Sunday, 30 March 2014

For Bret Easton Ellis, whose generosity will never cease to warm my heart...

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

'A haunting, compelling and brilliant piece of fiction' The Times

'So irresistible and seductive it's almost a guilty pleasure' The Guardian

Books cited as 'modern classics' often come with so many pre-conceived ideas that as a reader you're bogged down in expectation before the first chapter is through. Luckily, with The Secret History, this is all thrown out of the dormitory window as you're drawn into a world in which sharp captivating prose, clever structure and characterisation reminds just why you love reading great fiction.

"The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation"

The Secret History is an East coast collegiate novel based around a tight social circle of privileged and monied under-graduates studying Classics. Enter Richard, whose small town working class background is instantly at odds with the friends he makes in this elite Ivy League elysium. Richard is initially both attracted and intrigued by the characters in the group from gregarious Bunny to effeminate Francis and kooky twins Charles and Camilla.

Before long Richard is drawn into a world in which college life blends with greek tragedy and ultimately into a dangerous Dionysian drama... 

This time, I thought, a year ago. What had I been doing? Driving a friend's car up to San Francisco, standing around in the poetry sections of bookstores worrying about my application to Hampden. And now here I was, sitting in a cold room in strange clothes and wondering if I might go to prison.

Not only is the novel exceptionally well written but the characters are as intriguing and well drawn as you'll find in a modern piece of literature. This is a novel to read and enjoy and then re-read and love. If there is a book that can grow old with you then this is it. 

Pick up in a second hand bookstore for a flavour, between the torn cover and dog eared pages, of your copy's very own secret history.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

A week in the written word....

Monday - Arrange a review copy of Under the Sea: Stories by Ben Marcus, thanks Granta Books can't wait to read and review.

Tuesday - Thanks to a re-tweet by The Oxford Literature Festival my review of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton becomes the most read blog post on The Words Shortlist

Wednesday - Finish How to Survive and Thrive at Work by Chris Barez-Brown for a work (day job) project based on the idea of "Upping your Elvis" in the office!. A good commuter read for a fiction free few 

Thursday - Thank you Graeme Simsion for commenting on my review of The Rosie Project in last week's blog post.

Friday - A chance to finish The Secret History by Donna Tartt on a short break to Bath. Best coffee shops for reading in this beautiful city? Try Society Cafe ( or Colonna and Smalls ( 

Saturday - Time for some book-spiration at Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights. This great independent bookshop in the heart of Bath is brilliantly curated to help you pick up new titles by new writers - plus they offer a reading spa for a one on one bibliotherapy session.

Sunday - Discovering Britain's most unassuming second hand bookshop in the village of Lacock in Wiltshire. This door-step book shop is only a snitch throw away from Lacock Abbey used as a location in the Harry Potter series.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

"I'm not good at understanding what other people want." - Don Tillman.

The Rosie Project, debut novel from Australian writer Graeme Simsion, is a feel good, rom-com, page turner ideal as a lighter read after the heavier tomes of the award season. What the novel lacks in intellectual depth is made up with a fast paced narrative that romps through common dating misconceptions and the anxiety around meeting 'the One'.

The story features Don Tillman, a 39 year old geneticist, who devises a 16 page questionnaire which he believes will help him find the perfect wife. Don knows exactly the type of woman he wants to  avoid settling down with and, when he meets Rosie "the World's most incompatible woman", his approach is initially validated.

Don's life is highly systematic, ordered and meticulous as is his approach to finding a life partner. This is another novel with the protagonist somewhere on the Asperger's scale but, as with The Shock of the Fall, the work is heart-warming, humorous and feel good - i.e. destined to fly of the shelves in late austerity Britain! 

The novel is more screen play than literature and will, no doubt, make the transfer to the big screen in due course. Will it make more than standard popcorn rom-com fare? - Yes it just might thanks to the Don's unique academic nerd meets chivalrous romantic turn.

The publishers, Penguin, have had some fun trying to make this an 'event' novel with its positioning as the novel of 2014.  Whilst the inclusion of Don's questionnaire as an appendix is irresistibly witty, the cocktail menu and party inspiration that follows is less tongue in cheek and more try hard! 

An easy read but ultimately a little too 'made for Hollywood'.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

An improbable journey with a unlikely hero. Meet Alex Woods, one of the world's only survivors of a direct meteorite hit to the head!

'It's Mark Haddon meets Kurt Vonnegut' (Observer)

'An eccentric young protagonist meets his match in a compelling comic debut' (The Bookseller)

'Extence's plotting is astute, and he handles the theme of euthanasia with an affecting delicacy' (Financial Times)

This debut novel from Gavin Extence treads a fine line between comic caper and poignant coming of age drama as our protagonist, nerdy Alex Woods, befriends a wise widower to form an improbable double act.

Alex's unconventional childhood, we learn about his single clairvoyant mother and his own conception somewhere near Stonehenge early on, has done little to prepare him for his teen years but, thanks to a chase from the school bullies, Alex lands crashing into the world of Mr Peterson - a typical pot smoking, Kurt Vonnegut reading, Vietnam vet living in suburban England. 

Putting this slightly unfeasible back story to one side this is just the sort of literary pairing that can be forgiven as a device which drives the story on from set piece to set piece.

The unlikely couple's adventures ultimately take them to Switzerland where Alex fulfils his promise to support Mr Peterson in his decision to undergo euthanasia. Heavy stuff but written, with the emotional naivety of a 15 year old, the result is heart warming and, at times, uplifting.

Where the novel succeeds is in the character Extence creates in Alex Woods. The opening scene in which Alex is stopped at Dover customs with a packet of marijuana and an urn full of ashes is memorable becoming unforgettable when a loud blast of Handel's Messiah is used to delay an epileptic fit. This is a young man quite literally in the driving seat.

At other times the novel tries to hard to cram in sub plots which fail to fully develop. No doubt, Mr Extence could have delivered a second novel in here about Alex's relationship with the meteorite and the Natural History Museum.

No doubt we'll read much more from Gavin Extence and, who knows, we may even meet Alex Woods again.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The March short list of must read fiction....

The Secret History - Donna Tartt

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion

The Universe vs Alex Woods - Gavin Extence

Read, enjoy and share....