On the Keeper Shelf: History Books

Another half-term bonus post.  As I was dusting my bookshelves the other day, I was looking at my collection of history books.  I’m a history graduate and have read a lot of history writing over the years.  In fact for portions of my university career I hardly read any fiction because I was so burned out on reading from doing my coursework.  These days my reading is mainly fiction, but a lot of it is historical fiction and when I do read non-fiction, a lot of it is historical biography or about history.  And although I don’t tend to reread nonfiction, there are a few books that I have kept hold of – and not because I worry that people will judge me based on my bookshelves*.  So what have I kept and why?

Elizabeth by David Starkey

This was the big history blockbuster when I was doing A-levels.  And as it happens, I was studying Tudor history.  This was one of the first really readable “proper” history books I had come across (it was much easier going that GR Elton’s Henry VII which I also had to read) and it and John Guy’s Tudor England formed the basis of a lot of my essays at the time.  This is full of research, but wears it lightly – if you want a readble way of fact-checking portrayals of Elizabeth in popular culture (like say the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth films) this will do that for you.  I’ve kept reading Starkey since – particularly on Henry VIII and his wives – and have a couple of others around the house, but it’s Elizabeth that I’m sentimentally attached to.

Bright Young People by DJ Taylor

I have an enduring fascination with the inter-war period.  I love novels – particularly detective novels – written in that period and set in that period and the actual history and reality of that era fascinates me too.  I have a little collection of books about the Roaring Twenties and this is possibly my favourite.  It’s the most Britain-centric – which means I can use it to get the background on some of the people who crop up in the novels and similar.  It’s also got a very thorough bibiliography and further reading list which I always appreciate and there’s a few books on that list that I still want to read.  Also on my shelves (still) are Flappers by Judith Makerell, Anything Goes by Lucy Moore (which is more America-centric), Mad World by Paula Byrne and Queen Bees by Sian Evans.  And I’ve got the new Evelyn Waugh biography on the to-read pile too.

An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick by Hannah Pakula

Now bear with me on this one because it’s slightly odd.  As a child I was a little bit obsessed with Queen Victoria.  Well, quite a lot obsessed.  You know how some children are into dinosaurs or trains?  That was me and Queen Victoria. I could recite dates, I knew the middle names of all her children, I had it marked on my height chart how tall she was so I knew when I was taller than her and when we visited the Isle of Wight, all I wanted to do was visit Osborne.  As an adult this has left me with more knowledge than I care to admit about the genealogy of the royal family, although I did win money by correctly predicting Prince George’s name – and my pick if it had been a girl was Charlotte, so you know, it has some uses.  I was also big into pretend games when I was little – but I always pretended to be Princess Victoria, the Princess Royal, not Queen Victoria.  Yeah. I know.  I was a very strange child.  Still I turned out all right really.  Anyway, there aren’t many proper biographies of Princess Victoria – who was the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II (him of World War One) and who died less than 8 months after her mother – but I picked this up secondhand at university to get my head around who she actually was – rather than the crazy ideas that 8-year-old Verity had – and although she actually had a sad and tragic life in the end, I keep it on the shelf as a reminder of the weirdly obsessed child that I was.  Also on the shelves as remnants of that childhood obsession are Julia Gelardi’s Born to Rule (about five of Queen Victoria’s Granddaughters), Princesses by Flora Fraser (about George III’s daughters) and Helen Rappaport’s Magnificent Obsession (about Victoria and Albert’s marriage).

 

 

*People are welcome to judge me on my bookshelves – if you look at the big downstairs bookshelf you’ll find Georgette Heyer, Dorothy L Sayers, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Laurie Graham, Maya Angelou, Barbara Pym and Ngaio Marsh amongst others.  I think that’s a pretty accurate picture of me.

Book of the Week: Grunt

Welcome to the first BotW post of the New Year, which is also the last Book of the Week from 2016.  You know what I mean – I read it last week before the end of the old year, but the post gets to you in the New Year.  Talking about last week and the old year, I hope you enjoyed my festive frenzy of posts. December stats is coming tomorrow (I thought better one post 3 days late, than three posts one day late each) now you’ve all had time to appreciate my New Years Reading Resolutions, and see my early failures in yesterday’s Week in Reading where I confess to a bit of a free book spree.  Any how, back to the point.

Copy of Grunt by Mary Roach

I don’t think I have a lot of books with green covers, not sure why!

This weeks BotW is Mary Roach’s Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, which is not about guns and weapons, but about the scientific and technological developments which have come about because of war and conflict.  Topics include clothing regulations and design, shark repellent, submarine escapes and genital reconstruction.  It’s absolutely fascinating.  This is non-fiction writing at its best – informative and well researched, it wears it lightly and is incredibly readable.  You learn a lot without realising it as Mary wends her way through military installations and research centres asking the questions that you wouldn’t dare to.

