john257hopper's 100 books of 2022

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john257hopper's 100 books of 2022

des. 31, 2021, 4:51 pm

Here is my own new thread for 2022 reading. I managed 102 books in 2021, my lowest annual total since 2006, when I managed 75. Since then I've always read over 100 books each year, though it was also tight in 2011 (103) and 2018 (104). How on earth I managed 140 and 145 in 2012 and 2013 I really don't know for sure.

gen. 2, 2022, 2:36 pm

Welcome back and happy reading in 2022!

gen. 3, 2022, 7:09 am

Thanks Jen :)

gen. 3, 2022, 7:50 am

1. By the Edge of the Sword - C B Hanley

This is the seventh book in what has become one of my favourite historical mystery series, featuring Edwin Weaver, a scribe to Earl Warenne of Surrey in the early 13th century, in the aftermath of the civil wars that has taken place under King John, and now during the minority of his young son King Henry III. A former member of the Earl's household, Lady Joanna, is accused of murdering her husband and Edwin is called to investigate (both by Joanna to establish her innocence, and by the Earl to establish the facts and if necessary distance his household from her alleged actions). Edwin's headstrong friend Martin is in love with Joanna and his rash actions sometimes hinder Edwin's investigations. Needless to say, there are numerous red herrings and motivations for murder, including potential heirs to the murdered man. As ever, Edwin comes across as an immensely likeable and humane man, trying to do the right thing in very difficult circumstances, where gossip and rumour prevail on all sides and he has to try patiently and persistently to sift out the few hard facts from the morass of hearsay. The conclusion is suitably dramatic and violent and Edwin's quiet courage wins justice in the end. One can sympathise with him as he leaves at the end of the book to return to his young wife Alys who is pregnant with their first child. I love this series and hope there will be many more.

gen. 3, 2022, 9:44 am

Slightly belatedly, I've gone back through my 2021 reading for favourites. My favourite new (to me) fiction (excluding instalments in ongoing series I already know and love) was, in order of reading not preference:

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Dawn Wind by Rosemary Sutcliff
Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall
Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
The Vanishment by Jonathan Aycliffe

I also greatly enjoyed re-reading some of the Isaac Asimov Foundation series newly released in ebook format; and Coming up for Air by George Orwell

My favourite non-fiction was:

The Death of Caesar: The Story of History's Most Famous Assassination by Barry Strauss
Heloise And Abelard: A Medieval Love Story by James Burge
Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall
Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin

gen. 3, 2022, 12:09 pm

Hi, John. Good luck with your 2022 reading. I also really liked Heloise and Abelard. I may have to do a re-read. It's been at least 20 years!

gen. 3, 2022, 12:21 pm

Thanks Tess. I also read a novel based on their story, but frankly the Burge book was better.

gen. 6, 2022, 3:51 pm

2. Conspiracy of Wolves - Candace Robb

After a gap of a decade, Candace Robb has returned to her murder mystery series set in 14th century York, featuring Owen Archer, a veteran of the wars with France and his wife Lucie, an apothecary. It was nice to reacquaint myself with them in this 11th book in the series. The plot centred around the murder of a father and son, which turned out to be related to a family incident from 20 years earlier involving a series of childish "pranks" that turned ugly and resulted in the death of a young girl and the activation of a long planned programme of revenge. The plot seemed overly complicated and rather ridiculous in places. But good to see the series back.

gen. 7, 2022, 3:13 am

3. The Bone Jar - Candace Robb

This is a short story in the author's series of Owen Archer Medieval murder mysteries set in 14th century York. It was published during the ten year hiatus between books 10 and 11, but is clearly set earlier as there are references to Archer's patron Archbishop Thoresby still being alive and to his wife Lucie's pregnancy. Archer is asked by Magda the Riverwoman to guard a bone jar she is keeping at her riverboat house on the Ouse, but there is an amusing twist in the tale. This is very short and a bit insubstantial but Owen and Magda come across well here.

gen. 10, 2022, 3:37 pm

4. A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute

This is the most famous novel by British author and engineer Nevil Shute. It is a novel of three parts: in the first and by far the most dramatic part, a young lady Jean Paget recounts to her lawyer Noel Strachan (who is the overall narrator of the novel) her experiences during the war in Malaya after the Japanese invaded, as part of a party of British women and children being marched around the country with no one wanting to take responsibility for their fate. Due to the privations of the forced march, poor food and disease, half of the party die en route. Jean assumes responsibility for the group's welfare. She meets an Australian prisoner of war Joe Harman who helps the party by stealing chickens for them; however, he is caught by the Japanese, horribly beaten and crucified and left for dead. Sometime after this, Jean and her party are able to establish themselves relatively securely in a Malay village working in the paddy fields for the remaining three years of the war.

In the second part, having discovered a few years later that Joe survived his torture, Jean visits Australia to try to track him down across the outback; at the same time, unbeknownst to her, Joe is visiting England to look for her. They finally meet and, in the third and least dramatic part, they get together romantically and build a life in the Queensland outback, Jean using her entrepreneurial skills to start a string of business and build up the (fictional) township of Willstown so that it can become "a town like Alice (Springs)". There was perhaps rather too much detail in this section than most most British readers are likely to want to know about breeding of cattle and how to start up a business in the outback. That said, it is an uplifting story of how Jean and Joe are able to overcome adversity to build a life together.

This edition contains an introduction by Eric Lomax, a prisoner of war on the notorious Burma-Siam railway, whose experiences were described in The Railway Man, made into a film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. The introduction helpfully warns the reader at the outset in bold letters that it gives away details of the plot, so I read it only after finishing the book

gen. 10, 2022, 7:33 pm

>10 john257hopper: Nevil Shute is also on my list for this year: Trustee from the Toolroom and Pied Piper are available in Australia on Overdrive. Some of his books are available on Kobo Plus (similar to Kindle Unlimited), which is a good source of male British writers from the fifties, sixties and earlier. So far I've downloaded numerous books by John Wyndham, Hammond Innes and Michael Gilbert.

gen. 11, 2022, 5:06 am

He is the January author in the Monthly Author Reads group here. This group has introduced me to several new to me authors in the last few months.

gen. 11, 2022, 12:55 pm

>10 john257hopper: Loved that book and am on lookout for more of his works.

gen. 14, 2022, 4:00 pm

5. The Railway Man - Eric Lomax

This is an account by a former Far Eastern Prisoner of War of: his early life; his wartime experiences working on the notorious Burma Siam railway, including savage beatings and other tortures; and his post war attempts to process his anger and desire for revenge, his nightmares and what we would now called PTSD affecting his life and relationships, until he was able to come to terms with it eventually by tracking down and meeting one of his Japanese interrogators (Takashi Nagase, an interpreter, in fact) and their being reconciled with each other, Nagase having spent decades of his post-war life trying to bring about reconciliation between the bitter war-time enemies. This encounter was the subject of an award-winning TV documentary.

Lomax was keen on trains from an early age but followed his father into the Post Office in Edinburgh when he finished his education. Born in 1919, he was of the generation that went straight into the war, and was taken prisoner when in February 1942 the Japanese stunningly captured Singapore, the centre of the British Empire in the Far East. He writes clearly and non-dramatically about the horrific deprivations, the near starvation, dirt, beatings, water torture that came with being a prisoner of war, especially after he was arrested for being one of a party in possession of a radio. More than these even, was the uncertainty even about the immediate future and the sense of sheer arbitrariness of knowing that your entire future life was out of your hands - so the complete depersonalisation and deprivation of personal agency was almost the hardest thing to deal with. In his post-war career, Lomax worked in the last colonial administration of Ghana. It was only later in his 50s and 60s that he started to be able to talk about his experiences, initially only to fellow ex-POWs, then later on to those campaigning to support the victims of torture. His personal wish to gain closure as to whether he and his fellow sufferers had been betrayed or whether the discovery of the radio was pure chance, led to discover Nagase in the end. The last couple of chapters of the book are a moving account of the transition between a desire for understanding and revenge through cycles of grief to acceptance, friendship and forgiveness. This was a great read.

gen. 17, 2022, 4:37 pm

6. Railway of Hell: A Japanese POW's Account of War, Capture and Forced Labour - Reginald Burton

This is another account of the experiences of an ex-Far Eastern Prisoner of War in working on the notorious Burma-Siam railway under Japanese occupation of South East Asia in World War II. While the author's experiences are horrific, the diseases and malnutrition nearly causing his death, I somehow found this less emotionally engaging than Eric Lomax's The Railway Man. This account seemed more laconic and in places almost as though he was describing events happening to someone else - though in fairness this was no doubt just the author's writing style. On the positive side, Captain Burton is clear about the mental effects of his experiences and the mental attitudes that explained why some lived and some died. From the outset, he and his comrades found it "so hard to believe Singapore would fall....There was a soul-destroying sense of failure, of having expended so much of myself in achieving nothing. And this induced a lethargy; everything seeming so much trouble that it wasn't worth doing. Later on, "I found for myself – and I believe it was true for many others – that I'd no great awareness of the future. Perhaps it was a form of self-protection. The prospect ahead, a captivity of unknown length with protracted ordeals we'd experienced all too many times..." It was the sense of loyalty to their regiment, and at a personal level, "we were to find, later, that it was the man who kept himself as clean as possible, who shaved, and who did his best to be mentally and physically alert who survived". A good account, though not one of the most memorable ones of this type of memoir.

gen. 21, 2022, 1:46 pm

7. Berlin Red - Sam Eastland

This is the seventh and seemingly the final book in the Inspector Pekkala series in Stalin's Soviet Union (no spoilers here as to the ending). This one is set in the dying days of the Second World War and Pekkala and his sidekick Major Kirov must enter Berlin and rescue an agent who has been leaking to the Allies the secret of a refinement to the Nazi V2 rocket guidance system that will make it far more accurate and breathe new life into the Nazi war effort. The agent is none other than Pekkala's ex-fiancee. While this sounds exciting from this description, the novel has too many characters and changes of scenery and the usual information dumps and excessive use of flashbacks that disrupt the narrative. A good enough page turner to end the series, though.

gen. 24, 2022, 3:36 pm

8. The Forger - Cay Rademacher

This is the final part of the author's murder mystery trilogy set in post-WWII Hamburg, featuring Chief Inspector Stave. Having been near fatally shot, Stave decides to leave the Homicide department and opts instead to work in Department S which aims to combat the black market that dominates economic activity in the city. While this makes sense in narrative terms, it risks making the plot less interesting for most readers as economic crimes come across as less dramatic. Nevertheless, in investigating some rediscovered objets d'art in the ruins of a bombed office block, a skeleton is also discovered. Stave considers this is not being properly investigated by his ex-colleagues in Homicide, and investigates himself. So far, so good, if a little cliched. But the eventual resolution of the crime struck me as rather bizarre and unlikely, while the economic crime exposed in Stave's new regular job is so petty, that the reader, along with the Chief Inspector, feels nothing but sympathy for pathetic (in the true sense of the word) offender. So, in sum, while Rademacher is a good writer, and the atmosphere of post-war Hamburg is evocatively described, I found this a slightly unsatisfying read in some ways. The novels ends with the drama of the economic renaisssance of the new Deutschmark being introduced in what was to become West Germany, while the Soviets begin to blockade Berlin.

gen. 27, 2022, 3:50 pm

9. The Quiet American - Graham Greene

This novel is set in Viet Nam during the time in the 1950s when French rule of Indo-China is collapsing and the Americans are moving in. The central theme is the rivalry between an English reporter Thomas Fowler and the eponymous American Alden Pyle, particularly their differing philosophical outlooks and attitudes towards Viet Nam, as expressed through their relationship with a Vietnamese woman, Phuong. Pyle is murdered near the beginning of the novel, though it is never clear by whom, and the rest of the novel flits back and forth in time in a way that I found sometimes confusing. There were some interesting incidents and discussions in here, but overall I found the novel rather unsatisfying.

gen. 28, 2022, 1:05 am

>18 john257hopper: The Phil Noyce film of The Quiet American is pretty good. It stars Michael Caine, who is always worth watching, and sticks quite closely to the book. There's a 1958 American film too, but its pro-American stance changed the whole point of the book.

gen. 28, 2022, 6:08 am

>19 pamelad: thanks Pam, I might check out the Michael Caine version if I can stream it from anywhere.

feb. 1, 2022, 3:12 pm

10. Lily's Promise: How I Survived Auschwitz and Found the Strength to Live - Lily Ebert

This is an intensely moving and inspirational memoir by a Holocaust survivor, the now 98 year old Lily Ebert (nee Engelmann), survivor of Auschwitz, of one of the Buchenwald satellite camps and of a forced death march across Germany before being rescued by US soldiers in April 1945. The work was written in cooperation with her great grandson Dov Forman, who helped to her her story out there on social media and help with gaps in her memories.

