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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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In the Presence of the Enemy and With No One As Witness, by Elizabeth George

I am always taken aback when I remember that Elizabeth George is American. She seems (to my American but Anglophilic mind) very tuned in to British speech patterns, class structures, and cultures. This is important in the Lynley series (for lack of a better name), because it’s incredibly multi-cultural, multi-class, and British.

Take, for example, In the Presence of the Enemy. The mystery itself (the kidnapping of a MP’s daughter) is incredibly grounded in British politics – not necessarily contemporary British politics in a way that would make it seem dated in just a couple of months (although the IRA does merit a mention) – but in the way British politics work. The main conflict (apart from, you know, the kidnapping) is the relationship between politicians and the press: how very biased (and proudly so) certain newspapers are, the way that issues that have nothing to do with policy can bring down a career or a Government. It’s particularly resonant now, as the fallout from the Murdoch/News of the World scandal continues. The newspapers in the book may not have tapped people’s phones or knowingly interfered with a police investigation (that still makes me so sick, in real life), but they don’t see their subjects as human, and personal considerations are not given as much weight as trying to promote scandal (the more sex-related, the better).

The devastating part of In the Presence of the Enemy is the resolution of the case. The kidnapper/murderer is caught, of course, but the whole thing was based around a misunderstanding and a lie. It’s so incredibly unnecessary, and pathetic in its delusion. It also brings me back to one of my main tenets in life: You are not doing something FOR someone when they have NEVER ASKED YOU TO DO IT. Don’t break up with your girlfriend “for” someone. Don’t change yourself “for” someone. And for the love of God, DO NOT KIDNAP AND MURDER SOMEONE “FOR” SOMEONE ELSE.

 

With No One As Witness is just as devastating, but while the case is horrific and sad (serial killings of primarily mixed-race boys), the truly heartbreaking part has nothing to do with the case: it’s the shooting of Lynley’s wife. Elizabeth George does an absolutely amazing job of portraying Lynley’s devastation, heartbreak, and paralysis in the face of catastrophe. He has to make an impossible choice, and you just know that he’ll never completely recover from it. And Havers and Nkata are partially there with him, not knowing what to do with themselves or for him, but also knowing that the case has to be solved, that the rest of the world isn’t put on hold. And the case is solved, Havers saves the day, but nothing will ever be right again.

 

I have two more Elizabeth George books on my shelves: A Great Deliverance, which is the first Lynley book, and Careless in Red, the follow-on from With No One As Witness. (It’s not the next one in that world; that’s What Came Before He Shot Her, which follows the 12-year-old shooter in the days leading up to it, and which I should probably read at some point since one of the secondary characters is named Kendra, but right now I don’t want him to be humanised, I just want to mourn for Helen. Yes, I know she is fictional. Shut up. Anyway, Careless in Red is the next one to feature Lynley.) I have read most of the others at various points in my life, but sometime (possibly soon) I’ll want to reread most of them to remember the personal backstories of everyone, beyond the recaps that are so smoothly incorporated for new readers.

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Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy

I go into Hardy books with more than a little trepidation.  They tend to be beautiful and mesmerizing – and usually emotionally devastating. Tess is shattering, Jude is so heartbreaking that I couldn’t function after reading it, A Pair of Blue Eyes is frustratingly sad.

Far from the Madding Crowd is not. It’s still got the beautiful language (to the point of lilac prose), but the heartache isn’t nearly as extreme or inevitable as in his other books. I think there are at least two reasons for this. Firstly, the book has an ultimately happy ending. The two main protagonists are touched by the tragedy but not destroyed by it. It’s not really their tragedy. It does directly affect Bathsheba, of course, but the tragedy is Fanny’s, not hers.

And that’s the second reason that this book isn’t as devastating as even A Pair of Blue Eyes. There’s never an impossible decision. Tess, for example, has to choose between starvation and essential prostitution. Bathsheba doesn’t even come close to a similar dilemma. She makes two ultimately foolish decisions, but the consequences are not far-reaching and she accepts them as her due. Gabriel is similar: he doesn’t really make any foolish decisions, but he accepts the consequences of his actions and incorporates them into his life. He’s kind of the epitome of “hard work is its own reward” – even when misfortune befalls him, he is able to pick himself up and get back to life the way he understands it, ultimately getting back to an even higher position than he was in before.

