The Dragons of Expectation – Robert Conquest

What a strange, mish-mash of a jumbled up book this is! I liked it, hated it, looked forward to reading it and wanted to throw it at the wall, sometimes all at the same time.

It was like looking at one of those paintings that are disturbing but you can’t not go back for another look!

And I also enjoyed watching Michael, my partner, go through the torture of reading it too!

The book doesn’t have a single theme, which is one of the things that makes it so frustrating to read. Some parts of it were interesting, intellectually stimulating and absorbing. Other bits were a diatribe about something, a piece of academic snobbery or politically very annoying.

The themes covered in the book are the decline of academic rigour, political ideologies and why they are outdated, USSR and Stalinism, how academia has destroyed our appreciation of Art and how the EU should be replaced by an Anglosphere. A random book! And written in 2005 so the bits about the EU have a bit of historic interest too.

I found the first few chapters about academic rigour really difficult to read but intellectually stimulating, which is what kept me going. It isn’t very often that I need to refer to a dictionary to find out the meaning of a word but I did with this book.

The bits about political ideology I found interesting. The fact that we, as a society, tend to cling onto ideas even when they have outlived their usefulness or proved themselves to be a hindrance. I don’t think it is useful to hark back to a past where “politics was about doing the right thing” but my view is that too much of modern politics is negative, about doing down the opposition and personal slurs. I want to know about what collaboration is happening cross-parties as well as their differences.

It almost goes without saying that I really enjoyed the sections about USSR and Stalinism. I’m interested in the Russian dictatorships and added to my knowledge.

The section on art really made me think. Conquest talked about how, by laying down rules of appreciation, we create an obfuscated view of it and so destroy any true appreciation. His example is of the person who commissioned a painting by one of what we call the “Old Masters”. The person who commissioned the painting did so because they liked the style of the painter and they liked the subject matter. They didn’t look at it hanging in their house and think “the brush stroke used to paint the leaf on that tree is…” they looked at it and though “that’s beautiful” or “I wish I could be at that place”. He also talks about books and poetry in the same way. It made me realise that I’m guilty of a level of book snobbery; I have books that I talk about and the larger number of, mainly, detective novels that I don’t. I would like to think that I mainly talk about the more serious books I read because it helps me to process what I have learned from them but, if I’m honest, there is also part of me who wants to be seen as intelligent and I don’t think detective novels necessarily add to that image!

The final part of the book, the creation of an Anglosphere, I can’t write about. It annoyed me far too much and I think Conquest was deluded and deluding himself!

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you like being annoyed, like a challenge and have nothing better to read. But in some, small way I quite enjoyed it.

Click here to find out more about Robert Conquest

The Rival Queens – Nancy Gladstone

Another dip into history and 16th century, France this time though.

This is a history of the infamous Catherine de Medici and her daughter Marguerite de Valois. I already knew a little about them, although in fictionalised version; my mother encouraged me to read the Jean Plaidy historical novels when I was at that awkward age of being too old for children’s books and not quite old enough for adult ones.

I enjoyed finding out more about Catherine’s early life, particularly the early days of her marriage and I think it helped me to understand why she was so desperate to hang onto power through he sons reigns. It also helped me to understand why she was so manipulative and played at “realpolitik” so often. She lived in turbulent times but with a bit more firm purpose and subtlety her/her sons Courts could have been less turbulent than they were.

Marguerite seems to have spent most of her life being used as a pawn by the various members of her family. The major event in he life was being married to the protestant King of Navarre, who later became Henri IV of France. They were incompatible and, apart from one of two moments when it was expedient to help one another, lived largely apart. Henry didn’t trust Marguerite and Marguerite trusted too many people she shouldn’t have. Eventually, once they had divorced and Henry became King of France, they settled into friendship.

One of the problems of reading about 16th century women in the 21st century is that we live in a very different culture –  one of more equality for women, more religious tolerance etc – so it is hard to understand the limitations placed on these two women who were in a position where they could wield influence if not power. It was frustrating to read about their tactics and actions knowing, through experience and hindsight, they were doing the wrong thing. At times I wanted to shout “what are you doing!!!” at the book, which probably wouldn’t have gone down very well with my fellow commuters on the bus!

Overall. it was good to have a factual, evidence-based book about these women and I enjoyed reading it. It is a very readable book although there were some horrible American expressions thrown in unnecessarily.

