Book of the Week, historical, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Ask a Historian

I offer you a non fiction book this week – and after a few weeks where I’ve been recommending new (or newish) releases, here’s one that’s not quite as new a release because it came out in October…

Anyway, Greg Jenner’s latest book does exactly what it says on the tin – it answers fifty questions from history that are the sort of thing that most people actually want to know – as opposed to the sort of history people thing they ought to know. So you can find out how women dealt with their periods in the past – but also how historical periods got their names, where history starts and pre-history ends and why people are so obsessed with the Tudors (see also the question about how many nipples Anne Boleyn had) and then more horrible histories type stuff like how much horse manure was created each day in London or what the Flintstones got right. And because it’s fifty questions it makes for great bite sized reading – I read a couple of questions a night before bed.

As I’ve mentioned before, Greg and I overlapped at the same university and we did student radio at the same time although in different departments (I was news and he was speech) so we didn’t really hang out together although we were in the Langwith bar at the same time a few times after the weekly meeting. I really like the niche he’s carved himself as a public historian – he is incredibly knowledgable but wears it very lightly and his writing style is fun and accessible. And he’s the sort of history writer who wants to appear like he knows it all right off the top of his head – he’s not afraid to show his working and tell you which historians or other experts he spoke to in the main text and not hidden in the footnotes. And if there’s something you’re particularly interested in, there’s always a further reading list at the back – complete with notes about which are the more academic books as opposed to the more lay person friendly ones. As well as working for the grownups, I think this is also the sort of book that would appeal to a kid who read horrible histories and is now looking for something else fun and historical. It’s got a few swear words in it, but I think that teens and tweens will love that (and parents: they’ve heard all the words already at school, that ship has sailed)

My copy (complete with signed book plate) came from Big Green Books, but it should be fairly easy to get hold of from any reasonably sized book shop as well as on Kindle and Kobo. And if you read it and like it, then try Greg’s other books Dead Famous (definitely more for the adults) and A Millions Years in a Day. And as a bonus Greg reads his own audiobooks, which is always delightful – if you listen to his podcast You’re Dead to Me you know what he sounds like and it would be weird for it not to be him narrating!

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, memoirs, new releases

Book of the Week: Stories I Might Regret Telling You

It’s been a while since we had a memoir as a Book of the Week, but it makes a change and having already written about the new Mhairi McFarlane and with a lot of rereads on last week’s list, it’s really a good thing that I enjoyed reading this so much!

This was actually on my pre-order list, and as I mentioned in that Martha Wainwright is a singer songwriter who has had a special place in my heart for a long time now. In the book she describes her self as a “child of… twice over” as both of her parents are well known musicians, and added to that her brother Rufus had mainstream success at a time when she was also trying to make it in the music business. This memoir looks back at her life and the decisions she’s made and the people she knows. She comes from a fiercely competitive family, with lot of competing egos and careers and it is very, very interesting to get the inside scoop on all that – from her point of view at least.

And the title isn’t joking – she’s probably already regretted some of this, as an earlier manuscript of the book was used in her divorce. It’s probably the most honest and unvarnished memoir I’ve read since Viv Albertine’s first book. Wainwright is fairly self aware and with the benefit of time, can see patterns in her own life and how things have affected her. And of course her music has always been the same way – but there’s a difference between a three minute song and a 200 page piece of extended writing. As well as the career and her relationships with her siblings and parents, it also looks at the pressures of juggling a career and motherhood – which is not exactly new, but it does feel a bit different because the arrival of her oldest son was unexpected and traumatic and came at a really difficult time in her life – as her mother was dying of cancer – and when she was in the UK rather than at home in Canada. All in all, a really interesting read for a fan like me – and I suspect there’s enough here for people who aren’t fans too.

As I said, I had my copy preordered so got it on the day it came out two weeks ago – but Foyles now have signed bookplate editions with a couple of quid off and everything, so I’m almost regretting that. But I have a ticket to see her live in London later in the year, so maybe I’ll take it along to that. I do already have a signed ticket from the last time I saw her (at the small but brilliant Stables in Milton Keynes where I would have gone to see her again if it wasn’t for the fact that the evening she’s playing there is the same day as we’re seeing The Glass Menagerie in the West End. Why does this always happen?) so it’s not like I’m missing out really. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. Anyway, it’s out now in hardback, Kindle, Kobo and audiobook read by Martha herself.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Get Rich or Lie Trying

I know I said that I was mostly reading romance and mystery at the moment, but I’m veering outside that today for this week’s BotW, with a new release book that’s looking at the influencer economy and how it is changing our daily lives.

