Tudors by Peter Ackroyd.

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Peter Ackroyd may very well be God. I haven’t met him but I’m feeling pretty good about this. Any other explanation as to how he manages to produce so many huge books filled with so much knowledge in such a short space of time (commonly termed “prolific,” to be concise), all so well written, comes up short. I bow to him. Even genuflect. He is my hero and he is superhuman, with an exhaustive bibliography unparalleled by any writer save, perhaps, Joyce Carol Oates. His body of work encompasses:

Three volumes of poetry

Sixteen novels

Thirty-four works of nonfiction (to date)

Six television programs

As I said, unparalleled. I have read precious few of his writings. There is much work to be done, all of it pleasant.

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This second volume in his History of England series is exhaustive and exhausting, though not necessarily in a negative way. The level of detail is staggering, best ingested in small portions. This is not a book to race through. Rather, the more slowly you work your way through the better, to aid in the memorization of the cast of characters buzzing in and around the Tudor family like bees in a hive. It’s nothing if not phenomenal. Perhaps majestic. Mind blowingly incomprehensible. Very, very impressive.

Ackroyd begins with Henry VII, whose victory over Richard III at Bosworth Field assured him the throne, ending the Wars of the Roses. The simplified story is that Henry’s son Arthur inherited the throne from him, taking Katherine of Aragon as his wife. Arthur was not long for this world. Enter Henry VIII, who married his brother’s widow, immediately beginning the series of affairs that lead to much beheading of suspected unfaithful wives. Oh, but the beheadings and elicit sexual exploits are all but microscopic compared with the Reformation, England’s break from the Catholic Church effected by Henry’s demand his marriage to Katherine of Aragon be annulled, so he could marry that tramp Anne Boleyn. And the political intrigues, and the wars, and Henry’s ballooning weight and ulcerous legs. And the treachery. And the wars. And the blood and the blood and the blood. At the same time it’s riveting, it’s disgusting.

Upon Henry VIII’s death, the powers that be went mad jockeying for power. The winning straw was drawn by Lady Jane Grey, or her uncle, rather. Jane was too well educated to believe this could ever be a good thing but she had no choice in the matter. Into the Tower she went while, it was hoped, things would settle down enough to bring her out to rule. It was not to be. Poor Jane was executed – after nine days as queen – upon the successful rout by Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary. Mary, a devout Catholic who abhorred her father’s break with the Church in Rome, went about the business of undoing what her father had started, destruction of all Catholic trappings and killing of those practicing the religion. “Bloody Mary” attempted a bit of religious cleansing of her own, sentencing hundreds of Protestants to death for the crime of obeying the monarch, her father, who threatened to kill them for being Catholics.

It wasn’t really such a great time to be English.

After two years, Mary sickened and died. A bit of relief there, when she was succeeded by Henry’s son Edward VI, the product of his marriage to that slut Jane Seymour. Edward was nine years old upon his accession, so his uncle Edward Seymour acted as regent until the day Edward would come of age. Without his lifting a finger, Protestantism at last came to be the de facto national religion of Britain during Edward’s regency. It’s a really long story, filled with yet more killing and manipulation. But, as far as almost-monarchs go, Edward VI didn’t seem half bad. He’s largely in the background, left to his own devices save for the occasional raising of his head to ask a question or declare something or other, but what we do know of him may have made him a decent monarch. Damn the 16th century and its short life spans!

However, he left behind his diary, which is something to recommend him:

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fancyline7I’ve ordered a used copy via Amazon and you may find more about the book here.

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Edward sickened and died in 1553. Following Edward was Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, monger of wars and cousin of Mary, Queen of Scots. Then things really got interesting. Wars and intrigue, political back-stabbing and attempts to marry Elizabeth to various leaders for reasons of political gain characterized Elizabeth’s rule. Overshadowing it, how to solve a problem like Queen Mary. The English defeated the Armada and Elizabeth kind of, sort of worked out the whole religion thing.

Of course, Ackroyd fills in a few more details. Never before have I felt I understood the complex relationships amongst the Tudors and their hangers on until reading this volume. The family is a universal favorite, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I icons of British history, yet the whole story of who did what to whom – and who didn’t but got beheaded, anyway – is far stranger than any fiction. Peter Ackroyd accomplishes a breathtaking juggling act, keeping it all straight with minimal confusion for the reader busily working out all the Henrys and Edwards and Marys, and what country was at war with which in an age when power and alliances shifted seemingly daily.

He’s so easily read,  unlike any dry history we all suffered through in high school. I don’t know how he nails it but he does. He’s developed a method of telling a complex story in a straightforward way, so there’s no having to go back and read pages or even chapters to understand what’s going on. I already said it: he’s God. Or at least the God of British history. This is why I’ll be going back to read the volume preceding Tudors, The Foundation, and look forward to Volume III. The accomplishment thus far is astounding.

