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I found listening to the first two Reacher novels soothing, Child's sparse, almost documentary-style prose with its focus on facts and street names and physical routines, combined with McClain's calm but never dull voice, create a rhythm that I enjoy.
I also like the idea that Reacher is the competent but detached alpha male who will punish evil-doers and save the beautiful woman, even though we all know he won't stay with her.
"Tripwire" is darker and more serious than its predecessors. The serious side of the book allows for the fact that when drifting becomes a conscious choice, it is a rejection of the world that suggests something is broken. It presents the possibility of Reacher staying with the girl and even having somewhere of his own for them both to stay. It asks the question whether Reacher can do that and still stay Reacher. All good stuff that makes Reacher more real.
The darker side of the book spoiled it for me. The evil-doer in this book gets off on inflicting humiliation and pain. The pain mostly takes place "off camera", for which I was grateful but the humiliation is described in great detail. It is convincing and completely repulsive. It's not gratuitous. It drives the story and it is not glorified but it left me feeling angry and soiled and degraded by my own voyeurism.
This is a tribute to Child's writing but it violated the expectations I came to the book with and filled my head with things I'd rather not give house room to.
I'll try one more Reacher book, but if this focus on the anatomy of evil continues, I will look for my entertainment elsewhere.
When this book first came out, in the UK, it was called "The Visitor", which makes a whole lot of sense to me: it links to the plot, it's ambiguous about the nature and identity of the visitor and it's easy to remember. Then some editor in the US decided that it sounded too much like Science Fiction and came up with "Running Blind". I can't see any relevance to the plot and it's instantly forgettable but perhaps that's why editors don't get to write novels.
Four things dominated this novel for me: a well thought through puzzle-plot, skilfully revealed, piece by grim piece; the malicious misogyny of the killings, Child's contempt for the FBI and the satisfaction I felt when the increasingly eccentric Reacher finally gets a reality-check.
The Reacher reality-check comes at the beginning of the novel when Reacher's impromptu vigilante intervention in a protection racket gets him entangled with the local police and the FBI. In any sane world, Reacher would have finished this encounter either in prison or in a psych ward or both. Reacher sees himself as outside the law. He feels entitled to do violence in whatever he sees as a good cause. He only seems fully engaged with the people around him when he is causing mayhem. This is what makes him such a compelling character in a thriller. It's also what would get put locked up in real life. Of course, in the novel, Reacher is rescued by his lawyer girl-friend and cuts a deal that sets up the rest of the novel.
Still, I don't read Reacher for insights into real life. I read him because the plots are ingenious, because I enjoy his amoral aggression in the cause of right (usually one or more women who need to be rescued or revenged) and because, at least some of the time, I wish there really was a Reacher or two out there making things right.
In this novel, the FBI are depicted as sleazy (a female agent displaying herself to keep Reacher "in hand"), incompetent (profiling techniques that are fundamentally flawed) and more interested in taking care of their own than in getting the job done. As usual, it's lucky for them that Reacher is along to do their job for them.
The puzzle-plot in this one is truly ingenious. No, I'm not going to tell you what it is. I've seldom read a serial killer book where it was so hard to figure out HOW the killing was done. Even when Reacher helps the FBI put most of the pieces together, the answer still isn't clear. For me, this is a real strength in a thriller.
The women being killed in this book have all already been betrayed and abused by men in positions of power while they served in the Army. I was surprised and pleased to see that Child took the time to make at least some of these women real and help see the damage that had been done to them and the lives they were rebuilding. Of course this makes their deaths more poignant but it makes the manner of their deaths truly monstrous.
The prose in this novel isn't go to win any prizes. It often reads more like directions to an actor in a TV script: "He did this. Then he did that. Then he moved to the right. Then he sat down." but somehow the sparse style, written in the third-person, keeps Reacher an enigma.
