Book Review: The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

It feels like an absolute age since I’ve read a book that wasn’t for my course, but any free time I have had recently has been devoted to the absolute behemoth that is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

Image from Hachette Website

Tartt’s first novel The Secret History is always on everyone’s favourite books list, but I have to say that I started it and had to give up (although this was mid-third year so maybe I’ll give it another go when I have more time). Anyway, but I kept seeing everyone raving about The Goldfinch and I thought the main character (Theodore Decker) had a great name and then it was cheap on Amazon so I had to buy it. It’s taken me nearly three months but I have finally finished it!

Okay, so first off I was not joking when I said it’s a behemoth – I’m not sure how many pages exactly, but this is one LONG book, and it’s difficult to sum up. On a basic level, it follows the life of Theo Decker from young boy (I think he is 12 or so when the novel begins) to man of approximately middle age. However, there are 2 main subplots: on one level, the impact of his mother’s death (and his own narrow escape) in an apparent terrorist attack, and on another, how his inadvertent theft of a famous painting – The Goldfinch – haunts his life from thereon out.

In terms of subtler themes, I think the book has quite a lot of say about terrorist culture, “art terrorism” and the presence of art and history in general culture. The sheer length of it allows Tartt to delve in and out of an array of subplots, each with their own respective array of involved characters. Through Theo’s various travels, Tartt gives us a pretty expansive cross-section of modern American society, from the Gossip-Girl-esque Upper West Siders and antiques dealers of NYC to the fast-moving & drug fuelled world of Las Vegas gamers. This means there are a fair amount of characters to keep track of, but every one of them is deep and well drawn enough that it’s near impossible to get them mixed up. Boris in particular is one to look out for, and I have been inspired to name my future daughter Kitsey.

It’s difficult to really class The Goldfinch alongside anything else. I’ve seen it compared to Great Expectations and I suppose I kind of agree, although maybe only due to the length and the fact that one of our major characters is named Pippa – I think I’d be quicker to call Theo a sort of anti-Pip than anything else. Either way, it’s a fascinating look at America today and a really compelling read so if you haven’t already, I would highly recommend this and I am off to check out The Secret History once more!

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Review: The End of Everything, Megan Abbott

I’m not sure how long it is exactly (hashtag kindle problems), but I finished The End of Everything in a day. I honestly couldn’t put it down. This came as a relief, because I’d been struggling to really get into the other two books I was reading (Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, and The End of Alice by A.M Homes – apparently I am obsessing over endings at the minute) and was beginning to panic that I’d lost all interest in books altogether.

The End of Everything is, on the surface, about 13 year old protagonist, Lizzie, and how she deals with the disappearance of her best friend/soul sister/next door neighbour, Evie. However, it’s also about Evie’s father, Evie’s sister, Evie’s relationship with her sister, Lizzie’s relationship with Evie’s father, and so on and so on. For a book with a preteen protagonist, this is by no means a light read – actually, by any standard, it’s not a light read. Lizzie’s voice is young, but not grating or overly child-like, and her misconceptions are obvious, but not unfounded – which makes them all the more painful. Clearly, Abbott remembers being 13.

Abbott also perfectly captures the closeness of an American suburb. The state is unnamed, although mentions of Canada suggest that it is in the North East, but it could be anywhere, and that, of course, is why it works so well. Like The Basic Eight, it’s timeless and undated while at the same time very familiar.

I rarely do this, but immediately after finishing Everything, I immediately downloaded another of Abbott’s books, Dare Me, which I enjoyed just as much, if not more. I can wholeheartedly recommend The End of Everything – it might possibly even beat out The 100 Year Old Man… for my favourite read of the summer!

With my course starting up again and various other developments, I’m struggling to find time to fit in “fun reading” again – boooo! What are you guys reading right now?

Review: The Basic Eight, Daniel Handler

I’d never heard of The Basic Eight before and picked it up super cheap on the kindle, but it turned out to be the sort of book I get absolutely obsessed with. Books about high schools, cliques and privileged teens are amongst my very favourites if they’re done well (or even sometimes if they’re not). Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld is one of my all-time favourites and a book I would recommend to anyone, and this is in a similar sort of vein. I wouldn’t say it’s a feat of literary genius, exactly, but it is extremely compelling: I absolutely couldn’t put it down.

On a basic level, the novel is about a group of friends – “The Basic Eight” – in a San Francisco high school, the particularly gruesome murder that they are involved in (not a spoiler, I swear!), and the events of the year leading up to said murder, all told retrospectively by our hero (or anti-hero?), Flannery.

I actually didn’t realise this while I was reading it, but The Basic Eight‘s author, Daniel Handler, is also Lemony Snicket. I was never really into the Series of Unfortunate Events books which is probably why I didn’t realise the link, but now that I know I can see that the tone is quite similar, albeit older. Handler’s protagonist Flannery has a tone that you won’t forget for a while: she’s sarcastic without being annoying and just funny enough for the subject matter. Handler mixes the mundane with the incredible very easily and it makes for a great read – his characters move from French lessons to extravagant evening soirees to absinthe-fuelled parties with total ease.

One of my favourite things about the novel was the fact that it is entirely undated. I was completely and genuinely surprised to find, when I looked it up halfway through reading, that it was actually written in 1998 – you could have told me it was released last month and I would have believed you. Usually “teen” books are, by necessity, very of the present moment, but this seems basically timeless. It doesn’t seem jarring at all that the characters aren’t using Facebook or Twitter or even texting, which is refreshing when a lot of novels today are crammed full of twee references that seem awkward and out-dated a year after publication.

