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.

Pig and Pepper – David Footman

Some time ago I read a potted history of the Russian revolutions by David Footman and, whilst researching the author to write my blog on the book, I came across references to this book. So, of course, I ordered it and it finally floated to the top of my “to read” pile.

David Footman was a diplomat, a spy and a historian so it isn’t surprising that this book is set in the diplomatic community in the Balkan state of Vuchinia where the narrator, Mills, has been posted.

The story is, ostensibly, about how an underemployed consul and other members of the bored ex-pat community fall for a con man who turns up in Vuchinia, having fled Poland.

Vickery, the con man, stirs things up, makes life more interesting and exciting and then moves on, leaving a trail of turmoil and destruction behind him.

The story is also a picture of early to mid-20th century English-abroad behaviour; the cliquishness, the superiority and the smugness.

It was clear from early on how the story was going to unfold but mostly I enjoyed the journey. Occasionally, I wanted to shout at Mills not to be so naive, to stop being so self-centred and to treat the women in his life better. It is definitely a book of its time when it comes to women’s role in the plotline!

This book isn’t a page turner but it is a pleasant way to while away a Sunday.

Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims – Toby Clements

It isn’t often I review the “story books” I read but I really enjoyed this one and wanted to share my thoughts.

The book is set during the War of the Roses, an era of history I find interesting. The main protagonists are Thomas and Katherine and we follow their journey from rural calm to the middle of the action at the Battle of Towton.

When we first meet them Thomas is monk whose role is to write and illustrate texts. Katherine is an oblate at the nunnery next to the monastery. Katherine, at the nearby river washing is attacked by a band of horseman and Thomas comes to her rescue. Both end up fleeing religious life and the book follows their adventure to Calais, Wales, Northampton and, finally, Towton.

I enjoyed reading this book; I liked the setting, both time and places and I liked the characters, wanting to know more about Katherine’s mysterious past and what happens next. The ending is definitely calculated to make you buy the next in the series and I’m pleased I picked up this series when all 4 books are published; it would have been frustrating to have to wait for the next book to come out!

It is interesting to read the descriptions of the battles and to have a glimmer of an idea about what it must have been like to be in the thick of the action at Towton. It will be interesting to go back to the site of the battle with this imagery in my head; nowadays it is peaceful, rural, agricultural scene. (The picture at the top is of Towton)

I can’t, at the moment, think of anything I didn’t enjoy about this book. It was a good page turner, set in a period I know a little about and would like to know more of, with likable, interesting characters. Clearly, with this type of book, you need to suspend disbelief to some extent – these characters would almost certainly not have had all these adventures – but it’s a good story.

If you like historical adventure stories I’d recommend it.

Click here to find out more about the Battle of Towton


How to Build a Car – Adrian Newey

A completely different kettle of fish from the last autobiography I read!  This one is written by Adrian Newey, designer of F1 cars.  The book is part autobiography and partly about how Newey designs and builds cars.

I was bought the book for Christmas 2017 and have been saving it, looking forward to finding the right time to indulge in reading it.

The autobiography part of the book is interesting.  I always enjoy finding out about people and how they get to where they are at, in whatever field.  In Adrian Newey’s case it seems to have been a lifelong passion to be able to design/draw cars and then be able to build them.  It’s somehow always uplifting to read about someone achieving their ambition, although I expect that level of drive and determination makes them a pain to live with – something alluded to in the book.

Once the author gets a job working in motor racing the autobiography parts of the book become more of a background narrative to the development of the cars and their performance.  As someone who is interested in how cars work I really enjoyed reading about the development of F1 cars and reading about the sport has become more scientific in its development methods over the years.

It’s also interesting to get a different perspective on the “names” from F1 Newey has worked with; Nigel Mansell, Patrick Head, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis etc. I hadn’t realised Adrian Newey had designed the car Ayrton Senna died in. And although it is covered in the book I can’t begin to imagine how that must feel.

