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Dec 16th: Behind the Throne – a domestic history of the British Royal Household by Adrian Tinniswood

Monarchs: they’re just like us. They entertain their friends and eat and worry about money. Henry VIII tripped over his dogs. George II threw his son out of the house. James I had to cut back on the alcohol bills.

In Behind the Throne, historian Adrian Tinniswood uncovers the reality of five centuries of life at the English court, taking the reader on a remarkable journey from one Queen Elizabeth to another and exploring life as it was lived by clerks and courtiers and clowns and crowned heads: the power struggles and petty rivalries, the tension between duty and desire, the practicalities of cooking dinner for thousands and of ensuring the king always won when he played a game of tennis.

A masterful and witty social history of five centuries of royal life, Behind the Throne offers a grand tour of England’s grandest households.

Why read Behind the Throne?

throneHa ha. Did you read that blurb? “Monarchs: they’re just like us.” Um no, not really! But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot to deal with and that a lot of that stuff isn’t the same old rubbish that ordinary mortals deal with OR, more to the point, that this isn’t a great idea for a book. Because it is!

Anything ‘behind the scenes’ is like meat and drink to a historical novelist. I think this book could be a real gem and can’t wait to get reading it.

Dec 15th: Daughters of the Winter Queen by Nancy Goldstone

“From the great courts, glittering palaces, and war-ravaged battlefields of the seventeenth century comes the story of four spirited sisters and their glamorous mother, Elizabeth Stuart, granddaughter of the martyred Mary, Queen of Scots.

Upon her father’s ascension to the illustrious throne of England, Elizabeth Stuart was suddenly thrust from the poverty of unruly Scotland into the fairy-tale existence of a princess of great wealth and splendor. When she was married at sixteen to a German count far below her rank, it was with the understanding that her father would help her husband achieve the kingship of Bohemia. The terrible betrayal of this commitment would ruin “the Winter Queen,” as Elizabeth would forever be known, imperil the lives of those she loved, and launch a war that would last for thirty years.

Forced into exile, the Winter Queen and her family found refuge in Holland, where the glorious art and culture of the Dutch Golden Age indelibly shaped her daughters’ lives. Her eldest, Princess Elizabeth, became a scholar who earned the respect and friendship of the philosopher René Descartes. Louisa was a gifted painter whose engaging manner and appealing looks provoked heartache and scandal. Beautiful Henrietta Maria would be the only sister to marry into royalty, although at great cost. But it was the youngest, Sophia, a heroine in the tradition of a Jane Austen novel, whose ready wit and good-natured common sense masked immense strength of character, who fulfilled the promise of her great-grandmother Mary and reshaped the British monarchy, a legacy that endures to this day.

Brilliantly researched and captivatingly written, filled with danger, treachery, and adventure but also love, courage, and humor, Daughters of the Winter Queen follows the lives of five remarkable women who, by refusing to surrender to adversity, changed the course of history.” (Amazon blurb).

Why read Daughters of the Winter Queen?

daughters of the winter queenI’ve spent a lot of time thinking about 17th Century women over the years – from Madame de Montespan in Charlatan to Anne Thompson in The Road to Newgate but I realise I know very little about these lovely ladies – the granddaughter and great-granddaughters of Mary Queen of Scots.

This fits right in with my interest in famous sisters (have I mentioned that lately??) and, of course, my love of Scottish History.

Will be reading this one sooner rather than later!

Dec 14th: The Anatomy Murders by Lisa Rosner

“On Halloween night 1828, in the West Port district of Edinburgh, Scotland, a woman sometimes known as Madgy Docherty was last seen in the company of William Burke and William Hare. Days later, police discovered her remains in the surgery of the prominent anatomist Dr. Robert Knox. Docherty was the final victim of the most atrocious murder spree of the century, outflanking even Jack the Ripper’s. Together with their accomplices, Burke and Hare would be accused of killing sixteen people over the course of twelve months in order to sell the corpses as “subjects” for dissection. The ensuing criminal investigation into the “Anatomy Murders” raised troubling questions about the common practices by which medical men obtained cadavers, the lives of the poor in Edinburgh’s back alleys, and the ability of the police to protect the public from cold-blooded murder.

