Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

81fKXcKlJMLWolf Hall, Hilary Mantel, Copyright 2009.  Fourth Estate 2010

I’ve come to this book very late! Despite being a connoisseur of Tudor novels it has taken me a long time to read Wolf Hall. By winning the Man Booker prize and being set in a period I am fascinated with I was almost afraid to read it.

Thomas Cromwell is a rather unlikely hero, being both hated in his time and coming off rather unsympathetically in the various fictional adaptations he has connived through. As lawyer and chief minister to Henry VIII he is best known as aiding the rise and downfall of Anne Boleyn and the reformation of the English church. In Wolf Hall we see Thomas Cromwell, a boy from a violent home in Putney, rising up to take a starring role in court through a formidable intelligence and a face “like a murderer.”

The first 100 pages were intriguing but slow work for me. I found Mantel’s excessive use of “He” hard to get used to. The last 500 had me with my face glued to the pages. Despite seeing these particular events in about five Philippa Gregory books, a tv show (The Tudors), a play at The Globe (Anne Boleyn), primary school history and a history book by Antonia Frasier, it all felt new and exciting to me. The moment it was revealed why the novel is called Wolf Hall sent chills down my spine.

I love the detail; how Cromwell thinks like a lawyer (when he hears gossip he thinks Witnesses? Dates?), like a silk merchant, like a street brawler. The way that the Cardinal and Norfolk and the King look at him from tolerant bemusement to horror and disgust like – How did this boy from Putney manage to raise himself to our level? Where did he come from? what is he?

Cardinal Wolsey especially is stamped across this book and I particularly like the relationship between he and Cromwell. The playful way he asks Cromwell to price everything he wears.

He is about to say, the cardinal taught me everything, but Chapuys talks over him. “When the cardinal came to a closed door he would flatter it- oh beautiful yielding door! Then he would try tricking it open. And you are just the same, just the same.” He pours himself some of the duke’s present. “But in the last resort you just kick it in.”

Mantel made me care about Cromwell’s houshold- the sisters, wives, nephews. The usual stars of history, those at court, circle around in a wider sphere. By putting “the king” at a distance and placing emphasis more on his subordinates Mantel makes the past seem more immediate and relatable. Above all she made me love Cromwell himself. He is a fascinating character, not only intelligent and ruthless but also full of compassion. I can’t wait to see what he will do in Bring Up the Bodies, despite knowing how it will all end I badly want to see the journey Mantel will take us to get there.

 

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Audiobook. Pan Macmillan Publishers. 2013. Read by Morven Christie.

As soon as I read the blurb for this book I had to read it. The story is set in northern Iceland in 1829. Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the murder of two men. She is sent to the home of district office Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters to await the execution of her sentence.

The family are horrified to have a convicted murderer in their house and at first the only person to attempt to converse with Agnes is a young assistant priest, Tóti, who has been assigned to help Agnes repent her crimes before her execution.

This is an incredibly beautiful and dark story written in gorgeous prose. Australian author, Hannah Kent writes with haunting clarity of a land iced over with harsh winters and rich with literary sagas. I’m so glad I decided to listen to the audiobook as I cannot imagine a better narrator for this book than Morven Christie. Her voice is as cool and soothing as a glass of water and matches these bleak yet lovely lines perfectly.

“Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you are not there, it passes through you as though it does not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be gone and the wind will still be there…”

The story unfolds in layers as we see the same crime from a thousand different angles. We hear interpretations, guesses, pieces from the trial, gossip and we read the official letters as the execution approaches but what actually happened on the night Agnes committed a brutal murder? We start to see she is not only being punished for her crime but also for being a woman who is too clever and doesn’t care to hide it.

I have reviewed books on here that show the dark side of human nature. Well this shows the ugly side of the human psyche. What at first seems romantic, shows itself to be tragic and sordid. What seems villainous is small mindedness, greed and violence for the sake of violence. The questions Christie leaves us asking is; what is the difference between the truth and the perceived truth and how much can we really know another person?

Faro’s Daughter by Georgette Heyer

IMG_0020Naxos Audiobooks. Narrated by Laura Paton. 2014

This is the most entertaining Georgette Heyer book I have read (or listened to) since These Old Shades.

