Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

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After enjoying Wolf Hall so much back in January / February, it was never going to be very long before I dived into the second instalment in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell: Bring Up the Bodies.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

This is another dense and fairly lengthy novel, but, like Wolf Hall, it is also another very compelling one. In fact, like Wolf Hall before it, this novel also won the Man Booker prize in the year it was published. A pretty impressive feat by Hilary Mantel.

Much of Wolf Hall revolved around King Henry VIII desiring, scheming, and eventually achieving his aim of divorcing his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne Boleyn. A few years have since passed, and Anne has failed to bear Henry a son and heir, and their relationship is increasingly rocky. So, despite the fact that Henry had to overcome huge obstacles and even break with the Catholic church in order to marry Anne Boleyn, it seems that he has soon tired of her, and his eyes are beginning to wander.

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.

At the start of this sequel, we find Thomas Cromwell and the King staying with the Seymour family at their family home, Wolf Hall. During this visit, King Henry spends time with young Jane Seymour and begins to fall in love with her. In fact, this fierce and revered king, seems rather like more like an infatuated school boy at times. He dotes, he composes love poetry, and he pines for his love when she is not around.

Henry is middle ages at this point, and still without a son. As he needs a legitimate heir, this obviously means marriage, and this, of course, puts him in rather a tricky position. Or, at least, it puts Thomas Cromwell in rather a tricky position, as it is he who is tasked with somehow helping to bring about this feat.

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

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Towards the end of last year I decided that in 2015 I really must try to read some of the many books that I have been given but not yet read. One such book was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

I was given a lovely hardback edition of this novel by my mother-in-law back in 2009, yet for some inexplicable reason, I had never got round to reading it. This is especially odd given how much praise the novel has received (winning the Man Booker prize, amongst other accolades) – and the fact that my wife has been telling me to read it ever since she fell in love with it about three years ago!

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

However, I have now finally made amends and read this acclaimed novel – and I am certainly glad to have done so.

For anyone who has not heard of the book before, or who knows little about it, it is a historical novel focusing on the extraordinary life of Thomas Cromwell, who was born the son of a drunken blacksmith, yet rises to ever greater levels of success and power in the court of Henry VIII.

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The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

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After reading the challenging Faulkner novel, As I Lay Dying, I fancied something a little more light-hearted next. Perusing our bookshelves, I spotted a Kingsley Amis novel called The Old Devils, which I had picked up a few months back.

I knew little about the novel, but taking a quick look at the cover, three things soon recommended it to me. Firstly, it sounded like it would be pretty funny; secondly, I saw that The Old Devils had won the Man Booker prize in 1986; and thirdly, I remembered enjoying Kingsley Amis’ début novel, Lucky Jim, many years back. So, I decided to give The Old Devils a shot.

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

The novel basically chronicles the lives of several retired couples living in Wales in the 1980s. Malcolm and Gwen, Peter and Muriel, Charlie and Sophie, and Percy and Dorothy have all known each other for years, and all spend their days meeting up, chatting and drinking – the men at the local pub, the women at each other’s houses. In fact, it often seems that there is not a lot left for any of them to do with their lives but drink. Here is an excerpt, where Gwen recognises this, although speaks about it being a problem for others, rather than herself:

The thing is, Charlie’s got nothing else to do and he can afford it. It’s quite a problem for retired people, I do see. All of a sudden the evening starts starting after breakfast. All those hours with nothing to stay sober for. Or nothing to naturally stay sober during, if you see what I…

As a slight aside, I have to say that I do think that the front cover of my edition is brilliant. The recently finished beer glass in the foreground (with just the dregs remaining), with the bland, dreary, out-of-focus backdrop is highly evocative and offers a very fitting visual image to front the novel.

Anyway, back to the plot. The relatively quiet day-to-day existence experienced by these couples is thrown somewhat by the arrival of their old friend and minor celebrity, Alun Weaver (CBE) and his wife, Rhiannon.

