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“Let us read, and let us dance;
these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Wolf Hall - a book in progress review

I made this: Avid Reader at 4:22 pm 1 comments Links to this post
As I fell instantly in love with the Tudor setting while reading C.J. Sansom's Shardlake series ( Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation and, as yet unread, Heartstone),  I requested, and received, this tome from my local ever friendly BookElf.

Although I had never read any of Hilary Mantal before, her previous works - most notably Fludd and her short stories Learning to Talk - had been lauded by various friends and relatives. I knew nothing about Wolf Hall, save two facts. The first was that it had been the 2009 Man Booker Prize winner, and the second was that the plot focused on the life on Thomas Cromwell.
Well, I say focused, but BookElf was spot on when she noted on twitter that the author seemed to have found the means to travel back in time and stalk the leading players - there is such detailed and - apparently - accurate research on all the players!

The book covers a thirty year time period, from 1500 to 1535, and at 650 odd pages is a somewhat intimidating read. It's not really a comfortable bus book - purely down to its blocky size, and I have to admit that at the moment, I have stalled, exhausted and a little broken, somewhere around the 400 page mark.

This book is wonderful. It really is - the characterisations are superb, the language and setting all have an authentic air and the swiftly changing  political environment keeps those pages turning.
For the most part.

However, despite the impressive pacing, the intriguing plot, the compelling characters and the beautiful prose, I'm finding it difficult to read due to a lack of clarity, especially during scenes revolving around conversations (which seems to be most situations!). The author seems to be trying out a style of prose that deliberately tries to avoid naming characters during interactions. Perhaps this does indeed serve some higher literary purpose, but it makes a fantastically interesting book a chore to work through.

There again, it's only fair to point out that even when names are used, it can be just as unclear - everyone of the time period seemed to be called Richard or Thomas or...you know... one of those other clearly Tudor names.

Nonetheless, the book has hit a spot where I seem to re-reading every page twice just to figure out who is saying what and to whom. In my head it reads -
'He said this to him and he did not approve. He left, while he entered - they nodded as they passed. He, on the other hand, agreed wholeheartedly, though in his secret heart of hearts he wondered what the right honourable him would think of it. And of course he had to make sure that he never heard about it. For then he would not trust him.'
A gross exaggeration?
Perhaps...but I know that I'm not alone in this complaint. On twitter, a few very book-y friends have noted the same complaint, and, in one case, indicated that it had put her off completing the book. Rather flatteringly, another has said that my struggle has inspired her to give it another go, as I am a 'Reader'(!) and if I was having difficulties, she was certainly allowed to!

Now, I am going to finish this book. In fact, I am determined to, and the sooner the better. I will also probably read the sequel - as I've said, I'm really enjoying the book itself, it's merely the mode of writing that I seem to have an issue with.
On the other hand, I'll be careful recommending this book to others. I am not a person of below average intelligence, and I do have the facility to retain unusual names, or similar sounding ones in books (heck, I made it through Wild Swans with barely a flicker of hesitation), but I am left confused and a bit depressed in places with this book - I'd hate to make anyone else feel this way.

This is not a book written just for those who have memorised the locations, personality types and personal histories of every significant Tudor of the time, it unfortunately just feels like it is.

Anyway, back to the toil, I'll let you know how I get on.

Man Booker

Book 3 - Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel - 2009 - Part 1

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Never let me go Review

I made this: Avid Reader at 2:29 pm 0 comments Links to this post



****LIGHT SPOILERS****


Whilst on holiday last week, I took the opportunity to catch up on some light (!) reading, as recommended to me by my mum.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro was one of those books that I always knew I'd need to read. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, nominated for the Arthur C Clarke Award, and Time's book of the year - its science fiction, and dystopian science fiction at that! Yet for some reason, I delayed actually picking it up and getting stuck in.

 Now that I've read it, I rather perversely understand my reservations much better. It isn't what this book is that I find somewhat unappealing, instead it's what it has been associated with. Less this authors interpretation of the concept, more the way in which the concept has been handled in the past.


