Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 1 of 20)

The Secret History – Donna Tartt

Some authors manage to make a big impact, despite having a relatively small body of work. Harper Lee is one, Gillian Flynn is another – and, of course, Donna Tartt. Her debut novel, The Secret History, was first published back in 1992, and she’s only published two other books since then. And yet, she’s manage to define a niche genre (dark academia), top best-seller lists, win awards, and win herself a legion of fans around the world.

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The Secret History is a campus novel, set at a fictional(ish) elite liberal arts college in New England. I say “ish” because Tartt based it on Bennington College, where she was a student in the ’80s. (She even dedicates the novel to fellow student Bret Easton Ellis.) The story follows six classics students, who become increasingly isolated from the rest of the school community as they deal with the fall-out of a murder.

I suppose you could make an argument that anything else I say about The Secret History could constitute a “spoiler”… but really, I don’t care. It’s an iconic 30-year-old novel. Deal with it.

Besides, Tartt gives a lot away up front. The Prologue to The Secret History is a masterpiece – up there with the opening chapter of Lolita. In it, Tartt reveals that Bunny, one of the students, is dead, but the full circumstances of his death are only hinted at in the vaguest terms. It’s a hell of an opener, and it compels you to read on immediately.

What follows is a kind of inverted detective story, where the events around Bunny’s murder are laid out in chronological order, with tantalising clues about what’s to come sprinkled throughout the narrative. The narrator, Richard, is an outsider, with a very different background to the others (he’s working-class California to their old-money East Coast). He’s as enthralled by the classics teacher, Julian, as the rest of them, but still new enough to question some of the odd behaviours and habits that they all exhibit.

Richard notices that, as close as the classics students are, they seem to be keeping secrets – from him, and from each other. He’s baffled by, for instance, Henry’s willingness to foot the bill for Bunny’s extravagant tastes. Charles and Camilla seem too close, even for twins. Francis is clearly gay, but no one says or does anything to acknowledge it. All of them show up with strange injuries, hide things in closets, carry on private conversations in Greek. What the heck is up with that?

You can see how I found myself gripped by The Secret History. Something is going on in this story, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it! Tartt’s prose is exquisitely detailed, with startling revelations and intriguing mysteries. By about a third of the way through, I was pretty sure I could see where it was all going, but she still managed to weave in a couple of surprises. The tension was almost too much at times – I gave myself a headache from clenching my teeth, more than once. Plus, the chapters are looooooooong, which made it difficult to take a break. Even at 500+ pages, the temptation to read the whole thing in one sitting is real.

In the hands of a lesser writer, The Secret History would have been beyond the pale. But Tartt is convincing, too convincing, and you’ll find yourself drawn in unquestioningly as the story unfolds. Michiko Kakutani, the legendary New York Times book reviewer, put it perfectly: “It is a measure of Ms. Tartt’s complete assurance and skill as a writer that these shocking, melodramatic events are made to seem plausible to the reader as well. The bacchanal, the plotting of Bunny’s murder, the implication that Henry may in fact be Dionysus or the Devil himself: such seemingly preposterous notions are enfolded, through Ms. Tartt’s supple, decorous prose, into the texture of everyday student life, a familiar, recognizable life of exams, parties and classes.”

All the way through, I kept thinking back to Crime And Punishment. The Secret History is essentially the same story, but brought forward into the late 20th century, to All American academia. I loved Dostoyevsky’s psychological drama, too, so I guess I just have a thing for books about conflicted murderers.

The trigger warnings may seem obvious: violence, murder, death, and so on. But I also want to give a heads up for alcoholism, incest, epithets – and, of course, a couple of dog deaths 🙁 The first comes early and very brief (less than one paragraph), but the second is violent and cruel and made me feel sick.

