Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

bring up the bodiesHilary Mantel’s brilliant and Man Booker Prize-winning books about Thomas Cromwell continue with Bring Up the Bodies.

Cromwell is the right-hand man of Henry the VIII. His masterful manipulation of people and circumstances to make the world as Henry wants it has brought Cromwell wealth and power.

Getting Anne Boleyn on the throne was a struggle. Now he has to get her off of it without losing his own head in the process.

Mantel doesn’t just tell history, she makes it come alive.

In one scene I can’t get out of my head: Henry has a temper tantrum because of the Spanish ambassador’s continued disrespect towards his new wife, Anne, and the repeated requests from the Spanish crown for money owed. The king blows his top at Cromwell and screams in his face.

He says he believes Cromwell has always manipulated him and laughed at him. But he is king and he will not be steered.

And, even though I knew the history, I thought for a moment Cromwell was going to be taken to the Tower in that instant.

Instead, he quietly apologizes to the king and dismisses himself, then goes to a different room to take a drink. With shaking hands, Cromwell spills a drop of the wine on himself and sits there, contemplating the small stain on his shirt.

And I said to myself, “Mantel is a genius.”

In that passage, it was as if I was in that room, living the moment. She makes you forget you’re reading a book. It’s so immersive. It’s almost magical.

Cromwell’s efforts to collect evidence against Queen Anne fills much of this book. As he tightens his net around her, you can almost feel it tighten around yourself.

Cromwell jokes with his sworn men to ease some of the tension, but it is always there, buzzing beneath the surface.

Highly recommended for historical fiction readers. Bring Up the Bodies is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

To see my review of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, click here.

If you enjoyed Wolf Hall or Bring Up The Bodies, you may also enjoy Elizabeth I by Margaret George.

Thanks for reading!

Advertisements

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

paintedgirlsThree sisters live in poverty. Their father is dead and their mother is addicted to absinthe.

They have to find a way to feed themselves. The Paris Opera is an option, but ballet is expensive. There’s lessons and clothing to buy.

And whatever money they do manage to scrape together, there’s no guarantee their mother won’t use it to buy another bottle to feed her addiction.

The Painted Girls is about the haunting specter of abject poverty and addiction, but it is also about phrenology, a now-defunct science wherein experts believed they could judge the character of a person based on the shape of their head and face.

Marie, one of the girls in this story, frets because she has a low forehead and a jutting jaw. In her early religiously-based education, she was taught that outer beauty is a reflection of the soul. She fears her destiny is predetermined as hell bound because of her face.

Antoinette, the eldest of the sisters, wants to be adored and appreciated for how she holds her family together while her mother drugs herself into oblivion. But, she’s too aggressive and out-spoken to hold onto jobs for long and men can’t see past her outer shell to the aching heart within.

Plus, she sees herself as a hard worker, not a whore. Until she meets Émile Abadie and he takes her out for an evening of wine and oysters…

The Painted Girls is about art, power and the blindness of love. It is also about sisters and the love family members hold for each other.

It is a work of historical fiction for girls who actually existed. Cathy Marie Buchanan takes the time to sort the real from the fictional at the end of the story.

I felt despair for the family in this book but also hope; that they could rise out of poverty despite everything holding them back.

Because, as society now knows, it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside. What matters most is who you love and what you chose to do each day, each moment and for what reason.

This story has possible triggers for anyone who was sexually or physically abused as a child.

Thanks for reading.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

extraordinarythingsThe Museum of Extraordinary Things is a beautifully written book about belonging, love and beauty, among other things.

It is the story of Coralie, a girl with webbing between her fingers who lives with her father and his collection of extraordinary things and people.

“My father was both a scientist and magician, but he declared that it was in literature wherein we discovered our truest natures.” pg 2

It is also the story of Eddie, a Jewish boy who flees with his father from a village in Russia after his mother is murdered.

Eddie is a photographer and Coralie is one of her father’s “extraordinary things.”

