Monday, 28 November 2011

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I put off reading Wolf Hall for a long time. Partly because of its size and partly because there have been so many dramas and documentaries on Henry VIII lately that I felt a little bored with everything Tudor.
But because I do love that period of history it was only going to be a matter of time before I finally picked it up.
Wolf Hall follows the life of Thomas Cromwell who, despite a humble background, was able to rise through the ranks in the court of Henry VIII eventually becoming the king’s right hand man. The novel doesn’t cover Cromwell’s whole life but instead covers his early life before jumping to the latter days of Henry's first marriage. As events unfold we see the split from Rome, the fall of Wolsey and Thomas More to the marriage of Anne Boleyn.
These events are told in what I can only describe as ‘layers’ which convey very well the feel and atmosphere of Tudor times. Henry VIII is in it surprisingly little but when he is, he comes across as a more thoughtful, magnetic and religious man than in other fictional portrayals while Anne Boleyn is still very much portrayed as a bitch. A lot of the events take place not in the court but in Cromwell’s house where a whole host of different characters are portrayed. Some scenes in the book are genuinely touching (such as Cromwell’s wife and daughters dying from the sweating sickness) and it’s nice to see Cromwell also worrying about his ward’s choice of wife as well as more pressing matters of state.
However I do have to mention about the style of writing and in particular the use of the word ‘he’. Mantel uses ‘he’ when referring to Cromwell which is fine if you're going to stick to that, but when the word ‘he’ is also used for other people during the same conversation it makes for some very confusing and sometimes annoying reading. This along with the novels overall size and style means that some people will not get along with Wolf Hall. Sometimes in situations like these it’s worth persevering but I feel in this case that the novels style of writing is either going to sweep you in completely (as it did me) or is going to leave you out.
A lot of the events in the novel like the break from Rome and Henry’s spilt from Catherine of Aragon took place over a period of several years and was played out in court in a long series of smaller political manoeuvres. One of the novel’s main strengths is how this is portrayed; the smaller characters all together interacting in a genuine world and having an impact on the whole country. This does mean however that it is not an action packed novel. If you prefer your historical novels to be a bit more exciting then this might not be for you.
I won’t go on about the historical accuracies but I was glad to see that Mantel did not invent a life for Cromwell during the years where historians draw a blank. A lot of significant events are mentioned in conversations or thoughts in passing so a general overview of the time might be helpful in order to get the most out of this novel.
If you’re interested in this period of history and you want something to really get your teeth into then I would give it a go. Personally I loved it and I will be buying the next instalment in hardback.
Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Friday, 25 November 2011

You know how I rarely do challenges?

Challenges are not something I tend to rarely participate in which is strange really as the few I have done have introduced me to some wonderful books and authors.
The League of ExtraordinaryGentlemen Book Challenge 2012 hosted over at Booking in Heels is one kinnda cool challenge and since it contains quite a few ‘books I’ve been meaning to read one day’ I am signing up.

For those of you who don’t know the film, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a film based on a graphic novel. The League is made up of classic book characters that spend their time trying to stopping various classic villains from taking over the world. I wouldn’t personally recommend the film, from what I do remember it was pretty god awful but each to their own.

So the characters and books are

Allan Quatermain from King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard
King Solomon's Mines tells the story of a search in an unexplored region of Africa by a group of adventurers led by Allan Quatermain for the missing brother of one of the party.

Mina Harker from Dracula by Bram Stoker
Dracula will be a re-read for me. I last read it as a teenager and while I enjoyed it I don’t think I really properly appreciated it.

Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne
This will be my first Jules Verne novel

Tom Sawyer from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
This can also count towards my American project.

Dorian Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
I can’t quite believe I haven’t read this yet.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
I only read this a couple of years ago so I doubt I’ll be re-reading it
Rodney Skinner from The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (kind of)
Due to copyright issues the characters from that book couldn't be used directly. Instead, Skinner claims to have stolen the Invisibility Formula from the character in the book or something.

The Phantom from The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
Looking forward to reading this one!

James Moriarty from The Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I know nothing of this one.

So there we have it, a great mix I think and most are free on the kindle making it even more of a bonus.

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Alone in Berlin was written in 1947 and is loosely based on the true story of a married couple who placed postcards containing anti-Nazi messages all around the city of Berlin during the war. Unfortunately the main reason we now know the identity of this couple is because they were caught by the Nazis and hanged.

This book was not translated into English until 2009 which is surprising given the anti-Nazi message and the fact that books on this topic tend to do very well.

