The Books that Built the Blogger with Elena from Books and Reviews!

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Today on the blog I am delighted to welcome Elena from Books and Reviews, one of my favourite bloggers whose fantastic reviews cover mainly crime fiction. I love her insightful reviews and feminist critiques and hope you’ll check out her blog!

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I have been a voracious reader of crime fiction since I was 2. I am not kidding. Back in the early 1990’s there was an amazing book about a group of animals that lost a cake in the forest called The Lost Cake – although no pictures of said book survive. The plot centred on their quest, and the final finding of the cake to everyone’s happiness. My Mum always remembers how much I loved the story, and the joy I got from learning, once again, that the cake was found. So much so, that I wanted the book to be read aloud to me at least twice a day. Apparently, it was a nightmare for both my parents, although they now remember those nights with love. To their joy, I learned to read, I eventually grew out of the story.

I spent my childhood reading almost everything that I could lay my hands on. My parents would buy me as many books as they could afford, but I also browsed my grandparents’ and aunt’s libraries in search for my next read. I remember trying to read Tom Sawyer – and miserably failing! – when I was 8, just because I loved the cover from a collection aimed at young readers that my grandparents got as soon as they discovered my passion for books. Around this time, I also got my first library card, and tried – I still do – to use it as much as I can. Remember libraries count on us to stay alive, especially in times of economic crises, like the one Spain went through during my childhood. Despite the volume of books available to me, I must admit I spent a few years trapped between children’s literature and more adult stories. I lusted after covers of adults’ books and I used to browse the mystery and crime section at our local shop to no avail. Children’s literature did not appeal to me, and I was scared by adults’ books – after all I was an 8-year old pounding on the possibility of reading adult crime fiction.

And then I was handed a quick way out of that limbo: My aunt presented me her collection of comic books, though not the ones that you are imagining. These were two volumes of literary classics adapted to comic format that made it very easy to me to explore more adult narratives in a more approachable way. My 10-year old was in heaven! I would carefully explore both volumes before deciding on a story, always with a renewed desire to find a story that would make me feel like my lost cake. Even though these stories were – now I see it – mainly written by white, English/American men, they meant the key to a new world, or at least, a necessary rite of passage in Western literature. And one day, I found a story that excited me more than my lost cake:

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The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the first Sherlock Holmes story that I read, but also the first adult novel that I allowed myself to read. Back then it took me a few attempts to go through the grotesque depiction of the hound in the comic, but everyone in my family kept encouraging me to keep reading. I did, and once I finished reading the story I asked my parents for the real deal: My first Sherlock Holmes book. Since I had always been a voracious reader, my parents looked at me with a mix of love and sadness knowing I was no longer a children’s books reader, and there was no way back. My adult book hauling had started.

I live in a small town and although the book was not available at our local bookshop, they requested it to the publisher for me. They promised they would call me, and I patiently waited by the phone for days. I’m actually still waiting, as they never called. Seeing how important the book was to me, my parents decided to take me to the City. I remember browsing the mystery section, which I saw with new eyes now that I was familiar with that formidable detective that I so much admired. I discovered them, as I squealed telling me parents, that he was famous, very famous, and there were so many books that I imagined I had a lifetime of crime stories to read. From that moment on, I would request a Sherlock Holmes book to anyone who offered to buy me a gift.

The problem with the Canon is that is extensive, except if you are a pre-teen who would only read Sherlock Holmes. In less than a year I was left with five Sherlock Holmes stories. I decided then I did not want to live in a world where there are no Holmes stories left for me to discover, and I have kept that childish promise to myself until the present day. Instead, I focused on compulsory readings at high school, learning English, and reading British, and American literature. Even though I am Spanish, I have always drifted towards English culture, a passion that everyone in my family still holds dear nowadays. During this period, I discovered three female sisters who died young but wrote dark novels in 19th century England. I discovered the power of the Mississippi and male friendship; and the cold winter in New England where four sisters gave away their Christmas breakfast to a family in need. I read as much as I can, already showing an interest for women authors, and thinking myself the Beth of my life story, even though I am clearly a Jo. For a while, I left crime fiction and instead abandoned myself to tales that resonated with the sometimes hard process of growing up.

When at 18, I had to decide what to study at university, I was caught up between Philosophy and Spanish Grammar. I was really good at both subjects in high school, and I thought I could pull off a degree in any of them without much effort. But, less than 24 hours before the deadline to apply ended, I looked at my bookshelves just in time to realise that they were crowded with books from the UK, and the States. What if I could make of my passion my profession? Could it be THAT easy? As I announced my decision to my family, they all sighted in relief: ‘We didn’t want to interfere with your decision, but it was so clear English Studies is your thing!’ So, English Studies it was for me! During my degree, I had amazing lecturers who taught me the classics, and even offered extra reading, sometimes lending me their own personal copies of books that were not in the programme. Back then I read two or three books a week, all related to the subjects I was studying. I loved every single literature class. I loved to study a text, and finding the structure. Mapping out the characters’ development. Deconstructing the hidden meanings of every line. It was hard work. I did not have much free time. And I was at my happiest. But I had no time for crime fiction, and needless to say, it was no included in the programme. Until I met MS.

