Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Reading notes 2 – Feat. Edmund de Waal, Kazuro Ishiguro and Juli Zeh

A little while ago I did this post of mini reviews which I found rather a good way of catching up with myself. Sometimes a girl is rushing around so much she realises she’s read lots of books that she hasn’t gotten around to reviewing yet!

I don’t know about you but I find it’s quite therapeutic jotting down thoughts in shorthand sometimes. Here are those virtual post-it’s again…

The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

3.5 stars3.5/5

Synopsis: 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox: potter Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in the Tokyo apartment of his great uncle Iggie. Later, when Edmund inherited the ‘netsuke’, they unlocked a story far larger than he could ever have imagined.

Dark Matter, by Juli Zeh

4 stars4/5

Sebastian and Oskar have been friends since their days studying physics at university, when both were considered future Nobel Prize candidates. But after graduation, their lives took very different paths; while Oskar holds a prestigious research post in Geneva, Sebastain worries that he hasn’t lived up to his intellectual promise, having chosen marriage and fatherhood as an exit strategy. A few days after a particularly heated argument between the two men, Sebastian leaves his son sleeping in the back seat while he goes into a service station. When he returns, the car has disappeared without trace. His phone rings and a voice informs him that in order to get his son back he must kill a man. As Sebastian’s life unravels, the only person he can safely reach out to is Oskar…

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, Kazuo Ishiguro

3 stars3/5

In a sublime story cycle, Kazuo Ishiguro explores ideas of love, music and the passing of time. From the piazzas of Italy to the Malvern Hills, a London flat to the ‘hush-hush floor’ of an exclusive Hollywood hotel, the characters we encounter range from young dreamers to cafe musicians to faded stars, all of them at some moment of reckoning. Gentle, intimate and witty, this quintet is marked by a haunting theme: the struggle to keep alive a sense of life’s romance, even as one gets older, relationships flounder and youthful hopes recede.

*dusting off hands* Well that’s my little wrap up for the week!

Have you read any of these books. Did you find The Hare with the Amber Eyes what you expected? Have you been lulled by Ishiguro’s short stories or baffled by Juli Zeh’s physics-themed murder mystery?

Mary Anne, by Daphne du Maurier – Discovering Daphne Readalong #2

4.5 stars4.5/5

I read Mary Anne a couple of months ago, and now sitting down to pull together my thoughts, my enthusiasm for this book hasn’t dampened. I was delighted by Mary Anne. I was surprised, because although I always expect wonderful writing from Daphne du Maurier, I anticipated a tough read because it looked from the cover like a dense historical novel. What I discovered instead was a book, packed with with witty lines, and a richly described period setting which creates the backdrop for the story of a fascinating protagonist based on du Maurier’s own great-great-grandmother.

Virago Press, 2004 paperback edition, 320 pages - library loan

Mary Anne, set during the Regency era, follows the rise of Mary Anne Clarke right from being a little girl, living in Bowling Inn Alley, a very poor area of London through her early disastrous relationship with her first husband, who she leaves and then sets herself up in ‘business’ as a high-class prostitute to support her family and lifestyle she aspires to. She catches the eye of the Duke of York, who is beguiled by her beauty and wit. At first it seems that he is the ultimate companion for Mary Anne in her desire to climb the social ladder, however his extravagant lifestyle is not backed by sufficient wealth, leading his mistress to find ingenious ways to keep herself in the style she is accustomed to. It is her entrepreneurship that leads to a huge scandal that shakes up the government and sees Mary Anne boldly fighting her case in the British Pariliament.

I was completely absorbed by Mary Anne. Du Maurier writes her protagonist into life with such passion and skill, making it clear why she makes every decision and how these choices shape her journey through society. Despite being a single-minded social-climber, as a reader I forgave her her every mis-step and couldn’t but help admire her tenacity. From the early days when as a young girl she uses her quick wit, to keep money rolling in by copy-editing in secret, to setting her self up in the house at Tavistock Place, so much of what she does is driven by a desire to provide stability for her family and find it for herself. Of course she also loves her luxuries, and it is this that actually keeps her always only a thin line away from destitution, but also drives her forward and furnishes her with the front she needs to keep moving up. She creates this image for herself, even in the worst of times abiding by idea that it is important to “keep face, to show a bright facade” and that “when faced with a doubtful decision… audacity first.”

