Book Reviews-13-20 August


Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the BodiesTo summarise the story, if that is the right word, Bring Up The Bodies takes us inside the head of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s low-born right-hand man, in the months leading up to the fall and execution of Anne Boleyn. The court dances and flirts, but all the while life and death hangs on the whim of the increasingly capricious Henry VIII. Who will survive?

What’s right with it?

I find it enormously hard to review a book like this, where the enjoyment is in a conjuring trick – the perfect rendering of the past in all its smell, texture, and sound. You forget the author wasn’t actually there to record these facts. You forget until you read the acknowledgements that in some places she has invented scenes we can’t know about, and then you feel the slight rupturing of verisimilitude.  You forget it’s a novel at all.

What’s wrong with it?

Bring Up the Bodies, like many sequels, exists in the comet’s tail of the first book, Wolf Hall. That felt like something special; this is also special, but more of the same. I found it slightly less breath-taking than the first, thought I couldn’t say why. Perhaps because we’ve seen this trick before. We still can’t see how she does or where the strings are, but we know the outcome. If there was anything that slightly disappointed me, it was that we didn’t linger long enough on the events we’ve been waiting for – the arrest and trial of Anne and her brother. It also gets mashed up in my head with The Other Boleyn Girl –a comparison that does not reflect well on Philippa Gregory, it has to be said – but she could never be accused of skimping on the dramatic opportunities.

What did I learn

After several centuries, there are still totally different ways to write a novel.

Faithful Place, by Tana French

Faithful PlaceI’ve come to the end of my Tana French gorge reading her third – there’s no more now until she writes one. In this, an undercover detective we met in The Likeness receives a call from the inner-city Dublin family he left behind years ago. A suitcase has been found in a derelict house – and it seems to belong to the girlfriend he thinks ran off on him the night they were supposed to elope to London. Was she in fact murdered that night?

What’s right with it?

I love Tana French’s books. They cast a pure spell of prose, and the words are so beautiful you stay fixed on the particular sentence that has you in its grip at the time. When the murderer is revealed, it’s nearly always someone you could have guessed, but I find I’ve never tried, with no interest in skipping ahead. I just put myself entirely in her hands and follow where she leads. Here we have again a beautifully simple story – one first-person viewpoint, no gimmicks, no twists. The characters are wonderfully drawn, from the hair-raising Dublin family to the fragrant ex-wife and young daughter. The dialogue is pitch-perfect and the prose so beautifully crafted you hardly even notice you’re reading. Most of all, you feel emotionally engaged with the victim, and the sorrow of their death.

What’s wrong with it

The second murder, when it comes, seems forced and slightly unreal- the loss is never fully felt, even though it’s happening in the here and now. And once again I didn’t much like the viewpoint character. Her male detectives are always drowning in their own machismo, and have a most irritating habit of addressing everyone by nicknames. Here everyone is ‘babe’, ‘sweetheart’, ‘chickadee’ (who says that?), and so on. It starts to grate after a while and doesn’t sound like real speech, whereas all her other dialogue is so perfect. There were also a few loose ends not wrapped up – I expected to find out a dark secret behind the reason why his young girlfriend’s family hated his, but despite hints we never did.

What did I learn

When it comes to crime, true horror stems from caring about the characters and feeling their pain, not from tricks and twists or gruesome murders.

First Among Sequels, by Jasper Fforde

First Among SequelsAgain, it’s hard to review this one as it’s a series book, and you’d probably only pick it up if you’d read the others. Nevertheless I did read it so I’ll attempt to review. I picked this up at the Edinburgh book festival, where I’d wandered in with the vague sense that, as a writer, I should really go and see the writing festival. Usually I just end up seeing lots of comedy and feeling in some inchoate way that the book fest is not for the likes of me. There is something peculiarly deflating about being an author at a book festival where you aren’t involved or on sale in the bookshop (and there’s no bar!). But it was impressive to see people queuing up to buy books, some with six or seven hardbacks in their arms. I got this because I have a vague idea to write a book about time-travel…

What’s right with it

The Book World books are set nominally in the real world, albeit one where Wales is a socialist republic and time travel exists. The heroine, Thursday Next, can also enter books at will, and is part of a police force tasked with keeping the reading experience the same for the reader. It’s hugely inventive and a real treat for book lovers – for example, I loved the idea that there are only seven pianos to serve the whole of Book World, and they have to be moved around between, say, Austen and Henry James, as readers make their way through. I also liked that this book engaged with real-life topical issues, such as falling reader rates. That is indeed a frightening thought, and not just to fictional characters.

What’s wrong with it

Maybe I’ve grown out of this kind of book a little, but the jokes have started to fall flat. Similar to Terry Pratchett, the text is full of jokes and allusions and puns. I used to giggle at these as much as the next person, but this time I found it a little tired. Maybe that’s what happens five books into a series? Maybe it’s just not my thing? I don’t know. I enjoyed the pastiche style, but these days I have a very limited tolerance for parody (see also views on TV series A Touch of Cloth). I’d sort of rather people actually had something to say, instead of just making fun of other things. Also, I much preferred the naïve and incompetent Thurday of the earlier books. Another occupational hazard of series characters – she’s become a little full of herself.

What did I learn

Don’t write a sequel just because you can.

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