By the end of the novel, Reacher has nothing left but his folding toothbrush and a desire to be somewhere else. This makes him the perfect catalyst for the next novel where a smart, violent, emotionally unavailable man is needed to thwart evil-doers. I wonder if it also makes him an archetype for a male hunger for a particular type of freedom, based on detached competency and uncompromised integrity?
The world is ending. Everyone will be dead soon. Everyone knows that. Everyone reacts to it differently.
Hank Palace, recently promoted to his dream job of homicide detective, decides to carry on investigating murders. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that it never occurs to him to stop.
His focus, his need to follow the rules, his quiet persistence in his task, affects the people around him, making them uncomfortable, or bemused, or sometimes even hopeful.
This is not a Summer Blockbuster Movie "end of the world" novel. There are no aliens, or zombies. Our hero is not trying to save the world in the next 48 Hours. He's not even trying to save himself. He just wants to do his job as well as he can.
Actually, Palace doesn't have much of a life to save. He's a loner and a misfit. Not the charismatic kind that you find in buddy-cop movies, but the slightly embarrassing to notice kind of loner that people avoid either because that kind of isolation might be contagious, or because of an Uncanny Valley Effect that says that, although Hank looks normal, there's something a little off about him that's hard to take.
On the surface, nothing much happens in this book. There is a murder and a mystery, actually more than one mystery, and love and betrayal and lots and lots of deaths but the book feels almost horrifyingly tranquil.
Ben Winters' writing is first-rate: economical, precise and quietly clever. Peter Berkrot's narration in the audiobook amplifies this by being undramatic without being flat or dull.
When I first finished the book a couple of months ago, I gave it a three star rating on goodreads.com but I couldn't bring myself to write a review. I felt as if I'd finished the book but it hadn't finished with me.
I found my mind returning to it over the following weeks and slowly articulated to myself why the book wouldn't leave me alone. It's because, without the intervention of an asteroid, everyone's world is ending. We will all be dead relatively soon (I'm fifty-seven, neither of my parents made it past sixty-nine, death's wingéd chariot is starting to tailgate me). We all know it. We all react to it differently. All that Winters' changed in his novel is that everyone is going to die at more or less the same time.
The strongest message I got from his book is that most of us get through the day because we believe there will be an infinite number of tomorrows, or at least too many to have to worry yet, and if we do get that "any day now" warning, we know that the world, and the people we care about, will go on. Which makes what happens to us today, bearable. Which takes away the need to think about why I spent today on a train for four hours to spend tomorrow in meeting with people I don't know so I can make the same journey back tomorrow night.
I'm an Atheist by conviction. I believe that done is done. I know I'm going to die. I don't believe there will be an accounting. No reward. No punishment. No anything. I thought I understood what that meant but I think I was still holding out on myself until I read Winters' book.
The people around Palace are making choices. Some of them are pursuing bucket-lists like the activities still matter to them, like goals have any meaning any more. Some are losing themselves in drink or drugs or sex or all three. Some of them are just lost, shocked, adrift, almost dead already. A few, a very few, carry on doing the things they love: making the perfect cup of coffee, or doing what it takes to solve a murder. I realize that I and the people around me, all of us, are acting out these reactions to our impending ending everyday, we just make ourselves forget about it.
Ben Winters' has taken all this "normal" getting-through-the-day behaviour and put it in a setting that makes it problematic, thereby making our seen-but-too-familiar to be noticed reactions visible.
This is what was unsettling me about the book: it was giving me a lens to see that, in many ways, the end of the world really is nigh and I'm plodding on like I don't have a choice.
Anyway, I've upgraded my goodreads rating to four stars, bought "Countdown City", book two of the trilogy and I've written this review to exorcise my discomfort.
If you're in the mood for some uncanny reality, give "The Last Policeman" a try.
"Shakespeare's Counselor" is the final book in the Lily Bard series. I was surprised to find that I took great pleasure in this series. In some ways it is one long novel, charting Lily's journey from isolated, insomniac, night-walker, to a woman with a life that she has built through her strength, her integrity and finally by being courageous enough to allow herself to have something to lose.
