25 August 2013

Wolf Hall

Author: Hilary Mantel
Series: Thomas Cromwell trilogy, book 1
Year published: 2009
Pages: 650
Time It Took To Read: Three days
So, from the ridiculous to the sublime. 
I'm not a big fan of the sort of literature that wins awards, and is doled out to students to analyse. This is probably because my AS level english lit teacher was such a monstrously snobbish idiot about people, books and intelligence. I vividly remember her sneer of disbelief when I told her that I'd read Beloved in one night, as though my general demeanor and appearance meant that I was incapable of reading and understanding a Great Work in a few hours. Bitch, please.
Anyway, this is only the third Booker prize winner I've read, after Midnight's Children (which I should really re-read and see if I understand it better than I did ten years ago) and Amsterdam (tedious). And it was FANTASTIC.
It is a Tudor novel. The establishment, rise and decline of the Tudor dynasty is my favourite, and most fanatically researched part of history. I remember seeing the famous Hans Holbein picture of Henry VIII at Belvoir Castle when I was about 9 years old and being entranced. Since then, I've read most histories of the Tudors, visited their homes, and seen many of the artefacts and portraits of them. I think if I went to Hampton Court Palace, I'd pass out.
This book is largely concerned with Thomas Cromwell, a man exceedingly well placed to initially observe and later steer the events of Henry VIII's first few marriages. Wolf Hall is about the Great Matter of divorcing Katherine of Aragon, the schism from the Roman Catholic church and the marriage to Anne Boleyn. It is a far more political view of events than the corresponding books by Phillippa Gregory, without becoming androcentric. 
I wasn't quite sure if I'd like it or not, and held off reading it for some months in case it was a tedious mire of awful. I was gripped from the first page. It's written in the present tense, with a curious form of third person narrative - Cromwell remains the central character, with events seen only through his eyes, but never in first person. It took some getting used to, but made for a much more interesting read than the usual selfishly driven "I did, I saw, I said" of other historical novels.
The quality of writing is astonishing. Certain paragraphs made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, they were so real and so searing. Even if you have absolutely no knowledge of the Tudor court except for Henry VIII and his myriad wives, you can follow this book, understand the key players and untangle the web. However, if you know more about the court, the actions and the people, then this book is delicious. The characters are fully fleshed, and wholly believable.
I loved it. I bought Bring Up The Bodies this morning, so that's next.

Book count: 40/50

23 August 2013


Author: Dan Brown
Series:  Robert Langdon, book 4
Year published: 2013
Pages: 480
Time It Took To Read: A day
Ah, Robert Langdon! A man whose life has been threatened far more times than is decent for a professor! A man who, despite confirmed bacherlorhood, finds himself regularly in the company of bendy, strong, intelligent women (/plot devices) who are invariably attracted to the older, distinguished Langdon! A man who remembers virtually everything he's ever read or seen regarding key pieces of art, historical documentation or architecture! A man with no budget! A man who knows everyone who can possibly be of use! A man whose primary function is solving a web of clues to find some deadly and advanced weapon of mass destruction!
But wait. Despite constantly saving the world, Langdon never recognises the villain, or villain's accomplice, among his acquaintances. He assumes everyone is exactly who they say they are and has pure motives. He is an ass, whose main function is the exposition of the author's collection of research.
I have read all Dan Brown's books. I enjoy the cultural references far more than the story, and Inferno certainly made me want to visit Florence (though not as much as Hannibal did). Unfortunately, Dan Brown only knows one plot - villain threatens world, hero+female accomplice thwarts him, realising at last moment that the villain is a previously mentioned friend. His two non-Langdon books are the same. This book does slightly deviate from the One Plot towards the end, but it's still almost identical most of the way through, to the point where you know perfectly well Dr Brookes will be his accomplice when she's described as 'willowy' on page five.
The premise is that Langdon's in Florence, with a brain injury and amnesia, chasing down a maniac who wants to decimate humanity. The maniac is (naturally) obsessed with Dante's Divine Comedy, specifically the Inferno, which is the masterpiece from where most modern inferences of hell are taken. Obviously, Langdon knows all about Dante and related art, and has taught endless knowing courses on it, and is a celebrated Dante expert among experts (ahem) but he can't actually remember what he's in Florence for.
Chaos ensues.
It does attempt to raise a few ethical questions about overpopulation, but has such a simplistic and unsatisfactory ending (which I won't give away), that I felt quite cheated. But that is Dan Brown - a holiday read in the finest tradition, but don't expect to be blown away by depth.
Book count: 39/50

