Tag Archives: Hilary Mantel

Top Ten Unique Reads…

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Once again those fine folks at The Broke and Bookish came up with a Top Ten Tuesday list I found irresistible, so I put my thinking cap on and came up with these – hopefully you’ll forgive the fact that it isn’t Tuesday…

Snowflake by Paul Gallico
A delightful story of the life of Snowflake, who was “all stars and arrows, squares and triangles of ice and light”. Through Snowflake’s special role in the pattern of creation and life, Paul Gallico has given us a simple allegory on the meaning of life, its oneness and ultimate safety.
A teacher read this one to us when I was in the equivalent of today’s Year Six and I was enchanted. I tracked down a lot more of Paul Gallico’s reads – and to be honest, many of them are unlike anything I’ve ever read, before or since. But they certainly fired up my taste for something different…

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
A carnival rolls in sometime after the midnight hour on a chill Midwestern October eve, ushering in Halloween a week before its time. A calliope’s shrill siren song beckons to all with a seductive promise of dreams and youth regained. In this season of dying, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has come to Green Town, Illinois, to destroy every life touched by its strange and sinister mystery. And two inquisitive boys standing precariously on the brink of adulthood will soon discover the secret of the satanic raree-show’s smoke, mazes, and mirrors, as they learn all too well the heavy cost of wishes – and the stuff of nightmares.
We were on a caravan holiday in France and I’d scooped this one off the shelves to take with us. I read it one heavy, hot summer afternoon while nibbling on chocolate – suddenly very glad for blazing sunshine and comforting presence of family. And as soon as I got to the end, I started reading it all over again, wanting more of that alluring prose and dark ideas.

Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan
Tricia Sullivan has written an extraordinary, genre defining novel that begins with the mystery of a woman who barely knows herself and ends with a discovery that transcends space and time. On the way we follow our heroine as she attempts to track down a killer in the body of another man, and the man who has been taken over, his will trapped inside the mind of the being that has taken him over. And at the centre of it all a briefcase that contains countless possible realities.
There is no one whose imagination works in quite the same way as Tricia Sullivan – and this amazing offering is certainly unique. I loved this quirky story and the directions in which it went, while following the fortunes of all the remarkable characters who seem perfectly reasonable – until you realise the prism through which you are looking at them has refracted into something different…

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
The Jorgmund Pipe is the backbone of the world, and it’s on fire. Gonzo Lubitsch, professional hero and troubleshooter, is hired to put it out – but there’s more to the fire, and the Pipe itself, than meets the eye. The job will take Gonzo and his best friend, our narrator, back to their own beginnings and into the dark heart of the Jorgmund Company itself.
Another extraordinary tale that swept me up, held me rapt and then – finally – released me with a doozy of a twist ending I certainly didn’t see coming. This roller-coaster read snaps off the page with memorable lines and exuberant characters – see my review here.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment? Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother, Lowell. Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.
This is a remarkable book – more so as it is based on a true event. And as we follow Rosemary when she goes on a quest to try and track down what happened to Fern, we discover a heartbreaking story of loss and abandonment that started with the best of intentions and ended up blighting the young lives of all the siblings in the family – see my review here.

Touchstone – Book 1 of the Glass Thorns series by Melanie Rawn
Cayden Silversun is part Elven, part Fae, part human Wizard—and all rebel. His aristocratic mother would have him follow his father to the Royal Court, to make a high society living off the scraps of kings. But Cade lives and breathes for the theater, and he’s good—very, very good. With his company, he’ll enter the highest reaches of society and power, as an honored artist—or die trying.
This remarkable series is a tour de force. I haven’t read anything quite like it and I don’t think I ever will… Cayden is a remarkable, spiky character cursed with genius and flashes of prescience. No one else has ever managed to depict the cost of this type of talent so thoroughly as Rawn in this magnificent series, which deserves to be a lot better known – see my review here.

Among Others by Jo Walton
When Mori discovers that her mother is using black magic, she decides to intervene. The ensuing clash between mother and daughter leaves Mori bereft of her twin sister, crippled for life and unable to return to the Welsh Valleys that were her own kingdom. Mori finds solace and strength in her beloved books. But her mother is bent on revenge, and nothing and no one – not even Tolkien – can save her from the final reckoning.
The writing is extraordinary in the pin-sharp description of the everyday, alongside the remarkable and Mori’s character is so compellingly realistic and nuanced, I’m undecided whether there is a large chunk of autobiographical detail wrapped up in this book. And I don’t really care – other than to fervently hope, for her sake, there isn’t too much that is borrowed from Walton’s own life. Memorable and remarkable art invariably is a fusion of imagination and reality – and this is both a memorable and remarkable book. See my review here.

