book round-ups, non-fiction, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: Rich People Problems – Non-fiction Edition

Regular readers of the blog may be aware that I’m somewhat fascinated by the interwar period.  I love Golden Age crime novels, like my beloved Peter Wimsey, one of my all-time favourite novels is Laurie Graham’s Gone With the Windsors and I’ve read a lot about of some of the notables of the period  – some of which I’ve written about here before – like Flappers, Bright Young People and Queen Bees.  And after a recent jag of books about the era (and slightly beyond), now seemed like an ideal time for a bit of a round up of the best bits of the non-fiction.  You’ll hear more about the fiction anon…

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell JrCover of Empty Mansions

This is another one of those books that I’ve wanted to read after I saw the author interviewed about on the Daily Show before Jon Stewart left and have recently got around to reading (see also: Jim Henson) and it is really something.  Huguette Clark died in hospital in 2011 at the age of 104. The fact that she died in hospital is about the only “normal” thing about her life. She was worth $300m. She’d been in the hospital for 30 years. She hadn’t been photographed – in public at least – for nearly twice that. Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman and one of Huguette’s cousins, Paul Clark Newell Jr, look at her life, her family’s fortune and why she retreated to the confines of one room (and progressively smaller one at that) of a hospital for so long when she had apartments and riches that most people can only dream of.  And it’s one hell of a ride.  I read it as an ebook, which is good because it’s long and dense and has footnotes that you might want to flick back and forth to. As well as being fascinating it leaves you with lots of things to ponder – why did she retreat from public life in the 1930s? Was she exploited by the hospital or her carers? And what do people who have made huge fortunes owe to the people and the towns they made the money off? Well worth a look.

The Riviera Set by Mary S Lovell

Hardback of The Riviera Set

Want to know how the French Riviera become the playground of the rich and famous?  This book will tell you.  Lovell’s book starts by introducing you to Maxine Elliott and showing how she established herself as one of Edwardian society’s notable hostesses before building Chateau de l’Horizon, the modernist villa at the centre of the book.  Between the wars, Maxine’s house hosted all the notables of the time – the Churchills, the Windsors, Noel Coward and more – and after the war it transitioned into a party house for the Hollywood set under the ownership of Aly Khan.  I learned new things about some familiar faces from the interwar years – as well as being introduced to a 50s and 60s jet-set that I wasn’t really very knowledgable about.  This mixes royal history, political history and Hollywood history as it shows how the Riviera evolved through the years – although it stops well before the coast became the exlusive playground of oligarchs and the super rich.  Very readable and just gossipy enough. I liked it so much it’s still on my downstairs shelves, nearly two years after I first read it.

Chanel’s Riviera by Anne de Courcy

hardback copy of Chanels Riviera

Once you’ve read about Maxine, go straight on to Anne de Courcy’s new book and see what happened to the Riviera when the Second World War hit it.  The Lovell – which focuses on the villa and the rich – covers the World War Two in one chapter, mostly about how everyone got out.  Chanel’s Riviera will fill in the gaps – and make sure that you don’t go away with the idea that the Riviera wasn’t really affected by it all.  There is plenty about Chanel herself in here, mostly around her time on the Riviera and her friends there, but there’s a lot more detail about the more normal people down there – and not just the rich.  There are expats who had moved down there for their health and the people who had moved down there to work for them or with them.  This one only just came out – it’ll get a place on my shelves just as soon as I get it back from my mum…

The Unfinished Palazzo by Judith Mackrell

Cover of The Unfinished Palazzo

This is a group biography of sorts of three very unconventional for their time women who all owned the titualar Venetian Palazzo during the twentieth century. I found this while scouring my shelves looking for something similar to The Riviera Set after reading that – and it even has some crossover in the cast list (if you know what I mean!), as Doris Castlerosse is a principle figure in this after being a side character in the Lovell.  Luisa Casati was what probably what we would consider now to be a performance artist – albeit one with a pet cheetah. Doris Castlerosse was a socialite who married money and was close to Winston Churchill. And Peggy Guggenheim was an heiress who renovated the building and used it to showcase her collection of modern art (yes, one of those Guggenheims).  Although this was less satisfying than the Lovell overall,  and would serve you well as an entry point into any of their lives.  I would happily read more about any one of the women in this.

So there you have it.  Four more books to add to the list.  This has been mostly European focused – even Huguette – who was part French and spoke with a French accent!  If you’ve got any recommendations for more stuff about America or the rest of the world in this period, hit me up in the comments. Equally if you’ve got an historical rich people problems novels that you think I should read let me know – because they are also my catnip.

Happy Reading!

Authors I love, Series I love

Series I Love: Daisy Dalrymple

It occurred to me while I was writing last week’s BotW post that I haven’t actually written a proper post about Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series and that I should definitely remedy that.  So here is the latest in my (very) occasional Series I Love series (too many serieses? Sorry.  I’m bad with names and it’s too late to change that).  Anyway, this is one of my favourite interwar-set murder mystery series and it’s long over due a post here on the blog.