Famous among true crime aficionados, Burke and Hare were the first serial killers to capture media attention, yet The Anatomy Murders is the first book to situate their story against the social and cultural forces that were bringing early nineteenth-century Britain into modernity. In Lisa Rosner’s deft treatment, each of the murder victims, from the beautiful, doomed Mary Paterson to the unfortunate “Daft Jamie,” opens a window on a different aspect of this world in transition. Tapping into a wealth of unpublished materials, Rosner meticulously portrays the aspirations of doctors and anatomists, the makeshift existence of the so-called dangerous classes, the rudimentary police apparatus, and the half-fiction, half-journalism of the popular press.

The Anatomy Murders resurrects a tale of murder and medicine in a city whose grand Georgian squares and crescents stood beside a maze of slums, a place in which a dead body was far more valuable than a living laborer.” (Amazon blurb)

Why read The Anatomy Murders?

anatomy murdersIt’s not possible to grow up in Edinburgh without knowing certain stories. These include the murder of Lord Darnley, the story of Greyfriar’s Bobby and the body-snatching activities of Burke and Hare. I’ve been looking this afternoon for fictional retellings of their nasty little story but coming up empty handed so far. And this book by Lisa Rosner published in 2009 looks like the best non-fiction summary to be read. Of course there also the trials – I do love a primary source – and so if I do take the plunge with this book, I’ll certainly be reading the trial documents too.

Dec 13th: Richard III, Loyalty Binds Me by Matthew Lewis

“King Richard III remains one of the most controversial figures in British history. Matthew Lewis’s new biography aims to become a definitive account by exploring what is known of his childhood and the impacts it had on his personality and view of the world. He would be cast into insecurity and exile only to become a royal prince before his tenth birthday.

As Richard spends his teenage years under the watchful gaze of his older brother, Edward IV, he is eventually placed in the household of their cousin, the Earl of Warwick, remembered as the Kingmaker; but as the relationship between a king and his most influential magnate breaks down, Richard is compelled to make a choice when the House of York fractures. After another period in exile, Richard returns to become the most powerful nobleman in England. The work he involves himself in during the years that follow demonstrates a drive and commitment but also a dangerous naïveté.

When crisis hits in 1483, it is to Richard that his older brother turns on his death bed. The events of 1483 remain contentious and hotly debated, but by understanding the Richard who began that year, it will become clearer what drove some of his actions and decisions. Returning to primary sources and considering the evidence available, this new life undoes the myths and presents a real man living in tumultuous times.” (Amazon blurb)

Why read Richard III?

richardIIIOkay so I have always have a soft spot for Richard III beginning from when I was a teenager reading The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman. I liked Richard so much that I named my hamster after him: Richard III, the Last Plantagent King (Plantagenet for short). And I’ve read a couple of other excellent stories over the years where Richard gets much more favourable treatment than he received at the hands of Shakespeare. For anyone interested, I’d recommend Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey – a detective fiction take on the Princes in the Tower question. And for those who like a little humour in their historical fiction, Jennifer Wilson’s Kindred Spirits: Tower of London is a real gem of a book.

In terms of this non-fiction treatment of Richard, I’m very intrigued by the subtitle, Loyalty Binds Me. When I think of his family, it’s not loyalty that springs to mind, so I’m interested to see how that plays out in this new book.

Dec 12th: The Butchering Art by Lindsay Fitzharris

“In The Butchering Art, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery and shows how it was transformed by advances made in germ theory and antiseptics between 1860 and 1875. She conjures up early operating theaters—no place for the squeamish—and surgeons, who, working before anesthesia, were lauded for their speed and brute strength. These pioneers knew that the aftermath of surgery was often more dangerous than patients’ afflictions, and they were baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high. At a time when surgery couldn’t have been more hazardous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon named Joseph Lister, who would solve the riddle and change the course of history.

