The Books that Built The Blogger with Melanie from Grab The Lapels

I’m delighted to have Melanie from Grab the Lapels on the blog today talking about the books that have shaped her reading and her blogging. Grab the Lapels is a fantastic site, focusing on works by women writers and featuring a great Meet The Writer series and some really in depth, knowledgeable reviews. It’s also always great to have a fellow Sweet Valley High fan on the blog! So, it’s over to Melanie…

There are three books I’ve read that I can really remember changing me in a deep way.

Early on, it was Sweet Valley Twins and Friends: Ghost in the Bell Tower (Super Chiller), a book by Francine Pascal—or one of her ghostwriters. There are hundreds of books about the twins. Before there was Team Jacob and Team Edward, there was Team Elizabeth and Team Jessica.

Were you more like studious Elizabeth, who had superb grades, one close friend, one “steady,” liked to read, and worked for the school newspaper? Or were you more like Jessica, who was rebellious, loved popularity and cheerleading, was daring and compelling, and had a new boyfriend every week? It was easy to change your team because the author never painted a clear “good twin.” In Ghost in the Bell Tower, a book for middle-school aged girls, the twins discovered a young man living in, yes, the bell tower, and investigated. Jessica was hysterical; Elizabeth was logical. My love of ghost stories deepened due to this book, and it made me think more about character traits in fiction.

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In grad school, I read Girl Imagined by Chance by Lance Olsen. It was a mix of memoir, fiction, art history, and social science. Basically, the author’s wife in real life (and as a character in the book) does not want to have children, but her family on the other side of the United States practically demand it. So she downloads pictures off the internet and slowly imagines a baby girl to life. How long can they keep it up? Why are the Olsens doing this? How do photography and death affect our feelings about family and representations of family?

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Melanie with Girl Imagined by Chance author Lance Olsen

 

Girl Imagined by Chance is considered experimental fiction because it does not follow a straight-up traditional narrative style, and it was the first book that showed me novels can do a lot of things at once in different ways, which affected my own writing (especially in my MFA program) for years to come.

Finally, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley changed the way I felt about civil rights, the media, religion, ideas, and who tells us what the “truth” is.

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In schools in the U.S., we learn about Martin Luther King, Jr., his “I Have a Dream” speech, and the Letter from Birmingham Jail. The Civil Rights Movement is tidy according to public education. What we miss is the sheer violence, constant strategy planning, and utter fear felt by white and black communities alike. We’re also not told that MLK frequently cheated on his wife, sent children to get beat up (so it would get media attention), and the college students who worked for him while he stood back for much of it. Malcolm X boldly claims that black people should have their own state and separate from white communities because trying to integrate is demeaning, short-sighted, and a failure for several good reasons. His autobiography carefully lays out his history and motivations for his stance on black communities and white devils, and when he’s presented with new evidence throughout his life, he changes his mind—something I rarely see in politics these days, as changing one’s mind is seen as a weakness. Since my first reading, I’ve taught Malcolm X’s book for six semesters at different colleges. It’s a book that taught me to challenge what I think I know and read more to get a better perspective on history.

Many thanks to Melanie for taking part and for a fascinating choice of books. I read a lot of Sweet Valley High as a young teenager and was always an Elizabeth, although I secretly wished I was a Jessica…

I’m completely intrigued by Girl Imagined by Chance and it’s definitely one I’d look out for in the library.

Check back in next week when Elena from Books and Reviews shares her defining reads.

Announcing Reading Ireland Month!

 

It’s that time again! March is coming, my favourite month in my blogging calendar, because it’s Reading Ireland Month – will you be joining us?

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Ah, gwan, ya will!

Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies’ heads. Where they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they re-established literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe. And that is how the Irish saved civilization.

Thomas Cahill

By now you’ll know that Ireland is about so much more than shamrocks, St. Patrick and leprechauns. For a country the same size as South Carolina, it packs a hefty cultural punch. Ireland has produced four Nobel Prize winners; five Booker Prize winners; some world dominating musicians; a host of Oscar winners (and another nominated for this year’s awards) and a leading action hero from Ballymena.

We have the best pint in the world and the most stunning coastline – you could even say it’s in a galaxy far, far away.

Last year we hosted a whopping 130 posts on all things relating to Irish culture. Books, food, travel, movies, theatre and favourite bookshops – your enthusiasm was boundless and so was your reading.

So this year we hope to be bigger and better.

