The Secret History

Donna Tartt has written three books, and her first was in 1992 with The Secret History. Next is The Little Friend, published in 2003 and finally The Goldfinch in in 2013. So about every 10 years, she has a new book. I’m not used to waiting so long in between books. Most authors publish every year or so, George RR Martin aside, of course. Stephen King cranks out two a year, thankfully. Markus Zusak waited 14 years between The Book Thief and Bridge of Clay. But when a book is as good as The Goldfinch or Bridge of Clay is, the wait is most definitely worth it.

The Secret History is set in the 1980s at a small liberal arts school in Vermont. Richard is the new kid in an elite group of students studying Greek intensively. Francis, twins Camilla and Charles, Edmund (Bunny), and Henry grudgingly accept him into the circle, although Richard doesn’t really know what he is getting into. Joining a tight-knit group is extraordinarily difficult in the best circumstances, but whilst in the middle of an academic setting is near impossible.

Richard handles it as well as possible, mostly aided by alcohol. But when the original group gets into some hot water, to say the least, Richard is put into a very difficult situation. They do try to protect him, realizing he is truly innocent, but unfortunately that doesn’t last. Basically, the group does something terrible, tries to keep Richard out of it, but he ends up in it anyway.

This book is a beautiful character portrait, much like The Goldfinch. Plenty of things happen, but the focus on the character is first and foremost. Before the big terrible things happen, you spend half the book wandering around the college with the kids, getting to know and like (or dislike) them, so when the terrible thing happens, you are gut punched by it because you are so wrapped up in their lives.

I really did love this book, though The Goldfinch is her masterpiece (Pulitzer winner for a reason). The Secret History is an excellent, solid debut book.

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The Institute

My love of Stephen King has been well documented. I’ve read and reviewed more of his books than any other author’s. I’ve read over half his work and when a new one comes out, I preorder it not even bothering to read the summary. I like being surprised by the subject matter and diving into the story not having any clue where it will lead.

Certain authors only write female characters well, male characters, teenagers, whatever, but King manages to tap into the characters’ psyches and write them authentically and realistically. And it’s hard to write from a kid’s perspective when you are an old man. And make no mistake, King is well removed from his teenage years. But the main character of this one, Luke, is a great kid.

Luke is brilliant. At 12, he’s probably going to start college, if his parents are on board. But Luke’s intelligence isn’t what makes him special. He can make things move. Cabinet doors shut, pizza pans shake, book pages flutter without him even trying. When Luke is kidnapped by people from “The Institute,” he’s thrown into the worst situation possible. He’s been taken to a place with other telekinetic and telepathic kids and experimented on. The sadistic guards and doctors have no concern for the well-being of the children, as long as the kids do what they are told. They are essentially tortured to enhance their abilities. Then they go to the Back Half and are never seen again. What happens in the Back Half is about as bad as you can imagine.

When it comes to King, you really never know what kind of book you will get. And although this one deals with some rather unpleasant things, it’s not true horror like some of his other works. Maybe he’s mellowing out a bit as he ages, or maybe the next book will be flat out graphic horror. That’s what I love though. You really just never know what you’ll get with him.

The Goldfinch

I try to keep up with Pulitzer winners, but many of them are rather dull. I read The Orphan Master’s Son, American Pastoral, The Shipping News, all were rather dull. However, some like The Underground RailroadBeloved, and Middlesex were amazing and worth reading. So when I hear a book has won the Pulitzer, I’m a bit leery. I first read The Goldfinch a few years ago and absolutely fell in love. It was the best book I read that entire year. I’ve recommended it to everyone, but I realize it’s not a book that all will love. It’s not always the most exciting book, but it is beautifully written and kept me engaged from the first page. I reread it in anticipation of the movie coming out this week.

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The story of Theodore Decker is a difficult one. His mother is killed in an art museum bombing. Theo was spared, but in a moment of insanity, he steals a painting during the chaos. A simple little painting of a bird. Theo’s entire life revolves around the fear of the authorities discovering the painting. As a teenager, he bundles it up, hides it, doesn’t think much about it. But as an adult, he realizes the magnitude of what he’s done and doesn’t know how to handle it.

