book round-ups, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: August 2021 Mini Reviews

I can’t believe the summer is nearly over. And August’s weather has been ridiculous so it feels like the summer was that one sweltering week in July. Anyway, there was a bunch of bonus posts last month (all the links are at the end as usual), so I’ve already talked about a lot of books over the last few weeks, but that’s just not enough so here are the mini reviews for August.

How to Make the World Add Up by Tim Harford*

Cover of How to Make the World Add Up

I love a good non-fiction read as you all know, but I mostly tend towards the narrative non-fiction, so this is a bit of a change for me as Tim Harford’s latest book sets out how to examine the numbers and statistics that we encounter in the world. The aim is to equip you with the skills you need to be able to work out what they actually mean and how important they are. I was really keen to read this because I’m not really a numbers person  – I got the grades that I needed to at GCSE and then promptly dropped maths (and sciences) in favour of history, languages and literature – so I thought this would be really helpful – and it was. It sets out what to look for and how to interrogate the information that you’re given so that you can draw your own conclusions about it. A really useful book.

The Two Hundred Ghost by Henrietta Hamilton*

Cover of The Two Hundred Ghost
This is a bit of a cheat as I have already written about Henrietta Hamilton this month – in the BotW post about The Man Who Wasn’t There, but when I went back through my Netgalley lists I found that I had this waiting for me – and it’s the first one in the series and the origin story.  This is a murder mystery set in the world of Antiquarian booksellers, which also features to really rather gently set up the relationship between Johnny and Sally which you see in the later books. So gently in fact that if you didn’t know it was coming (it is on the cover though) you might be a bit surprised when it actually happens towards the end. Anyway, the plot: Heldar’s shop at 200 Charing Cross Road is reputed to be haunted – and one morning after the “ghost” is spotted, the really rather nasty Mr Butcher is found dead in his office. There are plenty of suspects among the employees, so Sally – who works in the shop – starts to do her own investigation to try and make sure the police don’t arrest the wrong person. She’s helped by Johnny, one of the family who owns the story who also wants to see it all tied up as soon as possible. I loved the eccentric characters that this has – and the mystery is good too. Definitely worth a look.

The Illegal by Gordon Corera

Cover of The Illegal

This is a Kindle single, so it’s short, but don’t let that put you off.  The Illegal looks at the practice of embedding spies in countries during the Cold War through the case of Canadian businessman Gordon Lonsdale – actually a Russian called Konan Molody – who arrived in London in the mid-1950s. If you’ve read any John Le Carré or watched any spy films, this will be of interest to you. It looks at how he was chosen, how his cover was established, what he got up to and how he was caught. It’s under 100 pages, but it’s packed with information and will probably leave you wanting to watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy again.

Hang the Moon by Alexandria Bellefleur

Cover of Hang the Moon

So this was one of the potentials for the Summer reading post, but I already had plenty of romances there, so it’s here instead. This should also come with a note that it’s the second in a series and I haven’t read the first so I absolutely didn’t get the most out of this in terms of the references to the couple from the first book.  Anyway, this is a sweet romantic comedy featuring a heroine who arrives to surprise her best friend with a visit only to discover that her friend is out of town. So instead of hanging out with her bestie, Annie ends up hanging out with Brandon, her friend’s brother. Brandon has had a crush on Annie for years and is a proper romantic who has developed a dating app. Annie has given up on dating. You can see where this is going. I didn’t love it, love it, but it was a pleasant way to while away an afternoon in the garden.

And in case you missed any of them, the Books of the Week posts in August were nearly a full set of mysteries: Black Plumes, The Man Who Wasn’t There, A Third Class Murder and Death at Dukes Halt with just Battle Royal breaking the detective monopoly. The bonus posts were summer reading and history books. And finally in the link-fest here are the rest of the year’s mini reviews: January, February, March, April, May, June and July.

Happy Reading!

book round-ups, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: July 2021 Mini Reviews

Here we go – another month, another batch of books that I wanted to talk about but didn’t have quite enough to say about to give them a post all to themselves. There’s romance, comedy, adventure and history here – so a nice mix.

