy about reading things out of order and also because in discussion with my friend Cari I had realized that I could barely remember a thing about this book, the one that I loved so much more than In the Woods.

So I sat down and read this book, but it was not nearly as good the second time around as In the Woods was, nor was it as good as I remember it being in the first place. The premise is spectacular: Cassie Maddox gets called in to help in a murder investigation because the dead girl not only looks startlingly like Cassie but is also carrying around ID that says she’s Lexie Madison, a person that Cassie and her boss made up when she was in Undercover. Creepy, right? Said boss, Frank Mackey, has sort of commandeered the investigation because he has decided that it would be awesome to see if Cassie could go undercover as the dead girl into the house where she lived with her four nearest, dearest, and possibly only friends.

It’s an interesting thought experiment, but I think the main interest I had in this book came from wondering if and when Cassie was going to get caught. Knowing what eventually happens really takes the suspense out of it, and I was just sort of like, “Okay, whatevs.” In the Woods had a cleverly psychotic killer, but (spoiler alert?) this one doesn’t, so there isn’t that same awe at watching the investigation unfold. But I’m still amazed how realistically Cassie embeds herself into the house, and I do love how the house itself is an important character in the story, so I will maintain my love for this book. Just maybe I won’t read it again.

Rating: 9/10 (was a 10… sigh…)
(Flashback Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge, Chunkster Challenge)

See also:
Reading Matters
reading is my superpower

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers

This was a weird pick for my book club, largely because we all liked it. 🙂 When we hopped on Skype to chat about it, we were all like, “Um, it’s good… and stuff… can we read some more Dorothy Sayers now?” Which is interesting, because it’s not really a straight-forward mystery novel like others of Sayer’s, it’s more of a treatise on marriage with a mystery thrown in. You’d think that three marriage-age women (with me married!) could have come up with something to say about that!

Of course, I had only just finished the book before the club, so I hadn’t had too much time to think about what I might want to say about the institution of marriage (not that I’ve got any ideas now!). I was still all, “I can’t believe that that was the murderer! I’m so terrible at guessing these things!” The mystery part goes as follows: Harriet Vane goes to a reunion at her college, and while there picks up some not-very-nice notes. She ignores them and goes home, but soon gets a call from the Dean or the Warden or someone from the college asking if Harriet might oh-so-kindly stop by and help them with this mystery, since she did so well solving that other mystery and also in writing all those mystery novels. The mystery is, of course, that a bunch of other people at the college are also getting these terrible notes, and also some manuscripts are being defaced, and it would all be such a scandal if the real police found out about it.

Harriet takes her sweet time (500 pages!) to figure it out, because there’s also a bunch of stuff in there about Peter Wimsey, an amateur detective who has been attempting to woo Harriet for a very long time, and his relationship with Harriet, as well as many, many long, tedious discussions about whether women should marry and if they do should they have jobs because they’re just going to flake out on their jobs every time their kids hiccup and if you feel you really just must marry someone should you pick someone you actually like or someone who is convenient for you and oh my goodness.

Sayers seems to side with those who choose to marry, seeing as how the women who argue against marriage read as more uppity than those who are for it, but she does throw in a woman for nearly every stereotype — the married and happy, the married and unhappy, the unmarried and happy, the unmarried and unhappy, the completely apathetic — and they all felt pretty real to me.

And of course I can’t argue against marriage, being married myself, but I can certainly see the downside to a woman who gets a wonderful education and then abandons it to motherhood. Of course, I am also in awe of people who can spend all day with multiple children and not want to strangle them, so it’s not like motherhood is all bonbons and soaps, right? So really, I am very unopinionated about this topic! Or possibly my opinion is “do whatever makes you happy.” Yes, that’s it. I like it.

I also like the ending of this mystery, but it’s a hard slog to get there — take it on at your own risk!

Rating: 8/10
(Orbis Terrarum Challenge: England, Chunkster Challenge)

See also:
Of Books and Bicycles

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

In the Woods, by Tana French

I read this book once before, waaaaay back in the day (well, relatively speaking). I absolutely loved it, and I told everyone who had ears that it was a wonderful book and that they should go read it and why were they still talking to me etc. So when I got to pick the book for and lead a discussion group for my library practicum, I was like, “Have they read In the Woods? Because they should have. I will now make them.”

And then I packed up my books to send down to Jacksonville with Scott, and I packed this book omg! So I had to borrow it from the library. The library must really love me.

So I got like six people to read this book all at once, which was delightful, and of course I had to read it again, because although I remembered how it ended I knew there was a lot more in the middle that I was missing in my memory. Oh boy, was there. I had forgotten how much confusion there is — they’re looking for a killer, obviously, but then there’s this other case that might tie in, and there are so many leads to follow up on and people to talk to and it’s a wonder this case even gets solved at all!

