The Road to Little Dribbling: More notes from a small island – Bill Bryson

I have been looking forward to reading this book.  I loved Notes From a Small Island and can still clearly remember reading it; I was on holiday on a Nile Cruise, sitting under the awning of the rear deck of the boat in the hot midday sun listening to Buena Vista Social Club on my discman and engrossed in my book until my partner suddenly prodded me and told me to be quiet!  I had been laughing out loud without even realising it!

The problem with having a sense of anticipation about something is that the event or thing can sink under the weight of expectation.  And I’m afraid this book did, at least a little.

There were still some laugh out loud stories and anecdotes.  And I loved the random selection of places Bryson visited using his north-ish to south-ish line drawn down mainland UK.  I liked the fact there were some really obscure places included as well as some well-known ones.

There was also the usual quota of quirky facts; although none with quite the impact of the opening of Down Under!

What was really missing from this book though was the kindness, tolerance and affection of the earlier books.  Bill Bryson appears to have become a grumpy, intolerant old man and I feel sad at this.

I can understand that travelling around a place you live and are going to continue living doesn’t bring out the same feelings of nostalgic affection as towards a place you are about to leave behind.  And I also understand that as one ages ones views change.  But I still feel sad that a loved author appears to have lost his joie de vivre.  It feels like going back to a favourite holiday destination after 20 years and finding out it has changed beyond all recognition.

The worst thing of all is that I feel robbed of the feeling of looking forward to the next book.  I’ll probably buy it and read it.  But I’ll do so with a sense of trepidation.

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Joan of Kent: the first Princess of Wales – Penny Lawne

I’m back to my “Plantagenet-fest” this week with another book about another interesting and determined woman of the English court.

This one is Joan, also known as the Fair Maid of Kent, who married the Black Prince, eldest son of King Edward III.

The first thing I was surprised to learn about what that her father was half-brother to Edward II and son of Eleanor of Castile’s successor.  Which felt like a nice link back to my previous book.  Somehow, I’d always been lead to believe that Richard II’s mother was a commoner when, in fact, she was of royal decent.  I also didn’t know that as a child she lived a precarious life on the edges of court life after her father was executed for treason.

As with the book about Eleanor of Castile more is inferred about Joan of Kent than is actually recorded although she was clearly a strong-willed and feisty woman.  At the age of 12 she was seduced, possibly, into a clandestine marriage with Thomas Holande.  She stuck by Thomas even though her mother tried to have the marriage annulled and to marry her to William Montagu.  And stuck by the marriage even though it was several years before the Pope confirmed the marriage and she was able to live openly with her husband.

Her second marriage, to Edward the Black Prince, was also a secret one initially and neither the King nor Queen were in favour of it.

I think Joan’s story is one that would lend itself to the type of fictionalisation authors such as Philippa Gregory and Jean Plaidy have given to other women in history.  As a biography this book is more a history of the period than one that brings its central character to life.  As a work of fiction Joan’s startling life story could be vivid and colourful.

The book has added to my knowledge of the late-Plantagenet period but I rather suspect my next book needs something a bit more substantial than conjecture and theory built from shadowy references.

Blitzed; Drugs in Nazi Germany – Norman Ohler

I saw this booked reviewed in one of the weekend papers and put it on my book “wish list”; two months before my birthday I put books onto my wish list rather than rush out and buy them or my partner grumbles that he doesn’t know what to buy me!  And then it came up as a 99p Kindle book deal.  As regular readers will know I can’t resist 99p bargains.

Having read the book I now know I will be leaving it on my wish list so I have an actual book version.

I thought the book start off slowly looking at the development of methamphetamine by a German chemist and the large-scale use of Pervitin as a cure-all during the period of the Weimar Republic.  There was a slightly odd diversion into the author’s visit to the Temmler laboratory where the drug was manufactured, which didn’t really make sense in the context of the opening chapter.

Once the book got going though I was thoroughly absorbed in it, much to the amusement of colleagues who I was on a residential course with, whose comments were along the lines of “Gillian’s doing drugs again!”

So, why was the book so absorbing?  I think, primarily, because it isn’t a topic that has been covered in any depth in my previous reading.  Also, because it is a mixture of personal stories and an overview; the reader gets to know about the people as well as the context and the “what”.  The idea of performance enhancing drugs being used to facilitate blitzkrieg also makes sense.  I also loved the story about the BBC doing an article, during the war, about blitzkrieg only being possible because of the use of drugs; because it gave the British population a reason why the German Army appeared invincible and inexhaustible they became exhaustible and defeatable.  The downside of the article was the start of the use of benzedrine by Allied forces.

I found the bit about Hitler’s decent into drug addiction less interesting although it does give a different insight into the man and his increasing narrow band of cronies.

The most frustrating thing about the book is its ending.  It just ends with the suicide of Hitler and the later death of Dr Morrell.  I want to know what happened after the war ended.  If you have an army who are addicted to, by that stage, fairly high doses of methamphetamine what happens to them?  Are they weaned off the drug?  Do they have to go cold-turkey?  Are their studies within Germany on the long-term after effects?  And I’m left in limbo not knowing!

That said, I would definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in German history, the history of drugs and drug taking and the tactics of war.