The final book thankfully doesn't go down the path of unlikely happy endings. Bad things happen to Lily in this book and, at the end of it, she still has significant problems, but the book delivers credible growth for her and the people around her.
One of the ways this growth is achieved is that Lily enters therapy, with the Counselor of the title, to try to end the nightmares that rule her sleep. I was surprised at this. I'm not a fan of therapy. I'm with Willy Russel in changing Pschotherapist into Psycho The Rapist. I've never been convinced that the response to trauma should be a platitude-driven talking-tour of the route back to normalcy. I very much doubt that, after a significant trauma, normal is an option.
I was pleased to see that the therapy in the book worked less because of the skill of the counselor, than because the rape survivors in the group were willing to extend their trust and support to each other. There are some hard-to-take tales in therapy sessions. Sadly, none of them are difficult to believe. I was impressed that, even in therapy, Lily did not change her view that people are not naturally good and safety can only be obtained through vigilance and strength. Her counselor found the view bleak and wondered how Lily could live with it. I see it as a reasonable, fact-based conclusion, that provides a foundation for good choices.
The plot of "Shakespeare's Counselor" is a little complex, requiring some suspension of disbelief as the bad guys are not exactly run of the mill. The action is occasionally violent and brutal. The events in Lily's personal life add grief to an already tough situation and challenge Lily's definition of herself and her future.
By the end of the series, Lily has moved from loner cleaner, to an apprentice private detective with a husband and friends in a community that she now feels part of. Yet this is not a "Hallmark" sugar-sweet transformation. This book, even more than the rest of the series, is raised above the mundane by the authenticity of Lily's rage against what was done to her and the strength of her commitment to live her life to her own standards. It's a fine close to a series that I am sure I will read again.
I listened to the audiobook version of this series, performed by Julai Gibson. She did a wonderful job, not just in being "the voice of Lily Bard" but also in creating and sustaining voices for the other characters. She was the perfect choice for these books.
Melissa Olson has achieved something quite unique, she's added a brand new type of supernatural to the, by now normal, mix of vampires, werewolves and witches. Scarlett Bernard is a Null, she creates dead spots for magic. In her presence, vampires and werewolves become human and witches cannot cast spells.
This is a truly odd, negative, super power. It doesn't turn Scarlett into an apex predator but it does give her some protection from them. She lives in a niché where she can be used by the various super natural factions to clean up messes, usually deaths, without being a threat or being threatened. She is valuable because she helps keep the "Old World's" secrets.
At least, that's how we see the world at the start of the story.
The plot places, Scarlett in a situation where she has a deadline to prove she had no involvement in some gruesome killings or face execution. The twists and turns of the plot are perfect for building a picture of the supernatural world while making it satisfyingly difficult to figure out who is guilty of what.
I enjoyed the fact that Scarlett, because her powers are essentially negative, couldn't just use muscle or magic to solve her problems, she had to use her brains and rely on her friends. This made the whole story more engaging.
Circumstances have thrown Scarlett together with a freshly promoted plain-clothes LAPD officer, Jesse Cruz. He is new to the "Old World" and becomes the device through which much of the exposition is done. He is also a very moral person (hey, if you can accept that LA has vampires, werewolves and witches, then is a moral LAPD officer such a stretch).
I didn't like Scarlett very much at the start of the book. She seemed glib, superficial, numb as well as null and I didn't much care what happened to her. As the book progresses, two things change, Scarlett's back-story of trauma, guilt and exploitation is revealed and,partly in response to Jesse's reactions to the Old World and partly as she slowly realizes that she actually has some friends, Scarlett takes stock of her life and her attitudes and starts to make changes.
By the end of the book, I was interested in Scarlett and the world she lives in and ready for another instalment.
"Dead Spots" was an entertaining read that had some problems with pace and perhaps a little too much exposition, but which appealed to me because of its flashes of originality and the intelligence and pragmatism of Scarlett Bernard.