The tragedy of this book is really Fanny Robin’s. If it had been her book, rather than Bathsheba’s, it would have almost been more Hardy-esque. She runs away to follow her sweetheart – who’s such a player that it’s sickening – mixes up the church at which they’re supposed to get married (at which point he walks away from her), and ultimately ends up dying with her illegitimate child in the workhouse.

I have to admit, I was a little bit lost in timeframe at some critical points in the book. I couldn’t tell how long Bathsheba and Troy had been married or then, by extension, the progress of Troy and Fanny’s relationship. The obfuscation around pregnancy also didn’t help – I am assuming that Fanny died in childbirth but to a modern reader that’s not at all clear. The main question in my mind is whether Fanny became pregnant before or after Bathsheba and Troy met. It doesn’t affect the story as a whole, but it does affect how much of a cad Troy is.

Because he is a cad, there’s no question about that. He plays on Fanny, apparently never expecting that she’d take him so seriously as to follow him to the regiment’s next posting, abandons her when she mixes up the church for their wedding, and then proceeds to work on Bathsheba – at one point even claiming that she was the one who trapped him into affection when he was the one who made all of the overtures. He’s very much the type of man who only wants what he can’t have, and once he has it doesn’t want it anymore. If he’d really loved Fanny the way he claimed to, he would never have abandoned her, pursued Bathsheba, or, more importantly, married Bathsheba.

But it’s not Troy’s story, Fanny’s story, or even Bathsheba’s story alone. It’s the story of Bathsheba and Gabriel – one of the few healthy relationships I’ve ever seen presented in Hardy. Gabriel never gives up in his love for Bathsheba, but he also doesn’t smother her with it or expect anything from her just because he loves her. He’s simply there, constantly working for her good without losing himself in the process. Bathsheba loses herself briefly in infatuation with Troy, but easily realises Gabriel’s worth, even before she develops deeper feelings for him – and even when she’s caught up with Troy, she’s enough herself to keep the farm running and to keep from alienating everyone she knows.

I almost wish I’d read this as my first Hardy, rather than Tess. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Tess (and am probably due for a reread sometime soon), but if I’d read this first I don’t think I would have been nearly so nervous about starting new (to me) Hardys. Until I’d hit Jude, of course.

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Room, by Emma Donoghue

Room has an incredibly interesting concept. Jack has lived his entire life – five years – in one 12×12 room.  He and his mother are secluded and confined, but Jack is happy, because he’s never known anything different. But as you get more involved in the story, you realise just what is going on in Jack and Ma’s lives: Ma was kidnapped and is being held prisoner, and Jack is a product of that.

The book is divided into four sections. The first two sections are set (almost) entirely within Room – they’re a sweet but ultimately disturbing portrayal of Jack and Ma’s life: sweet because Jack and Ma clearly love each other, and Ma is doing everything she can to give Jack a “normal” upbringing, even given the constraints. Jack watches Dora the Explorer, and measures himself against the wall, and plays with his toys. Other than the fact that he doesn’t know that there is a world outside Room, he is a normal 5-year-old.

At the end of the first half, Jack and Ma escape, and it’s in the second half that things really start going off the rails. For all that Room was a dysfunctional situation, it was normal and functional within that situation.  Suddenly everything Jack has ever known is taken away and he is catapulted into a world that he thought was fictional until just a few weeks ago.

What interested me in the second half was not as much Jack and Ma’s reactions to being free – although I think they are incredibly believable. I was more interested in other people’s reactions: the reporters, implying that Ma was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome; Ma’s mother, who couldn’t believe that Jack didn’t have Legos, Jack’s aunt and uncle, who took Jack into a mall only a few weeks after the escape. It’s my old interest in assumptions: the things that we don’t realise that other people don’t know. It’s especially interesting with Jack, because he’s familiar with pop culture (they had a TV in Room)  but he’s not familiar with social conventions (like having to pay for things at a store).

