Tag Archives: vaguely uncomfortable

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 Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure

I miss Decorah. There’s a bit at the end of this book where they’re staying in Decorah (after seeing the Laura stuff at Burr Oak) and they stay at the Super 8 and go to Bookends and Beans – which isn’t named, but anyone who’s spent time in Decorah knows that’s where they went – and now I want a raspberry chai from Bookends and Beans and to wander through their carefully selected shelves where I always saw a book that I’d been craving. And then I’d take the chai and the book and go to Dunning’s Spring and read (if it were warm enough) or maybe up to campus and sit by Pioneer Memorial or up to Phelps Park or walk along the river….

Anyway.

I quite enjoyed this book. It helps that I’ve been to most of the sites myself, although a few of them I only have hazy memories of. I always enjoy books that reference places that are familiar to me, as long as they get the details right. (See also: Housewives Eating Bonbons, or whatever it’s called, also presumably set in Decorah, but an unrecognizable version of it, and if you’re going to change such an important feature of the town as the college that has been there since 1861 – just change the name of the town already.)

If you don’t know, this is a book about one woman’s journey around the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, in an emotional search for “Laura World” – the sense of recapturing the world of the series as she experienced it when she was a child. It’s not a particularly calculated journey. She didn’t set out to write a book or a travel guide about the Laura sites. And I like that. There are plenty of books out there that serve that function. This is much more personal. It’s about the journey, the exploration, and in some ways the pilgrimage aspect. She’s trying to recapture her childhood connection with Laura and her old sense of the world Laura lived in. The book doesn’t really try to evoke that world – although there is some of that – as much as it does her reaction to that world, or what is left of it, and trying to fit Laura into her adult urban life.

And I think she’s pretty successful at it. She discovers along the way what she needs Laura to be – an example of girlhood and exploration – amd what she doesn’t – a lifestyle example to help prepare for the End Times. She meets some interesting people, in both good and bad ways, and learns how to do quite a lot – cooking some of the Little House recipes, twisting hay, surviving a Midwestern thunderstorm.

The only thing I didn’t like was a vague sense of condescension to the more rural people that she met and some of the small town things she experienced. It wasn’t really explicit, but I got a feeling that she saw small towns in the Midwest as a kind of foreign country and “oh, aren’t their customs quaint and cute!” That could just be oversensitivity on my part, though, seeing as I grew up in small Midwetern towns – large by local standards but smaller than the university where I did my MA.

The main thing that I came away from this book with was a desire to reread the entire Little House series. It’s been years since I’ve read them. I also want to give them to some young girls I know. I think they’re at the right age to start them, and one of them at least will get a kick out of the history of it all.

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Best Friends Forever, by Jennifer Weiner

Some authors have certain themes that they come back to, over and over again. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Some themes, some concerns, are important enough to come back to. Body image, bullying, mental illness – these are all important things to explore on a regular basis. Best Friends Forever does that, to some extent. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do it completely successfully for me.

Part of my problem may be my own high school experience.  I wasn’t bullied, per se, much – that had come in middle school, before we moved – but I was certainly not part of the “popular” group (meaning cheerleaders, athletes, the well-dressed, the apparently socially well-adjusted). I had my own (divided) circle of friends, and ultimately became the happy, functioning adult that I am today. (hahahahahahahaha)

What I have noticed, since high school, is that very few of my classmates still remember or care who was “popular” or who wasn’t in high school. When I go back to my hometown and run into someone I was in high school with, they usually greet me with enthusiasm and recognition, whether we spoke to each other in high school or not. This is even true with the bullies – several years after we’d moved, I ran across one of the girls who’d been one of my worst tormenters in middle school. This girl was one of the reasons that I had literally no friends during fifth grade. She had been one of the organisers of the physical and emotional abuse that I underwent on a daily basis. (She wasn’t the one who’d audibly cheered when she learned I was leaving the school district; that was her best friend.)  But even just a few years afterwards, this girl greeted me as though nothing had ever happened between us. As one of my friends wrote in our graduation issue newspaper – high school doesn’t matter after high school.

