Um, I think I know the answer to this already…..

So I got linked to this today

And it just so happens that this is the weekend that my best friend moved, so we had a brief conversation about having to move books. And then I unpacked what I think might be the last box of books in our house (but I can’t guarantee this), cataloguing them as I go, because that’s what I do now, as I’ve got a pretty decent app on my phone that lets you enter or scan ISBNs (or SBNs, even, have had more than a few of those) and checks them on Amazon and Goodreads to get all the information. (You can also enter the details manually for any book that is pre-SBN-days. Got some of those too…..) Anyway, long story long, 1082 is the current count of print books we have in this house. I don’t know exactly how many are on my UK Kindle account, or how many are on my shared US Kindle account (hi, Mom!) or how many I’ve got randomly on my computer from Project Gutenberg or Publishers Weekly or whatever other ebook sources I’ve found over the years. Or how many print books are still back in the US (hi, Mom!).

For the record, my book nerd score is 43.

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The Soul of Discretion, by Susan Hill

So, I had an interesting experience while reading this book, and the seven that come before it, during a binge-reading episode during November and December, in that I read it at the same time that I caught up on the Peter Grant/Rivers of London/The Folly series by Ben Aaronovitch. They’re two such very different series – not just in that one is urban fantasy and one is realist crime (although that’s not even a remotely complete description), but also that the writing styles are so radically different that it took me quite a while to bring my brain from one to the other. When I read the Aaronovitch series, I came away with the feeling that this would make a fantastic modern episodic television show (in fact, it has been optioned not that that’s any sort of a guarantee of anything), with its continuity and plot arcs as well as character arcs; when I read the Hill series, I came away with the feeling that this would in no way make a good arced television show, but would make a great character development mystery show, with the focus on character development instead of plot continuity.

 

It’s not that Hill lacks plot, I hasten to add.  There is definitely plot. But it’s less of the storyboard, this happens so then this happens kind of plot, and more of the things happen and this is what they tell us kind of plot. You can pick up any one of the Simon Serrailler books and not be lost – what happens with the mystery in one book doesn’t necessarily carry over to another (with one exception). What does carry over are the character events – children, marriages, promotions, moves, deaths. And because the timeframe of the books – both within each book and between the books in the series, months and years pass – it’s like catching up with friends that you don’t see very often (and who aren’t on Facebook).

 

What really sets Susan Hill’s series apart from other series that I’ve read is her focus on thematic continuity within each book, rather than plot progression. Each book features any number of point-of-view characters, not just Simon Serrailler, and some of them may not ever even interact with Simon or play a part in the central crime that’s being investigated. But every single section, every single POV character, reflects whatever the central theme of the book is.  It’s actually a bit jarring if you’re used to more traditionally structured series, at least until you get used to it.

 

The Soul of Discretion is the most recent novel in the Simon Serrailler series. The theme of this one is sex, particularly problematic sex. Simon’s assigned to a dangerous undercover operation, sent to infiltrate a pedophile ring that features the great and the not-so-good – MPs and Lords and other public figures. His girlfriend has just moved in with him, the first woman who’s ever had such a permanent presence in his apartment, and he’s having a harder time than expected dealing with the fact that his sanctuary is being shared. (Simon’s history with and treatment of women is a running concern of his triplet Cat, and in this book she works with Rachel to help her establish a life outside of Simon.) Cat herself, a constant in these books, is still struggling with her idealism toward the medical profession as it conflicts with the reality of the bureaucracy of the NHS – but it’s their father Richard, who’s been physically abusive toward his second wife in previous volumes, who demonstrates the theme when he rapes a fellow Mason’s wife at a party, shining an incredibly harsh spotlight on the treatment of women in rape cases (spoiler: she’s not treated well, by Richard (obviously), her own husband, or the system).

 

It’s a troubling book overall, because the theme is so troubling (the details of the pedophile ring are somewhat glossed over, but their extent and nature isn’t, and the rape certainly isn’t), but it is mesmerising. I don’t think I like Susan Hill very much as a person, but she can definitely write.