A Kind of Vanishing by Lesley Thomson
Summer 1968: the day Senator Robert Kennedy is shot, two nine-year-old girls are playing hide and seek in the ruins of a deserted village. When it is Eleanor’s turn to hide, Alice disappears.
Thomson immediately plunges into the world of young girls, depicting first Eleanor’s rich interior landscape and then allowing us to access to Alice’s carefully modulated world, where her doting parents watch her every move. Thomson paints an exquisite picture of each girls’ fragilities, their aspirations and pin-sharp awareness of adult expectations. She beautifully inhabits the terrible, wonderful world of childhood – and the girls’ growing antipathy towards each other as they are forced to play together – until that disastrous game of hide and seek. This thriller/mystery is like nothing else I’ve read – see my review here.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
This is the first of the acclaimed Man Booker prizewinning books about Henry VIII’s bully boy Thomas Cromwell, who oversaw the dissolution of the monasteries. Mantel instantly had me off-balance with her present tense, third person deep POV when we first meet Cromwell being beaten by Walter, his drunken father, and he is lying on the ground trying to summon up the will to move. So Mantel quickly gains our sympathy for her protagonist – but rather than chart his adventures in Europe where he spent time as a mercenary and scholar, we then jump to when he is in Cardinal Wolsey’s employ and establishing himself as a man of substance.
The biggest problem for Mantel in choosing this period of history, is that many of us know the progression of events all too well. But while that is the frame and backdrop in this compelling read – it is Cromwell’s intense presence throughout that had me turning the pages and mourning the fact when there were no more pages… See my review here.

Embassytown by China Miéville
Embassytown, a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. On Arieka, Humans are not the only intelligent life. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes.
Miéville’s brilliant imagination produces a truly unusual alien species with a Language where emotion and meaning are inextricably linked, requiring human identical twins raised to be able to think and talk in tandem in order to keep the isolated human enclave, Embassytown, supplied with food and resources. Until it all goes horribly wrong… A fabulous examination of what it means to communicate. This book should be required reading for all prospective diplomats, in my opinion… See my review here.

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My Top Ten Literary Heroes

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In the interests of gender equality, I felt that I should write an article featuring my top ten literary heroes, after publishing the blog ‘My Top Ten Literary Heroines’ here. In no particular order, here they are…

1. Rincewind from the Discworld series by Terry Pratchettthelightfantastic
The timid wizard who finds himself in the middle of adventures despite himself. I love his aversion to any form of risk – a confirmed coward myself, I’ve always found the lantern-jawed sort of hero rather offputting. I also hugely envy Rincewind his Luggage, a chest made of sapient pearwood that will swallow any amount of clothing – along with particularly aggressive characters Rincewood regularly encounters on his travels.

thegobetween2. Leo Colston from The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
I first read this book as a teenager, cried at the end – and it somehow wormed its way under my skin and never really left me. Leo’s bitter-sweet recollection of a particular summer holiday that altered his life when he was thirteen leaps off the page and deserves to be far better known for more than its marvellous opening sentence.

peterpan

3. Peter Pan from the play by J.M. Barrie

I fell hook, line and sinker for the beautiful, cocky little boy when I read the story of the play aged eight. And at intervals in my life, there have been other adorable, cocky little boys full of vinegar and spirit, who light up my existence…

4. Miles Vorkosigan from the series by Lois McMaster Bujoldmemory
Miles is a remarkable creation – chockful of testosterone and driven with a desire to prove himself in a series of wonderful science fiction, space opera adventures. He would be unbearable if he wasn’t also battling the congenital defects that he has to deal with due to an attack on him before he was born. As it is, his foolhardy bravery is awesome and admirable.

5. Lord Peter Wimsey from the series by Dorothy L. Sayersbusman'shoneymoon
Forget about Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot – the detective I’ve always loved is the shell-shocked, younger son of a noble family. He often affects the idiot, while being in possession of a keen intellect and a drive to see justice done. Dorothy Sayers confessed that she was in love with Wimsey – and I can see why.

6. Claudius from I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves
IClaudiusAgain, a series I read as a teenager and fell in love with this complicated, damaged man who manages to survive by sheltering behind his physical disabilities most of his life. Derek Jacobi managed to bring a marvellous incarnation of the character to life in the acclaimed TV series.

