“Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,” says Thomas More, “and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.”
So begins this hugely intriguing novel detailing the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a boy of lowly origins who runs away at age 15 to escape his violent blacksmith father and becomes one of the most powerful civil servants of Tudor England. Displaying a sharp intelligence, he is a mercenary soldier in France, an accountant in Italy, and a trader in Antwerp before finally returning to England to become the clerk and agent of Cardinal Wolsey, chief advisor to King Henry VIII.
Central to the story, Henry is portrayed as a petulant king who fluctuates between murderous rampages and hopeless romanticism. The first half of this 600+ page novel revolves around Henry’s main agenda; to have his current marriage annulled so he can pursue the virginal pleasures of the coldly calculating Ann Bolyne. The unsuccessful task of securing a divorce from the Pope is placed in the hands of Cardinal Wolsey, who in his failure becomes a scapegoat for the king’s displeasure and is subsequently sent for a stint in the infamous Tower where he later dies. Henry is convinced the absence of a male heir is the fault of his wife, and he is therefore determined to continue the search throughout Europe to find agreeable clergy with enough power to convert public opinion and grant him his divorce.
Thomas Cromwell finds himself as successor to the Cardinal in the midst of England’s manipulative elite, and takes advantage of the power that it presents to use for his own ambitious pursuits. He convinces Henry he can deliver not only an end to his marriage but reformation against those who would defy him his wishes, namely the Catholic Church. Cromwell’s rise to favour is equally prominent in the story as he manipulates the shift of power from the Church to the ruling Monarch. A closet Protestant, Cromwell adroitly manoeuvres among his ecclesiastical foes, secretly engaging with heretics to diminish the power of the corrupt clergy, such as the egotistical, fanatical, and contemptuous Thomas More. As Cromwell becomes more and more indispensable to Henry, it is evident the formidable cast of supporting characters are weaving a web of political subterfuge as each struggles to remain in favour of the fickle king and his advisors at any cost.
Wolf Hall, the infamous estate of the Seymour family, provides the name for this remarkable novel: introduced late in the book, Jane Seymour is the woman who finally catches Cromwell’s (and later Henry’s) eye after the plague long ago stole the lives of his wife and daughters. The retelling of this historical period is underpinned by the humility and humanity given to Cromwell- he is steadfastly loyal, fiercely determined, and a protector of both family and wayward young academics. The prose is beautifully wrought even when the large cast of people, and use of the word “he” to name Cromwell, sometimes leads to ambiguity. Winner of the Man Booker prize in 2009, Wolf Hall is a wonderful novel with all of the intrigue of a psychological thriller. The sequel, “Bring up the Bodies”, was released earlier this year. I, for one, can’t wait to get my hands on it!
Marty Edwards is an investigative reporter, scouring through boxes of old reports and forgotten evidence in an effort to solve those cases no one else is interested in: the cold cases. A routine investigation of a 10 year old case in Brownsville, Texas, sees her become the target of someone who clearly doesn’t want her poking around. Trouble is that person is likely part of the police force that is supposedly responsible for solving the original murder.
After being transferred to the Brownsville department two years earlier, Detective Kristen Bailey finally has a purpose. She has been given the responsibility of babysitting the determined journalist who has shown up on their doorstep, and reporting her activities back to her superiors. Since she is yet to be given a leading role in any substantial police work, Bailey believes it to be just another ploy to stop her from being included in the boys club that is her department. When someone attempts to take Marty’s life not once, but twice, Bailey and Marty flee along the GulfCoast. Marty suspects she has stumbled across the existence of The Scorpion, someone with enough power to control both the city’s crime network and the police force who are supposed to be protecting the community from it. Unsure who to trust, the women know they must head back to the heart of the city if they are to have any chance of solving the mystery. Amid flying bullets, drug deals and dead bodies, the women develop a compelling attraction.
While not a literary masterpiece, The Scorpion is engaging, fast paced and full of suspense. Fortunately, the romance which occurs, while somewhat unlikely, is pleasing and doesn’t overpower the plot of this thriller like some romance scenes can. Well worth a read.
When I started reading this book I was a little disappointed. It had been strongly recommended to me, and I knew that after its publication in 2005 it had won numerous awards. My initial thoughts were that the first few pages, narrated by an artistic and sympathetic Death, tried too hard. Trite, quirky, gimmicky were words that came to mind. 500 pages and many desperate hours of reading later, my chest was tight from being both heart-warmed and heartbroken, my head was pounding from trying not to cry and I was struggling to finish the last few chapters through my tears.
You might wonder, as I did, how a book about Nazi Germany could possibly offer anything fresh and new to the world of reading? Well, somehow this one does. “It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .”
It tells the story of Liesel Meminger; poor, illiterate, and on the run with her mother and brother to a new foster home in Molching after being suspected of communist empathies. Along the way, Death pays his first visit to young Liesel when her brother, Werner, dies on the train trip. While he is being buried beside the tracks, Liesel performs her first act of thievery: to steal a book that has fallen from the pocket of the gravedigger’s apprentice and lies half covered in the snow. The name of the book: The Grave Digger’s Handbook.
Left on the doorstep of her new foster parents, it takes Liesel a period of adjustment to finally form a relationship with the harsh and foul mouthed Rosa, and the quiet, accordion playing housepainter, Hans Huberman. It is when Hans is soothing Liesel from one of her frequent nightmare that he decides to teach her to read. Thus begins a love of words and the start of a career attaining books from whatever source possible, no matter the risk. Helping her in her criminal activities is her best friend, Rudy Steiner.
When Hans honours a promise to an old friend, the family end up harbouring a Jewish fist-fighter in their basement. Liesel love of books and words helps her to develop powerful ties to the wonderful cast of supporting characters including this young Jew, Max, the mayor’s wife, Illa Hermann, and cantankerous neighbour, Frau Holtzapfel.
One of the most compelling aspects of this novel is that it is told from a German perspective, from people who also condemn the acts of atrocity surrounding and being forced upon them. At times brutal and blackly humorous, and at others achingly poignant, The Book Thief provides an original tale delivered in a series of anecdotes which provide an unsentimental examination of human behaviour.