In the end, The Secret History is as good as everyone says it is. Its enduring popularity is entirely deserved. I’ll be joining the ranks of Donna Tartt fans, hanging desperately onto hope that a new novel is coming from her very, very soon – she’s past due!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Secret History:

  • “If you wanna read a book that is close to 600 pages that is 99% rich whiney kids drinking heavily and complaining about their feelings, then this is the book for you.” – eric Beheler
  • “I can’t believe Jenna Bush Hager said this book was a pillar of literature. It is more like a cement block that all copies of this book should be tied to and thrown overboard. The author drones on and on about 5 college students who kill a fellow student and then 1.) drink 2.) smoke 3.) eat 4.) take baths and 5.) wear suits and ties and 6.) talk ad nauseum about what they have done. I can’t even figure out what decade it is set in.” – Bluetooth Rookie
  • “The most boring read of my life, and I’m a damn lawyer. I’ve read bankruptcy statutes with more zest.” – Jaye Lindsay
  • “I bought this book nearly 25 years ago and just got around to reading it. I wonder if it’s too late to get my money back?” – Shatterbox

Luster – Raven Leilani

Luster looks like a typo, but it’s not. I promise! This is Raven Leilani’s debut novel, published back in 2020. It was an instant New York Times best seller upon release, it set book clubs ablaze with ample conversation fodder, and reviewers went gaga for its intense prose and millennial sensibility.

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My edition was blurbed by Candice Carty-Williams (“the most delicious novel I’ve read”), Zadie Smith (“brutal – and brilliant”), and Brit Bennett (“I couldn’t put this one down”). But those sought-after recommendations don’t compare to the avalanche of recommendations I received from readers, booksellers, and loved ones.

Luster follows Edie, a 20-something Black woman who gets involved with Eric, a middle-aged white man. He’s in an “open” marriage – aside from his wife’s obvious displeasure with the arrangement, and her hand-written list of rules that Edie has to all but sign in blood. Already, you’re probably rolling your eyes at Edie’s terrible decision making, but let they among us who didn’t make poor romantic decisions in their 20s cast the first stone.

Where Luster gets weird is that Edie’s relationship with Eric takes a back-seat, quite early on. Instead, the propulsion comes from her interactions with Eric’s wife, Rebecca, and their adopted (Black) daughter, 12-year-old Akila. When Edie loses her job while Eric is out of town, a series of strange (somewhat over-the-top) coincidences sees her move into the family home with Rebecca and Akila, where she becomes a ersatz family member, an aunt and an errand girl and an in-home authority on Blackness(TM), who just happens to be fucking the patriarch.

Edie and Rebecca really evoked The Age Of Innocence for me (the fact that both Leilani and Wharton’s novels are set in New York helps). It’s the hot mess versus the cool cucumber, the sexed-up mistresses versus the domesticated wife, and the passive man in the middle, feeling sorry for himself. Even the endings match up – Eric ends up staying with his wife, and no one comes out of it unharmed.

Luster levels-up on Wharton, though, by introducing the race element. Being a white Australian, I’m obviously in no position of authority to speak on this and I probably missed at least half of what was going on. But the fact of both Edie and Akila being Black, and Akila being raised by white parents, makes for fascinating power shifts in the already-dysfunctional family dynamics.

The prose is witty, sharp, explicit, and matter-of-fact. As messy as Edie’s mental state is, her narration of Luster is dry and acutely observational. Leilani does really interesting things with sentence structure, extending clause-upon-clause before punctuating the paragraph with one short jab. It sounds complicated, and was probably a bitch to write, but it makes for very smooth and entertaining reading. I think it’s testament to Leilani’s mastery of the prose that Edie never gets too frustrating, despite her bad decision making, and the plot never stretches too far beyond believability (which was always a real risk – see above, strange coincidences).