At the start of the series, it’s 1923 and Daisy is trying find a way to make her living independent of her family.  She’s an Honorable, but her only brother was killed in the Great War and her father died in the Spanish Flu outbreak, which meant the title, the family home and the family fortune went to a cousin.  Daisy had been engaged during the war – but her fiancé, who was a conscientious objector, died while driving an ambulance in France.  And so she finds herself in the brave new post-war world needing to make her own way in the world and with few options of how to do it.  So she’s trying to make some money writing articles about the stately homes of Britain, using the connections she has because of her family and upbringing.

That’s exactly what she’s doing in the first book, Death at Wentwater Court.  It’s her first assignment for Town and Country magazine, going to a country house party so that she can write an article about the history of the house.  But things are not all sunshine and roses at the house and she stumbles over a corpse.  Armed with her camera and her shorthand skills, Daisy’s soon working alongside the police as they investigate what happened, although Daisy’s friendship with the family means she’s really hoping that it won’t turn out that one of them is the culprit.  It sets up Daisy and her regular gang and introduces Detective Inspector Alec Fletcher and his team from Scotland Yard.  It also has an ending that not everyone will be able to get on board with (although I didn’t really have a problem with it) – but I can’t really explain what the problem is without giving a big old spoiler.

I think my favourite book of the series may be book four – Murder on the Flying Scotsman.  Daisy is off to Scotland on a writing assignment when a murder is committed on the train.  To complicate things, Alec’s young daughter is also on board after running away from home and her grandmother.  The murder suspects are the family of one of Daisy’s old schoolmates, and when Alec is called in to investigate the attraction between him and Daisy comes to a head.  The mystery is good – and if you’ve read the rest of the series, the start of a resolution to Alec and Daisy is delicious to read about.

Daisy makes for an interesting heroine and makes a nice counter point to Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher who is at a similar level in society, but with different resources and a different view of the world. Daisy is was brought up to be a good wife to the right sort of nobleman, but realises that the war and her newly reduced circumstances probably mean that her chance of that sort of life has passed her by. Daisy doesn’t get on with her mother, doesn’t want to be dependent on the charity of a distant cousin and has come up with an ingenious way of exploiting her skills and experience to try and gain her independence.  Yes, people seem willing to tell her their secrets on very little acquaintance, but people tell my mum things she doesn’t need/want to know all the time, so I can totally buy into the idea of someone having a sympathetic face!

As the series goes on, Daisy’s life goes down a more traditional route – she gets married and has children, but she’s still trying to maintain her own interests and just can’t stop getting tangled up with murders.  So far (twenty-two books in, with a twenty-third out later in the year after a three year gap) Dunn has also managed to keep Daisy moving around and avoid too much repetition of set ups and avoid Daisy falling victim to the Jessica Fletcher effect.  The books are a great hybrid of the modern cozy crime novel and a Golden Age murder mystery, which make for a really relaxing way to pass time.  Writing this post has made me want to go back and read the series all over again.  In fact I may well do!

If this has inspired you to go and try some Daisy, the first four books are available as an omnibus edition on Kindle – which is how I started out on the series, although I got it for considerably less than the £6.99 it costs at time of writing, so it might be worth adding it to your watch list if you’re on a budget.  They’re also available as paperbacks as you can tell from the pictures – the first few are often available in the crime sections of the larger bookstores, I also picked up mine from a charity shop, which had almost the whole set – requiring a considerable amount of willpower from me to resist going wild.

And if you want to know more about my favourite characters in books, you can read previous installments of Series I Love on Lord Peter Wimsey, and The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.

Happy Reading!

detective, historical

Book of the Week: Maisie Dobbs

We’re back in my (constant) hunt for new historical crime series for this week’s BotW.  I finally got my hand on the first Maisie Dobbs book during a trip to the charity bookshop and immediately read it.  And it’s really good, so I went on and read book 10 in the series – which was in the library book pile and was far too big a jump in the series to do, but that doesn’t change how much I enjoyed the first one.

Copy of Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
My copy of Maisie Dobbs, complete with lovely blue-y cover

We meet Maisie as she is setting up her own private investigation firm in London in 1929.  Her first client asks her to investigate whether his wife is having an affair.  But the investigation forces Maisie to revisit her experiences of the Great War and she finds it hard to keep her professional and her private life separate as she works to resolve the case.

I really, really enjoy books set in the interwar years.  My beloved Peter Wimseys are all in this period, as is Daisy Dalrymple, Phryne Fisher and Dandy Gilver. The very best of them show how the Great War was still having ramifications years after – whether it’s Peter’s shellshock, or Alec using his military tie to get people to open up to him.  Like Phryne, Maisie spent time at the front (although Phryne was driving ambulances while Maisie was a nurse) and it’s deeply affected her outlook on life and her understanding and compassion for the others who were there.