The story opens with the dowager Lady Maplethorpe summoning her nephew, Mr. Ravenscar, to her with the dreadful news that his young cousin Lord Maplethorpe  has just announced his engagement to a young lady who works in a gaming hall. His attempt to buy the lovely Deborah off, who runs the gaming house with her aunt, doesn’t go well and a bitter tug of war over Lord Maplethorpe starts between them.

At first I thought I’ve seen this before. They’ll quarrel and fall in love, The End. Actually the argument turns into a stone cold battle that ends up encompassing bills, the mortgage on the house and debtors prison. We get halfway through the novel and the characters are still ruthless in their campaign to humiliate and tear down the other with no hint of warmth. It was a very satisfying relationship to watch grow.

Deborah, being one of the few Heyer heroines who actually has a job and a traditionally male one at that, is pragmatic, competitive and hot tempered. The whole story verges on the comical but underneath is her desire to be able to commit formal violence against an enemy, also traditionally a male activity, is woven throughout the book.

“Oh if I were a man to be able to call him out and run him through and through and through.
Lady Bellingham, who appeared quite shattered, said feebly that you could not run a man through three times.

“At least I don’t think so,” she added, “of course I never was present at a duel but there are always seconds, you know, and they would be bound to stop you.”
“Nobody would stop me!” declared Miss Grantham  bloodthirstily. “I would like to carve him into mincemeat .”

This wasn’t quite the sugary confection I was expecting  (being well acquainted with Georgette Heyer) but more like a bright cup of tea and is one of the most entertaining historical romances I have read. There is still the froth of declarations of love and lashings of lace (this is Heyer after all) but the ruthless battle of wits that makes the heart of the story kept me hooked for hours.

 

 

 

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

jamaica-innYou might ask why I have not devoured all of du Maurier’s books, seeing as Rebecca is one of my favourite novels of all time. Well, with authors I love (and especially dead authors) I am very wary of running out of their books and having none to look forward to. Which is why I tend to shy away from books I am pretty sure I will love.

This story opens in 1820 with Mary Yellan on her way to live with her aunt at Jamaica Inn after her mother dies. Her aunt, who was a laughing, carefree woman when Mary was a child, is now cringing and meek and her uncle Joss Merlyn, the landlord, is a vicious bully. The Bodwin Moor seems a dark wasteland to her and there is something strange about the Inn. Why are there never any guests staying there? And why do mysterious carriages pull up in the dead of night?

Mary Yellen is a wonderful protagonist. The same theme I saw in Rebecca, the restlessness of being in a woman’s role, was shown here through Mary.

“I’ll not show fear before Joss Merlyn or any man,” she said, “and, to prove it, I will go down now, in the dark passage, and take a look at them in the bar, and if he kills me it will be my own fault.”

She pities and loves her aunt and yet feels exasperation at her devotion to a man who ruined her happiness. And all the while she is going down the same dark road with her uncle’s younger brother, Jem. His family has a long history of women sticking by the men who treat them worse than dirt and it’s never made clear that Jem won’t follow in this path too. He certainly doesn’t seem to see anything much out of the ordinary in it.

This novel  went a lot darker than I expected which thrilled me of course. It is not only beautifully written but extremely readable. The kind of book that keeps you up at night. There is nothing even remotely supernatural in this book rather du Maurier illustrates true darkness is in nature and the hearts of human beings. The landlord was a very brutish sort of fear to impress but du Maurier goes one step further and injects something even more horrifying in her book from an unexpected source.

I loved everything about this. It was much richer and thrilling than I thought it would be. Before I read this book, Cornwall just evoked twee images of clotted cream and pixies but du Maurier has shown me a place I didn’t know existed. Bogs, windswept moors, deadly marshes and a sign to Jamaica Inn, swinging like a gibbet, and a dead man hanging.”

Honour by Elif Shafak

honour“Never had it occurred to him that you could deceive the person you held dear. It was his first lesson in the complexity of love.”

A dark little anecdote with which Elif Shafak opens her book paves the way for a novel that fearlessly takes on Honour killing and everything that comes with it. Shafak recalls a childhood memory of a neighbour who often beat his wife. “In the evenings we listened to the shouts, the cries, the swearing.” The entire neighbourhood pretended not to hear.

