Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

I think that Hilary Mantel might be my favourite author. At the beginning of the year I decided that she was someone I was going to read more of - and the more I read, the more I like.

Bring Up The Bodies is the sequel to the Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall. It continues following the career of Thomas Cromwell as he navigates his way through the hazards of the court of Henry VIII.  Of course Cromwell is a hazard himself and many people have to navigate their way around him, and not always successfully.

The story opens a couple of years into the marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn. We all know how this works out for Anne, so it shows Mantel's amazing skill as a novelist that the story is gripping. She creates an atmosphere of tension and peril. The mood at Henry's court is fraught, a place where even the most favoured can suddenly fall from grace and end up in the Tower. Henry himself is often afraid.

You would think, to look at Henry laughing, to look at Henry praying, to look at him leading his men through the forest path, that he sits as secure on his throne as he does on his horse. Looks can deceive. By night, he lies awake; he stares at the carved roof beams; he numbers his days. He says 'Cromwell, Cromwell, what shall I do? Cromwell, save me from the Emperor. Cromwell, save me from the Pope.' Then he calls in his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and demands to know, 'Is my soul damned?'

Cromwell is usually portrayed as a villain, but here he is a much more rounded character. Certainly his main priority is his own security and advancement. He is amassing a huge fortune from the monasteries and through bribes. He bears grudges. He will sacrifice innocent people if it serves his purpose. He is a man grieving for the loss of his wife and two daughters. He is a loving and attentive father to his son Gregory. He can be a loyal friend. He is knowledgeable about a huge range of subjects and he is good company. I liked him, though of course I wouldn't want him as an enemy.

There will be a third book in this series which I am really looking forward to. In the meantime I have another of her books, Beyond Black, on my TBR shelf.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The Big Four by Agatha Christie

I found this the most complicated Christie I have read so far, and I think it's the one I've enjoyed least. I really found it very difficult to follow.

The story begins with Hastings coming back from Argentina for a holiday. He pays a surprise visit to his friend Hercule Poirot. Unfortunately he finds Poirot just about to leave on a trip to South America on a case. As Hastings and Poirot are talking, they hear a noise from one of the inner rooms of Poirot's apartment;

The door swung slowly open. Framed in the doorway stood a man. He was coated from head to foot with dust and mud; his face was thin and emaciated. He stared at us for a moment, and then swayed and fell.

This man tells Poirot of the 'Big Four.' This appears to be an international group of villains, and Poirot is fascinated. He realises that the case in South America is a ruse to get him out of the way and he stays in England and starts to investigate the Big Four.

This is the first Poirot mystery I've read where Poirot seems to be flummoxed at times. I was flummoxed all the time. I'm not writing much because I was so confused that I really can't remember the details of the story.

I read this as part of the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

PhotobucketI read this book as part of the Back To The Classics Challenge hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much. It is the first book by Anthony Trollope I have read, and in fact I had never heard of the Palliser series (of which this is the first) until Rachel at Book Snob reviewed this one.

The story concerns a young woman, Alice Vavasor, and her inability to decide between two men, her cousin George Vavasor and her fiance John Grey. She breaks off her engagement to John and accepts George's proposal. George is an odd character, and I've no idea why an intelligent woman like Alice would choose him over John. He's secretive - and that's never a good sign;

And had it been possible he would have wished that no-one should have known his whereabouts. I am not aware that he had any special reason for this peculiarity, or that there was anything about his mode of life that required hiding; but he was a man who had always lived as though secrecy in certain matters might at any time become  useful to him.

 Alice isn't at all sure that she has done the right thing and much of the book is taken up with her quandary. Her problem is exacerbated by the fact that she is close to George's sister Kate, who is very much in favour of Alice marrying George.