One of the things that I admire about Charlaine Harris is her willingness to follow the growth of her, usually broken or stigmatized, main characters, even when the venture into politically incorrect territory.
I've seen reviews of previous books in which Harris is criticised because Lily Bard, a survivor of a vicious gang rape, saw the promiscuity of, Deedra Dean, one of her customers, as a lack of self-respect. Lily cannot understand why Deedra would put herself at risk just to have sex with men that she does not care about. This raised a red flag for some readers. How dare Lily judge this woman!
Yet the point of this series of books is to get inside the head of Lily Bard as she does what she can to rebuild her life. Lily's impatience with Deedra speaks more to her own need for security and her lack of trust in men than it does to any moral condemnation of Deedra's behaviour.
This book starts with Lily discovering Deedra Dean's body in a car in the woods, apparently the victim of one the many men she had sex with. Part of the power of this series is that Lily grows and changes with every book. Lily is not as locked away emotionally as she was in book one. Her reaction to Deedra's death, which she cannot get out of her mind, shows that while she still cannot grasp why Deedra behaved with such little self-regard, she cannot abide the idea of her being killed for it. This unwillingness to accept that Deedra "got what she deserved" eventually leads Lily to unravel what really happened to Deedra.
Along the way we also see how Lily deals with people who treat her badly (a sleazy man in his nineties, too used to getting his own way and too lascivious for polite company) or who suspect her honest (a Deputy Police Chief who sees her as perpetrator, not rescuer) and see that, although she has grown strong enough to withstand these people, she still behaves honourably towards them.
We also see that Lily has built a home for herself in Shakespeare. She has friends and people who respect her. She is no longer the invisible person she used to want to be.
The plot has enough twists and turns to be interesting and picks up on characters and storyline from previous books in a consistent way but, ultimately, it felt a little too elaborate for me.
I enjoyed the book, not so much for the plot, as for the opportunity to spend more time with Lily and see who she is becoming.
Although I found this too be the weakest of the Lily Bard books so far, it is still a good read, well-written, thought provoking and intimate.
Don't be misled by the title, "Shakespeare's Christmas" is is not a "Christmas Special" where we get to see the people of the small town of Shakespeare acting as if they were in a remake of "It's A Wonderful Life". It is the darkest, and I think the best, book in the series so far. It's set before, not at Christmas and most of it takes place outside of Shakespeare.
The mystery in "Shakespeare's Christmas" is not a polite "whodunnit" murder under the mistletoe, but the death of a young mother, knifed and left to bleed out in the snow, and the search for a monster who preys on children while masquerading as a family friend. It has enough twist and turns to keep you guessing and enough evil to evoke rage in the reader.
As with the first two books, the thing I enjoyed most was the continuing development of Lily Bard. It's clear to me now that the five books in the series track Lily's evolution from someone who has isolated herself so that she can cope quietly with the task of staying alive from day-to-day, to someone who has taken the risk of creating a life that she values with people that she loves, even though she is always afraid of the vulnerability to loss and grief that this could produce.
In "Shakespeare's Christmas", Lily has reluctantly come back to her home town to attend her younger sister's wedding. She knows that she will have to put on her company manners for the wedding showers and rehearsal dinners but what worries her are not the formal niceties but the need to show herself to the family and friends that she walked away from, after her rape and mutilation, when she could no longer live with their pity or their pain.
There are no soft edges here, no Hallmark Moments, instead we get an honest exploration of how Lily copes with being back with people she loves but who she finds it hard to live with, not just because they grieve for who she was but because she no longer wants to be that person.
In her mind there is the old Lily from before the rape and the new Lily she is now: someone solitary, someone vigilant, someone strong enough to protect herself, someone who's old life has been stolen from her, someone who can no longer believe that other people are fundamentally good.