Surfeit of Suspects by George Bellairs

Cover of Surfeit of Suspects

I picked a British Library Crime Classic for Book of the Week last week – and this is another cracker. It was actually a close call for BotW this week, but I thought I might look too one note (not that that’s ever bothered me before). A Surfeit of Suspects is the 41st (!) book in the Inspector Littlejohn series, and concerns an explosion at a joinery company, that kills three of the company’s directors. The company itself is teetering on the brink of insolvency and there is a suspicion that the explosion may have been an insurance job on a rather spectacular scale. But why would the firm have had any dynamite to explode if it hadn’t been planted there. And why had the previously profitable firm fallen so far? There is potential fraud and corruption, but also personal rivalries and love affairs. There’s also a lot of focus on the local banking eco-system – which as Bellairs had worked in a bank, he was very well placed to write. And despite the fact that banking has changed a lot in the fifty plus years since this was published, it’s all easy to follow – and actually quite informative for those of us who have grown up in the era of big banking chains. Oh and it’s a good solution too. I got it on Kindle Unlimited, but it’s also available in paperback.

The Lock In by Phoebe Luckhurst*

Cover of The Lock In

I keep talking about the summer reading post (I promise it is coming) and this was a contender for that, but it’s a little too domestic for a sunlounger read. Or at least it is for me, so I’m writing about it here instead. Ellen, Alexa and Jack are housemates. They’re also locked in their attic on a Saturday morning, with terrible hangovers and Alexa’s Hinge date from the night before. Why are they locked in the attic? Well the kitchen is flooding and they were looking for the way to switch off the water when the handle broke off the attic door. They only have one phone – and it’s Jacks that’s very low on battery and the signal is poor. But he’s mostly live tweeting the situation. Ben and Alexa are getting to know each other, and Ellen is becoming convinced that she’s met Ben before.  Will they get out? Will they still be friends when they do – and will they survive the wrath of their landlord? I think I’m a little too old for this – I did my dating before apps were a thing – but this is a funny portrait of possibly the worst hangover ever. I was sort of expecting more romance, but it’s much more of a comedy than it is a romantic comedy. Worth a look. Newly out this summer – should be fairly easy to get hold of.

The Camelot Caper by Elizabeth Peters

Paperback copy of The Camelot Caper

This one is probably only worth a look for Elizabeth Peters completists. This is from the very late 1960s and is interesting because it’s sometimes listed as a prequel to the Vicky Bliss series. It’s much less connected to that than that makes it seem – basically the connection is to “Sir John Smythe” in a way that I can’t reveal without giving some big old spoilers for Vicky Bliss. And it’s quite a minor connection – so don’t go into this expecting lots of him. And if you’ve not read Vicky Bliss (or Amelia Peabody to which its even more tenuously linked) then it’s just a late 1960s thriller-slash-cozy-mystery with no murder but a lot of chasing around Britain by an American Tourist, who is being hunted down by mysterious thugs, and the charming Brit who is helping her out. Your mileage on that may vary. I’m glad I read it, but if I’d read it first, I probably wouldn’t have read the rest of the Vicky Bliss series, and that would have been a shame. Second-hand only, and no ebook.

Hellions Waltz by Olivia Waite

 Cover of The Hellions Waltz

Sophie’s family has moved to a new town to start over after they were taken in by a conman who ruined their business. Maddie is busy planning to ruin the draper who has been cheating and defrauding the local weavers for years. When recently cheated Sophie sees that Maddie has some sort of con going on, she starts to investigate. And of course the only thing for Maddie to do to distract her is seduce. And it all goes on from there. The middle book in this trilogy, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows was a BotW pick here earlier this year, but be aware the connection between three books is looser than you usually see in romance series – there’s barely any mention of the previous leads, and there was nothing in the previous book to mark out who was going to feature in the next (if you know what I mean) or if there was it was so subtle that I missed it. The link between them is women with a craft or a passion – in this case a musician and a silk weaver. But this was a fun read – I liked all the details about the various pianos and about the silk reading, and the denouement – although fast – is satisfying.