Lily was born in Hungary where she lived in the small town of Bonyhád with her three sisters and two brothers and their parents. They were a very close knit, but liberal and tolerant family, and their upbringing was idyllic, despite the occasional spectre of long term historical anti-semitism in Hungary. Life continued largely as normal for the family, until the death of the father from natural causes in 1942. The Holocaust in force came late to Hungary, after the Germans overran the country in March 1944. The elder son was conscripted into a labour service, while Lily, her three sisters and younger brother, and their mother were sent to a ghetto and, along with the rest of the Jewish population of their town, kept in increasingly stringent conditions until they were deported to Auschwitz in early July. On arrival, Lily's mother and her youngest sister and younger brother were immediately sent to the gas chamber, while Lily and her other two sisters Rene and Piri survived to go through months of work, exhaustion and starvation. Lily and her sisters and some others whom they befriended essentially survived by having a mutual support network and being determined to stay together to maintain a small oasis of sanity amid the madness and horror. Lily kept her mother's jewels hidden in her shoe and, later, in successive pieces of daily bread throughout her experiences.

After some four months in Auschwitz, the group were moved to a munitions factory attached to Buchenwald where the treatment was a little better as the Holocaust had destroyed so many lives of slave workers that even the Nazis realised they had to keep their workers alive to keep their flagging war machine going. As the allies advanced into German territory in early 1945, Lily and her group were sent on one of the notorious death marches across the territory ahead of the advancing liberators, before they were eventually saved by stumbling across some American soldiers. Meanwhile at Yom Kippur 1944, Lily had promised that, if she survived, she would never let the world forget what she and her fellows suffered.

After liberation, Lily and her inseparable sisters moved to Switzerland - a country for which she nevertheless felt some resentment, as they has closed their borders to Jewish refugees in 1942, and to where children over the age of 16 were even now prevented from emigrating, thus driving 21 year old Lily to take six years off her age. Later she moved to the new state of Israel where, after briefly and unsuccessfully trying life on a kibbutz, she settled in Tel Aviv and married a confident young man Shmuel who had lived in Israel since before the war, with whom she had three children. Later on Shmuel suffered poor health and needed a cooler climate so the family moved to Britain and settled in north London, leaving Rene and Piri back in Israel.

For decades Lily could not talk about her experiences in the Holocaust, her fellow citizens in Israel being divided essentially into two categories, fellow survivors with whom it was felt there was no need to talk about it, and those, like Shmuel, who had not been through those experiences and who could never understood what the survivors had been through. She found it easier to talk when she had grandchildren; and in addition society became more interested in hearing from Holocaust survivors in the years after the Eichmann trial in 1961 had allowed survivors for the first time to recount their experiences to a public willing more now to listen than they had been in the immediate post-war years. Thus Lily could at last carry out her Yom Kippur 1944 promise that the would let the world know what happened and she now continues to do so, working with schoolchildren through the Holocaust Educational Trust and other organisations. Her great grandson Dov has helped by publicising her experiences on social media and using Twitter, for example, to identify a particular US soldier who wrote her a message of hope for the future in 1945. A remarkable and inspiring story.

feb. 5, 2022, 7:32 am

11. The Mystery of Mad Alice Lane: A Short Story - Karen Charlton

This short story is a teaser for the author's new historical mystery series set in Second World War York. I must say I was a little disappointed in this. It's so short, it's really more of a vignette than a short story, introducing the two young leads Jemma and Bobbie (Roberta) finding a body of a murder victim after an initially unconvincing report by a passing motorist. The mystery is not explored here and it's over before it's really begun. I also did think that the main characters perhaps sounded a little too modern for 1939, though I'll reserve judgement for the first book in the main series, due in April.

feb. 13, 2022, 7:38 am

12. No Name - Wilkie Collins

This is the third novel I have read by Collins, after by far his most famous two, Woman in White and The Moonstone. I really enjoyed this as a novel of family tragedy, legal drama, vengeance and deception. The plot centres around two sisters, Norah and Magdalen Vanstone, and more particularly Magdalen. Their father dies in an accident, and their mother passes away shortly afterwards in childbirth. They then discover to their shock and consternation that their parents were not married at the time of their birth- clearly a much more significant revelation in 1846 than it would be in later times (Andrew Vanstone had unwisely married an unvirtuous woman in his youth as an officer army stationed in Canada). As a result, according to the inheritance law of the time, Andrew's estate goes instead to his estranged elder brother Michael. In effect, "Mr Vanstone's daughters are Nobody's Children; and the law leaves them helpless at their uncle's mercy"; because of their parents'marital status, "The law which takes care of you, the law which takes care of all legitimate children, casts her like carrion to the winds".

Michael is a curmudgeonly much older man who fell out with Andrew over the latter's youthful indiscretions, and refuses to give his nieces any more than a token amount of money. While Norah accepts the reality of their greatly reduced social and economic status, Magdalen does not and resolves on a complicated plan of revenge to get back the money property they have lost, ranging across the country from York, London, Suffolk and Dumfries and involving disguises and impersonations galore. It's all good fun, with some humorous passages, but also some shocking deaths and Magdalen getting to the state where she contemplates taking her own life. It all turns out right in the end, of course, following the usual series of amazing coincidences that are a hallmark of the 19th century novel. It's a very satisfying read. 5/5

feb. 14, 2022, 9:15 am

13. No Name - Play - Wilkie Collins

This is the play version of Wilkie Collins's novel that I have just read. Necessarily truncated of course, it contains the essentials of the novel's plot, with a lot of the early events recounted in retrospect in Act 1 when the lawyer states the legal position after Andrew Vanstone's death. There are some key differences - Norah Vanstone here is a bed-ridden invalid who is never seen on stage, and it is Magdalen who eventually gets together with George Bartram. Also, whereas in the novel Magdalen doesn't drink the poison that she has procured for an extreme situation, here she does - but the chemist had smelled a rat and substituted it for a harmless coloured fluid. The Secret Trust is also replaced by a different letter in the last scene also.

Oddly the dramatis personae only lists the male characters in the play. I have been unable to find out much about the play version online, except that it was produced in 1863, a year after the novel's publication, and that Collins apparently had difficulty finding a theatre to show it. I suspect this may be because the plot depends on legal subtleties and lacks much of the immediate dramatic impact of The Moonstone, so translates less satisfactorily from printed page to stage. Oddly, the play No Name is set in 1870, i.e. a few years in the future when it was produced, whereas the novel No Name was set in the late 1840s.

feb. 15, 2022, 3:11 pm

14. The Rivals: A Comedy - Richard Brinsley Sheridan

This comedy was first produced in 1775 and much of its humour still comes across well, with confusions of identities, romantic misunderstandings and, most famously, the wonderful comic creation of Mrs Malaprop, with her confusions of similar sounding words which have given birth to a term in modern English, such as "an allegory (alligator) on the banks of the Nile" or "the very pine-apple (pinnacle) of politeness". I enjoyed this rather more than School for Scandal.

Editat: feb. 18, 2022, 12:47 pm

15. Blood Feud - Rosemary Sutcliff

This is another beautifully written historical novel by one of the greatest exponents of the genre in the 20th century. This one concerns a half Saxon, half Cornish boy Jestyn. He leaves home after his mother dies when he is 12 and his stepfather casts him out. After spending some time learning the ways of looking after cows, he loses his way in a storm and is captured by Vikings and sold as a slave. He is bought by a band of Norseman as a personal thrall; however, after saving his master Thormod's life in a fight in Dublin, they become blood brothers and Jestyn joins Thormod's feud to avenge his father's murder at the hand of two brothers. This journey takes him across Europe to Constantinople where his band of Northmen becomes part of the Byzantine Emperor's Varangian guard (as did the famous historical Norse king Harald Hardrada, King Harold II of England's victim at the Battle of Stamford Bridge). He eventually settles in the city and becomes apprentice to a physician and marries his daughter. A lot happens in this fairly short novel and I enjoyed it, though I found it less totally absorbing than most of her others I've read ...perhaps a bit too much happened and it seemed in a way like a summary of Jestyn's life rather than a fully engrossing novel.

feb. 26, 2022, 6:43 am

16. The Long Ships: A Saga of the Viking Age - Frans Bengtsson

This long novel, published in the 1940s in Swedish, has been regarded as one of the best historical novels ever. I wouldn't go that far myself, but I found it mostly an enjoyable and often amusing read, following the life and voyages of Orm Tostesson in the years around the end of the first millennium, told in a Norse saga style with voyages across Europe and the Balkans and Middle East, tales of battles, horrific massacres, treasure hunts and heroic rescues, weaved into real historical events and characters . Some of the sub-stories go on a bit and become a bit tiresome but there is mostly a good narrative drive and some great set pieces. I noticed a great example of a Viking curse: "may she toss perpetually in the whirlpool of Hell amongst sword-blades and serpents' fangs".

març 4, 2022, 3:21 pm

17. Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine - Anna Reid

This is a fascinating and also rather depressing history of Ukraine. At the time of my writing this review, the Russian invasion of the country is just over a week old, and sadly represents just the latest in a many centuries long history of war, massacre and disaster, for much of which time the Ukrainians have not had their own state, but been part of Russian, Polish, Lithuanian or Austro-Hungarian states or empires. This is a book of two (uneven) halves, written during the author's various sojourns in the capital Kyiv. This is a 1000 year history of war and violence, from the founding of the Kievan Russ state and its historic decision to adopt Byzantine Christianity, separating future Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians from their Polish Catholics to the west; Islam was also an option but Prince Volodomyr liked pork and wine! It is a history involving Mongols, Cossacks, Poles, Jews and many others in a colourful and violent interplay of nations and ethnic groups.

These first ten chapters were written in the mid 90s, just a few years after independence from the Soviet Union, which came suddenly after the failure of the August 1991 coup attempt again Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Despite a bumpy start to independence, the author is fairly upbeat at the end of this section that Ukraine may grow along a path towards being a prosperous and significant mainstream European country. The book was republished in 2015 with a more downbeat assessment and four extra chapters on the events of the Orange Revolution of 2005 and the 2014 Russian invasion of the Crimea and the Donbass area of Eastern Ukraine. It does indeed make you realise that Ukrainians have had among the bloodiest history of any national ethnic group in Europe over the longest period of time and in the 20th century for example suffered hideously not only during the second world war (as of course did the Russians) but also in the Great Hunger (Holodomor) of the early 1930s, Stalin's state-inspired famine when the Soviet Union was exporting grain to pay debts at the expense of millions starving mostly in Ukraine.

At the end, the author reminds us that "back in the 1990s, I closed the original edition of this book with the hope that Ukrainians were set for a happier future, and the observation that ‘after a thousand years of one of the bloodiest histories in the world, they surely deserve it’. It’s truer than ever". Indeed, in the most recent years since the Maidan Square uprising of 2014, the central and western parts of Ukraine at least have matured and bear many hallmarks of a modern European country - which is probably why current events seem all the more shocking to us in Britain. I wonder if the author will write a third edition - sadly it would be likely to contain as much grim drama as the first two editions.

març 4, 2022, 4:58 pm

18. The Visiters - Daisy Ashford

This short book is rather a novelty, having been written by the author as a 9 year old in 1890, though not published until 1919. While obviously displaying the inexperienced in life approach one might expect, it shows an understanding of narrative and plot, and an eye for descriptive detail unusual for one so young, The author wrote other stories at a young age, including one when even younger than when she wrote this one, some of which have been lost. Don't expect great drama, obviously, but this shows some familiarity with, and ability to laugh at, some of the habits of the time.

març 4, 2022, 5:39 pm

>29 john257hopper: The Young Visiters made me smile.

març 4, 2022, 6:25 pm

>30 pamelad: yes it was amusing, a light relief after the seriousness of the Ukraine book.

març 7, 2022, 4:08 pm

19. Forest of Secrets - Fiona Buckley

This is the nineteenth book in the Ursula Stannard series of Elizabethan mysteries. Much of this centred around revived pagan rituals in the New Forest, and whether they might be connected - rather implausibly - to plots to free the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots. This is at the time of the notorious Babington plot in 1586, the exposure of which caused Mary's final downfall and led to her execution. Ursula and her friends expose the New Forest goings on - which I found it hard to take seriously as an actual plot and, indeed, while sinister and nasty in import, they had no connection to national events. Ursula has to attend the execution of Mary to report back to Elizabeth on how her royal cousin meets her end. As ever I like the recurring characters very much and that keeps me reading, however implausible the plots sometimes are.

març 10, 2022, 3:48 pm

20. The Forest Dwellers: and the Killing of William Rufus - Judith Arnopp

This novel tells the story of a Saxon family living in the New Forest shortly after the Norman Conquest, suffering under the rule of their new masters who have appropriated all the resources of the forest to themselves. Fighting back they are killed or captured and the story unfolds over several decades telling of their future lives. The story is divided into sections told from different characters' points of view with different interpretations of some of the same events. While this is interesting, I was occasionally a little confused by the jumping around in time. The final section leaped forward a decade or more to the killing of Rufus. A decent story, though it was marred by a fair number of typos and occasional clumsy passages of writing.

març 14, 2022, 12:29 pm

21. Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia - Peter Pomerantsev

This is a simultaneously fascinating, in places horrifying and overall quite depressing account of Post-Soviet Russia, especially under Putin since 2000. One of the key takeaways is the immense and overwhelming sense of dislocation brought about by the fall of the Soviet Union in a comparatively short period of time, almost an existential trauma for most Soviet people, leading to multiple reinventions, with people (sometimes the same people) adopting guises variously as liberal reformers, Soviet nostalgics, Russian nationalists, establishment oligarchs or anti-Kremlin dissidents. The structure of the book is rather rambling and jumps about in time, perhaps self-consciously ironically echoing the nature of Russia during these decades.

