The Secret History by Donna Tartt

It really goes to show that sometimes when your friends recommend you something, it ends up being one of the best things you’ve read in a long while – and also helps to increase your trust in your friends’ tastes. The Secret History by Donna Tartt is one of those books for me, as almost everyone at work – and a few outside of work – have told me for ages that I would adore it. Every time I mentioned that I hadn’t read it, I would receive a gasp from my audience which would be immediately followed by something along the lines of ‘But you have to read it, you’re going to love it’. They were right.

*This is a spoiler free review*

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Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.

This book is narrated by Richard, a young man from California who moves to a university/college to study Classics (and this is where I do a mini dance for the glory of study Classics, but a word of warning: if you study Classics you will not do what these students do. Or at least I bloody well hope not). On arrival at his new college, he discovers that there is an elite group of students who study with one particular teacher, who is known for refusing to take on anyone else. When Richard manages to be accepted into the fold, he discovers that there are many secrets within this group, ones that he is desperate to discover.

What is immediately enticing about this book is that it does not start with Richard moving to this new school. No, instead this book starts with the murder of one of these students, a young man nicknamed Bunny, at the hands of his classmates. Now before you start declaring me as your spoiler enemy, relax – this is said on the blurb and on the opening page. You go into this book knowing that somehow, and for some reason, Richard and these other elite students decide to murder Bunny. You only get a few pages in this opening before it jumps back to when Richard joins the college, and he narrates from some distant time that you’re not exactly aware of. I worried that I would grow bored of a book knowing this climax, but I was entirely wrong. There are so many other events that take place, and experiencing a book knowing that one of the main characters will be murdered is unlike any other. You’re constantly trying to connect the dots to various secrets and see how they all add up, and you’re questioning every tiny detail. I was desperate to keep reading only so I could find out what was going on, and once you know the secrets it feels like you as a reader are included in this elitist group.

I enjoyed the Classics references for obvious reasons, and all I can say is that after reading several books recently that made me feel slightly stupid for not getting the references (looking at you Chris Kraus), I was overjoyed to understand the finer details of this book. You grow to love these strange characters, and equally fall out of love with them. Tartt’s writing is beautiful and elegant, her sentences almost like poetry at times with the lyrical, whimsical nature. Storytelling at its finest, and it has to be when you know about Bunny’s murder from the get-go.

Overall, this book was an easy five stars for me. I’d recommend it to everyone, especially classics lovers, as it blends literary fiction with murder mystery with thriller. Just brilliant.

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A Love Letter to Books

There are many things I love about reading, but the one that I never tire of is starting a new book.

Once I’ve gone through the usually difficult task of selecting my next world to delve into, my favourite thing is carefully opening it up and turning that first page. I love to look down at the title page, as if I’m preparing for battle, before turning to page 1. Really, it’s less preparing and more bracing myself for what is to come – because at that stage, I don’t know anything. I don’t know what is going to unfold – be it greatness in plot, exquisite prose, characters that will steal my heart, a narrator who manages to have a conversation with me (one in which I do not have to say a word) or even be it terrible plot twists and poorly thought out scenes where all I want to do is rewrite every single line.

Books are possibilities. They are portals and windows, keys to someone else’s thoughts and imagination. They are their own entities, ready to transport your mind somewhere else, and the only part of your body you have to move is your eyes. Well, that’s a bit of a lie. The only things that don’t stay still are your eyes and your mind, as someone else’s words filter into your imagination and paint a picture. Books are where you yourself feature as co-director. The author may say that their world is made of blues and greens and pinks, but you are the one to pick the shades. The author could tell you about a man with brown hair, green eyes, and an oddly proportioned body, but your imagined version of this man could look nothing like the author’s.