Meet the Georgians by Robert Peel*

Cover of Meet the Georgians
I’m including this one in here because I think if you don’t know anything about the Georgians, this would be a good introduction to some of the characters in it – and also to the idea that the Victorians were the prudish ones and that life before that was much more interesting/racy! For me (degree in history in which I mostly did post 1700 stuff in Britain, France and wider Europe) there wasn’t a lot new here. But that said: I like the idea, and the choices of who to feature are good because the people are fascinating, but the writing style is strangely uneven – at times it feels like the author is wants to emulate Greg Jenner‘s chatty informal style but is trying to hard and it’s only in patches before it reverts to something more standard for a history book. It’s still very accessibly written in the rest of it, but it has these weird bits where it all sounds a bit “how do you do fellow kids”. For me, the introduction also spoilt a bit of the fun/mystery of finding out who the people were – a lot of the key details were in there. Thinking about it, it’s a bit like a history essay in book form: here is my theory, here is the evidence for my theory, here is my conclusion with a reminder of my theory and a look ahead. Additionally the cover is a bit out of step with the audience I feel like it’s trying for. Great idea and if you’re a newbie to the era, it will probably work better for you than it did for me!

 

In case you missed any of them, the Books of the Week posts in July were Empire of Pain, The Guncle, Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light and Smallbone Deceased. And finally, just to complete the link-fest, here are the links to the mini reviews from January, February, March, April, May and June.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, LGTBQIA+, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Fabulosa!

A few options under serious consideration from last week, but in the end I settled on Paul Baker’s Fabulosa! because it was really, really good and I’m not sure it will have come onto people’s radar. So this week’s BotW could be seen as the latest in a line that has already included Legendary Children and Diary of a Drag Queen – and also Art of Drag – which you can actually see in the background of my photo below.

In case you don’t already know, Polari is a language that was used mostly by gay men in the first half of the twentieth century. It had a brief moment in the limelight in the mid 1960s when it featured in Julian and Sandy sketches on the radio show Round the Horne, and then dropped away again. In Fabulosa! Paul Baker examines the language’s roots – in Cant, dancers’ slang and Lingua Franca – the reasons why it was spoken and the reasons for its decline. Baker is a linguistics professor and the foundations for the book are from of his PHD research – and interviews conducted with surviving speakers of Polari.

This is part linguistic study, part social history and really very enjoyable. There are a fair few word which crossed over into common usage from Polari – as well as the origins of a few of the words you may have encountered in Drag Race. One of the main roles for Polari was a means of communicating with a level of camouflage – but it’s hard to work out at this distance how successful that was. Baker is very frank that it was hard to find people who spoke it to interview, and there is very littl documentation about it and so it’s hard to work out how Polari was actually used – and whether it ever reached the level of a language rather than a variety, and whether people who didn’t speak Polari would have recognised it as something spoken by the gay community and been able to expose this and thus defeat the object.

IF you’re interested in language or social history – or both, this is well worth a look to discover a hidden part of the recent past. I bought my copy from Foyles – where the hardback is now out of stock but they do have the paperback, but it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo. You’ll probably need a reasonably large or specialist bookshop to be able to wander in and pick up a copy.

Happy reading!

And one last bonus – here are Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick reviving Julian and Sandy – on camera for a BBC programme in the late 1980s, shortly before Paddick’s death. Both this and the clip above are discussed in the book.

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Dead Famous

Another week, another Book of the Week post, but first another quick reminder about the Escapist Reading post from the end of last week. Anyway, back to today and taking a break from the romance and crime picks of most of the month (and last month to be fair), this week’s pick is Greg Jenner’s latest book – Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen. I’ve got a whole stack of history books on the to-read pile and I’m hoping that my head is getting back to a place where I can concentrate on more serious reading now – I love history books, but I’ve had trouble getting my concentration going for them the last couple of months (gee, wonder why) but this broke through.

