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Didier (Ghent, Belgium)
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A Place of Greater Safety
A Place of Greater Safety
by Hilary Mantel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A deeply disturbing book, 11 July 2013
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I read 'A Place of Greater Safety' shortly after The Giant, O'Brien, having turned to that book after having read ('being bowled over by' is perhaps more appropriate) Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. At first sight, this novel is similar to all those, as it is also based on real events, and peopled by historical characters, and - apart from 'The Giant, O'Brien' - epic in scale. But now, having finished it just a couple of hours ago, I find 'A Place of Greater Safety' as impressive but very different as well.

In both 'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring Up the Bodies' I found that I could relate quite easily to Thomas Cromwell. I may not be like him (I'm sure I'm not), but I found it easy to understand the man and even sympathize with him. In that respect, 'A Place of Greater Safety' was to me an entirely different kettle of fish. The three main characters, Maximilien de Robespierre, Georges Danton, and Camille Desmoulins are each of them portrayed in such detail that you get to know them intimately so to speak, but for neither of them did I feel any sympathy. They are entirely different from each other, but it was a harrowing and disturbing experience to read to what lengths each of them was willing to go for the sake of 'Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité'. And in many ways, one could argue that they were amongst the more moderate politicians of the French Revolution (Saint-Just in particular I found a horrific character). I felt constantly involved in the novel, could hardly put it down and when I did couldn't get it out of my head, but when it comes to 'feeling', well, I felt mostly pity for the countless characters that sooner or later end up on the guillotine.

Whether you like a character or not is subjective of course, and regardless of it all this is of course still a truly magnificent and epic work of fiction. You feel as if you were there, and the introduction of excerpts from pamphlets of the period and journals of some of the protagonists adds to this sense of veracity. I cannot recommend this book enough, the major difficulty afterwards is deciding what to read next: another Hilary Mantel-novel? Of Citizens: A Chronicle of The French Revolution by Simon Schama?


The Giant, O'Brien
The Giant, O'Brien
by Hilary Mantel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A splendid, lyrical novel, 30 Jun. 2013
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This review is from: The Giant, O'Brien (Paperback)
Or is it a poem in prose? It is in any case to me a very special novel, and one I am not likely to forget. I am one of the probably very many who discovered Hilary Mantel's other novels after having read Wolf Hall and/or Bring Up the Bodies, and 'The Giant, O'Brien' is both very similar to those two and yet all together completely different as well.

As in 'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring Up the Bodies', the way in which Mantel evokes a sense of place and time is quite amazing. 'The Giant, O'Brien' starts in Ireland but for the most part is set in London at the end of the 18th century, and she recreates both excellently, often with unexpected but telling details (as when the companions of O'Brien accompanying him to London discover there is such a thing as beds, and find it hard to get used to them having slept on the ground all of their lives until then). Also, as in 'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring Up the Bodies', the story told here is based on real events, and explores familiar themes such as friendship vs. egotism/greed (to what extent can one trust one's friends?). Not a lot it seems, and in a way one can say that 'The Giant, O'Brien' is a horrid illustration of the veracity of Plautus' saying that 'Man is wolf to man' and as such a deeply disturbing tale.

At the same time, there is sheer beauty as well in the compass of these (barely) 200 pages, not least in the stories O'Brien tells. Physically he may be a giant, but at heart he is a storyteller, and the stories he tells are small gems in themselves. Indeed, 'The Giant, O'Brien' is written in often very lyrical prose, and there is not a page where you'll not come across some or other sentence that describes a familiar something in a surprising new way, or a deeply felt insight in the simplest of words. Just one of many examples: when asked by John Hunter if his memory fails, O'Brien replies 'Everything fails, sir. Reason, and harvests, and the human heart.'

It appears from the postscript that the bones of the real Charles Byrne may be seen at the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln's Inn Fields. I am not sure that, if ever I visit, I will be able to look upon those bones and not shed a tear.


Barry Lyndon (Oxford World's Classics)
Barry Lyndon (Oxford World's Classics)
by William Makepeace Thackeray
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The perfect rogue, 21 Jun. 2013
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I once wrote a paper on 'the picaresque novel' in American literature, and somehow at the time this marvellous book must have escaped my attention as an immaculate example of the genre. Barry Lyndon (aka Redmond Barry, Captain Barry, Barry of Barryogue, Redmond de Balibari) is a fascinating character. It is strange actually, how absorbed one quickly becomes in his autobiography, taking into account that he is actually an almost a-moral and definitely unreliable person: women are there to be used, men to be cheated, and I'd wager that Barry would happily take a child's pocket money if he was in need of some small change. And yet, does not the nobility happily welcome him into their circle when he's rich, and gladly play cards with him, and then forget to honour their IOU's should they happen to lose?

As such this splendid book, as unreliable a narrator as Barry Lyndon may be (and surely is), is not just the chronicle of a virtuoso swindler, but also holds up a mirror to society, and when Barry says near the end of the book 'at least, if I did and said what I liked, was not so bad as many a canting scoundrel I know of who covers his foibles and sins, unsuspected, with a ask of holiness', it seems hard to disagree with him on that point.

