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.

 

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.”

Deathless by Catherine M. Valente

deathlessFrom the first chapter of Deathless, I was ordering, pleading with myself to slow down and not to read so fast. But I couldn’t help gobbling the story down in one lavish gulp. Valente has written book that is both beautifully written and exactly the kind of book I love to read.

Set against the backdrop of Russia in the twentieth century, the story follows Marya Morevna as she watches the world change from a narrow house in Leningrad. A young man who is neither young or a man knocks on her door; he is Koschei, the Tsar of Life and he is Marya’s fate.

Every part of this book was so clever and imaginative I felt like I was stopping to gawp at the pages every five minutes. Valente writes the kind of story where I can hunt for the hidden meaning buried inside each passage or let the true significance fly over my head and just admire how beautiful it is.

After that, Marya Morevna understood that she belonged to her secret and it belonged to her. They had struck a bloody bargain between them. Keep me and obey me, the secret said to her, for I am your husband and I can destroy you.

This is what magical stories should always be. Showing the real world for what it is. Where the mythological world reflects the real world, where house elves have embraced Stalinism and the Tsar of life is at war with the Tsar of death. Where everyone pretends not to know what happened yesterday and the dead still have to go to work the next morning. Where Baba Yaga rides her pestle and mortar and turns girls into soup. The rich world of Russian folklore has been weaved into the twentieth century so effortlessly it sent shivers through me even though these are not the stories I grew up with.

After reading this gorgeous book and glancing at Valente’s website, where I see she has written a number of fantasy books and won dozens of prestigious awards, I can’t believe it has taken me this long to read one of her works.  I recommend Deathless not only to fantasy fans but also to those who love history and writers with a mastery over storytelling and the English language.

 

 

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

summer-queen-uk-2I was craving an easier read after the last book so I picked up The Summer Queen from my library. It is the first of a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful women in the Middle Ages. All I knew about her, despite her infamous reputation, was the story of when she offered her husband’s mistress, Rosamund, a choice between death by dagger or death by poison. I don’t know yet whether this is true or not.

The story opens with 13 year old Eleanor and her marriage to Prince Louis of France after her father dies in 1137. This book focuses mostly on the result of that marriage, Eleanor’s role as Duchess of Aquitaine and Queen of France and the long journey of the Crusades.  Chadwick doesn’t descend to the levels of Islamaphobia and racism that Lainez did but I am getting tired of the trappings of Orientalism that come from involving the crusades and perhaps should have read up on Eleanor before I started this book.

I got off onto a bad start with this book because I found Chadwick’s decision to name her protagonist “Alienor” to respect a historical figure a bit affected. If this were a historical biography I would have had more patience but it is after all a work of fiction and I found the decision extremely unnecessary. However I soon got caught up in the plot and raced through this book in three days. I found the language enjoyable and sensory, Chadwick has the talent of immersing the reader deep in the past, but occasionly the writing is verging on the overblown.

Alienor straightened in the saddle. The realisation that she was Duchess of Aquitaine was stirring within her, like a dragon awakening and stretching sleek, sinuous muscles. “I do not fear them,” she said.

The breakdown of the marriage between Eleanor and Louis was cleverly and emotively done and I found myself emotionally immersed in it. It signals not just court intrigue, scandal and personal danger to Eleanor but the shifting of a dynasty. I will certainly be reading the next book, The Winter Crown, which focuses on the Plantagenet’s in England and the children Eleanor has there, a family tree I am more familiar with- admittedly largely because of the Disney film Robin Hood.

The Summer Queen took hold of my imagination, kept me turning the pages and was a wonderful introduction to Eleanor of Aquitaine but it didn’t quite manage to capture my heart.

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory

9780857207586There is a whole shelf of my bookshelf full of Philippa Gregory books. I’ve been reading them since I first picked up The Other Boleyn Girl over a decade ago. That said, I haven’t been too enthusiastic about her latest books and couldn’t even remember what most of them were about after just finishing them. They all seemed to run in together with characters and expressions I had read before.

I am happy to say that (despite the glaring historical inaccuracy on the first page that even I couldn’t overlook) this was a very enjoyable read. It was not the kind of book I’d re-read over and over again but it kept me hooked for two days. I read it well into the night and found it hard to put down.