I’ve been inactive on my blogs the past few weeks (excuses range from moving house to starting full-time at work), and this particular piece of writing starting as a late night note on my phone. This was meant to be a love letter to starting new books, but it’s turned into a love letter to all books – and I suppose in essence that that is what this blog is all about. Not just a place where I talk about what I’m reading and enjoying, but also one of the many spaces that show how incredible reading is – how incredible books are. Where books are sources of inspiration for so many, authors are the magicians who conjure up ideas as one might pull a rabbit from a hat. And those ideas are not just confined to pages, but spark to life emotions throughout every single reader.

It reminds me of something we think about at work when recommending books – that, whilst you may not like one book for one reason or another, it may well be someone else’s favourite. That’s the truly marvellous thing about books – there really is something for everyone. Where one person may not like a mainstream thriller because of it’s predictable nature and heavy influence from old classic crime writers, someone else may adore it because it let them to those classics, and gave them access to a genre they never before considered.

Every book is important in one way or another, from picture books all the way to those frightening looking tomes on law or business or history. And this little blog post is one of the many love letters I’ll write to try and put into words what each new book makes me feel.

May Reading Wrap Up

Well, it has happened – I have finally finished university. After a month of essay deadlines and exams, I’m amazed I read as much as I did. I think that’s been the standard theme of this year so far; my surprise each month that I actually found time to read. It definitely helped that I participated in a 30 day reading challenge, and I’m sure that’s why my totals this month (two books over 500 pages is quite the feat for me) are pretty darn fantastic.

First up this month was The Hero of Ages, the third and final instalment in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy that I started back in 2015! I read the previous two books the previous two summers, having saved them both all year for when I felt I had enough time to read them – and then the genius that is 2017 me decided I had enough time to read the final book over coursework season. If that’s not impressive, then I’m not sure what is.

Then as if that book wasn’t long enough, I followed it up with another final instalment to a trilogy: A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J Maas. This was pure guilty pleasure for me, and I devoured it within a week. Just pure fun, uncomplicated (in a good way) fantasy that you can just lose yourself in. Complete escapism at its best, and a series that has improved so much from its first instalment.

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After that, I finally read a book I’ve been promising myself, and my colleagues, that I would pick up for ages. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders was an unexpected joy, Saunders somehow redefining what it means to write fiction and do so in a way that reminds you just how much art there is in writing. He weaves his story from excerpts of various non-fiction literature on Lincoln, interspersed with his own pure fictional writing. The combination of non-fiction, fiction, and non-fiction crafted as fiction, created a completely new way of reading. Although the first few pages I found it difficult to process, once you get used to the formatting you can hardly put the book down.

It was after this that I read Animal by Sara Pascoe, ‘The Autobiography of the Female Body’. For this I’m just going to repeat what I said in Goodreads, which is that this was a great book separated into discussions on ‘love’, ‘body’, and ‘consent’. Pascoe manages to insert humour and charm, but still discusses serious, and upsetting, topics with a sincerity. This is a good book if you want a mix of entertainment, autobiography, well/explained science, and talks on bodies. Of course people who are well versed on the subjects will find fault with some of the scientific facts, but for me it was a perfect balance of digestible science I could understand and Pascoe’s own thought. Whilst Pascoe is addressing matters of the ‘female body’ and does in her footnotes clarify that this can apply to those who do and do not identify as being female or to those who weren’t necessarily born in a ‘female’ body, I think I would have liked more discussion on gender within her ‘body’ section. Overall the book raises some fantastic points that I definitely support, but for a book on bodies and love I think there should be more discussion dedicated to gender itself.

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If you want more beauties like this you should definitely check out my Instagram *wink wink nudge nudge*

After a successful non-fiction read, which I don’t read enough of, I decided to go for something else new – poetry. The only poetry I’ve really read is within my education, and whilst I’ve enjoyed it I’ve never gone out and read poetry for fun. This is why, to start off my journey, I picked up the bestselling collection Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. And, I’m sad to say, it wasn’t quite my cup of tea – which is why I’m going to do a full review either sometime later this week or next. It’s so difficult, because of course you can see how much heart the author pours in, and then to find you don’t really like it, I especially find it hard to give such negative feedback. One thing is for certain – I’m definitely going to pick up more poetry soon to find something I do love.

