Category Archives: Book Reviews

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

This is the sequel to the excellent Wolf Hall.  I had not ever intended to read Wolf Hall – I felt like Philippa Gregory had “done” the Tudors for me.  But I kept picking it up and putting it down in bookshops and so I decided just to give in and read it.  Wolf Hall deals with the breakdown of Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon and the rise of Anne Boleyn.  Bring up the Bodies is the next instalment in a trilogy, and this deals with Henry’s burgeoning doubts about Anne Boleyn and her eventual fall.

Like Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, who is generally portrayed as a pretty unsympathetic and much reviled character.  Hilary Mantel’s version of Cromwell is anything but – she really makes him human and above all a survivor.  His affection for his family and his household is touching, but he is also a man who will get the job done and make himself rich in the process.

Mantel writes in the third person present tense and I think that is part of the genius of her writing – everything is very intense and alive, but at the same time you barely notice the writing and techniques she uses to suck you in, which is the mark of a truly great writer.  It is quite different from Wolf Hall – that was all about Thomas Cromwell on the rise and Bring up the Bodies is about him maintaining his favour with the King.  From Cromwell’s point of view, Anne Boleyn has to go, for if she doesn’t he will meet the same fate as Cardinal Wolesy – he has to strike her before she can strike him.  But throughout the book, the subtle seeds are sown which will eventually lead to his own downfall in the next instalment.

One of the things that had put me off reading Wolf Hall originally was the size – I was worried about becoming bogged down in dull legal details about Henry’s struggle for a divorce.  Bring up the Bodies is also quite a hefty book.  However, at no point in either book does the story every get bogged down in tedium or in providing too much detail.  You can tell that Hilary Mantel really knows her character and the time period well, but she steers clear of any temptation to make this a pseudo-biography of Thomas Cromwell and maintains it as an excellent work of fiction.

Like Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies won the Booker Prize.  When the next instalment comes out, I find it hard to believe that it will not also be a prize winner.

For anyone with an interest in Tudors, a love of Philippa Gregory or a love of reading good books and world class writing will enjoy Bring up the Bodies.  I would recommend starting with Wolf Hall though.  Most people are familiar enough with the Tudor story that they will know what has happened before and so could read out of sequence.  However, I think to really appreciate the character of Thomas Cromwell then you should start the story from the beginning of his rise.

The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline by Nancy Springer

One of my pet peeves is authors borrowing other authors characters for their own stories, and so I have never read any of the many other books spawned by Pride and Prejudice, nor classics such as the Wide Sargasso Sea.

The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline should have fallen within that category, as the protagonist is Enola Holmes, the 14 year old sister of Sherlock Holmes.  In spite of myself, I was intrigued – I liked the idea of a female version of Sherlock Holmes, and so I decided to give it a go.

Enola Holmes has run away from home and she is living under an assumed identity in a boarding house in London.  Her elderly landlady receives a cryptic message which Enola has to solve to rescue her landlady, who is violently kidnapped by persons who want her to reveal a message with which she was entrusted during the Crimean war, some 30 years before.

Crinoline fashion 1860

This is definitely a book that is aimed at older children and young teenagers, so it is quite simple and a lot of the twists and turns were quite easy to predict as an adult.  However, this didn’t bother me, as I was not so far ahead of Enola that I became frustrated with her for not solving the various clues, and so I think the pacing of the story is very good.

The plot was a little thin.  The journey to solving the mystery was entertaining and exciting, but I think that more could have been done to make clear the motivations of the characters and the reason behind them wanting this cryptic message to be destroyed after it had lain dormant for so many years.  It did also rely on coincidence for more than one of Enola’s breakthroughs, and I’m not really keen on that as a plot device as it seems to be a bit of an easy option.

I did really enjoy this book, and if I knew any young teenagers I would definitely recommend it to them.  I listened to this as an audio book and I think a large part of my personal enjoyment of the book was down to the fact that the audio narration was really, really good.  I liked the tone of voice that the narrator used for Enola and I liked the fact that she adapted for the other characters so she sounded completely different – it was really entertaining.  I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it so much if I had read it in print form.  I have since looked it up on the internet and there are quite a few Enola Holmes mysteries, so I am currently looking out for a paper version of a different story in the library so I can compare.

And I am pleased to report that although Sherlock Holmes did make a brief appearance in the book, he did not feature too heavily; Enola was allowed by the author to step outside of her brother’s shadow, and solve the mystery using her own mental agility and prowess.  Her resourcefulness, self-confidence and values make Enola Holmes a very good role model for younger teenage girls.

