Friday, March 10, 2017

Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

King Henry VIII
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Published 2009 by Henry Holt and Co.
Hardcover, 532 pages
Dates read: September 20 - October 31, 2016

Published in 2009, Wolf Hall is the first installment of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy by Hilary Mantel. It starts out in 1500 England with a brief history of Thomas Cromwell. Fast forward 20 years to a time when the country is on the brink of disaster if the king dies without a male heir. Henry VIII wants to annul his 20-year marriage and marry Anne Boleyn. Goodreads does a much better job at finishing the description, "the pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?"

Hilary Mantel wrote this in a style can be difficult to follow, even for those who have any kind of knowledge of the Tudor time period. Because I have a limited knowledge, I felt it was that much more difficult for me to keep track of everything. I'm not sure if it's the writing style, the many characters with the same name, or both that make it difficult to keep track of all the details. I felt like I had to keep referring to the front of the book that lists the family tree and characters in each section. It was almost as if I had repeatedly had to start again at the beginning. Mantel relied heavily on using the pronoun "he" and since there are frequently two or men in a scene, it is often unclear which "he" is which or speaking.

During my book club's discussion, another member asked the one who recommended the book if she enjoyed reading Shakespeare to which she answered, "I do." And that sums it up. If you enjoy reading Shakespeare, you'll enjoy reading Wolf Hall.

It's obvious that Mantel did her research and this is a popular book considering she won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2010. She also received the Man Booker Prize and the Costa Book Award for Bring Up the Bodies, Book Two of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy. The trilogy has also been made into a popular mini-series of the same name on BBC Two, having first aired in January 2015 - less than five years after the book was published.

Despite being able to finish the book, I will not be reading the rest of the trilogy. This is only the 2nd time I can recall that I will not be moving onto the next novel in a series - the first being The Diviners by Libba Bray. As much as I love historical fiction, I prefer being able to enjoy the book without getting a headache from trying to understand the plot and characters.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Another Review of The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale
by Kristin Hannah
Published 2015 by St. Martin's Press
Hardcover, 440 pages
Dates read: January 1 - March 4, 2017

Because I enjoyed The Nightingale so much when I listened to it last summer, I recommended that my book club read it. We had a discussion about it in January, and I didn't feel the need to finish re-reading it by then because so much of the book had stuck with me and I wanted to take my time with it. The second time around, and this time actually reading it vs. listening to it, is just as amazing if not better. Perhaps I should say that the audio version does the written version justice.

Kristin Hannah does an amazing job telling the story of two young women, sisters, and what they've endured through WWII. So often we hear or read of the men who have gone away to war, but what of the women and children who were left behind? Hannah begins one of these tales by starting the story in 1995, when an elderly woman is packing up her things to move into a retirement home. We don't yet know who she is as she is going through the contents of an old trunk. As she comes across an old ID badge, she flashes back to 1939 Paris, France, just before her world is turned upside down by war.

The flashbacks focus on the older sister, Vianne - the rule follower, and the younger sister by about 10 years, Isabelle - the rebel. They share in the loss of their mother, yet that experience is also different - Vianne is about 14 and Isabelle is then 4 so she grows up resenting not remembering much about her. They're left by their father at a relative's home where they both feel abandoned.

Isabelle spends most of her life in boarding or finishing schools, being expelled from several because she doesn't adhere to authority and rules. When the war starts, Isabelle is unwilling to accept that France has surrendered and despite her sister's pleading for her to think rationally, and stay with her in the countryside after her most recent expulsion to stay safe, she makes her way through the wilderness to Paris where she hopes to find her father. She meets, and falls in love with, a man named Gaetan and his belief that the French can fight the Nazis from within France. She takes matters into her own hands regardless of what anyone tells her she can't do, as is her way. She joins The Resistance, an underground group that risks their lives to make a difference and help save as many others as they can.

While Isabelle is off working with the Resistance, Vianne and her young daughter, Sophie, are fighting their own battles at home with Antione off at the front lines. Months after he is called to duty at the start of the war, a German officer moves in to their home which is complicated in it's own way. Vianne and her neighbor and best friend since childhood, Rachel, are teachers at the local school. Rachel and her children are Jewish, and she loses her job along with many of the other Jewish residents in the area. Vianne witnesses the German officer rounding up many of those same Jewish residents onto trail cars, including Rachel and her children, except for her baby whom she leaves behind with Vianne. She doesn't know why or where her friend is being taken and we are left wondering with her if she will ever see her again. The war wages on with intermittent communication from Antoine, her father and Isabelle and another less kind German officer moves in with Vianne and Sophie.

