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R&R 137 | The Secret History

I've been writing everywhere now that I decided to look at this project as something I'm doing completely and unapologetically for myself. Nonetheless, I do wish to sincerely thank those of you who've been keeping track of this project and site, who've supported me and who've tried to keep me going. Thank you guys. And now without further ado: 

Donna Tartt
The Secret History
First published in: 1992
This edition: First Vintage Contemporaries edition, 2004
ISBN: 1-4000-3170-0
Genre: psychological thriller (mostly)
Pages: 559
Cover photography by Alinary / Art Resource NY; cover design by Barbara de Wilde and Chip Kidd


For my first review in many, many months I've chosen a book that I've read a while ago, a book that was buzzed about a lot when it was first published. That buzz is no more. But one of the things I personally like about my taste in books, is that I don't go along with fads. I don't always read “what everyone else is reading”, I don't keep track of what's new and what's hot. Sure, at times I will get curious and read and review new books (I just had to do FIFTY SHADES, obviously), and I can get really excited about upcoming new material from favorite authors… but to me, any unread book is a new book, and it's worthy of reviewing just as much as recently published work.

THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt is a book I read earlier on during this project, but it's always stayed with me. I read Tartt's THE LITTLE FRIEND before this one, and I was already very impressed with the author's ability to set a haunting, eerie, foreshadowing mood. But THE LITTLE FRIEND wasn't what I expected it to be; I'd decided to read thrillers for a month, and in the spirit of Themed Reading had hoped it would be more of a plot-driven thriller. It ended up being good in different ways; it had that beautiful haunting undertone throughout. But it wasn't what I wanted at the time. But it did inspire me to get a copy of THE SECRET HISTORY, which did turn out to have that eerie mystery, but with a bit of a faster plot to it, which really takes off after only a few chapters.

What I love about reading thrillers is "helping" to solve the who- and/or whydunits, but I prefer it if it isn't too corny, except of course in case of comedy and satire. Much like in THE LITTLE FRIEND, Tartt drops subtle hints and omens throughout the book, but whereas THE LITTLE FRIEND ended up in a different direction from my expectations, picking up on bits and pieces in THE SECRET HISTORY did prove to be more rewarding for a wannabe detective like yours truly.

THE SECRET HISTORY is a whydunit: a thriller in which the focus of the mystery is on motive, not on the culprit's identity. We instantly know someone dies: our narrator, scholarship student Richard Papen, informs us of the death of Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran on the very first page. The how and why of it, that will have to wait.

First Richard brings us to Hampden College, Vermont, where he studies the classics, eagerly hoping to be included in Professor Julian Morrow's elite class consisting of a small clique of eccentric and too-smart-for-their-own-good students from privileged backgrounds. After being rejected, however, Richard still hangs around, hoping to impress the other students, eventually gaining their approval when he helps them solve a problem, thus proving his worth and earning a spot in Julian's class after all. The group collectively worship Julian and his moral-less teachings to a point of obsession, and one evening while under the influence of both alcohol and their mentor, things go horribly, irreversibly, devastatingly wrong…

The clique, that's what it's all about. My first impression of the group of students is that they are all incredibly intelligent. Knowing what you know right off the bat – that someone dies – it also is clear immediately that this will be their undoing: they actually feel like they are above the laws of man and nature alike. The reader is wary; I for example found myself instantly prejudiced against the students. I disliked them and found them to be arrogant. And that's entirely the point.

I never fully trusted our narrator, and he has himself to thank for it. His background embarrasses him, and while at Hampden college Richard invents a different version of himself, a more glamorous and wealthy version, in hopes to impress the others. He does this with ease, nonchalantly, without regard for consequences. For instance, he spends all his money on expensive clothes, and proceeds to almost freeze to death in the only living arrangements he can now afford: an “apartment” without heating, but with a hole in the wall. His expensive clothes won't keep him warm.
It foreshadows the bigger, similar storyline ahead: secrets and lies… and dramatic consequences.

Despite all of his lies Richard still seems to be relatively untarnished and naïve. Shame is what motivates him, and the only person affected by and seriously hurt because of his lies is Richard himself. I sure as hell never trusted the others. Not one iota, so to speak. Reading this book was interesting in itself, as I never quite knew whom to trust, and it got to be a little bit nervewracking at times.

The plot line in itself could be considered to be unbelievable: how is it that these super intelligent (and you would think rational) students collectively lose all sense of reality because they are so mesmerized by just the one person? It could also be argued that the consequences are farfetched as well. But Tartt gets away with it because, for one, the psychology behind it is valid. The behaviors and motivations in THE SECRET HISTORY are reminiscent of cults.

Furthermore, it helps that Tartt's writing skills are off the charts, which to me was very evident from the start, when she began to set the scene: the (initially) idyllic college, where bookish students burn their way through subjects like philosophy, Greek and Roman mythology and history… a timeless place almost. (I felt the book could be set in any decade really, whether it's the 20's or the 80's. I marveled at this. You don't often find a timeless book these days.) Tartt was a student when she started writing this book, and it her intelligence and imagination both showed. I felt enveloped in the atmosphere.

