Six Degrees of Separation from The Poisonwood Bible to …

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favourite books. I’ve read it several times.

The Poisonwood Bible

Told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959, The Poisonwood Bible is the story of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

I bought The Poisonwood Bible in Gatwick airport bookshop just before boarding a plane to go on holiday. So my first link in the chain is to another book I bought in an another airport bookshop waiting to board another plane:

Fortune's Rocks

It’s Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve. I had never heard of Anita Shreve, but I liked the look of this book – and the fact that it’s a chunky book of nearly 600 pages, good to read on holiday. It’s set in the summer of 1899 when Olympia Biddeford and her parents are on holiday at the family’s vacation home in Fortune’s Rocks, a coastal resort in New Hampshire. She is fifteen years old and this is the story of her love affair with an older man.

When I looked at it today, I saw that it’s written in the present tense. Recently I’ve been writing about my dislike of the present tense – but I obviously haven’t always disliked it, because I remember really enjoying this book.

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)

Another book written in the present tense that I loved is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, 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. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, which takes me to my next link, another book set in the reign of Henry VIII –

Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake, #6)

Lamentation by C J Sansom set in 1546, the last year of Henry VIII’s life. Shardlake, a lawyer is asked by Queen Catherine (Parr) for help in discovering who has stolen her confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner. It evokes the people, the sights, smells and atmosphere of Henry’s last year and at the same time it’s an ingenious crime mystery, full of suspense and tension.

Barnaby Rudge

The next book also combines historical and crime fiction – Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens, set in 1780 at the time of the Gordon Riots.  It’s a story of mystery and suspense which begins with an unsolved double murder and goes on to involve conspiracy, blackmail, abduction and retribution.

Barnaby Rudge is a simple young man, living with his mother. His pet raven, Grip goes everywhere with him. He’s a most amazing bird who can mimic voices and seems to have more wits about him than Barnaby. Grip is based on Dickens’s own ravens, one of whom was also called Grip.

Ravens form the next link-

The Raven's Head

to The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland, set in 1224 in France and England about Vincent, an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. He attempts blackmail but when this fails Vincent goes on the run in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head. The plot revolves around the practice of alchemy – the search for a way to transform the base soul of man into pure incorruptible spirit, as well as the way to find the stone, elixir or tincture to turn base metals into precious metals.

And finally to the last link in this chain another book featuring alchemy –

Crucible (Alexander Seaton, #3)

Crucible by S G MacLean, the third of her Alexander Seaton books. Set in 1631 in Aberdeen Robert Sim, a librarian is killed. Alexander investigates his murder and finds, amongst the library books, works on alchemy and hermetics – the pursuit of ancient knowledge and the quest for ‘a secret, unifying knowledge, known to the ancients’ since lost to us. S G MacLean’s books are full of atmosphere. I think her style of writing suits me perfectly, the characters are just right, credible well-rounded people, and the plot moves along swiftly with no unnecessary digressions.

My chain this month has travelled from Africa to Scotland via America and England, and spans the years from the 13th century to the mid 20th century. It has followed a missionary and his family, a teenager in love with an older man, and looked in on power struggles in Tudor England, and the pursuit of the secret to turn metal into gold.

Links are: books I bought to read on holiday, books in the present tense, crime fiction and historical fiction (and a combination of these genres), ravens and alchemy.

Next month  (June 2, 2018), we’ll begin with  Malcolm Gladwell’s debut (and best seller), The Tipping Point, a book and author I’ve never come across before.

A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

A Change of Climate is one of Hilary Mantel’s early books, first published in 1994 and  described on the back cover as ‘˜a literary family saga’ and ‘˜a first rate thriller’.

I quoted from the beginning of this book in this post. I noted that at the end of the book there is an About the Author section, which I’d just glanced over. In answer to one of the interviewer’s questions about the theme of the book, Hilary Mantel replied that there is a central secret, an enormous destructive secret. I didn’t want to spoil the book for myself so I didn’t read any more of her answers. And I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else so I’m not saying what that secret is in this post.

The ‘enormous destructive secret‘ Hilary Mantel referred to is revealed just over halfway into the book. But the book abounds in secrets and it’s also about family, trust, disillusionment and tragedy, about bereavement and loss of faith, as one character observes, ‘faith is something people chase after, simply to give life meaning‘.