To illustrate the point - the same year this book landed, that shocker of a film 'The Island' (Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson's best assets) was released. Contrary to press reports, it was by no means a 'new' story, or even a 'new take' on the story, and everyone from Philip K Dick's family to Michael Marshall Smith complained about plagiarism. And the product placement. And the terrible pacing. And the dialogue...I'll stop here.

So, although I was excited about Ishiguro's handling, I kept prioritising other books, lesser books or re-reads in many cases, but fresh in a way that cloning for profit just didn't seem to be.

The book is split into three distinct chronological phases, all differing in geographical locations, narrated by Kathy H, a 31 year old woman, who is knowingly nearing the end of her life.
The first section outlines her early life, at - a beautiful example of one of those great staples of British fiction - Hailsham, a boarding school in an undisclosed location in England. Her early life consists of routine and education, with a heavy emphasis on creative pursuits. Escaping or attempting to escape from the school grounds results in death. There are no parents, and few outside influences of any kind.
Kathy becomes especially close to two other boarders - the manipulative, overpowering and occasionally deceptive Ruth, and Tommy, the passionate boy with a temper. All the time, they are becoming more aware of the unique circumstances and responsibilities of their lives, but in small incremental steps to lessen the blow.
As is the authors wont, this section infers the tragedy to come, without ever baldly stating it, and I found it to be all the more powerful by the air of heavy tragedy hanging over what the narrator obviously considered to be a more innocent time in her life.
The second third dissects the initial time period after Hailsham, when Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are sent to the Cottages. At this point, Ruth and Tommy have been in an on and off relationship for some time, with Kathy playing the field. The Cottages are obviously a sort of halfway house - a place for the inmates? residents? to learn to interact with the outside world, and embrace their relative freedom. The Cottages differ from Hailsham in a number of vital ways - the most obvious to me was that in these dilapidated hovels our three friends began to first see the true value that was placed on them. They are aware that they are to be donors (harvested for organs as many times as possible before they die, usually no more than 4 operations), but up until this point enjoyed a fairly comfortable existence - a feature near unique to Hailsham students. Yet they seem to have no desire to escape, or kill themselves, or try to blend with the general public *.

During this period, Ruth encounters her possible original - the source of her genetic makeup - causing some consternation for all in the group, and she drifts further away from Kathy, both lying to her, and taking care to distance her from Tommy. It is also during this phase that the three hear the rumours of putting aside their donations for a few years - purely because of their Hailsham connections - which is hugely significant as it was the first indication that they might actually wish to survive.

The final chapters cover Kathy's years as a carer - a person who sees to the needs of donors, to allow them comfort between operations. As she has had an unusually long 'career' (in the only position available to her), she is allowed the freedom to choose whom to work with. Naturally, she picks Ruth - who is unlikely to survive her next operation - who manages in the shortest space of time to ignite the affection between Kathy and Tommy, and also offer an intriguing prospect for their future...

Right, to the review.

I loved loved loved this book. It is beautifully written, with descriptive passages building up an alternative world, but in a dreamlike and magical way. It is also a very grounded book, with each person behaving consistently in each section. However, there were some aspects that really left me grinding my teeth in frustration.
Tommy, in my opinion never really evolved after the first third of the book. During this, he has a new way of living revealed to him by a guardian, struggling to live with her conscience, and moved from being an angry boy into a sensitive, self aware teenager. However, he never moves on from this, and by the final section, he seems positively petulant to me. I'm not implying that he didn't have a right to feel angry about his circumstances, but his actions felt less like a response to these and more his default view of the world.
I never really warmed to Kathy throughout the book, finding her to be less of an observer, and more a passive recipient of whatever was thrown her way. Her only goal really seemed to remain friends with her Hailsham buddies, only moving away from this when Ruth forced her to it. Her relationship with Tommy, apparently evident to all for years, was weak enough that at no point does it ever occur to her to do anything about it, to attempt anything with him outside of Ruth’s wishes. This passivity and lack of introspection didn’t actually take from my affection for the book – I don’t need to like the main character to enjoy a book, but her blandness, in my eyes did make it difficult every now and again.
Ruth, on the other hand, is a positive dynamo in comparison to the other two. She is flexible, has dreams and ambitions, and when faced with the truth of her origin, she leaves it behind, focusing instead on her future, albeit in an occasionally self-delusionary way. Sure, she lies, cheats, breaks hearts, possibly steals and lashes out at others, but heck she lived! Of the three, she’s the only one I thought could have potentially survived – she was the only one really trying to!