It’s  a disturbing book, as any book about kidnapping, rape, etc., should be, but it’s definitely worth reading. Jack is a more reliable unreliable narrator than some: he doesn’t know what’s going on, but the reader usually does, with very little detective work. Ma is a good mother – one of the best in fiction – and incredibly sympathetic. By the end, you know that Ma and Jack are going to be fine (and the journey to fine is worth it).

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Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

Well, that was odd. Not bad, definitely not bad. But….odd. There’s a definite and abrupt shift about two-thirds of the way through that, while it doesn’t change the overall theme of the book, definitely changes the feel and tone of it – both the theme and the book.

It’s a book about identity.  Who are these characters, and who are they outside of their core relationships? Are they anyone outside of their core relationships?  Are they different outside of their core relationships? It’s most pronounced in the twins, of course – it’s a common idea with twins – but it’s also true about the romantic couples. Martin and Robert particularly are lost at first without their other halves around. They eventually come through it, but (without spoiling too much) Martin comes through it to regain his other half and Robert comes through it to leave her. Julia and Valentina are the twins – Valentina is ready to be her own person, outside of the twin-hood, and Julia isn’t.

But then the book takes a disturbing turn. Seriously, I read the turning point and said, out loud, in an empty house, “WHAT????” (I may have used more words than that.) And from that point on it becomes not “Who am I outside of my core relationship?” but “Who am I?” Is your identity based on what people see, how they perceive you? Or is it based on how you know yourself? If everyone believes that Twin 1 is really Twin 2, does she then become Twin 2? If you act a part long enough, do you eventually become that character?

I don’t think it’s quite as good, or “instant classic” (how I hate that appellation), as The Time-Traveler’s Wife. It’s not bad, of course, but there are some flaws that make me believe that it’s not going to stand the test of time quite so well. It’s very full of timely (as in, set in a particular time) references, and specific place references. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed them – particularly the scene where they’re watching a specifically-described episode of Doctor Who – but I am also aware that those are the types of references that are horribly dated and anachronistic in even a few years, and only acquire significance in a few decades at the earliest. And given the incredibly abrupt shift between the two parts of the book, I don’t quite see this one lasting to the point where the cultural references get back to being significant.  I’m afraid it’s going to get lost in the zone of “too old to be relevant, too recent to be interesting”.

But again, I did enjoy it. I read it in an afternoon. I went to my stack of books this afternoon – a stack that has barely moved in a few months, at least – and this book practically called to me, saying “I am what you need to read today.” And it did work, at least for a bit. – But my mental state is not for this blog. Suffice it to say that, yes, it was what I needed to read, and I’m glad I did. I would love to discuss it with anyone else who’s read it, either in comments, or in email…..any takers?

 

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The Regeneration trilogy, by Pat Barker

I am so fascinated by World War I. I’m not sure entirely why (other than Rilla of Ingleside) but I love the stories that come out of those four years. The stories, the poems, the personalities….I don’t know as much, or care as much about the military strategy of it, but I am fascinated by the people involved. So this trilogy, revolving around Dr Rivers, the psychiatrist who treated Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, is kind of perfect for me.

Regeneration, the first book in the trilogy, I read during my MA. And I devoured it. I loved the style, I loved the people, I felt deeply for each of the patients and the other characters. It made me want to reread everything of Siegfried Sassoon’s that I could find, to read more about Robert Graves, to study Wilfred Owen. At a distance of a year-plus, I don’t remember a lot of the details, but I do remember the love.