So I don’t completely understand the world that Best Friends Forever is set in – a world where neither the bullies nor the bullied have moved on in twenty years. I understand where the main character is coming from – her school life was absolutely horrible, my fifth-grade year multiplied by every other year – but  I don’t understand the way that her bullies have not let up on her.

There were so many frustrating things about the main character to me. I empathised with her, but I got frustrated. I got frustrated with the obliviousness to the relatively severe social anxiety disorder she was clearly experiencing, as well as everyone else’s obliviousness to her mental disorders in high school. She was secretly binge eating, like, every night, and no one picked up on this, or thought, “Hmm, maybe she needs medical intervention?”

Mostly, though, I got frustrated with her “friendship” with her high school best friend. This girl essentially betrays her in high school (although in a fairly understandable way, given a lot of other circumstances), calls her to help cover up a potential murder, and generally acts like a controlling psychotic bitch. And the main character lets her. There is nothing good about this friendship. There is no reason, other than desperation, for this friendship to exist.  And that is frustrating for me.

I would have enjoyed this book more if either of the main female characters had undergone any sort of growth, any sort of recognition of and dealing with the past. And I don’t feel like they did, really. I mean,  there was a lot of discussion of the past – quite a lot of the book is flashback/backstory. But they didn’t seem to move on a lot from the past, and that was disturbing to me.

To get back to my first paragraph, Jennifer Weiner’s first book, Good in Bed, deals with some of the same issues: especially body image. And I enjoyed Good in Bed a lot. I wish I had enjoyed this more.

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The Viceroy’s Daughters, by Anne de Courcy

I found this book at the charity shop where I volunteer. It’s a great-looking book (or I wouldn’t have set it out on the shelves), and I am, of course, fascinated by the subject matter.  It’s not my entirely favourite time period – the girls were still quite young in the Edwardian era that is my twentieth century love, but I’m not opposed to the inter-war era except in a literary analysis way (….modernism).  The actual events of the time interest me to some degree, and these women were not influential, but involved in all of the headlines of the day. But more than that, the viceroy of the title is Lord Curzon, one of whose homes was Kedleston Hall. Kedleston is just a few miles from where my godmother lives, and was one of the first stately homes that I ever visited (and, of course, I’ve visited again many times). One of the highlights of a trip to Kedleston is seeing the Indian artifacts that George Curzon brought back from his time there (he’s considered one of the best viceroys), including the Peacock Dress, which was created for his wife, and his daughters’ mother, Mary.

I found the book surprisingly captivating, and kind of raced through it. I’m not sure why: I’m reading a few other books right now that I like better (namely, A Suitable Boy and The Music Instinct). But I couldn’t put this one down. It helped that it had relatively short chapters, especially approaching the end, so the commitment didn’t seem as intense, even if I would spend an hour at a time reading. But, like I say, there are books that I like better.

For one thing, the book is populated by some pretty horrible people. The sisters themselves are not great: regularly unfaithful to their husbands, or incredibly jealous of pretty much anyone especially her sisters, etc. And then there’s Oswald Mosley – known, apparently, as Tom. Seriously, what was his deal? He is a horrible human being: fascist, friend of Hitler, rubs his wife’s nose in the fact that he has affairs even though he knows she doesn’t like it, sleeps with both his wife’s sisters, including a long-term affair with one (after his wife’s death, which is the only semi-redeeming factor there, but the sister was married herself, so not really redeeming at all), secretly marries a divorced woman (also a fascist and friend of Hitler) without telling his children and then cuts the children out of his life because he can’t be bothered with them anymore. And yet this man gets dozens of incredibly beautiful, sought-after women to sleep with him, gets a fair amount of political power (until, you know, people realize that he’s a fascist who sees himself as Supreme Leader)….he must have been incredibly charismatic.