Alun Weaver is a writer of modest talent, an expert in all things related to the Welsh poet Brydan (presumably a fictionalised Dylan Thomas), and is periodically called upon by the media whenever a Welsh perspective is called for. He is also a charismatic extrovert, rampant adulterer, and first class cad.

Mind you, as the novel progresses, we learn that several of the other characters have also had relations with one another over the years – all of which leads to some rather fraught marriages and friendships, as you can well imagine.

Men that age, you’d think they’d have learnt how to behave by this time.

However, what I liked about the book is that it successfully manages to portray the complex and even contradictory attitudes that individuals have towards each other. Most of the characters show signs of recognising their own as well as each other’s frailties (whether of mind, body, resolve, etc.) and yet for the most part they do rub along together pretty well, accepting and even loving each other, in their own limited ways.

This dynamic is reflected in the tone of the book too. For the most part, this is a comic novel, with several very funny episodes, yet there are also more serious and poignant scenes, typically where two of the characters manage to cut through the banter and the clichés and to actually communicate with each other at a deeper level.

To give you a sample of Kingsley Amis’ keen observational humour, here is an excerpt where the ageing Peter is pondering the difficulties of cutting his own toe nails:

Those toenails had in themselves become a disproportion in his life.  They tore the pants because they were sharp and jagged, and they had got like that because they had grown too long and broken off, and he had let them grow because these days cutting them was no joke at all.  He could not do it in the house because there was no means of trapping the fragments and Muriel would be bound to come across a couple, especially with her bare feet, and that was obviously to be avoided.  After experimenting with a camp-stool in the garage and falling off it a good deal he had settled on a garden seat under the rather fine flowering cherry.  This restricted him to the warmer months, the wearing of an overcoat being of course ruled out by the degree of bending involved.  But at least he could let the parings fly free, and fly they bloody well did, especially the ones that came crunching off his big toes, which were massive enough and moved fast enough to have brought down a sparrow on the wing, though so far this had not occurred.

There are other similar digressions on the challenges that the characters face as their bodies start to fail them, and in each case there is humour but also sorrow expressed. Such passages cannot have been easy to pull off, but I think Kingsley Amis does a very good job here.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, or Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea.

Moon Tiger – Penelope Lively

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My latest read was a novel I bought for my wife last year: Penelope Lively’s 1987 Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger. (And, yes, I did wait until my wife had read it first…)

The back cover blurb gives an idea as to what the book is about: “Claudia Hampton, a beautiful, famous writer, lies dying in hospital. But, as the nurses tend to her with quiet condescension, she is plotting her greatest work: ‘a history of the world…and in the process, my own.'”

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

And I have to say, this bold if somewhat preposterous premise immediately got my attention. Then, turning to the first page, my interest was further heightened by the sure, confident narrative voice I discovered there:

A history of the world. To round things off. I may as well – no more nit-picking stuff about Napoleon, Tito, the battle of Edgehill, Hernando Cortez… The works this time. The whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute – from the mud to the stars, universal and particular, your story and mine. I’m equipped, I consider; eclecticism has always been my hallmark. That’s what they’ve said, though it has been given other names.

And so we are hastily thrown into this whirlwind account, wherein we gradually get to know all of the principle persons central to Claudia’s life. There is her brother Gordon, with whom she shares the closest of relationships; then there is Gordon’s fairly uninteresting and rather silly wife, Sylvia. Then there is Claudia’s on-off lover, Jasper, who is charming and infuriating in equal measure. Then there is their surprisingly conventional daughter, Lisa, whom Claudia perhaps never really understands. Then, at the centre of Claudia’s history, is Tom, her one true love, found – and then tragically lost – in wartime Egypt.