The counterpoint to Alice's story is that of Lady Glencora, a young woman who has been more or less forced into a marriage with Plantagenet Palliser, despite being in love with another man. Her wealth makes her a commodity. Palliser is a rising political star and it is an advantageous match for him

Providing comic relief is Aunt Greenow, a widow in early middle age, left a substantial fortune by her elderly husband, and determined to enjoy it. Like Alice and Glencora, Mrs Greenow is choosing between two men, but on her own terms. Her two suitors, Mr Cheeseacre and Captain Bellfield are falling over each other in their attempts to impress her. But she is enjoying stringing them along and playing the game.

I enjoyed this book and I think it will be one I will return to. Trollope handles serious issues such as marriage and money with a light touch. It's a long book, but I didn't feel I was getting bogged down in it at any point, and I got really involved with the characters.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Eilis lives with her widowed mother and older sister. It is Ireland in the 1950s and unable to find jobs her three brothers have moved to England to work. Eilis herself is having trouble finding employment. Her sister Rose has a good job with a local firm and tries to get Eilis in there, but to no avail. Then Father Flood, a priest visiting home from America says that he can get her a job at a department store in Brooklyn. So off to Brooklyn she goes.

Once there she finds herself terribly homesick. Fr. Flood arranges accommodation for her in a boarding house run by Mrs Kehoe, another immigrant from Ireland. The other women who rent rooms there are a mixed bunch, and there is nobody Eilis really bonds with. She misses the close relationship with mother and sister and being able to laugh at life's troubles with them. Gradually however she finds her feet, does well at work, and meets a young man, Tony, with whom she falls in love.

Just as she is making a life for herself in Brooklyn a family emergency calls her home. Then she has to make a decision - does she slot right back into her old life, or does she decide to continue with the new one on the other side of the Atlantic.

This is the first book by Colm Toibin I have read and I really enjoyed it. I loved the style of his writing which is very spare with no excesses. Eilis was such a well drawn character, sometimes so passive that I wanted to shake her, and then unexpectedly standing up for herself. I was actually nervous as I got the end of the book because I was worried that she would make the wrong decision. By that I mean the decision I thought she should make! Actually there were pros and cons whatever she decided, it wasn't a clear choice.

So I will definitely be looking out for more books by Colm Toibin. All recommendations gratefully received.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Bleeding Land by Giles Kristian

The Civil War is a subject I feel I should know more about, so I was very pleased to receive this book as part of Transworld's Historical Fiction Challenge.

The story is set in the events leading up to the Civil War and the early part of the War itself. We see it through the eyes of two brothers, Edmund (Mun) and Tom Rivers. They are not aristocracy, but are well-to-do and their father is a Member of Parliament. It is during a visit to London with their father that the brothers realise how divided the country is, and how dangerously close to war.

Everyone knew that as MP for Ormskirk Sir Francis Rivers felt it his duty to keep one ear to Westminster's ancient flagstone floor, but now Mun suspected their father was beginning to think they should have left the city that very morning. For angry crowds of apprentices swarmed around Westminster, converging on Whitehall, and the whisper was that many amongst the nobility had already retreated to their estates."Even the King has quit the city for Windsor," Sir Francis had said. A hot fever was taking a grip of London.

Alongside the big picture of what is happening in the country we also see the more personal story of the Rivers family and how they are affected by everything that is happening. It has an impact on local politics, bullies are emboldened and see an opportunity to grab power. People are forced to take sides, and Mun and Tom take different sides.

I thought that this was a really good story, full of action and incident. It was interesting to see big events  from the perspective of individual, not very important people. I got a sense of how terrifying the whole thing must've been for ordinary people, with no power, completely at the mercy of the opposing armies.

They had come from all across the West Lancashire plain, whole families flocking to Shear House and other estates whose protection they sought against the armed rebels who rode across the country preaching their sedition, decrying their king, beating some who would not waver in their loyalty to His Majesty, and even, sometimes, stringing up those they suspected of papism.

A quick warning to the squeamish (of whom I am one), there is an execution scene quite early in the book which stayed with me a long time after I read it. But that's the worst of it and there's nothing so bad in the rest of the story.