Hilary Mantel writes a compelling story, subtly mixing the past and the present, moving seamlessly between the Eldred family’s current life (in the 1980s) in Norfolk, with their earlier life in Africa in the 1950s. I like her writing very much, never drawing attention to its style and drawing me in effortlessly into both time frames and places.

It’s a family saga (most definitely not an Aga Saga) about Ralph and Anna Eldred, their four children and Ralph’s sister Emma. Ralph and Anna devote their lives to charity, filling their house with ‘Visitors’, described as either ‘Good Souls’ or ‘ Sad Cases’. Just after they were married Ralph and Anna went to South Africa as missionaries and under the system of apartheid there they ran up against the authorities, then moved to Beuchuanaland (Botswana) where a terrible and horrific event occurred and they returned to England.  However, their memories of these traumatic events refused to remain buried, eventually bringing their lives and those of their children into terrible turmoil.

There are many issues raised in this book – chief among them the struggle between good and evil. Ralph thinks:

If we are not to be mere animals, or babies, we must always choose, and choose to do good. In choosing evil we collude with the principal of decay, we become mere vehicles of chaos, we become subject to the laws of a universe which tends back towards dissolution, the universe the devil owns. In choosing to do good we show we have free will, that we are God-designed creatures who stand against all such laws.

So I will be good, Ralph thought. That is all I have to do. (page 235)

But he discovered that it’s not that simple, as the rest of the book goes on to relate. Ralph and Anna can’t escape their past, Anna in particular cannot come to terms with what happened. The book explores questions about forgiveness and tragedy, as well as how to cope with grief.

Hilary Mantel states in the About the Author section that she found it the most difficult of her books to write – the secret just resisted being told:

I found that I was going round and round the point, yet I couldn’t put it on the page. I remember really struggling with it; it was like a wild animal that had to be civilised somehow, and in the end I just wrestled it on to the page by saying to myself, ‘Look, you’ve done this before and you can do it again’. Writing this book stands out as one of the most difficult times of my writing life.

A great book on all counts, characters and locations beautifully described and a well constructed and convincing plot, powerful and challenging on several levels.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories by Hilary Mantel

When I first saw The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it – not because of the controversy over the title story, but because I’m not especially keen on short stories. But Hilary Mantel is one of my favourite authors and after seeing her talk with James Runcie on The Culture Show I decided I definitely wanted to get the book.

I enjoyed this collection of stories,  which are brooding, somewhat melancholic, dark, disturbing and full of sharp and penetrating observations – brilliant! The title story is the last one in the book and is the only new story, the others having first appeared in other publications. I don’t find it easy writing about short stories, especially the very short ones, and so I’m not going to attempt to write about each of the ten stories in this book.

The first one, Sorry to Disturb, describes the dilemma of a British woman living in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia when she finds herself befriended by a young Pakistani businessman – a situation that was ‘ripe for misunderstanding‘. This is one of my favourites in the collection. It has a claustrophobic atmosphere, as feeling trapped in her flat, yet ‘always observed: overlooked, without being precisely seen, recognised’ she was unable to refuse a friendship, wondering if Jeddah had left her ‘for ever off-kilter in some way‘.

This view of life from a slightly different, skewed perspective and of being trapped is there in all these stories. The children in Comma, for example, spend their days during a long hot summer, ‘each day a sun like a child’s painted sun burned in a sky made white with heat’, drawn to watch what was happening at the Hathaways’ house, the house of the rich, built of stone, with a lofty round tower. In both this and Sorry to Disturb, there is an element of distinct class/cultural difference, of being outsiders.

Winter Break is one of the shorter stories, but complete in itself, unlike so many short stories I’ve read. A childless couple are taking a winter break, the husband trying to convince his wife she wants a child – she’s reluctant as she ‘had reached that stage in her fertile life when genetic strings got knotted and chromosomes went whizzing around and re-attaching themselves.’ A moment of anxiety on the journey to their hotel ends in horror.

How Shall I Know You is a much longer story. I often wonder what it’s like for authors going to venues and talking about their books and this story gives an insight into how it can be a dispiriting experience, staying in obscure and dingy places, feeling forlorn, exposed and generally insufficient. It has a grimly humorous side and underneath there is a darkness and bleakness. As with the other stories in this collection it is superbly written – you are there with the narrator, seeing the scenes, meeting the people and understanding their feelings and emotions.