The mystery in this is centred in the Great War, allowing Maisie’s background and education to be explored and it works really well.  In fact a lot of this book is setting up Maisie’s background and her personal history rather than resolving the case (or cases) that she’s investigating.  But that was part of the enjoyment for me.  Maisie’s got a complicated and fascinating backstory and I think understanding that is going to be key to understanding the other books in the series.  Certainly when I read book 10 I would have been lost or at sea without the background I had got from book 1, so it’s one of those occasions where I’m very grateful to have restrained myself and started at the beginning.

Well worth a look if you like any of the other series that I’ve mentioned – I know I’ll be looking out for more Maisie Dobbs mysteries.

You can get a copy of Maisie Dobbs on Kindle or Kobo or in paperback from all the usual places like The Big Green Bookshop – and probably at your local library as well.

Happy reading!

historical, non-fiction

On the Keeper Shelf: History Books

Another half-term bonus post.  As I was dusting my bookshelves the other day, I was looking at my collection of history books.  I’m a history graduate and have read a lot of history writing over the years.  In fact for portions of my university career I hardly read any fiction because I was so burned out on reading from doing my coursework.  These days my reading is mainly fiction, but a lot of it is historical fiction and when I do read non-fiction, a lot of it is historical biography or about history.  And although I don’t tend to reread nonfiction, there are a few books that I have kept hold of – and not because I worry that people will judge me based on my bookshelves*.  So what have I kept and why?

Elizabeth by David Starkey

This was the big history blockbuster when I was doing A-levels.  And as it happens, I was studying Tudor history.  This was one of the first really readable “proper” history books I had come across (it was much easier going that GR Elton’s Henry VII which I also had to read) and it and John Guy’s Tudor England formed the basis of a lot of my essays at the time.  This is full of research, but wears it lightly – if you want a readble way of fact-checking portrayals of Elizabeth in popular culture (like say the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth films) this will do that for you.  I’ve kept reading Starkey since – particularly on Henry VIII and his wives – and have a couple of others around the house, but it’s Elizabeth that I’m sentimentally attached to.

Bright Young People by DJ Taylor

I have an enduring fascination with the inter-war period.  I love novels – particularly detective novels – written in that period and set in that period and the actual history and reality of that era fascinates me too.  I have a little collection of books about the Roaring Twenties and this is possibly my favourite.  It’s the most Britain-centric – which means I can use it to get the background on some of the people who crop up in the novels and similar.  It’s also got a very thorough bibiliography and further reading list which I always appreciate and there’s a few books on that list that I still want to read.  Also on my shelves (still) are Flappers by Judith Makerell, Anything Goes by Lucy Moore (which is more America-centric), Mad World by Paula Byrne and Queen Bees by Sian Evans.  And I’ve got the new Evelyn Waugh biography on the to-read pile too.

An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick by Hannah Pakula

Now bear with me on this one because it’s slightly odd.  As a child I was a little bit obsessed with Queen Victoria.  Well, quite a lot obsessed.  You know how some children are into dinosaurs or trains?  That was me and Queen Victoria. I could recite dates, I knew the middle names of all her children, I had it marked on my height chart how tall she was so I knew when I was taller than her and when we visited the Isle of Wight, all I wanted to do was visit Osborne.  As an adult this has left me with more knowledge than I care to admit about the genealogy of the royal family, although I did win money by correctly predicting Prince George’s name – and my pick if it had been a girl was Charlotte, so you know, it has some uses.  I was also big into pretend games when I was little – but I always pretended to be Princess Victoria, the Princess Royal, not Queen Victoria.  Yeah. I know.  I was a very strange child.  Still I turned out all right really.  Anyway, there aren’t many proper biographies of Princess Victoria – who was the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II (him of World War One) and who died less than 8 months after her mother – but I picked this up secondhand at university to get my head around who she actually was – rather than the crazy ideas that 8-year-old Verity had – and although she actually had a sad and tragic life in the end, I keep it on the shelf as a reminder of the weirdly obsessed child that I was.  Also on the shelves as remnants of that childhood obsession are Julia Gelardi’s Born to Rule (about five of Queen Victoria’s Granddaughters), Princesses by Flora Fraser (about George III’s daughters) and Helen Rappaport’s Magnificent Obsession (about Victoria and Albert’s marriage).

 

 

*People are welcome to judge me on my bookshelves – if you look at the big downstairs bookshelf you’ll find Georgette Heyer, Dorothy L Sayers, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Laurie Graham, Maya Angelou, Barbara Pym and Ngaio Marsh amongst others.  I think that’s a pretty accurate picture of me.