And then there are the Windsors (the Duke and Duchess, formerly Edward VIII). Baba’s husband was one of the Duke’s closest friends, dating back to while he was still the Prince of Wales. And at the beginning, you can see why: they’re very close and true friends. But by the time he’s abdicated, the Duke has all but forgotten Fruity. Fruity is consistently one of the only ones who stands up for and follows the Duke – and the Duke and Duchess abandon him in France with the Germans approaching before the fall of Paris. And then wonder why he and Baba aren’t too fond of them anymore.

The book itself also has flaws. Some of the problem is that it’s not Georgiana. Amanda Foreman has, quite possibly, ruined me for any other biographers. Georgiana was so alive in that book, and everything else has paled in comparison (to the point where I almost don’t want to read Mary S. Lovell’s The Mitford Sisters because her Bess was so pale).  The Curzon sisters are fairly real in this book, but they’re not as real as Georgiana was to me.

There are also a few structural problems, at least for me. There are a few characters that are prominent near the beginning (like Gracie, their stepmother) who essentially disappear for the rest of the book. The children also suffer that fate: the Mosley children, who are such an important part of Irene’s life and the sisters’ relationship with Tom, are mentioned as they serve that relationship but Baba’s children are essentially forgotten about. The viceroy himself is hardly mentioned after his death: for a book called “The Viceroy’s Daughters” his influence on their later lives is not made entirely clear.

It’s also a very name-droppy book. To be fair, the sisters did move in some of the highest circles: the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, whatever) was a big part of their lives, as well as most of the socialites and celebrities of the day. But quite a lot of them were mentioned without having been introduced, with the assumption that of course we’ll know who they are and the associations with them. Wikipedia was my friend – somewhat. Like I said, I’m not completely versed in the inter-war period, so some of the gossipy stuff passed me by.

I can’t quite put my finger on what kept me intrigued in this book. It’s not bad, of course, and the time period can be fascinating. And there’s something almost reassuring about the continuity of celebrity obsession, and self-absorbed promiscuous celebrities who are mostly famous for being famous. It’s also interesting to turn celebrities into somewhat real people. Not entirely real people yet, but closer to real people.

 

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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 Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

This book has been on my vague “Oh, I heard that was good and want to read it” list for ages – since it came out, really. Once his second book came out, I decided that now was as good a time as any to get to it.

It’s an interesting book; hard to categorize. It is, on the surface, about a boy (the “Pi” of the title) who grew up in India, the son of a zookeeper, and who survived a shipwreck during his family’s emigration to Canada. There’s kind of two parts to the book: before the shipwreck and after the shipwreck. The two are sort of nominally connected, through Pi and the animals, but are not really connected in events or themes.

The first half details Pi’s childhood, and especially his  various faiths. He grew up as a Hindu, but over the first section of the book he also becomes a Christian and a Muslim – all three at the same time. There’s also an element of atheism – although scientific rationalism or something like that might be more accurate. Pi definitely believes in God; he just also believes in the validity of evolution. His perspective on religion is that of multiple manifestations. He doesn’t disbelieve most fundamental parts of Christianity and Islam, for example – he believes that Muhammad was the prophet of God, that Jesus died to save the world and then rose again – he just doesn’t ascribe to the part that says “this is the only right way to believe in God.” It’s one of the more troubling aspects of religion in a pluralistic society.

Then the shipwreck happens and, other than a few mentions of God, the religious aspect of the book is completely abandoned, and it becomes about survival. The cargo ship that Pi, his family, and most of their zoo animals are on sinks without a trace. Pi and a few of the animals are the only survivors. There is a hyena, a zebra (quickly dispatched by the hyena), an orangutan (also dispatched by the hyena), and a Bengal tiger (who then kills the hyena). Pi and the tiger (whose name is Richard Parker) sail on in the lifeboat for 227 days before finally landing in Mexico.