To celebrate the wealth and breadth and general awesomeness of Irish cultural life, 746 Books and Raging Fluff are co-hosting a month long celebration of all things Irish.

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Reading Ireland Month (or The Begorrathon as it is affectionately known) will feature book and film reviews, poems, music, interviews, giveaways and much, much more. This year I’ll be looking at female Irish Crime Writers, celebrating World Poetry Day with some new Irish Poets and compiling a list of 100 Novels by Irish Woman Writers.

We’d love for you to join us!

To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Grab our new badge and put it in your sidebar and get planning your Ireland themed reading or viewing. Like our Facebook page here and then between 1 and 31 March, post as much as you like about any aspect of Irish literature and culture – anything at all!

Read this year’s One City One Book choice Echoland by Joe Joyce. Post your wheaten bread recipe. Make a list of your favourite Irish books or movies. Eat a packet of Tayto crisps. Read a book by a female writer from Northern Ireland to support Women Aloud NI.

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Watch Game of Thrones and marvel at our countryside. Read some of last year’s award winning new fiction from Mike McCormick (Solar Bones) and Lisa McInerney (The Glorious Heresies). If you’re feeling brave, read Ulysses. Dress up as Mrs Doyle from Father Ted and take a selfie, whatever it is we don’t mind!

 

As an added incentive, everyone who posts during Reading Ireland Month will be entered into a draw to win a copy of the beautiful Irish literary journal The Winter Pages, edited by Kevin Barry.

We’re not big on rules so the ones we have are pretty straightforward:

  • Put a link to your post on our Facebook page and we’ll be sure to share it
  • Link to our master post on either of our blogs: FOR POSTS ABOUT POETS, PLAYWRIGHTS and AUTHORS, link back to Cathy at 746 Books
  • FOR POSTS ABOUT FILMS, MUSIC, TV or ANYTHING ELSE, link back to Niall at Raging Fluff
  • Watch our Reading Ireland Month trailer to give you some ideas for what to watch, read, eat or drink
  • Join the craic on Facebook
  • Check out the list of 100 Irish Novels on 746 Books blog in case you need some help choosing a book
  • Don’t forget to tweet about your post using the hashtags #readireland17 or #begorrathon17

We can’t wait to hear what you are planning. Have you any books or movies lined up? Any new authors or old favourites you might visit during March?

It’s going to be some craic….

 

More than loud acclaim,

I love Books, silence, thought, my alcove.

Pangur Bán Poem by Anon Irish Monk, Translated by Seamus Heaney

The Books That Built the Blogger with Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings!

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This week on The Books That Built the Blogger, I’m delighted to welcome Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings! Her blog has long been one of my favourites, with a fantastic mix of classics, poetry and works in translation. I was so intrigued to hear about the books that made her the reader, and blogger, she is today!

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If you’ve been reading books as long as I have, and you think of yourself as a voracious reader (I certainly am!) then it can be hard to pick out favourites. However, when Cathy asked me to contribute to her ‘Books That Built the Blogger’ series, I thought I would have a go at pinpointing some books that are particularly significant.

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As a child I was always reading, more often than not Enid Blytons, or basically anything I could get my hands on. We didn’t have much money for books, so the library was an essential port of call, and in our lovely little local one I came across Dr. Seuss’s I Had Trouble In Getting to Solla Sollew. This was completely unlike anything I usually read but I loved its combination of rhyming words and images, and the latter were particularly stunning – colourful and surreal, they took me far away from the dull everyday routine, and when I was grown up and had an income of my own for books, I soon picked up my own copy.

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Another series of books featuring strange characters and landscapes came in the form of the Gormenghast books by Melvyn Peake. I was gifted a set of these for Christmas 1978 and spent the whole of the festive period absorbed in their wonderful narrative. I still believe Peake was a genius, with his many talents from painting, book illustration poetry and novels, but his Gormenghast stories were his crowning achievement. Not only did the books affect me emotionally, but they got me involved with the Mervyn Peake Society, and I ended up helping to run this for some time.

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In my twenties I began to explore more widely 20th century women’s literature. One highly recommended author was Virginia Woolf, and the local book shop had Mrs. Dalloway, which was therefore the first Woolf I read. I loved it then and I love it still – I’d never come across anyone who played with language like she did and took the reader on such a breathtaking journey. I spent some time after discovering this book in reading all of her novels, essays, letters and diaries… 

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Another book that holds great emotional significance for me is one that was gifted by OH around the same time, on the recommendation of a friend of his. That book was Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller and reading it was revelatory. If I thought Woolf played with language, here was someone who turned it on its head! I was hooked from the very start, when Calvino described the words of the page you were reading as being obscured by the smoke of the train in the story. As with Woolf, I went on to read all of his works, developing a huge obsession with his books, and I still return to them with great joy.