In the context of the current (as I write) unfolding Russian invasion of Ukraine , the role of Russia Today in broadcasting Putin's views, but often in a subtle way, is laid bare here: "This is a new type of Kremlin propaganda, less about arguing against the West with a counter-model as in the Cold War, more about slipping inside its language to play and taunt it from inside". So, for example, "the Kremlin switches messages at will to its advantage, climbing inside everything: European right-nationalists are seduced with an anti-EU message; the far left is co-opted with tales of fighting US hegemony; US religious conservatives are convinced by the Kremlin’s fight against homosexuality. And the result is an array of voices, working away at global audiences from different angles, producing a cumulative echo chamber of Kremlin support all broadcast on Russia Today". By the same token, through its "political technologists" it neutralises internal opposition, and "climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd", so that the "Kremlin.... owns all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls".

Some other particularly awful things stuck out in my mind, for example the mass arrests and imprisonment of perfectly legitimate business people, including small kiosk holders, because overnight the authorities had reclassified harmless substances such as food additives as narcotics, in a battle between power brokers in the "law enforcement" apparatus. But how can you enforce law or obtain true justice when crime is owned by the state?: "when the President ascended to the Kremlin the era of the gangster ended. The secret services took over organised crime themselves; there was no way hoodlums could compete". Another shocking aspect was the deaths and exploitation of Russian models at the hands of a supposed self help movement that had more features of a suicide pact than anything else.

I could cite many other examples, but this is a grim subject, perhaps the only positive reflection now being that more people across the world are now aware of the new Russia's methods since the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. This is a very important book for understanding the post-Soviet Russian reality; the chaos and economic trauma of the 1990s seem almost benign compared to what has come afterwards.

març 20, 2022, 3:20 pm

22. The Children of the New Forest - Frederick Marryat

This was one of the first historical novels written specifically for children and published in 1847. Set during the English Civil War, the four children of deceased cavalier Colonel Beverley escape from the burning of their family home and are sheltered in the New Forest by Jacob Armitage. They take fictional identities as Armitage's supposed grandchildren. Over time, they get used to their lives there farming and herding cattle. The elder son Edward tries to get involved in the attempts to restore the future King Charles II, with mixed success. The depiction of the Civil War is definitely pro-Royalist, and helped to set the literary narrative of dour Roundheads and romantic swashbuckling Cavaliers. Though it isn't totally one-sided, and Intendant Heatherstone is a Roundhead who understands why people rebelled against King Charles I for depriving them of their liberties and promoting the divine right of kings, while being repelled by the King's execution. The final chapter leaps forward a few years to the Restoration and the four Beverleys taking up positions in the new court.

març 26, 2022, 5:58 pm

23. Killers of the King: The Men who dared to execute Charles I - Charles Spencer

This book provides a brief account of the trial and execution of Charles I in 1649 in the English Civil War, and more specifically the roles and later fates of the 80 or so prominent men involved in some way in the death of Charles I, whether as part of the commission that tried him, being a signatory to the death warrant or being involved in the mechanics of the execution itself. This was well researched, with some interesting individual life stories, but it made for quite depressing reading, with the unslakeable desire for vengeance on the part of the restored Monarchy from 1660 in pursuing this group of people throughout England, across the continent and even to the New World in some cases, bringing them back, in most cases, to face the most hideous execution of being hanged, drawn and quartered, after a perfunctory or even no trial. There were huge political issues at stake here on both sides of course, with the Divine Right of Kings on the one hand, versus the right of Parliament to circumscribe the powers of a monarch and develop some sort of parliamentary democracy and liberty, on the other. Some might assume that the author, being related to the royal family, will instinctively be on the side of the royalists, but in fact he regards the regicides as "extremely brave" people who " be remembered with respect for their sacrifices."

març 29, 2022, 3:31 pm

24. May Stuart - Paul C R Monk

This is a spin off novel from the author's trilogy about 17th century French Huguenot families fleeing persecution in their own country and settling elsewhere in Europe and the New World. This centres around French lieutenant turned privateer Didier Ducamp and courtesan turned spy May Stuart. They team together to escape from the activities of the cruel pirate Captain Brook in his hunt for treasure, involving the casual killing of many innocent civilians. I found this last aspect particularly depressing here, perhaps because my mental state has been a bit low recently, and I was really pleased with Ducamp and May getting together at the end and voyaging off to start a new life in America.

març 30, 2022, 3:02 pm

25. The Nursery Alice - A Children's Edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll

This was a version of Lewis Carroll's first Alice novel produced for very young children, containing the same illustrations but simplified (though not that simplified) language. A nice pleasant read on a day when I was feeling in the mood for lighter reading.

abr. 3, 2022, 3:30 pm

26. Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead - Karen Lee Street

This is the third in the author's trilogy of pastiche literary mysteries featuring Edgar Allan Poe teaming up with his fictional detective, Auguste Dupin. Dupin is as ever before obsessed with tracking down his arch nemesis and murderer of his grandparents Ernest Valdemar. There was a large element of Grand Guignol again here, though the constant descriptions of pyramids and other structures composed of human bones, and reenactments of death, got a bit wearing after a while and I felt little sympathy with Dupin's quest. Poe's grief over his dead wife Virginia (Sissy) and the pain of love and loss was a powerful theme of the novel also and had a melancholic effect on me. The literary melange was further added to by the presence not only of many real mid 19th century French literary figures, but also a number of striking figures from Eugene Sue's literary masterpiece Mysteries of Paris, often described as a prototype of Les Miserables, and which I read last autumn. This is imaginative and well written, but I am glad this trilogy has ended.

abr. 5, 2022, 3:07 pm

27. Castle Rackrent - Maria Edgeworth

I did not get on with this novel. It purports to be a series of accounts of the lives and fortunes of a number of heirs to an estate in late 18th century Ireland, narrated unreliably by an estate steward. Essentially this is a novella prefaced by an introduction and other surrounding material by a narrator who is describing the real life estate of Edgeworth's own father. While it's an interesting experiment and must have been well researched, I could not get into it.

Editat: abr. 9, 2022, 3:37 pm

>27 john257hopper: Same. Couldn't get into it.

>40 john257hopper: I put your book number by mistake.

abr. 9, 2022, 7:48 am

28. Dead Line - Stella Rimington

This fourth novel in the author's series of intelligence-themed thrillers featuring MI5 officer Liz Carlyle features a threat to a Middle East peace conference in Gleneagles in Scotland, from a source with their own particular motives. The number of agents running other agents in double or triple bluffs confused me a bit, but as ever Liz is a sympathetic figure and her colleagues are becoming clearer and more well-rounded ongoing characters, some of them rather likeable like her boss Charles Wetherby and her her assistant Peggy Kinsolving. I am enjoying this series more now and, as always any scepticism about the apparent implausibility of some of the plot twists, is offset by the fact of the author's former position as MI5 Director General.

abr. 15, 2022, 8:20 am

29. Sword of Kings - Bernard Cornwell

This is the twelfth novel in the author's Uhtred series. The events here, as in the previous novel, continue to surround the jockying for power as King Edward the Elder (Alfred's son) is dying, between Athelstan and his half brother Alfweard, sons of different wives of King Edward disputing each other's legitimacy/suitability for the throne. Uhtred as ever moves across the country involved in mayhem and bloodshed, but eventually returns to Bebbanburg again after Athelstan emerges triumphant.

abr. 18, 2022, 7:16 am

30. Smoke & Cracked Mirrors - Karen Charlton

This is the first novel in the author's new historical mystery series set in Second World War York. Two friends, enthusiastic amateur sleuths Jemma James and Bobbie Baker, reared on Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts and Dorothy Sayers, found a detective agency and build up a business through advertising. They have some interesting cases of insurance fraud, blackmail, adultery, and finally identity fraud and murder, though this isn't clear from the start of the events relating to that. I like Jemma and Bobbie and I enjoy the setting in York, as it's one of my favourite cities, and there were some colourful and interesting secondary characters. I don't really find the basic scenario convincing though. Could two young ladies really have made a success of this in the circumstances of the war and attitudes of the time towards women doing exciting and dangerous work? Very happy to be proved wrong, but this struck me as a little unlikely.

abr. 24, 2022, 3:39 pm

31. Tess of the D'urbervilles - Thomas Hardy

My third visit to the lovely town of Dorchester and surrounding parts of Dorset and as a consequence, my third Thomas Hardy novel. Tess is a simultaneously heroic and tragic figure, in her relationships with two men Alec D'urberville, who seduces and by implication rapes her, and Angel Clare, whom she marries, loses and then regains. I found the ending quite sudden and shocking. There is also humour, especially in the early parts with the Durbeyfield family, Tess's parents keen to show themselves the lost but superior branch to the aristocratic D'urbervilles. As with other Hardy novels, there is a very good feel for the ebb and flow of rural life, farming and the seasons. This is not plot-driven like Mayor of Casterbridge, but is more tragic than the more similar Far from the Madding Crowd, and Tess's travails make a powerful impression on the reader.

abr. 27, 2022, 11:13 am

32. The Story of the Treasure Seekers

This is another classic Nesbit children's book, the first of her trilogy about the six Bastable children who live with their widowed father in Lewisham in south London. In order to save their father's straitened finances, they develop a range of bizarre but mostly endearing schemes to raise money, including digging for treasure in their garden, selling sherry, rescuing an old gentleman from being attacked by their (the children's) own dog, kidnapping their next door neighbour, and pretending to be bandits and newspaper editors. It's all good light hearted fun, though not for me as good as Five Children and It or The Railway Children.

abr. 30, 2022, 3:43 pm

33. Railway to the Grave - Edward Marston

This is the seventh novel in the Railway Detective series set in mid 19th century Britain. Grief stricken by the disappearance of his beloved wife Miriam, Sir Aubrey Tarleton commits suicide by walking into the path of an oncoming train. Inspector Colbeck and Sergeant Leeming pursue a number of lines of enquiry, including that Sir Aubrey may have murdered his wife and committed suicide in remorse. Various locals are suspected, but the eventual solution to the mystery was rather surprising and I didn't find it wholly convincing. I increasingly like the main characters and their ongoing character traits are becoming slightly endearing, esp. Leeming's constant missing of his wife and children. I enjoyed this one more than many others, though the resolution of the mystery, as I say, slightly marred this feeling.

maig 3, 2022, 3:21 pm

34. The Painted Veil - W. Somerset Maugham

This was my first book by Somerset Maugham and won't be my last. I was impressed by his writing style, and his analysis of the human emotions in the relationships young British woman Kitty Fane has with her worthy but to her dull and unexciting husband Walter, and her affair with the exciting but less worthy Charlie Townsend. It's set against the colonial backdrop of British colonials in Hong Kong in the early 20th century. Kitty enjoys her affair with Charlie, but when it is threatened with exposure, Charlie backtracks and refuses to leave his wife Dorothy. In exasperation and disgust, she accompanies her husband on a dangerous mission to a cholera-stricken town where Walter, a bacteriologist, is charged with helping the local convent of nuns to alleviate the suffering of the townspeople. He eventually succumbs to the disease and Kitty realises his true worth. Back in Hong Kong, Kitty discovers she is pregnant and is taken in by the Townsends, much to her discomfort. It is an open question whether her baby is Walter's or, more likely, Charlie's. She returns to Britain to find her mother has passed away and she tries to form a relationship with her distant father as he is posted to a new life-changing role in the Bahamas.

I really enjoyed this novel and the author's descriptions of Kitty's emotional traumas and dilemmas, and relations with other characters, which rang as true and realistic, notwithstanding the very different setting (and the typical for the time assumptions of racial superiority of white Europeans over the Chinese). A great read.

maig 12, 2022, 3:22 pm

35. Imperial Woman: The Story of the Last Empress of China - Pearl S Buck

This is a biographical novel based on the life of Empress Tzu Hsi (Sacred Mother), the most powerful figure in late 19th century China and the real power behind the throne during the reigns of two of the last three weak Emperors in China. She was originally chosen as one of many concubines to the young Emperor Hsien Feng. Her position confirmed when she gave birth to a healthy male heir, she then became Regent to her son when Hsien Feng died aged 30 ("For ten years of her young womanhood she must rule in her son’s place. And what was her realm? A country vaster than she could guess, a nation older than history, a people whose number had never been counted, to whom she was herself an alien"). She ruled over her equally weak nephew when her son died at an even younger age. In many ways an arch-conservative, she was unable to stem the tide of other countries' attempts to exploit China economically, and failed to realise the need for her country to compete through developing industry and railways and trading more overseas. As depicted in this novel, she is a compelling figure, clearly dominating the court with a strong sense of what she at least sure as China's imperial and national interest ("a man’s mind in a woman’s body"), dealing with the competing forces of aggressive foreign nations, the Tai Ping rebellion and later the extreme nationalist Boxers. An autocrat of course, but seeing herself as a benevolent one, "she set herself to clean away rebels and reformers from among the Chinese whom she ruled, and to bring the whole people under the power of her own hand and heart again". This novel ends a few years before her death in 1908. The author records in a foreword that "decades after she was dead I came upon villages in the inlands of China where the people thought she still lived and were frightened when they heard she was dead. "Who will care for us now?" they cried".