If you are interested in European history, women’s history or the clashes between Catholicism and Protestantism in Europe you will find this book interesting, informative and a good read.

Click to find out more about Nancy Goldstone’s books

The Honest Spy – Andreas Kollender

A fictionalised version of a true story, although I didn’t know it until after I had finished reading it. This book was another of my successful 99p Amazon daily deal books.

The book is about Fritz Kolbe, a low-level diplomat in the German Foreign Office just as the Nazis are coming into power. He wants to remain in South Africa, away from a regime he despises, but the Ambassador persuades him to return home.

Eventually, despite not being a member of the Nazi party, Fritz finds himself working in a job that makes him privy to some of the secrets of the regime. He goes to the American Embassy to offer to spy and they take him on. As Fritz becomes more trusted by his Nazi boss he is able to pass more information to the Americans and become one of their most important spies.

Fritz also falls in love with a woman, Marlene, in the ruins of Berlin. They try to make a life for themselves after the war but Fritz is seen as a traitor and Marlene is injured. Fritz escapes and lives in seclusion in Switzerland until 2 journalists find and interview him.

I thought this was a really interesting book. As a “normal” person you can imagine the horror of a person, like yourself, finding themselves in the middle of a maelstrom and hating what is happening. I can’t imagine myself doing anything about it, unlike Fritz. Not knowing that this was based on a true story, until I’d finished the book, I kept questioning “would someone really do this?” as I was reading it. Turns out they do and did!

I didn’t particularly like the idea of Fritz’s story being told to the journalists; they kept intruding at inconvenient times when I wanted to know what happened next. When they did work was when I started wondering what had happened to Marlene.

It was interesting to read about a WW2 spy who remained in Germany and who spied for USA rather than Britain. I would like to read a more factual account of Fritz Kolbe’s life but as a starting point this was a good beginning and, like some of my other 99p bargains, an unexpected treat.

Click here to find out more about the real Fritz Kolbe

Atalanta: Women as Racing Drivers -S.C.H. Davis

I’m not quite sure how to describe this book, or more specifically the author and his writing style.

SCH Davis was a racing driver, motor racing journalist, an advocate of women racing, co-founder of the Veteran Car Club and, clearly a man of taste, he owned a Frogeye. On the downside he shows himself to be very much a man of his era when he describes the women he is writing about as “attractive, little bundles of fun” and the like! It grates on my 21st century sensibilities to read this sort of sentence that patronises these incredibly determined, fiercesome women.

That said, it is an interesting book written by someone who actually knew some of the drivers he is writing about, which means there are a number of anecdotes that bring the characters of the drivers alive. It was nice to read about the drivers human side rather than just about their racing skills.

Most of the chapters are about drivers I already know something about. The best of these was about Margaret Allan, a member of the 1935 MG Le Mans team, Bletchley Park code-breaker and Vogue motoring correspondent.

The best of the chapters about people who were new to me are Madam Juneck, a Czech driver who came 5th in  the Targa Florio, and Sheila Van Damm, a driver in the 1950s.

Overall, I would describe this book as an interesting period piece written by an interesting period piece!

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton

It isn’t often I buy and read a book that is newly out but this one caught my fancy and intrigued me so I bought it and started reading it straight away rather than adding it to the pile.

To summarise the book I would describe it as Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day.

Aiden Bishop is trapped at Blackheath Manor and keeps waking up in other people’s bodies trying to prevent and/or solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, daughter of his host and hostess. In his various guises he doesn’t know who is friend or foe, who the mysterious “Footman” is and how to piece together the puzzle.

Eventually, he works out what happens but rather than leaving he remains to rescue Anna, who may or may not have been helping him.

I found the first chapter of the book dull and tedious to read. If I didn’t have a stubborn streak that won’t let me not finish a book I’ve started I probably would have gone no further. I’m glad I did continue with it.

I liked the main character and his responses to his various host bodies. I enjoyed working out who might be friend or foe and who the murderer might be. I also enjoyed not being able to piece it all together before the denouement.

I found it a bit frustrating that once I’d worked something out it occasionally took Bishop a chapter or so to catch up! It was a bit like those times when you shout at a TV detective to stop being a numpty as the answer is staring them in the face.

As I debut novel I thought this book was excellent. If you like odd, quirky stories and historical detective series I’d definitely recommend this book to you. And I look forward to reading Turton’s next.