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I realise that all of these books are ones I’ve read quite some time ago, so my final pick is a book I came across more recently which had a huge impact and sent me off on one of my regular bookish obsessions – “Life: A User’s Manual” by Georges Perec. I picked this up on a whim in a charity shop, having a vague memory of reading something interesting about it online, and it was one of those serendipitous finds that any bookaholic will recognise. I discovered that Perec was a part of the OuLiPo group, of which Calvino had also been a member, a group who were dedicated to playing with language. “Life” is a brilliant piece of work: long and complex, full of dazzling stories, even if you don’t get the underlying structure and constraints employed to write it, it’s still a masterpiece and utterly compelling. And needless to say I feel the need to read everything by Perec and have amassed quite a collection of his works…

So those are some of the books that made me the reader and blogger I am. Of course, if you asked me next week I might well come up with other titles – that’s the joy of reading and the joy of all the books in the world. You never know what you’ll stumble across next!

Thanks so much to Karen for taking part – what fantastic choices! I adore Mrs Dalloway, which I only read last year. I know if I had read Woolf earlier in life she would have had a profound effect on my reading. The Calvino is in the 746 so I’m looking forward to that one at some point and the George Perec sounds amazing!

Have any of these books had an influence on your reading? Don’t forget, if you’d like to take part, drop me an email to cmac2708@yahoo.co.uk

The Books That Built The Blogger: The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

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“I do something truly innovative, and who gets the prizes? Norman Mailer!”

Truman Capote

 

If I had to choose my top five favourite books of all time, two of those five would be fictionalised accounts of real life events – Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates and Underworld by Don DeLillo. There is something about a novel which has, at its base, an actual lived experience that appeals greatly to me.

My fascination with the genre is in the melding of straight, factual journalism and the imagination of the author. Like a journalist, these stories have the facts; the who, where and what and show us the surface of the story. But a fictionalised telling has the luxury of time and of research and can take the reader beyond the facts, developing characters, creating consciousness and positing theories. Non-fiction becomes novel. Tom Wolfe in his book The New Journalism said

It was in the nature of a discovery. This discovery, modest at first, humble, in fact, deferential, you might say, was that it just might be possible to write journalism that would…read like a novel. Like a novel, if you get the picture. This was the sincerest form of homage to The Novel and to those greats, the novelists, of course.

The easy assumption would be that In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, arguably the most famous of this style of writing, was the gateway to my interest, but a closer look at where my fascination started, has brought me to The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, which he classed as ‘A True Life Novel’.

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I’ve read a lot of Mailer over the years and the one thing that can be said about him is that you can never forget that Mailer is writing the book. His brashness, showiness and swagger can be both intoxicating and maddening at the same time. Mailer is no stranger to the fictionalised, journalistic approach to writing, exploring as he has the lives of Lee Harvey Oswald, Marilyn Monroe and Mohammad Ali. But it is in The Executioner’s Song that Mailer so perfectly steps into the background of his tale. Exploring the violent, short and brutal life of killer Gary Gilmore, Mailer seems to have realised that his strength lies in exercising the self-control that Gilmore himself could not. The book has its ultimate anti-hero and Mailer allows him the total focus.

Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree. She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off. Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down. They were scared. The apple trees were their grandmother’s best crop and it was forbidden to climb in the orchard. She helped him drag away the tree limb and they hoped no one would notice. That was Brenda’s earliest recollection of Gary.

Before he died, by firing squad at the age of 36, Gilmore had spent 18 of his 35 years in jail. The Executioner’s Song follows Gary’s life, from his release on parole in 1976 on the guarantee of his cousin Brenda to his execution at Utah State Prison in 1977. On parole, Gilmore was both charming and dangerous. Smart, with a talent for drawing, he couldn’t quite escape his own volatility and the prison values he had effectively grown up with. Within a matter of weeks he had moved in with Nicole Baker, an impressionable 19 year old mother of two, who adored him. Theirs was a dramatic, chaotic relationship and although they professed obsessive love for each other, Nicole was victim to his Gary’s frightening tempers and was frequently beaten.