Editat: maig 16, 2022, 3:56 pm

As more light relief, I read the next three books in a light-hearted time travel series by Jason Ayres.

36. Man out of Time

This is the third in the author's Time Bubble series, following various plot threads from the previous novel, including the exiling 22 years into the future of one of the most unpleasant characters from the previous novel, and how this affects his character. There was not such a strong plot drive in this as in the previous two novels, but this was still a good novel about time travel anomalies and paradoxes, with another cliffhanger ending.

37. Splinters in Time

This is the fourth Time Bubble novel. The survival of one of the main characters who was killed in the original timeline causes disruption to the various universes here. Josh, jumping around in time, encounters various alternative realities, including ones where: King Harold won the Battle of Hastings and the 21st century turns out to be as untechnological as the 19th; one where the President Trump-North Korea stand off results in nuclear war; and where all males have been killed by a virus. This felt a bit disjointed in places, but good fun.

38. Class of '92

This is the fifth Time Bubble novel. In this one Josh is stranded back in 1992, dealing with a new time bubble in Oxford that spits out at four day intervals people and creatures who have disappeared into it in the past, including ultimately even a dinosaur. Restricted to this one time zone, the plot has more room to breathe and the characters are more rounded, including a young policewoman Rebecca Osakwe, who meets with a tragic fate. The story also contained a few humorous references to 70s and 80s Doctor Who which, as a fan, I appreciated.

maig 18, 2022, 3:34 pm

39. Death Comes as the End - Agatha Christie

This is one of Agatha Christie's most unusual novels, being a historical fiction whodunnit set in ancient Egypt around 2000 BC. It has tended to get overlooked due to the lack of the usual Christie Golden Age of crime fiction feel. However, I found this difference rather effective, as it thereby strips away the usual iconography and trappings and allows a concentration on the fractious relationships between the members of Imenhotep's family, whose lives have been disturbed by the appearance on the scene of a new young concubine the master of the house has installed to replace his deceased wife. There are quite a shocking number of deaths in the household before the final, surprising conclusion is revealed. This is one of only four Christie novels never to have been adapted for the screen or stage.

maig 22, 2022, 2:40 pm

40. Father Goriot - Honore de Balzac

I studied this classic of 19th century French literature nearly 40 years ago when I did my French A level. This was my first read of it since then (bar an abortive attempt in 2008). On the positive side, it portrays well the relationships between the residents of the pension Vauquer, especially between the title character, the student Rastignac and the mysterious Vautrin. Later on Goriot's relationship with his daughters becomes more prominent. Despite all this and some well drawn scenes, I don't enjoy this. And frankly, the main reason is that it is not divided into chapters, it is just one continuous narrative, and I find that massively offputting, a psychological deterrent to me.

maig 30, 2022, 2:42 pm

41. League of Spies - Robert Merle

This is the fourth book in the author's series of historical novels set during the French wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. This novel focuses on the 15 or so years after the infamous St Bartholomew's Eve massacre in 1572, particularly focusing on the attempts by the moderate King Henri III to keep his kingdom together, with the extreme Catholic League led by the Duc de Guise wanting to wipe out all Huguenots, while the childless King has no heir except his distant cousin the Protestant Henri of Navarre against whom he has to pretend to wage war while secretly wanting Navarre to succeed peacefully to the throne. In the last chapter, the moderate but exasperated King finally decides there is no alternative other than to assassinate Guise to prevent his plotting to overthrow him. This fourth novel felt less closely connected than its predecessors with the personal fortunes of the novels' narrator Pierre de Siorac who, nevertheless, manages to conduct his usual range of romantic and sexual escapades with many ladies. Not the best of the series, but a solid and enjoyable read as always. Now my problem is that none of the remaining nine books in the series have yet been translated into English and even the French versions seem hard to find.

Editat: maig 31, 2022, 5:57 am

42. Lyra's Oxford - Philip Pullman

This is a spin off novella set in the world of the author's His Dark Materials series, between the end of the original trilogy and The Book of Dust. Lyra and her daemon Pantaleimon rescue a witch's daemon who claims to be seeking a cure for a sickness from which his mistress (but not he) suffers. But all is not as it seems. The story is brief, but quite dramatic, and as for Once Upon a Time in the North, the book also includes some snippets of interesting and amusing documents from Lyra's world). The book is also slightly annoyingly padded out with material from other related works taking up around a third of its length.

maig 31, 2022, 8:13 am

43. Serpentine - Philip Pullman

This is another spin off story from the His Dark Materials universe, but I wouldn't even call this a novella, it's really more of a scene where Lyra and Pantalaimon travel to see Dr Lanselius to talk about witches and humans separating from their daemons. Lots of illustrations (not as good as in the other books in my view) and plenty of spaces. Does feel like a bit of a rip off.

juny 2, 2022, 4:58 pm

44. The Song of Heledd - Judith Arnopp

This story is based on an early Medieval Welsh poem and tells of the story of the eponymous princess, sister of King Cynddylan of Powys who is married against her will to King Cadafael of Gwynedd to cement an alliance of Welsh kingdoms fighting against the English kingdom of Northumbria. Heledd has other ideas about whom she loves. While this sounds like a standard romantic trope of a Medieval lady married against her will, her actions and her choices have profound repercussions for those whom she loves and for the future of Welsh politics. She comes across as rather self-centred here and I didn't warm to her.

juny 5, 2022, 5:08 pm

45. Jasper Tudor: Godfather of the Tudor Dynasty - Debra Bayani

This is an account of the life of a little known Tudor, the uncle of the first Tudor king Henry VII. He was a brother of Edmund Tudor, who died before his son's birth and was married to Margaret Beaufort. In the author's words "If any man was responsible for the triumphant rise of the Tudor dynasty, that man was surely Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford and Earl of Pembroke." He was a loyal mainstay of the Lancastrian party for several decades during the Wars of the Roses and subsequently, and accompanied his nephew into the latter's exile in Brittany during the quarter century of Yorkist rule. We don't know much about Jasper as a person outside his political role and on many occasions this is simply a history of the Lancastrian-Yorkist rivalry, with the occasional mention of bits of property Jasper acquires across the country, intermixed with speculation about what he may have been doing at any particular time. Despite these weaknesses, this is a useful book in reminding us that sometimes the most significant actors in history in terms of what they lay the ground for, are also among the least known.

Editat: juny 11, 2022, 7:22 am

46. Uncrowned Queen: The Fateful Life of Margaret Beaufort, Tudor Matriarch - Nicola Tallis

This is a very readable and well researched biography of one of the most important female figures of late Medieval English history, mother of the first Tudor king Henry VII and indeed at times, almost his deputy, especially after the death of Henry's wife Elizabeth of York in childbirth in 1503. Later, slightly outliving her son who died in 1509, she was also unofficial regent to her grandson Henry VIII during the first two months of his reign until he came of age and married his brother's widow Katherine of Aragon. The book of course covers the political and military events of the Wars of the Roses and subsequent events, but also brings across clearly Margaret's intense devotion to her son's interests. Giving birth to him before her fourteenth birthday - extremely young even for the time - and largely perforce separated from him during his childhood and adolescence, she was utterly devoted to him throughout the whole of his life, both as exiled pretender and later as king. Henry's father Edmund Tudor died before he was born, and Margaret's subsequent marriages were made with the view of attaining security for herself as well as protection of her son's interests. The book also brings across Margaret's religious devotion, and her charitable and educational work, in which she took a personal interest and role which exceeded that of the merely conventional royal patronage of the age - she was the founder of Christ's and St John's Colleges, Cambridge.

juny 11, 2022, 7:39 am

S'ha suprimit aquest usuari en ser considerat brossa.

juny 12, 2022, 2:47 pm

47. The Beaufort Bride: The Life of Margaret Beaufort - Judith Arnopp

This is the first of an uneven length trilogy of novels dramatising the life of Tudor matriarch Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. This covers only the first 14 years of her life, but this packs in a lot, a betrothal when she was only 7 and a marriage to another man at the age of 12, and giving birth, with great difficulty, to her son, after the death of her husband Edmund Tudor of plague. At the end of the novel she is being introduced to the man who is to be her third husband, Henry Stafford. Telling a novel from the point of view of a child, albeit an intelligent and observant one like Margaret Beaufort, can be a challenge to put across, but she comes across quite realistically here.

juny 19, 2022, 4:08 pm

48. Aurora Floyd - M E Braddon

This is Mary Elizabeth Braddon's second most famous novel after Lady Audley's Secret. Like that one it also concerns a respectable woman with, at least by the standards of the mid 19th century, a disreputable secret in her past. This slightly lacked the sparkle of the other novel, but still contained moments of drama and tension and some interesting characters. There is a murder central to the mystery of Aurora's past, though the identity of the culprit is hardly a surprise and I was slightly hoping for a last minute twist. As an author of Victorian sensationalist novels, Braddon is for me almost up there with Wilkie Collins, though she is undeservedly far less well known.

juny 20, 2022, 11:25 am

49. Arthur: Prince of the Roses - Alison Weir

This is a short story told from the point of view of Prince Arthur, elder son of the first Tudor King Henry VII, acting as a companion piece to the first novel in Weir's Six Tudor Queens series focusing on each of the wives of King Henry VIII. The story brings across clearly the weight of expectation and destiny placed on young Arthur as the progenitor of a line of future kings descended from ancient Welsh princes, including the legendary Celtic/Romano-British war leader of the same name, and who will supposedly restore the fortunes of Britain and its kings. In reality, Arthur is a bookish and physically weak boy who doesn't live up to his parents' or society's expectations for ideal kingship and chafes in the shadow of his ebullient and talented younger brother Henry. The stage is set when Arthur, already suffering from the tuberculosis that will shortly kill him, first reluctantly meets his destined bride Catalina (Catherine) of Aragon. Arthur's story is tragic at a human level, and it is interesting to speculate how differently English and world history would have turned out had he been healthy and succeeded to the throne instead of his younger brother. I look forward to the main series, and other companion short stories.

juny 26, 2022, 4:27 pm

50. Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen - Alison Weir

This is the first in the author's six novel series tracing the lives of Henry VIII's six wives. Katherine of Aragon's marriage to the Tudor monarch was longer than all the other five marriages put together and far more significant in its longer term impact than any of the others, only Anne Boleyn's coming anywhere close. It finished in a hugely protracted divorce, the consequences of which were surely more far-reaching than those of any other divorce in history, certainly in British and arguably European and world history, as it gave rise to an irrevocable split in the Christian church, the most powerful international force of the time. Katherine's profound sense of duty comes across very clearly here, as does her almost unbelievable levels of personal sense of love and loyalty to Henry, amounting to what comes across to the modern reader as utter naivety at the time when her successor Anne Boleyn is already married to the King and crowned Queen, when Katherine even believes she will be recalled to court and reinstated after the Pope eventually after years of delay pronounces Katherine's marriage to the King legitimate. Katherine does nevertheless come across as a noble, if somewhat irritatingly stubborn, character and I felt sadness at her eventual death in the quietness of an isolation in the countryside amounting effectively to imprisonment. Alison Weir writes the Tudors like very few other authors and I think in particular is one of the very few who is equally effective at both fiction and non-fiction.

juny 29, 2022, 5:45 pm

51. The Coffin Trail - Martin Edwards

This is the first in a series of whodunnits set in the Lake District, one of my favourite areas in the country. Daniel Kind is a disillusioned Oxford academic historian who moves to the Lake District with his partner journalist Miranda, buying a cottage with connections to the history of his family and their knowledge of a boy Daniel met in his childhood on a family holiday, who later died in tragic and controversial circumstances after the horrific murder of a young woman. Senior policewoman Hannah Scarlett looks into the case as the first of a series of cold case reviews. Daniel, as the son of the senior policeman with whom Hannah worked on the original case, creates ripples in the local community through his questions about the case. The final resolution is suitably unexpected, with some late twists and turns. The characters are well drawn, though I'm not sure yet if I quite like Daniel. But interesting enough for me to read subsequent novels in the series.

juny 30, 2022, 1:19 pm

52. The Blackened Heart - Alison Weir

This is another short story in the author's series of novels tracing the lives of Henry VIII's six wives. This is told from the point of view of Margery Otwell, one of the handmaids to Katherine of Aragon, who continues to serve her mistress when she falls into disfavour and the King forces through their divorce. As the pressure grows on her mistress as she lays dying at Kimbolton, pressure largely driven by the ever more powerful Boleyn faction at court, a sinister network closes in on Margery. Quite a sudden and shocking ending.

Editat: jul. 7, 2022, 5:07 pm

53. The Maid of Buttermere - Melvyn Bragg

This novel is based on the true story of Mary Robinson, a beautiful young woman from the village of Buttermere in the Lake District (daughter of the owner of the Fish Inn, now the Buttermere Court Hotel), who was infamously inveigled into marriage by a rogue by the name of John Hatfield, who impersonated a genuine aristocrat and MP, Alexander Augustus Hope. The story was a regional sensation of the time and was commented upon by the Lakeland poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. In fact, despite the novel's title, this story was much more about the motivations and thought processes of Hatfield, than about Mary herself, who despite coming across as honourable and strong-willed also lacks depth as a character and is rather portrayed as a symbol of female innocence manipulated by a deceitful man.

