THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s debut novel from 1992 has become something of a modern classic (although, is 28 years really ‘modern’ anymore) and is featured on many readers’ ‘favourite novels’ list. I bought the book about a decade ago and since its publication Tartt has gone on to write two more critically acclaimed novels, The Little Friend and The Goldfinch. So I thought it was about time I gave it a shot.

The Californian narrator of the novel, Richard Papen, arrives at a private college in New England, to study Classics under the tutelage of an eccentric professor, Julien Morrow. The class is a close-knit group, containing only five other students – Henry Winter, fraternal twins Charles and Camilla Macauley, Francis Abernathy, and Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran. They are a lofty, arrogant group; difficult to like. But Richard begins to grow close to them as the term progresses. When a shocking secret is revealed, Richard is taken into the others’ confidence. This knowledge comes at a price. The aftermath begins to take its effect on their existences. Slowly, inexorably, the truth begins to blur and facts are revealed, and the lives of the group start to unravel, eventually with murderous consequences.

The Secret History is a loooong book. I think it checks in at nearly 192,000 words, which – for any novel, let alone a first novel – is remarkable. But more than its length, it’s also a very dense novel, in that the prose style is rather classical and old-fashioned, very befitting of the subject. But I have to say, I loved every single one of its pages. It’s no exaggeration to say that The Secret History instantly goes into my favourite novels of all time list.

The narrator is the most likeable character. He’s from a modest upbringing, unlike the others in the group who all come from privileged backgrounds. There’s a great deal of snobbery and entitlement to them, but Tartt is superb at conveying the development of their relationships. In time you get to see the vulnerability of the characters so that by the end you get to, if not quite like them, at least feel you know them well. There’s an almost timeless feel to the prose; it seems like it could be set either in the 1950s just as much as its contemporary setting.

The prologue is up there with some of the best opening paragraphs ever written – it’s closely behind Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for me – and even in the first line you know exactly which of the characters is going to do. So I suppose to some extents it’s an inverted mystery. However the story isn’t really the point of the novel. It’s the journey that counts in this one, not the destination (although the murder doesn’t occur at the end of the novel anyway). It is fascinating to see the way the dynamic of the group changes, and the development of the characters’ mental states as the full impact of what they’ve done starts to take hold. From a cinematic perspective The Secret History reminded me of a cross between Dead Poet’s Society and The Talented Mr Ripley. Actually, I could imagine fans of Patricia Highsmith loving this, as the suspense and psychological journey the characters embark on is something prevalent in much of her fiction.

It’s testament to Donna Tartt’s writing that she manages to pull off a couple of ludicrous plot points and still make them believable. You accept these as part of the story because you always feel she is 100% in control of the prose. The atmosphere is spot on, the character development is sound, there’s a satisfying pace to the proceedings, and the whole thing has the air of melancholy and tragedy looming over it, a suggestion of the numinous; even a hint of the supernatural. I just know that this is a novel I’ll return to every few years. I absolutely loved it and have no hesitation of recommending it.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY ONE BAKER STREETS edited by David Thomas Moore

An anthology of short stories featuring differing takes on the character of Sherlock Holmes, with settings as far back as medieval England to late 60s New York City to the future. This book contains 14 stories from a variety of authors, all of whom bring something different and interesting to the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

I must admit to being something of a traditionalist when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, mainly due to the fact that I have a great fondness for the Victorian England setting, equally as much as I do the characters. So I went into this book with fairly low expectations, not based on the authors but instead on my narrow view of whether I would probably accept the idea of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson being anywhere across time and place. I’m pleased to say that, to a large degree, the authors confounded my own narrow-minded expectations.

It was interesting to see how the characters could be interpreted in different ways. Whilst it’s fair to say that not all of the stories worked for me – a feeling not unknown with anthologies containing short stories from different writers – there was much fun to be had with the ones I really did enjoy. It’s testament to the authors that the character of Holmes, despite changes in sex and location and time settings, feels consistent enough with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character as to remain relevant. Recommended, especially to fans of Sherlock Holmes with an open view to the original canon.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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IF IT BLEEDS by Stephen King

I read my first Stephen king book in the early 80s – Pet Sematary, not long after it was published in paperback. I adored it. Since then I’ve read every book he’s ever written. Whilst it’s fair to say that he’s had good periods and not quite so good periods, even the lesser stuff he’s written is still better than the very best output of some other bestselling authors.

If It Bleeds is a collection of four novellas. This is the format to which I’d say King excels. Some of his finest work has been written at novella length – Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Children of the Corn, The Body (filmed as Stand By Me), The Mist, 1922, etc – so I went into this book with high expectations. King’s last couple of novels have been okay. I wasn’t a huge fan of The Outsider, but the previous few featuring Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney were decent takes on the supernatural crime novel.

