Bring Up the Bodies: A Novel by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
So you tell me, is it high praise or subtle insult to call a book “better than I thought it would be?” I mean to praise, but to also couch that praise in my own inadequacies, just in case you want to judge the message by the messenger. Sometimes that’s necessary, in as much as one reads “reviews” to justify one’s own decision to read a book or not. You should read this one (book, not review) if you’ve already decided to. If you don’t want to, don’t bother, although to be fair, I probably wouldn’t have, and I’m glad I did.
I have to admit that I only read Bring Up the Bodies because it’s on the Booker Prize long list, and because a friend whom I have challenged to read the list with me suggested this book first. Then I saw that this was going to be about Henry VIII, specifically about his secretary, and that gave me some motivation. Then I saw that this is actually a sequel to the author’s 2009 Booker Prize winner, and I almost gave up again before I’d even started.
Hilary Mantel says that the book can stand alone on its own, but she would, as she wants it to sell. But I have to say, she’s right, and that’s especially true if you know a thing or two about Henry’s court and life. I don’t, so I found myself rereading his pages on Wikipedia often. Not to get the facts, but just to keep some of the names straight. There are a lot of people in this book, a lot of intrigues, a lot of palace politics.
All of which are handled with a subtlety and a grace that makes for a very readable novel. Unfortunately, I did not do the book much justice, reading in fits and starts. This is one to sit down for extended periods and absorb. But here, let me offer my highest praise: I am very much looking forward to reading the first book, rereading this one, and reading her planned third book. I’m looking forward to keeping notes of who’s who as I go, looking forward to reading some more history to contextualize it all.
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The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is what I do, I sometimes find myself in the vicinity of a bookstore, so I go in, wander about use my phone to take pictures of intriguing titles, go home, enter them into Goodreads, and when I don’t know what to read next, download the samples onto my e-reader. That’s how I came across Domino Men, but then it wasn’t available in an e-version. Then I discovered it is the sequel to The Somnambulist, which was also on my to-read list, and also not available in an e-version. When I happened upon a used copy of The Somnambulist, I snatched it right up.
So much work for so little reward. I didn’t enjoy this book much. I did at first—I liked the language of it, liked the mystery and the intrigue. But once again I was let down by not knowing, ahead of time, that I was reading fantasy. I assumed everything would be explained, and of course it wasn’t. I like genre fiction as much as anyone, but The Somnambulist was only even “fantasy” in the sense that there were a few non-real conveniences that allowed the “story” to work.
What story there was. Read other people’s reviews, you’ll see the same complaint: it just started going downhill around the halfway point or so. Some have suggested that The Somnambulist is a “steampunk” novel, but, again, only in the sense that a convenience was tossed in and that convenience was made with a bit of brass. Genre fiction has its tropes, and I suppose we might allow for a lack of everything else if the tropes are good enough. But there weren’t even enough tropes.
Here’s a big spoiler: at no point is there any indication of what the title of the novel has to do with anything. Yes, there’s a character called “The Somnambulist,” but unless I’m supposed to understand that the author was sleepwalking his way through this novel, I just don’t get it.
And I am now going to strike Domino Men off my to-read list.
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