Of course this is as much a novel about the Lake District as a region as it is about any of the characters. For example, this description of Buttermere: "Mr Fenton looked up the length of the lake to the fortress of fells which lent Buttermere its utterly secured character: only one or two distant forms indicated a human presence and they shaded into the evening haze. There was a deepening purple of the crags, the water mirrored that and yet parts of the surface still glittered from the peach reflections which came off some of the clouds. It was peace itself. ......... There was something about the scale, the balance of lake, fell and sky, the colours, the secluded space, the deep peace which not only appealed to what was best in him but seemed, in some way he could not explain but he knew that he could feel, to fulfil him, make him whole, in some profound way to represent him."

Similarly: ".....vale of Grasmere, a prospect described by great poets as an unsuspected paradise, depicted by painters as a jewel set in nature, sought out by the fashionable, protected by the sensible, evoker of sublime epithets, a small, ovaloid dream lake ringed by mountains proportioned in a measure which touched the intelligence as much as the eye; if any one place deserves the description, then Grasmere Vale could claim to be in the very eye of the Romantic storm, in its beauty, its seclusion, its inhabitants and its capacity to draw in and draw out some of the greatest artists of the era"; or, as Hatfield describes it more prosaically to himself, "like a soup bowl with a little puddle left over in the bottom"!

jul. 12, 2022, 2:50 pm

54. Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland AD 1803 - Dorothy Wordsworth

This is an account by Dorothy Wordsworth of a six week tour she made with her poet brother north of the border from their Lake District home in the late summer of 1803. They were accompanied by fellow poet Coleridge for part of the way, though he seems to have been ill most of the time, and before long went his own way in greater comfort. Dorothy's poetic descriptions of the Scottish countryside will ring familiar to anyone who has read her more famous Grasmere Journal, and the landscape has many similarities. Dorothy's descriptions of the many sub-standard inns they stay in along the way are quite amusing and show how much poorer and bleaker the Scottish countryside was at this time than most parts of England. Towards the end of the tour they spend time with Walter Scott, at this time also a fellow poet, and not the prolific novelist he would become better known for later. The first half of this account was written contemporaneously, while the latter half suffers slightly from having been written up at a later date, somewhat lacking the detail and fluency of the earlier sections. A good read, though.

jul. 15, 2022, 3:20 pm

55. Waverley - Sir Walter Scott

This first novel by Sir Walter Scott is often described as the first historical novel ever. While I have read and quite enjoyed three other Scott novels, Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, and Rob Roy, I could not get into this. It is over rich in cultural references and Scots dialect, almost like a brain dump, at the expense of any kind of plot. So I have given up around a quarter of the way through and I will not find out what happens to English officer Edward Waverley when he is posted north of the border at the time of the Young Pretender's uprising of 1745. No rating.

jul. 17, 2022, 5:43 am

56. The Mystery of Cloomber - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This short novel tells of the story of an old British soldier of the Afghan wars of the 1840s who is scared witless by a memory of something in his own past, from which he tries to hide in an old gothic mansion in a remote part of Scotland, where he and his family live as recluses. His secret turns out to be the killing of a holy man, which gave rise to a threat of spiritual vengeance by some Buddhist priests. The story is atmospheric and well told but, like other Doyle stories involving Asian cultures (the Sherlock Holmes story The Sign of Four) mixes elements of different religions and cultures (the slain Buddhist adept is called Goobal Shah, and one of the avengers Ram Singh). Doyle was an intelligent man of the world so it is disappointing he makes these ignorant mistakes though, with respect to the Afghan wars, the narrator acknowledges "in my own heart that the murderous spirit has been set on foot by the Christian before it was taken up by the Buddhists". Despite these flaws that tend to grate on the modern reader, this is a gripping piece of writing that showcases the variety of different genres of fiction that Doyle produced.

jul. 18, 2022, 3:33 pm

57. Beyond the City - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This is another gem of a little known short novel by Conan Doyle, centring on the relationships between three neighbouring families in a London suburb, observed ruefully by two aged spinsters whose father used to own the land on which all these houses all now stand. It is very funny, and there are some interesting discussions on female emancipation, with which Conan Doyle appears to have a basic philosophical sympathy while satirising, though quite affectionately, the "fanatic" excesses to which they tend to go. Despite initial tensions between the households, the financial ruin of the young man in the one of the households due to embezzling of funds by his business partner brings the families together as they try to help him, and the story ends with a double marriage. A nice, upbeat read to distract me on a blisteringly hot day.

jul. 22, 2022, 3:19 pm

58. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J K Rowling

I must be one of the few people who has never until now read a Harry Potter book, but I have now done so after seeing the excellent if rather long stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It is good fun and has a natural heart-warming old fashioned feel about it that I think is the key to why it appeals to readers of all generations. I thought the ending was a little rushed.

jul. 23, 2022, 1:16 pm

59. Pygmalion - George Bernard Shaw

This is the original play version much better known as the musical My Fair Lady. As such, this lacks the variety of scenes of the latter, with the Ambassador's ball taking place off-stage and no Ascot race day. The hilarious scenes of Eliza's elocution lessons ("the rain in Spain is mainly in the plain" etc. are missing here). Aside from that, the dialogue is nearly identical and sparkles and flows like quicksilver though, as when I saw the musical a few days ago, I was irritated by the way Eliza is treated not only by Higgins, but perhaps even more so by the housekeeper Mrs Pearce, as though she is little more than an object with no feelings. In any case, the play/musical are both well worth reading/watching.

jul. 26, 2022, 3:53 pm

60. Death in Blitz City - David Young

I have read and enjoyed the author's previous series of crime novels set in East Germany in the 1970s and 80s, but this was a change of scene, being set in Hull, in the north east of England, during the second world war. The body of a young woman is discovered in a bombed out house, but she has been strangled and, shockingly, her heart removed. The resulting investigation covers murders of part time prostitutes and black US GIs stationed nearby, mixing themes of racism in the segregated US army with local government fraud in Hull corporation, though I wasn't clear how and why these were linked.

The central protagonist Inspector Ambrose Swift has an interesting backstory from the Great War and his previous policing experiences in London which could point towards a potential interesting prequel or two. His sidekicks are also interesting, Jim Weighton, a part time bare knuckle boxer, and Kathleen Carver, a clever and resourceful young woman determined to make her way in the male dominated world of policing. Despite these promising aspects, this is apparently a standalone novel and not the start of a new series. I guess we'll see.

Editat: jul. 31, 2022, 6:49 am

The three short novels in Edgar Rice Burroughs's Caspak Trilogy.

61. The Land that Time Forgot

I enjoyed this rather more than I did on my previous reading a decade ago. It is adventure/science fiction in a Jules Verne style though with more of the "boys' own" macho style that is dated now, mixed with blatant racial stereotyping, all of which the reader has to accept on its own terms for the sake of the narrative drive and for the time in which the story was written. All the characters are pretty one dimensional anyway. I got a bit confused by the various captures and re-captures between English and German sailors during the First World War at the beginning but the plot was easier to follow once they got to Caprona. I'm not totally sure what the difference is between Caprona and Caspak . In any case, I liked this well enough this time round to begin immediately reading the second part of the trilogy (they're all short books).

62. The People that Time Forgot

I was a bit disappointed with this sequel to The Land That Time Forgot. I was expecting it to follow the adventures of Bowen Tyler and Lys after they accept their fate as being finally stranded in Caspak beyond hope of rescue. Instead it follows the adventures of Tom Billings, the man who finds the message in a bottle that Tyler threw into the sea at the end of the previous novel. He and his companions attempt to land on Caspak and Tom adventures across the land accompanied by a woman he meets, Ajor. This novel relies less on action and more of how Tom discovers more about the complicated societies on the island, where individual members of tribes progress through levels from apelike creatures to increasingly higher forms of humanity. This makes the novel somewhat more intellectually interesting but less readable as an adventure story.

63. Out of Time's Abyss

This final volume in the Caspak trilogy follows the adventures of Bradley, one of the sailors whose path became separated from that of most of his fellows in the previous novel. It is very like the second volume in that Bradley like Tom Billings in that book adventures across the surface of the continent and finds and rescues a Caspakian woman, Co-Tan, with whom he falls in love. Most of the enemies Bradley faces though are not dinosaurs or wild animals, but the intelligent but hideous and murderous Wieroos, who have a much more advanced civilisation than any other hominid race in Caspak. After many brushes with death, at the end of the novel, Bradley and Co-Tan meet Billings and Ajor and they and all the surviving crewmembers of their ship and of the original German U-Boat sail off into the sunrise.

ag. 3, 2022, 3:52 pm

64. Sayonara - James Michener

There was a time around 20 years ago when I read several of Michener's epic historical novels, but none since I finished The Source in January 2004. So after a gap of 18 and a half years, I am reading this shorter novel, inspired by seeing the musical South Pacific last weekend. And yes I know that musical is based on a different Michener book, but this one has similar themes, specifically racial tension between US military forces and the native populations of, in the case of this book, Japan in the early 1950s.

Major Ace Gruver is the son of a four star general, engaged to Eileen Webster, daughter of a slightly less highly ranked US general. He is posted to Kobe in Japan to help to dissuade an acquaintance and former member of his unit in the war in Korea, Joe Kelly, from marrying a Japanese woman, Katsumi. This argument is advanced partly on simple racist grounds, but also on not embarrassing the US and its armed forced by fraternising with "the enemy" (though the war is in the past and Japan and the US are allies in the war against the communists in Korea). But as he gets to know them better as a married couple, he comes to recognise the quality of their union, which he contrasts favourably with his relationship with Eileen, who he sees as becoming like her battle-axe of a mother, a woman whose overriding concern is to promote her husband's military career and to preserve the proprieties of military life, including not "consorting" with Japanese women.

Gruver in turn falls in love with a beautiful classical dancer, Hana-ogi and wishes to marry her, even at the cost of abandoning his military career and not returning to the States. Eventually Kelly's and Gruver's relationships with their Japanese partners reach a tragic crisis point due to the pressures they are placed under (the film version, as so often, ends in a more upbeat way). This novel explores racial and cultural tensions very movingly and effectively, with Gruver coming to appreciate what he sees as the simple and honest life of the ordinary Japanese people compared to the complex and manipulative lives of his American compatriots, combined with anger at the naked racism of many of his military superiors. At the end, when he is parted from Hana-ogi seemingly permanently, he presciently remarks that "All this should have happened fifty years from now. Then maybe there would have been a chance. In my day there was no chance for such a marriage.” A moving and powerful novel about love across racial and cultural boundaries.

ag. 10, 2022, 9:04 am

65. Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden

This is a fictional memoir researched by a US author through talking to real geisha. Through the medium of the fictitious geisha Sayuri, he brings across the lifestyle and customs of this very culturally specific group of people, about whom there are many myths and mis-representations in the western world. There are many colourful characters as Sayuri, separated from her sister, her only surviving family member, grows up in the okiya (geisha house) from the age of 9 (in 1929) moving through her apprenticeship period and facing the bitter jealousies of real and potential rivals. I enjoyed this novel which covers a period of over 20 years through the closure of the geisha communities during the second world war and partial recovery thereafter, though the community shrinks considerably in the second half of the 20th century.

The novel was somewhat controversial when published, as Mineko Iwasaki, the main geisha source from whom the author derived his information, was upset about being acknowledged as such, and sued the author, though the case was settled out of court. There were apparently some differences of opinion and/or interpretation over what she told him about her experiences. I have no independent knowledge of where the truth lies in any such disputes, but this novel reveals a rich, colourful and (to the western eye) alien lifestyle and does not glamorise the difficulties and controversial aspects. A worthwhile read.

ag. 12, 2022, 3:15 pm

66. The Secret History of Procopius

I was prompted to read this account of the life and times of the late Roman/Byzantine emperor Justinian and his consort Theodora from listening to a series of episodes about them on the Rest of History podcast channel this week. Procopius writing in the 6th century AD was one of the last significant historians of the old Roman Empire, despite being from the western Latin half he wrote his works in Greek, the language of the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople that saw itself as the inheritor of the original Roman Empire. Procopius's original work on the wars Justinian waged to expand the Empire were seen as too uncritical and propagandistic and, as if to compensate, he wrote this work in secret, only to be published after the Emperor's and his own death. Fair enough perhaps, but this work is comically absurd in its exaggerations. His hatred of Justinian and Theodora is such that he says "these two seemed not to be human beings, but veritable demons, and what the poets call vampires: who laid their heads together to see how they could most easily and quickly destroy the race and deeds of men; and assuming human bodies, became man-demons, and so convulsed the world". On various occasions he claims that "Justinian's head vanished, while the rest of his body seemed to ebb and flow" or that "of a sudden the face changed into a shapeless mass of flesh, with neither eyebrows nor eyes in their proper places, nor any other distinguishing feature". Furthermore in a claim wild even by the numerical standards of pre-modern historians, Procopius writes "Examining the countries that he made desolate of inhabitants, I would say he slew a trillion people"; a trillion is some 120 times the total world population even now in 2022, never mind in the 6th century, in the process also blaming the rulers for earthquakes and plagues. The tone of the narrative makes it difficult to take Procopius seriously as a historian, colourful and extravagant (and rather confusing) though it is.

ag. 17, 2022, 11:22 am

67. The Evening of the World: A Romance of the Dark Ages - Allan Massie

This is the first of a trilogy of historical novels set during the so called "Dark Ages" around the time of and after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. A Roman youth Marcus is sent on a mission to the eastern Roman Emperor Honorius at the time when Alaric's Visigoths are threatening the sack of Rome (410 AD). The narrative vehicle of this novel, one which seems to have not gone down well with some readers if Amazon reviews are anything to go by, is as if it were an early Medieval chronicle, being told by the tutor of the future Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, to his young charge, with interpolations by other scholars in later centuries. This is quite an erudite literary conceit, which I can appreciate, but which will not appeal to all readers and which does result in a novel that gets bogged down by digressions and with a narrative studded with highly improbable incidents, as was the case with a lot of Medieval literature, where the boundary between history and fantasy/legend was often blurred, not generally for any sinister reasons, but due to the prevailing Medieval worldview. Overall, I enjoyed it, and will probably read the sequels (which concern King Arthur and then Charlemagne).

