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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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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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The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

 

This is the book that beat Ready Player One for the Locus Award (Best First Novel). Now, I adored Ready Player One, so I had to see what could beat it.

……

Well, I definitely liked Ready Player One better, but I can see why The Night Circus won. Contests and prizes and general acclaim tend to go to subtle, ethereal, almost inscrutable writing, not stuff that’s more plot-based, no matter how well-constructed or well-written that plot is.

I did like The Night Circus, just not as much as Ready Player One. I found the use of present tense jarring at first, but after the first few pages I got used to it. (Sidebar: we have been so conditioned to past tense in prose that any use of present tense is going to be seen as innovative and/or disruptive. The very best example of present tense done smoothly and well is Bleak House, where the narrative switches between past and present depending on whether it’s first-person Ada or third-person omniscient narration. My personal favourite is The Rainmaker by John Grisham, which sucked me in before I fully realised it was present tense – and then when I did realise, about a third of the way in, I had to go back through and make sure it was deliberate and not just a proofreading failure.)

So the present-tense didn’t bother me. No, what bothered me were the short second-person passages. Now, I don’t know about you, but my exposure to second-person narration, and hence my initial reaction when faced with it, is Choose Your Own Adventure type books. As such, I kept waiting for some sort of disaster to strike “me” walking around the circus, and when nothing did I felt tense and disappointed. One review I read said that it put the reader in the middle of the circus, but it didn’t do that for me – it just took me out of the story and broke the connections I was forming with Celia, Marco, Bailey, Poppet, etc.  I found it unnecessary and pandering and even now, after finishing the book and thinking about it as a whole, I don’t think it added much, if anything, to the story or the structure. It tipped the balance and broke the story-bubble and, for me, one of the greatest strengths of the book was its balance.

For if we learn anything from the circus, it is that destruction follows imbalance. The entire point of the competition is to tip the balance between chaos and order and, in doing so, to destroy the other player. (Collateral damage includes destroying a part of yourself, and anyone else who may have unwittingly gotten involved.) Celia and Marco work best when they are creating together, when they are each enhancing what the other has done – for one of them to win would destroy not only what they have done together but what they would do in the future. And the only way the circus can continue is if the balance between them is maintained – if either one of them tips the balance, the circus and everything in it will disintegrate.

And the book itself, outside of the second-person interludes, is fairly well-balanced between the various threads: Celia, Marco, and Bailey; those affecting the circus and those being affected by it; exposition and events. But then the second-person interludes come in, describing things that haven’t been introduced yet, or things that were described better and more evocatively a few pages before, or things that you think should become significant but never reappear.

Maybe on a reread, this won’t bother me so much. But when I finished Ready Player One, I wanted to jump back into the world, to go deeper into the details and find the hidden meanings in references. I don’t feel the same way about The Night Circus or Erin Morgenstern’s writing. It was nice enough, but I’m not compelled to reread it or relive it. I won’t turn down another book by Morgenstern, but I won’t rush to read it, either.

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Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch

This book has been staring at me from Waterstones’ shelves for months, tempting me with its old map Streets of London cover and its back-cover blurb that makes it seem like a cross between The Eyre Affair and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The last time I went in, it was on special offer. What else could I do but buy it?

And it doesn’t have the intense wordplay of Jasper Fforde, or the detailed, heavy, parallel history of Susannah Clarke. But it does have an incredibly readable voice and an eminently reasonable approach that makes completely bizarre events seem perfectly realistic. Oh, and a touch of heartbreaking sadness, but not unresolvable sadness.

Because reason is what you need, and sadness is what you get, when you can sense residual magic, are given evidence by a ghost, and have to negotiate a peace treaty between London’s river spirits. Oh, and people are having excessively violent reactions to annoyances, and then their faces fall off.

The two stories – the rivers and the violence – aren’t connected; they’re just simultaneous. Occasionally they coincide and intersect, but other than timing they’re completely separate. It’s absolutely great the way the stories intertwine without conflicting – not something that’s done a lot anymore, and Aaronovitch manages it well.

I really liked the glimpses into London’s physical history – the rivers and streams are all personified and their history and current status mentioned, including facts about the Thames area that I sort of knew of but didn’t concretely know before. And some of those details help with the investigation into the violence, which leads to a sort of cultural/social history touchstone that I vaguely recognised but didn’t know much about (Mr. Punch/Punch and Judy). I enjoy things that entertain as well as educate.

There’s a sequel (first chapter provided) which I’ll definitely keep an eye out for. It follows directly on from this one and absolutely acknowledges the events and their consequences. I think, as a series, it has great potential for continuation. In fact, I was thinking that it might make an interesting television show – the combination of police procedural and magic as presented here is so cool, and lends itself to serialisation very well. Producers, talk to me, I’ve got ideas.

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The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

This is the sequel to The Magicians, which I really enjoyed a few weeks ago. I compared it to Harry Potter meets Narnia, for grownups.  And I was really looking forward to the sequel – getting back into Fillory, finding out what happened with/to Julia, helping Quentin find direction and satisfaction with his life.

Well, we find out what happened with Julia. It’s really dark and disturbing, and she loses herself and her humanity and her ability to connect and relate to other people. Some of it is her own choice, sort of, as she chooses to pursue “underground” magical studies. Some of it is not, as unexpected consequences take her over. All of it is dark, with only occasional glimpses of light and sanity.

