Thursday, 23 August 2012


Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
Less than four years after engineering Henry Vlll’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and remarriage to Anne Boleyn, not to mention the cataclysmic separation of England from the catholic church  – and the dissolution of the monasteries and forfeit of their considerable wealth to the King, Thomas Cromwell, ever Henry’s faithful servant, is again using his brilliance and considerable power to expedite his monarch’s wishes. 
Henry has tired of Anne; she is no longer the sparkling, mercurial young temptress he pursued obsessively for so many years;  her youthful bloom has gone;  she is ill-tempered and shrewish, and worst of all there is no male heir to secure the throne for the Tudors.  She produced a daughter, Elizabeth, and whilst the king professes to love his little girl – and his daughter Mary from Katherine of Aragon, he is becoming more disenchanted with Anne by the day:  where is the son she promised him?
He starts to look elsewhere, and once his gaze settles on Jane Seymour, Anne’s lady-in-waiting, it is Cromwell’s task to procure an annulment of his second marriage by whatever means available – and for a man of Cromwell’s huge intellect and reach, there are many.
Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 for ‘Wolf Hall’, (see review below) her marvellous account of Henry’s  ardent courtship of Anne and his growing dependence on Thomas Cromwell, a commoner, a nobody guided up through the strata of power by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the best powerbroker in England and a fitting mentor for an ambitious man:  now, in this riveting sequel, Cromwell must deconstruct the fragile legal framework he built to surround the marriage of Henry and Anne, and find opposite legal reasons as to why that marriage  should end.
And as countless historical records tell us, Cromwell procured witnesses aplenty to testify to Anne’s supposed adultery with several courtiers favoured by the King, and worse still, incest with her brother:  a show trial is conducted in the Tower of London and all the accused are executed;  Anne is beheaded four days later, and Henry is free once again to wed his next love, Jane Seymour.
It gives this reader great pleasure to say that Book two is superb;  Ms Mantel’s characterisations are utterly convincing and she recreates time and place with consummate skill.  Her depictions of the power struggles between Thomas Cromwell –‘a jumped-up nobody’ – and the conniving, treacherous courtiers derisive of his lowly origins (for they are gentlemen all, and he is NOTHING) is masterly:  he exacts revenge in many ingenious ways.  I look forward to Book three – I know there will be a third book;  Ms Mantel cannot leave us in suspense with the story only half told.  Highly recommended.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel                   Reviewed October, 2009.
Thomas Cromwell:   Blacksmith, mercenary, international banker, cloth merchant, lawyer, indispensable assistant to the powerful English clergy – and king’s confidante:  at a court full of the powerful and the power-hungry, this layman of uncertain origins came to wield more influence with Henry VIII than all his royal dukes combined.  It was Cromwell who was the main architect in drafting the Reformation laws separating the English church from Rome, enabling the king to claim the wealth of the catholic monasteries and religious houses as his own, and finally abolishing the need for the Pope’s permission for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon.  Brilliant, loyal Cromwell engineered for Henry the king’s heart’s desire:  marriage to Anne Boleyn. 
Hilary Mantel recreates admirably  the pomp, intrigue and hypocrisy of the time and the struggles for European dominance by the rulers of France, Spain and England, but most of all she breathes wonderful life into some of the most famous and notorious characters in history:  their stories have been told many times before but seldom so convincingly, or so well. 
And it has just been announced that Ms. Mantel has won the Man Booker Prize for 2009 for Wolf Hall.  There can be no greater recommendation. 

Inside Out & Back again, by Thanha Lai             Junior fiction
This is the story of one family of refugees from a terrible war, forced to make desperate choices that propel them into a new life and culture that seem as remote and alien as the farthest planet – and the chilling irony in this situation is that exactly the same thing is occurring to tens of thousands of people today:  history repeats itself with horrifying regularity.
 The year is 1975.  Saigon has fallen and the city is roiling with people trying to escape the North Vietnamese.  Ten year-old Ha and her three brothers have previously enjoyed a privileged life with their parents;  their father was a naval officer who has been missing in action for some time, but they all still believe that one day he will return – until the war is lost and the Americans leave everyone to their fate. Fortunately for the family, one of their father’s naval friends manages to smuggle them onto a ship that escapes the bombs and artillery fire, eventually delivering the refugees to Americans who bring them to a refugee camp on the island of Guam;  there they stay until sponsors are found for each family to bring them to the U.S.A.
Now their ‘new life of freedom’ begins:  in the course of the year this story covers the family must deal with racism – they are sent to Alabama in the deep South – must  learn a language that to Ha is ‘full of ‘S’s – did they all want to talk like snakes?’;  must  deal with a new religion, baptism being the ticket to acceptance in their community (Ha-Li-Lu-Da!); must start school and ‘change from smart to dumb’ because of the mysteries of the English language;  must depend on the donated cast-offs of everything from the neighbourhood; (Ha wears a warm flannel dress to school when the weather is cold;  she is unaware that it is a nightgown) and ultimately have to bear the taunts and name-calling that she can soon understand all too well:  ‘Pancake Face’, and BU-DA, BU-DA when she tries to explain about her country’s religion.  No:  some  children are not kind to those who are different, and Ha and her brothers must learn how to defend themselves as best they can.  And they do!  
This is a beautiful little story, written entirely in blank verse, eloquent and powerful in its imagery and a book that should become a modern classic, read by children of ALL ages.
‘Inside Out & Back Again’ is a work of fiction, but Thanha Lai experienced exactly the same culture shock that Ha and her family did, at the same time:  she writes most beautifully from experience, and has produced a story that should make everyone think twice when next they hear of refugees arriving on their shores.  This wonderful little book has already won two prestigious Children’s Literary awards in America;  It deserves more.  Highly recommended.