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Gary Gilmore, 1977

 

She finally left him and Gilmore snapped. He robbed and shot an unresisting gas-station attendant and a hotel manager, but was quickly arrested and sentenced to death. Gilmore never denied his crimes, nor did he make any attempt to justify them and he agreed that he deserved to die, however, no one on Death Row in Utah had been executed in ten years. He did not want to spend the rest of this life on Death Row and despite campaigns to save him, he took a legal case for the state of Utah to kill him, by firing squad, as soon as they could. His case called the entire judicial system and the legality of the death penalty into question. Finally, after several stays of execution, Gary Gilmore got his wish and was killed by firing squad in January 1977. His fight for his sentence to be carried out was borne with a dignity and a bravery that he had not afforded his victims.

Then the Warden said, “Do you have anything you’d like to say?” and Gary looked up at the ceiling and hesitated, then said, “Let’s do it.” That was it. The most pronounced amount of courage, Vern decided, he’d ever seen, no quaver, no throatiness, right down the line.

Before his death, Gilmore sold the rights to his life story to journalist and filmmaker Larry Schiller, who then passed it to Mailer to write. Mailer called Schiller ‘a writer with no hands’ but took this story and made it into a classic of literature.

What was most surprising about this was that the Gary Gilmore story was everywhere in the 1970s. It had been pored over and pawed apart on television, in newspapers and in homes. The ending was never going to be a surprise so there would be no conventional narrative tension, therefore the question was, what was Mailer going to do with it? And could he keep ‘Norman Mailer’ out of it?

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Norman Mailer

 

What he did was to split his book into two parts. The first section ‘Western Voices’, is a direct telling of Gary Gilmore’s story from his release from prison in April 1976 to his arrest, told in the flat, plain mid-Western voices of those around him, mostly the women who were a part of his life. His cousin Brenda, his partner Nicole and his mother Betsey capture a world of desolation and hopelessness with a poignancy of passive acceptance. This, they say, is life and they can do little to change it.

What sparse imagery there is, is that of sinking, of falling – as Brenda had from the apple tree – with nothing to cushion the fall. Mailer perfectly captures the defeated working class frame of mind and allows it to take centre stage without his usual linguistic showiness. The research is meticulous, the story detailed, presenting the man behind the myth and moving relentless towards his inevitable end.

‘Eastern Voices’, the second part of the reveals how the machinery then kicks into place. The voices here – mostly male – are the lawyers, the reporters, the television anchors who covered the story. It focuses on the trial, the fight to be allowed to die and the execution and its fall out. It also features of course, Larry Schiller, whose story this literally and ultimately became. In Eastern Voices, the camera is panning out and the man at the centre, Gary Gilmore, becomes a smaller figure in a wider story which takes on a life of its own.

I think The Executioner’s Song, more than any book I’ve ever done, was an exercise in craft, I’ve never felt close to it

I feel that Mailer has done a disservice to The Executioner’s Song by referring to it as an ‘exercise’ and relegating it to the second division of his body of work. It is a vast, epic book, yet also detailed, nuanced and strangely beautiful. Mailer doesn’t ask for pity for Gilmore, Gilmore never asked for it himself, nor did he give it to his victims. And yet, we do end up feeling pity despite ourselves. The reality of the death penalty is shocking, with the last minute reprieves (sometimes with minutes to go) and the endless legal wrangling seeming often like a form of torture. As a treatise on capital punishment and human nature it is invaluable book, while also being a moving portrait of the quiet, hopeless lives rarely explored in literature.

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The Executioner’s Song was the start of my love for this genre of writing. It lead me to Joyce Carol Oates, who explored the lives of Marilyn Munroe (Blonde) and Jon-Benet Ramsey (My Sister, My Love) and the Chappaquiddick incident (Black Water) with such skill. I wouldn’t have read Gordon Burn, Don DeLillo (Libra, about Lee Harvey Oswald) or Truman Capote. More recent books such as Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites or Emma Cline’s The Girls shows that, as readers, we still want to read behind the facts and explore the worlds behind the sketched outlines.

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Tommy Lee Jones as Gary Gilmore

 

The Executioner’s Song was also made into a movie, directed by Larry Schiller with a screen play by Mailer and a searing, Emmy award-winning performance from a young Tommy Lee Jones. It is well worth checking out.

Check back in to the blog tomorrow when Karen, from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings will be talking about the books that have made her!

Bookish (and Not So Bookish) Thoughts!

Bookish (and not so bookish) Thoughts is hosted by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous – go say hi!