There’s a sort of implicit connection made in the book, especially in Julia’s story, between the underground study of magic and mental illness, especially depression. I don’t know if there’s a deliberate connection there -some sort of mysticism, irrationality granting access to a different realm, something like that – or if it’s just coincidental and implied. If it is deliberate, I’m just glad that i’ts not romanticized. Magic in this world is very cool, but it’s also presented as very difficult and dangerous – and the consequences of failure are devastating. It wouldn’t help to present it as glamorous.

Quentin also shows signs of ennui and depression – some of it is his general personality (he showed the same symptoms in The Magicians) and some of it is events – Alice’s death, etc. It makes me wonder whether the connection between magic and mental illness that is so prevalent in the underground (read: non-Brakebills) community is also a factor in the use of magic as a whole.

One o fthe disappointing things about  this book for me was the lack of adventures in Fillory. I find Fillory fascinating, in the same way that I find the actual world-building of Narnia fascinating (my two favourite Narnia books are Dawn Treader and The Magician’s Nephew, for the world creation and exploration), and I was looking forward to a kind of Dawn Treader-esque exploring tale, especially when the quest for the keys showed up. But instead Quentin keeps being dragged out of the situations that I’ve become invested in, and that he has. Because of this, I found the ending more frustratingly sad than poignant. Because I never got to see much of Quentin in Fillory – just his boredom and dissatisfaction – I never quite believed his desperation to get back.

The Magician King also throws in a lot of new levels to the magical world, and it’s a bit too much. I feel like the whole “Old Gods” story  and Julia’s story could have been expanded, the dragons could have been expanded, and more could have been shown of “normal” Fillory to increase the dramatic necessity of saving it/getting back to it. In some ways it felt like the second and third parts of a trilogy had been compressed into one, as if The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had been merged: cutting Hoth down to one or two scenes, skipping most of Dagobah and only telling us about the cave scene (including its significance), cutting right from Han encased in carbonite to rescuing him on Tatooine and then going straight to Endor and the second Death Star. It’s entirely possible that if the book had been extended, even turned into two volumes, I’d be saying that it was too long and padded. But I felt like there were things introduced that are presented as deep and important, but in a tell-not-show kind of way.

Luckily, Lev Grossman is a good enough writer, and I became invested in the world enough during The Magicians that I wanted to keep going and try to recapture it. It never quite made it back to the level of interest that The Magicians did, but there were still glimpses of what the world could be.

I highly doubt that there will be a third book in this world, because there aren’t really loose ends – not in the same way that The Magicians had loose ends. I almost wish there would be, because I still like what the world has, even if I found the execution less-than-perfect in this case. But a third book would either have to restart something or fill in the gaps between these two. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

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Ladies of Liberty, by Cokie Roberts

We hear a lot in the US about the Founding Fathers – the Revolutionary War heroes who wrote/signed the Declaration and the Constitution, who dedicated their lives to the country and shaped the nation we have today. We hear less about the Founding Mothers – the women who subsumed their relationships and sometimes their own preferences into the politics and struggles of the new country.  Oh, sure, we know a bit about Abigail Adams, maintaining a Massachusetts farm while her husband was creating a country, and Dolley Madison, who saved the portrait of George Washington during the War of 1812, and sometimes there might be a collection of biographical sketches of First Ladies – but there’s not even close to the depth of research given to the Presidents and other major male figures.

Cokie Roberts is trying to redress the balance with this book. It’s extensively researched and documented (as far as I can tell) without ever being dry and dusty (for more than a few sentences at least). Overall, she does an excellent job of bringing the women to life.

And it’s about more than just the First Ladies/White House hostesses. Obviously they make up a bulk of the book, being the female focal points of their respective administrations, and they are covered in detail during – and sometimes before and after – the relevant administrations (except for Elizabeth Monroe, who seemed to have been private and sick most of the time), but the book also covers the Ursuline nuns of New Orleans, the free black women societies who made huge strides in educational access, Theodosia Burr, and other wives, socialites, reformers, and writers of the first six administrations.

Structurally, it’s fairly straightforwardly chronological, with one chapter for each presidential term from John Adams until the election of John Quincy Adams. The women thread into and out of the book much as they would have in the national consciousness of the time – which can seem a bit chaotic but does give a sense of the real-time history. There were quite a few personalities that probably deserve their own biographies – and not just the obvious candidates like Abigail Adams, Louisa Adams, and Dolley Madison.

There were some timing coincidences for me during my reading. I’d just finished reading abut the War of 1812 in the book when one of my favourite podcast series had an episode about the Bombardment of Baltimore, and BBC History podcast had an episode about the War of 1812. And reading about Theodosia Burr made me want to reread Burr – and then I heard that Gore Vidal had died.

(I also wanted to reread The President’s Lady when Rachel Jackson came up, but she never played a big role in society and the book ends at John Quincy Adams’s election.)

This book definitely gave me a new/different perspective on key, well-known figures. I think of Thomas Jefferson, for example, as a man of refinement and education, so to see him derided as a sort of hick with no manners was a bit startling. (Not Cokie Roberts’s derision, I should point out, but public opinion at the time.) I also lost a bit of respect for Abigail Adams for her vehement support of the Alien and Sedition Act, the PATRIOT Act of its day, if not worse. I also found Louisa Adams incredibly fascinating and contradictory, and want to read more about her  (when I’m next in an early-America mood).

It’s not a book for American history beginners, and it was easy to put down – but it was also easy to come back to, and I definitely learned a lot.

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