“Eddie had come to understand that what a man saw and what actually existed in the natural world were often contradictory.” pg 57

Both Eddie and Coralie have known hard times, poverty and hunger. They have been beaten down, overworked and abused.

“People will disappoint you with their cruelty every time.” pg 5

They both carry secrets. Coralie has discovered a diary in a locked drawer in the basement. Eddie has a stolen watch in his pocket.

“The Museum of Extraordinary Things was a true museum, a place of edification, wherein natural curiosities were displayed along with human marvels. Now, however, they needed more, and, when more could not be found, it must be invented.” pg 28

Beyond the personal lives of the two protagonists, this is also a story about New York and how it was developing outwards, consuming the woods and running pavement over grass.

It is also about the development of labor laws, the rights of the worker and unions.

Two actual catastrophic fires are recorded in this historical fiction. They highlight the horrific losses humanity has sometimes endured in the name of progress and, especially in the case of the factory fire, greed.

Those pages are hard to read. But Hoffman has written them beautifully and they feel true, as if the reader is standing there, watching the disasters unfold, and questioning what horrific things sometimes happen.

“It’s dangerous to look into things you don’t understand,” Coralie advised. “You haven’t seen the half of what there is in this world.” “Perhaps you’re one of the extraordinary things I don’t understand.” pg 241

Recommended for adult readers because of disturbing content and abuse, both physical and emotional. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is haunting, but beautiful; dark with moments of light in the shadow; and truly, filled with extraordinary people and things.

Thanks for reading!

The Last to See Me by M. Dressler

The Last to See Me by M. Dressler

lasttoseeThe Last to See Me is a fascinating story set in a world where ghosts are real and if they’re hanging around, they can bring down property values.

So, if you find you have an unruly poltergeist in your closet, you call a hunter to put them into the “eternal sleep.”

The tale is told from Emma, a ghost’s, point of view.

“My hearing is so much finer than when I walked alive and with a heartbeat. It’s something I’ve had a century to ponder: how much does the beating heart of one creature drown out the heart of another?” pg 6

I found this story to be absolutely captivating.

“At the turn of the millennium, when the hunts began, I was as scared as any ghost could be. But fear, in the end, does a body no good. If you let yourself be afraid of what can kill you, it weakens you. So you can’t let yourself be afraid.” pg 21.

Inbetween Emma’s fight to remain alive, in a manner of speaking, we get to learn about her life before her death. So, there’s a bit of historical fiction thrown in the mix.

I think M. Dressler has written a fantastic ghost story.

“But I can tell you that the reason you felt something was hiding under your bed, all those years ago, is precisely because it was. It just knew better than to show itself to you.” pg 102

I found myself cheering for Emma, even when the story takes a few surprisingly dark turns.

“But understand and hear me, my friend. Nothing dead, no matter how interesting or difficult, is worth keeping.” pg 129.

Also, I was amazed at how Dressler managed to weave various elements of the story into its conclusion.

Take your time and read carefully, I think you’ll be as delighted with this tale as I was.

Highly recommended for those who like not-so-scary stories or slightly spooky historical fiction.

Thanks for reading!

The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Jégo

The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Jégo

sunkingA historical fiction about a French King, his mistress, his minister, his mother, an aspiring actor with a secret past and a secret society with hidden knowledge that could change the world.

“A chief minister is dying, yet people are interested only in counting the supporters and detractors of an entertainer…” pg 9, ebook.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really care for The Sun King Conspiracy.

I felt like it was trying to be a mystery like The Da Vinci Code with the complexity of an epic historical fiction. It didn’t quite reach either pinnacle.

“According to Colbert’s report, the murderers took nothing else of any worth from my apartments. From this, I deduce that their only concern was to seize those papers.” pg 36, ebook.

It was probably just me, but I kept getting the ministers and their roles confused. Also, their alliances and reasons why they hated each other never really made sense to me.

“The truth is,” said the scholar with a sad smile, “that this question of succession seems to be the only matter that interests anyone in Paris, when the real subject that ought to occupy us, the only one worthy of any interest, is entirely different: it concerns the stability of the Kingdom.” pg 142, ebook.