This is a sobering look at the changes that social media has brought to the world – particularly when it comes to the blurring of lines between real and fake and the Wild West of promotions, adverts and sponcon. Symeon Brown is a correspondent at Channel Four news and in his first book he examines realities of influencer culture – and what lies behind the carefully curated lives that people are presenting on social media platforms. And it turns out that what is behind the glossy facade is even murkier than you are imagining. For every success story, there are countless people handing over their own money in the hopes of being the next big thing.

Across the course of the book, Brown takes you through the full range of online smoke and mirrors – from predatory plastic surgery firms taking advantage of young women who want to look more like their filtered photos, the promises of quick riches through crypto currencies or various new types of MLMs, streamers who get paid to be racially abused, influencers who are making serious money out of activism and much, much more. But at the centre of it all there are a lot of vulnerable people desperate for a better future who are being preyed on or exploited.

I’ve recommended books about scammers or frauds here before, but they’ve usually been about single people or companies perpetuating a con – whereas this covers a huge range of ways that people are being bamboozled as part of online hustle culture. It’s well written and hard to put down – and it’s going to give you a lot to think about. Very, very sobering.

Get Rich or Lie Trying came out last week – my copy came from NetGalley – but it’s available now in hardback and on Kindle and Kobo.

books, memoirs

Missing books

Do you know when you can’t find a book and it’s really annoying you? In last week’s Bookshelfie I spoke about the fact that I didn’t have to even check the shelves much to know what was on there. And no, I don’t know all of my shelves that well, but I do know where roughly most of my books should be. So when stuff is not there it gets frustrating.

I used to loan books out a fair bit in the before times, but then I would forget who had what and end up with missing books or duplicate copies. You may remember when my copy of Gone with the Windsors went awol and it was A Drama. I have three copies now because I cried about it on Twitter and Laurie Graham saw it and sent me one, which was too nice to read and so I bought another copy of it and then I got the original one back as well. So now I have three copies and I started a list of who I had loaned what to. Which helps. But occasionally, there’s a book that I can’t find and I don’t know why.

At the moment it’s Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves. It was one of the extended reading list books for my A Levels – where we did a module on War Literature. I read all the books on that list. And for years while I was at university and slightly beyond, my copy of Goodbye to All That lived on the bookshelf that ran across my bedroom wall above the door with the other books from that module. Then when I moved into my own house I took all the books with me. Well I did a bit of a weed. But of that collection of books from that module, the only one I ditched was Testament of Youth. Because I hated it.

So now they lived on the downstairs bookshelf at the old house. And it should be on the same bookshelf now. But it’s not. And it’s really annoying me. Especially since my copy of Strange Meeting returned to base the other week (even if my mum didn’t realise it was mine, despite the fact my name was written in the front of it!). So where have I put it? And what do I do? I could buy a new copy, but it wouldn’t be the same edition – and I want the same edition. And of course if I do, the original one could turn up. Although I’ve been waiting for years for my copy of Regeneration to turn up as it was one of a matching set and it hasn’t yet so what do I know.

Maybe the act of writing this will magic my copy back to me? It’s a turn of the century small paperback sized Penguin one, with the black and white photo of the trenches on the front. It’s completely the wrong size for all the other books from that module, but I don’t care because it’s the *right* version for me. Thanks.

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Vanderbilt

Say hello to a non-fiction pick that is both a hardback and a book that I got for Christmas – and so hasn’t lingered on the pile at all. Now that may be because it was a book that I specifically asked for, or it may just be a fluke but, hey lets celebrate small wins when we get them.

You’ll know Anderson Cooper as a news anchor on CNN, but he’s also part of the Vanderbilt family and this book, written with Katherine Howe, as the subtitle suggests is a look at the rise and fall of the dynasty. It is not a complete and comprehensive examination of every member of the family, but more a look at the key figures and key moments in the family’s fortunes from making their money, through breaking into New York society, to the various court battles and all the way to Cooper’s own childhood as the son of Gloria Vanderbilt. It takes you from seventeenth century New Amsterdam through to the present day, but with its main focus from the mid-ninteenth century onwards.

