Susan Howatch- The Heartbreaker

the heartbreaker

What it’s about:

This is the story of high class ‘leisure worker’ Gavin Blake.  On the surface, Gavin has everything he could ever desire.  Money, glamour and the adulation of every woman he meets.  In general, Gavin has mastered emotional detachments from his clients, however his encounters with Richard Slaney seem to remind him of a life he had lost.  This seemingly transient connection quickly spirals, and brings Gavin into the realm of Carta Graham through her work at St. Benet’s.  Consistent confrontations with a different reality, forces Gavin to question a number of beliefs he’s long taken for granted, and in doing so indirectly put him in grave danger.

What I Love:

  1.  We gain a much clearer insight into the character of Elizabeth Mayfield and the world she inhabits.  As with most of Howatch’s work (all those I’ve read anyway), all the novels are stand-alone but interlinked, and the Heartbreaker provides answers to many of the questions raised by The High Flyer.
  2. The complexities of the relationships between the characters.  As is the case in life, the relationships in Howatch’s work are multidimensional, fraught and as challenging as they can be rewarding.
  3. The way that Gavin himself adopts different identities as a coping mechanism.  Whilst the discrepancies between his personas are extreme, many people struggle to consistently display their authentic selves.  Taking as given the notion that a truly unified personality is what we must all strive for, Howatch magnifies this very human tendency within Gavin’s character to illustrate the potential dangers this presents.

My Favourite Quotes:

  1.  “If I had stayed at home that evening I would have moped, wept and drunk too much in an orgy of anxiety and depression, but fortunately I had been saved from all this rubbishy behaviour because my friend Alice needed me.”
  2. “We swivel, we swoop, we sweat, we lunge, we twirl.  We’re wonderful and everyone knows it.  The other couples melt away.  The blokes in the band are smiling.  The waiters have stopped serving.  The punters are goggle-eyed.  There’s never been such a performance of ‘In The Mood’, never.  It’s Saturday night at the Savoy, it’s Saturday night at one of the greatest hotels on earth, and Susan and I are special, we count, we matter- and never more so than at this moment when we’re living out something that’s more than just our own truth.”
  3. “It’s painful to be trapped in the wrong life, as you yourself well know.  It stifles the spirit when you lead an inauthentic existence, out of tune with the person you really are.  Indeed, the person you really are becomes crushed and maimed.”

Susan Howatch- The High Flyer

the high flyer

 

What it’s about:

In the High Flyer, Howatch introduces us to the world of  Carta Graham and her soon to be husband Kim Betz.  Both are navigating extremely successful careers, and whilst Carta faces challenges in her career, altogether her life plan is coming together nicely.  But very quickly it becomes clear that all is not what it seems and the story develops an increasingly chilling narrative, forcing Carta to seek help from what seems a very unlikely source.

What I love:

  1.  A poignant illustration of how the most well-planned existence will can go awry, but that sometimes the alternatives that emerge are better.
  2. Again we meet the characters from the Wonder Worker.  I love it when authors do this, not only is it like meeting old friends, illustrating the passing of time and the evolution of characters you’ve met previously, helps to solidify their identities and makes them feel like real people.
  3. The consistent emphasis on the critical importance of integrating one’s identity and personality.  This is a theme that permeates many of Howatch’s books, and the tranquility and peace that this concept symbolizes is a consistently compelling aspect of her work.

My Favourite Quotes:

  1.  “But Tucker, you can’t just sit here in the heart of the City of London, where wealth and status symbols are worshipped as Gods, and voice these kind of sentiments!  I mean, this is very subversive propaganda you’re spouting, it’s quite contrary to mainstream thinking, it’s in total defiance of the Zeitgeist!”
  2. “For a moment I remembered my life-plan, mapped out in the days when the past could be ignored, the present was always under control and the future was always subject to the power of my will, and as I saw how efficiently this vision had been hacked to pieces I wanted to scream with rage and despair.”
  3. “Haunted, even enslaved by our troubled pasts, we had been chasing fantasies that did not exist, and as we had moved together through our cynical hall of mirrors, the false image had merely multiplied to deceive us further and lead us on into a life unconnected with reality.”