10 August 2013

A Dangerous Inheritance

Author: Alison Weir
Year published: 2012
Pages: 528
Time It Took To Read: A day
Alison Weir is a historian who has been publishing rather dry books about the Tudors and Plantagenets for over twenty years. A few years ago, she started publishing fictional accounts from this era and they are FAR better than her nonfiction works. She is much better than Philippa Gregory, in my opinion, though they both write Tudor/Plantagenet era work focusing on royal women.
Anyway, it is my (potentially libelous) belief that Weir wrote this book in reaction to Gregory's Cousins' War saga (see here and here). It sems obvious that Gregory is going to attempt to pin the death of the Princes in the Tower on Henry VII, so Weir is attempting to get her version (both historical and fictional) across before Gregory gets the chance. Weir wrote a historical account, firmly pinning the blame on Richard III way back in 1992. 
This book concerns Katherine Plantagenet, the bastard daughter of Richard III, and Katherine Grey, sister of Lady Jane Grey.  Lady Jane Grey is the subject of an earlier Weir book - Innocent Traitor. She briefly seized the throne after the death of Edward VI, to try and prevent Catholic Queen Mary taking over. It all went awry, she reigned for nine days and then Mary cut her head off. Katherine Grey then switched allegiance to Queen Mary, as her cousin, and later secretly married Edward Seymour after her first marriage was annulled. Queen Elizabeth I didn't take the news well and locked them up.Katherine gave birth to two children in the Tower of London and her marriage and children weren't legitimised until the reign of James I, by which time Katherine had been dead for years.
The story Weir chooses to tell switches between the two Katherines. Katherine P is a very shadowy historical figure. Literally nothing is known of her, except that she was raised in her father's household, so the majority of the story is conjecture. It is based around her quest to stop her father being accused of regicide. Katherine G finds Katherine P's papers in the future, complete with haunting, and follows the story herself. The conclusion is basically "Yes, Richard III did it." 
The whole book feels a bit pointless. There isn't enough historical information about Katherine Plantagenet or her stepmother Anne (The Kingmaker's Daughter) to give them real resonance. There is AMPLE information about Katherine Grey, to the point where the whole book could have been written about her alone. The constant switching of viewpoint is a device Weir uses often in her books, but it is aggravating and confusing that the dual heroines have the same name. The 'dangerous inheritance' seems to refer to the knowledge about the Princes, but that sort of gets ignored til the very end. I think, in short, that the focus for the book is all wrong.
But there's plenty of intrigue, sex and romance for those that like that sort of thing. I'm interested to see how Gregory finishes off her Cousins' War series, and I hope Weir's next book is a bit less cobbled together.

Book count: 38/50

The Psychopath Test

Author: Jon Ronson
Year published: 2011
Pages: 304
Time It Took To Read: A few hours
I've been meaning to get this book for YEARS, and finally saw it on offer in Asda not long ago. I read it last weekend, largely at a wedding while waiting for my boyfriend to come to bed. A long wait. A good wedding!
Anyway, Jon Ronson is a journalist and this book is about various mental health conundrums. Ostensibly, the book is about the Hare Psychopathy checklist, and it's occasionally indiscriminate application. However, in his research, Ronson pings around all sorts of curiosities in the mental health sphere. From talking to the anti-psychiatry face of Scientology to the odd extremes of conspiracy theorists online, every chapter is a joy. Not a very cohesive joy, but a joy nonetheless.
I am fascinated by mental illness, and relatively anti-psychiatry myself (though not to Scientologist levels). I've recently finished a Coursera course on mental health and social contexts (see my other blog for more info), and now I'm wondering if I should think about doing a mental health module for my degree.
It demonstrates many of the problems with modern psychiatry in layman's terms.Will Self apparently found it hilarious. I can't say I was rolling off the bed laughing, but it was empathetic and gentle humour. Whatever your interest in psychiatry and psychology, this is good read. And if you just like rollicking journalism, this is a VERY good read.

Book count: 37/50

1 August 2013

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes and Lost At Sea

Author: David Grann and Jon Ronson
Year published: 2010 and 2012
Pages: 352 and 471
Time It Took To Read: A couple of days each

This week, I've read two collections of journalism back to back. Both collections focus on mysteries and curious real life stories.
David Grann is an American journalist. His book claims to be about mysteries and intrigues, but not all of the stories are particularly mysterious in the traditional sense - for example, the mystery in one story is why people choose to work as sandhogs.I was hoping for more murder, but some of the stories are fascinating nonetheless. One explains how a prison gang took over most of the prisons in the US, and another looks at the life of a man who spent most of his life on the run from the police, another looks at the life of a man who spent years impersonating teenage runaways for the attention. The stories, however, are dry, factual and faintly dull at times.
Jon Ronson is a British journalist, who writes for Guardian and GQ. His collection also concentrates on mysterious people, but with a huge dollop of humour and sensitivity.  He explores a few savage murders, people giving away their kidneys altruistically for God, the suicide of a man driven into debt by mounting credit card bills, and most interestingly, into the sexual abuse trial against Jonathan King. This latter case is topical, considering Operation Yewtree. Although Jonathan King was prosecuted in 2000, some of the comments made by people around him are startling. "Poor Jonathan: we all did it." is a typical comment. Apparently, sexually exploiting children really was entirely acceptable in celebrity 70s culture. Tam Paton - who was successfully prosecuted in the early 80s - argues that they were only convicted because they abused boys, and it would have been allowed to pass if they'd abused girls. Alas, it seems there may be some truth in that.
I don't really recommend the David Grann book. It was good, but compared to Ronson, dull. Ronson sparkles by comparison and his writing is compelling.I plan to read his Psychopath Test next.

Book count: 36/50