The Basic Eight is deeper and darker than your average high school novel, and it has a perfect twist: the sort of twist that you sort of see coming, but not really (or maybe I’m just naive), and one that makes you want to immediately go back and re-read the whole thing. Along those lines, this book also made me really want to talk about it. There are a lot of little things that Handler does that inspire discussion, from the faux-discussion questions at the end of each chapter to the apparent media treatment of Flannery to unreliable narrator issues to general conspiracy theories about the whole novel. It’s very post-modern and self aware and I thought it was fab.

I’ve since seen The Basic Eight compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which I tried to read last year and failed, but maybe I will give it another go. I’m certainly going to try Handler’s other adult novels. If TBE is anything to go by, he has a style and a knack for detail that is right up my street. I’m not sure if it’s still reduced on Amazon, but this is a novel that I’d even consider paying full price for, so if you’re even vaguely interested I’d say give it a go!

Review: The Dinner, Herman Koch

It’s no secret that I am more than a bit food-oriented. I’d seen The Dinner in Waterstones a while back and was drawn in just by the title, and then by the blurb. I’ve since read good things about it: the Wall Street Journal likened it to Gone Girl, which I haven’t read but is one of THE books of the year so far. So when I saw it pop up for ridiculously cheap on the Kindle store, I snapped it up.

I have to say, though, I was a bit underwhelmed. I enjoyed it well enough, but I didn’t find it really that compelling. This might be because it has been translated from its original Dutch (apparently I’m into European literature this summer), but at times I found it a bit stilted. The structure was also quite hard to follow – lots of unannounced jumping around. Obviously this isn’t an unusual literary technique and it doesn’t usually throw me, but something about Koch’s structure just didn’t grab me.

I also thought that the novel seemed to try quite hard to Deal With A Lot of Issues. This wasn’t particularly subtle: there was overt commentary on family dynamics, fame, politics, even dining habits (which I did actually find very interesting). Again, this isn’t something I’m particularly averse to but it felt a bit hardgoing and relentless.

In terms of a moral dilemma, Koch does present an interesting one. It’s difficult to know who to side with throughout the novel, which is always a good sign that each character is nicely rounded and fully “fleshed out.” Like I said, I felt that the flashbacks sometimes took away from the tension he was building. I much preferred the scenes that actually took place at the dinner table, which balanced the tension between the life of a public figure, the etiquette of and social minefield that is fine dining, and much much more, very well. I can see why he needed the flashbacks, but like I said, the structure just didn’t really work for me. It is a great what would you do kind of read, though, and it’s definitely thought-provoking.

If you want to read it, The Dinner is currently featured in Amazon’s Summer Sale so you can get it for 99p for your Kindle. I would recommend it at that price for sure ’cause it’s an interesting read – it just wasn’t all that I really wanted it to be.

Review: The Hundred Year Old Man…

Who Climbed Out Of The Window and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson

Click for the Amazon link!

When I first started this blog I fully intended to talk about what I was reading, but then I started my dissertation and stopped reading anything that wasn’t circus-related, and so that idea went out of the window. Now that last term is only a distant memory, and the sun has finally come out, I’ve had plenty of time to read whatever I want and I have to say I have been loving it!

I’ve had this little gem by Jonas Jonasson on my Kindle for a while now, but I’d been putting off reading it on the grounds that 100 year old men are usually not my kind of protagonist. However, faced with a long train journey and the need to pack light, I had to abandon my other read-in-progress (Capital, by John Lanchester, an absolute brick of a paperback) and eventually gave in to Jonasson.

I had heard only good things about this book, and as it turns out, that is for good reason. I loved it! It’s a light, funny read with an eccentric array of characters that includes a criminal mastermind, an elephant, and almost every major world leader of the 20th century, all tied together by the 100 year old protagonist, Allan. It’s ridiculous to say the least, with two stories essentially running alongside each other: one, the tale of Allan’s escape from his old people’s home and the unbelievable mischief he gets up to along the way, and two, a blunt account of Allan’s quite remarkable life so far. It reads sort of like a Swedish, more intelligent Forrest Gump – it’s very whimsical and surreal, but there is a sense of tongue-in-cheek wryness and dry humour about the whole thing that I really enjoyed.

On a slightly deeper level, I think Jonasson also has a lot to say about politics, corruption and global affairs. It’s subtly done and stays light hearted, but protagonist Allan definitely presents a whole new way of looking at the world that highlights a lot of vital issues relating to current affairs, international relations and so on. I won’t get too English-student, but it’s an interesting way of looking at the novel and I think that’s definitely what lends it its literary merit, as such. Either way, Allan’s “que sera sera” attitude is inspiring if nothing else. I think everyone needs a bit of Allan in them!

As I said, on paper The Hundred Year Old Man… is exactly the kind of thing I’m not into, i.e ageing explosive experts and criminal wild goose chases. In practice, however, it’s a perfect feelgood summer read if you’re looking for something that’s a step up from your average trashy chick lit / awful self published romance but not looking to tax your poor over-stressed mind. Plus, if you’ve got any knowledge of recent history and 20th century world events, it’s a nice little ego boost – a classic case of buttering up the reader’s ego by appealing to your GCSE history knowledge. It’s a winner all round, and as this is only Jonas Jonasson’s first novel, I’ll definitely be keeping my eye out for him in the future!