Robin Hobb- Assassin’s Quest: Book Three of the Farseer Trilogy

Assasin's QuestWhat it’s about:

Basically sh*t’s got real.  The end of the last book has left Fitz in many ways more dead than alive, not least because everyone (even Molly) thinks he’s dead.  As we’ve seen in the first few books Fitz has had a consistent feeling of being forced down a path that was not his choosing, and yet now that life has ceased to exist.  As events unfold, what starts as an (almost) entirely solitary mission of vengeance, instead becomes a reunification, and once more a fight for the continued survival of the Six Duchies, and indeed the world as we know it.

What I love:  

  1.  As in the last book we gained a much clearer understanding of the true depth of the Wit, ‘Assassin’s Quest’ educates us in the power and lore of the Skill.  Hobb has truly created exceptional depth in the history of this world, and the magics that govern it.
  2. The discovery of the White Prophet in the Mountain Kingdom, and the circumstances of Fitz’s rescue.  I also really like how for much of his recovery he behaves very badly- it adds to the authenticity of the story- there are numerous examples of heroics, but our noble hero intersperses these with realistic and cheering behaviour that is both childish and petulant.
  3. Difficult to say too much about this one without giving the game away, but one of my very favourite characters manages to find something of a happy ending in a way that is far from anticipated.

My Favourite Quotes:

  1.  “Black Wolf is very large.  And quick.  I am stronger than he is, I think, but he knows more tricks.  It was much like when you fought Heart of the Pack.” 
  2. “Slowly the figure drew nearer.  A great shivering of cold and pain racked me.  I could go to the wolf.  I summoned the last of my strength to defy myself.  ‘Here!’ I croaked to death. ‘Here I am.  Come and take me and let it be done at last.”
  3. “Burrich, who would have stood and spat and fought to the death, dropped his sword and pleaded for the sake of my child.”

Robin Hobb- Royal Assasin: Book Two of the Farseer Trilogy

Royal Assassin

What it’s about:

The next stage of the story of FitzChivalry Farseer starts in the Mountain Kingdom, with Fitz attempting to recover from an almost deadly attack.  Accompanied by Burrich, Fitz begins to wonder whether his fate must always be aligned with that of the Royal Bastard, or whether another course might await him.  Despite his doubts, he is drawn back into the seemingly inescapable politics of Buckeep Castle, where it seems that those who have protected him grow weaker, whilst those that threaten him and the Six Duchies amass power and strength.

What I Love:

  1.  The deeper understanding we gain of the Beast Magic, and the ways it permeates the relationships of many of the characters we meet.  Our introduction to Nighteyes, and the exposition of ‘Heart of the Pack’ confirming much we suspect of Buckeep’s Stablemaster.
  2. The emotional strength of the Lady Patience in her attempt to ally herself with the cause of Fitzachivalry Farseer, and her fearless refusal to allow anyone to prevent him receiving what she perceives to be his birthright, despite the personal cost it represents.
  3. The relationship between King in Waiting Verity and his nephew.  This is a relationship on which much of the story of Fitzchivalry Farseer hinges, but it is elegantly done.  The true meaning and depth of their feelings is clear, and it is in part this intensity that allows the development of the story to be not only believable, but inevitable.

My Favourite Quotes:

  1.  “When he had exhausted himself I leaned forward over him.  I gripped his throat to lean down and stair into his eyes.  This was a physical message he understood.  I added to it.  I am the Wolf.  You are the Cub.  You WILL obey me!”
  2. This is not hunting, this.  This is no pack’s doing.  This is man’s doing.  His presence was gone before I could rebuke him for intruding into my mind again.”
  3. “Heart of the Pack, they will hunt well for you’, Nighteyes urged him.  ‘Burrich, take command.  They will fight with heart for you. ‘ My skin prickled to hear Queen Kettricken virtually echo Nighteyes’ thought.”

Robin Hobb- Assassin’s Apprentice: Book One of the Farseer Trilogy

Assasin's Apprentice

What it’s about:

A mesmerising introduction into the magical world of the Farseers and the Six Duchies.  This story begins with our introduction to Fitzchivalry Farseer in far from auspicious circumstances.  Following his royal father’s ill-advised liaison with an unnamed woman, we witness the ceremonial dumping of Fitzchivalry on the court of King Shrewd, who decides to train him to be a tool for the crown, rather than against.  This book is the start of a magnificent journey, and one I heartily and repeatedly recommend to everyone.