Which brings us to the title novella. If It Bleeds, the third story in the collection, features the return of Holly Gibney, this time starring as the central character. It’s a solid enough tale, well written, but adding very little to Holly Gibney’s character or background. King seems to love this character, and I’m not sure he’s done with her yet. If you’ve read The Outsider, it’s almost an extension of that. Decent enough but nothing ground-breaking. I’d give it a 4/5.

Mr Harrigan’s Phone is the opening novella of the book. I thought this was excellent. Whilst there’s nothing new in the plot, Stephen King has the uncanny ability to make anything incredibly readable, even something that in a lesser writer’s hands would be a cliché. This story felt like it could have appeared in one of King’s earlier collections, which I mean as a huge compliment. 5/5

The Life of Chuck is the second novella. This one is told in three sections, played out in reverse like a film running backwards. It’s a rather tragic story but one with a great deal of emotional depth and intrigue. From the reviews I’ve read so far this novella seems to have been most people’s least favourite, yet I thought it was brilliant. Again, there’s not too much ground-breaking with the story but the style elevates it to something special. Sometimes King’s prose is near magic, and in The Life of Chuck he pulls that out. I was thinking of this one for days afterwards. 5/5

Rat is the final novella in the book. Yet again, there’s not much massively original about the story, yet it’s told with King’s usual verve which makes it incredibly readable. Having browsed the synopsis I was expecting more of the Faustian pact plot than was actually there, which is good because it meant that the rat’s involvement, which whilst important, wasn’t the main point of the story. It gives a great insight into the creative mind of the author and the central character’s almost obsessional drive to write his first novel. The section set at the remote cabin in the woods was wonderful, reminiscent of bag of Bones or Misery. Again, I had a blast reading this. 5/5

In summary I loved this collection. Having the title novella as a Holly Gibney story was a smart move. I suspect there may be a few people who read the Bill Hodges trilogy or The Outsider who enjoy crime but wouldn’t be interested in reading horror and so have never picked up any of King’s older titles. This book acts as a fine gateway into the darker stuff of Stephen King, and might surprise a few readers who were expecting something quite different to what he delivered. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying something from this quartet of tales so it comes highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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A SUDDEN LIGHT by Garth Stein

Trevor Riddell travels with his father to their crumbling ancestral home in rural Washington state. It is the summer of 1990, and his parents are having a trial separation. Fourteen year old Trevor knows he has to do everything he can to help get their marriage back on track. The house lies in a huge estate, overlooking Puget Sound, and is reportedly haunted.

I was expecting this to be quite a tough read. It’s author, Garth Stein, wrote the international bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain which I always assumed would be wordy and literary. However the prose was great – cleanly written, atmospheric and unpretentious. Despite dealing with some very dark themes, it does feel almost like it’s aimed at the YA (young adult) market. The setting is wonderfully evocative, rich in texture and atmosphere, with an interesting setup with just a few characters. the relationship between the various family members was intriguing, with the text hinting at secrets and a complex history. I really enjoying hearing about the history of the family, albeit some of the documents meant to have been written at the start of the last century (and the dialogue in some of the dream sequences or flashbacks) felt a little modern for that time.

A Sudden Light is an excellent coming of age story, one that isn’t too demanding, yet with enough surprises and emotion to thoroughly enjoy it. There is a real gothic sense to the proceedings, with an underlying aura of tragedy. The house itself is almost a prominent character in the story. I’d definitely be interested in reading more of Stein’s work. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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HOLMES ENTANGLED by Gordon McAlpine

In the 1940s an Argentinian librarian gives a secret manuscript to a private investigator. The document was written in 1928 by none other than the famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, who is living under the guise of a German professor teaching at Cambridge university. Doctor Watson has died so Holmes has been trying to keep his mind active as he sees out his final days. One day he is visited by an author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who asks him to look into some information he received at a recent spiritual séance he attended. The case involves multiple worlds, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Mrs Hudson, and many other meta-themes.

I can’t claim to be a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes. I read all of the Doyle stories and novels when I was a teenager but I’ve never bothered reading any of the raft of subsequent novels that have been written since. However I do find the character utterly fascinating, and generally enjoy fiction set in Victorian London.

I thought this was okay. It’s quite well-written, if unlike the style of Conan Doyle when writing as Doctor Watson. But the plot explains this by the way Holmes apologises for his rather wandering narrative, suggesting that Watson has a far more active method of writing than he has.