I knew bits and bobs about some of the Vanderbilts, but not a whole lot so this was really interesting to me – even before the personal aspect that Cooper’s own connection to the story adds. I’ve read a lot of books at various points about the British nobility in the nineteenth century, and portions of this story are the American equivalent to that – and they interface at some points too, for example when Consuelo Vanderbilt is married off to the Duke of Marlborough. If you’ve got an interest in this sort of history, it’s definitely worth a look – even if it’s not the most comprehensive account and may well leave you wanting to read more about some of the characters you meet. But that’s never a bad thing really is it? We’ve all already got to-read piles bigger than we should have, so what difference do a couple more books make…

My copy of Vanderbilt was a Christmas gift from my parents (thanks mum and dad!) but you can get it now in hardback, Kindle and Kobo. It’s also on audiobook read by Anderson Cooper himself, which sounds delightful from the sample. I still haven’t been into a bookshop this year, but I suspect it’ll be a case of ordering it in – I’ve put a Waterstones link as I know that’s where mum got it from so I know it will actually work.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, non-fiction, reviews

Book of the Week: The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym

After a string of Christmas-themed recommendations for BotW, I’m starting the new year with a non-fiction pick, and it’s a title that you may be rather familiar with as it’s been on the ongoing list for quite some time – but don’t hold that against it. Why then has it taken me so long to read? Well firstly because it is long (500+ pages!) and secondly because non-fiction requires proper concentration and for me to be in the right mindset – which has been difficult recently but in 2021 in general – as previously discussed.

Anyway, Paula Byrne’s latest book is a biography of the author Barbara Pym. Pym wrote a series of novels about everyday women in the middle of the twentieth century, was briefly acclaimed, then forgotten and then rediscovered in the years immediately before her death in 1980. If you haven’t read any of them, then you really should – she’s been compared to Jane Austen. She was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1977 for Quartet in Autumn, but I’ve mostly read her earlier books – my favourite of hers Excellent Women, which I have in a rather delightful Virago Designer Hardback edition.

After growing up in Shropshire, Barbara Pym went up to Oxford in the early 1930s. There she threw herself into student life – and into love. She travelled to Germany in the 1930s, was a Wren during the war and then worked for years as an assistant editor for a journal of anthropology. Her novels often feature anthropologists, as well as vicars – whether she’s writing about London’s bedsit land or English country life. In later life, she was friends with Philip Larkin – which in part led to her rediscovery in the late 1970s

Using Pym’s own diaries and papers, Byrne has written a comprehensive re-examination of Pym’s life piecing together her relationships, friendships and love affairs as well as her career in publishing. It’s a fascinating insight into the life behind the writer – and how her personal life bled into her novels. Considering that she never married and that her books focus on unmarried or in some way frustrated women, you may be surprised by what you discover about her. Two of Byrnes other books – Kick (about Kathleen Kennedy) and Mad World (about Evelyn Waugh) are on my keeper shelf of history books already and this would join them, if it wasn’t an ebook! And if I haven’t already won you over with my thoughts, it was on the Times’ list of best books of 2021 too.

As an added bonus for me, given my current Wimsey phase, Pym was an undergraduate at St Hilda’s just a couple of years before Gaudy Night is set. Through her experiences you can get a glimpse of what the students of Shrewsbury College might have been getting up to out of sight of the dons.

My copy of The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym came via NetGalley, but you should be able to get hold of the hardback fairly easily – Foyles have it available as click and collect at a lot of their stores and will even knock a couple of quid off the cover price if you order it via their website. If the hardback price is a bit rich for you, then I’m so behind hand with my NetGalley list that it’s actually out in paperback in April, so you could hang fire for that. Or of course it’s available in Kindle and Kobo and as an audiobook.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, memoirs, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Educated

Well. I’m going to preface this with a Not For Everyone warning, and I’m going to depart from my recent well trodden path of crime and romance recommendations and go with a nonfiction memoir. And I’m only about four years behind, which is fairly par for the course for me to be honest as you all well know.

Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir about growing up in a doomsday prepping, fanatically religious household in Idaho and about how she struggled free. Her father is convinced that the end of days is coming, and that the government is plotting against him. This means that Tara is home schooled, but home school actually often involves working in the family junkyard. Her father also doesn’t believe in doctors or the medical profession in general and so injuries and illnesses go untreated. Eventually Tara manages to escape to university and finds herself in a world that she is ill equipped to deal with and lacking basic knowledge that others take for granted. But conflict with her family remains and she has to find a way to navigate that.

This needs all the warnings. I don’t think it’s giving too much to say that there is an incredible amount of violence in this – and whatever injuries you’re imaging went untreated, you are not imagining anything bad enough. I had been warned by my sister and I still wasn’t prepared. So go into this expecting: child abuse, child neglect, sibling violence, bullying and pretty much any behaviour that triggers a mandatory child protection referral if a teacher were to suspect it was going on. But of course Tara wasn’t in school so, yeah. It just goes on.