I vaguely recall having seen in a distant past the movie (with Ryan O'Neal, was it?) but that didn't really make an impression. Not so with the book! As always, or so it seems, the book is so much better than the movie.


Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (Penguin History)
Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (Penguin History)
by Keith Thomas
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.90

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magic, 13 Jun. 2013
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I do apologize for the sorry pun in the title of my review, but I was very impressed by this book (old as it may be as history books go, having been first published in 1971). I like to read both more traditional histories (kings and queens, battles, you know what I mean) and social history, and this is one of the very best in the latter category that I've ever read. Keith Thomas must have perused thousands of pages of primary sources, and it seems - to use another well-worn phrase - that what he doesn't know about 'popular beliefs in sixteenth- and seventeenth England' isn't worth knowing.

Indeed, so many are this book's qualities that it's near impossible to do it justice in the space of just a short review. In a fluent and easily readable style Thomas treats religion, magic, astrology, 'the appeal to the past' (prophecies), witchcraft and 'allied beliefs' (ghosts and fairies, times and omens) before coming to his conclusion about the decline of magic. Every chapter is illustrated with dozens of examples taken from diaries, court records, pamphlets, and so on which makes this grand story all the more captivating and bewitching (there I go again).

800 pages and never a dull moment! The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England was just as breath-taking, so I can't wait to begin Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Penguin Press History).


Tudors: A History of England Volume II (History of England Vol 2)
Tudors: A History of England Volume II (History of England Vol 2)
by Peter Ackroyd
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Politics and religion, 13 Jun. 2013
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It was a pleasure reading Foundation: The History of England Volume 1 (History of England Vol 1) so I eagerly began this second volume of Ackroyd's history of England immediately afterwards. Without a doubt, the Tudor family in itself (by the way, why is Henry VII discussed in volume I and not here? Doesn't seem logical to me) provide plenty of colourful subject matter, but nonetheless their story is expertly told here. It may be (it is!) a 'history' but it reads as fluently as a 'story' thanks to Ackroyd's easy style. What helps too is that Ackroyd is not out to prove a point, but doesn't hesitate to say that some things (such as the precise circumstances of the death of Darnley) we simply don't know and probably never will.

There's less information on the 'commoners' than in volume I which I personally found slightly disappointing, but still this book gives a splendid overview from the beginning of the reign of Henry VIII until the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, and eminently chronicles how England evolved from a Catholic country into a Protestant kingdom.

All in all, another very satisfying read so I for one am eagerly awaiting volume III.


Foundation: The History of England Volume 1 (History of England Vol 1)
Foundation: The History of England Volume 1 (History of England Vol 1)
by Peter Ackroyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars the perfect introduction, 13 Jun. 2013
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I already knew Peter Ackroyd as a fine novelist (Milton In America, Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem, Chatterton (Abacus Books) to name just a few are all delightful novels, the only disappointing one to me personally is perhaps The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, an accomplished biographer (think of Dickens or The Life of Thomas More), and a masterly writer on historical topics (London: The Biography. So when I was in the mood for a general history of England, and this was published I felt I wouldn't be disappointed. And such proved to be the case.

What to put in and what to leave out in such a work is of course always a matter of opinion (and sometimes fierce discussion in reviews), but if what you're looking for is a general overview of the very beginnings of the history of England until the death of Henry VII I think you'd be hard pressed to find a book that better fits that bill. Ackroyd knows how to write and knows his subject matter and therefore, not surprisingly perhaps but all the same impressively so, the net result is a learned (but not too scholarly) and captivating book that reads like a roller-coaster.

One could argue that too much attention is given to the 'ruling classes', but the fact is that it's predominantly those people that left their mark on history (both in the sense of having determined the course of events and being best documented). Even so, Ackroyd devotes several chapters to the life - as far as it can be traced - of ordinary people, and to my mind this makes 'Foundation' a well-balanced effort. So it's on to Tudors: A History of England Volume II (History of England Vol 2)!


Le Creuset Junior Mug, 200 ml, Blue
Le Creuset Junior Mug, 200 ml, Blue

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My favorite cup, 25 April 2013
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The 'regular' (350ml) Le Creuset mugs are far too large for me, the espresso cups too small, but this is just the perfect size. It's a pity Le Creuset doesn't produce these in some of their traditional colours such as volcanic or cherry red to match with the other Le Creuset stuff in my kitchen, but apart from that: it makes my day, every day!