Editat: ag. 17, 2022, 3:10 pm

68. Sultana's Dream - Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

I stumbled across this author and short story almost by chance when an article about her popped up in the Google feed on my phone a few days ago, perhaps occasioned by its being the 75th anniversary of Indian independence this week. Published in 1905, it centres on a lady who falls asleep in her house and wakes up in a world dominated by women and where men are confined in the zenana, the section of the house in which women are confined in traditional communities in India and other countries. In this parallel world, women have taken over after most men have been killed by an invading army, which in turn was defeated by the women. It has interesting and advanced for its time things to say about women's rights and renewable energy. The author was a pioneer of women's rights and education in Bengal of the early 20th century. She is still well known in that region, but should no doubt be better known internationally.

ag. 24, 2022, 4:25 pm

69. The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company - William Dalrymple

This is a detailed and well researched account of the rise and (in briefer form) fall of probably the most powerful corporate entity in world history - and it's not a familiar name to 21st century ears, but one that ceased to exist 150 years ago. In the author's words "the East India Company remains today history’s most ominous warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders can seemingly become those of the state". He describes its "conquest of India as almost certainly .......the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. For all the power wielded today by the world’s largest corporations – whether ExxonMobil, Walmart or Google – they are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarised East India Company".

The company had modest beginnings in 1600 as a relatively modest late Elizabethan attempt to improve its position in the growing spheres of exploration and economic expansion relative to its key rivals, the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Dutch - it was a joint stock company, "one of Tudor England’s most brilliant and revolutionary innovations". The first century or more of its activity was relatively modest and it wasn't until well into the 18th century that it came to acquire more power, against the backdrop of growing ethnic and regional challenges to the Mughal Empire, the dominant polity in the Indian sub-continent. So for 200 or more years, the growing British influence and power in India was not the government "but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by a violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator – Clive. India’s transition to colonialism took place under a for-profit corporation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors".

Through the course of some half century of warfare, not only with Indians, but also in imperial rivalry with the French, the company came to acquire a huge private army and security force that by 1803 numbered some 200,000 men, twice the size of the British army, had "seized control of almost all of what had once been Mughal India, created a sophisticated administration and civil service, built much of London’s docklands and come close to generating half of Britain’s trade". But it was not all plain sailing - during the nadir of this period, the company survived only through massive loans from the British government. Its economic exploitation of Bengal exacerbated the effects of the terrible famine in West Bengal in 1769-70, caused by successive failures of harvests and extreme drought. Following this, people in Britain began to sit up and take notice and attempts were made to exercise greater state control over the company's activities.

During the Napoleonic era, the new governor general of India was Richard Wellesley, elder brother of the future Duke of Wellington and with ruthless determination he both beat the French in India and largely subjugated the Indian states under the nominal rule of the ineffective and long-suffering Mughal Emperor Shah Alam. After his recall, and as the 19th century gathered pace, the British Parliament took greater control of the situation, firstly allowing economic competition from other companies in trade with the East, ending the company’s monopoly, and later removing the company's right to trade altogether. Finally, after the crushing of the Great Uprising/Indian Mutiny/First War of Independence in 1857, the company's final functions were subsumed by the British state, thus creating the Raj, the form of British India for the next years until independence, presided over by Queen Victoria as Empress of India.

There are some colourful characters whose careers are traced here, most notably in my view Robert Clive, Warren Hastings and the ineffective and weak but personally honourable Shah Alam. Overall, it was a good read, though I didn't enjoy it quite as much as the author's Last Mughal, about the events of 1857.

ag. 27, 2022, 3:36 pm

70. Shadow of Spain - Fiona Buckley

This is the twentieth book in the Ursula Stannard series of Elizabethan mysteries. It is 1588 and time for the Spanish Armada. Ursula's former ward, Mildred Atbrigge, who falls in love very easily, does so this time and elopes with with Berend Gomez, a half English, half-Spanish double agent who has committed to stealing the Duke of Parma's battle plans for the Armada from the Netherlands and passing them to Elizabeth's government. However, in doing so, he exploits the affections of Mildred and Ursula comes haring in pursuit of the eloping couple. I did wonder initially why Ursula was spending her time pursuing Mildred who is, albeit naive, an adult who should be responsible for her own decisions. But in the end it all turns out well and Mildred and Ursula play a role in ensuring that Parma's fleet does not intervene on behalf of Philip of Spain's fleet. The finale sees Ursula witnessing Queen Elizabeth's historic rallying speech at Tilbury. Good stuff as always, though I was a little irritated by Mildred's naivety and Ursula's initial determination to save her from herself and a little disappointed that Roger Brockley was almost entirely absent from this story.

ag. 30, 2022, 3:52 pm

71. Pictures from Italy - Charles Dickens

This is Dickens's account of a year (1844) he spent with his family in Italy, touring around but largely based in Genoa. This is not as well known as his other travelogue American Notes, and indeed this largely lacked for me the impact of that account. As you would expect from Dickens, his senses of observation and description are very sharp, and he is evocative in describing aspects such as the prisons and torture chambers of the Inquisition, a favourite theme of 19th century authors particularly as a vehicle for their anti-Catholicism. At one point he is similarly scathing of the many religious people he sees: "Every fourth or fifth man in the streets is a Priest or a Monk.....I have no knowledge, elsewhere, of more repulsive countenances than are to be found among these gentry. If Nature’s handwriting be at all legible, greater varieties of sloth, deceit, and intellectual torpor, could hardly be observed among any class of men in the world". He describes the various carnivals he encounters across the country in some detail.

Some of his most haunting descriptions are of the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum: "at every turn, the little familiar tokens of human habitation and every-day pursuits; the chafing of the bucket-rope in the stone rim of the exhausted well; the track of carriage-wheels in the pavement of the street; the marks of drinking-vessels on the stone counter of the wine-shop; the amphoræ in private cellars, stored away so many hundred years ago, and undisturbed to this hour — all rendering the solitude and deadly lonesomeness of the place, ten thousand times more solemn, than if the volcano, in its fury, had swept the city from the earth, and sunk it in the bottom of the sea".... "in the theatre of Herculaneum, a comic mask, floating on the stream when it was hot and liquid, stamped its mimic features in it as it hardened into stone; and now, it turns upon the stranger the fantastic look it turned upon the audiences in that same theatre two thousand years ago".

Dickens's itinerary seems unclear and he seems to move up and down Italy in a way that makes it hard to see how much time he is spending in each place. Although travelling with his family, they receive almost no mention, apart from the humorous "....obliged to take my other half out of the carriage, lest she should be blown over, carriage and all, and to hang to it, on the windy side (as well as we could for laughing), to prevent its going".

Finally, while the introduction mentions him visiting Venice, this seems to appear only as a dream sequence in the book. Overall a good read.

ag. 31, 2022, 3:31 pm

72. Sherlock Holmes and the Charlie Chaplin Affair - Val Andrews

This spin-off Sherlock Holmes novel sees the detective and Dr Watson coming out of retirement in 1921 to help Charlie Chaplin find his mother who, suffering from intermittent poor mental health, has disappeared from her carers. But there is more to this than meets the eye. Holmes of course tracks her down (can't give plot details due to spoilers), so that her famous son can ensure she is properly looked after for the rest of her life. A decent read, I enjoyed this more than the author's Sherlock Holmes and the Yule-Tide Mystery that I read a few Christmases ago.

Editat: ag. 31, 2022, 6:19 pm

>80 john257hopper: The Anarchy has been on my wish list for a while, but the time isn't right reading about violent, corrupt corporate predators. I can wholeheartedly recommend From the Holy Mountain, which traces the travels of two monks across Byzantium in 585 AD in parallel with Dalrymple's contemporary journey.

set. 1, 2022, 5:11 am

Thanks for the recommendation, Pam.

Editat: set. 13, 2022, 3:44 pm

73. Gorbachev: His Life and Times - William Taubman

This is the second mammoth biography by this author of a Soviet leader I have read, after his even bigger tome on Khrushchev in 2007. Gorbachev of course has a massive claim to be one of the most significant statesmen of the second half of the 20th century, and is widely regarded as such certainly in western Europe and north America, though largely not in his own country. He was "the only politician in Russian history who, having full power in his hands, voluntarily opted to limit it and even risk losing it, in the name of principled moral values". This would in most countries endear him to many people, though not in Russia, which has never been able to develop a democratic tradition, where there is a many centuries long tradition of a preference for authoritarian rule by one man (or very occasionally woman, in the 18th century anyway).

This exhaustively well researched biography traces his early life in a peasant farming family in southern Russia and the formative influences of his father and maternal grandfather in particular, his going to Moscow University to study law, meeting his wife Raisa, and his early climbing up the party hierarchy, to reach the Politburo in 1979-80 before the age of 50, by some distance its younger member. Most of this long book understandably deals with the six years of his leadership from 1985-91, first as general secretary of the Communist Party and latterly also as President of the USSR, when the country started to break up under the influence of the numerous internal and external pressures, the economy declining further and further, even while his democratic reforms (glasnost) gave his fellow countrymen a freedom they had literally never experienced before and which many of them, to some extent, did not know how to use and did not thank him for.

Only the last of 19 chapters deals with the quarter century (and more) of his post Soviet life, his international efforts to promote his ideals, and the tragic relatively early death of his beloved Raisa from leukemia in 1999. The author concludes that "despite his flaws and his failure to achieve all his noble aims, he was a tragic hero who deserves our understanding and admiration", and I agree with this conclusion as, I suspect, would most readers. His recent death, which prompted my reading of this book, will, I feel, compel others to evaluate his life's work in a largely positive way.

My only minor criticism of this book would be the extensive quotes from so many observers, so that the descriptions of some meetings/summits feel almost as long in the reading as the events themselves.

set. 17, 2022, 6:43 am

74. The Wouldbegoods - Edith Nesbit

This is the sequel to Nesbit's Story of the Treasure Seekers, following the adventures of the six Bastable children. Trying to learn from the various scrapes they got into in the first novel, they form a society named in recognition of their desire to do good deeds and not be naughty. Needless to say, despite their determination, their efforts go wrong and through numerous silly and amusing misunderstandings they usually manage to annoy or inconvenience people, and in one case cause a serious flood that damages their home. The narrator is once again the elder boy Oswald who reports his and his siblings' and friends' doings in the third person. Being earnest, clever but inexperienced children they make intelligent mistakes - for example, an eight sided tower "Denny says it is the shape called octogenarian; because a man named Octagius invented it". Light hearted and amusing, though this is not one of my favourites of hers.

set. 18, 2022, 3:30 pm

75. Sherlock Holmes and the Shadow of the Rat - David Stuart Davies

One of the most famous incidents mentioned in Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories as having taken place "off the page", as it were, is that of "the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared", mentioned in The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire. This is the second full length novelisation I have read based on this throw away line, and it was much better I thought than Paul D Gilbert's interpretation. This one has a thick atmosphere of dread as the foul scheme of Baroness Emmuska Dubeyk to spread bubonic plague through London emerges and her hypnotic powers are used effectively against the Great Detective himself to secure his temporary and unwilling support for her dreadful cause. My only issue was with the conclusion, where I thought the Baroness and her dread creatures were defeated rather too easily through the course of nature, and without Holmes's direct intercession, which felt a bit of a cop out.

set. 22, 2022, 3:17 pm

76. The Beaufort Woman: Book Two of The Beaufort Chronicles - Judith Arnopp

This is the second volume in the author's trilogy of novels tracing the life of Margaret Beaufort, scion of the house of Lancaster and mother of the future English king Henry VII. This novel covers the period after she married Henry Stafford right up until the victory of her son at Bosworth in 1485, a full quarter century.