It’s been another busy week at 746 Books and as I am clearly not organised enough to do a review, I’m doing one of these posts instead 🙂

  • It’s all about The OA round our house at the moment – have you seen it? Ooh, so exciting! A girl, Praire, is found alive after being missing for seven years. The twist? She was blind when she went missing and now she can see. What has caused this, and why does she need a band of 5 misfits to help her find ‘the others’? The OA is incredibly smart sci-fi and I can’t wait to see how it ends
  • Last week I had the privilege of meeting novelist Deirdre Madden when she came to HomePlace to chat about her work and her life growing up just down the road from HomePlace in Toomebridge. I’m a major fan of Madden’s work and reviewed Molly Fox’s Birthday here and it was such a treat to meet her.
  • I do love it when books and music meet and so far this month I’ve been listening non-stop to Max Richter’s new composition Woolf Works, the music to a new ballet triptych about the life of Virgina Woolf. Woolf Works is currently on at the Royal Opera House in London and the description on the website sounds amazing.

    Virginia Woolf defied the false order of narrative conventions to depict a heightened, startling and poignant reality. Woolf Works re-creates the synaesthetic collision of form and substance in her writings.

    The music is stunning. Do yourself a favour and have a listen!

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A scene from Woolf Works

 

 

  • I am starting to get geared up for Reading Ireland Month next month and am prepping like mad. I was lucky enough to get sent a review copy of Lisa McInerney’s new book The Blood Miracles. A follow up to The Glorious Heresies, I can attest to the fact that it is just as good as its predecessor and will certainly cement McInerney’s reputation as a literary force to be reckoned with.

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  • Finally, and most excitedly, I have managed to get tickets to hear the amazing George Saunders read at the Mountains to the Sea Festival in Dublin next month. He’ll be reading from his new book Lincoln at the Bardo and the hubbie has offered to buy me a copy so that I don’t break my book-buying ban….I’m a bit of a cheat, I know, but come on! It’s George Saunders! I have to get him to sign my book!

George Saunders,

Has anyone else been up to anything bookish, or not so bookish? Now that I’ve finished procrastinating, I should really go and write a proper review. Or watch another episode of The OA….

The Books that Built the Blogger with Rachel from Confessions of a Book Geek!

 

 

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This week on The Books that Built the Blogger, I have the fantastic Rachel from Confessions of a Book Geek. I had been following Rachel for a while before we realised that we both live in the same town in Northern Ireland! She is a font of all YA knowledge and I love her enthusiasm and insight.

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Hi! I’m Rachel from Confessions of a Book Geek, and I’m here to share with you five books that have shaped my reading, or had an impact on the kind of books I tend to gravitate towards. As a kind-of millennial (I think I’m just a little too old to be considered a “proper” one), it’s so tempting to shout “Harry Potter!” for any and all questions relating to my favourite books, books that made me, books that shaped me, books I’m obsessed with, etc. I’m not sure if it counts as a book that has shaped my reading… but it’s a book that has shaped my life, and that has to count for something, right? I’ve decided to challenge myself with this post though, so I’m not including HP in the official five (though do you like how I still snuck it in there? Had to be done).

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This is a massively under-rated YA novel, set in London, telling the story of four teens; Brie is in love with her best friend, Charlie, who is gay. Charlie lusts after Walker (a bit of a bad-boy), who is obsessed with Daisy, a lesbian. I read this when I was about 15 or 16, and it was the first time I’d ever read anything with LGBT characters. I read a lot of books, and all these years later, I remember the characters and story vividly. It doesn’t feel like that long ago, but the past ten years have made a big difference to LGBT awareness, and back then, this book pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me want to read more books that represent diverse communities.

 

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I always enjoyed History as a subject in school, but I never really engaged with how it was taught, or the fact that we had to memorise lists of names and dates for exams. It made History dull, and often boring. I fell in love with The Tudors TV series, and then The White Queen TV series, so when I realised it was based on Gregory’s books, I HAD to get my hands on them. I fell IN LOVE instantly, and my experience made me chase down more fantastic historical fiction reads. Ones based on true stories are even better (such as my favourite book of 2016, The Double Life of Mistress Kit Kavanagh, *hint hint*).

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This was the first Picoult book I ever read (I’ve since gone on to collect many books by this author), and it introduced me to the world of family sagas/dramas, or “issues” books, as I like to call them. I bawled my eyes out to this book, and I’m not a crier. Picoult led me to Diane Chamberlain (who I got to interview on my blog!), and now if any book is compared to either of these authors’ work, I’m interested. These books are typically very well researched, and focus on a key family dynamic, illness, or struggle, that broadens the reader’s horizons and gives you a new perspective on life.

