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Archive for July, 2010

Where’s the cake?

This blog is called cultureandcake, so where’s the cake? As well as being an avid reader I’m also a huge fan of cake of all types. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to describe one of my ideal scenarios when reading a book.

There’s nothing better than having a day out, or popping to the shops and stopping off somewhere for a drink and a piece of cake. Ideally the atmosphere should be cosy, preferably with a window for people watching, a comfy chair and a choice of cake! It’s a great way to relax and unwind. But it’s not always easy to find the right atmosphere, some of the brand name coffee shops don’t always feel comfortable, mainly cause they make you feel like you have to eat, drink & move on. But there are plenty of independent cafes and bars that do get it right.

I recently went to a pub in London called the BBC (Balham Bowls Club) Bar, I’d stopped in with a friend to have a pimms and sit in the beer garden and chat. When we walked into the bar what did I spot but a choice of cake! Fabulous! Alcohol, cake & a beer garden – perfection! I chose a slice of raspberry sponge and it was delicious and as I sat there chatting with my friend all I could think was this is the perfect bar to come and read in. In fact, it was while we were sitting chatting that I made my mind up to start this blog. So thanks to the bar for the atmosphere and cake and to my friend for the name of this blog site and encouragement.

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I’ve just finished reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and I really enjoyed it.  I’ve read a few books from the historical fiction genre and I’ve often thought that it must be difficult for authors to create the right tone; they want the book to be a novel not a biography, they want it to be believable but not dry with facts.  It’s got to be tough to find that balance.  I think that in Wolf Hall Mantel gets it right.  She focuses the narrative on Thomas Cromwell and his role as advisor to Henry VIII.  This is a period familiar to many, certainly Henry’s desperation for a male heir and his problems with the church and his many wives are stories we’ve read before.  So what makes this book stand out?

I believe the fact that we’re following the story through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell makes this book distinctive.  He’s man we’ve heard of, we think we know him but actually we know very little.  We’ve only a reputation in terms of his role as Henry’s advisor.  So this gives a fresh perspective and new angle on an old story.

Also, Mantel has the difficulty in getting us to engage with a story we think we know.  We know what happens to Henry’s wives, why should we read about the behind the scenes negotiations?  The answer, I don’t know but somehow Mantel captures the reader.  I think this is because the novel is not about Henry VIII and his wives but it’s about human nature and the desperate struggle to keep up, stay ahead of the game and to not be the person apportioned with the blame.  It’s about the desire to be noticed and required, not dismissed as irrelevant.  It’s about understanding and observing others, giving and taking, and plotting your way through life and politics.  Cromwell is shown as intelligent, determined, strong and human.

Still it’s the language that helps bring this story to life and give it a depth and visual identity.  Mantel doesn’t use dry descriptive language but brings characters and locations to life with clarity and brevity.  She uses colours and materials to describe characters and their appearance rather than focusing on height or weight.  It gives the characters a new dimension and an insight into their character.

Overall, I’d recommend this book and I look forward to reading more by this author.

On a slight tangent, a few months ago I read Virgin Earth by Phillippa Gregory and, in contrast to Wolf Hall, I felt a bit ambivalent about it!  I actually really enjoyed reading the book; the language was straightforward and it was easy to follow but I really didn’t like the ending. I was so disappointed that I immediately regretted reading the book. And I hate that!  There are loads of badly written books out there, there are also loads of well written books that don’t interest me because of their topic. But nothing infuriates me more than enjoying a book only to be disappointed at the end. It taints the whole experience of the book.

So since finishing Wolf Hall and enjoying historical fiction once again, I’ve been trying to remind myself what I enjoyed of the book to try and salvage some of the experience. I thought the characters were very well written and you really felt a part of their individual struggles and decisions. There’s always a fine line with historical fiction; it’s easy for it to become overly descriptive of the time and the environment in order to capture the atmosphere. I find that Gregory captures the time with her characters without it becoming overly bogged down with dates and battles and facts.

I’d read Earthly Joys a few months previously and it was the first Gregory book I’d ever read. It was interesting and emotional and the characters were captivating but I did question the relationship between Tradescant and Buckingham. I just didn’t understand what Tradescant saw in the man. You hope when an author creates such a potentially destructive relationship that you’ll at least understand why the characters take the risk but with this relationship I really struggled to get it. But it didn’t take anything away from the book for me – I still really enjoyed the experience.

So perhaps that’s why I so disappointed with the ending of Virgin Earth, I’d invested time and energy trying to believe these characters and their motivations and the ending just came completely out of the blue! I’m sure many other readers will disagree but it just didn’t ring true for me and I don’t understand the author’s decision, why did she think this ending would fit? Anyway, I think overall I’m glad I read it.

I’m glad I picked up Wolf Hall and gave historical fiction another go.  I really do enjoy this genre and it helps me remember key historical dates and figures in a way history classes in school never did.  Though occasionally I do have to remind myself that some of it is fiction!

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