The story is told in two big chunks, Theo as a teenager and as an adult. As a teen, he his mother has died, his father abandoned him, and he ends up living with a family friend. Once his dad resurfaces, Theo moves with him to Las Vegas and ends up meeting Boris, a classmate. Boris is hands-down the most interesting character in the book. You love Theo and are heartbroken for his life, but Boris leaps off the page, both in the teenage years and when he reappears in Theo’s adult life.

I don’t want to say much about the plot because it doesn’t go the way you expect, but it all revolves around the painting. Theo is flawed. He’s a drug addict, a thief (aside from the painting), a liar, and you still love him. But Boris is the dynamic one, and I can’t wait to see him portrayed on screen. He equally oozes charm and violence. He’s a scoundrel to the highest degree. But he is loyal and protects Theo. So far the trailers seem to get the book right. I’m cautiously hopeful for this one.

Redwall

Back when I was teaching, my middle school kids were obsessed with this series. The series has a staggering 22 books, starting with Redwall, published in 1986. Now that I have kids of my own, I’ve been trying to convince my oldest to read it. He’s still young and daunted by books that are over 100 pages, so it might be a few years, but I’m glad I have a few of the books to provide him when he’s ready.

The story follows a little abbey called Redwall and the mice that inhabit it. They are good, happy mice, trying to help their Mossflower wood, take care of creatures in the wood, and generally go about their lives normally. The brave Martin the Warrior is a hero and legend from their past. They all strive to be like Martin and stand up for what’s right in the world. The rat, Cluny the Scourge, has other plans. He seeks to destroy Redwall for no reason other than he’s evil.

The young hero, Matthias, goes on a quest to find Martin’s famed shield and sword to use against Cluny, but discovers the quest isn’t easy. He’s encouraged by his fellow mice, but not everyone in Mossflower gets along. Mice don’t live well with birds, for example. The sparrows in the woods try to kill the mice, including Matthias, every chance they get. He has to find a way to befriend them to get what he wants.

Not only does Matthias have to deal with sparrows, but he meets some shrews, a cat, an owl, and a snake along the way, all of whom seek to destroy him. But Matthias is a brave mouse and nothing will stop him from saving Redwall.

This book was delightful. Matthias is such a sweet mouse, you can’t help but cheer for him. Cluny is well-described as an evil villain, outsmarting a fox, even, but he’s no match for Matthias. I can see why my students loved these books. I hope my own kids do too.

A Tale of Two Daddies

My friend, Jennifer, has this amazing book review site called Raise Them Righteous, and I have to honor of being a guest reviewer for her. Her site focuses on LGBTQ literature, but “beyond LGBTQ kid lit, I review socially relevant children’s, middle-grade, and young adult literature that deals with race, class, gender, sexuality, immigration, and a variety of other issues that children need tools to think and talk about critically.” Please take a look at her site and follow for information about some amazing books.

A Tale of Two Daddies, written by Vanita Oelschlager and illustrated by Kristin Blackwood and Mike Blanc, tells the story of a young girl and what life is like with her Daddy and Poppa. A friend asks her a set of questions about which dad has which role in her life, ie which makes breakfast, which coaches soccer, etc. She answers with either Daddy, Poppa, both, or neither. The questions and following answers are all told in rhyme, which is catchy for kids.

I have two boys and a husband, and it’s certainly true that we each have our “roles” in our children’s lives. There is no such thing as a typical family, but in any family, things have to get done. Laundry, shopping, chores, as well as taking care of illnesses, baths, and giving snuggles. This book clearly illustrates that it really doesn’t matter that she has two dads because she is clearly loved and taken care of in every way.

The only disappointing thing about this book was that you never really get to see her interacting with her dads in the pictures. You can see their legs or maybe an arm in a few of the illustrations, but most of them are of the girl and her friend or simple images like of a sun and a moon. I would much rather have readers see the two loving dads tending to their daughter’s needs, especially since this is a book aimed at younger readers, and pictures are a huge focus for them. Overall, a quick, easy book, but the impact is meaningful.

 

Carry On

Stick with me here. Because this can be a bit confusing. Carry On is fan fiction. The caveat is that the original work, the Simon Snow series, doesn’t actually exist.