This tale of a Kurdish-Turkish family spans three generations and is the first of Shafak’s books to be set in London.

The story opens with Esme setting out to get her brother after his 14 year sentence in Shrewsbury Prison. He has been locked up for murder and it is suggested that the victim was his own mother. We then journey back and forth through Istanbul in the 50s, to Hackney in the 70s and a small Kurdish village where twin girls, Pembe and Jamila, step on the paths to the rest of their lives.

It is Pembe and her husband Adem who journey to London and start to raise their three children and we watch with the slow inevitably as a character starts a chaste relationship that leads to tragedy. Shafak neither villanises nor sugar coats the characters and issues this raises and unflinchingly shows the result of what happens when misogyny is allowed to run unchecked.

This story is written with a touch of magical realism and contains stories within stories that have the touch of the fantastical; a mother waits on a riverbank for an old woman to name her child and Jamila lives hermit-like as the “Virgin Midwife.” This writing style with touches of humour made what could have been a grim story, something warm and human and while I did not fall in love I did enjoy the reading.

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch

unicornThis is a very strange book. From the beginning it fills you full of emotions; fear, apprehension, excitement, longing but without, at first, giving a reason for any of them. The scene is set with a fatalistically gothic opening of a remote windswept castle, a determined heroine, a mysterious beauty and a sinister presence…

Marian Taylor is employed as a teacher or “companion” to a beautiful woman, Hannah, in Gaze Castle. A soon as she arrives she sense something is not quite right, from her employer to the various inhabitants, the whole place is thick with some kind of awful tension.

Indeed there are so many undercurrents that it seems an entire ocean rolls underneath this book. Everything seems to have a hidden purpose or meaning. Murdoch does this with half glimpses and hints of huge terrifying things just out of reach, always unseen and had me gripping the pages and waiting for… what exactly?

“Scottow and Jamesie were still regarding each other. Scottow said, “Have you been telling fairy stories?” He laughed and brushed the boy’s cheek lightly with his whip.”

The novel started out sedately enough but as it got going I was satisfyingly weirded out and nervous for what would happen next. I couldn’t take any of the characters at face value and one in particular appeared so ordinary and then proceeded to dominate every person in the book, breaking them to their will and taking my breath away.

I was gripped at the climax of this books as nightmare after nightmare sucked the characters in like a whirlpool. It was so gothic it became ridiculous, with lashings of pathetic fallacy and every other Gothic trope you could think of. What spoiled it for me was Murdoch shying away from fully committing to the genre through using a massive egotist as one of the protagonists. Look how ridiculous this is she seems to say and although I found it very funny it broke the spell, maybe intentionally.

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

8686068“It’s more difficult to create the problem than to solve it. All the person trying to solve the problem has to do is always respect the problem’s creator.”

Is it a coincidence that the only other Japanese crime novel I read also involved bento box production and a woman strangling her husband? The Devotion of Suspect X opens with single mother Yasuko Hanaoka strangling her ex-husband after a period of stalking, sponging off and threatening her teenage daughter Misato who finally cracks and hits her stepfather over the head with a vase. Faced with the problem of a dead body they are  overheard by their next door neighbour, a maths teacher named Ishigami, who proceeds to come conveniently to their rescue.

There is no give away of the plot by saying this. The murder happens in the books opening. The majority of the plot is dedicated to the cat and mouse game Ishigami plays with the police, the genius consultant they bring in and the strength of Ishigami’s devotion to Yasuko when an old flame re-enters her life.

Despite committing the murder Yasuka and Misato are not really the protagonists of this story. They only seem to react to the situations around them. It is the male characters doing the scheming, the investigating and the brainwork. I was a bit disappointed because the opening led me to believe it would be the two women at the centre of the plot

This book sold over 2 million copies in Japan and is considered Higashino’s best work. While I enjoyed the read I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seat as the detectives circled around the evidence for nearly the entire book. It wasn’t like the speeding car falling down hill in Out where the situation spirals out of control and in fact I found the novel dragged quite a bit. It is unfortunate for this book that I read Natsuo Karino’s work first and the premise was so similar. However Karino created a work of devastation you can’t look away from and imprints the horror on your mind. The difference between the two crime novels is like the snow outside to the snow inside a snow globe.