7. Kvothe from The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfussthenameofthewind
Rothfuss took the Fantasy genre by the scruff of the neck and gave it a very good shake in The Name of the Wind. I love the character in all his driven complexity and secrecy – and am very much looking forward to reading The Doors of Stone when it comes out.

farfromthemaddingcrowd8. Gabriel Oak from Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
He has always been my ideal male – brave, physically strong, with an inbuilt instinct for doing the right thing and loyal right down his marrow… Bathsheba Everdeen is an idiot for refusing to marry him the first time around and I just hope she pulls herself together and is the wife he deserves.

wolfhall9. Thomas Cromwell from Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Henry VIII’s bullying fixer is so much more in this remarkable portrayal. I love the way Mantel’s writing manages to get right inside the character – a man of extreme contradictions, but fascinating, driven, formidably intelligent and physically energetic… Yep. I’m smitten.

themartian10. Mark Watney from The Martian by Andy Weir
Did I mention that I was an inveterate coward? The one exception is that I’ve always longed to go into Space – indeed, as a little girl I was firmly convinced that I’d end up there. I picked up this book, hoping it would be a story of brave derring-do survival and I wasn’t disappointed. And yes… as a girl I read Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson and spent hours playing versions of being castaway on a desert island…

Those are my offerings. The near misses include Hagrid from the Harry Potter series – I’ve always loved Hagrid’s sheer stubborn good-heartedness and his bluff inability to keep secrets. If only perfidious Dumbledore had half of Hagrid’s intrinsic integrity… Shakespeare’s Macbeth – yes, I know he turns into a murdering monster. But at the start of the play he’s a brave warrior in love with his wife who wants to do the right thing. For me, he has always epitomised the doomed anti-hero who could have been someone even more extraordinary, if only events and the people closest to him hadn’t stacked up against him. Hiccup from the How To Train Your Dragon series. No, not the magnolia hero of the animated film series – but the skinny, unsure and permanently anxious version Cressida Cowell brings to life in her outstanding humorous adventure series. Cade Silversun from Melanie Rawn’s intriguing and original Glass Thorns series about a magical theatre troupe. In addition to writing their plays, Cade is afflicted with prescient visions – and is one of the most interesting, layered characters in modern fantasy. Matthew Shardlake from C.J. Sansom’s Tudor crime series. A spinal abnormality has prevented Matthew inheriting the family farm, so he travels to London to seek his fortune practising the law and gets embroiled in a number of murder mysteries.

So that’s a roundup of my top literary heroes to date. Who are yours? I’d love to hear who are your favourites and why…

My Outstanding Reads of 2014

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Before I start, perhaps you should know how I’ve arrived at this decision, after reading 143 books and writing 126 reviews during the year. To make the list below, the books either blew me away at the time – or have lodged in my brain and rearranged my mental furniture in some way. There are a couple of books by the same author – I make no apologies for that. One of those authors, Jo Walton,  should be a whole lot better known than she is, given the breadth of her writing talent and the sheer quality of her work, while the other is simply an extraordinary writer at the top of her game. So in no particular order – here they are, my outstanding reads of 2014…

Glass Thorns – Book 1 of the Touchstone series by Melanie Rawn
Cayden Silversun is part Elven, part Fae, and part human Wizard. After centuries of bloodshed, in which Cade’s glassthornsWizard kin played a prominent role, his powers are now strictly constrained. But in the theatre, magic lives. Cade is a tregetour, a playwright who infuses glass wands with the magic necessary for the rest of his troupe, Touchstone, to perform his pieces. But alongside the Wizardly magic that he is sure will bring him fame and fortune on the stage is the legacy of the Fae within him. Troubled by prophetic visions of not only his future but the fates of those closest to him, Cade must decide whether to interfere, or stand back as Touchstone threatens to shatter into pieces.

It is always enjoyable and intriguing to read something that stretches the genre in a different direction – and Glass Thorns certainly does that. Apart from the fact that it has many elements taken from Fantasy – a Late Medieval/Early Modern historical feel, complete with horse-driven conveyances; a number of races rubbing shoulders, including Elves, Wizards, Fae, Trolls, etc; women relegated to a subservient role – there are also aspects of this book that would fit quite happily in a hard science fiction read. The denseness of the world and close attention to detail is a delight – I also loved the two other books I’ve read in this series, Elsewhen and Thornlost and I’m looking forward to reading the fourth book Window Wall, due for release in April 2015.

Dominion by C.J. Sansom
dominionTwelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. As the long German war against Russia rages in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule: the press, radio and television are controlled; the streets patrolled by violent Auxiliary Police and British Jews face ever greater constraints. There are terrible rumours about what is happening in the basement of the Germany Embassy at Senate House. Defiance, though, is growing. In Britain, Winston Churchill’s Resistance organisation is increasingly a thorn in the government’s side.