It felt like there were nuances to the court relationships that were never explicitly stated.

Maybe the author assumed a familiarity with the court of the Sun King that I don’t possess.

The whole secret society part of this story was just flat. I felt like I’d read the same conspiracy in half a dozen other books.

“I am more aware of this than anyone else. I have paid so dearly for it that my belief in its ultimate success is perhaps the only thing that still keeps me alive…” pg 229, ebook.

I didn’t connect with any of the cast of characters either. They were so cookie cutter.

Here’s hoping I like the next read more. 🙂

Thanks for reading!

A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott

A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott

a touch of starA girl from Indiana goes to Hollywood and ends up taking care of Hollywood royalty in A Touch of Stardust.

The reader gets a behind the scenes look at the making of Gone With the Wind and the private, slightly dysfunctional lives of Carol Lombard and Clarke Gable.

It was fun learning about what went into the creation of Gone With the Wind. Those parts of the book sort of read like a Hollywood-fan magazine, but better written.

The dialogue in this book is snappy and smart, like a Bogie and Bacall film.

I loved the heroine and how she pulled herself up by the bootstraps to make it in Hollywood at a time when very few women did.

Overall, it’s a great story. I absolutely loved this book up until the ending which I hated.

We discussed this read in my book club and some folks liked the ambiguous feel of the ending. I was not one of those.

Recommended for readers who can handle an ending that might make them say: “Huh?” or “No!”

Thanks for reading!

Speakeasy by Alisa Smith

Speakeasy by Alisa Smith

speakeasyLena Stillman is a codebreaker during World War II. But she hasn’t always been a hero.

During the depression, she robbed banks with Bill Bagley and the Clockwork Gang.

What is she going to do now that the past seems to have caught up with her?

Speakeasy had some interesting elements, but the story suffered from a back and forth narrative and flat characters.

“I spread my papers out in front of me, and at first they all looked the same: a random mix of roman letters divided always into five characters with a space between each set, so no word lengths were revealed. I was searching for any repetitions.” loc 15, ebook.

The story is told from Lena’s perspective and diary entries of one of the members of her old gang.

“Bill Bagley was being punished because he had failed at something for which he possessed genius.” loc 80, ebook.

The back-and-forth storytelling was jarring. I liked the stories separately, but together, it didn’t really work.

They interrupted the flow of each other. I think it might have fit together more smoothly in a Part I/Part II presentation rather than interspersed.

I think Bill Bagley, one of the central characters, didn’t have the depth required to pull off this story.

He’s supposed to be this charismatic, brilliant criminal who inspires the men to risk their lives again and again, and also captures Lena’s heart.

Bagley has some failings, but, initially, there must have been something to him to draw the gang together.

Instead, from the start, he comes off as a volatile jerk.

We meet Bagley as he’s denying the parentage of a child who looks just like him: “This un ain’t mine and don’t tell me again that it is,” he said, thrusting the baby back to a lady with burning red cheeks.” loc 80, ebook.

He doesn’t improve from there.

“I returned from a visit with Bill, received a threatening note from him, and now this. He must have a copy of it and wanted to hold it over my head.” loc 741, ebook.

I guess I just never understood what Lena saw in him.

Also, for a genius code breaker, she doesn’t seem to be able to puzzle out the people around her very well.

“My morals were just not like other people’s, because unlike the somnolent majority I saw society’s problems. In my youth I had been misguided, and picked the wrong way of lashing out against an unfair system. But I had left the gang behind, and found a greater ease in my soul.” loc 1781, ebook.

There’s a twist that occurs during Lena’s code breaking era that I saw coming from miles away. And I’m not particularly good at calling plot twists.

My favorite part of this book were the gang-era years. My heart was in my throat during most of those chapters.

Unfortunately, it couldn’t carry the rest of this novel.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a free digital copy of this book.

Thanks for reading!