It is a very good read, although I think it falls somewhat short of being a truly great novel. After the opening gambit, I would have liked to have seen more world history intertwined with Claudia’s own story, to have given it slightly more depth. Also, I felt that the two most interesting relationships of the novel – that of Claudia and her brother, and that of Claudia and Tom, both petered out a little disappointingly towards the end of the novel. The finding of Tom’s wartime diary towards the end of the novel, could certainly have provided a great vehicle for an impassioned and enlightening denouement, but I felt that Lively failed to make of much of this as she could have done.

However Penelope Lively does write very well and I would certainly recommend this novel. There are several memorable passages throughout. The following is just one of several sections I could have picked; this particular piece being taken from a longer diatribe into war and its effects:

I’ve grown old with the century; there’s not much left of either of us. The century of war. All history, of course, is the history of wars, but this hundred years has excelled itself. How many million shot, maimed, burned, frozen, starved, drowned? God only knows. I trust He does; He should have kept a record, if only for His own purposes. I’ve been on the fringes of two wars; I shan’t see the next. The first preoccupied me not at all; this thing called War summoned Father and took him away for ever. I saw it as some inevitable climatic effect: thunderstorm or blizzard. The second lapped me up but spat me out intact. Technically intact. I have seen war; in that sense that I have been present at wars, I have heard bombs and guns and observed their effects. And yet what I know of war seems most vivid in the head; when I lie awake at night and shudder it is not experience but knowledge that churns in the mind. 

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

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Firstly, many thanks to my good friend, Christopher, who kindly bought me this book recently.

I had not previously read anything by this contemporary British author (though I have had a copy of his Arthur & George sitting on my shelves for a while). This, his latest novel, was awarded the Man Booker Prize late last year, and it is just the kind of book that I am often drawn to: a self-reflective narrative told by an aging character who is looking back over his life and trying to make sense of some of some of the key events.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The narrator of the piece is Tony Webster – a very ordinary and modest man in many regards – who is now in his retirement. He reflects back over his life and especially the period at school and college where he and three other pals swore they would be friends forever. However, certain events took place which changed their ideas, their plans and their relationships forever.

The narrative is beautifully written in parts; here is a passage from the opening page:

We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

It is in a way, a study of memory, of nostalgia; of the interpretation and re-interpretation of events by different people at different points in time. It is, in short, my kind of book.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, or Ian McEwan’s Atonement, or perhaps something by Vladimir Nabokov, such as Pale Fire or Lolita.

Amsterdam – Ian McEwan

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I wanted to read something fairly short last weekend, so picked Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam off the bookshelf, not knowing anything about it.  The blurb on the back cover does not give much away: it merely mentions the early death of a famous beauty (Molly Lane, aged 46) and lists some old lovers who have now been left to ponder circumstances.

Having now read the novel – and without giving anything away – the first thing I will say is that it has very little to do with the city of the title, and even less to do with duals. At least, little to do with duals in the conventional sense, that is.

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam is really a morality tale; a study in personal greed and blind ambition. And, like Ian McEwan’s other novels, we find that a single event can have far-reaching consequences.

Oscar and Lucinda – Peter Carey

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I was bought this novel for my birthday in late January, started it mid-February, and due to general business of life, have only just finished reading it this morning. It is a truly unique novel; quite unlike anything I have come across before. It is part bildungsroman, part romance, part adventure story and part cock-and-bull story (of the finest kind, I might add).  If I try to describe the events which take place between its 500 pages, it will sound equally strange: the story  explores the battles between the different branches of Christianity, the study of the natural sciences, gambling (in various forms), travel, the New World, inheritance, the manufacture of glass, and, broadly speaking, eccentricity in various guises.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

Amongst all of these unlikely aspects, a romance emerges between the two characters of the title when they meet and discover that they are both gamblers (one obsessive; one compulsive). Ultimately this leads to Oscar taking on the bet of his lifetime: to see whether he can transport a glass church from Sydney to a remote settlement 400km up the coast.

If this all sounds most improbable, that’s because it is. It is also however, a very entertaining read.

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