I will offer trigger warnings, too, for abortion/miscarriage, violence, suicide, and yet another dog death. The latter happens off-page, but was described in enough detail to make me recoil. Luster‘s content, on the whole, is pretty discomfiting and I’d imagine there’s a large segment of readers who won’t be inclined to it. But for those of us who are willing to sit with the discomfort and let Leilani take us where she wants to go, it’s a very worthwhile read.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Luster:

  • “talk about cardboard characterization. Edie is flatter than the cardboard on a break dancing floor.” – jcsreader
  • “Not impressed by a TwentySomething author who just invented sex, self-debasement and irony.” – Stacia
  • “The only positive thing I can say is the book is short at 200+ pages, so the torture is short-lived.” – DWC

Well Met – Jen DeLuca

“All is faire in love and war.” That’s the slogan of Well Met, an enemies-to-lovers romance novel that takes place in the unlikely setting of a small-town Renaissance Faire. I’m a sucker for a kooky premise like that, so of course, I had to read it.

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The heroine, Emily, is in her mid-20s and coming off the back of a rotten break-up. She moves to Willow Creek, a (fictional) small town in Maryland, to help her sister and niece recuperate after a serious car crash. Emily finds herself roped into volunteering at the local Renaissance Faire, an annual fundraiser (for what exactly is never specified). So far, so good.

The love interest is Simon, a bloke with a stick up his arse if there ever was one. He runs the Renaissance Faire to honour his older brother, who passed away a few years prior to the beginning of Well Met. He doesn’t take kindly to Emily’s bemused attitude to all things Faire-y, and they “clash” a few times in rehearsals (though, I must say, it doesn’t amount to much more than a few loaded comments and glares).

I’ve got to say, I don’t know anything about Renaissance Faires. I can’t recall ever having seen one here in Australia – I think they’re an American thing. The preparations they undergo in Well Met seem a lot more thorough than I would have expected, far beyond putting on a costume and throwing a few “ye”s and “thou”s into conversation. I suspect DeLuca might’ve taken some creative license, giving Emily and Simon more time in the pressure cooker so that their enemies-to-lovers angle really popped – but I could be wrong.

Once the Faire begins, Emily and Simon begin flirting – under the guise of their Faire characters, a tavern wench and a pirate. Before long, the flirtation starts to feel real, and Emily starts to wonder whether she and Simon could make a go of it in the present.

Well Met is very easy to read. Emily’s sunny nature makes for delightful narration (without ever becoming grating), and the plot is perfectly paced. Sure, the characters get a bit Extra at points, but it’s a romance novel. That’s expected.

Now, if you know anything about me, you know I like my romances “spicy” (as the kids say these days). I’m pleased to report there are some good sexy bits in Well Met, in a couple of chapters. Of course, I would’ve liked to see more – but I always want to see more, so you can’t set much store by that.

I appreciated that, while Emily and Simon’s romance is the driving force behind the plot, there are a lot of other fascinating characters and non-romantic relationships at play. There’s Chris, the bookstore owner who hires Emily, and plays the Queen at the Faire in her spare time. There’s Stacey, a fellow tavern wench who seems a bit vacant but very supportive. There’s Mitch, the uber-sexy phys-ed teacher who plays the kilted Scotsman of the Faire. And, most importantly, there’s April and Caitlin, Emily’s sister and niece respectively; their family relationships haven’t always been perfect, but there’s a nice little arc that sees them closer by the end of Well Met.

With this strong supporting cast, DeLuca did an excellent job at leaving doors open for future books in the Well Met series, without being too heavy-handed about it, or leaving threads dangling. Since it was published in 2019, it’s been followed-up by Well Played (2020), Well Matched (2021), and Well Traveled (2022). I’ll definitely be seeking those out – DeLuca has won herself a fan! In the mean-time, I highly recommend this fun feel-good summer romance.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Well Met:

  • “Perfect woman meets man consumed by his brothers death and she fixes everything, saved you the trouble.” – Jlo
  • “If these two had super powers it’d be jumping to conclusions in 0.2 seconds.” – TechieArtMama
  • “I was enjoying this book until the main character crippled herself with doubt making a molehill out of an ant, or whatever the heck that saying is.” – Swendog Millionaire

Nothing To See Here – Kevin Wilson

I heard the conceit of Nothing To See Here and it was all I needed to know. “A politician’s kids spontaneously combust, threatening his political career” – I am HERE FOR IT! I rushed out to find myself a copy immediately.