 

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New Year’s Resolutions

So last year was kind of a big year for me. My partner and I went to the US to visit my family (first time for him; I hadn’t been back in over three years), we bought a house, I got promoted twice, and we got engaged. That’s in chronological order, by the way. March to early November.

So that didn’t leave a whole lot of time for, you know, other stuff. Like my blogs. Or writing that’s not for Publisher’s Weekly. (And not a lot of reading that’s not for Publisher’s Weekly – I won’t read a new book until I’ve finished a review, for fear of getting things mixed up in my head.) Or anything that wasn’t just collapsing on the couch or staring at a different kind of screen (….we may have also played a lot of Crusader Kings 2 and Final Fantasy).

But this year is going to be different! And one of the ways that it’s going to be different is that we’re now saving for a trip to my sister in California in 2015 and two weddings in 2016 (ah, the joys of a multi-nationality relationship), so I’m going to be buying a lot fewer of the “oh they’re only 99p” Kindle deals, and the Buy-One-Get-One-Half-Off temptations at Smiths and Waterstones. By which I mean none. No spending on books. (Free books are still okay.) Which means a lot more of reading what I already have, what is on my shared-with-my-mom-and-sister Kindle account, and what is public domain.

In other words, reading a lot more of the type of thing that I then want to write about. I have nothing against Mills and Boon, obviously, I want to write for them someday – but I don’t usually feel inspired to analyse, critique, or sing the praises of each individual book in the Desire or Blaze lines. (Mills and Boon in general though….)

I’m also keeping a reading log again, in Google Drive for easy access. Since Christmas Day, I’ve finished six books and started three others, at least one of which I won’t read all of – I skipped to the end, and the other two I’m debating about – they’re not really grabbing me at the moment. I’m also in the middle of several “big” books – a few non-fiction ones on the Kindle – a history of the Mediterranean that I started possibly over a year ago, a biography of Oswald of Northumbria that’s entitled “King of the North” to get the Game of Thrones fans in – Lorna Doone, and Don Quixote. Pretty sure I’ll have things to say about all of those, once I’m done with them.

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Broken Homes, by Ben Aaronovitch

This is the fourth in the Rivers of London/Peter Grant/The Folly series. Now you may remember that I really enjoyed the first book and, in fact, suggested that it might make a good episodic television show. Nothing in the second, third, or fourth books has changed my mind about that. If anything, my feeling that this would be a good television series has been reinforced, both by reading this series and by reading the Simon Serrailler series by Susan Hill.

 

Each of Aaronovitch’s books is an episode, with an individual plot that is resolved by the end of that book, but which also gives more hints and progression about the overarching story. Broken Homes focuses on a council estate/apartment block which has been specifically designed to accentuate magic. We’ve got some new characters, and new focuses. There’s the now-deceased architect who was a secret practitioner and the dryad who inhabits the council estate’s garden (although it’s spring, so she’s a bit….distracted), for example. Characters from previous books are here as well – the Rivers, and Lesley, and of course Nightingale; there are hints throughout that lead up to the Faceless Man (although the ending comes as a surprise even so), leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that not only lead Peter and Lesley through to the revelations about the council estate, but also lead to the latest piece in the Faceless Man mystery.

 

I don’t know if Ben Aaronovitch has a set number of books that he’s intending to write in this series; I can easily see the first six or so being the battle against the Faceless Man (I haven’t read Foxglove Summer yet, but I can’t picture it being the last one – it doesn’t feel quite ramped up enough yet – but then I could be entirely wrong about that) and then moving on to another arc and another backstory. I sincerely hope he does – I’ve gotten to really care about Peter and Lesley and Nightingale and Molly, and I want to see what further quirks this magical sub-culture throws up toward urban London life.

