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Books That Changed My Life Do The Reading I Need To Talk About This Reading Challenges The Isolation Reads

What do you get if you read 100 books in nine months?

Perhaps the most interesting side effect of lockdown for me has been returning to reading in a big way. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been an avid reader forever, but I encounter extreme slumps as well as periods where reading just isn’t my preferred way to pass time. Unlike some people who didn’t feel like reading over the last few months, I have (perhaps counterintuitively) found getting back into books has helped me navigate living alone in a (relatively) new city where most of my friends live away. More than that, it helped me to understand the value of moving from computer screens to paper for me as a dyslexic person. I experience screen fatigue (including the TV) a long time before I experience word fatigue. The nights I have gone to bed at 21:00 with a book, I have almost universally slept better. Why? Because I ditch my phone and am really present in a low energy state, generally feeling chilled. I do audit what read before bed, but I also have very familiar audiobooks I listen to at night to counteract any triggering content.

            I would love to tell you that this reading spurt has made me more decisive about what I read but that would be untrue. As we speak, I am “stuck” with a book I want to like, but find dull, and can’t quite commit to abandoning. This is really silly given that, when this happened during the alphabet challenge, I immediately picked up pace when I accepted that I was never going to “get” Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. The writing is beautiful but after 15 minutes I would be fidgety and disengaged. In fact, it put me to sleep for one of my two naps in the last 18 months. I wanted to love it and be immersed. Almost all of my reading pals speak very highly of it, but truth be told, it just wasn’t for me. Maybe after writing this post, I will commit to hiding the volume by my bed, removing it from my Goodreads “currently reading” list, and see if I experience any inclination to return to it.

            What else have I learned? I really, really enjoy a reading challenge that has very open parameters. I set myself a monumental task when I took on my own “Reading The Alphabet” challenge. I wanted to tackle my 100+ book To Be Read (TBR) pile and so I committed to read a book by authors with surnames beginning with every letter of the alphabet. I had to supplement here and there. (Thank God I did, because The Autobiography of Malcolm X was a standout read.) But I also got caught up in reading (1)in alphabetical order, (2) at least one fiction and non-fiction entry, and (3) [DON’T DO THIS] as many entrants per letter as possible. What should have been 26 books could have become fifty-two books plus any bonus “extra” reads. The problem here came when I hit A Brief History of Seven Killings. I had read lots of “heavy” books at this point and was really looking forward to a graphic novel a lot of letters away. Finally, I decided to “break” the order and read what excited me, which is perhaps the best lesson of this year. I also committed to skim the James in a 90-minute speed read and move on.

            Not so long ago, I wrote a blog about my trepidations in approaching The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel because it was such a big book! All of my neurodivergence warning bells go off if I could hurt myself dropping a book, the word fatigue means it could take weeks, and it’s a dense story. HOWEVER, I am so glad I started my lockdown reads with it because (1) I loved it, (2) I managed it in a weekend, and (3) it prepared me to try out “bigger” books. I pre-ordered some hardbacks and for the first time in my life, am almost entirely on top of them where I would ordinarily reach for a paperback first. I have no idea how many more books I will read this year. I am loving doing The Black Book Challenge with Leighan so that is pushing me along. I have so many exciting unread titles in the house that I am on a real book buying ban for a while.

            I thought I would end with a list of my highlights of 2020 so far. Note: these are books I have read in 2020, not necessarily books published in 2020. I hope you enjoy some of them, and I look forward to writing up many pending reviews.

P.S. I went to look at my Goodreads to compile this list and got very overwhelmed by how many of these books I really loved.

Hannah’s Reading Highlights so far:

  1. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
  2. The Emperor’s Babe by Bernadine Evaristo
  3. Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
  4. Trans Power by Juno Roche
  5. Asha & the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
  6. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  7. Heartstopper (Vols. 1-3) by Alice Oseman [ALL of the volumes are great]
  8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  9. Flèche by Mary Jean Chan
  10. Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe
  11. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  12. The Avant-Guards Vol. 1 by Carly Usdin
  13. The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood
  14. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
  15. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  16. Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
  17. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
  18. Jazz by Toni Morrison
  19. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
  20. Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
  21. Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown
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Reading Challenges The Isolation Reads

Read the Rainbow Challenge

Hi! If you are new here, welcome! I am Hannah, a bookworm with a book buying problem. I am also a workaholic and on annual leave during a global pandemic so I’ve decided to jazz up “shopping” my To Be Read pile.