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This was recommended reading in my school Book Club when I was 17. When I read it, I was surprised our teacher was allowing us to read this, let alone recommending it, but I’m so glad she did. It’s dark, gritty, and incredibly complex. A fantastic novel that recounts a school shooting and mass murder, told from the point-of-view of the perpetrator’s mother, which really examines the “nature v nurture” debate. Not only has this particular book stayed with me, but it opened my eyes to psychological thrillers, and also started my interest in true crime.

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Until Colleen Hoover, I didn’t know “New Adult” fiction was even a thing. In case you’re not familiar with New Adult, check out a guest post I wrote for Dani Reviews Things that goes in to more detail. New Adult essentially focuses on protagonists aged 20-30, who are dealing with all sorts of new experiences as they transition from adolescence, into being adults. At 26 years of age, as you can imagine, these stories are usually pretty relatable for me (even if the romance plots are not!). As with all genres, there are some crappy NA books out there, but when you find a good’un (Hoover is my QUEEN), they could open your eyes to a whole new category of books for you to devour.

What a great list from Rachel and I am delighted to see We Need to Talk About Kevin on there, such a fantastic book. Are any of your favourites on Rachel’s list?

 

 

The Books that Built the Blogger: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

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When I was in my final year at Queens University in Belfast, my reading habit really took hold. My modules meant that the style of books I was reading was expanding and I really started buying books in earnest. Most days saw me browsing in the University Bookshop near my student flat, buying books because I liked the name, or the cover, or had heard of the author but hadn’t read their work yet.

I can’t remember what drew me to The Secret History by Donna Tartt – the cover was austere, verging on the dull and I had never heard of the author, but something about the title and the premise appealed to me so I bought it on a whim. When at last I read it, it was more than I could have hoped for and it has become the book I have reread most; the book I have lent to friends most and oddly, my comfort read. The Secret History is the book I credit with sparking my interest in crime fiction and it contains themes that have become my favourite in literature – from the campus setting to the unreliable narrator. I have loved Tartt’s other books, but for me, nothing comes close to the power of The Secret History.

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The story is the perfect blend of intellectual pursuit and page-turning thrills as it tells the story of a close knit group of classics students at a private college in Vermont, who, under the influence of their charismatic tutor Julian, kill a man during a Bacchanalian rite and then are forced to turn on one of their own. Taking the themes and atmospheres of classical literature, the book is a brooding, menacing, wildly intelligent tale told in fresh and vibrant prose.

This was my first introduction to the ‘campus novel’ and I was intrigued by the golden glow of this Vermont world, the picturesque setting and the fiercely intelligent students. The campus novel also intrigues because it captures that moment in time when you are set free to learn and play and experiment and work out who you really are. While reading The Secret History, I was planning the next stage of my life – moving to a new city on my own to do a Masters and I could relate to this idea that I was teetering on the edge of new horizons where anything might be possible.

It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together–my future, my past, the whole of my life–and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!

The Secret History also introduced me to the narrator as outsider, as potentially unreliable and questionable. Richard, in the prologue, tells us of a murder ‘for which I was partly responsible’ and the joy of the book comes from the apprehension of the ‘why’ rather than the surprise of the ‘what’. Richard, like the reader, is perfectly suited to be entranced by this group of students. He has no other friends, is not close with his family and is ready to create a new narrative for his life. He becomes subsumed in this smart, conceited group and like Nick in The Great Gatsby, he is drawn to their beauty until he cannot look away.

It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves?

This is Richard’s fatal flaw – like all great Greek heroes, he has one – he feels ordinary against the beauty of his friends. He never quite feels deserving. All his hopes are projected on to them and the fact of being a member of their group is enough for him to go along with whatever they say. I have often thought of The Secret History as a companion piece to Lord of the Flies where the isolation of the group is not geographical, but intellectual, and where left to their own devices, the group will eventually turn on itself.

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Donna Tartt

 

By aligning the reader with Richard, Tartt invites us, like him, to join this charismatic, elegant select group, to be a witness to their secret history and keep it close. We are in her confidence and we are in awe. She takes you back to that time where everything felt possible and everything seemed perfect and where the idea of growing up and growing apart was impossible to bear.

The Secret History is 25 years old this year and in my mind has become a classic novel and an unforgettable novel, one that I plan on reading again and again.