Tag Archives: Thomas Cromwell

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.

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…

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