The task: to read at least one red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and pink (indigo and violet were impossible) book in one week.

I have made my colour distinctions on the basis of the spines of books but you do you on that. Amazingly, I have a surprisingly large selection of material available to me although I have almost double the amount of blue books (17) and half the green books (5) in comparison to the other options. I hope to read a range of genres, geographical locations, and styles of book but I am not imposing any other restrictions.

My goal: one of each colour. At least 10 books read.

In order to make this fun and manageable, I am not going to write “full blogs” about each book but I will update this post with the titles and some details in the following format:

  • Details:
  • Impression [delete as appropriate]: OMG amazing / I really enjoyed! / Yeah, it was good / Eh, it was fine / I would not buy this if I were you / It’s not for me but ….
  • Summarise in five words:

May the odds be ever in my favour!

RED

Onjali Q. Raúf. The Boy at the Back of the Class. London: Orion Children’s Books. 2018
OMG amazing
Brilliant kids challenge refugee crisis

ORANGE

Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ. Black Star Nairobi. Brooklyn: Melville House. 2013.
I really enjoyed it.
Compelling, pacy, perilous international thriller.

Johny Pitts. Afropean: Notes from Black Europe. London: Penguin Books. 2019
Yeah, it was good.
Social cultural scrapbook with tunes
Geek note: I made a Spotify playlist of songs that are mentioned, are by artists who come up in the book or I really rate. You can find it here.

YELLOW

Amrou Al-Kadhi. Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen. London: Fourth Estate. 2019
I really enjoyed it.
Queerness, family, faith, home, tussling.

GREEN

Alice Oseman. Heartstopper Vol. 3. London: Hodder Children’s Books. 2020
OMG amazing
Pure queer teen emotional intelligence.

BLUE

Mary Jean Chan. Flèche. London: Faber & Faber. 2019
OMG AMAZING
Queer agony fencing with words.

Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye. London: Vintage. 2016.
I can’t call it “OMG amazing” because I’m not gushingly enthusiastic: Brilliant and beautiful.
Bittersweet stories of neighbourhood pain

Alice Oseman. Heartstopper Vol. 2. London: Hodder Children’s Books. 2019
OMG amazing
Pure queer teen romance feels.

PURPLE

Marina Benjamin. Insomnia. London: Scribe Books. 2019
It’s not for me, but the insights on insomnia (as lived experience) are legit.
Rambling pretentious sleep-deprived whimsy

PINK

Guy Gunaratne. In Our Mad and Furious City. London: Tinder Press. 2019.
OMG amazing
Brutal London tensions burning hot.

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Books That Changed My Life Do The Reading The Isolation Reads

The Isolation Reads: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

It’s a really strange time and we are all processing #SocialDistancing differently. Friends and colleagues will have noticed my increased presence on Twitter. I am mindlessly checking my email many, many times an hour and perpetuating my underlying anxieties. As a result, I have set myself some digital check out time every day. Sometimes I’m going to spend that time attacking my To Be Read pile. This is a (possibly short) chronicle of what I finish or abandon. Wherever I can, these reviews will be written immediately after finishing the book. These are not measured reflections. They are gut reactions.

Maya Angelou. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings [audiobook]. Hachette Audio UK. 2014.

I have really odd relationship with Dr Maya Angelou’s work. I can’t remember not knowing who she is. We had posters with her poem “Still I Rise” on all over my primary school walls. I read excerpts of a lot of her work at uni. I sat on a bench outside my current workplace listening to her read her poems as I hyperventilated before my job interview. But as with many academics, I have only accessed parts of Angelou’s prose when I have needed to rather than appreciating her works in their entirety.

