The Orange Prize Longlist

The Orange Prize longlist was announced yesterday. I like to follow this but actually I’ve read very few of the books listed in previous years. The ones I have read have been outstanding, so maybe I should pay more attention to the lists, but looking at this article in the Guardian I can’t say that the subjects are attractive:

Debut novelists will make up nearly half of the Orange prize for fiction longlist, which this year tackles strikingly difficult subjects: incest, sadistic cruelty, polygamy, child bereavement, hermaphroditism and mental illness. There is, though, also alligator wrestling in the 20-strong list, and Susanna Reid, the BBC Breakfast news presenter and judge for this year’s prize, insisted there was much joy to be derived from the books.

I’ve read just one book from this year’s longlist: Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty, which is about Laura whose nine-year old daughter, Betty has been killed by a hit and run driver. I found it to be well written but a harrowing book to read that is startling and shocking in parts.

The only other book that I know anything about is Room by Emma Donoghue, about a mother and son imprisoned in a room. I’ve seen several reviews and read the opening pages, which didn’t make me want to continue with the rest of the book. So far my knowledge of the books seems to confirm that they’re filled with depressing reading, but will I find the joy that Susanna Reid is talking about?

I’m looking at the other books on the list and there is a gallery with summaries of the books on this Guardian page. You can also download free samples from the Kindle Store on Amazon.

The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison

Product Details

The Very Thought of You is a book that starts off so well, but didn’t quite live up to its early promise for me. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, because I did, but it’s told from so many different viewpoints that my attention wandered at times. Then I found it getting repetitive because so many of the characters were experiencing sad love, lost love, yearning for love, love never known and separation from the people they loved.

Eight year old Anna  is evacuated from London to Yorkshire at the start of the Second World War, leaving behind her mother. Along with other evacuees she goes to live at Ashton Park, the home of Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, who have set up a school in Thomas’s ancestral home. The Ashtons are a childless couple, in an unhappy marriage and Anna gets caught up in their relationship as it breaks down.

There is too much description, too many insights into what the characters are thinking and feeling, but very little dialogue. It all began to feel remote and distant. At one point the children are having a poetry lesson and Thomas reads them a poem by e e cummings, a love poem and Anna sums up the book so well when she says it is a sad poem

because it was about sad love. … it was all distant, as if they could never be together … it sounds as if he thinks he’ll never reach her’ (page 209)

The final section of the book is about the rest of Anna’s life and the effect that the evacuation had upon her. She still yearns for what was gone and reflects on her love for Thomas. She feels detached and ponders whether life was

one long story of separation, just as Wordsworth had said.  From people, from places, from the past you could never quite reach even as you lived it’ (page 300).

A sad and somewhat haunting book. Shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction for me it can’t stand up against Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Final Thoughts

I began reading Wolf Hall last year and at first I found it hard to get interested in it. For one thing it’s written in the present tense and that usually jars with me and then it’s so physically big and heavy. So I put it to one side whilst we moved house, only going back to it recently.

I’ve referred to the book in a few posts including one on a small extract containing the word waffeting and one on my thoughts as I was reading it. Now I’ve finished it I can reflect on it as a whole. Overall, despite being written in the present tense and despite the over-frequent and confusing use of the pronoun ‘he’, I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, if not the best one. It is satisfying in depth and breadth, with a host of characters and detail.

It is, of course the story of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, and his political rise, set against the background of Henry VIII’s England and his struggle with the Pope over his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. It’s a brutal time. What I found most enjoyable was the way this book transported me back to that time, with Mantel’s descriptions of the pageantry, the people, the places and the beliefs and attitudes of the protagonists. My knowledge of the period has been built up over time, from history lessons at school, films, books and TV series and it all seemed secondhand. In this book you are there in the thick of it all. Here, Thomas More is not the saint I thought he was from watching ‘A Man for All Seasons’, Anne Boleyn is a coy, flat-chested, manipulator and schemer and Thomas Cromwell is not the hard hearted, cold and stern character I’d read about before, but is humane, kind and considerate, taking care of his family whilst weaving his way through the intricacies of court life. He is hardworking, generous and cultured. But he is tough and ruthless too. Here Chapuys, the French ambassador is talking to Cromwell after Anne’s coronation:

‘Well, you have succeeded where the cardinal failed, Henry has what he wants at last. I say to my master, who is capable of looking at these things impartially, it’s a pity from Henry’s point of view that he did not take up Cromwell years ago. His affairs would have gone on much better. … When the cardinal came to a closed door he would flatter – oh beautiful yielding door! Then he would try tricking it open. And you are just the same, just the same.’ He pours himself some of the duke’s present. ‘But in the last resort, you just kick it in.’ (page 465)

The descriptions of Cromwell’s house, Austin Friars, and his family brings it all to life, the reality of the daily lives of ordinary people as well as of the court. I wondered about Austin Friars, whether it still exists and found an article by Mantel in the Timesonline where she writes:

Very near the Bank of England, at the foot of the glass cliff of Tower 42, there is a secret city garden that now belongs to Draper’s Hall. A plaque on the wall says: ‘On this site, once part of the Augustinian Priory, Thomas Cromwell built his palace and in 1536 plotted the downfall of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII.