And then the last story – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Mantel sets the scene – of the ‘place where she breathed her last‘ – a ‘quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees: a street of tall houses, their façades smooth as white icing, their brickwork the colour of honey.’  Waiting for the plumber to arrive, a woman lets a man into her flat, only to find out he has a gun and wants to shoot Margaret Thatcher from the flat window, as she leaves the hospital behind the flats. Far from being horrified or scared the woman sympathises with the gunman – her first reaction is that she should get a fee for the use of her premises. This too is a dark tale told with a dark sense of humour, and with depth of feeling.

Overall then this is a compelling book, brilliantly written, keenly observed, with the power to chill and shock me. It is one that I will re-visit.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate (25 Sep 2014)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0007580975
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007580972
  • Source: I bought it

First Chapter First Paragraph: A Change of Climate

Every Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

Today’s choice is A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel, a book I’ve borrowed from my local library. It begins:

1970

SAD CASES, GOOD SOULS

One day when Kit was ten years old, a visitor cut her wrists in the kitchen. She was just beginning on this cold, difficult form of death when Kit came in to get a glass of milk.

The woman Joan was sixty years old, and wore a polyester dress from a charity shop. A housewifely type, she had chosen to drip her blood into the kitchen sink. When Kit touched her on the elbow, she threw the knife on to the draining board and attempted with her good hand to cover Kit’s eyes.

By this stage in her life Kit was not much surprised by anything. As she ducked under the woman’s arm she thought that’s our bread-knife, if you don’t mind; but she said, ‘You shouldn’t be doing that Joan, why don’t you come away from the sink, why don’t you sit down on this chair and I’ll get a first-aid kit?’

I haven’t read much more than this but these opening paragraphs have made me want to know more about the ‘Good Souls‘ and the ‘Sad Cases‘.

Hilary Mantel’s work is so diverse with books ranging from  personal memoir and short stories to historical fiction and essays. A Change of Climate is one of her early books, first published in 1994, described on the back cover as ‘a literary family saga’ and ‘a first rate thriller’

At the end of the book there is an About the Author section, which I’ve just glanced over. In answer to one of the interviewer’s questions about the theme of the book, Hilary Mantel replied that there is a central secret, an enormous destructive secret. I didn’t want to spoil the book for myself so I didn’t read any more of her answers. I’ll read the book to find out what that secret is.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Hilary Mantel at the Borders Book Festival

Festival Marquee P1080856I was looking forward to Hilary Mantel’s talk last night at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose. I was not disappointed – far from it. It was a memorable evening as we sat in the packed Festival Marquee as Hilary Mantel and Kirsty Wark carried on their conversation. It was brilliant, or as Kirsty said at the end thanking Hilary – ‘it was absolutely fantastic’!

Here are some of my impressions:

Hilary Mantel is not only a fantastic writer she is also an articulate speaker – she is so enthusiastic about her subject and spoke with fluency, clarity, conviction and with power. She began by reading a short extract from Bring Up the Bodies, describing Thomas Cromwell, his appearance and his view of the portrait Hans Holbein had painted.The passage came to life as she spoke the words she had written.

After that the conversation between the two women flowed effortlessly. I’ve seen both on TV and read many of Hilary Mantel’s book but they both have so much more presence in person. It was magnetic and mesmerising as they talked about the process of writing – does Hilary Mantel write her historical novels sequentially moving forward through history? No, she doesn’t. She researches, surrounds herself with her notes, her ideas and jots down descriptions, sections of dialogue and scenes, so that at no point can she answer where she is up to in the book – she cannot tell you the year, how many pages she has written, only that she needs another eighteen months before it will be finished.

She lives in a parallel world – in the present and in the world of Cromwell and Henry VIII, plus all the characters, at one and the same time. It is always with her. When she started to write about Cromwell it was just going to be one book, but that soon changed and at present she is writing about the third book (The Mirror and the Light), leading up to Cromwell’s death. She tries as far as possible to be historically accurate, for the dialogue to be correct, but as a lot of what happened was not recorded – eg there is no transcript of Anne Boleyn’s trial – what she writes is her offering, her interpretation as it were.