Civil servant David Fitzgerald has been passing on government secrets after the tragic death of his son. While his wife Sarah is increasingly suspicious of the late nights and week-end stints in the office. But as events sweep this middle-class couple up into the political mincing machine, they cross paths with Gestapo Sturmbannfűhrer Gunther Hoth, brilliant and implacable hunter of men…

What must be jumping out at anyone interested in reading the book, is that the event where Sansom’s version of history diverges takes place twelve years previously. So he has to construct a completely different world that emerges after Britain’s surrender. As Sansom is an accomplished historian, his version of this world makes fascinating reading and in amongst his deftly realistic worldbuilding, is the tense thriller that pings off the page. This book keeps creeping back into my head at all sorts of times – even when I’d rather it didn’t…

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
These are the acclaimed Man Booker prizewinning books about Henry VIII’s bully boy Thomas Cromwell, who wolf halloversaw the dissolution of the monasteries. Mantel instantly had me off-balance with her present tense, third person deep POV when we first meet Cromwell being beaten by Walter, his drunken father, and he is lying on the ground trying to summon up the will to move. So Mantel quickly gains our sympathy for her protagonist – but rather than chart his adventures in Europe where he spent time as a mercenary and scholar – we then jump to when he is in Cardinal Wolsey’s employ and establishing himself as a man of substance.

bringupthebodiesThe biggest problem for Mantel in choosing this period of history, is that many of us know the progression of events all too well – so how to pull us into the story and keep us turning the pages of these door-stoppers? Well, the use of present tense throughout gives both these books pace and immediacy. While she certainly charts the major events in Henry’s constant struggles to persuade the Pope to annul his marriage to Katherine in favour of Anne Boleyn, it is Cromwell’s musings and highly personal take on what is going on around him that bounces off the page. I was absolutely gripped by these books – the writing is extraordinary.

However, I would also say that many folks have found these books initially difficult to get into, so my firm advice would be to persevere if you aren’t immediately hooked – it really is worth it.

The Crossing Places – Book 1 of the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths
Ruth Galloway is a forty-something archaeologist who lives on her own at the edge of Saltmarsh in an isolated cottage thecrossing placeswith a couple of cats. I found her character immediately appealing and realistic. Her concerns about her weight and her single status struck a chord with me – and I suspect many other female crime fans. This series is evidently going to be something of a partnership between Ruth and Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson. So did I also feel an affinity with the other main character? Yes. Nelson is clearly a complicated personality and – unlike Ruth and many other detectives in other series – he is a family man with two daughters and an attractive wife. I am looking forward to seeing how this all plays out during the series. The other powerful factor in this book is the stunning backdrop – the salt marshes.

Griffiths evidently knows and loves this landscape and has it as a character in its own right, particularly during the climactic scenes where the dangerous surroundings heighten the drama and tension during the denouement in a classic showdown that manages to provide plenty of surprises. Let’s hope the upcoming television series does this book justice.

The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff
Well, this is fun! I loved the whole idea – including the Gale family tendency to interbreed to strengthen their magical enchantment emporiumbloodline, and the fact that it takes a different direction depending on gender. As Huff doesn’t go into any major detail about the uninhibited sexual exploits within the family, the fact that a normal major taboo is crossed due to a magical imperative just underlines the sense of ‘other’. I would have been a lot less comfortable with this aspect if she’d chosen to provide a lot of gratuitous detail around said exploits – but she doesn’t. It was particularly enjoyable to read a punchy, urban fantasy where the power lies with the elderly females – the infamous ‘aunties’. As someone who finds herself rapidly approaching the same role within my own family faaar too quickly, it was gratifying to read about women of a certain age who were a significant force to be reckoned with.

As for Alysha, herself – Huff has depicted a feisty, enjoyable heroine who is busy trying to find her feet within a powerful family without cutting herself off from their support or love. Again, refreshing to read. So many protagonists, male and female, don’t seem to have much in the way of family ties, allowing them to fully immerse themselves in whatever arcane adventures that come their way without having to consider anyone near and dear to them. Her reaction to the rapidly escalating troubles surrounding the Emporium makes for a riveting, memorable read – and the bonus is this is the first of a series.

Fortune’s Pawn – Book 1 of the Paradox series by Rachel Bach
œF$¿Æ‘$8Òò¤»däå¸R8BIDevi Morris isn’t your average mercenary. She has plans. Big ones. And a ton of ambition. It’s a combination that’s going to get her killed one day. But not just yet. That is, until she gets a job on a tiny trade ship with a nasty reputation for surprises. The Glorious Fool isn’t misnamed: it likes to get into trouble, so much so that one year of security work under its captain is equal to five years anywhere else. With odds like that, Devi knows she’s found the perfect way to get the jump on the next part of her Plan. But the Fool doesn’t give up its secrets without a fight, and one year on this ship might be more than even Devi can handle.