It's quite a story, then, but Tartt makes it work, while always making clear, despite if and how justifiable a motive might be, that secrets and lies will break you eventually – and that nothing is certain. For our characters, these words may ring empty. But the message certainly comes across to readers of this book. Which is why I haven't forgotten THE SECRET HISTORY, and probably never will.

28/11/2013. On a final note before publishing this post, I do intend to give this site a new layout, something a bit cleaner and to the point. So when the site looks a bit messy in the next few weeks: it's not you. It's me. 

R&R 118 | The Dinner Club

Saskia Noort
The Dinner Club
(De Eetclub)
First published in: 2004
This edition: 2010 (movie tie-in)
ISBN: 978-90-414-1704-6
Genre: crime, thriller
Pages: 239
Cover design by Marry van Baar; cover photo/illustration by Sara Simpson & Richard Burridge


In a nutshell?

On a bit of a whim, I walked into the local bookstore a short while ago and walked out with a newly purchased Dutch book in my handbag. Not really familiar with Dutch literature because it's generally just not my forte, I picked a book wich I'd had heard about due to its recently being made into a film. Saskia Noort's THE DINNER CLUB went home with me that day.

Karen's fast asleep in her suburban bed when a phonecall in the middle of the night awakens her and her husband Michel with the dreadful news that one of their friends has died; a roaring fire burned down Evert's house, with him still in it. Thankfully his wife Babette and their two boys made it out alive. Their friends (a group of couples which includes Karen and Michel, also known as The Dinner Club) are devastated by Evert's apparent suicide.
…or are they really?

As the days of mourning pass by, Karen begins to sense a darkness lurking beneath the facade put on by seemingly happy couples who drink wine and dine together (and more). And when another member of the Dinner Club takes a tumble off a balcony, Karen can no longer ignore her gut feeling that Evert's death may not have been self-inflicted at all.

What I like about THE DINNER CLUB, and this is perhaps sentimental, is how recognisably Dutch it is. Reading books allows me to go to faraway places, anywhere my imagination allows me to go; I can make wonderful escapes to places on the other end of the world, or to different worlds entirely.
But I must say that in THE DINNER CLUB, it is refreshing to be closer to home. For example, Noort's characters take the bicycle back home regularly, and there's a familiarity which I find somewhat comforting. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I've been wanting to read Dutch novels, apart from the wish to familiarize myself with Lowlands Lit somewhat.

Apart from being recognizably Dutch, though, the book's also recognizably Western-Dutch – set around Amsterdam's ex-urbs. Karen and other characters – yuppies, all of them – noticably look down on being outside of The City (yet they crave the prestige of their villas). Karen for instance worries about being a "rural tart" now that she no longer lives in Amsterdam itself. Eh. Karen is heavily influenced by a bunch of arrogant, unlikable alcoholics who think they are too good for everyone else.

At times, THE DINNER CLUB is like Desperate Housewives without the humor but with a lot more anguish. Because Noort does set that grim mood right from the start, so the reader senses something's amiss, but it's subtle at first. THE DINNER CLUB only gets darker around page 100. Having a naive narrator like Karen only emphasizes the grim atmosphere, and I think this combination is quite strong. But it's only good that Karen at least is this naive. Save for the "rural tart" remark, she is at least likable, whereas the rest of The (Remaining) Dinner Club are just horrible people.

What's interesting though is the effect of this group of people becoming almost one uniform secretive character. Apart from Karen, The Dinner Club as a whole is the most developed character in the entire book. Individually, there isn't much to be said about them. The Dinner Club is an entity in itself: one creature not to be trusted. The Dinner Club is selfish, backstabbing, materialistic and knows no loyalty.

Karen begins to see this too, and becomes very distrustful of The Dinner Club generally, and that effect is transferred onto the reader. Noort accomplishes this sense of (mild) paranoia very well; the book fits well into the thriller genre.

Noort's mystery plot in general is okay; I could absolutely sense the outcome, but I felt invested enough to find out whether my suspicions were true and in what way. The ending is perhaps rushed, a bit too action-packed suddenly for a generally more subdued thriller, but the plot is satisfactory.

Getting back to the Desperate Housewives comparison, THE DINNER CLUB does focus on intrigue regarding Evert's death, but there are a lot secret affairs and adultery going on. While I wondered at first whether the sex and desire scenes were gratuitous, later on I realized that they did have relevance to the general plot. Nonetheless, I got bored with Karen going on and on about how much she wants to be with this guy who's not her husband. If I feel like reading an "ohhh does he like me too?!" type diary, I'll just pop open one of my own from when I was thirteen years old. Those good old days.

While I breezed through this thriller, and find it entertaining generally, it's not going to be likely that I'll read many more books by Saskia Noort.
She can spin together a decent plot, but it's her writing style that just isn't grabbing me enough. Compared to other books in the genre (THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt or the MILLENNIUM trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson), the simplistic prose fails to really stimulate and challenge the reader.