I was pleased Kirsty Wark asked her about writing in the present tense (something I often have difficulty reading, but didn’t in either Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies). I can’t remember precisely but I think Hilary Mantel replied that she saw the people as though the scenes were being acted out before and wrote it as it happened. If that is not what she said that is the impression I came away with. I only know that for me in these books it all came to life as I read it with an immediacy that I don’t often find in novels – I was there, not just an observer.

What does Hilary Mantel do in her ‘down time’, what does she read when she is not writing. Well, she doesn’t really have ‘down time’ and she doesn’t read novels when she is writing, she is so immersed in the world she is writing about that she can’t enter anyone else’s world. She reads round the subject, history, sociology etc.

What will she write next – more historical fiction or a contemporary novel? She is not sure – she’s thinking about writing about writing historical fiction – I do hope she does. Maybe not historical fiction itself, as that’s a huge project taking several years to research and plan. When she was 22 she had dreamed of writing historical fiction and wrote her novel about the French Revolution. Then she hadn’t realised that most people this side of the Channel weren’t really interested in the Revolution. Well, actually, I was and I’ve read that novel – A Place of Greater Safety and that’s another epic novel that kept me intrigued, even though I knew the outcome before I read it.

Kirsty Wark even touched on the question of the criticism Hilary Mantel had had over her comments about Kate Middleton. Her reply was a master of diplomacy, but it had upset her that her words had been taken out of context and she expressed her amazement at being woken one morning to find the press camped outside her house two weeks after her speech.

There were a few questions from the audience – would she write a prequel about Thomas Cromwell’s life on the continent, before the events in Wolf Hall. She liked that question but answered that she probably wouldn’t – there was little documentary evidence about all the places he’d been to and what he did, but I’m guessing she would have liked to have attempted it.

There was so much more said  – but I’ll stop here. It was a grand night out – an event I’m delighted to have experienced.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Synopsis from the book cover:

By 1535 Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, is far from his humble origins. Chief Minister to Henry VIII, his fortunes have risen with those of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, for whose sake Henry has broken with Rome and created his own church. But Henry’s actions have forced England into dangerous isolation, and Anne has failed to do what she promised: bear a son to secure the Tudor line. When Henry visits Wolf Hall, Cromwell watches as Henry falls in love with the silent, plain Jane Seymour. The minister sees what is at stake: not just the king’s pleasure, but the safety of the nation. As he eases a way through the sexual politics of the court, its miasma of gossip, he must negotiate a ‘˜truth’ that will satisfy Henry and secure his own career. But neither minister nor king will emerge undamaged from the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days.

Some thoughts:

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is described on the sleeve of the book cover as ‘a speaking picture, an audacious vision of Tudor England that sheds its light on the modern world.’

It is, of course, the sequel to Wolf Hall and I was too keen to read it to wait for the paperback to come out. I finished it a while ago and have been mulling over in my mind what to write about it. On balance, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Wolf Hall and I had just a little feeling of anti-climax about it, but then the novelty of Wolf Hall for me was the way Hilary Mantel not only brought the Tudor world alive but also how she overturned my ideas of both Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More. As there is no denying that I knew that Anne Boleyn was not going to make a go of her marriage to Henry VIII, so there was little drama there for me. I didn’t even want her to escape her fate.

And yet, Bring Up the Bodies is still a brilliant book. It’s beautifully written, even if it is in the present tense, full of colour and detail so that there is no doubt that this is 16th century England, with vivid descriptions of the people, buildings, fabrics, and landscapes of both town and countryside.

One of the things that stood out for me in Wolf Hall was just how much of a family man Cromwell was, how much he loved and protected them. In Bring Up the Bodies, my overall impression of him is as a politician, a schemer and an implacable enemy. Right from the start he’s in the thick of the action as he and Henry are out hunting, flying their hawks. Cromwell’s are named after his dead daughters, a reminder of him as the family man, but immediately we are made aware that he is very much in the king’s service.  

He never spares himself in the king’s service, he knows his worth and his merits and makes sure of his reward: offices, perquisites and title deeds, manor houses and farms. He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him, he will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and he will introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed. … he is distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England’s business.  (pages 6-7)

Truly, a man not a man to ignore. A man to be wary of, and even though Henry fondly and familiarly calls him ‘Crumb’, a man needing to take great care of himself. Anne Boleyn, in contrast, by the end of the book is ‘ a tiny figure, a bundle of bones’  when she is brought to the scaffold. But Cromwell is not deceived:

She does not look like a powerful enemy of England, but looks can deceive. If she could have brought Katherine to this same place, she would have. If her sway had continued, the child Mary might have stood here; and he himself of course, pulling off his coat and waiting for the coarse English axe. (page 395)

However, this is not the end of Cromwell:

Summer, 1536: he is promoted Baron Cromwell. He cannot call himself Lord Cromwell of Putney. He might laugh. However. He can call himself Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon. He ranged all over those fields, when he was a boy.