I’m not a science reader – if you’ve been here a while now, you’ll know that my non-fiction reading tends to be history, biography or a bit feministy.  But I’ve been hearing about Mary Roach’s books for a while now – as they’ve been recommended on Book Riot’s Get Booked podcast as well as this getting a review on their All the Books podcast too – and I thought it might be a good way to widen my reading horizons slightly.  Popular opinion seems to have Stiff as her best book – but I’m not big on death and so was wary of a book about dead bodies – so Grunt seemed like a better place for me to start.  And if this is not Mary Roach’s best book, I can hardly imagine how good the others must be.  I might even have to get over my squeamishness about cadavers and read Stiff.

Him Indoors got really fed up of me pausing the TV to read bits out loud to him and I’ve already got a queue forming for my copy.  I bought my copy on my post-Christmas jolly to Foyles, but it’s also available on Kindle or from Amazon and Waterstones.  You’re probably going to need a bookshop with a relatively large non-fiction selection (ie probably not a train station bookshop or a small WH Smiths) but it seems to be fairly orderable.  It’s not terribly cheap anywhere I’m afraid, but it’s worth it.

Happy Reading.

Give Me a Book for Christmas 2016

Yes, it’s that time of year again, where I tell you what’s been sitting in my Amazon Shopping basket for months as I try to justify buying more books in the guise of offering recommendations for people who like what I like but actually offer last minute hints to my loved ones who read the blog and anyone else who wants to buy me something.  In writing this I went back over last year’s version of this post and was cheered over how many of my 2015 wishes I’ve got and have read – and there are a couple more on my Kindle too that I bought myself!

Non Fiction

The non fiction section of this list always seems to be bigger than the fiction one – I think because non-fiction books are often more expensive or come out in hardback first so I’m less likely to buy them myself and it takes longer for them to drop down in price secondhand.

A new addition to the list is Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Mock, Hate and Fear by Sady Doyle, which Sarah MacLean recommended in her Christmas mailing list.  It’s a look at troubled women in the public eye through history – from Mary Wollstonecraft through Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse – examining what makes a “trainwreck” and why we’re so fascinated by them.  I’ve had my eye on The End of the Perfect 10 by Dvora Meyers since the Olympics in the summer, but haven’t been able to justify shelling out for it when I have so much waiting on the to-read shelf.  And then there’s Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me which I’ve just heard so much about but haven’t got around to reading yet.

There’s a few memoirs that I’m interested on – I keep hearing good things about Tara Clancy’s The Clancy’s of Queens about her childhood growing up in different parts of New York.  Then there’s Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime about growing up in South Africa when his parents’ marriage (between a white Swiss man and a black Xhosa woman) was illegal.  Noah is almost exactly my age and it’s crazy to me that this was still happening in my lifetime, to my contemporaries.

In history terms, I’d like First Women by Kate Anderson Brower about modern First Ladies of the US,  I want to read Barbara Leaming’s Kick Kennedy because I already have Paula Byrne’s novel Kick waiting on the shelf and I wouldn’t mind Rosemary by Kate Larson (although I fear it may make me sad and angry) because most of my knowledge about the other Kennedys comes from Laurie Graham’s novel The Importance of Being Kennedy and Robert Dalek’s biography John F Kennedy: An Unfinished Life.

I’m not one for science books in the main – although I’d also like to read several of the Mary Roach books I recommended yesterday – but I’d really like Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are which is an exploration of female sexuality and sex, but I’m not sure there’s anyone I know well enough that I can ask them to buy it for me!  Perhaps I’ll treat myself to it in the New Year!

Fiction

The fiction section this year breaks down into authors I want to try or books I keep hearing about and series/authors I collect.  I’ll start with the former, because if you’ve been here a while the latter may seem a bit familiar to you…

Last year I was asking for the last of Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation books – this year i’m asking for her first collaboration with Beatriz Williams (who I also really like) and Karen White, The Forgotten Room, which is a timeslip novel covering three generations of a family in New York.  And incidentally I still haven’t managed to read Willig’s other novel from last year That Summer, where a woman inherits a house and discovers a painting and a mystery.

I’m always wanting non-Christmassy books to read in January – particularly because that’s when my birthday is and I’m sick of tinsel and mistletoe by New Year’s Day – which conincidentally is when Sherlock is back on TV, so Brittany Holmes A Study in Charlotte (female Holmes descendant at a US boarding school) or Sherry Thomas’s A Study in Scarlet Women (historical romance with female Sherlock) which I’ve been coveting for ages might well suit my mood early in 2017.