The Eye in the Door, the second book, is a bit grimmer. I am not sure if ‘grimmer’ is the right word, when the first book is set in a mental hospital, but emotionally, there is less hope in The Eye in the Door. Billy Prior, one of the patients from Craiglockhart, is starting to dissociate, and the disillusionment that is so prevalent in the “war poets” and post-war writing is stronger in this book than in either of the others. Betrayal is an important theme. Memory is an important element – both the loss of memory associated with shell-shock and dissociation, and the juxtaposition of pre-war memory and current events. It’s possible that one reason that I didn’t like this one quite as much as the other two is because it forced Billy’s pre-war memories into the story, in an attempt to preach about the horrors of the home front. And there were horrors on the home front, as there are anywhere that has been affected by war.

The Ghost Road, on the other hand, I loved. It starts with an epigraph from an Edward Thomas poem – Edward Thomas is a ‘war poet’ that I wasn’t familiar with before, but I’m going to investigate him further; apparently he was a friend of Robert Frost, and may have been the impetus for ‘The Road Less Travelled’. And the book integrates more of Rivers into the story, which is something that I found slightly missing from The Eye in the Door. The memories – Rivers’s, this time – fit better with the story; they provided insights and metaphorical connections instead of flat background.

The Ghost Road also has one of the few passages I’ve ever wanted to actually mark in a book. It’s kind of an obvious thing, but coming from Billy Prior, and in the context that it does, it really makes an impact. Billy’s writing a diary, in a way to keep track of his sanity and that of the other soldiers in France, and he comments on the prevalence of writing in the huts: letters, diaries, poems. And then he says,

Why? you have to ask yourself. I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First-person narrators can’t die, so as long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe.

He recognizes the irony, of course – that in war no one is ever safe. And the reader does too – anyone who knows about Wilfred Owen, a prominent figure in this book and one of Billy Prior’s fellow soldiers, knows that he died in battle on Armistice Day. Many of the ‘war poets’ didn’t make it home. Turning yourself into a first-person narrator is not going to give you a magic shield against bullets or gas. But the need is still there. This is one of the reasons that we tell stories; we are trying to keep our own stories going as long as possible, to make some kind of a mark on the world so that people will want to keep knowing about us, to keep ourselves from fading from sight even before death.

This trilogy is, in one way, kind of like a Ron Howard movie. It’s based on true events – many of the characters are real people – so you know what’s going to happen, for the most part. But you can’t stop reading, you can’t stop hoping that it will happen differently this time. They wouldn’t really kill off characters that are so important in the story, would they?  They wouldn’t really be sent into battle in such horrible conditions? Or, even more chillingly, they wouldn’t really let a guy with half his face blown off live that long, would they? But they do, in every case.

(I also will say that one thing that I liked about The Ghost Road was the presence of Henry Head. I found him fascinating during Casualty 1909, where they actually show the beginnings of his nerve regeneration self-experiment, which they bring up in this book, and I like that connection between one thing I love (this trilogy) and another (Casualty 1900s).)

I whipped through the final two books of this trilogy in, essentially, one afternoon/evening. I find the period so captivating, and the characters so captivating, that now all I want to do is read more WWI-set literature. Maybe I’ll do Birdsong next, and mark that off my list too….

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Handle with Care, by Jodi Picoult

Warning: Handle with Care is a recently published book, and there are spoilers below.

It took me longer than I expected to get through Handle with Care.  I’ve enjoyed the other two books of hers that I’ve read (My Sister’s Keeper and Nineteen Minutes), even if I couldn’t get through an audio book of The Tenth Circle.  Plus, my sister became almost instantly absorbed in Handle with Care, and any book that can hook my sister that quickly must be worth reading. And it was worth reading, I don’t want to say that it wasn’t. But as I told my sister, it was frustrating and sad – and since I’m also trying to read The Princes in the Tower, which makes me frustrated and angry, it was possibly more harrowing than it needed to be.

It was plenty harrowing, too. Another reason that I had a problem getting through it was because, for most of the story, I had very little sympathy with Charlotte. I understood the instinct behind Charlotte and Sean’s initial visit to the lawyer, and I understood to some extent why she followed through on the wrongful birth suit. But I found her incredibly unsympathetic for about two-thirds of the book.