The novel contains a wide range of characters from the low-life criminal Emil, the Pro-Nazi Persicke family, the brave Trudel Baumann to the fiancĂ©e of the Quangel's dead son. The author here gives a wide-range of responses to the regime, from total loyalty through to heroic resistance and to the people that will do anything to look the other way and survive it. The paranoia hanging over Berlin and its residents is well portrayed and as a reader I did feel nervous for the characters when they dared, in their own way, to defy the authorities. I’ve read many books set during this period but this one did offer a different perspective.

However it did go very much into thriller territory towards the end. The police investigation and how they eventually caught the couple was very interesting but the thriller genre isn’t something I particularly enjoy. I wouldn’t let this put you off, it’s only my personal preference but I would have preferred it if the novel stuck to the more physiological and historical aspects.

The notes contained in the back of the book gives information on the real life couple the novel was based on. This section includes photographs, police reports and photos of the postcards that were dropped around Berlin.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

How my American Literature project is going...

I have been doing a little housekeeping on the blog over the last couple of days, sorting out bits and messing around with the design. One of my jobs has been updating my ‘American Project’ page which is now just about finished (the page not the project).

So just for fun (and because I love lists) I have jotted down a few observations about this project so far.

Authors like Flannery O’Connor, Stephen Crane and Richard Wright are not nearly as well known in the UK. When I started to compile my list I asked my family and friends for ideas and the usual Hemingway, Melville and Hawthorne were suggested. Of course they were suggested with good reason but I am sure without the suggestions of many blog readers’ people like Willa Cather might not have made it.

American school children have it so much worse than British children when it comes to what books are read in school. Seriously we read books like A Kestrel for a Knave, Of Mice and Men and Animal Farm. Americans get The Scarlet Letter and The Red Badge of Courage, both of which are far more difficult to read than the English selection. If I’d been handed The Scarlet Letter at 15 I may have been put off by the classics for good.

Books like The Grapes of Wrath and Gone with The Wind have educated me on aspects of American history I knew very little about. Of course I do always do my own research rather than believe everything I read but like all books set in an historical setting, you end up learning about different time periods.

It’s not a must but it helps to have a vague idea of dates involving slavery and the civil war. Even if the novel isn’t set during the civil war or a time when slavery was practiced its surprising how often it crops up. If a character mentions that his grandmother was a slave or that his father fought in the civil war then it helps if you know roughly the time period the character is referring to.

I have only given up on two novels so far Moby Dick and Catch 22. 13 of the novels were by female writers and 21 by male.

Of course I still have a long way to go as this is very much an ongoing project and the list is always added to (feel free to suggest more!) My enthusiasm for this is still very strong as there is something about American Literature that excites me.

Posted by Jess

Friday, 11 November 2011

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Without a doubt Invisible Cities is the most intriguing, unusual book I have read. It is so much so a bookseller made a point of telling me it was odd when I bought it off him. He didn’t sound altogether convinced I would enjoy it.
The book is at worst surreal and confusing, at best beautiful, poetic and meaningful. To describe it best I would say it is, pure and simple, an ode to the city; any city you care to think of. Calvino is clearly a man who appreciated everything about cities from their basic design, location and purpose to the people who live in them.

The basic premise of the book is that Kublai Khan, a Chinese Emperor of immense power has vast territories he can never hope to visit in his lifetime so he employs envoys to travel the globe and report back to him on what they have seen. One of these envoys is the Italian adventurer Marco Polo who weaves wonderful descriptions of the many cities he has seen. The descriptions are often brief and rarely take up more than a page (often significantly less)and interspersed every ten pages or so are discussions between Kublai and Marco which are often very philosophical in nature.

I feel that occasionally Calvino was guilty of being too mysterious and cryptic. Sometimes I just didn’t understand what he was trying to say;

“It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions. If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of abnormal elements, we increase the probability that the city really exists. So I have only to subtract exceptions from my model, and in whatever direction I proceed, I will arrive at one of the cities which, always as an exception, exist…”  

By and large I found the book fun, entertaining and meaningful but I would say it is certainly not a book for everyone and it takes a lot of hard work and imagination to appreciate it

Overall rating 4/5

Posted by Chris

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Ah this is why we never do giveaways, because I'm completely rubbish at sticking to my own rules!!

A bit late (sorry) but the winner is......

Danielle   - so please e-mail me with your address.
I did use that random number generator thing but I couldn't work out how to paste the result in this post. Or maybe I couldn't see how to do it because its late and I had a long day. But trust me Danielle is ze winner.
Posted by Jess