Being told entirely from Margaret's first person viewpoint, the various battles and dramatic political events of the conflict known to later generations as the Wars of the Roses, are imparted to her through the arrival of breathless messengers reporting back victory, defeat, or the shocking desertion of one of the principal actors to or from one side or the other. This narrative approach, while historically accurate, sometimes irritates me in historical fiction but here it illustrates effectively how a powerful political figure like Margaret Beaufort is marginalised from the main action as a woman. The most dominant emotion in her mental landscape though is desperate regret and worry about her separation from her son Henry for almost the whole of his childhood and indeed his adulthood until his military and political victory at the age of 28.

The dramatic events of 1483-85 are vividly told; like many historical novelists she appears to be a believer in the innocence of Richard III over the Princes in the Tower and indeed she does not believe they were murdered, or at least that nine year old Richard was not murdered, to judge by the plot of another of her novels. I don't share her view on this, but it is a well told version of events and Margaret comes across as a real three dimensional human character.

set. 25, 2022, 4:31 pm

77. The Red Prince: The Life of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster - Helen Carr

This is a well-researched and well written biography of one of the most prominent of Medieval characters who did not actually become king. He was the third son of King Edward III, and grew up against the background of the early stages of the Anglo-French conflict known to later generations as the Hundred Years War, learning from the military exploits of his father and his elder brother Edward, the Black Prince. In many ways he was a conventional nobleman of his times, a military figure and a mainstay of the thrones of his father and later of his nephew King Richard II against the growing power of the nascent Parliament and of the common people, as shown in the so-called Peasants' Revolt. At the same time, he is possibly best known to many readers now for his famous love affair with Katherine Swynford, mother of his illegitimate children, who were later legitimised after they got married in the last decade of his life, after the death of his second wife Constance of Castile. This of course paved the way in the following century for the conflict known as the War of the Roses. At his death he was witnessing his Lancastrian inheritance from his first wife Blanche being severely challenged by the increasingly tyrannical King Richard II. This is a well rounded account of the subject's life, though of course much is unknown about his life especially in his earlier years, and a lot of this period is about the events of the time, and mentioning that John was or may have been involved. Definitely worth a read for anyone interested in Medieval history.

set. 30, 2022, 2:38 pm

78. A Choir of Crows - Candace Robb

This is the 12th book in this murder mystery series set in 14th century York, featuring Owen Archer, a veteran of the wars with France, and his wife Lucie, an apothecary. While I like these characters, this was one of my least favourite entries in the series. The plot surrounding a nun disguised as a boy and a stolen prayer book I found confusing and there were too many minor characters whose actions I didn't really understand. Rather a chore, this one.

oct. 10, 2022, 4:13 pm

79. Queen of our Times: The Life of Elizabeth II - Robert Hardman

This is a new biography of the Queen and her role published for the Platinum Jubilee earlier this year, taking her life and reign up until the beginning of 2022 (so some of the references to record-breaking and transition are now redundant). It is very comprehensive, covering her personal life, constitutional issues, domestic issues, politics, foreign policy, everything basically. It is very readable though, and never flags or bores at any point.

Huge amounts have of course been written and broadcast about her since her death just over a month ago and I think many of us are still processing her departure from the scene she has graced for over 70 years...and I am speaking as someone who most of my adult life have thought of myself as intellectually a republican, and never an instinctive monarchist. Maybe it takes an exceptionally long reign like hers to gain an appreciation of the impact of her soft power on world affairs and in providing a centre of national gravity over and above party politics, however hard this is to justify in democratic and meritocratic terms. The book inevitably talks a lot about the Queen's undoubted sense of duty but the one thing that probably struck me most above everything else was the almost incredible breadth of her experience on the national and world stage, knowing every Prime Minister from Clement Atlee (before she was Queen) to Liz Truss, every US President bar one from Harry Truman to Joe Biden, and almost every major world leader over a period of well over half a century. This is surely a length and breadth of experience that will never be repeated anywhere in the world at this level. I think it is the loss of this that is most striking by its sudden (albeit expected at some point fairly soon) absence. In the words of the author, "unlike other public figures, there is a timelessness about the Queen, all the more so in her later years. She may have aged, like everyone else, but, even after seven decades, she has not dated".

oct. 13, 2022, 5:28 pm

80. Britain on the Brink: The Cold War’s Most Dangerous Weekend, 27-28 October 1962 - Jim Wilson

It's the 60th anniversary this month of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the point during the Cold War, and indeed in the whole of human history, where humanity came closest to annihilation. This book, looking at Britain's role in the crisis, was published for the 50th anniversary in 2012 (when I read another book about these events, One Minute To Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, by Michael Dobbs). The author's central theme is a critique of British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan's decision to keep most of the true nature of the crisis secret from the British people, including by not putting British forces on such a high state of alert as their US counterparts, including those stationed on British shores. This approach was at variance with elaborate procedures set out in the War Book, though it all turned out right in the end. I feel the author is a bit unfair on MacMillan, though. Being a pragmatist, I suspect MacMillan reasoned that fear of an imminent nuclear war would cause unreasoned panic and civil disorder which, if the crisis did not come to pass, would be pointless and almost cruel, and, if it did come to pass, would make no difference other than making the last few days of normal life even more miserable. I think at a human level this was probably a justifiable approach.

The whole period of a week while this crisis lasted was punctuated by moments which could have so easily tipped the balance into nuclear conflagration. Not all of these happened due to events at a national or international political level though. One really striking incident occurred on board a Soviet submarine in the Caribbean which, having been submerged for a long time, was not aware of developments on the surface and may well have thought the US has by now invaded Cuba: "Three officers on board – Savitsky, the political officer Ivan Semonovitch Maslennikov, and Commander Vasili Arkhipov – had authority to launch the torpedo if they could not get authorisation from Moscow, providing they all agreed. A furious argument broke out between them, in which only one, Arkhipov, was against making the attack. Eventually he persuaded Savitsky to surface the submarine and await orders from Moscow. At a conference in 2002 which looked back on the crisis, the then former American Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, acknowledged that Arkhipov, by his persuasive arguments, had almost certainly saved the world from a nuclear war. Had the torpedo been fired, nothing could have stopped escalation to a nuclear conflict". This kind of incident really does send a chill down the spine.

This book is rather drawn out and the author indulges in a lot of repetition of the same points, which becomes wearing, though he also includes a lot of quotes from participants in the events which helps to bring out the human dimension at an individual level.

oct. 17, 2022, 3:19 pm

81. Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors - Piers Paul Read

This is the gripping, dramatic, grim and thought-provoking account of a group of young Uruguayan rugby players and their family and friends stranded in the snow capped Andes after their plane crashed when the pilot misjudged his location and wrecked his aircraft one day in October 1972. A number of passengers and crew perished in the crash itself or died of their injuries shortly thereafter. Even so there were some 29 survivors at this point of the original 45 passengers and crew. The survivors had very little food to share among them while waiting to be rescued, and soon they faced the inevitability of death .....until they took the shocking but necessarily life-saving step of eating the bodies of their dead friends and fellow passengers and crew. The account of these events is very detailed and entirely matter of fact and unsensationalised. It would be easy to be appalled and disgusted by this, but without this recourse, there have been no eventual survivors at all. In the end, after the deaths of 8 in an avalanche, and a further few from a combination of injuries and malnutrition, 16 of the boys eventually made it, after two of them managed to find a way out of the barren area where they were stranded by scaling a mountain, and raised the alarm. This is a great and almost spiritual account of reportage, written only two years after the events from the accounts of the survivors.

oct. 21, 2022, 10:42 am

82. Les Chouans - Honore de Balzac

This is the second book in Balzac's pretty much unconnected La Comedie Humaine cycle of almost 100 works written and set in early 19th century France. This is set in the early post-revolutionary years when the Directory is in charge, after the end of the Terror and before the rise of Napoleon. The Chouans are peasantry-based opponents of the revolutionary regime, and some of this novel depicts the fierce fighting between these two forces. The main thrust of the novel though is the passionate and self-destructive love between the aristocratic but Republican Marie de Verneuil and the Chouan Alphonse de Montauran, and themes of love and revenge dominate much of the story. As with Father Goriot, there are good set piece scenes, but overall the narrative does not work for me, and the division of the book into three very long sections puts me off a lot, as with the continuous narrative of Pere Goriot.

oct. 23, 2022, 3:31 pm

83. Poirot Investigates - Agatha Christie

This early selection of Poirot short stories has a particular feel of Holmes and Watson in the relationship between the great Belgian and Captain Hastings, with Inspector Japp occupying the Lestrade role. They are cleverly constructed of course and every detail counts in the short number of pages each story occupies - 11 tales in some 200 pages. The Kidnapped Prime Minister was perhaps the most novel, with fictional WWI Prime Minister David MacAdam facing both kidnap and assassination to prevent him from leading a peace conference.

oct. 26, 2022, 3:28 pm

84. Little Lord Fauntleroy - Frances Hodgson Burnett

This is one of Burnett's most famous books and is another uplifting story of individual redemption, this time not of a child as in The Secret Garden, but by a child, of an adult. Young Cedric Errol, a 7 year old living in genteel poverty in New York with his mother, is stunned to discover he is heir to an earldom in England. The aging, irascible and curmudgeonly Earl of Dorincort has outlived all three of his sons, including his younger son, who was cast off for marrying a pretty American woman. He summons his grandson across the Atlantic and finds, against his will and inclination, that he fond of young Cedric, who is sweet natured and kind. The transformation of the Earl under the boy's influence is amusing and heart-warming, though Cedric, like a lot of children in 19th century literature, is too good to be true. This is an uplifting read.

85. How Fauntleroy Occurred

This is a non-fictional account by Burnett of the raising up of her son Vivian, who was the inspiration for Cecil Errol, Little Lord Fauntleroy. If this account is accurate, and not partially distorted by retrospective memories of the novel, then the resemblance is almost identical, and indeed, I understand Burnett was criticised for this at the time. The account is wryly amusing. I don't know of its publication context though.

oct. 30, 2022, 4:42 am

86. Blood on the Line - Edward Marston

This is the eighth novel in the Railway Detective series set in the mid 19th century. Somewhat to my surprise, this has actually been my favourite of the series so far. This one concerned a Bonny and Clyde type couple on the run after they brutally kill two policemen so that the man, Jeremy Oxley, can escape custody. They are clever and cunning and elude their pursuers for a long time, but our heroes Inspector Colbeck and Sergeant Leeming of course close in on them eventually after a dramatic chase across the Atlantic and a stand off in New York. Colbeck's superior Inspector Tallis comes across as more human and rounded here too, as a mistake he makes costs the life of one of his men at the hands of the killers, and causes him to question, at least temporarily, his role and approach. I really enjoyed this story and the recurring characters' ongoing traits that I initially found annoying I now find rather endearing. At the end it also looks like Colbeck may at last marry his sweetheart Madeleine Andrews. There will be a shorter gap before I read book 9.

Editat: oct. 30, 2022, 3:45 pm

87. The Halloween Tree - Ray Bradbury

I tried to read this book at the same time 6 years ago and quickly gave up on it....this time I persevered through it, but I don't consider it time well spent. It starts decently with eight boys who go out trick and treating one Halloween and come up on a huge and imposing old dark house....but after the eponymous tree comes alive with moving, grinning, lighted pumpkins, it's all downhill from thereon. It's a mixture of cultural and historical references, the Mexican Day of the Dead, ancient Egyptian mummies, Samhain, the European witch craze, a plethora of potentially good elements but all hurled together at the page into what I thought was just largely an incoherent mess.

nov. 3, 2022, 5:30 pm

88. The Mummy and Miss Nitocris - George Griffith

George Griffith is very little known now, but in the late 19th and first few years of the 20th centuries, he was a writer of science fiction/fantasy and a utopian socialist a la H G Wells. This was apparently one of his minor works, where an Egyptologist and his daughter discover that they are the reincarnations of, respectively, a high priest and Queen in ancient Egypt. Other characters they meet in a series of dramatic events are also reincarnations of ancient Egyptians. This is a mixture of science, fantasy, high politics and Ruritania style manoeuvrings, and is quite fun, though it does drag in places, and the ending seemed quite sudden.

nov. 9, 2022, 3:59 pm

89. Kitty Peck and the Daughter of Sorrow - Kate Griffin

This is the third mystery in this series set in the seedy underworld of the Victorian East End of London. It's been three years since I read the previous one in the series, as I think their very downbeat and gloomy atmosphere was not something I wanted to imbibe during COVID. I found this one overlong and, as with its predecessors, rather meandering and over-dependent on emphasising the sordid aspects, somewhat at the expense of the flow of the narrative. The plot revolves around Kitty Peck, now called Lady Linnet, trying to expose the secrets of the Barons who secretly run London society. I will read the fourth in the series, but am not especially looking forward to it.

nov. 15, 2022, 5:12 pm

90. The Beetle A Mystery - Richard Marsh

This horror novel was published in 1897 at the same time as Bram Stoker's Dracula, whose popularity it initially rivalled. It is atmospheric, especially in the first and final sections of the novel, with a creepy feel and some dramatic events, though I thought the middle sections sagged a bit. The central villain and its eponymous insect form is quite striking, though I fear it was never going to rival a bloodsucking vampire for dramatic colour. Most of the human characters were fairly unmemorable, though there were some quirky and amusing minor ones. I thought the ending was a little sudden and a bit of a cop out. Good stuff though and I would read more by this author.