The plot is convoluted and preposterous but I suppose that’s part of the fun of it. It’s a short novel and I had fun reading it but it wasn’t enough to make me seek out anything else of the author’s work, or bother reading any other Sherlock Holmes tales by other writers. I’d recommend this to fans of Sherlock Holmes, but no one else.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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THE COLOUR OF BEE LARKHAM’S MURDER by Sarah J Harris

Jasper Wishart, 13 years old, lives with his dad on an ordinary street. His neighbours are ordinary. However Jasper is anything but ordinary. He sees the world completely different. He can’t recognise faces, even his own. He loves painting and parakeets and is struggling to deal with the death of his mum. His world is both more colourful and frightening than ours. He suffers from synaesthesia, as well as being autistic. When a young woman, Bee Larkham, moves onto the street, she causes a disturbance among the inhabitants. Her appearance sets in motion a chain of events that leads to her death. Jasper has to piece together the information he has – trying to work out if he’s processed it correctly – in an effort to solve the murder of who killed Bee Larkham.

I really wanted to like this novel. First of all it’s a British murder mystery, it involves an interesting central character with a fascinating mental disorder, and it’s a whodunnit. But the truth of the matter is I was left a bit disappointed. I have never given up on a novel I’ve started reading, but the first half of this book was a real slog. I wasn’t enjoying it at all. Whilst the part about synaesthesia and austism were very interesting (I assume they were factually-based) the plot itself felt rather boring. I wasn’t particularly invested in the other characters. I think a lot of this is to do with the way the plot develops – we can only see things through Jasper’s eyes – so the voice of the narrative tended to over-emphasise the colours and moods rather than clues and story points. The secondary characters felt a bit vague and confusing. Which is exactly the way Jasper sees them.

However I’m glad I stuck with the rest of the novel because the second half of the book is much more revealing, and because of that, satisfying. By that point we’re understanding Jasper’s worldview, and are able to jump ahead a bit and make guesses at what really happened. It reminded me of a cross between Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ and LP Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’. Jasper is, due to his synaesthesia and autism, an unreliable narrator, and there is much for the reader to work out. If I’d read just to the halfway point of the novel I’d have felt this was a 1 star book. By finishing it I’d give it 3 stars. There are quite dark themes here, which feel even more acute because of Jasper’s rather innocent view of things. Not a disaster, by any stretch of the imagination, but not one I could really recommend. I did get a decent insight into both synaesthesia and autism, and I also learned that there are parakeets living in Britain, but for me the plot wasn’t particularly engaging.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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WAKENING THE CROW by Stephen Gregory

When Oliver and Rosie’s daughter is injured in a hit and run accident, she suffers brain damage and her personality is altered. Upon being granted a payout for the accident, Oliver decides to use the money to set up a bookshop, something he’s longed to do for many years. They purchase an old church in which to live, with the bookshop forming the lower level of the building. One day they come across a scabby-looking crow, who refuses to leave.

This is quite a difficult novel to read, not because the prose is poor – it certainly isn’t, quite the opposite – but because of the writing style. It begins simply enough, but as the story develops, so does the gradual spiral into madness and the inexorable mental descent of Oliver and his relationship to Rosie and Chloe. The descriptive passages are wonderful, creating a beautifully icy depiction of Nottingham. There’s a dreamlike quality to the prose, which mirrors the story and Oliver’s sense of dislocation and detachment. Gregory is superb at teasing out the sinister aspect of birds – this theme features in many of his books – and it’s brilliantly entangled into the story. The shadow of Edgar Allan Poe is also present in much of his writing, and here it acts as a perfect counterbalance to Oliver’s guilt. I would say it’s a novel that’s definitely not formulaic, despite the Poe influence, and one that works well against the backdrop of contemporary Britain.

But beneath all of the gothic madness and macabre detail, the novel hints at something even darker. This aspect only really reveals itself after the book is finished, once you’ve closed the pages and let the story settle on your mind. There are a couple of moments that hint at something horrific lurking in the darkest recesses of Oliver’s subconscious, something that’s subtle and delicately handled, and yet might be too strong for some readers.

I thought this was a great novel. Even if you know little about Edgar Allan Poe, you’ll still enjoy this, but if you’re a fan you’ll delight at the little references. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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NYCTOPHOBIA by Christopher Fowler

Hyperion House, standing high in the hills of Southern Spain, seems like an ideal home for Callie and Meteo, an architectural student and her wine importer husband. The grand old house has been designed to ensure that it is filled with light for as much time as possible, which is perfect for Callie, who suffers from nyctophobia (an extreme fear of the dark). It also comes complete with a mute gardener and a sinister housekeeper. Oh, and a section of the rear of the house that is locked, and appears to be permanently steeped in darkness…

I’ve been a fan of Chris Fowler’s work for many years. More recently he’s been writing the Bryant and May strange detective novels, of which I read the first few (and enjoyed them) but for some reason have lapsed (too many books, too little time!) but I’d like to pick them up again at some point.