And that brings me to the end of May, so let’s look how the reading challenge is going:

 

  1. *4 ‘Classics’
  2. *A Man Booker nominee
  3. **A Baileys nominee
  4. *A Feminist Book cover to cover
  5. **‘A Blue Cover’
  6. *A Graphic Novel
  7. A Horror Book
  8. ***Finish a series you’ve started
  9. A friend’s favourite book
  10. *Poetry book
  11. *Book over 500 pages
  12. *Book under 150 pages
  13. Book with a character with your name
  14. *An autobiography
  15. **A play
  16. *A book from your TBR
  17. ****Book published in 2017

Thanks to Animal, I ticked off an autobiography because that word is within the subtitle so it definitely counts. Milk and Honey also ticked off poetry, so a pretty darn good month. The Hero of Ages and A Court of Wings and Ruin both added a notch to finishing a series you’ve started, as they were both the final instalments of two trilogies I’ve loved. Lincoln in the Bardo added a fourth notch to books published in 2017. Overall, a pretty great reading month. It means I’m still left with 3 Classics (I knew that was going to be a struggle to get to), a Horror Book, a friend’s favourite book, and a book with a character with your name. I definitely have books in mind for the latter two, but still haven’t found a Horror book that I want to read, so if anyone has any suggestions I’m all ears. After all, June is my birthday month so I’m planning to do a rather large book haul.

 

Strange The Dreamer by Laini Taylor

We all know I’m a fan of a pretty book, but Strange the Dreamer was at a whole other level on the scale of book porn. My specific edition is a gorgeous hardcover with these beautiful illustrations on the title page, signed, and has blue-sprayed edges. And to top it all off? It was a fantastic book as well.

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photo credit to my own instagram (plug plug) as I’m usually terrible at taking pretty book photos

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

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I knew almost nothing before going into this book, but had seen a lot of hype about it on social media. All I knew was that it was a beautiful book that was fantasy, so imagine my sheer delight at finding it was about gods, goddesses, magic, and a protagonist who is a hardcore bookworm. I imagine most of us who like to think themselves bookaholics and writers would proudly accept the epithet of ‘the dreamer’, so to have your main hero be a lover of books and fairy tales? A joy to read.

‘His nose was broken by a falling volume of fairy tales on the first day of the job, and that, they said, told you everything you needed to know about strange Lazlo Strange:head in the clouds, world of his own, fairy tales and fancy’ 

High fantasy at its best, this is a book that I just didn’t really expect. I’ve not had the pleasure of reading Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, but it’s definitely on my TBR list now. Her writing flows so beautifully, and her descriptions are inspiring, poetic, and, without doubt, pretty darn magical. I didn’t expect to get invested so quickly, and as a wannabe fantasy writer myself I kept on thinking “How can this be so good?”. I kept on having to put it down and sigh, wondering why I even allow myself to fantasise about writing something myself, but then had to pick the book back up again because I really needed to know what happens.

A great start to a new series, and although there was some serious world-building that Taylor included, I can only hope she was just laying the foundations of what is to come as there is so much more of that world that needs exploring. It’s the kind of book that completely transports you into a different world and you soon forget that you’re reading, devouring word after word until you’re on the edge of your seat because of the drama going on. There were several plot points and ‘twists’ that I personally found slightly predictable, but the only reason they were predictable was because the author gave you the hints to reach that conclusion only moments before the other characters did.

Enjoyable, fun, endearing characters, and a fantastic, fantasy tale that will leave you ready to read the sequel as soon as you finish it – and once you do, you can join the rest of us in the waiting game, which I’m sure will be the best kind of agony.