Hardback copy of Dead Famous

First up, I should say that I went to the same uni as Greg – and what’s more we both “worked” at the same student radio station – and although we weren’t in the same teams or social groups we do follow each other on Twitter.  Anyway since then, Greg has gone on to be a successful public historian – he worked on the Horrible Histories series, hosts a two podcasts for the BBC, You’re Dead To Me (currently on hiatus in the middle of it second series) and the brand new Home School History (which I was listening to part of the time while writing this post) and done all sorts of exciting history stuff including his first book, A Million Years in a Day. Dead Famous came out last month and examines where the modern concept of “celebrity” comes from – how old is it, is it different to fame (or infamy) and how one goes about acquiring it. Over the course of the book he tells the stories of celebrities through history and works out how we got to where we are.

This was one of my hammock reads last week (as the sharp-eyed amongst you may noticed in yesterday’s bonus picture!) and it’s really good. I won’t spoil Greg’s thesis, but it’s well made and with a lot of really great historical figures to illustrate it. Greg has done some serious research into this – 1.4 million words worth on his laptop according to the Acknowledgments – but his writing style makes it so accessible and easy to understand. There are some history books that are scary and hard to read for the layman – sometimes even though they have a funky cover and an enticing blurb. But if you’ve ever heard Greg on radio, podcasts or seen him on TV, he writes exactly as he talks – which makes his books funny and chatty but with impeccable researching to back it up. Greg narrates his own audiobooks and they’re a fabulous listen – that’s how I read Greg’s first book and it was a real treat. As the title suggeests, this stops at 1950 – because Greg says everything after that has already been covered. If you’ve read books on modern celebrity – like Anne Helen Peterson’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud – this would make a really good companion piece to examine how we got here.

I pre-ordered my copy (its signed!) from Kirsty at Fox Lane Books – and as you can see from the tweet above she is still taking orders and if you message Greg to tell him that you bought from her, he’ll send you a signed bookplate. It’s also available on Kindle and Kobo – and as an audiobook read by Greg.

Happy Reading!

non-fiction, Recommendsday, reviews

Recommendsday: Reel History

Need a book that comes in bitesized chunks?  Try Reel History: The World According to the Movie by Alex von Tunzelmann, which is based on her long-running Reel History column in the Guardian.  The basic idea is to compare the movie versions of history with the actual historical fact and the results are frequently hilarious.  Movies are graded on entertainment and on history, because it’s perfectly possible for a film to be both entertaining and historically accurate, although it’s rare.  That’s not to say that she expects films to be slaves to historical accuracy because she’s well aware that what is good history doesn’t always make good watching, but it’s a lovely way of finding out where the truth is behind the films and makes a great jumping off point if you want to disappear down an internet (or library) rabbit hole or two when you find out the truth.

Cover of Reel History by Alex von Tunzelmann
I do love a nice bright cover – and this one is so much fun

Von Tunzelmann has a wicked sense of humour on her, without resorting to cheap shots very often. In fact there’s so much good stuff to giggle about in this that what started out as me reading bits out loud to Him Indoors turned into me reading the whole book out loud to him!  This meant that the book took a lot longer to read than if I’d just been reading it myself, but made for a lovely shared experience as we chuckled together as the movies moved in time from prehistory until the nearly present.  He’d seen a lot more of the movies mentioned than I have, but I still enjoyed the book even the films that I haven’t watched.

I don’t think we can expect many/any more columns – as von Tunzelmann has turned her hand to script writing (she wrote the recent film Churchill) and, as she told Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast, she doesn’t think it’s quite cricket to be on writing films and criticising them.  I’m sad that there won’t be a sequel to this, because I enjoyed it a lot, but I’m off to enjoy the back catalogue on the Guardian website.  I’m also off to take a look at her book Indian Summer, which is about the liberation of India in 1947, which is a subject I know woefully little about and would like to remedy with the 70th anniversary coming upon us next month.

Reel History is available in paperback from all the usual sources and was a bargain £3.49 on Kindle  at time of writing and is also available on Kobo.

Happy Reading!