I read Nyctophobia because it was a standalone novel, self contained and instantly accessible. The pacing of the book is great. Read the first paragraph and you’re hooked. By the time I had finished the first chapter I was expecting a fairly standard haunted house novel, but was entirely happy to journey on, as Fowler’s writing is so strong. However, as the story progressed I realised that there was so much more to the novel than a haunted house story. The half-light, half-dark aspect of the house is particularly fascinating. Fowler includes a couple of scenes where the characters venture into the ‘other realms’ of the house and the action is unbelievably creepy. The description of the souls that inhabit the dark side (originally the servants’ quarters) are horrific and nightmarish. And there’s a sequence involving a hornet’s nest that feels brutal and heart-breaking.

Nyctophobia is an unpretentious, fast-paced slice of horror. Whilst it’s difficult to say it reinvents the haunted house novel, it does at least attempt to try something different with the trope, and undoubtedly pulls it off. The Spanish location is evocative and interesting – Fowler clearly knows Spain and the Spanish ways – and there’s the perfect balance between scary scenes and Callie’s fascinating research into the mysterious history of Hyperion House. I really enjoyed reading this, and it has given me fresh impetus to return to the Bryant and May series. Fowler is a natural writer. You really feel you’re in good hands when reading one of his books. Definitely recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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THE SLEEPING DEAD by Richard Farren Barber

Jackson Smith is attending a job interview at a high-rise business building in the city when he sees a man take his own life. Further horrific events take place, challenging Smith’s sanity, and drawing on his last self-preservation as he fights to escape the building and the ensuing madness.

The Sleeping Dead is a fast-paced, real-time novella set in a recognisably British town. I read the book in an entire setting, something I very rarely do nowadays. From the start, Barber manages to wring every ounce of tension from the punchy, clean prose to deliver something greater than its parts. It’s fair to say the story isn’t ever going to win awards for its originality, but to dismiss it as derivative is to do the novella a massive disservice. To that degree, reading the synopsis tells nowhere near the real story. There’s a wonderful thrill to the set-pieces, a couple of which I’m sure will stay with me for a long time. Barber writes with verve, and his descriptive prose has an economy which allows the pace to never let up, all of which befit the story. The length of the piece exactly fits the story he’s telling; any more and I feel the tension would have been stretched, any less and it would have felt incomplete.
All in all, if you don’t mind something quite dark and unrelenting, this is a novella I’d definitely recommend.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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A TEST OF WILLS by Charles Todd

When Colonel Harris is murdered in Warwickshire, Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard is dispatched north to investigate his murder. It is 1919 and the country is still reeling from the after-effects of the Great War. Rutledge, himself a veteran of the conflict, has his own demons to contend with, alongside the pressure of having to bring the guilty to justice. He is a broken man, damaged by what he experienced in the war, an imaginary companion constantly dogging him – the voice in his head of a young Scottish soldier called Hamish that Rutledge condemned to the firing squad. Piecing together the clues and puzzles of the mystery takes a great deal of conviction on the Inspector’s part.

Interestingly, Charles Todd – the pseudonym of a mother-and-son writing team from the United States – has written 26 of the Ian Rutledge mysteries so far, starting with this one in 1994. I had never heard of them before, although it does seem like they are far more popular in the US. I picked up this novel on the basis of the interesting premise – the central investigator’s sidekick as the imaginary Hamish as opposed to a faithful sergeant or Doctor Watson character – and the fact that I enjoy a good old murder mystery set during the golden age of crime fiction. Initially I was sceptical of an American being able to make the English characters and settings ‘authentically’ British, but I needn’t have worried. For the most part there is barely anything to betray that this wasn’t written by a Brit. There’s a level of detail to the book that indicates the writers have researched well or are keen history enthusiasts.

The plot itself is fairly straightforward, with the murderer’s reveal a decent enough twist. The story hangs together well, with just enough suspects to keep you guessing. It wasn’t the most intricate plot, but the characters are well fleshed out and there are several scenes that stuck in my mind after closing the book. A big criticism of murder mysteries is that the plot comes at the expense of characterisation; I’d say this is quite the reverse. Not the best, or most exciting mystery I’ve recently read, but an interesting one nonetheless. I think it’s fair to say that it’s clearly a first novel, but one that has enough quality about it to say I’ll definitely be seeking out further books in the series, and seeing how the character of Inspector Rutledge develops. Worth reading if you like this kind of thing.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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