Book Covers

I think we all know the phrase ‘never judge a book by its cover’, used in reference not only to books but to people, telling you that it’s what’s on the inside that counts – and this is very true. You shouldn’t judge by what’s on the outside, as a brilliant book may well have a really terrible cover. However, that doesn’t mean that I stop buying books that have beautiful covers – even when I don’t really know what it’s about.

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In reference to books, when someone chastises me for buying one due to its pretty cover, quite often they’ll use that phrase, don’t judge a book by it’s cover. “It could be awful”, a very true statement. “The cover shouldn’t factor – it doesn’t matter in comparison”, and that is where I disagree completely. See, some people forget that it’s someone’s job to design that cover to fit the book and to appeal to their targeted audience. Someone has put in blood, sweat, and tears to make that cover something great so that you, the reader, pick it up. A cover is meant to attract people to it. It’s not the blurb that catches your eye from across the room, it’s the gorgeous cover. It’s supposed to reel you in to get you to read the blurb and flick through the first pages. A book cover is meant to not only capture the book, but enrapture you, so that as you make your way towards it you entertain fantasies of what that beautiful book will look like on your shelf.

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Not to mention that most book covers are more than simple pretty pictures or designs. There are often little hidden gems within them – take V.E Schwab’s Shades of Magic series. When you look at all three books together, there are little details that are meant to open up your imagination about the books. For the US covers, it’s the use of maps, for the UK covers it’s the changing coloured circles on each cover that change as the series progresses, showing a clever continuation that relates to what happens in the books.

There have been many occasions where I’ve picked up a book purely for the cover, and I have even bought a book that I already owned just because it had a different cover that was just stunning. There has even been an instance where I bought a book barely glancing at the blurb, as the cover was just so appealing for me. Called The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky, I saw it at work with it’s tribal wolf in this shiny gold emboss which pictures really can’t capture. It probably helps that I adore dogs and, so by default, also love wolves, so any cover with a wolf on I’m eager to buy, but this particular book was just too angelic to walk past.

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BEHOLD THE BEAUTY

And that’s what we want! That means that the book designer has done their job in following the outlines of the publisher. It is the publisher who will give the designer ideas, such as colour ways or images etc that they think sums up the book, and then the designer has something to play around with. The marketing is a complete success if you actually like the cover and it draws you in. Because at the end of the day, this is one of the big factors of why people buy physical copies of books. It’s the feel of them in their hands, the smell, and the pleasing cover – it’s the whole experience, beautifully packaged, which makes physical books so marvellous.

And that, my friends, is why when it comes to books, it is absolutely ok, in my opinion, to buy a book for its cover.

A Darker Shade of Magic/A Gathering of Shadows by V.E Schwab

An actual book review! Man it’s been a while – so to make up for that, I’m doing a two-for-one sort of deal. I had been meaning to pick up A Darker Shade of Magic for almost a year after all the brilliant reviews it received. Then, when I finally do pick it up, I finish it in under two days, head straight back out to buy the sequel A Gathering of Shadows, and finish that within 24 hours. It so shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that this is going to be a very positive review.

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https://www.instagram.com/stammydodger/

Most people only know one London; but what if there were several? Kell is one of the last Travelers magicians with a rare ability to travel between parallel Londons. There is Grey London, dirty and crowded and without magic, home to the mad king George III. There is Red London, where life and magic are revered. Then, White London, ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. But once upon a time, there was Black London…

For spoiler reasons, I won’t post a blurb of the second book.

The first book I read by V.E Schwab was Vicious (read review here) and I loved it, so it’s surprising it took me this long to pick up this series. The world Schwab has created is enchanting and, with no better word for it, magical. Set throughout parallel worlds, all in London, we meet Kell who can travel between all three of these Londons which he has nicknamed: Red London, White London, and Grey London. We know that there used to be a Black London, but that’s all you do know going in. Grey London is supposedly the London of our world, as in the reality, without magicians and abilities and all of those marvellous things.