nov. 15, 2022, 5:20 pm

>102 john257hopper: Sounds good so I’ve downloaded a free copy.

nov. 18, 2022, 4:05 pm

91. Teenage Tommy - Richard van Emden

This was First World War historian Richard van Emden's first book, originally published in 1990 and reissued in 2013 for the centenary. The author had interviewed and pieced together the war time experiences of Private Ben Clouting of the 4th Dragoon Guards, a survivor of the regiment that saw the first shots of the war fired by the British Expeditionary Force on 22 August 1914. Ben was a very ordinary soldier, who joined the army in peacetime in summer 1913, lying about his age, claiming to be 18 when he was in fact not even 16. He spent some of the war in the trenches and some of it behind the lines looking after officers' horses. But his experiences are those of a very ordinary man in what he does and what happens to him, reacting unemotionally and with British phlegm. Overall Ben could be said to have been lucky in being away from the front line much of the time, though he was wounded twice, slightly gassed and nearly died of pleurisy. His account is remarkable for being unremarkable. Van Emden's editorial interpolations at times I thought were too long and unnecessarily dry and sometimes detracted from Ben's account, though on other occasions they helped with contextualising Ben's subjective experiences. Worth a read.

nov. 20, 2022, 3:00 pm

92. Playing with Matches: Coming of age in Hitler's Germany - Lee Strauss

This is a novel about a group of young teenagers growing up in Nazi Germany into and through the war. They are in part based on the White Rose group centred around Hans and Sophie Scholl, in that they anonymously distribute leaflets about the real situation with the war and the horrors of the Nazi regime. Unlike the White Rose group, they are mostly not caught and our friends Emil, Johann and Katharina survive to witness the full horror of the unfolding of the war and the Nazis' Gotterdamerung. Tragedy ensues as they become victims of the defeated Hitler's desperate attempts to sacrifice his entire people rather than confront the reality of defeat. I found this profoundly moving and gripping throughout and it can be enjoyed by readers of all ages, though it seems to be directed primarily at younger readers. 5/5

93. A Piece of Blue String: a young German girl's diary during WW2 - Lee Strauss

This is a short story companion piece to the author's Playing with Matches, a series of diary extracts from Katharina Ackermann as she details her growing love for her boyfriend Emil Radle. To be honest this felt a bit exploitative as it was largely extracts from the novel told from a slightly different viewpoint.

nov. 25, 2022, 3:26 pm

94. Dancing with Dusty Fossils - Karen Charlton

This is the second novel in Karen Charlton's historical mystery series set in York in 1940, centred around the York Ladies' Detective Agency run by Jemma James and Bobbie Baker. As before, there are several plot threads around the various cases they are investigating, includes thefts from a York museum, a murder that turns out not to be one, a search for evidence of adultery to justify a divorce, possible Fascist links and, in the background, the ongoing search by Jemma for her husband who has been missing for the last five months. This was enjoyable and I really like the two major characters and their family members, though some of the plot developments seemed a little far fetched. The story ends against the backdrop of the evacuation from Dunkirk, with family members returning to Blighty, but also a poignant tragedy for Jemma concerning the fate of her missing husband. I hope there are more to come.

nov. 30, 2022, 3:21 pm

95. The Edge of Dark - Pamela Hartshorne

This is the third historical/paranormal timeslip novel by this author set in modern day and Elizabethan York. While this is a fascinating concept and it is pretty well executed, it is very similar to her previous two novels, and without the connection to York as one of my favourite English cities I doubt if I would be pursuing this series. London-based events manager Roz takes a job in York, where she spent the first few years of her life before the tragic deaths of all her immediate family. She finds out that her family were killed by her half brother who set fire to the family home. Roz slips back into the body and life of Jane, an inhabitant of Elizabethan York whose father marries her off against her will to a weak willed and selfish man with a manipulative and grasping mother. After several tragedies and mishaps Jane escapes to London and finds happiness for a few years, though her past eventually catches up with her with tragic consequences. All this mirrors the events in Jane's own past and present that comes to a fiery conclusion at the end of the novel with her rediscovered half brother. A good read, though I do think the author could mix it up a bit more in her novels.

des. 4, 2022, 3:11 pm

96. The New Treasure Seekers - Edith Nesbit

This is the third of Nesbit's Bastables trilogy, following the further attempts by the six Bastable children to have fun and do good for others, attempts which often go awry, though sometimes through mischance turn out right in the end. This is more like a collection of short stories than a coherent novel, but this makes little practical difference to the narrative, which is amusing as ever, with the elder children's intelligent and unintentionally hilarious mistakes in the application of their knowledge. My favourite chapters were probably The Conscience-Pudding, The Turk in Chains and Zaida.

des. 5, 2022, 10:08 am

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des. 10, 2022, 11:36 am

97. A Tale of Two Murders - Heather Redmond

This is the first in a series of whodunnits featuring as sleuth a young Charles Dickens, investigating the sudden death of a young lady in a house neighbouring that of his employer Morning Chronicle editor George Hogarth, whose daughter Kate he is courting. The plot turns out to involve all manner of goings on involving families at all levels of society, and including the theatre, a medium in which Dickens saw his future at this time, and running not only to murder, but also suicide and poisonous mushrooms. I found some of the leaps of logic a bit hard to swallow, and I didn't really find Dickens credible as a sleuth, though his growing closeness with Kate, his future wife and mother of his ten children, was sensitively portrayed within the constraints of early 19th century courtship. At this point in his life Dickens is still 22 going on 23 and a parliamentary reporter with aspirations of writing short pieces of fiction, that would later be collected into Sketches with Boz. He speculates at one point that "perhaps he would become a famous solicitor, or a playwright with a theatrical run so outstanding that his play would travel through the provinces for years to come". But he is a long way off being a famous and best-selling writer of novels, for which he says "I don't know when I would find the time". He reflects at the end that his experiences in solving the murders "were exciting enough to turn into a novel. Though he had too much imagination to ever take anything direct from life". Despite the novel's title, this has nothing in common with Dickens's Tale of Two Cities, except for some of the characters having lived in France earlier in their lives, a minor character called Dr Manette, and a reflection by Dickens at the end to his future wife that "It is a far, far better idea for us to have experienced this together, than I would ever have dreamed". Overall, I didn't enjoy this quite as much as I expected from the start of the novel, but will pursue the series.

des. 17, 2022, 12:27 pm

98. Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens

This is my second reading of this great novel, Dickens's second published one, in parts in 1837-39 and the full text in 1838. This was of course a novel of much more serious themes than Pickwick Papers. It was also apparently the first novel in the English language to use a child as its central character, albeit that he is a cipher being an angelic, sweet boy, almost a Christ-like figure, without any clear personality as a rounded human being. Many of the other characters of this novel have become very famous, though in several cases this is probably more due to the 1960s musical Oliver! and subsequent film than the novel itself. For example, it struck me how little the Artful Dodger appears in the book and how much does the leading bland female character, Rose Fleming aka Maylie (omitted from many adaptations, and much less interesting than Nancy and not even of comedic value like Mrs Bumble).

The text of this is an early edition with the original illustrations by George Cruickshank. This does mean that it contains numerous slighting references to Fagin as "the Jew" which were regarded as anti-Semitic even at the time and were largely excised in later editions in the author's lifetime. It also contains some of the saddest words ever uttered in fiction by children expressing bittersweet resignation to the miseries of their lives, for example Oliver "wished, as he crept into his narrow bed, that that were his coffin, and that he could be lain in a calm and lasting sleep in the churchyard ground, with the tall grass waving gently above his head, and the sound of the old deep bell to soothe him in his sleep." and his friend Dick saying "I was glad to die when I was very young; for, perhaps, if I had lived to be a man, and had grown old, my little sister who is in Heaven, might forget me, or be unlike me; and it would be so much happier if we were both children there together"

This is still a powerful novel with its themes of grinding poverty, criminality and exploitation of children, and some striking set piece scenes such as Nancy being trailed across London by Noah Claypole, Nancy's murder by Sikes, and Sikes's own death while trying to escape the mob. This is not quite up there with Dickens's very best for me, but very good.

des. 20, 2022, 11:31 am

99. A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, an Orphan Boy - John Brown

This is a 1820s biography by a journalist of a young orphan boy living in St Pancras parish workhouse from the age of four, who was indentured as an apprentice in a cotton mill in Lancashire from the age of seven in 1799. It describes the appalling working and living conditions of the apprentices, which are genuinely shocking and which, the author, perhaps with some exaggeration, says are worse even than those of African slaves in the Americas. This memoir is believed by some to have been the inspiration for Charles Dickens's character of Oliver Twist, though as I understand, there is little or no hard evidence that he had read or heard of this memoir.

There are some shocking incidences of brutality and degrading treatment here, and, what arguably makes matters even worse was that, in 1802, an Act of Parliament (inspired by the industrialist Sir Robert Peel, father of the future Prime Minister) had actually somewhat ameliorated the conditions for these apprentices, but the mill owners largely ignored it and kept their workforce in the dark about such relatively liberal changes as a maximum 12 hour working day with no work before 6am and after 9pm, and provision of some basic education in the "3 Rs". Such had been the degradation that "Before he was eight years old, Blincoe declared, that many a time he had been tempted to throw himself out of one the upper windows of the factory". Some apprentices sought to commit crimes that would get them transported to Australia in the belief, quite possibly rightly, that that would be better than their current conditions. Blincoe knew no other life during his apprenticeship between the ages of 7 and 21 though a rebellious streak caused him to escape and defy his masters on some occasions. This was particularly after the closure of the first mill where he worked and his removal to an even worse one where "Upon an average, the children were kept to work during a great part, if not all, the time Blincoe was at Litton Mill, sixteen hours in the day. The result of this excessive toil, super-added to hunger and torture, and was the death of many apprentices, and the entailment of incurable lameness and disease on many others."

After he finished his apprenticeship, Blincoe was an adult worker in various cotton mills under conditions that still seem very harsh to modern ears, though he was at least able to move around and find better opportunities from time to time. In addition to providing embellishments to Brown's biography, Blincoe reported to various commissions about his experiences. He married a woman rather older than he was and had three children, whom he had educated, declaring that he would rather they be transported than undergo the working conditions he had done in his youth.

This is a shocking account that reminds us of the importance of good working conditions but also that, however much we may rightly complain about aspects of working life and economic conditions nowadays, things are a great deal better in 2022 than they were in 1822 or 1802 (though the modern editor of this edition Malc Cowle does not appear to accept this).

Editat: des. 22, 2022, 12:37 pm

100. The Room in the Attic - Louise Douglas

So my 100th book of the year!

This is a horror/mystery story about a haunting in an old building used in 1993 as an independent school, but which was an asylum in 1903. A young girl Harriet and her presumed mother are washed ashore in a small boat, severely injured but still alive. The young girl is looked after by an elderly nurse in the attic of the asylum, while the mother is looked after by expensive doctors in much more luxurious accommodation. But as time goes on, a new truth emerges about the relationship between Harriet and her presumed mother, and the links between the events of 1903 and those involving two schoolboys in 1993 start to intermesh and the boundaries blur. Without giving away any spoilers, there is a tragic ending to the main story - but then a twist involving time travel and rewriting history, which much though I love these concepts, I found rather a let down as I feel a novel like should somehow end tragically and not be rewritten. A good read, though.

des. 22, 2022, 1:08 pm

101. Mrs Perkins's Ball - William Makepeace Thackeray

This was Thackeray's first Christmas book, published in 1847 (in the Christmas between publication of the fourth and fifth of Dickens's Christmas books). It is a quite amusing series of sketches, with little in the way of a plot, and details the idiosyncrasies of the various attendees of the eponymous event (though Christmas is not mentioned in the text).

des. 22, 2022, 2:35 pm

>113 john257hopper: Congratulations on the hundred!

des. 22, 2022, 3:29 pm

>115 pamelad: Thanks Pam, and for your engagement with my reading during the year.

Happy Christmas and New Year to you :)

des. 25, 2022, 5:58 am

102. Christmas Pudding - Nancy Mitford

Despite its name, this is not in any real sense a Christmas novel. So was I disappointed at this choice this time of year? No, as this was a very funny and sharply observed satire of upper class mores in the early 1930s (published in 1933). The titular "pudding" is the combination of eccentric characters and traditions Lady Bobbin hosts at her Christmas house party in Gloucester (though this party only lasts really for one or two of the 21 chapters). Foremost among these guests is Paul Fotheringhay, a frustrated author who wants to write a biography of Lady Bobbin's literary ancestor Maria Bobbin and who is present in the guise of a tutor to her son Bobby. This was laugh out loud funny and I would definitely read more of Nancy Mitford's novels.

des. 26, 2022, 5:01 pm

103. No Thoroughfare - Charles Dickens & Wilkie Collins

This is the text of a play co-written by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and first performed on Boxing Day 1867, alongside a novel version published in the Christmas edition of Dickens's periodical All The Year Round. Apparently, Collins scripted most of the stage play and indeed the plot feels similar to those in his wonderful sensationalist novels, though the character of Joey Ladle is clearly a Dickensian comic creation. I enjoyed this tale of foundling children, mistaken identities and murder plots. The play has practically never been revived in over a century, but I think its themes are timeless and a performance would go down well today.