Monday, December 26, 2011

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley

Flavia de Luce, girl chemist with a possibly unhealthy interest in death is on the case again. In this sequel to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a puppet show run by the charismatic and crippled by polio Rupert comes to town. His assistant Nialla has been placed in a desperate position.
When Rupert ends up dead, Flavia is left to untangle the strings of this mystery. Rupert may be more than just a passerby, his history and the history of the inhabitants of Bishop Lacy prove to be tangled together. The mysterious death of a village boy, the mad woman in the woods, and secret liaisons all conspire to make a puzzle for Flavia to solve.

I very much enjoyed The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and was interested in seeing how Bradley would follow it up. He continues to explore Flavia's unique skills and talents. We gain insight into her thought process and her talent with chemical equations. Also though, Bradley expands on her emotional life as well in this volume. Her anxiety over her relationship with her sisters and her questions about the mother she never knew are touched on.
Some of the Bishop Lacey residents of the first novel appear again, but we are introduced to other locals who each help Flavia piece together the solutions to the Rupert's death as well as a death from half a decade before.
Though perhaps, lacking some of the dramatic tension of the first novel, it's still a fun read. Bradley's chapters move quickly, each one fairly short and moving. There are some satisfying twists that may come as a surprise. The solution to the mystery, however left me with mixed feelings, especially over how the murderer should be punished.
The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag is a fun, quick read that takes you back into the world of Flavia de Luce, a charismatic, but flawed and surprising believable young girl with remarkable skills. The third book A Red Herring Without Mustard will go on my TBR list. Sequels don't always live up to the quality of the first, but this novel came fairly close.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The novel opens with Richard, our narrator and protagonist thinking back on the murder he and his friends committed back in college. From there we go back to how this story began, making this a sort of inverted murder mystery. We know the victim, we know the killers, now we need to find out why.
At a small college in New England, a select group of students study the Classics with Julian, a charismatic professor who is well traveled and well loved by his students. Richard, newly transferred from California with some Greek study in his background wants to join the class, but has to be accepted by Julian personally. When he finally is, he immediately begins to form bonds with Julian's students.
There's Henry, a genius that seems to live more in the world of the classics than in real life. Charles and Camilla are the twins, they are very close and very secretive. Frances, a sensitive young man with access to his aunt's country home is also among the group. And finally, there's Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran. His family maintains an air aristocracy, but appear to be broke, equipping their son with nothing but skills at mooching off of everyone else and a crude sense of humor.
We learn in the first pages that Bunny is the murder victim. After that we go back and get the story about secrets, ancient rituals, and desperation that lead to his demise.

Overall, it's a decent story. In spite of the obvious tension within the story, there were many sections of the book that simply could not keep my attention. Passages meandered and seemed as listless as its characters after a night of bacchanals. Yes, its college student characters are constantly (infuriatingly) drunk or high, especially Richard, the narrator who wanders around getting drunk and doing cocaine for an alarmingly large amount of the time.
It's true that these are young people, and young people tend to experiment, but it seems excessive in Tartt's prose. I also began to wonder why this group of students was considered so elite, other than Henry, there was little to illustrate any impressive aptitude from them.
The novel was structured after a Greek tragedy. Early on Tartt brings up the elements of fate and the possession of a fatal flaw. In a way, looking at a modern situation through a lens of ancient tragedy can work. There is a fatal flaw, there is a fall, there is a noble sacrifice, and there is a sense of repayment and justice in the end.
Tartt is moderately successful at creating this tragic world. Richard serves as our messenger (as every good Greek play should have) who tells us how this tragedy befell our heroes and how they had to pay for it. It wasn't a bad novel. If you enjoy Greek tragedy and murder mysteries, you may find something of interest here. However, it makes sense that this was Tartt's first novel. She shows that she has talent, but she is not entirely successful with her execution.
This is a good novel to compare with Carol Goodman's Lake of Dead Languages which I reviewed a few months ago, as it deals with many similar themes. Although also flawed, I prefer Goodman's novel because of its taut, poetic language.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Life Changing Books

Let's talk about life changing books. The books you read that change the way you think about something, the way you see the world. There are so many books that have effected the way I think and feel. Here are just a couple of the significant ones.
A Series of Unfortunate Events:
These were my favorite book when I was young. Even into high school I read the later ones as they came out. These were so different than most books for young readers, they were dark, ironic, they sent me to the dictionary and made me love all the rich and wonderful words.
The Bell Jar: Such a wonderful book about identity, insanity and growing into young womanhood. Disorienting and razor sharp. I read this in ninth or tenth grade and loved it.
Slaughterhouse Five: Probably the best war story I've ever read. Kurt Vonnegut's genre blending and wry humor intrigued me, occasionally confused me, but ultimately enthralled me. It changed my perspective on trauma. So it goes.
Jane Eyre: Probably the first book I read that made me feel like I was the narrator, we were one. I was eighteen, dealing with isolation and trying to determine where to go with my life, this book helped me through so much.

There are so many more that have touched me or taught me, but these always stand out when I think back on my life.
What are your life changing books?

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Sorry for the silence over here these last two weeks. I've been writing papers and doing presentations. My semester is almost over and I'm trying to plan how best to spend my winter break.
Now, I must finish an essay on Chaucer and I webpage for my new media class. I'll be back soon with book reviews and other (hopefully) exciting posts.