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Dec 20th – Queen Anne: the politics of passion by Anne Somerset

“She ascended the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1702, at age thirty-seven, Britain’s last Stuart monarch, and five years later united two of her realms, England and Scotland, as a sovereign state, creating the Kingdom of Great Britain. She had a history of personal misfortune, overcoming ill health (she suffered from crippling arthritis; by the time she became Queen she was a virtual invalid) and living through seventeen miscarriages, stillbirths, and premature births in seventeen years. By the end of her comparatively short twelve-year reign, Britain had emerged as a great power; the succession of outstanding victories won by her general, John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, had humbled France and laid the foundations for Britain’s future naval and colonial supremacy.

While the Queen’s military was performing dazzling exploits on the continent, her own attention—indeed her realm—rested on a more intimate conflict: the female friendship on which her happiness had for decades depended and which became for her a source of utter torment.” (Amazon blurb)

queen AnneWhy read Queen Anne: the politics of passion?

Two excellent reasons. First, because I went to see The Favourite yesterday. I loved it. Amazing acting and some hilarious one-liners. I wasn’t totally sold on the bunnies but all-in-all it’s a film I thoroughly enjoyed. All the clothes, sets and cinematography were just a pleasure to behold. The film is historical fiction, however, and I’m fascinated to learn what was true and what wasn’t etc. – hence the book choice.

Then reason 2. Queen Anne: the politics of passion is written by Anne Somerset. Not only did her book about the Affair of the Poisons massively inform the story in my first novel, Charlatan, but Anne Somerset also was extremely kind to me during the writing of it, said lovely things about it and let me quote her on the cover of the novel. In the land of the lowly new novelist without the backing of a big publisher that was a big, big, deal to me.

If Queen Anne: the politcs of passion is half as good a book as The Affair of the Poisons, and if Queen Anne’s life is half as interesting as it appeared in The Favourite, then this will be a great read.

Dec 19th: The Women who flew for Hitler by Clare Mulley

“Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were talented, courageous, and strikingly attractive women who fought convention to make their names in the male-dominated field of flight in 1930s Germany. With the war, both became pioneering test pilots and were awarded the Iron Cross for service to the Third Reich. But they could not have been more different and neither woman had a good word to say for the other.

Hanna was middle-class, vivacious, and distinctly Aryan, while the darker, more self-effacing Melitta came from an aristocratic Prussian family. Both were driven by deeply held convictions about honor and patriotism; but ultimately, while Hanna tried to save Hitler’s life, begging him to let her fly him to safety in April 1945, Melitta covertly supported the most famous attempt to assassinate the Führer. Their interwoven lives provide vivid insight into Nazi Germany and its attitudes toward women, class, and race.

Acclaimed biographer Clare Mulley gets under the skin of these two distinctive and unconventional women, giving a full—and as yet largely unknown—account of their contrasting yet strangely parallel lives, against a changing backdrop of the 1936 Olympics, the Eastern Front, the Berlin Air Club, and Hitler’s bunker. Told with brio and great narrative flair, The Women Who Flew for Hitler is an extraordinary true story, with all the excitement and color of the best fiction.” (Amazon blurb)

women who flew for hitlerWhy read The Women Who Flew for Hitler?

Ooh! Well yesterday’s book was Fly Girls about American women and then today I’ve got this book in front of me (well on my screen) looking at German women at the same time. Synchronicity? Both name 1936 as key years in the stories. I definitely need to read these two together… Anyone else see novel potential in all these lady aviators?

Dec 18th: Fly Girls by Keith O’Brien

“Between the world wars, no sport was more popular, or more dangerous, than airplane racing. Thousands of fans flocked to multi‑day events, and cities vied with one another to host them. The pilots themselves were hailed as dashing heroes who cheerfully stared death in the face. Well, the men were hailed. Female pilots were more often ridiculed than praised for what the press portrayed as silly efforts to horn in on a manly, and deadly, pursuit. Fly Girls recounts how a cadre of women banded together to break the original glass ceiling: the entrenched prejudice that conspired to keep them out of the sky.

O’Brien weaves together the stories of five remarkable women: Florence Klingensmith, a high‑school dropout who worked for a dry cleaner in Fargo, North Dakota; Ruth Elder, an Alabama divorcee; Amelia Earhart, the most famous, but not necessarily the most skilled; Ruth Nichols, who chafed at the constraints of her blue‑blood family’s expectations; and Louise Thaden, the mother of two young kids who got her start selling coal in Wichita. Together, they fought for the chance to race against the men — and in 1936 one of them would triumph in the toughest race of all.” (Amazon blurb)

fly girlsWhy read Fly Girls?

Again I’m going to point to the subtitle of the book as I big reason for my interest. It reads: “How five daring women defied all odds and made aviation history.”

There. Who wouldn’t want to read about that? Daring women defying the odds is always a killer of a sales line for me.

This one definitely has me intrigued. I don’t know much about Amelia Earhart and could definitely learn more and I like that fact that these other women get a look-in too. Yup. I’m going to be reading this one for sure.

 

Dec 17th: Inconvenient People by Sarah Wise

“The phenomenon of false allegations of mental illness is as old as our first interactions as human beings. Every one of us has described some other person as crazy or insane, and most all of us have had periods, moments at least, of madness. But it took the confluence of the law and medical science, mad-doctors, alienists, priests and barristers, to raise the matter to a level of “science,” capable of being used by conniving relatives, “designing families” and scheming neighbors to destroy people who found themselves in the way, people whose removal could provide their survivors with money or property or other less frivolous benefits. Girl Interrupted in only a recent example. And reversing this sort of diagnosis and incarceration became increasingly more difficult, as even the most temperate attempt to leave these “homes” or “hospitals” was deemed “crazy.” Kept in a madhouse, one became a little mad, as Jack Nicholson and Ken Kesey explain in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.

In this sadly terrifying, emotionally moving, and occasionally hilarious book, twelve cases of contested lunacy are offered as examples of the shifting arguments regarding what constituted sanity and insanity. They offer unique insight into the fears of sexuality, inherited madness, greed and fraud, until public feeling shifted and turned against the rising alienists who would challenge liberty and freedom of people who were perhaps simply “difficult,” but were turned into victims of this unscrupulous trade.

This fascinating book is filled with stories almost impossible to believe but wildly engaging, a book one will not soon forget.” (amazon blurb)

Why read Inconvenient People?

inconvenientIf I add the sub-title of this book, it should be instantly clear why I want to read this book: “Lunacy, liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in England. See. Obvious really.

I first came across this book while researching for The Girl Puzzle (new novel due out this Spring!). A large part of The Girl Puzzle takes place in Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum in 1887 and so this book is of great interest to me. Add to that, the two paintings below. I have prints of both of these hanging in my house.

They are both by Richard Dadd, a nineteenth century painter who suffered from mental health difficulties and was possibly schizophrenic. In 1843 he murdered his father and then spent the rest of his life in Bedlam and Broadmoor. Both of these paintings were completed while he was in Bedlam.

 

The whole field of mental illness and criminality intrigues me, particularly, but not exclusively, as it relates to women’s history – from witches, to hysteria and so on.

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.