Lily struggles to connect her new self to her family and her friends. One of the things that helps her with this is her encounters with children. Lily believes that she does not understand children, yet the reader sees that her honesty, her directness and her strength mean that she succeeds in winning their trust and their admiration. Like at least some of the children around her, Lily believes in the monster beneath the bed; she believes that safety is an illusion; that vigilance and strength are necessary to survival and that men are willing to use violence to get what they want.
What Lily learns from the children is that she has not become a cold, distant monster; she has become a dragon-slayer.
As events unfold, Lily also learns that part of her strength now comes from being with Jack. Typically for Lily, while she knows this to be true and suspects it to be good, she worries that it will make her vulnerable.
There is evil in this book. An evil made worse because, as Lily and Jack try to search out its source, they find too many potential candidates too close to home. There is also love in this book. As Lily does what she needs to do to make those around her safe, she finally comes to understand that she can be the new Lily, strong, honest, and wary and still be loved as a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a one-time lover, and an old friend.
The book ends with Lily going back to Shakespeare for Christmas. It is her home now. It contains the things in her life that she most wants to celebrate.
After finishing the book, I decided that to read the rest of the series back to back. I'll keep you posted on my impressions.
I wouldn't normally have chosen to read a novel about a morbidly obese middle-aged shut-in ex-academic and a High School student and wannabe baseball star with anger management issues but I'd heard that Liz Moore had a strong, distinctive, voice, so I tried the audiobook.
It was an excellent decision, not just because Liz Moore writes beautifully but because "Heft" works well as an audiobook. The contrasting voices of Kirby Heyborne and Keith Szarabajka draw an even stronger distinction between the world as seen by the monstrously fat Arthur Opp and the athletic, on-the-brink-of-manhood Kel Keller.
In "Heft", Liz Moore takes up the challenge of writing a character-driven novel that features two unsympathetic characters who are leading ordinary lives that verge on the dull. Her achievement is that, by the end of the book she had managed to tangle them in my imagination enough to make me hope on their behalf.
The novel is structured a two parallel stories of frailty, failure and loss that are up-lifted by the accuracy of their observation and the suppression of the authorial voice which forces the reader to make their own judgements on the actions and motives of Opp and Keller.
Some of those actions are hard to watch and don't paint Keller or Opp in a positive light.
Keller's guilty anger at having to care for his sick and apparently drunk, mother and his encounter, in room strewn with beer cans and smelling of neglect, with the man he believes may be his father, create a bleak picture. One of the most powerful moments, for me, was Keller having sex with a girl from his old neighbourhood just because she's there and then remaining cruelly passive when he knows the hurt he has caused her. This is the kind adolescent many of us can remember being but would be ashamed to admit to. It speaks to the honesty that holds this book together.
Arthur Opp is shown a s man unable to connect to connect to the people around him and who has been corrupted by a morbid desire for food, that ultimately becomes his only source of pleasure. That Opp's life has shrunk as his body has expanded symbolised by his inability to climb the stairs to reach the upper floor of his home.
"Heft" handles big themes: how weakness and shame corrode; how parents can damage their children; how fantasy becomes a substitute for action,; how small practical acts of kindness can kindle hope and the possibilities that open up when we set out to build "families" composed of people we care about.
Liz Moore knows how to describe the small victories and moments of kindness that make life worth living. Opp's first walk outside of his house in many years, convey a real sense of risk and triumph. The quiet hospitality Keller is offered by his almost-girlfriend and her family shows the impact of kindness. Both men are motivated to try to be more, to be better, by woman in their lives who can see beyond the failings and fear and the self-hatred to the men they could become with courage and love and time.
"Heft" is not a didactic book. It is not selling self-help solutions and does not offer tidy endings. If it has a message, it is: "Life is a mess. Deal with it. But deal with it with as much kindness and empathy as you can manage."
"Shakespeare's Champion" the second Lily Bard mystery, confirmed to me that I'm hooked on the series.