“Palace’ is perhaps an inflation. The building at Austin Friars was an opulent merchant’s house, which from 1530 accreted new wings, storerooms, strongrooms, and tighter and tighter security. It was a powerhouse of Tudor politics, and over a decade, its master became one of the richest and most powerful men in England: councillor and secretary to the king, Master of the Rolls, Lord Privy Seal and eventually Earl of Essex. Austin Friars was not a quiet spot. Twice a day, 200 of London’s poor swarmed to the gate to be fed by the great man’s kitchen.

I’m still a bit puzzled about the title – why Wolf Hall, when Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymour family hardly figures at all in the book. It could be that it is symbolic of the times, when ‘man is wolf to man’ (page 572).  The Seymour family is a seemingly of little significance, sneered at by Anne as ‘those sinners at Wolf Hall.’  But there are tantalising glimpses of Jane Seymour at the court, ‘ a little pale girl … the sickly milk-faced creeper’ who Anne calls ‘Milksop‘ and thinks no one will ever want, let alone Henry! The future is signalled as the book ends, with Cromwell’s intention to visit Wolf Hall.

As well as being shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, Wolf Hall is also shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

I hope it’s not too long before her second book on Cromwell is published, taking his story up to his execution in 1540 .

Sunday Salon

Today I’ve been reading more from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and I’m now almost at the halfway stage. At times I’m loving it and at times I’m thinking why, oh why is she writing this in the present tense? See, it’s getting to me – I’m not overly fond of books in the present tense. And why does she keep using ‘he’ and I’m not sure which ‘he’ she means? Sometimes it’s Thomas Cromwell, but it could be any number of other ‘he’s’ too. But on the whole she’s winning me over and I have to keep on reading. What a character this man Cromwell is, a man who Cardinal Wolsey describes as:

… rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful charm, Tom. (page 86)

Cromwell knows that

You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook … (page 60)

I didn’t expect Wolf Hall to be relevant to the current state of affairs and yet it’s about power, who holds the purse strings, who can command. People, then as now, want change, always hoping for something better. I read this as the present election campaign was in flow with the politicians’ slogans ‘Vote for Change’ and ‘Change that Works for You’. Just see what Geroge Cavendish thought in 1529

‘But what do they get by the change? ‘ Cavendish persists. ‘One dog sated with meat is replaced by a hungier dog who bites nearer the bone. Out goes the man grown fat with honour, and in comes a hungry and a lean man.’ (page 55)

Talking about elections, Thomas Cromwell’s campaign to be ‘elected’ was rather different from today’s methods.  His constituency was Taunton which he held with the agreement of the king and the Duke of Norfolk because seats in the House of Commons were

…  largely, in the gift of the lords; of lords, bishops, the king himself. A scanty handful of electors, if pressured from above, usually do as they’re told. (page 161)

Well, at least that is different these days.

Wolf Hall engages me on different levels – it’s historical fiction of period I used to know well and as I read it all comes back to me – Henry VIII’s wives and all that. It’s also made me think about writing styles and what I’m comfortable reading. It’s a dense book, one that you have to take your time reading and it helps if you know the history because nothing happens quickly in this book, which is full of description and lots of characters. I’m not finding a page-tuner but a fascinating study in particular of Thomas Cromwell.

Wolf Hall is a long book, and I need to vary my reading. I’m also at the beginning of The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison, very different from Wolf Hall and also listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Moving forward 400 years from Tudor England to Britain in the 20th century on the brink of war with Germany is quite a leap, but it still feels like historical fiction. The Very Thought of You begins with Anna’s evacuation from London in September 1939 to Ashton Park, a large Yorkshire estate. This is the calm before the storm.

It’s a very different style from Wolf Hall and I’m enjoying the contrast. So far, it has a warm, family feel about it, yet connected to world events with the parallel activity in Poland as Hitler invaded. The British ambassador in Warsaw, Sir Clifford Norton, watched the city burn and abandoned the embassy as the Nazis and the Soviets invaded.