But if you want to know more about survivalists and some of the extremes of some of the offshoots of Mormonism then this will give you that. And some. Tara Westover has built a fresh life for herself and, spoiler alert, has managed to build healthy relationships – some of which are with some of her family. Unsurprisingly perhaps, her parents disagree with her descriptions of her childhood – and her mother has in fact written her own book in response to this, which she has self-published and in doing so has given all the real names of the people who Tara had given pseudonyms to. If you fancy an interesting half hour, after you have finished Educated, you can go and read the reviews of that on goodreads. I’m not sure you need to do any more than that because I think you’ll be able to draw your own conclusions from that.

Now I’m fairly sure my copy of Educated came from NetGalley, but so long ago now that it’s not even funny. You can get Educated everywhere. It has been on all the lists, been recommended by everyone who you could want to recommend it. I’ve seen it in pretty much every bookshop and some supermarkets too. And of course it’s on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, holiday reading, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Traitor King

So as you can see from yesterday’s post, I read a lot of stuff while we were on holiday, so I had plenty of choice, and a lot of the stuff from that list will pop up somewhere else on the blog. But for today’s pick I’m going with Traitor King – which I spotted in Waterstones in hardback the other week and really wanted, but couldn’t justify buying two hardbacks – as I was also buying a signed hardback of the new Judith Mackerell. But when I spotted the airport version (that’s the giant sized paperback, but it’s still a paperback and not a hardback so easier to read) in the WH Smiths at Luton, I was delighted to pick myself up a copy as my holiday book.

Slightly battered copy of Traitor King - its been to Spain and back as well as to the beach in the beach bag!

Andrew Lownie’s Traitor King examines the life of the former Edward VIII did in the years following his abdication. As the title suggests (I mean it doesn’t have a question mark after Traitor King, so I think it’s fair to say that) what Lownie says he did was a lot of scheming and intrigue against the interests of his former Kingdom in the interests of himself and his wife both in terms of their position and their financial gain.

A lot has been written about the events leading up to the abdication, but not so much about what happened after – or at least not in as much detail as this. Lownie starts with the day of the abdication and moves on from there – assuming that the reader will know what has happened, which obviously I did because I’ve read a lot of stuff – fiction and non-fiction about this whole sitauation. Most of what I have read has suggested that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (as they became) were as the blurb says “naïve dupes” of the Germans in the run up to and the early stages of the Second World War, but Lownie’s thesis is that they knew what they were doing and were active participants themselves. He draws together threads of stories that I’ve come across before – the closeness of Wallis to von Ribbentrop, the rather dubious Charlie Bedaux and the trip to visit Hitler among other things – and comes to the conclusion that this was part of a concerted effort by the couple to conspire against British interests to try and benefit themselves. Unfortunately for Edward – and fortunately for the UK – Edward was not that bright and his plans were spotted by the various arms of the British establishment that were keeping an eye on him (which range from his friends, to his secret service detail, to the embassy staff and more) and documented. This is the documentation that Lownie uses to make his case – and he’s got the footnotes to prove it! The book also touches on the more usual aspects of the Windsor’s married life – ie were they actually in love, was it worth it and did Wallis learn sex tricks in when posted with her first husband in China – and draws some conclusions about them that I won’t spoil here, but the main focus is on the macchinations.

And it’s a very enjoyable and interesting read. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am very interested in the history of the first half of the Twentieth Century and the abdication crisis is one of the key events of it for Britain, outside the two World Wars. I’ve read a lot on the subject and this added some new perspectives and interpretations of events that I have read a fair bit about before. It’s got an extensive set of references – whether it’s the author’s own research or references to other authors working in the field – and it’s also got a really good further reading list at the back, which has a fiction list featuring my beloved Gone with the Windsors, as well as the nonfiction stuff. Speaking of Laurie Graham’s novel, I don’t think you can read that and come away with it with a particularly high opinion of the couple, but it would seem from this that Graham understated the case when it came to their meanness and the way they treated their friends and their staff. Despite the couple’s efforts to establish their relationship as the romance of the century, public opinion at the time was mostly against them and reading about it in the history books it is hard to draw a lot of favourable conclusions about them – even before you come to the Nazi connection.

I’m very pleased with my decision to buy this, it’s about to be sent out on loan to my mum and when it returns, it will undoubtedly find it’s way on to the Keeper Shelf. If you’ve got an interest in the period, or in the history of the British Monarchy, or even on stories about awful people, this is probably one you’ll be interested in. You’ll probably do best with it if you have a working knowledge of the abdication crisis to start you off with, but it does give you the basics so it’s not essential. I’m off to try and get hold of some of the other books Lownie mentions at the end, as well as his previous book about the Mountbattens.