Unfortunately, the plot of this book was give given away in Charlaine Harris' latest book, "Midnight Crossroad", so I already knew a lot of what would happen. That I still enjoyed the book is a tribute to how well written it is and how focused it is on the development of Lily Bard.
The "Champion" of the title is a body-builder who is murdered in the gym Lily uses. The plot focuses around the actions of a secretive white supremacist group that has sprung up in Shakespeare and the people who are trying to stop them.
Part of the strength of the book comes from the fact that Lily is cast neither as Civil Rights Activist nor as a vigilante but as a woman trying to get by without drawing attention to herself but unable to turn away when people are being hurt.
Lily sees herself as being able to do two things well: clean and fight. She sees a great deal of what is going on around her but does not comment on it. She is more likely to offer help or violence than words. She does what she thinks should be done and she refuses to back down from those who threaten her.
But Lily is not a hard-boiled action-hero. The book shows her compassion in helping the sick and comforting the dying, her empathy with those who have been hurt, and her reflex to intervene when violence is being done to those who can't defend themselves.
Lily doesn't set out, Miss Marple, style to investigate the white supremacist group but her job and her social contacts in Shakespeare mean she is in the wrong place at the wrong time often enough to be drawn into the action.
There are some powerful scenes in this book. For me, the most powerful describes Lily's involvement in a bombing and its aftermath. This is an up close and personal view of what this kind of violence does to those involved in it. It is beautifully and convincingly written.
The book confronts some difficult small town topics: racial tension; the reaction to a promiscuous white woman who has sex with, among others, a black man; Christian fundamentalist who believe that God speaks through them and that those who oppose them are not just wrong but evil; men who attack women; packs of men who commit violence; corrupt police officers who turn a blind eye or even lend a hand; the social mores that mean that none of this gets discussed in polite society. I don't think it sets out to be a politically correct, liberal book. These issues are filtered primarily by Lily's view of the world, not political dogma. Lily believes in evil, expects little of other people, hates bullies and bigots, sees promiscuity as an act of stupid carelessness because it makes the woman so vulnerable, and understands at a bone deep level, that victims are not responsible for the harm done to them.
In this book, Lily has started to understand that she is not strongly enough attracted to either of the men in the first book to be more than friends with them. That she wants to maintain that friendship and build others with some of the women around her, shows a desire to expand the narrow life she had been living. The arrival of stranger (yes, he is tall, dark and handsome) with a past as troubled and complex as her own, gives her someone new to value and changes her priorities in ways that drive the plot in interesting directions.
The only thing I would change in the book is the prologue. I often find these things irritating because they seem to imply that I will only read a book if I'm shown in the first few pages that something dramatic is going to happen real soon, honest. This particular prologue adds little to the book. The information it gives could have been presented with more skill and more context later. I'd have preferred to have done without it.
But that's a small niggle. I enjoyed the book a great deal. By the end of it, I liked Lily when previously I had only admired her. Her world and her relationships have become real to me and I want to know more.
There are three more novels in the series. I feel a Lily Bard fest coming on.
It turns out that you can no more judge a book by its title than by its cover.
I'd been put off reading the Lily Bard books because the combination of Lily Bard and the word "Shakespeare" in the title of each novel reminded me of the twee and sugar-coated Aurora Teagarden books, which I had not enjoyed.
I'm glad I overcame my prejudices and listened to the first Lily Bard novel.
There is nothing sugar-coated here. Lily Bard is a survivor. Her old life has been stolen from her. She regards her current life as successful if she gets through each day quietly, without attracting any attention.
Lily is strong, focused, observant but tight-lipped. She earns her living cleaning houses in the small town of Shakespeare. She comes alive when she is practising Karate. partly because of the joy of doing something so demanding well and partly because it stands between her and any future threat to make her a victim.
Her life changes when, walking off her insomnia in the middle of the night, she notices somebody using her garbage can cart to dump a body. Despite her best efforts to protect the anonymous life she's built, events and her own strong will, pull Lily deeper into solving the murder, even at the cost of revealing her own past.