The word ‘however’ is like an imp coiled beneath your chair. It induces ink to form words you have not yet seen and lines to march across the page and overshoot the margin. There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one. (page 407)

And so, on to the next book …

May’s Reading & Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

I read a lot in May – well I read and listened, because three of the books were audiobooks, which was quite a novelty for me. In total I ‘read’ 11 books and 9 of them were crime fiction. So far I’ve only reviewed 4 of them.

This is what I read –  the links are to my posts on the books and * indicates crime fiction:

  1. Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death by W J Burley* 4/5
  2. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene 3/5
  3. Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie* 3.5/5
  4. The Redeemed by M R Hall* 4.5/5
  5. Blue Lightning by Ann Cleeves* 4/5
  6. The Hanging in the Hotel by Simon Brett * (library audiobook) 2/5
  7. Fatherland by Robert Harris* 5/5
  8. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel 4/5
  9. The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle* 3/5 (library audiobook)
  10. The Coroner by M R Hall* (library book) 4/5
  11. Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder by Catriona McPherson* 3/5 (advanced reading copy)

I’m aiming to review the rest of the books, but for now here are notes on them.

Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death by W J Burley is set in Penzance in Cornwall. Matthew Glynn, a bookseller,is found bludgeoned and strangled, which sets Chief Superintendent Wycliffe a difficult mystery to solve. The answer lies in the past and in the Glynn family’s background. I enjoyed this book, which I read quickly, eager to know the outcome, but the ending was a let down.

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie. I always like Agatha Christie’s books and although I don’t think this is one her better books, it was a satisfying read. It’s a closed room type mystery. Who killed Louise, the wife of the celebrated archaeologist leading the Hassanieh dig? Only the people at the dig could have done it, but which one – they’re all under suspicion? Poirot doesn’t appear until quite late on in the book, but, of course, works it all out.

The Hanging in the Hotel by Simon Brett (audiobook). This is the fifth of the Fethering Mysteries, in which Jude and her friend Carole investigate the death of one of the guests at the local country house hotel, following the dinner attended by the all-male members of the Pillars of Sussex the night before. It looks like suicide but Jude thinks it can’t be. I got rather tired listening to this book as Jude and Carole endlessly (or so it seemed) went over and over the events and questioned the suspects.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is the sequel to Wolf Hall. This book certainly deserves a post of its own. Here I’ll just comment that this chronicles the fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and Cromwell’s part in satisfying Henry’s wishes. I don’t think it’s quite as captivating as Wolf Hall, but it does show just how devious Cromwell could be.

My Crime Fiction Book of the Month is a close call between  Fatherland by Robert Harris  and The Redeemed by MR Hall, both of which had me engrossed.

Fatherland is a fast paced thriller, set in a fictional Germany in 1964, a Germany that had been victorious in the Second World War. It begins with the discovery of the body of one of the former leading members of the Nazi party, who had been instrumental in devising ‘the final solution’. It’s a complex book and leads police detective Xavier March into a very dangerous situation as he discovers the truth.

The Redeemed by MR Hall is by contrast not about a police investigation but is the third book in which Jenny Cooper, a coroner investigates the death of a man discovered in a church yard, the sign of the cross carved into his abdomen. At first it looks like a horrific suicide, but as Jenny delves deeper during her inquest she finds links to yet more deaths. This is the third book in M R Hall’s Jenny Cooper series and I enjoyed it so much that I immediately borrowed the first book, The Coroner, from the library. They do stand well on their own but I think it helps to read them in sequence. In The Coroner Jenny begins her career, having been a solicitor for fifteen years. She obviously has devastating events in her personal life that she has to deal with.

May’s reading has been exclusively fiction, so I’m looking forward to reading some nonfiction in June. I’m feeling like reading a biography or two.

See the round-up post at Mysteries in Paradise for other bloggers’ choices of book of the month for May ‘“ and add your favourite May read to the collection.