I point this out, because the publisher makes such a big fuss about THE DINNER CLUB being a "literary thriller". I don't mean to sound like a snob, but as someone completely unfamiliar with Saskia Noort's work, labeling THE DINNER CLUB as "literary" made me expect it to be more like those books by Tartt and Larsson I've just referred to. I might even say it's misleading. THE DINNER CLUB absolutely falls short when you put it next to a successful literary thriller such as THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.

Noort's style and expression are hardly original enough to truly stand out, let alone the subject and how it was handled (focusing so much on affairs). I enjoy thrillers and mysteries (whether it's books by Kathy Reichs or Stephen King), but I don't enjoy them when they're made out to be something they're not.

All in all, THE DINNER CLUB's a perfectly fine thriller for a day at the beach, but it's nothing to write home about.

In a nutshell

– Dark atmosphere, well done
– Narrator Karen's naivite works well with this
– Interesting how The Dinner Club is almost like an entity in itself, a character
– Thriller plots is fine, reads away easily

– Too much of the book focuses on affairs, cheating. Karen nags on about this too. Tiring.
– A truckload of unsympathetic, spoiled characters, save Karen
– "Rural twat"
– Labeled a "literary thriller"; I don't agree with that pretty label as much. It's "just" a thriller.
– Writing style simplistic, not very stimulating, not challenging.

R&R 106 | Death du Jour (Temperance Brennan #2)

Kathy Reichs
Death du Jour (Temperance Brennan #2)
First published in: 1999
This edition: Pocket Books, 1999
ISBN: 0-671-03472-3
Genre: crime
Pages: 379
Cover art by Phil Heffernan
X-Ray photo used for R&R by thecameo (creative commons)

R&R 106 | Death du Jour (Temperance Brennan #2)

Temperance Brennan, the brilliant forensic anthropologist working in both Montreal and North-Carolina, is back in a sophomore novel (the second of many more to come). Struggling with a harsh Quebecan winter, Brennan is up to her ears in work: everything seems to be happening all at once. First, she discovers that the remains of a long ago buried nun, Elisabeth Nicolet, have been tampered with. Then, there's a student who went missing after joining a cult.

But the most gruesome discovery made by the authorities is that of a case which will probably be haunting Brennan throughout the rest of her career: a house fire, which turns out to be a case of arson to hide murders that are too cold-blooded for words… as two of the victims include infants, brutally stabbed to death prior to the fire. This part of the book will most likely haunt me, too, not just Brennan. It was that realistically described.

Reichs stays true to her profession (e.g. she's being very professional as a forensic anthropologist moonlighting as a crime author) and her feelings are transferred very well, and very realistically, to Brennan. This is Reichs telling her own story, sharing her own experiences. Brennan isn't a made-up action figure. She exists, and her feelings about injustice done to fellow human beings are wholly believable. We get to know Temperance in these books; I really like the room Reichs leaves for her character to deal with emotions involving work and her personal life.

Reichs continues to make the subject of her work very readable. It's easy to understand the forensics, and while the book is loaded (because of the infant deaths – it hit me in that place I am aware exists but try to keep hidden away, that vulnerable place), it's not like she's trying to turn this into a glorified horror story. The Temperance Brennan books, they're my guilty pleasure and very entertaining at that, but they are absolutely not about sensationalizing crime.

While Reichs does keep the forensic procedures understandable for the layman, this book's plot was chaotic in comparison with her first book. I love it when the reader is challenged into putting the pieces together, but there were just too many pieces here: a million pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, way too overwhelming with no end in sight. There were just too many victims (and confusing names!) – I kept mixing everything up and I lost track of the case(s) because too much was going on. I had to go back to earlier chapters regularly to get a quick refresher course on who this and that victim / person was again. The whole section about the nun's bones, I didn't really care for, what with the information-overload already happening in this novel.

Eventually everything came together, and it made sense, but I do feel that I missed too much. However, it must be said that I still rather have a good challenge; it beats having everything spelled out. Let us be the detective, here. Reichs allows this.

I already mentioned that we get to know Brennan. An important factor in this is a cop named Andrew Ryan, and his chemistry with Brennan. I don't always care for romantic sub-plotting in this genre, but here it just clicks:. It also offers a personal "thread" in the general series' plot, but it will also most likely bring Brennan out of her shell, thus allowing her to grow more as the series continues. Time is spent developing characters and their personalities; a good thing since we're reading a series here. It's good to be invested in the main character if you plan on reading 10+ of "their" books.
The only thing that I felt was a bit much – apart from the completely corny dialogue, at times – was introducing Tempe's sister, Harry, an erratic character and rather irritating as well. Luckily, she's but a guest star and not a permanent fixture.

Of course Brennan gets into a boatload of trouble once again (which does make the novel somewhat predictable), but she acts, and risks her life, in order to discover things. She is that passionate about justice that she's almost obsessive about seeking – and finding it. It makes her admirable, but also frustrating. (You want her to stay safe..!)

Death du Jour is better than most other thrillers, because it's authentic, and readers will be able to discern the difference between average thrillers and a book written by a professional such as Reichs. The books in the Temperance Brennan series all stand out in their genre. The second Brennan novel tends to be confusing, sure, but it also offers a very convincing glimpse into the real (and at time really horrid) world of forensics, without losing its (focus on) humanity.