Written in first person point of view, Devi is a wonderful protagonist. A driven, adrenaline-junkie, she spends her earnings on wicked weaponry and a shielded suit that she loves far too much, to the extent they all have names. She also likes the odd drop and playing poker. I loved her – and her impulsive character that gets her into regular scrapes. Given that many of my favourite reads were quite grim, this mapcap adventure provided plenty of thrills and spills which didn’t stick in my memory as much as the general feeling of fun. It’s not a comedy, but there was more than enough energy crackling off the page to have me turning the pages with a grin on my face.

Farthing – Book 1 of The Small Change trilogy by Jo Walton
In a world where England has agreed a peace with Nazi Germany, one small change can carry a huge cost… Eight farthingyears after they overthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the upper-crust families of the ‘Farthing set’ gather for a weekend retreat. But idyll becomes nightmare when Sir James Thirkie is found murdered, a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest. Suspicion falls, inevitably on David Kahn, who is a Jew and recently married to Lucy, the daughter of Lord and Lady Eversley of Castle Farthing, but when Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard starts investigating the case, he soon realises that all is not what it seems…

As ever, Walton braids the apparently cosy into something different and when you’re lulled into a false sense of security, she pulls the rug from under you. The familiar backdrop here is the classic country house murder. Guests are staying over – mostly the ‘Farthing set’, with the inevitable alliances and enmities, both political and personal. Inspector Carmichael and his loyal sidekick, Royston, set about the task of unpicking the various secrets of all the likely suspects. The investigation in alternate chapters is described in third person viewpoint, harking back to those Agatha Christie whodunits we all know and love.

But by far the strongest voice in the book, is that of Lucy Kahn. She bounces off the page with her first person narrative, told in a slightly breathless, chatty style that is so vivid, I actually dreamt of her… Her love for her husband shines through – as does her disgust for her peers, whom she regards at best as useless, after being educated by a thoughtful, egalitarian governess. And her wary hatred for her powerful, unscrupulous mother. This is the first of an excellent trilogy and I highly recommend it. Walton should be read. A lot.

How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell
how to train your dragonHiccup and his friend Fishlegs join a group of boys and set out to catch and train a dragon to be initiated into their clan, the Tribe of the Hairy Hooligans. Those who fail will be exiled forever, so will Hiccup and his small, disobedient dragon manage to avoid this miserable fate?

The whole tone and feel of this book is a delight – Frankie enjoyed the pictures and loved the humour. There is a lot going on, here with plenty of wordplay and puns within the names of the Viking characters and their dragon pets, but there is also a really strong, well executed narrative arc packed with action and suspense. Several times, I found myself reading far longer than I’d initially intended because we both wanted to know what would happen next. As anyone who visits this blog will quickly realise, I’m an enthusiastic reader and consider myself fairly sharp at recognising how a story is likely to progress – but any predictions I made about this particular book were wrong. I simply didn’t know where Cowell was going to take the story after the initial setup – even though I also know the film very well.

In addition to enjoyably funny cartoon drawings and riveting storyline, Cowell also added some extras for those who like to immerse themselves in her world. Frankie wasn’t remotely interested in breaking off and examining the copy of the book stolen from the Meatloaf Community Library called How To Train Your Dragon, written by Professor Yobbish, or checking out any of the dragon stats dotted throughout the book. But then, she is all about the story. However, for any child who appreciates these details – it’s a great addition. All in all – I’ve become hooked into Cowell’s world and am now in the process of buying the audio editions narrated by David Tennant so she can enjoy them when I’m not around to read them to her. And the bonus is that I can also listen in to Hiccup’s latest adventure.

My Real Children by Jo Walton
The day Mark called, Patricia Cowan’s world split in two.my real children
The phone call.
His question.
Her answer.
A single word.
‘Yes.’
‘No.’
It is 2015 and Patricia Cowan is very old. ‘Confused today’ read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War – those things are solid in her memory. Then that phone call and… her memory splits in two.

This book is different from anything else that Walton has written – but then books with a storyline like this aren’t exactly crowding the bookshelves. There is a sense of ambiguity about the whole business – Patricia is suffering from dementia and has been battling with it for some time. So… is this a complex illusion brought about by a damaged brain? At this point, the two alternate lives seem to collide – she gets muddled as to which nursing home she is living in and although she hasn’t yet mixed up the children, she knows it will only be a matter of time. The impact of her different lives doesn’t just affect her family – the world is quite a different place and I found this to be a fascinating consequence.