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

This was my first foray into the world of audio books, and I’m not sure it was the greatest place to start.  The narrator had a really deep, smooth voice.  I could imagine him reading me to sleep, lulling me with his rich tones – not a great feature when driving!

Half Blood Blues is about Sid Griffiths, a Jazz musician living and plying his trade along with the band in 1930s Berlin.  They are forced to flee to Paris to escape “the Boots” (i.e. the SS) after an incident in which Sid’s oldest friend and band mate Charles “Chip” Jones kills one of them in a fight.  They cannot outrun the war though which catches up with them in Paris.  One of the band members is a young man called Hero, who is a brilliant trumpeteer.  Sid struggles with conflicting emotions towards Hero – part jealously, part rivalry, part very protective and brotherly.  Hero is a stateless citizen – a Rhineland bastard, who is taken by the Nazis when the war arrives in Paris, whilst Sid watches on and does nothing to help.  His enormous guilt about this stays with him for his whole life until it comes to ahead more than 40 years later when he returns to Berlin.

I found Sid quite a difficult character to like.  He seemed to take everything so very seriously, and very personally.  He was quick to over analyse situations and to imagine he had been slighted.  His jealousy towards Hero was petty and seemed to border on genuine dislike at times.

This book can be quite slow in parts, and in particular the love story between Sid and Delilah.  This dominates the middle section of the book and too much time is devoted to it in my opinion.  In spite of the tendency to drag in parts, there is some really top quality writing on display.  In particular, the scene in which the group are trying to get a train out of Paris to escape before the Nazis arrive is so vivid.  The sheer chaos, terror and stench of human panic is tangible as everyone presses like herded cattle into the station with whatever belongings they can carry, desperate for a ticket out of there.

The real highlight of the story for me is the relationship between Sid and Chip.  They are boyhood friends and half the time they don’t seem to even like each other.  But underneath all of that is a real unbreakable bond – they truly are brothers.  Some of Sid’s actions in the book are quite unforgivable, but Chip stands by him and is there for Sid when he needs him the most.

The ending seemed to be very abrupt.  I’m not sure whether this just comes down to listening to it as an audio book as I cannot then see how much is left to go.

It took a while for me to get into this book and there were points where my interest started to drift in the slow parts.  I didn’t really warm to Sid very much.  However, the writing was good, the story is memorable and there are a few moments that made me chuckle, which I think is important when dealing with such serious subject matter.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – Anne Tyler

When I saw this book sitting on the library shelf, I knew I would borrow it.  I had gone in just to return, and I was absolutely not going to borrow anything else so I could catch up on the neglected books sitting on my shelves.  But there is nothing I like more than a quirky title, and so I found myself unable to resist.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is the story of the Tull family.  The matriarch of the family, Pearl, is dying at the beginning of the book.  We are then taken back through the family story from the departure of her husband and her decision not to tell her children Cody, Ezra and Jennie.  She adapts when he leaves, taking a job in the grocery store to support her family and trying to do the best for her children.  But they never talk about the fact that their father is not there any more, and Pearl often cracks under the strain of raising a family alone, flying into violent rages.

The departure of the father and the fact that they never talk about it resonates throughout the whole of the lives of Cody, Ezra and Jennie, each of whom are affected in a different way.  Cody is angry and bitter – he resents his mother and his brother Ezra, of whom he is intensely jealous.  Jennie flits from husband to husband, eventually settling down and becoming step-mother to 6 children.  She is unable to take anything seriously and brushes off the problems faced by her eldest step-son.  Ezra is the owner of the Homesick Restaurant, which serves street food and comfort food, just like your Mum would make.  He never manages to make the break from home.  He is the good hearted, easy going, pushover.  He just wants to bring his family together and is constantly trying to arrange family meals at his restaurant, all of which inevitably end in disaster.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is one of those books which is very much character driven rather than plot driven – I would struggle to say exactly what happened in the book, but the characters are compelling enough to keep the pages turning.  Cody is probably the most challenging character within the book because he is so destructive – he has such bitterness towards Ezra and such jealousy that it would be easy to make him into a complete villain for everything that he does to the lovable Ezra.  However, Anne Tyler has written him very sympathetically, so even when I was getting frustrated and annoyed with Cody, I still felt quite sorry for him as you can still see the frightened and confused little boy that is in the heart of him.

This is the first time that I have read anything by Anne Tyler and I will definitely read more by her in the future.  I really enjoyed how she was able to portray her characters so that we can view them objectively at the same time as being allowed to see how they view themselves.  I also loved the concept of The Homesick Restaurant.  This book was originally published in 1982 and it is so ahead of its time – The Homesick Restaurant would be absolutely bang on trend now with its street food and home cooking.