We first meet Simon Snow in Fangirl. The main character of that book, Cath, writes about Simon Snow for a website. The SS series is almost complete, but before the last book is published, Cath is trying to crank out her version of the story. The real author of Fangirl and Carry On brilliantly creates the SS world in Fangirl, giving the readers a taste of the series (think Harry Potter but they are called mages rather than wizards). After that small taste, Carry On came out. We get the entire Cath version of what happens to Simon Snow. I promise it all makes sense. You can really read Carry On by itself without reading Fangirl, but both books are so delightful that they are worth your time.

As for the plot of Carry On, we meet Simon Snow as he returns to school. He’s an orphan, is the “chosen one,” has a female best friend, has a nemesis (Baz), and fights battles against creatures. All very familiar, right? The difference is that his nemesis is his roommate who is a secret vampire. I know, I know, vampires? again? As tired as I am of that particular creature, it’s only a portion of this book. We start the year with Simon, but Baz is missing. No one knows where he is or when he will be back. Since he’s Simon’s nemesis, he’s concerned Baz is off plotting against him. Of course Baz returns, keeping his disappearance a secret.

A huge reason Cath (the original writer in Fangirl) is so popular is that, in her story, Simon and Baz are gay. Baz is madly in love with Simon, but treats him so horribly, mostly because it’s easier that way, keeping Simon at bay. Simon has a girlfriend, but doesn’t really love her. And the moment Simon realizes that he is attracted to Baz is simply beautiful. Their love isn’t sweet and pure. It’s difficult and messy and real. Simon isn’t sure what he’s doing. Baz is struggling with his feelings becoming a reality. Even though these characters are set in a fictional world, their feelings are real and relatable. Being a teenager and falling in love is hard and confusing, especially for gay teens. In Fangirl, the love between a straight couple is portrayed so perfectly. You can’t help but root for them. It’s a bit messier in Carry On, but you root for them even more, hoping they overcome their combative nature, which has been the way for years, hoping they realize the combat is because they love each other.

The Carry On sequel, Wayward Son, came out yesterday. I’m itching to get my hands on it to see how Simon and Baz are doing. Their story isn’t perfect, but it’s genuine.

Fangirl

I read Fangirl years ago, well before this blog, so I can’t give you a “first time” review. However, after reading this gem the second time, I can easily say I loved it even more. I was introduced to Rainbow Rowell’s books via an online book club, and I was skeptical. Her works sounded too cute for me. My first of hers was Eleanor & Park, which dealt with difficulties like bullying and a difficult family. I quickly realized there was more than “cute” to this books.

My next book was Fangirl. And as much as I loved Eleanor & Park, Fangirl will always be my favorite of hers. I’ve read dozens of coming-of-age stories, but the main character in this one, Cath, really just captured my attention. She’s off to college, separated from her twin, Wren, and really struggling. Cath and Wren write fan fiction. But Wren has a new roommate and the divide between the twins is growing, much to Cath’s horror. The fan fiction is about Simon Snow, a Harry Potter-like series that Cath and Wren are obsessed with. They post their story on a fan fic site and have tens of thousands of readers. Cath is struggling to keep up with the story, manage her relationship (or lack thereof) with Wren, attend classes, keep tabs on her manic dad, and avoiding the mother who abandoned them when they were young. In short, Cath is juggling a lot. She feels the weight of the world, she’s trying to do her best, anxiety is hitting hard. All of this is so familiar to me. Although I’m far removed from college, dealing with a lot while you have anxiety is entirely relatable.

Enter Levi. Cath’s roommate, Reagan, has a “friend” Levi. Friend, boyfriend, who really knows. But Levi quickly becomes a presence in Cath’s world, just because he’s always around. Cath begins to realize Levi isn’t going anywhere, so she opens up a bit and lets him in. Levi is simply one of the best male characters in YA these days. He’s honest, far from perfect, and kind. Basically, he’s real. He’s not some ridiculous unattainable perfect boy who mistreats girls who flock to him anyway.

I love this book. I flew through it in just a couple of days. Rowell does an excellent job capturing how life gets rough, but how leaning on others can get you through the rough spots. Representation matters and reading about another person with anxiety is such a comfort. I get Cath. She is me.