The plot of "Shakespeare's Landlord" works as a conventional "whodunnit" mystery. Two things raise the book well above the average for this genre. The fist is that Lily Bard is a wonderful creation: strong but vulnerable, proud but wanting to stay in the background, curious but discrete, and afraid but brave. She seemed real to me. A woman to be admired, whether there is a mystery to solve or not. The second is Charlaine Harris' prose: she does not waste a word, does not indulge in extravagant descriptions, but the result is still a rich evocation of people and the town they live in.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.
"A Discovery Of Witches" has a strong sense of place and how people live in them, even though the places are disparate - academic life in Oxford, long-established aristocracy in a Château in rural France, an old Family home in Madison New York.
The creatures in the book - witches, vampires, demons, - are deftly redefined to create something new, intriguing and satisfyingly plausible.
The pace is leisurely without being plodding. Deborah Harkness understands that for the action of the book to mean anything, we have to care about the people as people. She takes the time to show us what they care about, how they live and who they love. She is writing a trilogy and she isn't inclined to rush anything. She knows that those of us who devour these things love the details as much if not more than the action.
I thought the start of the book was particularly strong. I was completely engaged with the life of Diana Bishop, a Yale History Professor doing research on Alchemical texts in the in the Bodleian library and spending her spare time rowing and running to burn off her endless energy. It's not easy to write about sitting in a library, reading and taking notes, and make it interesting, but Deborah Harkness pulls it off. This is clearly a world and a place she is at home with and the authenticity of it her descriptions provides the book with a solid base of reality which all good fantasy needs.
The book is salted with historical references and literary quotations that feel right and which demonstrate the insatiable curiosity that drives Diana Bishop's passion for history.
Deborah Harkness has a good ear for dialogue and a good understanding of the differences between how the British and the Americans use English. Jennifer Ikeda rises to the challenge of delivering the wide range of male and female voices and accents (with the exception of Glaswegian which came out too Edinburgh for me) and carried me along effortlessly in the story.
The thing I am most ambivalent about, is Diana Bishop's relationship with Matthew Clairmont. At points it seems like the (almost too) perfect love affair. At other times Diana seems like a cult member, traumatized into being someone different from her natural self and unquestioningly putting Matthew's interests ahead of her own. Of course, this could be the definition of true love.
At the start of the book, Diana is a strong, independent, successful woman. In the course of her relationship with Matthew, she abandons that independence and although she grows in power, she seems less confident and less able to cope.
Part of what makes "A Discovery of Witches" worth reading is that I'm certain that the ambivalence I'm feeling is intentionally provoked by Deborah Harkness. Diana is a complex character who has been through multiple traumas and who is very far away from normal by anyone's standards. The Diana we meet in Oxford at the start of the book is not the Diana we meet in Madison at the end. One way to read the book is that the first Diana was an artificial construct, built by a woman hiding from her own true nature and refusing to engage with the world around her and that the book describes her journey to discover herself as a witch. Another reading is that the Diana we meet in Oxford had already been crippled by earlier events that keep her solitary and make her subject to anxiety attacks and dependent on strenuous exercise to stay calm. Events in France and in Madison further traumatise Diana and the woman she is at the end of the book is scarred and not fully whole. It's also possible to see the story as a romance where the real meaning of Diana's life IS her relationship with Matthew or to see Matthew as a predator who cannot stop himself from consuming Diana's life by taking control of her and changing who she is.
In my view, this all makes "A Discovery of Witches" an entertaining read.
There are a couple of things in the book that don't work for me. The sensual scenes are too Romance Writers of America for my taste. They lack the vivid reality the rest of the book has. I also the bringing together of creatures in Madison was a little too comfortable to be completely credible.
One thing to be aware of before you buy "A Discovery of Witches": it is not really a free-standing novel. It is book one of a trilogy. If you're not up for reading all three then reading book one will not do much for you.
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