BOOK REVIEW: The Giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel

The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary MantelThe Giant, O’Brien
By Hilary Mantel
Completed July 21, 2012

Why does Hilary Mantel get nominated for so many literary awards? Quite simply, she can evoke a time and place like no one else. To say she can write is an understatement. As I finished my latest Mantel selection, The Giant, O’Brien, I literally put the book on my lap and sat in wonderment for a few minutes. She’s not just a writer; Hilary Mantel is an artist, and The Giant, O’Brien is proof of her talents.

The Giant, O’Brien is loosely based on two historical figures: Charles Byrne, an Irish Giant whose bones are on display at the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and John Hunter, a Scottish anatomist. In this book, Charles Byrne is represented by the fictional Charles O’Brien. O’Brien travels to London to make money so he can restore Mulroney’s, a pub in Ireland that was a favorite spot among storytellers. O’Brien was illiterate, but he had an amazing knack for storytelling, drawing from ancient stories of Ireland. O’Brien was surrounded by a motley crew of men, who leached off O’Brien and looked for every opportunity to exploit the giant for profit.

Enter John Hunter, a curious surgeon, whose thirst for knowledge resulted in grave robbing, inflicting paupers with diseases and even using his own body to study syphilis. Hunter sees O’Brien as a unique specimen and becomes determined to acquire O’Brien’s corpse for study. Lucky for him, O’Brien’s entourage is ready to help.

Set in late 18th century London, The Giant, O’Brien shows the reader the horrors of poverty during this time. Prostitution, thievery, drunkedness and fist fights were common events in poverty-stricken London, and we see it all through O’Brien’s gentle eyes. Juxtaposed with the poverty is the quest for medical knowledge through John Hunter’s character. Everyone in this book was after the same thing – a better life – whether that meant new explorations of the human body, or a place to unwind and tell stories.

It took some time for me to settle into Mantel’s writing style, but once I did, I embarked on an unforgettable tale about greed, poverty and the human spirit. I highly recommend The Giant, O’Brien to people who enjoy reading high-quality literary fiction. This book definitely showcases the artistic talents of Hilary Mantel. (  )


BOOK REVIEW: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary MantelBring Up The Bodies
By Hilary Mantel
Completed May 30, 2012

The story surrounding the marriage of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn has been the subject of many books, but Hilary Mantel focuses her angle from a different perspective – that of Thomas Cromwell – in her highly anticipated novel, Bring Up The Bodies. As a sequel to her award-winning Wolf Hall, Mantel continues illuminating one of Britain’s most mysterious historical figures, forming Thomas Cromwell into a beguiling character.

In Bring Up The Bodies, the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is three years old, and so far, the two have only produced one daughter. Compounding this situation, Henry’s eye is wandering (again) as he becomes smitten with Jane Seymour. Cromwell, seeing an opportunity to rid the court of all things Boleyn, begins masterminding a plot to get rid of Anne and replace her with Jane. As circumstances unfold, Anne is accused of adultery and eventually executed. While Cromwell didn’t hold the sword, her blood was on his hands.

In this fictional depiction of Cromwell, we see him as the great orchestrator. He does Henry’s dirty deeds, and accomplishes the tasks so beautifully, it is almost a work of art. Additionally, we learn that Cromwell only pursues tasks that benefit himself and his loved ones. Cromwell can persuade Henry like no other. By novel’s end, though, Mantel hints at Cromwell’s inevitable demise – a subject surely to captivate audiences as she completes the third book in this trilogy.

Compared to Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies is more approachable and action-packed. It is also half the length. Mantel gets better with each page, and Cromwell’s character provides a muse for her storytelling. Honestly, I was not sure if I would like the sequel, but I do. It is everything a good novel should be. If you have an interest in historical fiction, be sure to get your hands on Bring Up The Bodies. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice
By Jane Austen
Completed December 23, 2010

I should really call this post: How I Learned to Read Pride and Prejudice…and Liked It!

Admittedly, I was a little gun shy about reading this classic. I usually don’t do well reading Victorian literature, typically finding its prose too flowery and detailed. Indeed, as I began Pride and Prejudice, my typical impatience started to show. I was getting bogged down into the language, knowing I was missing the satire of the novel.I lamented my woes on LibraryThing, and my friend Joyce gave me a piece of advice: read every word. It proved to be indispensable advice.

To enjoy Austen, I needed to get in the Austen Zone. For me, that meant slowing down my reading pace, and at some points, reading passages out loud. Once I did that, Pride and Prejudice became more of a pleasure to read.

My favorite aspects of the novel were Austen’s characters: Elizabeth, smart, witty and challenged with societal and gender rules; Darcy who tried so hard to be crusty that he surprised even himself with his love for Elizabeth; and Mrs. Bennett, funny, outspoken, rude and determined. She will go down as one of my favorite literary moms.

I approached Pride and Prejudice like a homework assignment, first with dread and later with anticipation. If you are an impatient reader like me, you might be overwhelmed by a task like this, but trust me when I say that with a little patience, you can tackle – and enjoy – Pride and Prejudice. ( )

BOOK REVIEW: Regeneration by Pat Barker

By Pat Barker
Completed October 25, 2010

One of my favorite eras of poetry is the War Poets – a group of British soldiers who served during World War I and used their poetry to express their disillusionment with the war. After learning that Regeneration, the first in a trilogy by Pat Barker, features two war poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, I couldn’t wait to read it.

Regeneration focuses primarily on Sassoon and his stay at Craiglockhart, a hospital for World War I soldiers who were experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome. Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart after writing his famous Finished With The War: A Soldier’s Declaration – an open letter of protest, which alluded that the British government was prolonging England’s involvement in World War I (and at the expense of young British men). At Craiglockhart, we meet an interesting cast of characters, including Sassoon’s physician, W.H.R. Rivers, Owens and many soldiers who were traumatized by their time in the trenches.

Barker does a spectacular job depicting the stress of the soldiers at Craiglockhart. Many had nightmares, screaming fits and panic attacks, while others experienced physical symptoms such as mutism and paralysis. Sherman once said that “war is hell” – and there’s no mistaking its terrible effects on the men staying at this hospital.

Though written about a war almost 100 years ago, the messages about war’s atrocities bears much relevance to today. Regeneration is a cerebral book, delivering its readers to much introspection about the characters and their circumstances. I look forward to reading the other books in this trilogy. ( )

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