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So, in 1995, Lillian is 28-years-old and down on her luck, living in her mother’s attic in Tennessee. She could’ve lived the good life instead – she could’ve been a contender! – but her mother was bribed into letting her take the fall for her roommate’s drug possession back in high school. So, she drifts from shitty job to shitty job, barely able to see past the fog of poverty and depression. She has a dark sense of humour and a wicked pragmatism that I thoroughly enjoy.

The inciting incident of Nothing To See Here comes when Lillian receives a letter, from that roommate who escaped a drug charge. Madison is every bit as luminous and charismatic as she was in high school, but now she’s a senator’s wife and lives in a mansion paid for with his family’s wealth. Madison writes to Lillian, begging her to come take her up on a “job opportunity”. Lacking any better options, Lillian accepts.

She doesn’t know until she gets there that the “job opportunity” is taking care of Madison’s step-kids. Who spontaneously combust, at inconvenient times. They need to be kept out of sight, and out of mind.

Seriously, they spontaneously combust. Just… whoosh!

‘How are they still alive?’ I asked.

‘It doesn’t hurt them at all,’ she said, shrugging to highlight how dumbfounded she was. ‘They just get really red, like a bad sunburn, but they’re not hurt.’

‘What about their clothes?’ I asked.

‘I’m still figuring this out, Lillian,’ she said. ‘I guess their clothes burn off.’

‘So they’re just these naked kids on fire?’

‘I think so. So you can understand why we’re worried.’

Nothing TO See Here

Lillian agrees to look after these “fire children” for the summer, keeping them out of view of the media and Madison’s husband’s political opponents. (Needless to say, “fire children” might pose a problem for his future presidential aspirations.) That’s easier said than done, but Lillian’s willing to give it a crack for some money in the bank and the chance of a fresh start.

Nothing To See Here is a novel about class, about the divide between wealth and poverty. Lillian’s entire life trajectory is changed, first by Madison’s crime (which wasn’t even a blip on her own record, expunged by money and influence), then by Madison’s exploitation of her desperation in seeking her out for help. It’s a powerful allegory for the limitations of class mobility and inequity of opportunity.

If you were rich, and you were a dude, it really felt like if you just followed a certain number of steps, you could do pretty much whatever you wanted.

Nothing To See Here

As much as Lillian envies Madison’s wealth and privilege, though, Wilson does manage to sneak some sympathy in the side entrance. Madison’s preoccupation with “appearances” and politics prevents her from developing any kind of relationship with the children, a relationship that Lillian ultimately finds immensely rewarding and fulfilling (though, obviously, not without its challenges).

It’s also a fascinating study of female friendship, with Lillian and Madison being essentially grown “frenemies”, while still caring deeply for one another. There are queer overtones, with Lillian’s admiration for Madison tipping over into outright lust at times. It’s difficult to understand, unless you’ve been a woman in this kind of friendship, what would make Lillian feel in anyway drawn to or obligated to Madison after what happened in high school – but she does. It’s one of those illogical relationships that somehow makes perfect sense, and Wilson renders it beautifully on the page.

