Paul’s Book Reviews

Already you can feel the autumn. You know there will not be many more days like these; so let us stand, the horseboys of Wolf Hall swarming around us, Wiltshire and the western counties stretching into a haze of blue; let us stand, the king’s hand on his shoulder, Henry’s face earnest as he talks his way back through the landscape of the day, the green copses and rushing streams, the alders by the water’s edge, the early haze that lifted by nine; the brief shower, the small wind that died and settled; the stillness, the afternoon heat. — Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

bring up the bodiesBring Up the Bodies
Hilary Mantel

When I read the first of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels, Wolf Hall, it did not register on me that it was to be part of a trilogy encompassing Cromwell’s entire career. I should have known that, but I didn’t. I thought it was a stand-alone historical novel, and a brilliant one. Here’s what I said about Wolf Hall:

“If the aim of historical novels is to humanize those who came before us, Wolf Hall hits its target. Forbiddingly remote figures like Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, Henry VIII, and Anne Boelyn become recognizable humans, motivated by the same mixture of base desires and elevated notions of the good (but mostly, I’m pleased to note, by the former) we see in ourselves. Hilary Mantel applies a particularly deft and understanding touch to Thomas Cromwell, depicting him as a man ahead of his time, a man who sees and takes advantage of the larger forces that will change feudal England into . . . something else, something beyond even Cromwell’s ability to envision. The squalor of 16th century life is on full display, along with the brutal lengths the Roman Catholic church was prepared to go to to defend its own wealth, position, and privilege, and Henry VIII is shown to be pretty much the spoiled child of a king you always suspected he was. I love the way Hilary Mantel takes us to the high point of Cromwell’s position and influence in Henry VIII’s court and in parliament, all the while introducing distant discordant notes that herald the forces and enemies that will eventually bring Cromwell down . . . without actually going there. We know what’s coming. Not many historical novels pique my curiosity to the extent of looking up additional information on the characters’ lives and times; this one did. A most rewarding read and a valuable experience. Hilary Mantel earned her Man Booker Prize!”

I will add this in reference the second novel, Bring Up the Bodies: if anything, Hilary Mantel’s brilliant prose has improved, and her characters are even more alive. She is clear, in her afterword, that much of what she relates about Henry VIII himself, his court, Anne Boelyn, Jane Seymour, Archbishop Cranmer, and (especially) Thomas Cromwell is based on informed speculation, reading between the lines of scant historical documents. Her encyclopedic knowledge of 16th century English law, architecture, society, and social customs is planted on firmer ground. When you read the novel, you will entertain no doubts. These were real men and women; this is how it went down.

In the first novel I found it sometimes difficult to tell who was saying or thinking what. With no sacrifice to the quality of her prose, Hilary has made Bring Up the Bodies far more clear. “He” is Thomas Cromwell. Remember that and you will have no trouble keeping the narrative straight.

Two Bookers in a row? Hilary Mantel richly deserved them. I can’t wait to read her third and final Cromwell novel, The Mirror and the Light.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Love story, space opera, social manifesto: 2312 strives to be many things and — surprise! — generally succeeds. Kim Stanley Robinson is a fine writer. Unlike many other reviewers, I liked the Extracts, Lists, and Quantum Walks that were interspersed among the main chapters. It’s difficult to say anything about the story without giving away important points, so I’ll try to keep this general.

The novel posits a mostly-settled solar system in the 24th century, with planets, moons, and asteroids inhabited in inventive ways (particularly the hollowed-out asteroids, which sound like a lot of fun). The main characters are all off-Earthers: a designer/artist from Mercury, a diplomat from Titan, a cop from Mars, various scheming lowlifes from Venus … and, most interestingly, a new breed of nearly (or fully?) sentient AIs in bodies that can pass for human. KSR likes to imagine better social orders. The women here are equal to the men, small people are as worthy of respect as large people, women have penises in addition to vaginas and men have vaginas in addition to penises and Katie bar the door!

Great fun, plenty to think about, believable science behind the plot devices, good and memorable characters. What’s not to like?

I miss hard science fiction. It’s good to know some authors are still writing it. I’ll be reading more of KSR’s work.

alif the unseenAlif the Unseen
G. Willow Wilson

Fantasy is not my thing. A Gibsonian tale of cyberhacking is. What to make of Alif the Unseen, a combination of the two, set not in the West but an unnamed emirate in the Middle East, populated with Islamist characters? Well … I quite enjoyed it.