Fitzharris dramatically reconstructs Lister’s career path to his audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection and could be countered by a sterilizing agent applied to wounds. She introduces us to Lister’s contemporaries—some of them brilliant, some outright criminal—and leads us through the grimy schools and squalid hospitals where they learned their art, the dead houses where they studied, and the cemeteries they ransacked for cadavers.

Eerie and illuminating, The Butchering Art celebrates the triumph of a visionary surgeon whose quest to unite science and medicine delivered us into the modern world.” (Amazon blurb)

Why read The Butchering Art?

butchering artHmm. Why do I want to read this book? I’m drawn to some of the gruesome stuff in history, I’ll admit. I’ve read some pretty grim stuff about torture and executions that I’ve used in my novels. But I think this appeals because of my roots in Edinburgh and growing up on stories of Burke and Hare grave-robbing and murdering to supply the anatomist, Robert Knox.

Lindsay Harris is someone I follow on twitter and her book has received some great reviews and prizes since it came out last year. Definitely on my Christmas list.

Dec 11th: The Suffragents by Brooke Kroeger

“The story of how and why a group of prominent and influential men in New York City and beyond came together to help women gain the right to vote.

The Suffragents is the untold story of how some of New York’s most powerful men formed the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, which grew between 1909 and 1917 from 150 founding members into a force of thousands across thirty-five states. Brooke Kroeger explores the formation of the League and the men who instigated it to involve themselves with the suffrage campaign, what they did at the behest of the movement’s female leadership, and why. She details the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s strategic decision to accept their organized help and then to deploy these influential new allies as suffrage foot soldiers, a role they accepted with uncommon grace. Led by such luminaries as Oswald Garrison Villard, John Dewey, Max Eastman, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and George Foster Peabody, members of the League worked the streets, the stage, the press, and the legislative and executive branches of government. In the process, they helped convince waffling politicians, a dismissive public, and a largely hostile press to support the women’s demand. Together, they swayed the course of history.” (Amazon blurb)

Why read The Suffragents?

suffragentsLots of reasons. For one, this book is by Brooke Kroeger. I’ve just used her biography of Nellie Bly extensively in writing my new novel, The Girl Puzzle. Her research is thorough (the index and references/sources are amazing) and her writing style is a pleasure to read. Then there’s the subject matter. I definitely feel that suffragette stories have great novel potential. I’m not sure I’m the woman to do one, but what some of these women went through should be celebrated and remembered. When the 2016 US election was going on my tween/teen kids were SHOCKED to find out that women only got the vote in the US in 1920 and 1918 in the UK (although only for women over 30). I’d love to see some new suffragette movies or books to keep us all aware of how short a time its been since women had equality at the ballot box.

Day 10: The History of Underclothes

“Underwear — practical garments with a utilitarian function or body coverings that serve an erotic purpose? As this fascinating and intelligently written study shows, the role played by underclothing over the last several centuries has been a varied one.
In a well-documented, profusely illustrated volume combining impressive scholarship with an entertaining, often humorous style, two distinguished clothing historians consider undergarments worn by the English over the past 600 years. Beginning with the Middle Ages, the authors cover centuries of clothing history, including the Tudor period, the Restoration, the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and the twentieth century up to the eve of World War II. Drawing on extensive, research, the Cunningtons illuminate the role and function of underwear: it protected the wearer against the elements, supported costume shapes, served as an erotic stimulus, symbolized class distinctions, and fulfilled other social, sanitary, and economic functions.
Enhancing the detailed, comprehensive text are more than 100 period illustrations and photographs depicting a laced-up bodice of the twelfth century, embroidered linen drawers of the sixteenth century, a hooped petticoat support in bentwood (c. 1750), footed long drawers (1795), nineteenth-century bustles, early nineteenth-century corsets for men, “Frillies for the Tiny Lady” (1939), and much more. A bibliography, appendix, and index complete a valuable reference work that will appeal to costume historians, sociologists, and other readers.” (Amazon blurb)

Why read The History of Underclothes?

