A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

 Lady Anna cover

I hadn’t even heard of A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel when I spotted it in a second-hand bookshop in Innerleithen. I quite fancied the subject matter though, the setting is the French Revolution and it’s a chunkster at 872 pages. I was disappointed for the first 100 pages or so and I did think that Mantel had definitely improved in her historical fiction with Wolf Hall, but this one eventually got going.

This book has an eight page cast of characters at the beginning, which is just as well as it certainly helps the reader to keep things straight. I think we all have a fair idea of what went on in revolutionary France, but this book begins in the 1760s with the early life of the main participants in the grab for power in the 1780s.

Mantel says in her Author’s Note that where possible she used a lot of the characters’ actual words, whether from their written speeches or preserved writing and has woven it into her dialogue.

She also says: I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside. The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide:anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.

I ‘did’ the French Revolution at school but reading this book made it all much clearer to me. I don’t think that my school books mentioned anything about the involvement of the British government who were working to destabilise France as a way of getting rid of King Louis and helped to finance the revolution – but now that I think about it – of course they would have!

This was a great read.

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Tortoise and the Hare cover

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins was first published in 1954 by Victor Gollancz but my copy is a Virago Modern Classics hardback reprint. It has an introduction by Hilary Mantel.

I’m not sure if ‘enjoy’ is the correct word to describe my feelings about this book because I found it to be so stressful with me willing the main character to stop being a doormat and to stand up for herself.

Imogen’s husband Evelyn is a well-known lawyer – a King’s Counsel whose cases are followed by the newspapers. They’ve been married for years and have one son. Father and son are very alike in their characters, very self-centred, in need of pampering, never going to feel satisfied and take Imogen completely for granted.

Despite the fact that Evelyn is very handsome Imogen trusts him around other women completely, mainly because he’s not at all interested in Zenobia, the local stunning looking vamp. So it is ages before Imogen realises that their much older female neighbour who is verging on ugly is actually well on her way to nicking Evelyn from her, and what is even worse she’s stealing their son from her too.

The fact is that father and son are both easily lured away from Imogen because the neighbour is extremely wealthy and has connections, as well as a Rolls Royce. She spoils father and son rotten and Imogen doesn’t fight back.

I found this one to be so frustrating and I’m sure it didn’t do my blood pressure any good, but I’ll definitely be looking for more books by Elizabeth Jenkins. Have any of you read anything else by her?

Fludd by Hilary Mantel

Fludd cover

Previously I had only read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and loved them both. Fludd, which is one of her earlier books, first published in 1989, is very different and a bit strange. I’ve no doubt though that it was something she had to get off her chest and was very much influenced by her early experiences of the Catholic Church.

The setting is a remote north of England mill town which is one of those sort of step back 50 years places, somehow stuck in time. But the new bishop is a moderniser, determined to drag the church there into the twentieth century. He says that the Catholics of Featherhoughton have more superstitions than Sicilian peasants. Like all bishops I’ve ever come across in reality or fiction, he’s disliked, especially when his idea of modernising is to order Father Angwin the parish priest of Featherhoughton to get rid of most of his church’s collection of plaster saints. Father Angwin had lost his faith years before and had taken to the bottle for consolation. There’s also a Catholic school and a convent, ruled by Mother Perpetua, a violent sadist who is as nasty to the nuns as she is to the schoolchildren.

A young man called Fludd appears at the priest’s house one night and it’s presumed that he’s a new curate who has been sent by the bishop. Father Angwin is pleased to discover that he can have intelligent conversations with Fludd and they agree on lots of things, but the priest sometimes wonders if Fludd has been sent by the bishop to spy on him. He’s undecided as to whether Fludd is an angel or the devil.

Fludd happily admits that he has come to transform people. Transformation is his business, and he certainly does make changes, very much for the better I would say.

I found this to be mildly entertaining, although a bit strange. Hilary Mantel’s writing has definitely improved over the years.

Recent Book Purchases

While we were away on our recent (football inspired) trip down to England we took the opportunity to seek out secondhand bookshops, although there aren’t that many of them around nowadays, we visited the Moffat shop when we stopped there for lunch. We each bought a book there. Then on to Penrith in Northumberland where we found another bookshop. We also visited Oswestry, Shrewsbury, Alcester, Stratford on Avon, Much Wenlock, Ironbridge and Kendal. The upshot of that is that I bought a total of 25 books, Jack bought 11, he’s always more reticent than I am! Some of them were bought in charity shops.