The final third of the book is where Kathy and Tommy learn the truth about Hailsham, their origin and their future. In Kathy’s mind, this knowledge separates Ruth from the other two, that Ruth in someway lacks, by not being fully aware. I think that Kathy has missed the point. In fact, I would almost see it as Ruth’s final revenge. She sends them to Madam, providing all the necessary information and incentive, but never felt the need to do it herself. I think that this is because she knew which of her delusions were possible, and which were not. She never made the journey because she had figured it out – she didn’t need the verbal confirmation, but she knew that Kathy and Tommy would. No, that’s not fair, she knew that Tommy needed to hear it, and preferably from a person in a position of authority (who better than the former head of the guardian’s) and that it wasn’t in Kathy’s make up to even consider such things. Her victory, in my eyes, is that she died with her hope intact, while the other two have their peace shattered.

As I said, I really enjoyed this book, and would not hesitate to recommend it. Go, read, then comment and let me know if you thought similarly, or you took something else entirely.
Just don’t blame me if you end up with thoughts about this at odd and unexpected times. You’ve been
warned it is that sort of book!
*I have to admit, this mystified me to the point of distraction. If there was a survival gene and it was removed, why not say so? I get that this isn't hardcore SF, but there seemed to be a determined effort to avoid indicating how this parallel, similar yet so starkly different world exists. No explanation at all for any science involved in the creation of a world parallel to our own, similar in many ways, and so starkly different in others. Or, if there was, it was explained in fantastically opaque ways, and totally went over my head!

There is also a film out, and as soon as I've seen it, I'll stick a note up to let you know what I think!








Wednesday, 10 November 2010

In praise of... Sarah Waters

I made this: BookElf at 6:28 pm 0 comments Links to this post
This is a piece I've wanted to write for *ages*, but having not finished all her books I always felt it would be wrong to. Now I have, so I can. Hooray!

I loved Tipping the Velvet. Loved it. Every single sentance was like a petal falling off a rose. The evolution of Nan, one of my favourite charactres ever, from seaside town oyster girl to roving Tom in Victorian London giving speaches on human liberty in Hyde Park, via music hall star, rent boy and a whole other world was like watching a sapphic Amber StClare, thrust three hundred years into the future; just as beguiling and just as much fun, though slightly less thick!

Next came the equally bewitching Fingersmith. Again, set in the Victorian criminal underbelly this is the (slightly unbelievable but that doesn't matter cos its brilliant)story of the adopted daughter of a gang of thieves and forgers living in LahnDahn who is used as part of an intricate plot to steal the fortune of a country lady, who is also an orpahn living with her uncle in a bizarre house in the middle of no where. The plot is full of more twists than a curly wurly, and although just as beautifully written, not half as accassable for me as Tipping the Velvet.

Affinity is probably my least favourite of Waters' books, in fact I'd go as far to say it bored me stupid and if this was the first of hers I'd read I probably wouldn't have bothered with the rest. A Victorian gentlewoman spends her time doing 'good works' like visting in prisons. She is captivated by the story of one paticular prisoner, the ghostly pyscic Selina. I'll be honest, I skim read this one. Not even a fifth as good as Tipping the Velvet.