The downside of the book is that it rather trails off at the end.  There is no proper summing up or ending.  I can see why; Adrian Newey is still very much alive and kicking, moving on to do other things, but I feel he could have picked a clear end point for the book and put the rest in a short “watch this space, this is what’s coming next” chapter.  Possibly the end of chapter 74 when Red Bull have just won their third Driver’s and Constructor’s championship would have been the right place to stop.

Overall though I really enjoyed reading this book and, as long as you have some interest in how cats are built and work, I’d really recommend it.

World of Girls – L T Meade

The next book off my pile to read from the auction lots I bought.

This one is a school story first published in July 1886.  This copy is from December 1899 and has a beautiful cover that illustrates a point in the story.

The story is, roughly, that Hester, a newly motherless girl, is sent to boarding school and feels insulted by Annie, the first girl she meets.  Annie is a favourite amongst the others but soon finds herself ostracised when spiteful mischief breaks out in the school and it looks as though she has done it.  Things become worse when Hester’s sister comes to school and takes to Annie.  The final part of the story involves Annie running away to rescue Hester’s small sister from a band of gipsies and the true culprit of the spiteful deeds being discovered.

In other words, despite this story being over 100 years old it is a school story like any other school story and I was surprised by how relevant it felt.

There were some oddities, such as the girls referring to each other as Miss Thornton and Miss Temple etc.  The language feels a bit prissy and stilted in places too.

The most frustrating bit was being able to pick out who the mischief-maker was very early on. I don’t know whether this is because I’m an adult reading a children’s book or because it’s easy to spot. There’s also no real reason given as to why the girl decided to carry out these acts.

Overall though if you have a small girl in the family who likes school stories and wants something a bit different to read I’d recommend giving L T Meade a go.

Stories of Famous Days – E S Brooks

This is another of the books that came out of my mammoth auction lot.  I pulled it out to read because the preface states “There never was a holiday but had its store of stories that might be told – if only the heroes and heroines thereof could find audience or opportunity.”  How could you not read a book that starts like that.

My best guess, based on the language, some of the stories and the binding, is that this book was originally published in the USA at the end of the 19th century. It is odd, quirky and interesting.

The book looks at the main high days and holidays in the calendar and tells a story or legend about each of them.  It starts with Christmas, continues with New Year’s Day, St Valentine’s Day, April Fool’s Day, May Day, Midsummer Eve, Independence Day, A Great Olympiad, Michaelmas, Hallow E’en and finishes with Thanksgiving Day.

My favourite of the stories is the April Fool played on King John by the residents of Gotham whilst he was travelling to Nottingham.

I loved the fact that all of the stories and legends were new to me.  It made reading the book a bit of an adventure.

The language also made it a bit of an adventure.  It took time to get use to the odd phrasing and obsolete words.  Despite being considerably newer I find it easier to read Shakespeare than this.  It might be that it is written in American archaic language so the sentence structure and cadence are unfamiliar too.

Not all of the stories are interesting and a couple are downright dull for children, which is who this book is aimed at.  However, I plan to pass the book onto my eldest honorary great-niece, aged 11, to see what she makes of it.

I’ll report back when I’ve heard from her.


Gorsky – Vesna Goldsworthy

I don’t actually remember buying this book but it turned up at the bottom of a pile when I was moving the heap of books waiting to be read from the side of the sofa onto the revolving bookcase I bought in an effort to tidy the sitting room.

I can see why I might have bought it.  It has an attractive cover, the blurb from Michael Frayn is good and the synopsis inside the front cover sounds interesting.

It was also an easy and quite interesting afternoons read but…

Essentially the book is a direct lift of The Great Gatsby relocated to London in the Noughties and with Russian oligarchs rather than the new/old money Americans of the source novel.

The narrator, rather than being a bond salesman, works in a bookshop and is tasked by Gorsky, the Gatsby equivalent, with creating the perfect library to impress the love of his life, Natalia Summerscale.

As he gets drawn into their lives Nick, the narrator, describes the life of the super-rich in the 21st century.

As I said earlier, an easy and quite enjoyable book but…

Knowing The Great Gatsby, and enjoying F Scott Fitzgerald’s work, this book is a blatant rip off of it and a pale imitation.  Fitzgerald managed to make his characters believable as human beings as well as portraying the emptiness of their lives and souls.  Goldsworthy just doesn’t breathe life into her characters and I didn’t care about the injustice of the wrong man getting killed.