Hannah makes you feel what the characters feel as if you are them and experiencing what they're experiencing. This is a story that takes place during one of the worst times in world history, and Hannah captures the wide variety of events and emotions that went along with it. For all of the hardships on the front-line battles and firefights, prison camps, starvation, sacrifice, grief, and heartache Hannah shows that there is also hope, resilience of the human spirit, love and survival. She leaves you wondering who survives and if Vianne and Sophie will get to see Antoine again, and if they will be reunited with Isabelle, and Rachel too.

As I mention in my first review, the ending brings so much closure for the reader. It is bittersweet and while there are many parts of the novel that are sad and heartbreaking, the ending is where you'll need the tissues the most as it comes back to 1995. We are shown the strength and resiliency of the human spirit, and most of all - love.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Friday, March 3, 2017

Three Small Steps that Could Change the World

This post is related to: One Thing the World Needs More Of: Compassion. Both subjects started out as journal prompts, and I had an easy answer for both. Three words immediately popped into my head: education, compassion and tolerance. These three things are needed more than ever in the world today. These three "small" steps are more important than ever, and could easily change the world considering the amount of hate and crime in the world in recent years, and more recently with the backlash to President Trump's election in the U.S. and his subsequent inauguration and executive orders.

In recent history (the last ~30 years), the more highly educated someone is, the more likely they'll be liberal. Neil Gross, a sociology professor at Colby College is quoted as saying in an NPR article that "There's some pretty good evidence that going to college leads people to have more liberal attitudes on social issues, in particular on issues of tolerance, of difference and issues of gender equity," which in turn means that they have a tendency to be more compassionate towards those who are less fortunate than themselves.

If all three of these are practiced on an individual scale, then they are small steps. If they are practiced hand in hand, then they become much bigger and have a greater impact on the world. We can all work together to educate ourselves and each other, be tolerant, compassionate and recognize that education works much better than belittling others. Education leads to better understanding, which leads to tolerance and compassion, especially if we educate girls. It's been proven on numerous occasions that educating girls is beneficial to society. In Lauren Stepp's article on The Borgen Project's site called Top 10 Reasons Why Female Education is Important, she sites that according to the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), educated mothers are twice as likely to have children survive past the age of five. This in turn increases the likelihood of them getting an education themselves, become literate, and having a positive effect on society.

Are you passionate about educating others and spreading compassion and tolerance? Find out how you can help in educating young girls and women by visiting the organizations below, which are only a sampling of the many organizations available.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches
By Deborah Harkness
Published 2011 by Penguin Books
Paperback, 579 Pages
Dates read: June 15, 2014 - January 9, 2015

A Discovery of Witches is an annoying yet fun read that immediately got my attention when I learned that the protagonist, Diana Bishop is a professor of alchemical history at Yale. Even more intriguing is when she finds a bewitched manuscript in Oxford while doing research there for a year. Many different kinds of creatures show up throughout the story, proposing many different real and possible supernatural conflicts.

Her witch powers have been sparked when coming across the manuscript, having been left untamed and un-mastered for far too long. She must embrace her destiny albeit reluctantly with the help of vampire, Matthew Roydon or is it Matthew de Clermont? Once sucked in, a reader cannot help but wonder about the many layers of this mysterious, handsome, yoga practicing, wine loving vampire. Does his ulterior motive of finding the manuscript get the better of him? Why does he want it? What's the Congregation? Does he stick around Diana because he cares for her, because he realizes she's the key to finding the manuscript, or both? What's so important about this manuscript?

The story moves a bit slowly after the first 100 pages as the focus shifts away from the manuscript and towards the development of Matthew and Diana's relationship. There is also a recurring argument/conversation Diana has with Matthew and her aunts about her (annoying) unwillingness to learn to master her powers, yet the obvious need for her to do so. The rehashed conversation got some eye roles and could've easily been changed to show character development rather than a character remaining stagnant.

For all of the annoying details, there are some surprisingly charming ones as Neda Ulaby explains humorously in her A Discovery of Witches review for NPR Books. As much as I struggled to get through the fantasy and mystical creatures, I was so intrigued by the ending that I rushed out to get the sequels at the local book shop.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Take Control TBR Challenge 2017

As I mentioned in my 2017 Reading List post earlier this year, my goal this year is to read 55 books. I'm already 6 books behind schedule because 55 books translates to about 1 book a week! So, I have decided to participate in Caffeinated Book Reviewer's Fifth Annual March Take Control of your TBR Pile Challenge for some accountability. I'm competitive by nature so by having something an incentive, challenging and competitive will keep motivated.