30 day book challenge – day 27 – Book that has been on your “to read” list the longest

As a child, my family knew what a bookworm I was and so I was given a lot of books as gifts, especially from aunties and uncles.  One year, I was given two sets of children’s classics, containing books such as Treasure Island, Anne of Green Gables, Robinson Crusoe and many more.  I haven’t yet read any of them.  It is so shameful, but nothing pre-20th century was going to tear me away from The Babysitter’s Club at that age.

I have been meaning to get around to collecting these from my parent’s house and finally reading them, and so I suppose that those classics have technically been on my to read list the longest.

As for a book which is currently on my bookshelves, the one that has been sitting there the longest is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.  I picked this on up on the first ever World Book Night in 2011.  I got quite a bounty of books that night and I have read them all save for this one.

To be honest, I don’t even know what this book is about.  The blurb gives few clues and describes it as being about four people thrown together in 1970s India after the Government declares a state of internal emergency.  It sounds like it has potential – one of my current reading trends is reading books which are set in other countries and cultures, so I think I probably would quite enjoy this.  I’m not quite sure why I haven’t yet picked it up – I think it is partly because I don’t know anything at all about the story (though obviously I could easily find out), partly because I have so many other books on the to read list that this one just keeps getting inadvertently neglected, and partly because my initial impression of the book is that it will be quite a heavy and serious read.

I think I owe it to this book and to World Book Night to prioritise reading it, I just have to finish the book I’m reading now and then there are the library books ….

The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

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I’m not sure what to make of this book.  Even sitting here starting to write my review, I’m not entirely sure what I am going to say.

The book follows a group of friends during their last days at Princeton University.  The protagonist, Tom, is the son of an academic who devoted his life to studying an obscure renaissance text called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili to try to crack the secrets the text holds.  He dies in a tragic car accident before his work is complete, however at Princeton, Tom meets Paul, a fellow undergraduate who hero worships Tom’s father and is also studying the Hypnerotomachia.  Tom gets further and further drawn into Paul’s research, with dangerous consequences as the hidden meaning within the Hypnerotomachia start to be revealed.

This book is billed on the front cover as “The Da Vinci Code for people with brains.”  I did enjoy the parts of the book where they were working out how to crack the code and read the meaning within.  This was very intelligently done and put simply enough to be able to follow.

This book was written by two authors and there was a very clear division within the book.  This was not stylistic, in fact I think they did a very good job of maintaining the voice and style given that two people were contributing.  The division was between the back story and the narrative.  When reading it, I felt as if the writers has started from a fixed point and then one had written backwards and the other forwards.  The back story focuses on the strain that the Hypnerotomachia put on Tom’s relationship with his father and then later with his girlfriend, and traces the discoveries that Tom and Paul made when working together.  The back story was important for understanding Tom and in understanding the Hypnerotomachia.  However, I felt that it was a bit much and interrupted the flow of the more exciting and dramatic action.

The Hypnerotomachia is a real book, however I do wish that the authors had shortened the name or invented a nickname for it early on.  It is not an easy word to read, and so I found that it did interrupt the flow of reading, as I would stumble over this word every time.

Overall, I did enjoy the book and at 25p in a library sale, it was definitely a bargain for me.  However, my overall impression of the book is a sense of an opportunity missed.  I think there is a lot of promise in the concept of this book, it is very intelligently thought out and they have obviously really done their research well.  But I think there is another level that they could have taken this to.  It had drama and pace, but this kept seeming to peter out before it has reached it’s full potential, and I think this comes down to a little bit of a lack of ambition with the motivations of the “bad guys”, and the interruption of the narrative with whole chapters devoted to back story.

Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

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I first discovered Emma Donoghue when I read the wonderfully written but disturbing Room.  I was blown away by how she was able to create and maintain such an authentic voice for a child whilst allowing us to understand the true horror of his situation, of which he himself was completely unaware.

Since then I have kept an eye out in libraries and charity shops for anything else by Emma Donoghue, and that is how I found Slammerkin.

Even if I hadn’t like Emma Donoghue as an author, Slammerkin would have appealed to me.  It is the story of Mary, a teenage girl growing up in 18th century London.  After being cast out by her mother and step-father at the age of 14, Mary is forced into a life of prostitution.  Suffering ill health, she seeks refuge in the Magdalen Hospital for Reformed Prostitutes, before fleeing to Monmouth to seek a position in the household of her mother’s oldest friend.