And knowing the ending already… man. I could see where all of these threads were leading, slowly but surely, and I was still like, “No! Don’t let it happen! CAN’T YOU SEE WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?!?!?!” Oh. It’s kind of devastating. You can see how ridiculously clever, and plotting, and foresight-having, and completely insane the killer is, and I have a certain respect for that even though of course we should use such powers for good. Of course.

What I’m saying is, if you haven’t read it already, seriously, go do that please, and if you have read it and you have some free time on your hands, read it again. Wonderful.

Rating: 10/10 (it was a 9 before, but the ending is much less disappointing the second time around!)
(Countdown Challenge: 2007, Flashback Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge, Chunkster Challenge)

See also:
Reading Matters
reading is my superpower
books i done read

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

This is probably a weird book to be my first introduction to Bill Bryson, seeing as how I understand him to be more of a travel writer than a science writer. But I can’t say no to a book about science, can I? No, no I can’t.

Bryson covers all sorts of scientific knowledge and endeavors, from astronomy to physics to biology to geology to those crazy guys way back when who studied all of these things at once! And he does it very accessibly; he explains things in simple language and breaks down numbers like 1025 to 10 trillion trillion, which I thought made a lot of sense. Of course, after you see enough of these numbers, and enough of Bryson’s segues to the simple language, you can get a bit tired. But focus on the fact that you’re getting the DL on how crazy those scientists are, and you’ll be much happier.

One thing that really bothered me was Bryson’s lack of footnotes… I mean, he had some descriptive ones, telling you more about a particular person or concept, but he didn’t have any that related directly to his facts. When I got to the end of the book, I realized that he has endnotes, sort of, that provide the sources for at least some of his more interesting facts, but by the time I got there I couldn’t remember what pages and sentences I had questions about! Highly disappointing.

And, for a book that’s meant to help answer questions of why scientists believe things, there are a lot of facts that are just presented as truth without any real reason why, especially in the archaeology and paleontology sections. Bryson does often mention that these facts are estimates and guesses, but I was left with a sense that everything was made up for funsies and I’m not sure that’s what I was supposed to think.

However, for all the problems I had with the presentation, I did learn a lot of new things I didn’t know before and I certainly have a stronger interest in learning more about these various sciences than I did before, so Bryson did a good job, there! I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who has even a passing interest in science (but probably not to anyone who really hates it).

Rating: 7/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Chunkster Challenge)

See also:
Rhinoa’s Ramblings

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Chunkster Challenge 2010

I’m not sure how I missed this one earlier, but I am so in! This year’s Chunkster Challenge is much like last year’s, in that participants read humongous books and then wonder why they don’t have any free time. Ahem.

I managed it last year, so I’m going to sign up for the “Mor-book-ly Obese” challenge, which means I’ll read either six books longer than 450 pages or three books longer than 750 pages, all of the grown-up variety (no Harry Potter!). I didn’t read any of the books I intended to last year, so I’m going to put World Without End and the Wheel of Time series back on the list and hope for the best!

Books eaten (om nom nom)
1. A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson (Review)
2. In the Woods, by Tana French (Review)
3. Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers (Review)
4. Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters (Review)
5. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss (Review)
6. The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters (Review)
7. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (Review)

Captain’s Fury, by Jim Butcher (3 July — 4 July)

I took a long (for me, anyway) break from the Codex Alera series because of the “little tiny major thing that happens at the very end and makes me want to scream in frustration” part of the third book. I was like, no way. Uh-uh. And then I was in the library, and the fourth book was there, and I was like, who knows? Maybe it could be okay.

And, well, you know, I’m glad I did. Because the thing that could have been frustrating was actually very well-handled and blah, blah, if I had a hat I didn’t care much for, I’d eat it. And since it’s not really central to the plot, I will just move along now.

So it’s been two years since that big battle with the Canim, and Tavi is still leading his army under the guise of Rufus Scipio. Things are as they ever were, except that an Aleran senator called Arnos thinks that fighting is easy-peasy and brings in a couple of legions of his “First Senatorial” to complement (read: take over for) Tavi’s First Aleran. Arnos is ready to lead his troops to their death, which was not on Tavi’s agenda for the year and as such Tavi does what he can to thwart Arnos’s plans. Of course, then Arnos thwarts Tavi by catching him at “treason” (read: talking to the head of the Canim troops to attempt to declare a cease-fire) and gets Tavi thrown in jail. Oops.

Meanwhile, the First Lord has decided that being passive is for losers and recruits Amara and Bernard to help him walk into Kalare’s stronghold (literally; Gaius Sextus’s furies are being tracked so he can’t use them) and stop Kalare from a) destroying his own people and b) destroying the Aleran government. This is a good plan until Sextus injures himself but good and walking becomes limping becomes riding a sled through a swamp.

As usual, there is lots of fighting and lots of furycrafting and a little bit of sexing and some double-crossing and maybe triple-crossing but I can’t keep track of all that intrigue. This series is definitely back on my good list.

Rating: 7.5/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2007, Chunkster Challenge)