history of underclothesDo I even need to answer that? I can’t wait to read this book. Even if I’m not planning on mentioning my character’s underwear, I really think I ought to know what’s going on (or not) in this department. I’ve recently ‘jumped’ period and been writing a novel set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries so I’ve had a lot of new stuff to learn. One of the things I like about this new book is that the two time periods – although only thirty years apart – are quite different. Think cars, the telephone, electric light. But also think goodbye corsets and hello bras. I’ve had a lot of ground to cover and definitely think I could do with this book to make sure I’m not making any major gaffes. Plus what if I jump period again? Maybe back in time, I’m thinking. Way back. Watch this space…

Day 9: The Witches by Stacy Schiff

“The panic began early in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister’s niece began to writhe and roar. It spread quickly, confounding the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, husbands accused wives, parents and children one another. It ended less than a year later, but not before nineteen men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.Speaking loudly and emphatically, adolescent girls stood at the center of the crisis. Along with suffrage and Prohibition, the Salem witch trials represent one of the few moments when women played the central role in American history. Drawing masterfully on the archives, Stacy Schiff introduces us to the strains on a Puritan adolescent’s life and to the authorities whose delicate agendas were at risk. She illuminates the demands of a rigorous faith, the vulnerability of settlements adrift from the mother country, perched-at a politically tumultuous time-on the edge of what a visitor termed a “remote, rocky, barren, bushy, wild-woody wilderness.”With devastating clarity, the textures and tensions of colonial life emerge; hidden patterns subtly, startlingly detach themselves from the darkness. Schiff brings early American anxieties to the fore to align them brilliantly with our own. In an era of religious provocations, crowdsourcing, and invisible enemies, this enthralling story makes more sense than ever.” (Amazon blurb)

Why read The Witches?
thewitchesFor me, first off, I want to read this because this is ‘my’ period. I’ve written two book sets in the 17th Century – one in Paris and one in London – and it would make a lot of sense to continue by writing a novel about the Salem witches. But… I feel like it has already been done. Oh and then there’s the fact that I’m just polishing my third book which isn’t set in the 17th Century at all so maybe it’s not ‘my’ period any more!
But (again) I do have a fondness for anything with witches and particularly the Salem lot since my husband and I aged 14 or 15 had to act out the parts of Proctor and Annabel in The Crucible in English class – way back when we had of course no clue we’d get married and have 3 kids together. And then there’s my side project on sisters. The Towne Sisters are a definite for that piece of work and so Stacy Schiff’s book is near the top of my planned reading pile for 2019!

Dec 8th: The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein

“The World Broke in Two tells the fascinating story of the intellectual and personal journeys four legendary writers, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, and D. H. Lawrence, make over the course of one pivotal year. As 1922 begins, all four are literally at a loss for words, confronting an uncertain creative future despite success in the past. The literary ground is shifting, as Ulysses is published in February and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time begins to be published in England in the autumn. Yet, dismal as their prospects seemed in January, by the end of the year Woolf has started Mrs. Dalloway, Forster has, for the first time in nearly a decade, returned to work on the novel that will become A Passage to India, Lawrence has written Kangaroo, his unjustly neglected and most autobiographical novel, and Eliot has finished—and published to acclaim—“The Waste Land.”

As Willa Cather put it, “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” and what these writers were struggling with that year was in fact the invention of modernism. Based on original research, Bill Goldstein’s The World Broke in Two captures both the literary breakthroughs and the intense personal dramas of these beloved writers as they strive for greatness.” (Amazon blurb).

Why read The World Broke in Two?

world in twoA while ago I reviewed a book called 1924, The Year that Made Hitler by Peter Ross Range. It was all about Hilter’s putsch and his time in prison writing Mein Kampf. I enjoyed it and learned a great deal and it’s because of that, really, that this book appeals to me. The twenties, which I grew up thinking were all about art deco and the charlston, was a really important decade in 20th century history and these writers – all of whom I’ve read and studied (although not loved by any means!) were living and thinking and writing at that time. Again, as I said when talking about Ten Restaurants that Shaped America, this is another interesting way to approach history writing.

It’s definitely on my TBR history pile for 2019.