Try not to lose your head over this series

Murder, history, politics, religious reformation. Watching Queens come and go. Good Catholics  having their saints and idols removed from churches, their monasteries dissolved and monks thrown out into the streets. And all because your Monarch, who you are fast going off, wanted a divorce and it wasn’t granted by the Pope. Oh, and murders and the solving of them of course.

It’s all here in this fabulous series of chunky reads, The Shardlake series.

We join Matthew Shardlake, barrister at Lincolns Inn. It’s 1547. Henry VIII is on the throne and has, with the help of Thomas Cromwell his right hand man, divorced his first Queen and broken away from the Church of Rome.  Matthew is clever, honourable, reliable, a reformer… and a hunchback. Cromwell knows of Shardlake’s reputation as man who can be trusted with confidential matters and who doesn’t give up until he’s sorted it, and has approached Matthew to solve a murder in a monastery that is about to be dissolved. The King’s man has been killed and he wants to know who and why. The times are extremely tenuous; there are spies everywhere. No one is safe. Anyone outspoken on religious matters is likely to end up on the rack. Shardlake just wants a quiet life. Cromwell wants answers. So starts the first book Dissolution.

Cover of Sovereign

I’m not a big fan of mucked about history, so love the way C. J. Sansom weaves his stories around the events of the time. His descriptions of the filth in the streets, the fear of the common people, the conniving of wealthy families, both Protestants and Catholics, manoeuvring their daughters and nieces into the King’s circle in the hope that their family/beliefs will benefit, the buildings, the rubbish rotting on the banks of the Thames when the tide is out, the heads on spikes outside the Tower.  That’s not even accounting for the murders Shardlake and his assistant, Jack Barak, are called on to solve.

For Tudor history its hard to go past Hilary Mantel, author of  Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, who presents us a view from inside the Royal Court and the life of Thomas Cromwell, who started life as a blacksmith’s son and achieved greatness as Henry VIII’s Chancellor. Not forgetting Susanna Gregory who also writes historical mysteries with the protaganist of Matthew Bartholomew.

Having recently sung the praises of these books to my brother (he promptly read one after the other until there were no more) and to several library customers their  response was the same, “read that one, where’s the next?” The Shardlake covers are not enticing but don’t be put off. My colleague Roberta Smith is also a fan as you can see from her blog on Serial killers.

Do you like history? A good murder mystery? Being gripped by a good story? The Shardlake series could be to your taste, methinks.

Already a fan?  What is it that got you reading the series?

Find out more


Holding pattern

What to do when two eagerly awaited holds arrive at the same time? Which one to sacrifice so that the next reader on the list can get it?

Cover: "The Forrests"Facing this dilemma with Bring up the bodies and The Forrests, both with glowing reviews, I did something I would never have done when I had a stricter attitude to starting a book and not finishing it. I read the first chapter of each and then chose.

Being reluctant to close Bring up the bodies after finishing my café coffee, made me decide that The Forrests had to come back. Despite Emily Perkins rocking a little black dress in a manner worthy of Audrey Hepburn at the final Montana Book Awards, despite her being a friend of my hero Geoff Dyer, despite readers I respect naming Novel about my wife as one of their all-time best books, I’ll go back to the bottom of the list for The Forrests and immerse myself in the last days of Anne Boleyn.

It’s good to have a goal and reading The Forrests before Emily Perkins arrives for The Press Writers Festival in September is doable, I think. Plus, the closer to the festival the better the chance of remembering a good question to ask at her sessions.

How do you choose the next book off the pile?

Historical fictions

Hanging out for Book cover: Bring up the bodiesBring up the bodies, Hilary Mantel’s follow-up to Wolf Hall, I was interested to see an article on her “surprisingly successful” Cromwell novels in  The New Yorker;  successful because she “seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the 1520s and 30s.”

But is this a good thing? I loved Wolf Hall, but don’t read much historical fiction any more, so what do I know.  Margaret Irwin was my favourite as a gal, which dates me somewhat. Colleagues and bloggers who are more expert readers of historical fiction didn’t like Wolf Hall because the voice was wrong.

Did Mantel commit the sin of foisting onto historical fiction the things we are most pre-occupied with now? In a review of Paula Morris’ Rangatira in the Autumn 2012 New Zealand Books, Nicholas Reid says that historical novels “are valuable only when they try to reconstruct the mentality of the past. Second-rate historical novels dress up modern characters in period clothes and have their heroes express conveniently those attitudes and opinions acceptable to us here and now, usually cribbed from modern history books.”

Reid won’t name the guilty, but he does like Rangatira, as well as Hamish Clayton’s Wulf, Owen Marshall’s The Larnachs, Charlotte Randall ‘s Hokitika Town  and Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor.

What historical fiction do you think escapes the trap of confirming what we already know?


Going off the diet in honour of the wedding

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve ToltzAs someone with a low boredom threshold, an overly busy life, and who travels to work by bus, it has become very necessary over the past few years for me to read fairly short portable books.

Also it’s ideal to choose one that is light enough not to cause too much pain in the evening when I fall asleep mid-sentence and it falls on my nose.  Yet I also demand my reads to be unpredictable and intriguing, so while Mills and Boons are the perfect size for me their content sadly is not.  Lean protein is the thing.

My heart sank when I saw the size of A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz on the holds shelf, after my sister heartily recommended it, claiming she was going to marry its author.  I texted her along the lines of “What are you thinking? I can’t read a book that big these days!”  But she, with possibly a smaller attention span than even me, insisted.  And if Steve was going to become my brother-in-law, I felt I should flex my muscle if I could find it, read on my side and undertake the journey.

And what a ride it is!  A great intriguing unpredictable story, no wonder it was short-listed for the Man Brooker Prize 2008, and no wonder Philip blogged enthusiastically about it.   This is the kind of book that makes you wonder how the author could possible top it.  Go Steve, and stay in Australia where you are safe from ever having to meet my crazy sister.

With my new-found strength in book reading, and the realisation that I can cope with reading a fat book in bed at night, as long as its nutritious, and put a light one in my handbag for the bus trip, I have a more balanced diet.

So which fat books do you think are worth the risk?   I recommended the very weighty tome The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber to a friend recently, and it has been great fun hearing her describe how she manages to read it in bed without damaging herself.

PS I got back at my sister by recommending to her the book by the man I am going to marry.  Any guesses?  Clue: the book is a fat one and is by another Australian.  I think there will be a double wedding.  Just as soon as I’ve finished Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and my muscles are in top shape.