If you’ve had an interest in the Tudors, don’t bother with any other, single book. Read this, then have a go at Hilary Mantel’s series if you’re like me and hadn’t made it far before getting too muddled to carry on. I feel much less intimidated by British history of this era now, much better educated, though there’s more to be known. That’s the encouraging part, what makes my heart beat a bit faster. Riveting as this read was, fantastical and entrancing, it leaves out much branching off from it.

There is always more to be learned. Thank God – a/k/a Peter Ackroyd – for that.

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fancyline7Series: History of England (Book 2)

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (October 8, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250003628
  • ISBN-13: 978-125000362

Anti-social thieves and an unconventional book shop

rendellthiefThe Thief by Ruth Rendell

  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Arrow; Export e. edition (2 Mar 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099502267
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099502265

The Brits have so many delicious short read editions it’s not even fair.  There are the Penguin Shorts I’ve known about for years (and have been collecting) but I’d never heard of this “Quick Reads” series. Thanks to Half Price Books – and this Rendell title – I do now and the game’s afoot.  Now that I know you’re there, I will not rest ’til I’ve found and read you all. ALL! ALL!

[Psychotic cackle.]

I chanced upon this little gem as I was roaming the mystery section at my local HPB, looking for something in a  Ruth Rendell or Barbara Vine (one and the same author, in case you weren’t aware). Turns out this one’s the perfect length to fill an hour or so, just enough wicked to last from lunch ’til time to get up and do something constructive, before the boys get home from school.

Polly is the main character and a nasty little thing she is. The book’s short, so I can’t tell you much, but you’ll find out in the first couple of pages that as a child Polly has a problem with stealing and lying. When provoked, she steals a treasured object from the person who’s wronged her and destroys it, lying when asked if she knows anything about it. Grown to adulthood, she falls in love and is presented with another instance in which she must choose what sort of person she’s going to be, good or evil, and decide her fate.

Can’t tell you more, much as it pains me, but you’ll have fun with this one if you take it out for a spin. If you like this sort of psychological darkness, that is. I am a huge fan of the grim and mentally unstable. Wait, perhaps I should rephrase that.

Books in this series can be found here. I had trouble searching for them via Amazon’s method but I managed to track them down by sniffing the trail left by the publisher. And voilà! Looks like they’ve been publishing these since at least 2006 but even with the list of titles I can tell you it’ll be tough getting my hands on them. They’re not as easily obtained this side of the pond as the other. I’ve found some selling for a penny but then there’s the $ 3.99 shipping on top of that. Egads. Is it worth that for what’s essentially a longer short story, not quite a novella? And we Colonists can’t download Kindle books from the UK, though I can’t quite figure out why that is. Isn’t digital digital, no matter what or where?

In summary, this was a satisfying short read in what sounds like a great series but you probably can’t get your hands on them – nor can I, actually – so it’s really kind of cruel for me to trumpet that, isn’t it. But check places like Half Price Books and other used book stores.  If I find a source I’ll tell you (after I buy mine, that is…) and if you find one I hope you’ll return the favor. In the meantime, sad face.

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The Exchange by Paul Magrs

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK (November 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416916636
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416916635

From the dark side of the soul to a YA book about a book lover for book lovers.

Quick description from Amazon:

Following the death of his parents, 16-year-old Simon moves into his grandparents’ claustrophobic bungalow, which quickly becomes a refuge from his bullying peers. United by their voracious appetite for books, Simon and his grandmother stumble across the Great Big Book Exchange—a bookshop with a difference. There they meet impulsive, gothic Kelly and her boss, Terrance—and the friendships forged in the Great Big Book Exchange result in startling and unsettling consequences for all of them.

The Rendell’s short and quick. Magrs (pronounced “mars”) is longer but no less easily read at warp speed. The fact the audience is aimed at 12 and up shouldn’t stop the rabid bibliophile. It certainly didn’t stop me.

Another Half Price Books find. Beginning to see a pattern? I’d stay and chat more about this novel but my aim is to finish it before Mr. G gets home and it’s time to start on dinner. I have goals, people. Goals!

 

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Two lagniappe reads, two very different sorts of gems to whip through quickly. Both highly recommended.

And I have to run…

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Man Booker Shortlist 2013

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And then there were six…

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  • Eleanor Catton – New Zealand

  • Jhumpa Lahiri – UK/US

  • Colm Toíbín – Ireland

  • Ruth Ozecki – Canada/US

  • Jim Crace – UK

  • NoViolet Bulawayo – Zimbabwe

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From The Telegraph:

The Books:

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

The only debut novel on the shortlist. The 31-year-old Zimbabwean author tells the story of Darling who lives in a shanty called Paradise.

