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My 2015 in Books

This has been a good year for books with me though I didn’t read much of what I had intended to as first I was distracted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books and then by the threat to local libraries – a threat which has now become a firm decision. As a result the tbr pile has got higher and higher as I continued to buy books and didn’t get round to reading many of them.

My books of the year were (in order of reading):-
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Electric Brae by Andrew Greig
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman
The Affair in Arcady by James Wellard
Flemington and Tales from Angus by Violet Jacob
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison
The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Born Free by Laura Hird
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you were counting that’s 25 in all, of which 15 were by male authors and 10 by women, 8 had SF/fantasy elements and 11 were Scottish (in the broadest sense of inclusion.)

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2012, 411 p.

Bring up the Bodies cover

From its opening words, “His children are falling from the sky,” to its final ones – a warning that there are no endings, only beginnings – this second in Mantel’s Tudor trilogy is a consciously literary endeavour. (The “children” are in fact falcons named after Thomas Cromwell’s offspring.) Not that it is in any way difficult. The narration is still in the third person but the use of “he” to refer to Thomas Cromwell does not induce as much confusion as in Wolf Hall – perhaps because the reader is more accustomed to it but also since Mantel uses “he, Cromwell,” more often than in the previous book. There are occasional flourishes of poetic language to leaven proceedings and emphasise the literariness of the endeavour.

The action covers the events surrounding Anne Boleyn’s trial and execution. The phrase “Bring up the bodies” is uttered to call her supposed lovers (all of whom have been in Cromwell’s sights since they mocked his patron Cardinal Wolsey during a masqued ball at court) in to their trial. Mantel does a fine job in portraying all this history (whose outlines are well known but for which few documents remain.) Her hero, Cromwell, is instrumental in securing confessions but the text still leaves open the possibility that Anne was innocent of the charges laid.

Anne’s crime, if any, would not have been adultery (though for her lovers it would have been.) Rather, her offence was “imagining the King’s death.” This tickled me since Mantel was herself recently criticised for imagining a Prime Minister’s death – some idiot Tory MP said Mantel ought to be prosecuted for it – even though the PM concerned had already died, and crime writers imagine people’s deaths all the time.

In the book, apropos of Thomas Wyatt (the poet) Cromwell muses, “You must believe everything and nothing of what you read.” Mantel is believable. Reading Bring Up the Bodies, a much better and more rounded book than Wolf Hall, may be the best substitute for being at Henry VIII’s court. (Better even; since there is no risk to life involved in the experience.)

And only one contender for Pedant’s Corner: when he had rode. Plus not a single typo anywhere. Remarkable for these times.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2009, 651 p.

Wolf Hall cover

In ways the first few scenes of this reminded me of Science Fiction. It bore the same necessity to introduce a different milieu. Here they describe Thomas Cromwell’s early life as the son of a brutal blacksmith. The book then jumps in time to chronicle his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey, from whom he learned his craft, and his subsequent rise to the position of Henry VIII’s go to man.

Aside:- There is a peculiar fascination for certain inhabitants of these islands endlessly to dissect Tudor times. A few years ago a theory occurred to me to explain this. It is that under the Tudors was the last time in which England was just England (and Wales.) After Elizabeth Tudor’s death the monarch – and one hundred years later the Parliament – had to be shared with the Scots and nothing was quite the same again. Of course the decisive shift from Catholicism also took place on the Tudors’ watch, the beginnings of which are in the background to Wolf Hall.

The character of Thomas Cromwell has not been as exhaustively mined as those of say Thomas More or the main players in Henry’s divorce. As with Cromwell, Wolsey here gets a more sympathetic hearing than I have seen elsewhere.

The narration of Wolf Hall is in third person, closely focused on Cromwell. It uses the pronoun “he” copiously – in most cases meaning Cromwell. However, this occasionally leads to moments of confusion when other male characters are in a scene. It is an interesting decision by Mantel to use this form. Where a first person narration would have immersed us in his world view the formulation has the effect of distancing us from the man.

While well written with some very nicely turned sentences the book is probably too long, with too many characters. They are well differentiated to be sure, but not easy to keep track of. Phrases that particularly struck me were, “Perhaps it’s something women do: spend time imagining what it’s like to be each other. One can learn from that he thinks,” “You get on by being a subtle crook,” – all too true even yet – “The world is not run from border fortresses or Whitehall but in the counting houses, by the scrape of the pen on the promissory note,” “The fate of people is made like this, two men in small rooms,” and of the French wars, “The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.” To this last a Scot or Welshwoman/man might perhaps observe they didn’t even have to get off “their” island to manifest destructive tendencies.

A power of research must have gone into the book but it is worn lightly and convincingly. As to Wolf Hall itself, the seat of the Seymours, none of the action takes place there and it is mentioned in the text six times at most.

I gather the issues of length and the use of “he” are less problematic in the sequel, Bring up the Bodies. I’ll get round to it.

Pedant’s corner:- A “sprung,” j’aboube for j’adoube, “faces peers”

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