Tag Archives: Hilary Mantel

A year in books – J. C. Greenway

Books have gone into and out of boxes this year, with the weight restrictions of international travel making it easier to borrow and pass on instead of adding to the permanent collection. I have also had to admit that, despite my early protestations to the contrary, the eReader is a very useful machine.  That said, as last year’s list contained six ebooks while this year I downloaded five, perhaps I am not quite ready to give up on print yet.

stack-of-books

After a cracking start to the year, where at times I was whipping through a book a day (oh, the beautiful reading weather that is England in January!), reality intruded and it became almost impossible to get through one a month (ah, motherhood). And yet I seem to have finished the year only one short of last year’s total and that is without counting the almost nightly re-reads of Beatrix Potter, The Hungry Caterpillar and other joyfully rediscovered childhood favourites.

Here then is my list of books read in 2013, in chronological order, with links to reviews I wrote along the way and some further thoughts following:

  1. Good Behaviour, Molly Keane
  2. Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin
  3. A Life in Letters: P. G. Wodehouse (ed. Sophie Ratcliffe)
  4. Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters
  5. Instead of A Letter, Diana Athill
  6. The White Cities, Joseph Roth
  7. Ellis Island, Kate Kerrigan
  8. The Assault, Harry Mulisch
  9. Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
  10. Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
  11. Homage to a Firing Squad, Tariq Goddard
  12. Racing Through the Dark, David Millar
  13. Ratcatcher, Tim Stevens
  14. Maus, Art Spiegelman
  15. The Diamond Smugglers, Ian Fleming
  16. That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, Ellin Stein
  17. From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
  18. All At Sea, Memories of Maritime Merseyside, Evelyn Draper and William David Roberts
  19. The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, Tim Harford
  20. Call For the Dead, John le Carré
  21. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carré
  22. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carré
  23. Churchill’s Wizards: The British Genius for Deception 1914-1945, Nicholas Rankin

Highlights of the year were Finding George Orwell in Burma, The Assault and Homage to a Firing Squad which all told very personal stories in attempting to unravel great conflicts. In spite of all the plaudits, I found Bring up the Bodies a less enjoyable encounter with Mantel’s admittedly outstanding characters.

In non-fiction, P. G. Wodehouse’s letters were a hoot – as if you would expect anything less – and his thoughts on Mr Orwell raised a wry chuckle. David Millar’s ride on the dark side of Le Tour de France’s peloton and (full disclosure, good friend) Ellin Stein’s whip smart tale of the National Lampoon crew making it from Harvard chancers to Hollywood legends, shared a compelling sense of the shadows concealed within hubris and humour, for all their differing subject matter. Stuart: A Life Backwards will stay with me for many years to come and is a must-read, albeit a harrowing one at times.

I finished the year with a run of gripping, classy and classic spy novels, comparing and contrasting the old masters Fleming and le Carré for a soon-to-be-produced (honest!) ten minutes hate review.

Thanks to everyone who has read or offered their comments on the site over the last twelve months and a very merry New Year to you all. May it be full of great books and the long journeys, bad weather days and cosy tea rooms that allow you to fully appreciate them!

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

If any budding dramatists are reading this and would like to see in action an expert blending of political, social and personal history, they will go a long way before seeing a better example of it than in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize.

Mantel’s novel doesn’t shrink from the eternal jurisprudential questions: who rules?  And where does their authority to do so flow from?  All the important dates and major events you might recall from school are here: the break with Rome, Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragorn’s bitter divorce, the ransacking of the monasteries. However, the personal is never neglected: the King and his new Queen are by turns argumentative and affectionate; the grief of losing family members to an epidemic is powerfully realised; and younger characters are as consumed with the same preoccupations for their future careers and romances as today’s school leavers.

This is a time where everyone is fighting for freedom.  Henry to free himself from the Pope’s control, the first Protestants for freedom to worship and Tyndale for the freedom to publish the Bible in his own language.  There are also the Duke of Norfolk‘s serfs: their lord is prepared to grant their liberty, but only when a price is paid by the King for the loss of their labour.

But then, as now, England is broke.  Surrounded by hostile countries and facing ruinous wars if a male heir can’t be produced to hold the kingdom together.  Victories cost money and no one likes paying taxes.  Disputes between kings also risk the valuable trade with the merchants of Antwerp and Italy, further depleting the Treasury.  And although the printing press is revolutionising Europe, England is still a place where sorcery and fairytales are taken as true.

At the centre of it all is Thomas Cromwell:  fixer, lawyer, former soldier and textile merchant but, crucially, not a gentleman.  He is more upwardly mobile than any City yuppie but, like them, never allowed to forget his roots.  Power stems from birth and patronage and to be ‘in trade’ is to be valued not much higher than the serfs.  The battle of wills between Thomas More and Cromwell is given a powerfully human dimension, shown to be two competing intellects, both convinced of their absolute superiority to the other.  The consequences for ordinary English people, many of whom will go to a fiery stake over that battle of wills, are rendered in tragic, and occasionally gory, detail.

Wolf Hall is a book of stunning ambition.  The cast of characters and the world of the court are conveyed in breath-taking detail, but deftly, so that it never feels as if Mantel is beating you over the head with facts as your history teacher perhaps did.  Instead, she almost makes you feel sorry for poor Henry, having to deal with his many troubles when he would rather be bedding the Boleyn sisters, jousting and hunting.  It comes across as a rough deal being king, with one eye on the future succession and  the other on your illustrious forebears, lest you disgrace Tudor honour.  Cromwell appears as a more sympathetic, rounded and reasoned character than he has been given credit for by other writers, still with the looks ‘of a murderer’, but one you are happy to spend 600 pages in the company of.

It is testament to the power of Hilary Mantel’s writing in Wolf Hall that on finishing the book you feel both bereft and eager for more.  A second volume is promised and all I can gushingly say is, more power to her elbow, I can’t wait to read it.
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