Book Diary – February 2013

‘Bring Up The Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel

Tuesday 29th January – Saturday 9th February

After ‘Wolf Hall’, I was incredibly excited to read the follow-up, ‘Bring Up The Bodies’.

Once again, I am struggling to find the right words to convey how much I enjoyed reading this book.

When reading ‘normal’ novels (i.e. the detective stories I favour) as I approach the end I feel a sense of urgency to turn the last page and find out how it ends. This is almost certainly because they are following a well-worn path and so the interest lies not so much in where the reader is being taken as how the author has chosen to take them there. With both of Hilary Mantel’s books, there is no such  urgency as not only is the journey new and exciting itself, but also done with such style and skill that each page is to be relished and enjoyed rather than turned impatiently.

I recently listened to a podcast which contained a discussion of ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ and the talking heads concluded that Hilary Mantel’s masterstroke with her Thomas Cromwell series is to write them in the present tense. It hadn’t consciously occurred to me before, but I am sure they are right – it lends an immediacy to events which happened five centuries years ago, leaving the reader feel that the consequences of each action are unsure and that history may well unfold differently from how we expect.

All in all, a brilliant book, and I am extremely excited for part three of the series. It’s just a shame that I may have to wait another two or three years for it to be published!

‘Winter’s Bone’ by Daniel Woodrell

Sunday 10th February  – Friday 15th February

This was a chance impulse buy from a market stall in Braintree a couple of weeks ago. All I knew about the story was that it had recently been turned into a film which Mark Kermode liked.

I enjoyed the book quite a lot. I’d never heard of Daniel Woodrell before, but found his writing very easy to read and he had moments of absolute brilliance. The story itself was, while not wildly original, a bit different and well told, and reminded me most of Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice And Men’. It was a similarly short tale, involving poor Americans living hand-to-mouth and struggling against their situation whilst harbouring dreams of escaping to a better future. However, despite those common themes, the book never wandered towards pastiche and maintained a respectable independence. The characters in it were very believable and at no point was I forced to suspend my disbelief for the events to proceed . All in all, a very worthwhile read.

‘Ratking’ by Michael Dibdin

Friday 15th February – Thursday 21st February

After watching and enjoying the Tv series based on these books, I thought (as I usually do) that I would investigate the source material.

At first, Rufus Sewell’s portrayal of Aurelio Zen seems right on the money – his unruffled, placid detachment matches the written Zen very closely. However, as with almost all TV adaptations, the on-screen incarnation and the source text depart from each other. Zen is a little less gentle in the book, and the story is also much darker than the episode of the same name. The plot contains elements of child abuse (something which rears its head in crime fiction with depressing frequency) and incest which are nowhere to be found in the TV version.

That’s not to imply any criticism of the book. It was one of the more intelligent, better written detective stories I have read recently and I did enjoy it. I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates the genre and I will certainly work my way through the next couple of books in the series at the very least (knowing myself as I do, that almost certainly means I will read all eleven eventually).

However, it does bring me to a general subject upon which I have written at some length before (I think it was in a review of Åsa Larsson’s ‘The Savage Altar’) about the obligation some crime writers seem to feel to include all sorts of sordid and unpleasant activities either as the main event in the book or as a key part of a character’s history. I don’t wish to sound prudish or naive – I’m conscious that these sorts of things probably occur much more commonly than any of us really know – but I do wonder why people who are essentially writing for the entertainment of their readers turn so readily to the very darkest and most shameful aspects of human behaviour.

As someone for whom crime novels make up a greater proportion of my reading material than any other single genre, I am as much to blame for perpetuating this as anyone else. Nonetheless, I do look forward to the day when I pick up a detective story and read it from cover to cover without discovering repulsive sexual perversions or sadistic killings within.

‘A History Of British Art’ by Andrew Graham-Dixon

Friday 22nd February – Friday 1st March

This was a Christmas present from mum, and one I was very much looking forward to reading. I have enjoyed several of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s TV series on the art of various countries, as well as his recent tours around northern Italy.

The book is very interesting without being too dense and ‘academic’. He provides a brief overview of each era, linking nicely from one to the other – obviously, history flows from cause to effect, which is the cause of the next series of events – and touching upon some of the more significant artists of the time. His examples aren’t exhaustive (something which provoked a rebuke from one reviewer on Amazon) but they really don’t need to be. There is enough detail to follow the progression of British art from pre-reformation to late twentieth century without becoming bogged down in one particular period.  The obvious implication is that if any particular era interests the reader then there are bound to be other volumes which can provide much greater coverage of the time.

When reading non-fiction, my aim is always to learn something. The best thing I can say about this book is that I feel as though I learned quite a bit from this book, without even realising it at the time.

 

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