I didn’t find any books that I’ve been lusting after for ages, just some books from authors that I’ve read and enjoyed before, and a few from authors I had never even heard of – but I liked the look of them. Here are a few of them.

Latest Book Haul

1. Uncle Samson by Beverley Nichols. It was published in 1950 and is his observations on the American way of life. I think it’ll be a witty report on social history.

2. Rendezvous by Daphne du Maurier is a collection of her short stories.

3. Getting It Right by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I loved the Cazalet Chronicles so I have high hopes for this one.

4. Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon, a British Library Crime Classic.

5. Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore. She’s an author that I’ve only recently discovered – sadly she died just a few months ago.

6. An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel, published in 1995 and very different from her Tudor books I’m sure.

I found three D.E. Stevenson paperbacks in an antiques centre for all of £1 each, they were the most interesting things in the whole place.

7. Still Glides the Stream by D.E. Stevenson

8. Crooked Adam by D.E. Stevenson

9. The House of the Deer by D.E. Stevenson.

10. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall is a Virago which was going for 50p so although I know I could have borrowed it from the library I decided to buy it.

That’ll do for now. Have you read any of these ones?

From the Guardian Review

I’ve been so busy recently, doing this and that involving hiring a van and moving furniture we’ve just bought, so it was only tonight that I got a chance to sit down and read the Guardian Review section. It’s the bicentenary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth, so there’s an article about Jane Eyre and comments from various writers and artists on their thoughts about Jane Eyre. You can read them all here. I have to say that I’m a Jane Eyre fan rather than Wuthering Heights, although I enjoyed that one too, it didn’t have such an impact on me as Jane did. Which camp are you in Jane or Wuthering?

If you’ve been enjoying reading Hilary Mantel’s books you might be interested in reading about her working day here.

If knickers and undergarments are what get you going you might be interested in reading about the new V&A exhibition that has just opened in London called Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. You can read about it here. The article is by Lucy Worsley who no doubt is a knowledgeable historian but she does have a penchant for diving into the dressing up box given half a chance, like an over enthusiastic four year old.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher  cover

I read The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher when it was first published in the Guardian. It’s the last short story in the Hilary Mantel anthology of the same name. At the time I thought that the title story was very good, a sort of wishful thinking tale, a what if… the sort of thing we all indulge in, but the rest of us don’t write them up as short stories, we get no further than a lovely dream. Believe me, if you were lucky enough not to have been an adult when Thatcher was inflicting her damnedest on the UK then you probably don’t realise how hated she was by so many of the population, eventually of course that feeling extended itself to her own work colleagues.

Anyway, I bought the book quite a wee while ago and having read all of the stories now I think that the ‘Assassination’ story is by far the best in the collection.

Jack always takes a while over reading short stories as he likes to think about each story when he gets to the end of it. I really don’t think that that is necessary with these ones as for me most of the stories aren’t saying anything particularly profound, as far as I’m concerned anyway, although some of the stories seem quite autobiographical, worryingly so in fact, still – it’s an entertaining read.

Recent Book Purchases

We were in Edinburgh showing a bookish friend our favourite book haunts in Stockbridge. Honestly I had absolutely no intention of looking at books myself, but you know what it’s like, a book spine captures you attention – and you’re doomed. So I bought this lot:

Latest Book Haul

1. A Croft in the Hills by Katharine Stewart. I bought this purely because of the unbelievably twee cover which is in very good condition, despite the book having been published in 1960.

2. The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden. I read a lot of her books way back in the year dot when I worked in libraries, I now can’t remember which ones I’ve read for sure. I looked at this one and thought I haven’t read it, or certainly have no memory of it. I wish I had kept note of all the books I had read in the past.

3. The Citadel by A.J. Cronin. I was sure that I had this book already but I haven’t been able to find it so I must have given it away. Anyway, I’m not sure if I’ve even read it before as it’s only his Hatter’s Castle which sticks in my mind from way back. If anyone wants to join me in a readalong of The Citadel – let me know.

4. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel. I’ve read the title story from this collection and I’m looking forward to reading the rest in this collection of short stories.

5. Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons. I’ve read her Cold Comfort books and loved them. The Matchmaker was okay, this one is a Virago publication so I have high hopes of it.

6. Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston (1884-1944). This is another of those British Library Crime Classics. Kingston apparently wrote twenty crime novels but he’s new to me.

Have you read any of these book? If so, what did you think of them?

Every Day is Mother’s Day by Hilary Mantel

Every Day is Mother’s Day by Hilary Mantel was originally published in 1985 and it was Mantel’s first book to be published.

This is a strange one as the book has so many features in it which I dislike and would normally end up with me really hating a book but against all the odds I did enjoy the reading experience. For one thing it was a treat not to have to re-read sentences to get their meaning, as it’s well written and straight forward.

The main characters are Evelyn and Muriel Axon a mother and daughter who lead a reclusive life in a nice middle class area, however their house is uncared for, as are they. Muriel the daughter has special needs and is attending a day care centre, she has come to the attention of social services and Evelyn is determined to keep the social workers at bay. That’s quite easily done as Muriel’s file is constantly being passed on to different social workers. So when Muriel gets pregnant the only person who knows about it is her mother, and as it’s a toss up as to which of the Axons is dottiest it isn’t going to be a joyful experience.

Meanwhile their latest social worker seems even worse than they are, she manages to lose Muriel’s case file and is having an affair with a married man who to be fair to him is being swamped by kids as his wife keeps ‘starting’ babies, it’s a mystery why because their three existing kids are a ghastly bunch and would put anyone off having a family.

As I said it has so many elements I dislike, there are no likeable characters, most of them are very strange, a philandering husband, feckless wife, a woman trying to break up a family and a house with a horrible atmosphere. I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads, so why did I like it?

I think it was because although lots of the characters were people I really wouldn’t want to have much to do with myself I could see clearly what had led them to the bad decisions and actions which took place, and I sympathised to some extent, it was all very human. I’m looking forward to reading Vacant Possession, the sequel.

Apparently Hilary Mantel, (I suppose I should now say Dame Hilary) did work in a social work department in her early working life, it was obviously a source of good copy for her.

Hilary Mantel was reported to have been rather nasty about the then pregnant Duchess of Cambridge during a speech on royalty.

You can read the very long speech here.

I don’t agree with what she said about the duchess, for one thing she doesn’t seem to know that William Wales chose Catherine because like many young people he fell in love with a young woman that he was at university with. I’m sure it was nothing to do with her being thin or her good manners. There’s a brain there, which is more than can be said for some of the others in the royal family.

Wolf Hall and Beyond – the Guardian

On Wednesday the BBC will be televising Wolf Hall so it has been in the news recently and the Guardian has Wolf Hall and Beyond as the front page of yesterday’s Review section. If you’re interested you can read John Mullan’s article here. I haven’t read any of her books apart from Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies but I really want to read her earlier work now. In fact there are quite a lot of interesting articles in this week’s Review, see if there’s anything you fancy reading about here.

I know that quite alot of people collect the old Ladybird books nowadays, I’m not one of them but I must admit that they are very nostalgic. There’s an article about them here. There has been a hundred years of Ladybird design, you can have a look at the Guardian gallery here.

If science-fiction is your thing then you might like to read author Eric Brown’s reviews of up and coming books here.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983 by Hilary Mantel

On Saturday the Guardian review published Hilary Mantel’s new short story about the assassination of Margaret Thatcher, if you’re interested you can read it here.

Mantel was inspired to write the story after catching a glimpse of Thatcher from her window. You can read about it here. She had some difficulties in working the whole thing into a short story and when she managed it it was sold to The Telegraph for tens of thousands of pounds apparently. Obviously the subject matter doesn’t appeal to your average right-wing Telegraph reader. So the Guardian published it instead.

Now the Conservatives are complaining that the short story should never have been published, and there are talks of involving the police. It seems that nowadays we are not to be allowed to even think about things which might possibly upset some people on the extreme right. You can read about Hilary Mantel’s reaction here.

Thinking about doing something doesn’t come close to actually doing it, neither is writing about it. If it were I would have spent most of my life in jail!