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Just half an hour talking to MS in her office about my reading habits and my reading she knew I had a passion for crime fiction. She was the person who told me I could study crime fiction. And since she is an English Literature professor and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my English Degree, I believed her. But again, I found myself thinking: Could it be THAT easy? Can some of the hardest decisions in life be made this easily? This was 8 years ago, and I have never looked back. I have studied crime fiction under MS’s tutelage since then. I wrote my dissertation about the Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series. I wrote my MA dissertation about the television show Rizzoli & Isles, and I am currently writing my doctoral thesis about forensic crime fiction. Words cannot express how lucky I feel that I have found someone who understands why my bookshelves are crowded with crime novels.

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It was also under her advice that I discovered Patricia Cornwell and the Kay Scarpetta series. My inspiration! The reason I have decided to pursue a PhD in Humanities with no funding! The one person with whom I share lack of sleep and lots of coffee! After reading the first novels in the series, I decided to explore more contemporary crime fiction. What if there was a bunch of female forensic doctors out there who understand me better than some real people? Enter Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan series – and their television adaptation Bones – who have also taught me that it takes a lot of hard work to get to where you want to be. But can be made. So keep working! Do not never give up!

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I credit Dr. Maura Isles – from the TV adaptation of the Rizzoli & Isles series, I’m just discovering Tess Gerritsen’s novels! – with teaching me that you do not have to adhere to social constructions, and if you want to go to a crime scene with your new Louboutin’s, you can. And you should be proud. Even though they are fictional, these women have taught me more about resilience, ambition, and work ethic than any teacher did during elementary school.. I am constantly surprised by their power as fictional characters, but I am also honoured to have met them, and have them in my life. There is nothing I like more than a (fictional) morgue when I’m stressed!

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As I see it now, my life has just been a succession of realising my passion for books could be turned into something useful. Something similar has happened with my blog Books & Reviews, which I started inspired by a friend, and has now become a key part of my career and my online identity. However, I would not be here if it weren’t for the books mentioned here, and all the wonderful authors that made me discover that I can be a Humanities person and still love medicine and forensic science. Reading is an act of self-discovery, but it is also a rebellion against social, familiar and professional expectations that try to label us. Crime fiction has taught me that the status quo can be questioned, and that it is possible to get out of your comfort zone and come out of it triumphant.

What a fantastic post from Elena! It’s so interesting that Arthur Conan Doyle features frequently on crime writing fans lists, clearly an incredibly influential writer.

Are any of your favourites on this list?

It may be Reading Ireland Month here at 746 Books in a week, but The Books that Built the Blogger will continue, and next week I’m delighted to feature Susan from the brilliant A Life in Books!

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!

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.

 

The Books that Built the Blogger: The Twelfth Day of July by Joan Lingard

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The book I have chosen for this week’s The Book That Built the Blogger is Joan Lingard’s 1970 book The Twelfth Day of July – another book that would probably be considered YA today but which opened my eyes to the possibilities of where books could go – and more imp

The Twelfth Day of July was first published in 1970 when I was 9 years old, however I think I was at least 13 when I read it.

Written by Joan Lingard, who spent her teenage years in Northern Ireland, The Twelfth Day of July is the first in a quintet of books, often known as the ‘Kevin and Sadie’ series. Acting as a kind of retelling of the Romeo & Juliet tale, the books follow the lives of Kevin, a Catholic and Sadie a Protestant as they grow up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, meeting as teenagers and following them until they become adults with children of their own.

Despite living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, The Twelfth Day of July struck a chord with me for one main reason. It had never occurred to me that someone could write a book about where I came from. Up until that point, I believed that everyone I wanted to read about either went to boarding school in England or high school in America. The idea that the experience of living in Northern Ireland was valid material for a book – and not a history book! – was beyond me.

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Joan Lingard also manages a great balancing act with this novel. She does not take sides. The books two opening chapters focus on the same dinner time in two separate households. One Protestant and one Catholic and the first thing that strikes the reader is the similarities between the two rather than the differences. This probably seems like a sensible approach nowadays, but writing in the 1970s with the actual Troubles as the backdrop makes it all the more striking.

She also created a fantastic female protagonist in the character of Sadie – brash, ballsy and smart, she never sees herself as being anything but equal to any of the men in her life. As the book opens, Sadie and her brother Tommy are getting ready for the biggest day in the Protestant calendar – the 12th of July. A few streets down, Kevin and his mates are planning to deface a mural of ‘King Billy’ – William of Orange – however Sadie catches them in the act and starts a feud between the two which eventually goes horribly wrong, before bringing them closer together.