Walton is excellent at summoning up the feel of an era and I was intrigued to note how nostalgia steadily drifts into alternate history, as political events increasingly diverge from our own timeline. Focused as I was on Patricia’s personal story, it took a while for the penny to drop – but when I went back and reread the sections, I was able to appreciate the subtlety Walton employs with occasional mentions of events, before the shock of the major crisis which changes the whole political backdrop forever…

Hav by Jan Morris
havJan Morris is a renowned and respected travel writer with such books as Venice and Europe an Intimate Journey under her belt. The first half of this book, then known as Last Letters from Hav, was first published in 1985 and it wasn’t until after the 9/11 effect rippled around the world, shifting political and cultural stances, that Morris considered writing a follow-up charting that type of changes she’d noted while travelling to actual places.
So she wrote the second section and the book in this form was published in 2006. I have something of a soft spot for well-conceived imaginary places – but this is a tour de force. Morris has not only written extensively about the physical geography, describing the buildings and topographical features – she has also provided a vivid historical and political backdrop.

During the first section of the book, Hav is a comparative backwater. Athough situated geographically between East and West, it is a cultural and political melting pot with a number of immigrants from France, Turkey, Greece, China, India – as well as the mysterious indigenous cave-dwelling population… She captures Hav’s faded splendour and idiosyncratic customs, many originating centuries ago when Hav was part of the Silk Route and Venice had a series of warehouses backed by powerful merchanting families to protect their valuable assets. Though I constantly had to remind myself as I got caught up in the welter of small details Morris continually drops into her narrative – Hav doesn’t exist.

All this is impressive enough – but for me, the genius of this book is what happens in the second half after the Intervention. Morris revisits Hav and charts how it has changed since the… um – Intervention. No one would be stupidly crass enough to use the word invasion… This is another of those remarkable books that have impacted my  inscape with its clever, thought provoking premise.

Half a King – Book 1 of The Shattered Seas trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
Born a weakling in the eyes of the world, Yarvi cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a half a kingdeadly edge. Especially when his father and older brother are both slaughtered by a neighbouring lord and he suddenly finds that instead of continuing with his training to become a trusted advisor to his brother, he is the one who will be the next king…

I loved the world, the perfect narrative pacing and the character progression. We have a salutary demonstration at the end of the book as to just how much Yarvi’s experiences have shaped him – once more leaving me open-mouthed with surprise. I’m not the target audience – and while I regularly read YA books with huge enjoyment, I’m normally conscious they are written for a less experienced reader, so I tend to give the author a pass on some of the less subtle writing. No such pass is required for Abercrombie. This is a delight. Accomplished, enthralling and has this non-YA reader desperate for more.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
signatureofallthingsThis housebrick of a book charts Alma’s life from the day she is born, 5th January 1800, right up until her very old age. And it is a life full of contradictions – brought up in a fabulously wealthy household, she nevertheless is taught strict obedience, frugality, attention to detail and rigorously schooled by her Dutch mother. An only child, she is suddenly presented with an adopted sister when she is 10 years old – a dainty, beautiful girl who is everything Alma is not… Despite being the daughter of a wealthy man, she is not besieged by suitors as a young girl – although there is one man who she has fallen in love with. And I’m not going further because to do so would be to lurch into spoiler territory. Suffice to say that it would be all too easy to turn this book into a heartbreaking melodrama – there is certainly the material to do so.

But Gilbert turns this book into so much more than that. In amongst her duties as her father’s secretary and administrator, Alma is a bryologist, which means she studies mosses. And her work brings her into contact with other naturalists and lithographers – including Ambrose…

As well as becoming engrossed in Alma’s life, I was also fascinated by Prudence, her adopted sister. Though neither girl bonded with the other, their paths cross in ways that profoundly affected each of them, and indirectly, leads to Alma’s restless travelling at an age when most of her contemporaries are settling down to a life of placid routine. The wealth of historical detail; the state of Tahiti at the time, when the native people are still reeling from the epidemics that ripped through the population; Gilbert’s iron grip on the pacing and narrative tension that ensured that the story pinged off the page… This is a masterpiece.

The Martian by Andy Weir
I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Earth. I’m in a Habitat designed to last 31 days. If the themartianOxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. I’m screwed.

That is the blurb in Mark Watney’s viewpoint – typically laconic. Several of the reviews called this a 21st century version of the Robinson Crusoe story, and it neatly sums up the first section of the book. Like Defoe, Weir is very keen on demonstrating all the fixes and lash-ups that Watney resorts to. But being an astronaut on a NASA space program, the ingenious ways he manages to avoid death involve a great deal more technology and scientific knowhow than Robinson Crusoe had to grapple with. Weir had to dive into a truly brain-bulging amount of research in order to get this level of detail and apparent plausibility. Although I’m no scientist, nothing jarred – not his reaction or the relationship with NASA.