I didn’t know about the controversy about the Caged Bird in American schools or about the content warnings of sexual abuse and accounts of racism that are associated with this book. As a survivor, I found the accounts of Angelou’s PTSD incredibly powerful. I found her way of describing sibling love really touching. I also related strongly to her account of re-finding her voice through reading and through reading aloud. There are so many beautiful passages, so many moments of tension and release, and many laughs in among lots of profound sorrow. I can’t wait to read the next one.

As a person with specific learning difficulties, I advocate for audiobooks a lot. I specifically recommend listening to anything read by Angelou. She has such an expressive but mellow voice. You hear her humour and vivacity but also her pain and fragility. I adore her  recording of her collected poems and I know I will debate about whether to listen to more of her books or to read them. I have copies of the other five autobiographies at my mum’s but in the current circumstances, I may end up using our Audible credits to plough ahead. We will see. I don’t really know what I thought this book would be like but it was even better than I imagined. I am grateful to Dr Maya Angelou for writing it so we can all explore and cherish it.

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Do The Reading The Isolation Reads

The Isolation Reads: Children Of Blood and Bone

It’s a really strange time and we are all processing #SocialDistancing differently. Friends and colleagues will have noticed my increased presence on Twitter. I am mindlessly checking my email many, many times an hour and perpetuating my underlying anxieties. As a result, I have set myself some digital check out time every day. Sometimes I’m going to spend that time attacking my To Be Read pile. This is a (possibly short) chronicle of what I finish or abandon. Wherever I can, these reviews will be written immediately after finishing the book. These are not measured reflections. They are gut reactions.

Tomi Adeyemi. Children of Blood and Bone. London: MacMillan. 2018.

Good lord. When I started this book this morning, I was fairly ambivalent and to be honest, I nearly abandoned it. I wasn’t really caught by the story or the characters until over halfway through. I only persisted because someone I love really enjoyed it and by the end I could see why. I read the last 150 pages in less than an hour.

I wonder if I have read too many dystopian Young Adult (YA) novels because I think Children of Blood and Bone comes most alive in its happiest scenes. It has some pockets of compelling actionbut the dances, laughing, parties, and moments of belonging landed most with me. The book’s most beautiful detail is the slow reveal as Zélie’s hair returns to a natural state while she is coming into her magic. That’s not something I’ve seen in a book like this before.

I read YA and children’s books because I enjoy them but I’m also always scouting for things for my godchildren that incorporate Black and neurodiverse characters. I never saw myself in a book when I was young but I try to surround them with stories featuring people like us as much as possible. I think that Children of Blood and Bone fills a vital gap. I definitely didn’t read a story set in Nigeria when I was young, and truthfully, I was introduced to “African Literature” as a “genre” of book by pretentious white teachers at school: “you must read Things Fall Apart.” What we needed was more books by authors from across the continent and from the diaspora. Stories of all kinds. I am going to buy the audiobook for my oldest godchild right away. He’s just seen Black Panther. He’s slowly watching Avatar: the Last Airbender with his dads. He will LOVE this book.

As for me, I know I will read the next one someday. Unlike Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire, I don’t feel like I need to read the sequel right away (although I totally would if I had it). However, I know I’ll be happy when I do read Children of Virtue and Vengeance. For some unknown reason, I am entirely on Team Inan and I need to know where he ends up.

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The Isolation Reads

The Isolation Reads: At Dusk

It’s a really strange time and we are all processing #SocialDistancing differently. Friends and colleagues will have noticed my increased presence on Twitter. I am mindlessly checking my email many, many times an hour and perpetuating my underlying anxieties. As a result, I have set myself some digital check out time every day. Sometimes I’m going to spend that time attacking my To Be Read pile. This is a (possibly short) chronicle of what I finish or abandon. Wherever I can, these reviews will be written immediately after finishing the book. These are not measured reflections. They are gut reactions.

Hwang Sok-yong. At Dusk. (Trans. Sora Kim- Russell). London: Scribe Publications. 2018.