Judges said: “In the course of our epic readathon we met many, many child narrators, an exhausting number of child narrators, but none stood out quite like Darling.”

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

New Zealander Catton, 27, is the youngest author on the shortlist. Her debut novel, The Rehearsal (2008), was longlisted for the Orange Prize.

The book features Walter Moody, who is drawn into a mystery when he attempts to make his fortune in New Zealand’s goldfields.

Judge Natalie Haynes, a classicist and critic, added: “When an 823-page book turns up in a parcel, a sinking sensation could occur to a person who is trying to read a book a day while doing the things that pay their mortgage, but within about six pages of the book I felt like I’d got into a bath.”

Harvest by Jim Crace

Hertfordshire-born Crace, 67, the oldest author on the shortlist, has been writing fiction since 1974. Quarantine (1997) was previously shortlisted for the Booker.

The book charts, over the course of seven days, the destruction of an English village and its way of life after a trio of outsiders put up camp on its borders.

Crace has said the book will be his last work of fiction.

Judges said Harvest continued to “haunt” them after months of reading, adding: “When you think about the eruption of strangers into this enclosed world, the resentment caused by these outsiders, you begin to get a glimpse of some of the troubling debates in modern life.”

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

London-born Lahiri, 46, lives in the US and holds UK and US citizenship. She has written four works of fiction including The Namesake, which was adapted into the film of the same name.

The Lowland, featuring the lives of two once inseparable children raised in Calcutta, is a novel about entangled family ties.

Judges said: “This is a novel about distance and separation … a novel about the impossibility of leaving certain kinds of past behind.”

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Canadian-American writer Ozeki, 57, was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in 2010 and is the author of three novels.

A Tale For The Time Being, which features cyberbullying and a 105-year-old Buddhist nun, centres around a mystery that unfolds when the protagonist, Ruth, discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore of her beach home.

Judges said: “It’s a Zen novel if such a thing is possible. It’s about dualities at every level – East to West, cruelty and kindness, forgetting and remembering, and releasing and enclosing.” The book is “incredibly clever, incredibly sweet and big-hearted”, they added.

The Testament Of Mary by Colm Toibin

Irish author Toibin, 58, is the author of five novels, including The Blackwater Lightship (1999) and The Master (2004), which were both shortlisted for the Booker.

“A woman from history (is) rendered now as fully human” in the book, which features Mary, “living in exile and fear, and trying to piece together the events that led to her son’s brutal death”.

Judges said the book was a “beautifully crafted, passionate story that most people think they already know”, which the author “turns into something wonderfully fresh and strange”.

Judges admired “the power of Mary’s voice” and said it was a short novel but one that “lives long in the memory” with a narrative that ranges over a lifetime in just over 100 pages.

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My take:

I’ve read The Harvest and pronounce it positively masterful. It’s very dark and grim, a sepia-toned portrait of Medieval Britain and the conversion from an agrarian economy to the wool trade. Sound dull? Oh, no. The plot is menacing and riveting. More about the loss of livelihood of former serfs, narrated by one living amongst them but shunned for being born “outside,” it draws a picture of the basic inhumanity of man when faced with impending poverty and homelessness.

It is anything but dull.

I’ve reviewed the book, then interviewed Crace and was impressed with his candor and the cut of his jib. He says this is his last novel of his writing career. Read all his books to understand what a travesty this would be. A Booker win could change that. Part of me pulls very strongly for Crace.

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I’m currently reading The Luminaries. It’s a sprawling, many-charactered novel set during the gold rush in Australia. It’s a HUGE tome and it’s difficult keeping the characters straight. Fortunately, Catton knows this and repeats who each one is, from what profession and how s/he relates to the story frequently enough the reader can rest a bit easier. It starts slowly but builds very well. Its Booker potential lies in its entertainment factor, partially. I’m finding parts of it funny, in a low-key way. It has the quality of being a sort of comedy of errors at times. And then there’s the mystery element, who killed whom for gold and how will the whole thing come together? In more than 800 pages.

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Knopf/Random sent me a copy of The Lowlanders, bless them! Haven’t had a chance to even open the cover yet but I’m reading as fast as I can…

The others I don’t own but can remedy easily enough. Well, save the $ issue. Can’t take that lightly.

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Remember how I said I wasn’t going to get sucked into the Booker race this year? I’ve been sucked into the Booker race this year. ‘Tis a pity she’s a book whore.

Particularly tight race this year. I’m torn between believing the committee wants Jim Crace to keep writing, and the quality of his book is stellar, but competition is fierce. I am pleased by the diversity, though, and happy to see writers of partial US citizenship in the running. Toíbín, The Telegraph fails to say, is currently Mellon Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, right here in the U.S. So I’ll claim him, just a little.

The winner? Still leaning toward Crace. What can I say? But I’ll keep reading.

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