The Twelfth Day of July could also have gone horribly wrong, by becoming preachy or strident. However Lingard has a sure touch and the books are realistic in depicting both the difficulties of having a relationship with someone from ‘the other side’ and in how ordinary, everyday life carries on even in the middle of conflict. She tells a difficult story with humour and a light touch, but also doesn’t skirt away from the real issues that faced the population of Northern Ireland during those years.

I grew up with Kevin and Sadie, recognised the situation they were living in and relished a book that explored my home country with all its beauty and all its flaws. Although it might read like history now, it wasn’t history when it was written or when I was reading it

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Joan Lingard

 

The books in the ‘Kevin and Sadie’ Quintet, comprise of: The Twelfth Day of July (1970); Across the Barricades (1972); Into Exile (1973); A Proper Place (1975); and Hostages to Fortune (1976) – and they follow Kevin and Sadie as they fall in love, move to England and raise a family, all under the shadow of where they have been born and the religions they have been born into. The effect these books had on me was to make me realise that literature can spring from anywhere and that all experiences, even ones like my own are stories in their own right.

Did anyone else read these books? I wonder if they were just popular in Northern Ireland? It would be great to know if they were read anywhere else.

Join me tomorrow when the fantastic FictionFan will share the books that made her the blogger she is today!

 

 

The Books that Built the Blogger with Naomi Frisby

I’m delighted to welcome Naomi Frisby to kick off The Books That Built the Blogger with her list of five books that have influenced her reading and her blogging.

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Naomi blogs at The Writes of Woman and I love her insightful reviews of books by women writers, her work with championing more diverse reading and her fortnightly feature In The Media, which has a round up of fascinating links to women and women’s literature happening in the media. Here are her choices:

The Busconductor Hines – James Kelman

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The Busconductor Hines changed my life. I was 17, studying for my A Levels in a town described by the media as a ‘Northern wasteland’. I read a lot and listened to music and these two things had brought me, via The NME and Select, to the then recently published Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. I taped a Channel 4 documentary on three Scottish writers – Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway and James Kelman – watching each episode at home in ‘free periods’ when everyone else was out. It was Kelman who interested me the most. The next time I was in the town centre, I took myself to Barnsley Library and searched for his name. They had three books by him, two short story collections and a novel. I took the novel.

The Busconductor Hines taught me that you can write about ordinary people and you can do so in their accent. It was the first time I’d seen someone like me represented on the page. It began a lifelong love affair not only with working class literature but also with the work of Scottish and Irish writers and the places they hail from too.

The Electric Michelangelo – Sarah Hall

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When I was at university, I began reading the books shortlisted for The Booker Prize each year. It was a conscious decision to read more contemporary literary fiction and, as I had no other guide as to what or who to read, reading the list seemed as good as any. The Electric Michelangelo was shortlisted in 2004 by which time I was back in the ‘Northern wasteland’ teaching English to secondary school students. This book provided an unusual link between my past, present and future. Past: we used to go to on a family day out to Morecambe in the summer holidays, which is where the first part of the book is set. Present: I was (and still am) obsessed with New York City and its outer boroughs. The second part of the book is set in Coney Island. Future: It would spark an obsession with sideshows and lead to me undertaking a Ph.D. in Creative Writing, the thesis element of which looks at female bodies in circus literature.

Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine

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At the end of 2014, I saw a tweet from Nikesh Shukla calling on people doing their end of year reading round-ups to look at the number of books by writers of colour they’d read that year. Mine was an appalling 10%. I decided to do something about it, consciously choosing books by women of colour to read and review on my blog. Citizen: An American Lyric was the first. What I didn’t know then was that the year would end with me co-running #diversedecember with Dan Lipscombe, a reaction to an all-white World Book Night list, and that the campaign would make the front cover of The Guardian Review. Reading Citizen was the beginning of a permanent change in my reading habits and it’s taken me to so many excellent books I might otherwise never have read.

The House in Smyrna – Tatiana Salem Levy

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Like The Busconductor Hines, The House in Smyrna made me realise what’s possible in literature. It wasn’t the first piece of experimental fiction I read but it was the first that I think I really understood; I could see how its seemingly disparate parts fit together to create a complete picture. It’s also the story of a woman and I think I spent so long reading books by and about men that I hadn’t considered the possibilities when it comes to telling women’s stories. Not long after reading this, I sought out more experimental fiction by and about women and I started writing my own.

Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

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Homesick for Another World has only recently been published but it’s on my list because it made me realise just how powerful short story collections can be. Not only does every story in this collection stand-alone but the book, as a whole, creates a picture of current society and finds it hypocritical. It made me take the neglected short story collections (of which there were quite a number) off my shelves and begin to work my way through them. I’ve discovered some real gems so far and am hoping for more as I brush the rest of the dust away.

Many thanks to Naomi for that fantastic list. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read any of these! I did read How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman and marvelled at his use of language and I read Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh last year and loved it and always welcome a new short story collection!

Have you read any of Naomi’s choices?

Remember, if you’d like to take part in The Books That Built the Blogger, just drop me an email at cmac2708@yahoo.co.uk. I’d love to hear from you!