“Have you read any Han Kang?” said the bookseller at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham when I bought At Dusk earlier in the year. I gushed about how much I love her books and wish we had more of her work in translation and that I keep thinking about learning Korean so that I can read more. “Oh cool. I bought this because I like Han Kang too.”

While there is a stillness in At Dusk, which I associate with the sections of introspection in Kang’s books, Hwang Sok-yong incorporates less abstract and visceral elements in his writing. For some reason, I really thought that this book was going to be a thriller about the architecture and building lobbies in Korea but it definitely isn’t. You follow alternating narrators across a lifetime of experience in Korea’s shifting social environments. You spend the book thinking you understand the connections between them but you finally understand that you don’t. The twist in the relationships is clever. The revelations about one of the families involved are brutal and sad. At times, I felt like I was reading a novelised version of West Side Story (1956) with street gangs running around, and at others, like I was glimpsing into an understated domestic drama like Hirokazu Kore-eda’s awesome films Still Walking (2008) or Our Little Sister (2015).

I loved how filmic and peaceful Sok-young’s writing style felt. It meant that where there was violence or a heart-breaking revelation, I was caught oddly unawares. None of the characters in the story are content and their lives are gently turbulent but I felt like I was watching the story unfold through a barrier that deadened some of the noise. It’s a really clever writing style. It’s subtle and oddly soothing in a unnerving way because you have a delayed reaction to some of the tragedies as you unfold. That said, some of the sections of the architect Park Minwoo’s “rags to riches” story are quite dull and I found myself skimming in places rather than savouring every word.

Overall, I will definitely check out other books by Hwang Sok-yong and I really need to get some good books on South Korean history because apparently I love books by Korean authors about life in Korea!

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The Isolation Reads

The Isolation Reads: Disclaimer

It’s a really strange time and we are all processing #SocialDistancing differently. Friends and colleagues will have noticed my increased presence on Twitter. I am mindlessly checking my email many, many times an hour and perpetuating my underlying anxieties. As a result, I have set myself some digital check out time every day. Sometimes I’m going to spend that time attacking my To Be Read pile. This is a (possibly short) chronicle of what I finish or abandon. Wherever I can, these reviews will be written immediately after finishing the book. These are not measured reflections. They are gut reactions.

Renee Knight. Disclaimer. London: Black Swan. 2015

It is very strange to have a window on a past version of yourself. Before going through a series of life-altering traumas, I used to read thrillers all the time but I generally find them too triggering nowadays. Reading Disclaimer took me back to being a teenager where I lived for the next Kay Scarpetta novel and would not have turned a hair reading a story like this.

My mother bought me Disclaimer about a week after it came out in 2015. We were in a Waterstones on Oxford Street. The salesperson pushed the book really convincingly and Mum felt they deserved the sale. I have carried it around five homes since then. The story follows the interactions between Catherine, a middle-class documentary film maker and a mysterious man, who sends her a copy of a novel that is based on events that actually happened to Catherine. We eventually discover the circumstances of a mysterious death and how it affected Catherine’s home life. It’s an “easy” and compelling read. A classic zeitgeist page turner. There’s a solid plot twist fairly close to the end.

I have a first print of the novel and a little bit of online research suggests that there are a few editing errors. For example, the story jumps between time periods and in a couple of places, chapters are titled with the wrong time period. Overall, I figured out most of what was happening in advance although The Plot Twist (discussed in the spoiler zone below) came as surprise. As I’ve come to realise now I am not immersed in reading every thriller I can get my hands on, there is a lot of glossing over of terrible characterisation and incidental appalling plot information. We spend most of the book horrified by the manipulative actions of one of the two protagonists and their backstory, then all that information is sort of left alone when it’s convenient to move the story on. If you love an airport thriller, I’d check it out. Otherwise, I think there are better versions of this story out there.

This paragraph contains SIGNIFICANT spoilers:
Content note: sexual assault, drug abuse, and suicide.