The last bit of the book brought up some issues for me. Pi tells his story to some insurance claims agents representing the ship’s company. They don’t believe that he could have survived for so long, especially with a Bengal tiger – so Pi tells them another story that replaces the animal characters with human characters, turning the story that we have just heard into an allegory for the actual, human experiences that he had. There is no way of knowing, for sure, which story is true, and it turns Pi – up until now a fairly reliable narrator or at least not an obviously unreliable narrator – into a blatantly unreliable narrator.  Was there actually a Bengal tiger? The story as it is told seems to say yes. But there are clues scattered throughout that, upon rereading, might point to the human story being the truth and the animal story being Pi’s way of explaining the savagery of the survivors. Clues like those in The Sixth Sense that you take at face value within the story until you know the ending, and then they can easily be read in a different way. I am going to have to reread this book with an eye to these things at some point.

Overall, unfortunately, I was kind of disappointed in this book. I felt like there was a disconnect between the first part of the book (Pi’s religious explorations) and the second (the shipwreck). The twist of Pi as unreliable narrator almost felt like a slap in the face, like a betrayal – I’d trusted him and empathized  with him the whole way through, and I would have liked the chance to do that with the understanding of it as allegory, if it is. Or if it’s not, why pretend that it might be? I don’t know for sure, it just bothered me. And, in a way, it felt like a cheap way to get the reader to read the book again. It put a mystery in at the end, but the solution to the mystery (if there is one) lies before you are aware that there is a mystery to be solved. Maybe it would have been too clichéd or something to flip the book so that the allegorical implication comes at the beginning, but for me it changed the whole tone and idea of the book – after I’d already read through 90% of it with one impression. It doesn’t make the book a lie, but it did feel like a betrayal of my reading experience.

I’m not saying it wasn’t good, though – it was very readable in that “I’m trying to be deep and profound” way that a lot of modern “literary” fiction has. I’m just saying that there were things about it, especially about the structure of it, that I didn’t like.

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Coyote Blue, by Christopher Moore

I usually think Christopher Moore is a very funny writer. Lamb made me laugh out loud more than once (as it did my religiously-conservative grandfather, which is pretty impressive given the book’s subject matter). I tend to read Christopher Moore when I want something substantial but not too dense.

Coyote Blue is not really that funny a book, though. It’s about a Crow who has – sort of unwillingly – abandoned his heritage, right up to the point where Coyote, the trickster, comes back to his life and he is dragged back into it. The book still has the relatively light style of the other Christopher Moore books that I’ve read, but the irreverence of books like Lamb or Fluke just isn’t there. It maybe is meant to be, but I couldn’t find it.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad book, it’s just … less funny than I expected from Christopher Moore. I liked Sam, for the most part, but I didn’t really know Calliope as a character, and what I did know I couldn’t really identify with. The storyline got to be a little bit manic, and I’m still not sure why some of the things at the beginning happened, unless the entire motivation was to get Sam’s attention.

It reminded me quite a lot of Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. It had some of the same themes: ancient, almost forgotten American gods who originated in Africa (spoiler! and actually something which in retrospect kind of bothers me*) forcing their attention onto the human that they have chosen to tell their stories. I like Anansi Boys better; I think it’s a more logical story (within the constructs of the story, at least).

But, again, it’s not a bad book. I did quite like it. It’s just that if you’re looking for something like Lamb, you might be disappointed.

*Why does one of the more common American gods (Coyote) need to have originated in Egypt, to be the brother of Anubis? Why can’t the American gods and the various American cultures have originated in parallel with that of the rest of the world, instead of being an off-shoot of them? It seems like an unnecessary addition. Sam could have gone to “The Spirit World” to bring Calliope back; it didn’t have to have a random Egyptian connection to make it valid. And if you’re going to throw in random lines about Mormonism being valid (I did kind of laugh at Coyote’s reaction to that), why not also play with the idea that the Vikings were the first “white” people to settle in North America, and have it be Valhalla that Sam finds himself in? Having it be Egypt doesn’t really make sense to me, on a number of different levels. I may not know that much about the Crow beliefs, but I dislike the fact that he went outside an American context when the rest of the book is so focused on the Crow and the “Native American” culture. (Yes, I put “Native American” in quotation marks. They’re not a homogenous group.) I think he probably could have – and, in my opinion, should have – found a different path to the same thing, one that didn’t implicitly diminish the value of native American beliefs and cultures.

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