However, if Weir had kept the story going at that level, I would not have stayed engrossed right to the end. The narrative pacing is pitch perfect – despite the plethora of detail, Weir never loses touch with the fact that he is telling a story. It’s a triumph and worth a read by anyone – including those who don’t generally go near science fiction.

Foxglove Summer – Book 5 of the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch
foxglovesummerWhen two young girls go missing in rural Herefordshire PC Peter Grant is sent out of London to check that nothing supernatural is involved. It’s purely routine. Nightingale thinks he’ll be done in less than a day. But Peter’s never been one to walk away from someone in trouble, so when nothing covertly magical turns up he volunteers his services to the local police who need all the help they can get.

But because the universe likes a joke as much as the next sadistic megalomaniac, Peter soon comes to realise that dark secrets lurk under the picturesque fields and villages of the countryside and there might just be work for Britain’s most junior wizard after all.

Well this is fun! Grant is taken right away from his natural stamping ground and deposited in amongst strangers who are battling to find two girls who have disappeared. After the high drama at the end of the last book, I’d feared this book might feel a tad flat – but the scene change and innate tension caused by the nature of the case meant Foxglove Summer hits the ground running and just goes on gathering momentum, making it a joy to read.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Harry August is on his deathbed again. No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry first 15 lives of Harry Augustalways restarts to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a live he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes. Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’

This is the story of what Harry does next – and what he did before – and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

North is visiting a very familiar science fiction trope – that of the trans-human who has shifted into something different by dint of having lived so long. The big difference is that trans-humans as depicted by the likes of Alastair Reynolds and Greg Bear owe their longevity to scientific development, while Harry August and the handful of other returnees he encounters during his lifetimes, owe their existence to a genetic quirk. As a kalachakra, after he dies, he goes straight back to the year of his first birth – 1918 – and relives his existence, with the memories of his previous lives impacting on his choices and decisions. For my money, Harry August is the most effectively depicted post-human I have yet encountered. While never forgetting his difference, North has managed to still make him sufficiently sympathetic that I really empathised and cared about him – a feat, as he has become something other than fully human and is certainly not particularly cuddly or even likeable at lot of the time. What we get is a fascinating exploration of what it is to be human and the effects of determinism – how far can Harry influence or alter the events in his lives – alongside the cracking adventure story that steadily evolves.

Review of Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

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I read Wolf Hall and was blown away by the quality of the writing, depth of characterisation and vivid worldbuilding – see my review here. Would I enjoy the sequel as much?

bringupthebodiesBring Up the Bodies unlocks the darkly glittering court of Henry VIII, where Thomas Cromwell is now chief minister. With Henry captivated by plain Jane Seymour and rumours of Anne Boleyn’s faithlessness whispered by all, Cromwell knows what he must do to secure his position. But the bloody theatre of the queen’s final days will leave no one unscathed…

I called this a sequel, but Mantel has written this in such a way that it stands alone and prior knowledge of Wolf Hall is completely unnecessary. Although I suppose if you come to Bring Up the Bodies without accessing Cromwell’s earlier life, you may find the present tense and confusion between his internal dialogue and spoken words a slight obstacle before you completely relax into this book. This time around, it didn’t remotely bother me – I already knew that Mantel was far too adroit a technician to mishandle fundamentals like tense and viewpoint.

Once more, I was impressed at the speed and ease with which I was drawn into this hectic, cagey world of Henry VIII’s court. I studied this period of history at O level, A level and as a major component of my History degree – in addition I also played Margaret in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons at the Brownsea Island Open Air Theatre longer ago than I care to remember. So I’m not going to be seduced by any ‘shocking’ twists in this cat’s cradle of political and romantic intrigue – I already thoroughly know who the main players are and how it’s all going to end. And yet, Mantel still had me beguiled by Anne’s mood swings as she tries to produce the much-needed male heir in the face of Henry’s increasing intolerance for her smart mouth and sharp-edged brilliance.

Mantel’s depiction of Thomas Cromwell is mesmerising. He is wearier, more cynical and bitterly aware of just how precarious his position is – and still determined to see certain people in Henry’s court suffer for a particular insulting piece of court buffoonery at Wolsey’s expense just after his fall from grace. Despite seeing the world through our protagonist’s intelligent viewpoint, there were times when I shivered at Cromwell’s cold determination to be revenged on those who so publically disrespected his former patron – and recalled that in most accounts of this period, Cromwell is depicted as the main villain of the piece. A role he is only too well aware he is playing – and why. Henry needs someone to blame for his more unpopular policies when he is busy being ‘good king Hal’. Anyone who is in any doubt about his ruthlessness, however, can ponder at his personal decision to mark Catherine of Aragon’s death by wearing yellow in celebration, or his determined pursuit of Jane Seymour even as Anne is languishing in prison.