I have one big concern about this book, which would make me hesitate to casually recommend it to anyone I didn’t know well. Eventually, we learn that the dead man raped Catherine and she has repressed what happened. The most bittersweet but true to life detail of the novel is the acknowledgement that Catherine’s husband is ultimately unfazed that she has been raped when he previously ostracised her for having an affair. He rebuilds their relationship but shows no distress about what she has been through. The assault is introduced clunkily but there is also a fairly refreshing conversation where Catherine reveals the rape to the dead man’s father and he believes her immediately. There is no question of credibility in Catherine’s story, which is very unusual in novels of this kind and I applaud that. However, the “solution” to the father’s earlier revenge plot against Catherine, when he learns what has happened, is for him to die by suicide as a “premeditated atonement”. This final twist is extremely jarring, especially in the context that we know he has stalked one of his former pupils and has gone to extreme lengths to harm Catherine and her family. He a cocaine overdose in her son. He visits him in ICU having reached out to her husband “in distress” about Catherine’s behaviour. Then, it’s all forgotten because he decides to set fire to his house. There is no shame in suicide but there is a problem with using suicide as a form of redemption or as suitable social atonement.

I know that many of the most successful books of this genre exploit sexual assault and abusive relationships (of all kinds) for sensation but this way of linking them up felt especially unsavoury.

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Books That Changed My Life The Isolation Reads

The Isolation Reads: Asha & The Spirit Bird

It’s a really strange time and we are all processing #SocialDistancing differently. Friends and colleagues will have noticed my increased presence on Twitter. I am mindlessly checking my email many, many times an hour and perpetuating my underlying anxieties. As a result, I have set myself some digital check out time every day. Sometimes I’m going to spend that time attacking my To Be Read pile. This is a (possibly short) chronicle of what I finish or abandon. Wherever I can, these reviews will be written immediately after finishing the book. These are not measured reflections. They are gut reactions.

Jasbinder Bilan. Asha & The Spirit Bird. Frome: Chicken House. 2019

On Wednesday, I broke my book buying ban after hearing Sunny Singh talk about the Jhalak Prize runs behind the scenes. I have been following the prize since it was founded and always try to read as many of the books nominated as I can. As libraries are out for the time being, I wrote to my local independent bookshop who are selling off their in-store stock and purchased three of this year’s nominees, which I hope will make it to the blog in due course. (For other people reading the noms, I devoured The Black Flamingo and Queenie in 2019.)

Asha & the Spirit Bird is a beautiful story about two children who stowaway to find Asha’s father who has gone missing in a distant city. I was really drawn to its beautiful cover designed by Helen Crawford-White and I kept seeing the tiger on the front as the animal was mentioned at different points in the story. If you, or any people you love, value the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, then I would thoroughly recommend this story because it is an children’s adventure story with some magic and mysticism that will appeal to people of all ages. Although there is peril and intrigue, there are also so many intricate details and ways of marking love and devotion. I loved how Bilan developed Asha packing a mango for her first meal away into the children sharing it slightly later in the plot, and then nurturing the stone to grow a new plant. Gorgeous.

The progress of Asha and Jeevan’s journey continued to surprise me. Bilan doesn’t skirt around “tough” subjects but she also reminds us about the value of friendship, courage, and trusting in the things that matter to you. Bilan also represents spirituality and magic in an arresting and powerful way. Moments of mystery and acts of faith are repeatedly noted by observing characters. Somehow, they seem more transformative and fleeting through this perspective. It’s really touching and beautiful.

Although I read it quickly, and I will definitely by this for the children in my life, Asha was a hard book to read right now. It made my heart hurt. It made me notice how much I miss my family and friends. It made me want to get on a train to London and cook my parents a stir-fry and talk nonsense about the state of the world. I discovered during the two hours I was reading that the beloved soul singer Bill Withers had sadly died. Bilan uses song and aural history and memory to structure parts of the story and this took me back to discovering soul and Motown as I got into listening music when I was small.