The good news is, as I just discovered today in my favorite kitchen store here in town: Le Creuset have apparently just launched a range of 'cappucino cups' in this size (200ml) but in different colours, so they should be for sale here soon too I guess. As it is, I simply couldn't wait for that so bought 3 cherry red cappucino cups today and had a lovely cappucino this afternoon to celebrate, prepared with my Bialetti Moka Express Espresso Maker, 6 Cup and La Cafetiere Bialetti Tuttocrema Frothing Jug, Teflon Non Stick Surface and Double Filter For Extra Frothy Milk. A feast for any coffee lover ;-)


A Short History of the Wars of the Roses (I.B. Tauris Short Histories)
A Short History of the Wars of the Roses (I.B. Tauris Short Histories)
by David Grummitt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect introduction, 1 April 2013
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My interest in the Wars of the Roses was actually sparked by Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (both excellent novels by the way), so for good measure I resolved to read up on the period before that first and only then start reading some more about the Tudors themselves, and particularly Henry VIII (I recently read the marvellous Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, so I'm already acquainted so to speak with Henry VIII's father).

It turned out that there's a vast choice in non-fiction about the Wars of the Roses, and all reviews seem to agree on one thing: it's an intricate part of English history. Having said that, I think David Grummit's book on the one hand confirmed this, but on the other hand definitely clarified a lot. It was perhaps initially conceived rather as a book for students, but it works excellent for amateur enthousiasts as well in my opinion. First of all, there's a very clear structure: after the introduction (with a list of 'dramatis personae', a timeline and 3 family trees), the book is divided into 3 parts:
- Part 1: Causes (about the Lancastrian legacy, the deposition of Richard II and the reign of Henry IV)
- Part 2: Course (itself nicely parceled into chapters about the First War (1459-64), the Second War (1469-71) and the Third War (1483-87))
- Part 3: Consequences (about the impact of the Wars in general and on political culture specifically)
At the end of the book there's also a very helpful bibliography for further reading.

Apart from that Grummitt writes in a very clear and succinct style, and he keeps the story moving along at a brisk pace (one has to I guess, if one's aim is to summarize the Wars of the Roses into a mere 182 pages).

One could argue that, having never before read anything on the wars of the Roses, I'm hardly in a position to judge whether Grummit has indeed succeeded in writing the 'perfect introduction', but to me it felt as such, since upon having finished it I felt informed about the principal characters and events, and more importantly still, the political and socio-economic causes and consequences of this fascinating period. And on top of that it inspired me to read on, so now it's on to Lancaster And York: The Wars of the Roses.

So therefore: heartily recommended!


Bring Up the Bodies
Bring Up the Bodies
by Hilary Mantel
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Unparalleled historical fiction, 24 Mar. 2013
This review is from: Bring Up the Bodies (Hardcover)
I was enthralled by Wolf Hall, and started reading 'Bring up the bodies' immediately afterwards. It's as good, it's absolutely brilliant. Cromwell dominates the novel as he did in 'Wolf Hall', and - whatever we may think of the historical character - Mantel has succeeded in creating an absolutely mesmerizing fictional character here. You get a real sense of the man and his feelings, thoughts and ambitions as if he were explaining himself 'live' to you. And it's not just him, all the characters and Tudor London are brilliantly drawn. Perhaps the most stunning part is how Mantel succeeds in creating an incredible sense of suspense. Even though we all know how the story will end, you cannot help reading on as if this were a vintage Le Carré-novel, and relish the intrigues and counter-intrigues at court, the scheming and plotting as if it were a game of chess (but one for the highest possible stakes).

So now begins the long wait for part three... But until that is published, these two novels have so sparked my interest in Tudor times that I'll be starting A Short History of the Wars of the Roses (I.B. Tauris Short Histories) this very day, moving on after that to Lancaster And York: The Wars of the Roses, Tudors: A History of England Volume II (History of England Vol 2) and The Rise & Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant. Now isn't that a delightful prospect?


Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Top notch, 18 Mar. 2013
This review is from: Wolf Hall (Paperback)
One could argue that further reviews are besides the point and futile in this case, as I'm writing this there are already over a 1,000 reviews. Yet I felt compelled to add my humble pebble to this gigantic cairn of (mostly) praise, quite simply because this is one of the most rewarding books I've read in a very long while (and it's not as if I read a book a year or so). Yes, indeed, the writing is often dense, and you do have to keep your wits about you to keep track of the dozens of characters (but there's a helpful list at the front) and who's saying what in conversations, but whereas this seems to have put off other people it had the opposite effect with me, of reading this book with great concentration.

We will probably never know if what drives the characters in this novel to act as they do is actually what drove them at the time and in real life, but to me that is besides the point because this is a work of fiction, and therefore shouldn't be measured against the standards we use for non-fiction. As a work of fiction, by any standard (well, no, strictly speaking 'my standard'), it's a work of astonishing richness and depth, with entirely credible characters, and a plot that kept me reading on and on. I've barely finished it a couple of days ago and am already well into Bring Up the Bodies, and enjoying it as much. The only other novelist of historical fiction I can think of at the spur of the moment that offers an equally rewarding (and challenging) experience is Dorothy Dunnett, but then again she writes very different novels.

However, that's neither here nor there, all I can say is I heartily recommend 'Wolf Hall', to lovers and non-lovers of historical fiction alike.


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