What I love:

  1. Hobb creates an all consuming world overflowing with valour, corruption and magic, that leaves the reader in no doubt of its existence.
  2. Hobb manages to adhere to many of the best loved components of a fantasy novel, yet combines this with characters who are diverse, unique and capture the heart of the reader, despite their many and varied flaws.
  3. This is a political novel in which Fitz is constantly torn, not just by right and wrong, but by which identity he must assume in order to survive.

My Favourite Quotes:

  1. “I jerked awake before the moon had surrendered her reign over the sky, amazed that I had slept at all.” Fitzchivalry Farseer
  2. “Her scent rolled over me like a wave, and it too smelled of coin more than flowers.”
  3. “But in every case,” Chade told me wearily, ‘it matters not what they decide; it weakens their loyalty to the kingdom.  Whether they pay their tribute or not, the Raiders may laugh over their blood-ale at us.  For in deciding, our villagers are saying in their minds, not ‘if we are Forged’ but ‘when we are Forged’.  And thus they have already been raped in spirit if not in flesh.” Chade Fallstar

Phillipa Gregory- The Other Boleyn Girl

The Other Boleyn Girl

What it’s about:

Most people now know this story through the film, though (obviously) I think the book is much better.  This is the story of the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, told from the perspective of her sister Mary.  Much like all Gregory’s work, whilst fiction, the historical accuracy seems exceptional, and you find yourself gripped throughout (I’ve lost most of the afternoon rereading the book, as writing this post reminded me how much I like it).

What I love:

  1. I love the complexity of the characters.  Again this is true of all her novels (I particularly like those set in the Tudor court- read them all), but the relationship between George, Mary and Anne is brilliantly portrayed.
  2. I love how Gregory provides ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ with a new narrative.  Obviously inextricably bound with the lives of her siblings, nonetheless Mary treads her own path.
  3. Through Mary’s eyes, we gain new insights into the myth of the notorious Anne Boleyn.  Without doubt driven, strong, and occasionally cruel, Mary also describes the story of a woman striving for perfection, and what this quest ultimately costs her.

My Favourite Quotes: 

  1.  “You’re a man’ I said.  ‘It’s different for a woman’. ‘Yes’ he acknowledged.  ‘Unless she was to marry me.  Then we could make our own way together.’ William Stafford
  2. “No.  The only way I know is always to be the best there is.” Anne Boleyn
  3. “I enjoyed the twelve days of Christmas more than I ever had done before.  Anne was with child and glowing with health and confidence, William was at my side, my recognised husband. I had a baby in the cradle, and a young beautiful daughter at court.” Mary Boleyn.

Susan Howatch- The Wonder Worker

Susan Howatch The Wonder Worker

What it’s about:

I first read this book probably about 15 years ago.  It was my first example of the wonderful work of Susan Howatch, and probably still counts as my all time number one.

This story starts with Alice Fletcher, encountering the staff and the existence of the Healing Centre of St. Benet’s by the Wall, and a version of faith that is quite at odds with her experience.

Written in beautifully evocative language, with characters of incredible depth, every time someone asks me for a book recommendation, this is one I unfailingly refer to.

What I Love:  

  1. How the story is told from the perspectives of several of the novels’ centrals characters- it’s amazing how Howatch is able to encourage the reader to deeply empathise with all the characters, even whilst they’re not at their best.
  2. Alice- The story of her personal evolution is extremely touching.
  3. The way (and this is typical throughout many of Howatchs’ novels) she utilises both psychological and spiritual language to express complex truths, about the people and the world in which we live.

My Favourite Quotes:

  1. “I go back to the Rectory for lunch and find Stacy chasing a mouse around the kitchen with a frying pan.  Bad news.  The mouse escapes and Stacy breaks the frying pan.  More bad news.” Lewis Hall
  2. “Yet I found I could do nothing with that statement because in our family women always did go on.  They kept a stiff upper lip and never complained because, as Mummy had always said, that was the spirit which built the Empire.  But in 1988 the beat of a very different drum was now thundering in my ears and I suddenly found myself asking the revolutionary question: What Empire?” Rosalind Maitland
  3. “Alice had the most beautiful psyche, supple as an athlete’s body and glowing in richly patterned strands of warmth, compassion and understanding.  I’d been aware of it as soon as we’d met, though at the time it had been disfigured by so much anxiety and pain.  The extreme beauty of this aspect of Alice, an aspect invisible to the eye, was why I’d taken such a special interest in her.” Nicholas Darrow