 

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Catching up

Non-work things read in the last few weeks:

A bunch of books I can’t talk about because they haven’t actually been published yet.

Loads of Reddit posts and links

Darwin’s Ghosts, by Rebecca Stott

all the Hugo nominees for Best Novella, Novelette, and Short Story, plus skimming the graphic novel and Editor: Short Form category

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, by Simon Singh

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

quite a few first bits of books that were free from Amazon or Google Play – enough to get the sense of them and decide that I didn’t actually care about finishing them. A few that were promising, if rough, up until I noticed that they were only 50% finished on the ereader at which point I went, “….meh, pretty sure I know how this ends”.

mortgage papers

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The Queen’s Dwarf, by Ella March Chase

Disclaimer: Ella March Chase is one of my favourite people on the planet. I call her my writer mom. Her daughter is one of my best friends and her grandchildren are my honorary nephews.

 

I don’t normally like the 17th and 18th century in English history. I’m not interested in the Stuarts or the Hanoverians.  I find the politicking tedious and annoying, and I find most of the major personalities involved self-absorbed to the point of evil. The literature of the time is verbose, preachy,  and over-reliant on contemporary references. The religious infighting makes me feel sick – I really hate the attitude of “I’m right because God says I’m right and if you don’t agree with me you must be destroyed” no matter who it’s coming from.

So, despite my adoration of the author, I was a bit hesitant about this particular book. Her earlier two books were a lot closer to my preferred time period (both set in the Tudor era, which is just at the edge of my particular interests). But this book sucked me in. I got interested in Charles I and Henrietta Maria, and in the interplay between France, England, and Spain during the first half of the 17th century. I got interested in the women at court, especially the Duchess of Buckingham (she was a Manners, so relatively local to where I am now) and Lucy Hay. I even got a bit interested in the rise of the Puritans.

The main character is Jeffrey Hudson, a small person (not technically a dwarf by today’s medical standards) who’s only about 18 inches tall. He’s from a family on the estates of the Duke of Buckingham, and is placed by the Duke into the menagerie of Queen Henrietta Maria. Buckingham intends Jeffrey as a spy against the queen  and her French court. Jeffrey’s mostly just trying to survive. He’s around and influential for quite a few major events – the queen’s pilgrimage to Tyburn, for example, which directly led to the banishment of her French ladies-in-waiting.

Chase weaves the history in with the story pretty seamlessly – so seamlessly that I would occasionally check Wikipedia to find out more of the background. (Which then, of course, led to the Wikipedia warren – I ultimately spent almost as much time reading about Henry of Navarre and Marie de Medici as I did about Jeffrey Hudson. ) She definitely did her research, and it shows.

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Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard

A few years ago, I joined a musical theatre group. The first show I was involved in was a “concert” – a selection of songs from a variety of shows, all on a similar theme – with the theme “the darker side of musicals”. There were several songs from the Sondheim show “Assassins,” including “The Ballad of Guiteau”.

To be honest, it was the first time I’d ever heard of Guiteau (or Czolgosz, the assassin of McKinley). I vaguely knew about Garfield, but only as one of the list – an assassinated president, or one of the Reconstruction presidents; someone to be recited, not someone to be learned. We spent almost no time on the late 19th century in my history classes in high school, and what we did learn was the social changes – things like yellow journalism or the labor safety reforms. Reconstruction went from Andrew Johnson to the Civil Rights movement with hardly a stop in between.

But the song is interesting, and I wanted to know how accurate it was. So I went on Wikipedia, read a bit, got even more interested, and heard about this book. Of course, Reconstruction-era American politics is not hugely popular or available in the UK. Luckily, my mom was also interested and bought it for our joint Kindle account.

I came away from this book with three overwhelming conclusions. First, Guiteau was certifiable and should have been institutionalised. I understand why he was executed. But there’s not a chance that he understood the moral implications of what he did. He transformed single, isolated events into a divine mandate, and he genuinely believed that other people – people like Chester Arthur (the vice president) and General Sherman (of the march to the sea), whom he’d never met – would back him up.