She was so victimized, by herself. She focused so much on what couldn’t happen – what Willow couldn’t do, what she couldn’t do because of Willow, that she lost sight of what she could do. It is not a coincidence that she became a lot more likeable, and happier as a character even in the midst of the chaos that she created, when she started being proactive rather than reactive – when she started baking, and when they went to the conference in Omaha.

I don’t want to diminish the difficulty of raising a child with disabilities, either physical or mental. It is incredibly difficult and expensive, and of course no one knows how they will react to a situation until they are faced with it. But filing a lawsuit like that is not proactive, it’s reactive. It’s mercenary.

I almost think I would have liked her better if it had been a more clearly mercenary motivation. Of course, then she wouldn’t have had the revelation at the end that she was being totally selfish (something that everyone else, including me, had realized long ago). But if they had really exhausted all of their financial resources, if they’d done all of the fund-raising possible, if she’d been baking as much as possible and selling it and it still wasn’t enough, then I would have had more sympathy with the suit. But, as Charlotte realized near the end of the trial, she was doing it for herself. She was doing it to get some kind of recognition that her life was hard, harder than she’d expected and harder than she’d wanted. And that’s what I didn’t like about her for a lot of the book – that sense of victimization, of needing public acknowledgement of her victimization.  And, as I said above, I liked her a lot more when she wasn’t focused on that, and at the end when she was finally honest about her motivations.

She was just so miserable for the first part, and behaving miserably. She was self-isolated for so long, buried in her sense of “my life is hard” that she didn’t even consider seeking out support, and blew off the support that she did have. It is almost unforgivable that she didn’t discuss even the possibility of the suit with Piper, that she blindsided her like that. It is also almost unforgivable the way that she refused to listen to Sean and discuss the suit with him, and just continued on blindly, trying to convince herself that she was doing the right thing. I can understand, given her behavior through the rest of the book, how she completely ignored all the signs of Amelia’s problems, but I don’t like her for it.  In fact, most of her behavior I can understand but just because you understand something doesn’t mean that you agree with it, approve of it, or like it.

But she is, of course, only one character. The major character, sure, but only one. And I really liked Piper, and Amelia (I had a lot of sympathy for Amelia) and Sean and Willow – although there wasn’t a whole lot of Willow until the horrifically sad ending; she was mostly there for the suit to revolve around. And Marin, as we got more involved in her story.  (How heartbreaking was her birth mother’s reveal?)

I think I felt the most for Amelia. She’s trapped by these events. She has no control over them and yet they have a profoundly negative impact on her in the way that only teenagers can be affected by these things. She’s intelligent and intuitive and exerts control over her life in the only way that she can. Most stroppy teenagers are tiresome, because there’s no rationale other than their being teenagers. With Amelia, there is a definite catalyst for these things beyond puberty – and she recognizes that but doesn’t have the self-control, or in some ways the desire, to stop it.  And then you add the element of “survivor’s guilt” – in this case, guilt about being healthy when Willow isn’t, and being upset about the things in her life when Willow has even less control and even more pain, and specific guilt about forgetting the letter at the beginning – to the chaos of puberty and the lawsuit and the ramifications from that, and it’s really no wonder that she acts out the way she does.

As a book, it’s really well done. Once I realized what it was that was upsetting me the most, and once I stopped reading it in short bursts, I raced through to the end – and was devastated, of course, by the ending that was horribly reminiscent of My Sister’s Keeper. There was one aspect, in retrospect, that was touched on but not really developed, and that was the abortion argument. There were a few hints that Charlotte, despite being a Catholic, wasn’t absolutely opposed to abortion, and that part of her mentality was not explored in as much depth as the social and emotional and familial ramifications of the lawsuit itself. But that’s my only quibble with the writing, and it’s entirely likely that if it had been included, it would have come across as preachy or made the book too emotionally busy and I’d be complaining about its inclusion instead.

It’s more My Sister’s Keeper than Nineteen Minutes, if that gives it any context. Those being the only other Jodi Picoult books that I’ve read so far, those are the only ones I can compare it to. She’s definitely an author that I will pick up again. Just not until I’ve recovered from this one.

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