Night Watch, which I have just read, was fantastic. Taking a break from Victoriana Waters uses a lovely device of telling the story backwards, firstly in 1947, then 1944 and 1941. In this way she reveals the character's raesons for being in certain situations. The book wouldn't have been half as good without this device as it is deffinatly a character rather than a plot driven piece. Definately a 'feminist' writer, this book makes a stronger case for the legalisation of abortion than any other fiction book I've read in the past few years. It was also nice to see the difference in societies attitudes to homosexuality; the lesbian couples lived together, though in seppearate rooms whilst in the male prison the effeminate gay proisoners are known by female names and referred to as 'she'. Waters does seem to recycle her charactres slightly, Kay, for example, was like watching Nan but born 100 years later. I really liked that though, as I have often wondered how different charactre types would ahve reacted to being presnet during different historical periods. I really really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

Her final book, that was, like her last three books, nominated for the Booker Prize, is so very very different. Anyone critisising Waters range as being all 'lesbian gothic' must have eaten a lot of words upon it's publication. Narrated by (male and straight) Dr Faraday, this is the story of a aristocratic country family going to the dogs after the end of the second world war. Dr Faraday is one of the most intrigueing characters to be released upon the world and the ending of the book brought a real chill down my spine. Remeniscent of Turn of the Screw, this is a "ghost" story, that is really an exploration as to relationships between people. This is craftsmanship in writing at its very best- unreliable narrating to the point of beauty. Fans of Remains of the Day will love this book, as will fans of Henry James and Wilkie Collins.

I love Sarah Waters, and know I am not alone. As a writer of interesting, varied, sexy fiction that is not afraid to experiment or bend the rules she is up there with the best. Anyone with an interest in historical fiction should definatly seek her out.

Happy Reading!
BookElf xx

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Remember Remember

I made this: BookElf at 5:14 pm 0 comments Links to this post
Anyone who has trouble placing the whereabouts of their keys, or can't quite grasp the current East Enders plotlines has their work cut out in November. What with Rememberence Day (which is also my Book Club month choice, and have a highly appropriate book I think...) on the 11th and Bonfire Night on the 5th, like elephants, we can never forget this month.

In the North, Bonfire night is always something of an oddity. What with it celebrating the discovering of a plot against a King that almost bankrupted half the country, and the hanging drawing and quartering (they strangle you for a bit until you almost pass out, then they slit your belly whilst your still alive, draw out all your inards and then cut you in four parts and bury you at four ends of the country so your soul will never be granted entry into heaven) of the conspirators, its hardly the most cheerful of festivals. Coming from Yorkshire, we never burnt Guys, just figurines of Margaret Thatcher (joke, obviously), and Bonfire Night for me was about gloves and sparklers.

But it is important to remember that people died trying to stop the debasement of a currency and the starvation of a populance, albiet in the name of religion rather than radical socialism. If you want a perfect way to remember the human cost of Bonfire Night I can think of no better than some lovely Historical Fiction set about the time.

Christie Dickason is a recent discovery of mine, and thanks to the lovely people at WH Smith last month I read one of her's, The King's Daughter. The first part of the book is not the best part by any means, however it does explore the Gunpowder Plot and its implications on the Royal House. I had no idea that part of the Plot was to kidnap the Princess Elizabeth, King James the I of England's daughter and put her on the throne as a figurehead. Elizabeth is completly obvlious to any plot and the description of how she is forced to watch the execution of the plotters is grisly and stomach tighteningly good.

Dickason has written several novels set in the Stuart era, which is in dire need of some publicity considering how interesting it was. I very much look forward to reading more of her work and encorage and historical novel fans out there to do the same.

For an actual history of the time, I cannot recommend 'Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith' by Antonia Fraser highly enough. She is an excellent bibliographer and historian and this is up there with the best of her works, after the seminal Mary Queen of Scots.

And Daisy Dalrymple fans will be delighted to hear that number 15 in the amazingly good detective series set in the 1920s is called The Gunpowder Plot! Spiffing!

Happy Reading!
BookElf
 

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