On the collection front, Virago reissued three more Angela Thirkells recently that I have not yet read or added to my collection (I wasn’t allowed to buy myself when Foyles were doing 20% off online, apparently 1 book as a present and 1 book for me was not an acceptable purchase ratio…) Miss Bunting, The Headmistress and Marling Hall.  There’s also a few more of Virago’s Designer Hardbacks that I’d quite like to add to the shelf – notably the two Daphne Du Maurier short story collections – Don’t Look Now and Other Stories and The Birds and Other Stories and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on the Train.

And in more boring every day reading so to speak, I really want to read the new Aurora Teagarden Mystery by Charlaine Harris, All the Little Liars, partly because I like the series but also because the idea of an author coming back to a series after nearly 15 years fascinates me. I still don’t have the latest Julia Quinn (Because of Miss Bridgerton) or Sarah MacLean (A Scot in the Dark) so I’m falling behind in my historical romance reading as well as the rest of the backlog.

Bookish Stuff

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve already bought myself another year of Fahrenheit Press books and a couple more years of Literary Review, and I have Vanity Fair as well.  I did investigate a membership of the London Library, but I don’t know anyone who would spend nearly £500 on a library membership for me – especially with the massive backlog I have at the moment (and I can get a *lot* of books for £500 – that’s probably more than I’ve spend on books for myself this year anyway!).

I do fancy a new Kindle e-reader though – my first generation Kindle Touch has given me faithful service for more than 4 years, but it’s now struggling a little bit (it keeps stalling, possibly because of the amount of stuff on it) and the paint is scratching off it.  It’d also be nice to have two so that Him Indoors could use one on the beach on holiday (he ended up using mine for a fair bit of our last one).  My pick (I think) is the Voyage – because I want the backlight but I’m also getting lazy in my old age and liked the page turning squeezing thing when I tried it at the airport.

So there you are, more books than you can shake a stick at that I want for Christmas, despite the piles I already have.  It’s like an addiction except that I learn things and it’s not illegal.

Book of the Week: The Best of Dear Coquette

This may well be a slightly shorter than usual BotW post – the dodgy elbow is making typing hurt and I’m not sure I’m at my finest.  But I’m going to give it a go because this was hands down my favourite book that I finished last week and it deserves a big old mention here.


This a collection of the best bits of advice from the Dear Coquette blog which I happened upon felicitously at a time when I needed a pep talk and cheering up.  It did a marvelous job of both – and there is now a waiting list to borrow my copy.   I got told off by The Boy for reading too much of it out loud to him because “there’ll be nothing left for me to read myself”.  A few selected quotes also went down a storm on Litsy and on Twitter.

Most of the advice in here is about relationships in their various forms – the book is split into sections – on things like love, family and dating.  The Coquette is smart, witty, brutally honest and very, very frank.  It’s like the advice you wish your friends would give you, but would be too afraid to hand out yourself in return.  I don’t always agree with the Coquette’s world view, but it’s always well argued and thought provoking.

I’m not sure I’ll be lending my copy to my mum (not that she’s asked for it yet) but I can see myself giving this as a Christmas book to a few people who I think might appreciate The Coquette’s view of the world.  My copy was a proof copy (which the Coquette said she was mortified it still existed on Twitter!), but you can get a shiny proper hardback copy now – get it from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles or on Kindle or Kobo.  The paperback is out in April.

 

 

Book of the Week: You Can’t Touch My Hair

Two non-fiction books in a row as BotWs?  This is unprecedented I hear you say.  Well yes, given that I read (on average) 1 non-fiction book a month, this is quite unusual.  But both these books were very, very good and truly deserve their spots as my Books of the Week.

Phoebe Robinson is an actress and comedian, and one half of the Two Dope Girls podcast (the other half is former Daily Show star Jessica Williams)  – which I need to add to my ever growing list of podcast subscriptions.  Her book of essays, You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain takes a look at the daily life of a young black woman in America today. As a stand-up comedian she’s used to finding the funny side of things and looking for humour in situations, and she is very, very good at that – so good in fact that at times I found myself sitting back and thinking “hang on, she’s being funny, but this is seriously bad”.

This book deals with serious and sensitive issues – stereotypes, bigotry, coded language and more – and it does it directly, apologetically but with such an engaging voice that you never feel like you’re being shouted at or lectured.  Robinson writes at length about the “Angry Black Woman” trope – and the difficulties that it creates in her life, in trying to get her voice and her opinions heard and valued, but she also discusses – at some length – her ranking of U2 in the order she’d like to sleep with them and how a female president would change the world.

