Book choice for March 2010

The Secret History [suggested by Helen Dobson]

front cover

If I could take only one single book to the notorious island it would be The Secret History.

Originally I bought it only because a friend of mine had recommended it to me about a dozen times and kept asking me whether I had finally read it myself. Well. I was into 19th century classics at the time and really really really didn't feel like reading a novel by an unknown contemporary author. And an American one as well! So I bought and started reading it only to avoid further awkward quesions.

What can I say? I truly love books and have read hundreds. But none, literally NONE, ever made me feel the way The Secret History did and still does. It's the most fascinating and gripping book I've ever had the honour to read. The characters are fascinatingly mysterious; the plot the most interesting one I can think of; the setting great; and the language simply wonderful.

The bad thing about having read The Secret History (10 times? 11?) is that now I will always be longing for another one like it. The Secret History is THE book.

I know that other readers have experienced the same. Many of them keep asking about a new novel by Donna Tartt. I don't. I don't really want her to write another one, and I don't think she will. Every serious author wants their new novel to be just a little bit better than the last one. And let's face it: Donna Tartt will never achieve that because she's already written the perfect novel. [one of 203 reviews on Amazon, most of them equally enthusiastic as far as I can make out]

Naturally, a book this famous has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

"If I could write a book a year and maintain the same quality, I'd be happy. But I don't think I'd have any fans."

Thus Donna Tartt explains the decade of silence since her debut novel, The Secret History, made her the international literary sensation of 1992.

Until the publication of her second book in October 2002, Tartt endured rumours of writer's block and nervous hermithood. But now that The Little Friend is safely in the bag, she says calmly, "it just took a while to write."

Trying to meet readers' high expectations after The Secret History was never going to be easy, but Tartt wasn't intimidated by the search for a new idea. She said at the time, "I have my life to resort to."

For The Little Friend, its author has dug deep into her southern background. Raised among the antebellum mansions of Grenada, Mississippi, Tartt experienced the shabby gentility of a changing south. Her extended family members were the stuff of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner and, for Tartt, "books were the great escape".

Fixated by Robert Louis Stevenson and Peter Pan, young Donna was taken on her own imaginative odyssey by her grandfather. A believer in the power of medicine, he fed his granddaughter codeine cough syrup, and much of her childhood was a "languorous undersea existence".

A less dubious family contribution was a love of Dickens and Kipling, and Tartt's own storytelling talents were later nurtured at college. Her professor told her she was a genius and, even among classmates such as Bret Easton Ellis, the chain-smoking, Nietzsche-sprouting Tartt cut a dash.

While fellow graduates sought conventional employment, Tartt became a "professional houseguest" who started writing The Secret History. Nine years later, the classical cleverness and adolescent angst of her murderous aesthetes sold millions and meant the author need never again pick up her pen.

But despite being translated into 23 languages, Tartt remains "a writer, not a TV personality", whose job it is to "dive deep". Now aged 38, the gamine-featured, pint-sized perfectionist is unfazed by the transitory nature of celebrity, concentrating instead on "the five books I have in me".

Of her own style, Tartt remains vague, following Kipling's instructions only to "drift, wait and obey".

Her continuing royalties have afforded her as much time to drift and wait as she needs to produce another opus. Her army of fans may be champing at the bit for more of her work, but Donna Tartt remains a defiantly bookish character, "moving a comma round very happily for hours".

Caroline Frost [writing on the BBC Four Documentaries page]

See also Tartt's Wikipedia page and this rather idiosyncratic fan site.


Shortlisted for this month

The nominator can bring one, two, or three books to be chosen by the group (or mandated in the case of only one book being selected). This month, Helen's other suggestions were:

The Crow Road

The Crow Road

From its bravura opening onwards, THE CROW ROAD is justly regarded as an outstanding contemporary novel. 'It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.' Prentice McHoan has returned to the bosom of his complex but enduring Scottish family. Full of questions about the McHoan past, present and future, he is also deeply preoccupied: mainly with death, sex, drink, God and illegal substances.