Edge of Dark Water, by Joe R. Lansdale
Depression-Era Texas is a tough place in which to grow up, especially in a tiny settlement in the east.  Work is an impossible dream for most people and food is in short supply – but the local men still seem to find whatever money they need to fill themselves with the poisonous local moonshine and terrorise their families.
Suellen’s Daddy is one such man; he and his Good Ole Boy friends poison fish during the day and drink at night, then Suellen has to lock her bedroom door and sleep with a knife;  she is sixteen now and loathes the way her Daddy looks at her.  Her mother is worse than useless, lying in bed all day in a ‘Cure-All’ stupor.  Life, and the mess she has made of it so far, has utterly defeated her.  Fortunately, Suellen has three good friends, May Lynn, so beautiful she dreams of going to Hollywood to be a movie star, Terry, a pretty boy everyone calls a sissy, and Jinx, a black girl far too sassy for her own good – ‘Don’t that nigger know her place?’.  Their loyalty to each other and vague dreams of a happier future sustain them until May Lynn is found dead in the local pond, tied with wire and weighted down with a sewing machine.
They also discover that May Lynn knew the whereabouts of a secret stash of money that her late brother, a thief, had hidden – oh, this plot is thickening so much the spoon is standing all by itself! – and in their efforts to find the loot, the three friends fall foul of May Lynn’s evil Daddy, not to mention Suellen’s.  It’s time to leave their homes in a hurry – and they do, by hijacking a raft and poling it down the Sabine river, hoping to make the next big town before their pursuers can figure out where – and how – they are travelling.
In true Huck Finn fashion they – and Suellen’s mother, who has found the gumption and requisite willpower to leave her ugly existence – keep moving, stopping here and there to cast themselves on the kindness of various strangers and surviving reasonably well until they hear that May Lynn’s Daddy has enlisted the horrendous services of Skunk, so called because that’s how he smells, to recover the money and despatch them all to the hereafter.
Up until now, none of the locals really believed that there was a Skunk – his reputation and tales of his savagery were so awful that everyone thought he was a ghastly invention of parents to scare their children into being good:  unfortunately for the hapless raft-dwellers, Skunk is all too real, and he is coming for them. 
I have read a number of Mr. Lansdale’s books, and while there is a certain similarity in characters and places, he is always entertaining and savvy enough for the reader to look forward to the next novel. He is a smart and intelligent writer and he has a very nice line in description i.e. ‘Uncle Gene was fat as a hog but without the personality’.  Don’t that all just sum it up! 
Does Skunk lay waste to our fearful, courageous little band or not?  There’s only one way to find out.  Yep, read and enjoy this great little story.
The Hanging Shed, by Gordon Ferris

  The year is 1946:  Scottish Douglas Brodie is a decorated soldier;  he has fought a hard war and has distinguished himself by bravery on the field.  The trouble is Civvy Street – his Demob clothing doesn’t fit, nor does the reality of postwar London adjust to his expectations.  He is a lost man, trying to sublimate into peacetime all the aggression and hatred that necessarily sustained him for six years, and he is fighting a losing battle – until he receives a phone call from a childhood friend, a friend who betrayed him when they were teenagers by stealing the love of Douglas’s life.  Brodie has never forgotten or forgiven Donovan’s treachery;  therefore it is beyond shocking to hear from a man who is begging for his help – for Donovan is in a Glasgow jail, charged and found guilty of murder, and due to hang in a month’s time ,unless Brodie can magic up a miracle on his behalf, because he is innocent,  innocent of the heinous, unforgivable crime of child rape and murder, even though the evidence is ‘incontrovertible’.
Donovan’s war has been cruel – he was the rear gunner on a bomber that was blown up by the Luftwaffe;  he survived but wishes he hadn’t:  his injuries have made him into a nightmare figure, and the resultant pain has turned him into a junkie.  He doesn’t care if he dies, but he does care that people know that he couldn’t, WOULDN’T commit the crime of which he is accused.
In his pre-war life, Brodie was a Detective with the Glasgow Police Force;  he is ideally qualified to delve into the evidence both real and manufactured that he is presented with by Donovan’s despairing lawyer:  the question is, does he want to do this favour for his old nemesis?  He loathes Donovan for calling on the far-off memories of staunch childhood friendship, and loathes himself even more for not being able to put past treachery behind him.
Unfortunately as the story progresses, Mr. Ferris allows  his story to get away from him like a stampeding horse;  plot twists vary from unbelievable to bizarre to say the least – the villains are so awful they are almost comic-book caricatures, but he is a wonderfully acute observer of his fellow man, and I defy anyone not to recognise thee and me in the utterly authentic characters he creates.  He can set a scene with the best of them and generate enough action to make me feel that I shall be doing a disservice to myself If I don’t check out his other titles.  So many books, so little time!