As mentioned at the top, this is a hardback if you’re not going to an airport anytime soon, but it’s in the bookshops (the Waterstones I found it in isn’t a massive one in the grand scheme of things, especially as they have their top floor shut at the moment for Covid safety reasons) and Foyles have lots of options for click and collect. And of course it’s on Kindle and Kobo as well – but because it’s a hardback, the ebook versions are fairly expensive at the moment – more than £7 as I write this.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: The Cult of We

Have I already written about one book about We Work? Yes. Is it going to stop me from writing another one? Nope. You’re welcome and also welcome to my reading life!

Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell’s The Cult of We is, as the subtitle suggests an examination of start up culture viewed through the prism of the rise (and fall) of We Work. In case you’ve missed my previous post or in fact the whole We Work saga, We Work was set up by Adam Neumann as reimagining the work space. It was subletting office space to smaller companies – like other companies had done before – but managing to make it sound like something new and revolutionary and get it classed alongside tech startups with much lower price overheads. The company started to implode when it tried to launch its IPO – which it needed to raise more money to keep the lights on – but Neumann walked away with much of his fortune intact.

I’ve already written about Reeves Wiedeman’s Billion Dollar Loser, which also covers Neumann and We Work and yet I still got new perspectives from this. This answers some of the questions Wiedeman didn’t – partly because it had more time to see what happened, but also takes a bigger look (I think) at how the financing of these sorts of companies is done and how made investors went for unicorn start ups that weren’t making profits. It could be recency bias, but my inclination is to say that this is the better choice if you’re only going to read one – you get all the mind boggling stories about the antics of Neumann (extra cleaning on private planes because of the cannabis-fueled partying on board) and his wife Rebekah (including the recipe for Cheezy sprinkle – hint, there is no cheese but there is nutritional yeast) but you also get more detail on the high finance side of things and who was investing in all of this.

Which ever book you read though, the story of We Work probably won’t make you as angry as Bad Blood or Empire of Pain – but that may be because office rental is not as easy to get worked up about as revolutionary blood testing or the opioid epidemic. Or maybe the story of Theranos really is that bonkers. But it’s still definitely worth a read if you like a Big Business explosion story and also if you don’t want to get so angry about the contents you want to throw the book/e-reader across the room!

My copy of The Cult of We came from NetGalley, but it’s out now and should be available via all the usual sources as well as in Kindle and Kobo. It’s also available in audiobook and I would expect the hardback to be in stock in the larger bookstores – Foyles have click and collect as an option for several stores, in London and outside, which is usually a good sign.

Happy Reading.

Book of the Week, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light

The reading list yesterday was a little shorter than usual, and with some relistens and old favourites on it but the pick for today was actually easy because as I mentioned the new Helen Ellis essay collection arrived last week – and of course I read it!

Copy of Bring Your Baggage and Don't Pack Light on a bookshelf

Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light is a series of essays examining friendship between adult women and what it’s like to be a woman pushing 50. There’s stories of Middle Aged sex, a trip to a psychic and what happens when one of your friends has a bad mammogram. And there are so many characters: bridge ladies, cat lady plastic surgeons and platinum frequent fliers. It’s the first book in a while I’ve found myself reading bits of out loud to Him Indoors – and the first time in even longer that he didn’t tell me to shut up! Sample response: “is this real? Do her friends know she’s writing this?” (Answer: yes, and yes). It’s witty and wise and I want Helen Ellis to be my friend too.

I first discovered Helen Ellis through a proof copy on the Magic Bookshelf at work. The Magic Bookshelf is now a thing of the past, but when it existed it was a library trolley full of books that lived near the entertainment and arts teams. It had a label on it telling you that you could take them – as opposed to all the other bookshelves up there which has labels telling you absolutely not to take the books. It’s where I was introduced to Curtis Sittenfeld (via Eligible), Brit Bennet (The Mothers) and Lissa Evans (Crooked Heart) – all of whom are now on my preorder list because of the books I read from the shelf. I miss the shelf – because I wonder what I’m missing out on because I don’t stumble across new (to me) books there any more. But still, I already have more books waiting to be read than some people own to start with so I really can’t complain. Anyway, every now and again I recommend an essay collection. Yes, it’s often one from Helen Ellis, but if you like Nora Ephron, or fiction like Katherine Heiny, this is the essay equivalent. You’re welcome.

Here is a confession: I preordered this from Amazon, in hardback and it’s the American edition. That’s how much I love Helen Ellis. I regret nothing because it is wonderful. But that does mean it’s a little expensive and might be harder to get hold of over here for now at least. It’s available in Kindle and Kobo – at the pricier end of the e-book scale, and Foyles say they can get hold of it in a week, but I wouldn’t expect to find it in a store – not yet anyway.

Happy Reading!