See also the novel's Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Iain [Menzies] Banks was born in Fife in 1954, and was educated at Stirling University, where he studied English Literature, Philosophy and Psychology.

Banks came to widespread and controversial public notice with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984.

His first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, was published in 1987. He has continued to write both mainstream fiction (as Iain Banks) and science fiction (as Iain M. Banks).

He is now acclaimed as one of the most powerful, innovative and exciting writers of his generation: The Guardian has called him "the standard by which the rest of SF is judged". William Gibson, the New York Times-bestselling author of Spook Country describes Banks as a "phenomenon".

Iain M. Banks lives in Fife, Scotland

The above taken from this fan site, Banks also has a Wikipedia entry.

The Moonstone

The Moonstone

T S Eliot called The Moonstone "the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels". It's hard not to agree. The Moonstone, an enormous diamond of religious significance, is vilely plundered by a British soldier during the taking of Seringapatam in 1799. The Moonstone is brought back to England and, eventually, given to the prim, beautiful and wilful heiress, Rachel Verinder, on her birthday in 1848. And it goes missing the very same night. Rachel's family and friends are keen to recover the lost stone and to identify the thief and thus call upon the services of Sergeant Cuff, the most celebrated and successful detective that Scotland Yard can offer. Yet Rachel is strangely reluctant to assist in the investigation, and the professional sleuth is not the only one searching for the stone and for answers. Three juggling Indians accompanied by a clairvoyant young boy, a ruthless London money lender and an amiable philanthropist all seem to have their own interests in recovering the stone, while others including Rachel and a reformed thief turned servant girl, seem at least as anxious to conceal certain facts surrounding its disappearance. The stage is thus set for a gripping detective story full of twists and turns and unexpected developments, all centred on the Verinder's country house in Yorkshire.

Written in a semi- epistolary style, with several of the major characters telling the parts of the story with which they were most concerned from their own perspective, Collins' novel has strong gothic overtones and much in common with the `big-house' novels written earlier in the century and serves as a bridge with the swelter of English detective fiction which was to follow. It is long, but you hardly notice as Collins whisks his mystery from India to Yorkshire, to London, to Brighton and back to Yorkshire. Elegant prose reminiscent of yet lighter than Dickens encapsulates an enchanting mystery with magical, even fantastical overtones, and presents a series of warm, engaging, if somewhat stereotypical characters: who can forgot the admirable Gabriel Betteredge, with his mystic faith in the powers of Robinson Crusoe to provide answers to daily difficulties, or the misunderstood Erza Jennings, with his face so much older than his body and his two-tone hair?

A sheer delight to read, like some much detective fiction, it does not demand to be taken seriously, yet for the careful reader, there are on offer deeper strains of tension over class, over Empire, and over religious differences and good and evil, which one might more readily associate with the post-war literature of a cosmopolitan diaspora.[review from Amazon by Rivercassini]

There's also a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Wilkie Collins was born on 8 January 1824 and died on 23 September 1889. In those 65 years he wrote 30 novels, more than 60 short stories, at least 14 plays, and more than 100 non-fiction pieces. A close friend of Charles Dickens from their meeting in March 1851 until Dickens's death in June 1870, Collins was one of the best known, best loved, and, for a time, best paid of Victorian fiction writers. But after his death, his reputation declined as Dickens's bloomed. Now, Collins is being given more critical and popular attention than he has for fifty years. Most of his books are in print - and all are now in e-text - he is studied widely, and new film, television and radio versions of some of his books have been made. All his known letters have been published. And new book length studies of his work or life appear frequently. But there is still much to be discovered about this superstar of Victorian fiction.

The above is taken from this website and, as always, there's a Wikipedia entry.


Previous Months' Book Choices

February 2010
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November 2009
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September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
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March 2009
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November 2008
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