I’ve thought long and hard about how to describe this book and its effect on me.  I finished it a week ago and I’m still digesting it. This whole book is measured, articulate, affecting and thought provoking.  And on top of all that, its so, so funny. It should be compulsory reading  – particularly at a time when the world seems so divided and divisive.

My copy came via NetGalley, but you can get one from Amazon, Waterstones (who have it mislabelled as by Jessica Williams who wrote the foreword) and Foyles (mislabelled again) and on Kindle and Kobo. You can even have Phoebe herself reading it on Audible.  And I suspect it may even make it in to the non fiction sections at some of the bigger WH Smiths and supermarkets.  It certainly deserves to.

Happy reading!

Book of the Week: Wonder Women

I know, I know, I know.  This is a day late.  I have excuses – relating to post nightshift haze and then a few days away and only remembering I hadn’t written this post at 11pm after a couple of cocktails.  And as drunk blogging doesn’t end well, I thought it could wait til the cool light of day and rational thought, especially as this week’s pick is Important to me.

So this week’s BotW is Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors and Trailblazers who changed history.  Written by Sam Maggs, this is a series of potted biographies of women who you may not have heard of, but who have played an important role in various areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, Espionage and Adventure  – aka areas that tend to be seen as traditionally masculine.  There are 25 featured women – but at least the same again get bite-sized mentions too.  I’m a history graduate (admittedly specialising in British and European history) and there were a lot of names here that I had never come across before – and many fascinating stories.

I’m definitely not the target market for this – which is written (I think) very much with tweens/early teens in mind – and some of the language started to annoy me a little, but that’s because it’s written in a vernacular that is not really mine, although I do think that the choice of language will appeal to the intended audience. It’s got lovely illustrations for the 25 women, which is a nice touch.  My copy was an e-galley for my kindle e-reader so I don’t think I got the full effect, but from what I’ve seen the actual book itself looks attractive and appealing.

This would make a good book for an upper-primary school/middle school age girl and would also be a great addition to school libraries for that sort of age of child.  I’ve said there that it would be a good book for a girl – because I think young girls need reminding that they can have adventures too, and be brave and daring and that careers in things like science and tech aren’t just for boys.  But boys need reminding that too – and that there have been women through history doing important things, often against the odds and against societal expectations.  I saw this video last week, and it may have been the nightshifts, but it got me all emotional.  And it’s an important message for children to get – girls can be anything, do anything – nothing is a man’s job – or a woman’s job.

Anyway, lecture over.  As I said, my copy was an e-galley via NetGalley, but this is out now and you can get it from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles as well as on Kindle and Kobo – although I think it would look best in the hardback actual book.

Happy reading!

Book of the Week: A Kim Jong-il Productiom

A nonfiction pick for BotW this week – but the story it tells is so incredible that it reminds me of an essay I wrote at university about the statement “Literature has to be plausible, history only has to be true”. And whilst I don’t remember what I wrote in the essay (although I do remember it got a first after much panicking and a session with my tutor where I learnt the “Ron” method of essay writing), this book really does prove that the truth can be stranger than fiction.


So Paul Fischer’s A Kim Jong-il Production tells the story of the kidnapping of South Korea’s biggest female movie star and her ex-husband, the country’s most famous director/producer who were snatched by North Korea as part of a plan to overhaul the county’s film industry.  But as well as the story of the kidnapping, it’s also a bit of a potted history of the two countries, the ties that bind them, that separate then and a truly mind-blowing insight into the workings (or otherwise) of the world’s most secretive state.

Now I work in news and I’m a history graduate (albeit one who did mainly European history, and avoided anything before 1066) and I like to think that I’m fairly well up on world events and current affairs, but my mind was honestly boggled by the goings on in this book – not just the stuff from the country ruled by the crazy dictator and his family, but also by the intermittent chaos and military rule going on in South Korea. I can (just) remember the Seoul Olympic Games, and it seemed incredible to me that just a few years before the country’s president was assassinated – and tanks were on the street.

If I have a criticism of  book, it’s that it sometimes seemed to be taking a long time to get to the actual kidnapping, but given my (as I now know) woeful understanding of the wider picture and the situation leading up to the main event (so to speak) I can let Paul Fischer off the hook.  I feel like I learned a lot over the course of the book as well as being thoroughly engrossed in the story.

The Boy practically snatched this out of my hand as I fished it so that he could read it and he’s already two thirds of the way through. I guess if you already know a lot about the history of the two Koreas, this might be repeating some old ground, but if you’re anything like me, I think you’ll find it fascinating, bonkers and just a little bit scary – and very glad you weren’t born in North Korea.

Happy reading.