The suspenseful and realistic parts of the novel, Alif’s hacking activities, the hacker sub-society in which he moves, the looming … and then all too real … threat from state security and the ensuing manhunt, are gripping. Alif’s personal life; i.e., that part which centers around the two girls he lusts after, is interesting as well. And the fantasy? The jinn Alif and Dina run to for protection, Vikram the Vampire, is a fascinating character at first, as is the Harry Potterish hidden jinn world angling off from the world inhabited by humans, but Vikram wears out quickly, becoming more an irascible uncle than a fearsome 2,000-year-old creature with great and mysterious powers. By the time our hero and his friends are temporarily living in the hidden world itself and surrounded by jinns, the magic has faded quite away and despite G. Willow Wilson’s best efforts the hidden world seems rather humdrum. It’s not scary: even though the human characters are supposed to be in great peril there, they seem safe and comfy. The climactic battle, to me at least, seemed like the one in the final Harry Potter movie, chaotic yet silly, relying far too much on on magical intervention.

So yeah, fantasy is still not my thing, and that’s the element that bugged me about this otherwise very enjoyable novel. If another G. Willow Wilson novel comes my way, I’ll read it. Fantasy aside, she’s a very good writer.

company of eaglesIn the Company of Eagles
Ernest K. Gann

I was hoping for more WWI aviation action than Gann actually delivered here. The story focuses on two pilots, one German, one French, who fight on different sides of the front near Reims in 1916-1917, the stagnant trench warfare period of the Great War before the Americans entered. There’s plenty of aviation history built into the narrative, and one learns many details about German and French fighter aircraft, tactics, training, and the day-to-day lives of early military aviators (how they were billeted, paid, fed, promoted, etc).

The novel centers on the conflict between the two men, Kupper and Chamey, but Gann provides so much background it gets in the way of the story, which builds excruciatingly slowly toward the climactic dogfight. We spend chapter after chapter inside the heads of Kupper and Chamey as they ruminate, express doubts, and debate their inner devils … and then, when the dogfight finally arrives, it is anticlimactic. My main stumbling point with this novel is its slowness. Too much day-to-day, not enough derring-do. A good read but lacking in excitement.

gone girlGone Girl
Gillian Flynn

I can’t say much about Gone Girl without giving important things away, so I’ll have to be careful with this short review. First of all, I rarely go to four stars. The four stars here are not for literary excellence, but for a well-crafted page turner, one of the best I’ve read in recent years. You only know as much as the husband and wife narrators choose to tell you. First you suspect one of lying, then the other. But you don’t really know until you’re about two-thirds in, and even then you can’t trust everything you’re being told.

Even though Gillian Flynn kept me guessing about Amy and Nick, it never irritated; if anything, I became more interested as the possibilities multiplied. That takes some skill, so four stars to Gillian Flynn for Gone Girl.

I’d put this little mystery in the “beach read” category, if I had one. It’s one of those books nearly everyone winds up reading. Yes, it’s that good.

sweetness at the bottom of the pieThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Alan Bradley

My book club selected this in the mystery category. I assumed it was adult, but as soon as I started reading it mentally shifted to regarding it as a young adult mystery, and my pleasure in it grew exponentially. It’s charmingly old-fashioned (much of the narrative centers around philately, for goodness’ sake). Can it be a coincidence so many Americans are reading it at the height of Downton Abbey’s popularity?

Flavia de Luce is a terrific character, a precocious eleven-year-old with a flair for deduction and a love of chemistry, and I’ve grown quite attached to her. Some may object that Flavia is the only strong, well-developed character in this book, and that everyone else is a foil. True. But that’s okay. Flavia carries the story quite nicely. Now that I realize this mystery is number one of a series, I will certainly download the others and devour them.

One I Didn’t Finish

last westernThe Last Western
Thomas S. Klise

1/1/13: This book is out of print. You can buy a used copy on Amazon if you’re prepared to give someone a lot of money for it. So just for the hell of it I put in a request at my local library, and they found and borrowed a copy from another library outside the county. It’s starting to fall apart, it’s so old, and I’ll have to be careful with it. Hope it lives up to its reputation!

1/24/13: Sadly, no … it didn’t. I put it aside after a few chapters. Since I don’t rate books I don’t finish I’ll leave the star field blank.

What I did read reminded me of early Pynchon: contrived characters with contrived names placed into contrived situations in order to act out contrived allegorical messages. Pretty much everything about this novel put me off, especially its simple-minded spirituality. I probably would have read it all the way through in the late 60s/early 70s, and I suspect that’s where its overblown rep comes from: aged hippies like me remembering this far-out book they once grokked. I had a similar experience with Kerouac’s On the Road, which I read as a teenager and re-read as a middle-aged man. The first reading changed my life. The second made me cringe in embarrassment.

Sorry, Klise, I do not grok.

– See all my reviews

© 2013, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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