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Schwab’s imagination knows no bounds, and the way she’s conjured up this world (or worlds) as well as weaving an intricate plot, not to mention the fantastic characters, is just incredible. She is definitely the kind of author I want to be one day, and not just because she writes fantastic fantasy.

Kell is one of those characters that you feel inclined to love, although it isn’t until about halfway when you realise that you do actually love and adore him. He’s the definite hero of the book, and his heroine/ally/antagonist/the best person ever is Delilah Bard, the magnificent (otherwise known as Lila). A cross-dressing thief with dreams of being a pirate, I’m not quite sure how you can’t like the guarded, wary Lila. She is everything you want in an heroine, from her stubbornness to her determination to tackle everything head on. She isn’t helpless, she isn’t vulnerable, and she most certainly doesn’t need saving.

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Then there comes the charming, wonderful Rhy that you can’t help but adore. Man, I just want to live in Red London and meet these people before setting sail with Lila. It’s just a book (well, both of them) that sucks you in until, before you know it, you’ve finished it and are going crazy on the internet trying to discover when the next one is coming out. My only critique might be the few Americanisms that pop out at you which, for an English reader expecting to be firmly grounded in parallel Londons, it’s distracting.

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So, if like me, you like fantasy and a book including cross-dressing, pirates, thieves, magicians, and parallel worlds sounds appealing, then this is the one for you. Also, if you know when the third one comes out, hit me up.

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Book Resolutions

I made a post of my twin blog (alwayslovetowrite) about my resolutions this year, and one of those was to read 50 books. I wanted to take this moment to mention a few things about what I hope to do in the near future with this blog.

It’s not a secret that I started up this blog just so that I could have a space where I talk about books and all things book-y. If I had the guts, I would start up a Youtube channel and join the ‘Booktube’ community, but the thought of some people watching me on Youtube makes me feel ill – along with the fact that I tried it once, and when I look back at the videos today I do, indeed, feel very, very ill.

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Anyway, avoiding conversations about how ill I feel, my goal for this blog was to reach a point where I had enough followers and subscribers that I could reach out to publishers and request copies of books to review. If successful, not only would I save some money (every book lover and student’s dream), but it would mean I will have reached a point where my blog and my thoughts are deemed important enough to facilitate.

That’s why, this year, I hope to start accumulating more followers – which means, on my side of things, I need to make a serious effort and dedication to keep everyone reading interested. I want to be the person proud to ‘plug’ their blog because they think it’s good, rather than just forcing all my friends to click that follow button to help me out. I think that’s one of the reasons that I don’t ever post my blog on facebook – I mean, sure, I’ll shove it into my description on Twitter and Instagram, but other than that I try not to draw attention to it. I want to know that people are reading it because they chose to, not out of obligation to my incessant ‘plugging’.

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Back to resolutions, I’m going to try and keep you all updated on how I’m getting on – and get some reviews to you as well. I already owe you a review for ‘Neverwhere’ by Neil Gaiman (it’s good, people) and ‘A Little Life’ (it’s sad, people) although the latter may or may not be appearing on a friend’s website, but I’ll keep you posted.

So far this year, I’ve finished ‘A Little Life’, ‘The Little Prince’, ‘The Score’ and am currently reading ‘A Moveable Feast’. After I’ve finished this by Hemingway, I’m going on to ‘The Martian’ which I am ridiculously excited for and not at all embarrassed that I bought it for my Mum for Christmas 1. Because I knew it was a great book and 2. Because I wanted to read it. If I manage to finish the Martian this month, that would mean a total of 5 books (Despite the fact that ‘The Little Prince’ was very short). That sounds like progress to me, alright.

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Finally, I want to know what you think. So let me know what you want to see from me – be that reviews, posts about kindles, discussions on reviewing books for websites (man do I have stories about bad books from that), or other odd posts, such as the previous best booky gifts.

Good luck to you all for the New Year, especially if you’ve set your own book goal – let’s make it a good one.