The Commissar Vanishes: the falsification of photographs and art in Stalin’s Russia – David King

I read about this book within another book and decided I need to have a copy. I’m so pleased I did as it’s a fascinating book.

David King has spent a considerable amount of time tracking down different versions of photographs published in the Stalin era and comparing them; who has been removed now they are an “unperson”, who has been moved and who has been added in (the latter mainly Stalin!)

King also analyses the changes to identify how they have been changed. Some have been airbrushed, some merely cropped and others crudely reconstructed or blacked out. He also points out where the airbrusher has missed covering up a shoulder or cap, leaving it floating in mid-air, which I found quite funny.

It is astonishing looking at the starting point for some of the pictures and then seeing what they eventually became.

David King is good at giving the names of the people in the photos and giving some context for when the photo was originally taken. I would have liked a bit more context for what happened to the people who were removed. I understand that many of them fell during the Great Terror but it would have been useful to be reminded of what these people did when they had power and why Stalin saw them as a threat.

I don’t think this book added to my knowledge of Stalinist Russia but, living in an age when people doctor photographs all the time, it was interesting to see these pictures and reflect on the varied reasons people don’t want things to be seen as they are.

Forgotten Murder – Dolores Gordon-Smith

I like a good cosy crime novel when I need a bit of brain down-time. I suspect it’s a habit picked up in my early teens when I was too old for children’s books but not quite mature enough for proper adult books; my Dad started me off on Agatha Christie, John Creasey and Leslie Charteris books and the genre has stuck.

Dolores Gordon-Smith is, in fact, a modern author but her books are set in the 1920s/30s so they have the right ambience as far as I’m concerned. She isn’t an author whose books I rush to buy as soon as the next one comes out but periodically I decided to check whether she’s written a new one and if she has I’ll generally buy it.

The sleuth in the books is Jack Haldean a former Royal Flying Squad pilot turned author and the policeman on the case is Bill Rackham.

In this novel, the tenth of the series, Jack is asked by his new wife to investigate her school friend’s odd reaction to a house she visited. The investigation uncovers the forgotten murder of the title, which Jack and Bill solve.

If I was being pernickty I would say the plot is a direct lift from an Agatha Christie book, although I can’t remember the title and it was set at the seaside rather than in London. Having read the Christie book I had an inkling of what some of the outcome would be, although I confess to not having cottoned onto the murderer, which was good.

I enjoyed my down-time with this book and I think the fact there are long gaps between reading the books in the series means I’m not as quick at picking up the clues as I am with some series.

If you’re going to read them though don’t start with this one, go back to the beginning and start at A Fete Worse Than Death.

Click here to find out more about Dolores Gordon-Smith and her books

The Hut Six Story – Gordon Welchman

More second world war and more spying: this time the British cracking the Enigma codes at Bletchley Park.

The book was first published in 1982 and was updated after Welchman died to include some papers he also wrote.

Before the war Gordon Welchman was a mathematics lecturer at Sidney Sussex College Cambridge. At the outbreak of war he was drafted into the team at Bletchley to help find ways of cracking the Enigma codes.

It’s important to know that Welchman was a mathematician if you’re thinking of reading this book! There were several occasions when he says he is explaining something in layman’s terms and yet it went completely over my head. This was a difficult book to read and to understand the technical aspects of Enigma machines and the Bombes that helped to decode their messages.

The most interesting parts of the book, for me, were when the author was explaining how Bletchley operated and some of the insights/guessing games that paid off and helped the teams crack the codes.

There were some digressions into people’s characters but this is mainly a book about processes and machines.

Once again it is a book that seems to write women out of history except as wives and secretaries!

I’m pleased I finished the book but if I’d known it was going to be so technical and written by a mathematician I probably wouldn’t have bought it!

Children of England: The heirs of Henry VIII – Alison Weir

This is one of Alison Weir’s earlier books telling the stories of Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I and Elizabeth I from the time of Henry’s death to the accession of Elizabeth to the throne.

I enjoyed finding out more about the lives of these monarchs; their education, their religion and their outlook on life. It was also good to set their lives in the context of their time and to understand the political and economic challenges they faced as well as the way they tried to impose their religious views on their subjects.

I feel I understand more about Edward and Jane as human beings rather than the cyphers they can sometimes appear in more general histories. I knew both were fervent Protestants but hadn’t realised just how important their religion was to them. I also didn’t realise what a horrible upbringing Jane had as the daughter of 2 very ambitious parents

It was also interesting to find out more about the kinder side of Mary’s nature; we are too used to her being presented as Bloody Mary who would burn anyone who didn’t reconvert to Catholicism. It was also interesting to find out more about her marriage to Philip of Spain. Whilst I might deplore her intolerance in matters of faith I ended up feeling sorry for her; she had a pretty crappy life.

The person I learned least about was Elizabeth. Her sections of the book didn’t contain much that I hadn’t already read elsewhere.

I enjoyed the book; like all Alison Weir’s books I found it easy to read and it captured my interest. Unlike her books about the various medieval queens though this one feels a bit superficial and I wasn’t left with a real feeling of knowing more about the period.

I would categorise it a way of starting to get to know the later Tudor period rather than a book that adds significantly to what you already know.

That said, I would always recommend reading books by Alison Weir.