One thing I love about Emma Donoghue’s novels is her characterisation.  This is no exception.  Mary is incredibly well drawn and I found myself feeling very maternal towards her.  She is flawed, as she has an unshakeable belief that she will better herself.  This shapes her relationships with and attitude towards the other characters, and leads her into some big mistakes.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Slammerkin.  It is very well paced with a cast of fully developed and believable characters.  It is a historical novel and it is very well researched.  As with many other Emma Donoghue stories, this was in a work of fiction which is inspired by a real life Mary Saunders.  I am in awe of her ability to take tiny fragments of information gleaned from the past and spin whole worlds around them.

For fans of Emma Donoghue, I would definitely recommend Slammerkin.  For anyone who has not yet discovered Emma Donoghue, I would definitely urge you to give her a go, and this book is a great place to start.

 

The Breaking Point and other stories by Daphne Du Maurier

According to the introduction, Daphne Du Maurier was going through a very difficult time in her own life at the time these stories were written and she was teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown.  She used her writing to pull herself away from the brink, but all of that tension, stress and depression that she must have been feeling at the time is written between every line of every story in this collection.

They are not easy stories to read.  They lack the smoothness of Du Maurier’s earlier works and they are jarring to read.  They deal with dark subject matter – motiveless murder, anger, grooming, fear, the loss of innocence and the loss of Eden-like idylls.  

The stand out story for me was The Blue Lenses which tells the story of a woman who has corrective eye surgery only to find that she can now see the true nature of people around her as their faces have all been replaced with animal heads which reflect their characters.  This story feels the most developed and coherent one in the collection.  I am not aware of any film or TV adaptation of this, but I can see it working if it was developed for the small/big screen.

The other stand out stories were The Alibi and The Lordly Ones.  The Alibi tells the story of a man who plans a murder as an escape from the drudgery of his routine.  This is a claustrophobic story, and his sense of frustration and pent up rage clearly comes through.  The Lordly Ones tells the story of a mute boy who is abused and neglected by his parents, and who longs for an escape.  While parts of the story do make for uncomfortable reading, this one is classic Du Maurier, with the magical picture of the wild moors conjured up, reflecting the protagonist’s longing for an escape.

Two other stories stand out for me for different reasons.  The first is The Pool, which tells the story of a young girl’s path to womanhood.  I could not bear the protagonist in this story.  I found her unbelievable as a child character and her worship of the pond in the garden was uncomfortable to read.  The second is The Archduchess which tells the story of revolution in the Eden-like fictional country of Ronda.  Although you do have to sometimes take leaps when reading Du Maurier and put trust her masterful story telling to accept the fantastical, this was just a bit too far for me.  Even in her hands, I found the idea of Ronda hard to believe in and the story was not strong enough for me to get past that.

I would not recommend this book for first time readers of Du Maurier.  Stick with the classics and once you love them, you can learn to love collections such as this.  For devotees like myself, it is an essential read.  It is a fascinating insight into her state of mind at the time at which she wrote these stories.  Though not her strongest collection, these dark, uncomfortable stories certainly are memorable.  

The Somnabulist by Essie Fox

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The Somnambulist is the story of Phoebe, a teenage girl living in Victorian London with her fanatical religious mother and free spirited Aunt Cissy who works in the theatre.  Despite knowing her mother will disapprove, Phoebe goes to watch Aunt Cissy perform on stage, and witnesses afterwards a conversation between her Aunt and a mysterious handsome stranger, Nathaniel Samuels.  From this point on, the lives of Phoebe, her mother and Cissy change as Phoebe leans more of her Aunt’s past and the secrets at the heart of her family.

The Sonambulist was an enjoyable if not a memorable read.  The story is mainly narrated by Phoebe in the first person, but I never felt very connected to her throughout the story and despite the intimacy of the first person, I never really got to know her on more than a superficial level.  This was a theme throughout the book, as I felt that the characters were underdeveloped, and, particularly in the case of Maud, a little cliched.

The story was well paced and flowed coherently to the conclusion.  The twists and turns were quite predictable.  However I think that the author managed this well enough that it did not detract from the story, as I never became frustrated that Phoebe had not made the connections that I had managed to.

Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, The Somnambulist does touch on some very dark issues, but only superficially.  I think that there is a huge potential within the novel to explore these a little deeper, and in particular, I would have liked to see Phoebe’s complex relationship with and feelings towards Joseph Samuels (Nathaniel’s son) to be explored in more depth.  If she had taken the story and the characters just that little bit deeper, I think she would have created something much more compelling, and much more memorable.