Second, Garfield was amazing. He was incredibly intelligent, and once he got into the habit of learning (which did take him a while), he was unstoppable. He started off in nearly devastating poverty, and was president of his alma mater by the time he was 25. He was a family man – incredibly close to his mother [his father died when he was under the age of 2] and siblings, increasingly devoted to his wife, and an involved father. He didn’t want to be president – he didn’t even really want to be in politics, but saw it as the best way that he could make a difference – but when it was pushed on him, he did as much as he could to be the best president he could be while still staying true to his own values and ideals. Even when he was dying, he was unselfish: telling the doctors that they were doing a good job, telling his wife that he wasn’t really in pain, doing what he could to make even his death not about him.

Third, Doctor Bliss was almost completely responsible for Garfield’s death. Guiteau was crazy, but he wasn’t wrong when he said that he was responsible for the shooting but not the death. Bliss had an undeserved sense of entitlement that led to him claiming sole responsibility for Garfield’s care, even to the extent of keeping his family away. He put his own reputation and desires above the care of his patient, and that is just wrong no matter what year it is. I don’t care that the medical convention at the time was anti-antisepsis, or that hospitals weren’t acceptable/accessible for anyone other than the indigent. This is the President of the United States. GET A SECOND OPINION. When the man’s personal doctor comes in? LET HIM COME IN. When Alexander Graham Bell comes in with his device to locate the bullet? LET HIM LOCATE THE BULLET – instead of telling him where to look and not allowing him to look anywhere else in the body (even as a control point! And had Garfield on a metal-spring mattress when Bell is using a metal detector!) The anti-antisepsis stuff I can forgive, because that was the conventional wisdom at the time, but the fact that he refused to acknowledge that septicemia had set in? The fact that he blatantly lied in all his press releases saying that the president was fine? And the fact that he refused to allow any sort of dissent for his opinion even after Lucretia Garfield said publicly that she’d never asked him to be her husband’s doctor? That’s delusion of an entirely different kind than Guiteau’s, and was much more devastating to Garfield.

Those were my main conclusions, but there was a lot else in the book that I found new and interesting. (I was coming in with almost no knowledge, so pretty much everything was new and interesting.) I didn’t know much about the Republican party post-Civil War, so I didn’t know much about Conkling and the spoils system. I ended up being a bit proud of Chester Arthur for breaking free of Conkling’s hold and carrying on with Garfield’s civil service reforms – and I must admit that I gave a bit of an evil laugh when Conkling lost his seat through his own hubris.

I also didn’t know anything about the reaction to Garfield’s death. In the book, the way it comes across – and I certainly hope that this is accurate – is that Garfield was personable enough and popular enough with all groups of people that the announcement of his death affected everyone – from freed black people to die-hard southerners to political rivals – and brought them closer as a nation. People didn’t riot against each other; they may have banded together against Guiteau but society didn’t fracture. Emotionally reuniting the country is something that Garfield may have been able to do while living – he was certainly making progress at it – and something that was sadly achieved by his death.

As for the book itself, it was a very quick read – Millard makes it entertaining as well as informative, and there’s nothing in it that can be considered dry or unnecessary. It seemed a bit short to me, but that could be because I’m also reading a book about the history of the Mediterranean, and I’m only 20% through it after almost six weeks. (That one is verrrrrry long and dense.) It didn’t feel incomplete; it just went very quickly and I still want to know more. This is especially surprising because I generally don’t care about 19th century politics – but Garfield-the-person was so interesting to me that I want to know him better. [I’m satisfied with my level of knowledge of Guiteau now though. *shudder*]

To sum up: I would recommend this book, whether you’re already interested in the time period or not. Also, give “The Ballad of Guiteau” a listen and be amazed at Sondheim’s writing and research (as well as Millard’s).

….now to find something similar about Czolgosz and McKinley…..

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