Pegasus and the Flame, by Kate O’Hearn                                          Junior Fiction

What a lovely s tory - and what a great introduction to the Greek Myths for children who would not otherwise come in contact with these marvellous legends.  Kate O’Hearn is doing more than she can possibly know to stimulate children’s interest in the timeless and ancient tales of the Gods and Heroes of Olympus, and I couldn’t approve more, especially with the amount of excitement she can generate in her plotting and her true blue characters.
Emily Jacobs is 13 years old.  She is trying to deal with the loss of her beloved mother who died of cancer three months before.  Her father is a member of the New York City Police force, and he has to leave Emily alone on a night when a particularly bad storm is raging.  She is not really afraid of being alone;  her grief troubles her more than solitude – until she hears thumping and bumping on the ceiling, and it is even more worrying when the plaster starts to crack and flake!  Now, if that were me I would rush to the bedroom and hide under the bed, but Emily is brave enough to go up onto the roof to find out what – or who – is going to crash through to her level.  (Obviously she is braver than this mere mortal!) And what does she find but a beautiful horse, breathtaking in its magnificence, and even more unbelievable:  it has WINGS.  And it’s badly wounded.  How can she help him, especially when she realises that he is Pegasus, beloved of the Gods, and bearer of Zeus/Jupiter’s thunderbolts.  Pegasus has come to earth to search for ‘The Flame’,  a descendant of Vespa, keeper of the Sacred Flame of Olympus, now extinguished by enemies.  If it is not reignited soon, Olympus and all the Gods will perish.
Ah, this is thrilling, and things get better and better as the plot advances – the characters are positively Olympian in more ways than one;  Ms. O’Hearn has an excellent knowledge of  Greco-Roman mythology and she weaves this brilliantly into her story of young people dealing with grief and loss, not to mention her love of animals, particularly horses – and even better still, the story doesn’t end with this book:  the next title is ‘Pegasus and the Fight for Olympus’.  What a neat treat to look forward to:  can’t wait.

Other People’s Money, by Justin Cartwright
The 2008 financial crash has left everyone reeling, not least the family of Trevelyan-Tubal, patrician investment bankers who have owned and operated their iconic bank, Tubal’s in the City of London, for more than 400 years.  They have taken a huge hit with the failure of one of their hedge funds – ‘but I paid Seven million quid to a Nobel Laureate to tell me that mathematically, our investments couldn’t fail!’ shrieks Julian, current head of the bank in the absence of his older brother, (no banker’s life for him:  he travels the world looking for adventure á la Bear Grylls) and the incapacitation of his father, Sir Harry, by a massive stroke.  Julian is extremely unhappy in his role as default family and business head, and does what he considers he must to prop up the bank until it can be sold (he hopes) to a huge American investment bank owned by Cy Mannheim, a self-made man if ever there was one, and don’t you forget it!  ‘I came from NOTHING on Coney Island – now look at me:  amazing, huh?’  What else must a chap do but agree, especially if he wants Cy to buy the old Firm – so that Julian can pay back all the family and investment trusts he has raided to make the bank look solvent for the scrutiny of due diligence by the various authorities.
Needless to say, the best-laid plans of mice and men go right down the tubes;  a computer hacker does his stuff, steals incriminating evidence of financial wrongdoing, then leaks it to a young blogger for an obscure Cornish newspaper;  various people great and small begin to make enquiries as to why their subsidies from various Tubal charitable trusts are no longer going into their bank accounts; and  Sir Harry’s much younger Trophy wife Fleur is feeling more than a little insecure.  She is astute enough to know that Sir Harry’s sons have never really accepted her into the family, and now, as Sir Harry’s death occurs from a second stroke she is terrified that her affair with Morné, her personal trainer and a hairy, sexually fascinating (to Fleur) South African rugby player will be discovered.  She could end up with nothing at the age of 43 – it doesn’t bear thinking about!  What to do, what to do?
For all Mr. Cartwright’s drollness – and there is much delicious wit in this book;  the dialogue is incisive and sparkling – there is also a strong underlying lesson to be learnt yet again, should anybody bother:  that even the richest, the most lofty in society can be brought down and exposed for the rogues that they have become (however reluctantly, in Julian’s case) by those who still have the honour lacking in their targets – and those who wish they were just like them.
‘In the dealing rooms they would shout ‘OPM’ gleefully as a deal went bad:  Other people’s money.’  Well, it’s not other people’s money now that the Trevelyan-Tubal family are worried about (if they ever did):  it’s their own, not to mention their previously stellar and unsullied reputation .  Justin Cartwright serves up truth most beautifully as fiction.  This was a pleasure to read.