The King’s Curse is part of The Cousins War series but I think it’s very much a transitional book between the Plantagenet and Tudor works. It tells the story of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, and the struggles she faces as one of the last Plantagenet heirs in a rising Tudor dynasty. At the story’s opening her cousin Elizabeth of York is married to Henry VII, her little brother, the White Rose, has been marched out of the tower to his execution to stop “half of England turning out just for that haunting flicker of white embroidery” and she has been married off into obscurity to Sir Richard Pole:

“I don’t dare shrug him off. He is my husband, I dare not offend him. He is my only refuge. I am buried in him, my name hidden in his. I am cut off from my title as sharply as if my name had been beheaded and rolled away into a basket.”

This book covers the same ground as A Constant Princess and The Other Boleyn Girl and yet I was gripped from start to finish. By using Margaret Pole we see the Tudor Court from an entirely different perspective; as something new, and volatile even compared to the War of the Roses. Gregory still has the remarkable talent of bringing events and people into vivid colour. While this book isn’t one of her greats it revived my enthusiasm for her work and she still sits at the top as my favourite historical novelist.

Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato

Benedick-195x300
Beatrice and Benedick, Marina Fiorato 2014, Hodder & Stoughton 2014

I wish I had never read this book.

This isn’t a terrible book but it has ruined one of my favourite plays of all time for me. I hope the effects will wear off because Much Ado About Nothing is my go to audio play when I’m in a grey mood.

Firstly is a prequel for Much Ado justified? Yes I think it is. Everytime I listen to or read the play I always linger over Beatrice’s words to Don Pedro in the masked ball of Act II.

DON PEDRO

Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of
Signior Benedick.

BEATRICE

Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave
him use for it, a double heart for his single one:
marry, once before he won it of me with false dice,
therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.

If Shakespeare had been writing in the modern age this would have been the scene that spawned a thousand fanfics.  As it was I was very receptive to read an interpretation of Beatrice and Benedick’s failed first relationship and so approached the book with an open mind. At first I was pleasantly surprised. Foriolo’s approach to the faintly vague setting of the play was to set it firmly in the real world with a heady blend of Italian landscape and lush descriptions of summer. It was a beautiful introduction to medieval Italy and I read passages slowly to savour the atmosphere.

The story is set in the year of 1588 when Beatrice, Princess of Verona, is visiting her Uncle Leonato as a companion to his daughter Hero. Sicily is under control of the Spanish and Don Pedro enlists Benedick in the world of politics and intrigue simmering underneath the seemingly idyllic setting.  I was happy that Benedick was a bit of a loser and Beatrice was uncomfortably prickly and awkwardly so but they did start to grate on me in a way the original versions never could. There were also lots of things that I enjoy in historical fiction like women fighting duels, politics and intelligent banter.

“If I am the knight, then I thank you for my gage.” She favoured me with a soldier’s grin. “But now our joust is at an end, and I am the victor, I have the honour to return it.” She nodded to my plate as she turned to go, and spoke her parting riposte over her shoulder. “If you have no more stomach, Lady, you had better turn your trencher. Farewell.”

But then came the huge red mark against the story. The subplot of the Moors. The Spanish accelerate their expulsion of the Moors in Sicily and this is mostly illustrated to us through Beatrice’s relationship with a mixed race lady called Gugliema Crollalanza  and a random man she sees on the sand dunes. The problem with using atrocities against People of Colour to add depth to a romantic story between two white people shouldn’t even need explaining about. After Gugliema is burnt to death and the story goes straight back to Beatrice and Benedick and the petty misunderstandings in their romance I just didn’t care about them anymore. Especially when Benedick who has obviously learnt so much from seeing a woman brutally executed nearly hands in a Moor “boy” he comes across thinking excitedly how it’ll help his career seeing as the boy must be a spy. Even worse were the racial stereotypes about the first black man in the book and the fetishising of his relationship with a white woman.

I was cringing reading this book and seeing all the big name positive reviews on the cover I have to wonder. Did the reviewers not notice the problematic elements and racial stereotypes? Or worse, did they notice it and just not care.