onsdag 5 september 2012

Bankable good reads

Oversized paperbacks, of the kind that's often published now instead of/at the same time as the hardback, are a bit useless. They are just as heavy and awkward to carry around as a hardback, but they don't have the hardback glamour, the kind that proclaims: "look at me, I'm a real book lover". And yet I've bought two of these oversized monsters lately: the already mentioned The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan and, in spite of my firm intention of waiting for the (real, packable) paperback, Bring Up the Bodies  by Hilary Mantel.

So why do it? Lack of patience plays a part, of course, but another factor is the longing for a read you know will be good, a sure thing. Morgan is one of the surest things going. I know I've said earlier that I prefer his Regency Romances to his more serious based-on-a-true-story historical fiction, but I'm starting to change my mind. True, in the more serious stuff you sometimes come across a somewhat too deep-seeming passage or a bewildering metaphor, but most of the time the author is spot-on, and he has a convincing quality that makes you think "yes, I bet X (=historical personage) was just like that". I gobbled up Secret Life in no time and wished it had been longer, especially as the action ends a bit abruptly.

I normally approve of Morgan's endings - for instance, he humanely chose to end The Taste of Sorrow with Charlotte Brontë contentedly married to Arthur Bell Nicholls instead of with her death - but here, I would have preferred him to go on, even if it did mean that he had to end at a less harmonious time in his subjects' life. Morgan tells part of the story from Mrs Shakespeare's, Anne's, point of view, and you have a feeling that he has an earnest wish for the Shakespeares' marriage to work out (which might explain why his Will is more than usually uxorious, only playing away after his marriage has broken down, if not quite irretrievably). When the book ends, it looks like the couple will be able to solve their differences, which is sweet in a way, but I mean - Will wasn't even done writing yet! I can't help feeling that there are more important things than his getting on with the little woman, who in spite of Morgan's best efforts still comes across as a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. And what about Ben Jonson, another important character in the book? He's left high and dry after suffering a great personal loss. I can think of more uplifting places to leave off a story, though Morgan's Jonson is so unshakeably self-confident you assume he'll bounce back from anything.

I realise that I, as a reader, may be partly responsible for the fact that Secret Life ends when it does. Morgan is probably one of those authors on a one-book-a-year contract, which means he can't go on spinning a yarn forever. And who demands such a punishing schedule from our favourite authors? We readers, that's who. Still, he could solve the problem by writing a sequel or, if necessary, a trilogy, which is what Mantel is doing with her Cromwell novels.

After Secret Life, I tried a historical novel with a Dickens theme, that turned out to be so flat I gave up in despair after only 50 pages. Then, I tried a novel by Joanna Trollope, The Men and the Girls - this one was well written, but not what you want to curl up with after a stressful day at work. The last thing you want to read about, when trying to forget your mundane but annoying problems, is other peoples' mundande but annoying problems. Fine for the lunch hour, but not for the bedside table. Enter oversized paperback number two, Bring Up the Bodies.

Oh, the bliss of reading something you actively enjoy. So far, I like Bring Up the Bodies even more than Mantel's first Cromwell novel Wolf Hall. Maybe it's because there's less ground to cover - only Anne Boleyn's fall from grace and the period leading up to it. I do miss Wolsey - long dead, but still fondly remembered by Cromwell - but bitchy Anne is always good fun. I can't say, this far, that the novel is as much of a white-wash of Thomas Cromwell as has been claimed. Yes, it does make a good deal of his good points - model father, kind employer, oh, and he has a social conscience too - but you still sense the full extent of his ruthlessness. And on the subject of Wolsey: Cromwell carries a grudge against all sorts of luckless bit-players who had anything to do with the cardinal's disgrace, but in the end, who carries the largest part of the blame? King Henry himself. So where's the seething revenge plot meant to bring him down?

The sweetest character in Bring Up the Bodies is Cromwell's son Gregory, tender and a bit gullible (though not as much as people think). Hm, hard-nosed dad, softie son - is this a family curse or what?