Mrs Clarke The York Magnet - Image from The National Portrait Gallery website

“Audacity first” at times leads to disaster for those who have helped her along the way – for example the suicide of her first husband’s brother, who after some bad advice from Mary Anne, loses all of his money on the stockmarket. However, it is Mary Anne’s boldness that makes this such an interesting story and leads her right into the halls of Parliament to hold court there – “…standing before the bar of the House of Commons, the only woman in a world of men.” Mary Anne, is a strongly feminist novel and du Maurier uses the difficulties of the female position at this time juxtaposed with her character’s extreme forthright and wilful behaviour to show just how remarkable she must have been to make the connections and live the lifestyle that she did. Mary Anne is not an angel by stretch of the imagination, but she is a warm and entertaining human being. While she is responsible for bringing the Duke of York to scandal, she never loses sight of the fact that she loved him and it is very hard to call – is she to blame for everything, or is he getting his just deserts for using and disposing of her? Du Maurier lets the reader decide for themselves by simply showing Mary Anne in all her complexity as the story plays out.

"Archers" - Mary Anne Clarke hunting her prey? Courtesy of Madame Pickwick Art Blog

My favourite thing about this book is the humour that runs through it and the fact that Mary Anne never takes herself too seriously. I loved the little touches such as her seal on letters being  Cupid riding on an ass, which must have come from real life. I loved being a party to her inner thoughts and observations of people, “The creature stared at her. The expression was stolid, dumb worship. Could she be slightly mental? Were the eyes a trifle vacant?”  In fact there are so many passages that I would like to quote from this book that I would probably breach copyright if I put them all in.

Satirical Cartoon of Mary Anne Clarke auctioning military commissions from The National Portrait Gallery website

Daphne du Maurier evidently found the story of her great-great-grandmother fascinating, and although according to the introduction in my copy, she didn’t feel as if she had done her justice I can’t disagree more. It makes me wonder actually why on earth this hasn’t been picked up for a film or television series as it is really quite brilliant. If you look at ratings of this book you’ll see it gets around a 3.5/5, but when you read the reviews in detail you can see that opinions are completely polarised between those who don’t like the character, or are disappointed that it’s so different from Rebecca and those how are completely blown away by it.  As you can probably tell by now, I fall into the latter category and I love the fact that it is so different from her other novels and shows again, how versatile an author she could be.

Did you readalong with Mary Anne and if so what did you think? Or have I tempted you with my glowing review 🙂 ?

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2010, 650 pages.

After reading quite a few novellas I fancied reading a big book that I could really get my teeth into. I bought a copy of Wolf Hall in the new year, curious to find out why it had won the Man Booker and spurred on by several great reviews. I also studied Tudor History at sixth form college so was interested to hear a new perspective on the period. So it was, that I settled down with my first Hilary Mantel novel with anticipation.

I’m not going to keep you in suspense – I can say straight away that I was seriously impressed with Wolf Hall! From the first chapter I was hooked by Mantel’s style. The personality of a young Thomas Cromwell exploded into life on the pages – a scruffy, roguish butcher’s boy beaten black and blue by his seemingly unhinged father he picks himself up and leaves his home town on a ship to France. His character is tough through necessity but smart – the boy and the man Cromwell learns from the mistakes of those around him. He is a Jack of all trades (lawyer, soldier, diplomat) and manages to master them all, able to make even the most difficult to persuade people to keep them near him for his usefulness, if not his odd kind of charm. His honest yet tactful approach and cleverness is what makes him first the companion of Cardinal Wolsey and later of course Henry VIII’s right hand man.

Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell is fascinating and believable because of the depth of which she explores his character. I really felt that she had completely imbued herself in the period. It was clear that she must have read so much source material in order to create the vision on the page. It seemed as if she was interlacing and descriptions of characters and words that they had used from letters and other documents that she had researched. However, this never felt laboured to me – she seamlessly pulled those images and words from source into the dialogue of characters or their descriptions.

The scope of the book is Thomas Cromwell’s early life through to when Anne Boleyn is crowned Queen of England and a few months after. The way that it is split into chapters is that the reader gets a very detailed focus on one point in time in which you feel almost as if the story is ‘realtime’ and you are right there watching events unfold and the interplays between characters vying for power. Whether it be because of court politics or illness, one of the key things that Wolf Hall conveyed to me was the transience of human life in the 16th Century and how brutal a world it was. If you were clever or brave enough (or stupid enough) to enter into court games, you had to be prepared for the consequences. And, even if you were rich, powerful and successful, your own life or that of someone you loved could be snatched away so easily.

I found the style in which the book is written unusual. It is not written in the first person, but at times it feels as if it is Cromwell’s voice and observations that you are hearing, or perhaps another close onlooker. This has the effect of giving the reader two perspectives. One is a birds’ eye view as the story unfolds, however more often than not the reader is dragged right into the thick of characters’ motives and conversations.