It is fascinating watching events unfold through the prism of Cromwell’s viewpoint – and feel the jolt as the list of names of those reputed to have shared Anne’s bed grows ever longer… It is a testament to Mantel’s writing that for the first time in a very long while, I shared Cromwell’s sense of horror when the fragile Tudor dynasty teeters, thanks to a faithless queen. As the book came to an end, I was sorry to leave the brutal, knife-edged world Cromwell inhabits – and delighted to realise that Mantel is intending to write the next instalment in this complicated character’s life.

If you have ever enjoyed any of the many fictionalised accounts about Henry VIII’s reign, then track down both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Both are a tour de force and thoroughly deserving of the Man Booker prize – and if I was asked to choose between them, then it would have to be Bring Up the Bodies – for the sheer brilliance in braiding the historical facts amongst the created characterisation of Cromwell. For once, the hyperbole splashed across the cover is merited when the Sunday Telegraph critic declares, ‘This ongoing story of Henry VIII’s right-hand man is the finest piece of historical fiction I have ever read.’ Which neatly sums up exactly how I also felt about this particular book.
10/10

Review of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

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I came across this book the day after a good friend had given it a glowing review and expressed shocked surprise that I hadn’t yet read it – so of course I couldn’t let it languish on the shelf, could I?

Now, this is where I normally type up the blurb. But I’m not going to – because there isn’t any. Nope. Other than a few lines of advertising fluff on the back cover along the lines of: This wonderful Man Booker prizewinning book about Thomas Cromwell is really, really worth reading… I suppose when a book gets the amount of exposure that Wolf Hall has received, then extra explanation is unnecessary.

Suffice to say, that it charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, widely regarded as one of history’s bad men.  What is undeniable is that this wolf hallis a remarkable book. Mantel instantly had me off-balance with her present tense, third person deep POV when we first meet Cromwell being beaten by Walter, his drunken father, and he is lying on the ground trying to summon up the will to move. So Mantel quickly gains our sympathy for her protagonist – but rather than chart his adventures in Europe where he spent time as a mercenary and scholar – we then jump to when he is in Cardinal Wolsey’s employ and establishing himself as a man of substance. The biggest problem for Mantel in choosing this period of history, is that many of us know the progression of events all too well – so how to pull us into the story and keep us turning the pages of this door-stopper? Well, the use of present tense throughout gives this book pace and immediacy. While she certainly charts the major events in Henry’s constant struggles to persuade the Pope to annul his marriage to Katherine in favour of Anne Boleyn, it is Cromwell’s musings and highly personal take on what is going on around him that bounces off the page.

I haven’t read Mantel before – so was sort of expecting a conscientious, if skilful, reiteration of the steadily growing sense of urgency and danger that gained momentum as Henry’s desperation at being thwarted grew. But she does nothing of the sort. Mantel plays with those expectations – and then confounds them.  Her portrait of Cromwell as a complicated, brilliant and restless man with huge amounts of physical and mental energy is wonderful and builds gradually in slices of showing, not telling. By the end, I knew all sorts of snippets about him – including his love and knowledge of good food; his enjoyment of comfort and the good things in life; his love of small dogs; his concern for poor people in the district; his distaste for torture and burning; his pragmatic view of religion. But she doesn’t omit the sense of menace he exudes and the fact that he enjoys bullying men – particularly those who are high-born.

We are also treated to passages of poetic beauty as he muses on the meaning of life and death. And his grief when in a single year he loses his wife and daughters to the sweating sickness – a blow from which he never truly recovers. Mantel’s grip on her narrative timeline is so confident she regularly allows Cromwell’s internal musings to range across tracts of his life we know little of – without giving the reader much explanation of the context. It is only as we are treated to a series of these reflections, we can start to build a fuller picture of how Cromwell comes to be as he is – and why he so dislikes Thomas Moore, for instance.

So… having read to the end – and knowing that the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, must inevitably chart Cromwell’s fall from Henry’s favour, am I up for plunging into the next brick-sized book in this duology? Oh, absolutely. Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Furthermore, if you have also somehow managed to miss the froth and excitement that these books have generated – get hold of Wolf Hall and give it a go. There is a solid reason why it is the most read of all Man Booker prizewinning books.
10/10