As I continued reading, I put my favourite Withers album on: Just As I Am (1971). (I normally read with rain noise on because it’s my favourite sound.) I am a monster, and I only listen to albums on shuffle and somehow, Spotify serendipitously lined up my favourite track “In My Heart” as I was getting towards the end of the book. It felt like my own lamagaia (a bearded vulture) had come to sit with me, as it does with Asha at the beginning of the story. When I finished reading, I propped the book against the lamp by my bed. I bought the lamp with money from my first taxable pay not so very long ago. It’s made of cardboard covered in dusty purple canvas and the fabric is printed with startled tigers (my spirit animal too). Hopefully, they will keep me company this evening.

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I Need To Talk About This The Isolation Reads

The Isolation Reads: The Mirror & The Light

It’s a really strange time and we are all processing #SocialDistancing differently. Friends and colleagues will have noticed my increased presence on Twitter. I am mindlessly checking my email many, many times an hour and perpetuating my underlying anxieties. As a result, I have set myself some digital check out time every day. Sometimes I’m going to spend that time attacking my To Be Read pile. This is a (possibly short) chronicle of what I finish or abandon. Wherever I can, these reviews will be written immediately after finishing the book. These are not measured reflections. They are gut reactions.

Hilary Mantel. The Mirror & the Light. London: 4th Estate. 2020.

There are spoilers in this blog if you don’t have a rough grasp of the history of Thomas Cromwell, who was a Tudor politician that served Henry VIII. You have been advised.

Well, damn. I wrote a post about being a dyslexic reader and tackling long books, triggered by beginning The Mirror & The Light, which comes in at 875 pages. I think this ranks as one of my most taxing reads. It’s like spontaneously choosing to go on a really long run after a significant break. You want to do it and you know you are going to be happy afterwards even though you will hurt and your body is going to rebel. Your nose is going to run and your lungs are going to burn. If you read The Mirror & The Light in hardback form, your arm is going to hurt, your eyes are going to get tired, and if your neurodivergence is like mine, you are going to fight for every word, especially in the “dreams” and flashbacks, which I am giving you permission to skim.

What I love about these books is how vivid the characters are, even though you are given relatively little descriptive information about them. The Mirror & the Light has more laughs in it than the two before it but Mantel slowly builds a sense of foreboding throughout the book. We experience Cromwell get flustered and wrongfooted and doubt the signs even as more people tell him to mind the fall that is coming to him. Deliciously, Mantel slowly removes most of the characters that bring Cromwell comfort as we edge closer to the end of the book. Suddenly, Richard Cromwell (his son) is just a name and not a person. Suddenly, you’ve forgotten the name of Cromwell’s irascible cook. It’s delightful. Mantel also expands her style of dialogue when we come to the interrogations of Cromwell so it’s like being in a play or really great film. Think 12 Angry Men with ruffs. Sumptuous. My stomach still hurts from reading the final pages as we proceed to Cromwell’s execution. I could feel myself getting a tension headache as I read. What a feat this novel is.

With all three of Wolf Hall books, I find Mantel writes an appealing first chapter and then the novel moves forward really very slowly. It duly accelerates around the midway point until you feel like you are hurtling through the action to some dramatic punctuation at the end. If you make it to the middle, it pays off but I do think you have to want to finish these books. You have to care about “the Tudors”. (Note: I recently ran a session on Six: The Musical [concept musical/pop concert sing-off between the six wives of Henry VIII] and many people in the room were unfamiliar with Anne of Cleves. Assuming knowledge is assuming privilege. Don’t be that person.) I became very attached to Cromwell, Christophe, Rafe Sadler, Anne Boleyn (don’t @ me), Hans Holbein, and Cromwell’s painting of the Queen of Sheba, but I also feel like you experience a narrative sag when you read any of them.

If you have reading challenges and enjoy audiobooks, I would really recommend starting these volumes in recorded form. I borrowed my audiobooks from Sheffield Libraries and that’s the only way that made it through Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies (the first two books in this trilogy). All three are like aural histories of a the life and career of the politician. You live out Thomas Cromwell’s experiences with him and therefore they lend themselves to narration.

I need to lie down now but I am very grateful for this book. I wanted to give it three stars on Goodreads. But I won’t.