I found Wolf Hall a fascinating and absorbing novel. Mantel retells a familiar story from a completely different angle and creates something entirely new. It may not be a book for everyone. I don’t want anyone to say that I didn’t warn them that this is a detailed book with a multitude of characters to follow. This is, however, what also makes Wolf Hall incredibly involving and satisfying to read. The character of Thomas Cromwell is utterly brilliant – ridiculously smart and resilient. Morally grey at times but somehow admirable. Mantel has done an amazing job of bringing him to life and creating a hypercolour version of the Tudor era. She gives the reader a front row seat to one of History’s greatest dramas.

My rating:

9 out of 10

Have you read Wolf Hall? What do you think makes a great work of historical fiction?

Booking Through Thursday – Recent Informative

Booking Through Thursday

Q: What’s the most informative book you’ve read recently?

A: I tend to read fiction mainly so I would say that the most informative book I have read lately was Peter Carey’s 2001 Booker Prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang. It’s a beautifully imagined fictional account of the real life Australian historical figure Ned Kelly. It’s an area of history I’ve never studied and I never would have been prompted to look into but Carey’s novel makes me want to know more about this era and this ‘Australian Robin Hood’. It’s a brilliant book which I rate very highly. You can read my full review here or click on the image below.

The True History of the Kelly Gang

Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang: Gritty & Gorgeous

The True History of the Kelly GangHaving given a range of options for one of my book groups this month, The Other Hand was looking like a definite possibility and although I do want to read it, I’ve read very mixed reviews on Amazon and was a bit put off by some of the comments. So I chose Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang. I think it might have been a bit of an unpopular choice. I always joke to myself that it’s a bit of an estrogen-led book group sometimes – being female myself I shouldn’t complain in that but I think that my reading tastes are quite dark. I wouldn’t normally pick this novel myself but I think that the joy of being in a book group is that you get to read a wide selection of choices. The one boy member of the group was gunning for this one, and even though I wasn’t so sure I am now so glad that I chose it.

Carey’s book explores the life of Ned Kelly, his family and his partners in crime on the frontiers of newly colonized Australia. I didn’t know anything about this historical figure before reading the novel and I won’t go into detail here about who he was, as you can easily find out yourself by doing a bit of googling. Suffice to say that Ned Kelly has gone down in Australian folklore as a national hero, a sort of Robin Hood figure.

The title of my post sums up the way I feel about this novel. It’s a wild novel about tough times and hard lives written in local dialect which gets you right in the mindset of the protagonist. But the beauty of True History of the Kelly Gang is that the writing is both coarse and beautiful at the same time. I lost track of the number of pages I dog-eared to mark passages I love. I’m quite a romantic soul and love rough and wild landscapes such as those described in Wuthering Heights and True History really hit the spot for me in that sense. The passages that really involved me were those that described Ned’s mother Ellen.

“I were still only 13 yr. and my mother were a young woman not much over 30 and she thundered past us through the cutting tearing down the white clay track with a low fog wrapped around her knees”

Ned has a soft heart for his mother and spends most of his early years trying to find ways to support her as well as chasing away unwelcome suitors. You see this wonderful soft side to a strong character through this relationship which is so human and poignant. Dreadfully poor and beset by bad luck, Ellen Kelly has a string of good for nothing suitors and a band of children that she does her best to raise as well as she can manage through hell and high water. The descriptions of how he falls in love with Mary Hearn in his twenties are also beautiful – so while it’s definitely about a tough and unruly character there is plenty of romance in this novel.

Told mainly from Ned’s point of view in a remarkably believable tone the tale of the Kelly Gang is surely biased, but even so comes across as mostly (although I’m sure with a few embellishments) honest and down to earth. For example – the Kelly’s seem to be a magnet for the police. Obviously they are largely to blame themselves, but set against the backdrop of a corrupt system and the harsh environment it’s easy to find sympathy with the family and their tribulations. Throughout the novel Ned is portrayed as a bright man, with a love of literature (Lorna Doone and Shakespeare) and also a man with an empathy for people and animals.

“Back at the campsite I were stuffing my pockets with whatever I could find for the ordeal when I become aware of a slight movement in the scrub. Having heard kangaroos thumping in the night I swiftly primed the Colt and aimed it where the branches shook. At the very moment the trigger clicked to its pressure point Daylight (his horse) decided he had had sufficient fun with me and shook his long grey head the bell rang and he pushed his nose enquiringly out of his hiding place.

You adjectival b……d I shouted.”

Be warned – it’s not a difficult read but it’s not necessarily an easy read either. It’s worth giving yourself some quiet moments to get into the mindset of the novel. You don’t have to be interested in Ned Kelly to enjoy this either – I found it a surprisingly enjoyable read as you’ve probably gathered by now. It deserves Booker credentials and as it was published in 2001 you’ll be able to pick True History of the Kelly Gang up second hand at a bargain price.