Given a choice I’d spend the afternoon with Gatsby not Gorsky.

The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

I have to admit that almost everything I knew about this book before reading it was garnered from reading Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women.

I vaguely knew it was a religious allegory and I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading it if I hadn’t acquired a copy in a box of books I bought at an auction.  And I wouldn’t have bothered reading it even then had I not been surprised by how slim a volume it was.

The book is in two parts, which I didn’t know from my Little Women reading.  The first part follows the journey of Christian who realises his life in his city is empty and meaningless and that he needs to change.  He is scoffed at by his family, friends and neighbours but continues anyway.  On his journey he gets sidetracked and waylaid and is also helped by others to find his way again and to reach the promised land.

The second part is about Christian’s wife and children who, realising the error of their ways, decide to follow in his footsteps and redeem themselves.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.  I am not a religious person but I didn’t find the book too preachy.  I feel the message about striving to be better people is about more than organised religion and is more about the human condition.

The language is a little archaic to a 21st century ear, a bit like reading the language of the King James Bible, which might be a bit off-putting but you get a lot of story in 115 pages.

I enjoyed spotting the bits referenced in the March sister’s playing at Pilgrim’s Progress although these were much fewer than I had expected.

Would I recommend others to read this book?  Probably not, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend rushing out to buy it, although if a copy ever comes your way give it a go.

Slaying the Badger – Richard Moore

This is a book about the dual for the yellow jersey between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in the 1986 Tour de France.  This Tour is deemed to be one of the epic clashes as two talented cyclists, from the same team battled for supremacy.  For Hinault it would be an unprecedented sixth win.  For LeMond it would be his first, and he would be the first non-European to win the Tour. The backdrop to the race is the fact that LeMond gave up his own chance of victory the year before to support Hinault’s win and believed Hinault had promised to support him in 1986.

Given that this is a book about a bike race it’s slightly disconcerting to find out that the race only enters the book about 2/3 of the way through.  The first 2 sections are about the riders.

The book starts by giving a potted biography of Bernard Hinault up to the start of the race.  It describes his upbringing, his personality and his cycling career up to 1986.

The next section does the same for LeMond.

And then there is the description of what happened, stage by stage, in the race.

I really enjoyed the book.  I liked the fact that it describes the different viewpoints of the two protagonists and also uses the testimony of other team members, competitors and the Director Sportif’s Hinault and LeMond had worked with. It is also fairly even-handed in how it treats the 2 cyclists.

It was also interesting to find out more about the La Vie Clair team and how they brought cycling into the modern era.  Not something I knew much about and it has added to my knowledge of cycling.

I think the most frustrating thing is that I still don’t really know whether Hinault was stitching LeMond up or genuinely believed he was helping!

Four Sisters: the lost lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses – Helen Rappaport

The subtitle of this book should really be “but mainly about their mother Tsaritsa Alexandra Feodorovna” as it isn’t as much about the Grand Duchesses as I would have like it to have been.

The children of the last Russian Tsar are somewhat shadowy figures, their personalities overshadowed by the tragedy of their murders during the revolution.  It turns out, that because of the way they were brought, up away from Court and out of the public eye, they were also shadowy figures to the people of Russia too.

I think that is why this is, on the whole, a frustrating book.

The book needs to explain the Tsar and Tsaritsa; their personalities and their preference for remaining away from the gaze of the public and not wanting to be constantly on show at Court.  I understand that.  However, I feel this could have been accomplished in a shorter way, giving more space and time to Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, who never really come to life.

For a book about four girls growing up in 20th century this was like reading a biography of medieval women with their personalities and lives being inferred from a few fragmentary sources.  I understand that a lot of those who were close to the family perished in the revolution and that their papers were mainly burnt but there must be some way to piece together what is available to bring them alive.

I don’t feel as though I have added anything to what I already knew about the Grand Duchesses from reading other sources, which is a bit frustrating when this book purports to focus on them and their lives.