I don’t envy the Orange Prize judges their task – how do you compare such different books?

The Orange Prize for Fiction 2010 shortlist

The shortlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction includes one book I have but haven’t read yet – Wolf Hall and one book I haven’t got but would very much like to read – Lacuna.

The full list is:

Some wonderful titles there.

The two books on the longlist that I have read – Little Stranger and Hearts and Minds haven’t made the shortlist. Let’s hope the shortlisted ones are better than these two, which I did enjoy to a certain degree. My posts on Little Stranger and Hearts and Minds are here and here.

The prize will be awarded on 9 June.

Must get reading Wolf Hall and find a copy of Lacuna. I’m going to the library this afternoon, maybe some of the others will be there?

Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig: Book Review

I like novels that have an underlying  theme or themes that gradually impinge upon my mind as I read; themes that become clear often only after I’ve finished reading. There is no doubt about the theme of  Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig. Although it begins with a murder its main focus is a passionate denunciation of the treatment of illegal immigrants, thinly disguised as a novel. The characters are mouthpieces for the condemnation of social injustice.

It is page after page of unrelenting misery. Poverty and prejudice, squalor and suffering, prostitution, racism, illegal immigrants, and life in desperate circumstances. There is no relief from the images of brutality, fear, hatred, misery, and helplessness and evil, danger, deceit and terror abound.

In the midst of all this is Polly, a single mum and a lawyer working on behalf of illegal immigrants, employing them as au-pairs, cleaners and taxi-drivers. Whatever she does she feel guilty, exhausted, oppressed and in a mess. It rubbed off on me as I read this book, long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

It begins with the murder of a young woman, whose body is dumped in a pond on Hampstead Heath, then meanders through a whole host of characters (some one-dimensional) before the relationships (in some cases it seems forced) between them become clear. The main characters, apart from Polly, are all immigrants living in London, Job an illegal taxi driver from Zimbabwe, Ian, an idealistic supply teacher, from South Africa, Katie from New York  working for a political magazine, and Anna, a teenager from the Ukraine, trafficked into sexual slavery.

It is heart-rending, but totally depressing reading. I could only read it in short bursts. It’s depiction of life in London today is harsh, and criticises the British who aren’t willing to do the work carried out by immigrants and complain that life in Britain is no longer the same with jobs are being taken from them. It asserts that it is only the immigrants who do work such as nursing and taxi-driving, teaching and cleaning. Reading this book should deter anyone from wanting to live here, particularly in London. Everything comes in for criticism from the NHS to the state school system. There are not only illegal immigrants but also asylum seekers, trafficked under-age prostitutes, suicidal Moslems, mindless journalists and the idle rich.

I can see that this is a worthy book, a serious book and yet I found I just couldn’t warm to it. I’m waiting with interest to see if it makes the Orange Prize shortlist, to be announced on 20 April.

Sunday Salon

Not much reading here today as D and I are off out with the family this afternoon.

This morning I’ll be reading more from Griff Rhys Jones’s memoir Semi-Detached, which is coming on nicely. I’m now up to the part where Griff is in his final year at school. I loved his description of cricket that I read yesterday.

I hate and abhor cricket. I loathe cricket. I abominate cricket. There is only one thing more boring than the abysmal English habit of watching a game of cricket and that is an afternoon playing the wretched game. It is sport for the indolently paralysed. Only three people out of twenty two are engaged in any proper activity. The rest simply sit and wait their turn.

The excruciating tedium of ‘fielding’ – standing about, like a man in a queue with nothing to read, in case a sequence of repetitive events, ponderously unfolding in front of you, should suddenly require your direct intervention … (page 179)

Football is a game. Tiddly-winks is a game. A sack race involves energy and fun. Cricket is like a cucumber sandwich: indulged in for reasons of tradition, despite being totally eclipsed by every other alternative on offer. (page 181)

I can well imagine that fielding would be much more pleasurable if one could read at the same time. One of my fond memories of childhood is going with my parents to watch cricket, but then I did used to lie in the grass making daisy chains.

I’d like to finish reading Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig this evening, if I have time before I fall asleep. I have very mixed ideas about it right now, varying from liking it to wishing I’d never bothered to pick it up. It’s a tough read – from a subject point of view, that is. This is by no means a ‘comfy’ read, more of a rollercoaster to batter and bruise. But I must finish it before writing about it properly.

Coming up next week I’m looking forward to reading one of these books:

At the moment it’s King Arthur’s Bones that is calling out to me. It’s five interlinked mysteries from Michael Jecks, Susanna Gregory, Bernard Knight, Ian Morson and Philip Gooden.