There was less about the politician husband than I expected. I thought this novel was going to be along the lines of Veep, but it was more like My Brilliant Friend – except more humorous and pithy. So, I guess I’d call Nothing To See Here contemporary feminist fiction meets political satire with a speculative fiction element. That’s one heck of a combination, I know, but Wilson truly nails it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Nothing To See Here:

  • “Interesting premise – a pair of twins who burst into flames now and again when they are upset. Implausible? Sure, but that’s beside the point. He never explains why the kids catch fire and you don’t expect him to – all kids catch on fire now and again in a sense. It’s one of them metaphor things.” – Dave the L
  • “I tend to prefer a more serious genre, but once in a while I need to lighten up and this story did it for me. I wasn’t even offended by the main character’s intermittent use of the F word because it was an essential contribution to her character.” – vito catalfio
  • “Stupid . No plot, no body, no reality. So many holes in this book that the pages could be made of Swiss cheese.” – VLK
  • “I just didn’t like this story how Madison hired Lillian to look after her step children who seemed to also catch on fire. Very far fetched story.” – Harrison Shapiro
  • “The simplistic story line, cardboard characters, and uninteresting writing do not reward the time spent reading. The author titled the book correctly: There’s Literally NOTHING to See Here.” – Readerphile

The Lottery And Other Stories – Shirley Jackson

The Lottery And Other Stories was the only collection of Shirley Jackson’s stories to be published during her lifetime. The titular story, The Lottery, made a big splash, but most folks skipped past the rest. Jackson only started to garner real respect for her literary chops long after her death.

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If all you know about Jackson is The Lottery, or her creepy novella We Have Always Lived In The Castle, the other 24 stories in this collection will come as a bit of a surprise. As per the blurb: “The creeping unease of lives squandered and the unspoken terrors of the everyday, suburban life are captured with brilliant clarity and sly humour in these tales by a master of the short story form.”

Yes, most of the stories in The Lottery And Other Stories are just weird, maybe a little unsettling, more so than spooky or scary. Some of them resolve neatly, others are just slice-of-life style and leave the ending open. They’re much quieter than I was expecting, and on occasion a little… well, blah.

I think I see what Jackson was getting at, though. Most of the stories, in some form, are about the subjugation of women and the suburban nightmares into which they were forced throughout the first half of the 20th century. The men are usually cold, withholding, or totally absent; the women are disillusioned, “difficult”, and dreamy. She also interrogates class, and race (most notably in Flower Garden), in ways that were probably quite confronting at the time, but pale a little in the light of contemporary progressive politics.

If you’re going to be scared by anything in The Lottery And Other Stories, it’s probably Jackson’s knack for revealing our own hypocrisies, our own capacity for evil and our overriding self-interest. Less “boo!” and more “boo hoo, humanity is awful”.

I found The Renegade particularly horrible – a story about a woman wondering what to do with her dog who has (allegedly) killed some of the neighbours’ chickens. Nothing actually happens to the dog on the page, but none of the options are good. Seven Types Of Ambiguity is also a particularly cruel story for book lovers, about a wealthy man who is interested in simply amassing a collection of “good” books and buys a beautiful and much-desired volume out from under the nose of a true book-worm.

Not all of The Lottery And Other Stories is miserable, though. The Tooth was a fun read – surreal, almost hallucinogenic. And the title story, The Lottery, is obviously a banger. It’s the last story in the collection, so it really ends on a bang. Apparently, it generated volumes of hate mail after it was initially published in The New Yorker, which seems adorably quaint nowadays – but it was the Cat Person of its day.

Ultimately, I’d say don’t pick up The Lottery And Other Stories if you’re looking for anything spooky or creepy. You might’ve been traumatised by The Lottery in high school, but it’s not really ‘typical’ of Jackson’s oeuvre and the ‘horrors’ of this collection don’t really hold up today. These stories are thinkers, ones that you’ll want to peruse and meditate on for a while – not ones that are going to keep you up at night, listening for ghosts and ghouls.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Lottery And Other Stories:

  • “Well-written rubbish. Makes you feel bad, sad, and hopeless.” – Nancy444
  • “Absolute crap. The most terrifying stories ever? You MUST be kidding. You lot need to get out more.” – Cornelius Brick
  • “It is okay and fun to read because it is set in a time prior to cell phones and computer technology and when everyone smoked cigarettes (my parents generation).” – Judy M Bryan
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