Thomas More: A Very Brief History by John Guy

Very brief indeed…

🙂 🙂 😐

According to A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More was a man of principle, willing to sacrifice his life rather than compromise his beliefs. Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of him in Wolf Hall gives an alternative view, of a man who was happy to burn heretics, sarcastic and cruel to those around him, and something of a misogynist. In this truly very brief history, John Guy tries to reveal the real man behind the myths.

My existing knowledge was that More was Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor during Henry’s attempt to ditch Katherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn; that More drew the line when Henry decided to ditch the Catholic Church, too, and declare himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England; and that for his defiance, More was executed. Oh, and that he wrote a book called Utopia, which I haven’t read. And tortured and burned heretics, although of course he wasn’t alone in enjoying that sport.

Paul Scofield as More in A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Sadly, once I had read this, I found that my existing knowledge hadn’t really expanded much at all. The book runs to 144 small pages, including notes, etc. I was reading the e-book, but at a guess I’d say 100-110 pages of text maximum, during which Guy romps through his life, discusses the writing and history of Utopia, talks about the portrayal of him in art following his death and in literature more recently, and finishes up with his route to sainthood. When I tell you that More dies at the 40% mark, you will be able to tell that the book doesn’t go into much depth regarding his life.

Guy always writes well and Thomas More has been a subject of study with him for many years, so there’s no doubt of the scholarship. But truthfully the biography section is so superficial as to be almost pointless, unless one literally knows nothing about More going in. (Which begs the question: why then would you be motivated to read the book in the first place?) And the rest reads like the epilogue to a biography – the kind of thing that historians put in as a last chapter to round the thing off.

Anton Lesser as More in Wolf Hall (2015)

Some of it is quite interesting, like the fact that Marx adopted Utopia as a socialist text and as a result there was a statue to commemorate More along with other great socialists in the USSR. Or that his sainthood only came through in 1935, by which time one would have hoped that the Catholic Church might have stopped sanctifying heretic-burners. (Mind you, Wikipedia tells me the Anglican Church recognised him as a martyr of the Reformation in 1980, so look out anyone who doesn’t conform to Anglicanism – the days of burning may not be as far behind us as we thought!) It is mildly amusing in a surreal kind of way that in 2000, Pope John Paul II made him the patron saint of politicians…

John Guy

Which brings me neatly to my conclusion – it grieves me to say it since I’ve been an admirer of John Guy’s work for years but, frankly, reading the Wikipedia page on More is just about as informative as this book. I guess very brief histories just aren’t my kind of thing. Guy wrote a longer biography of More some years ago (although still only 272 pages, according to Goodreads), so I may read that some day to see if it’s more satisfying.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, SPCK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

In straining every nerve against heretics, More believed he was serving God and Henry equally. He failed to see that, at least where the king was concerned, he was standing on shifting sands. Erasmus, too, was unsympathetic. From his sanctuary in Basel, he fell into a state of denial over the reports he received of Thomas’s behaviour, refusing to believe that the author of Utopia could have taken this turn. Twice Erasmus claimed, inaccurately, that no heretic was put to death while More was lord chancellor. Thomas later put him straight. Writing his own epitaph a year or so after his resignation as lord chancellor, he said he had been ‘grievous to thieves, murderers and heretics’ and wanted all his friends to know as much. ‘I wrote that with deep feeling,’ he told Erasmus. ‘I find that breed of men absolutely loathsome, so much so, that unless they regain their senses, I want to be as hateful to them as anyone can possibly be.’

 * * * * * * * * *

In pursuit of his trophies, the bones or relics of the prehistoric, he had a grave enthusiasm which made you think of an owl pursuing mice. At the same time he prided himself, incongruously one might suppose, upon a more than ordinary knowledge of cocktails. He mixed, for his own benefit and that of his friends, extremely curious alcoholic solutions, which he drank or handed round with a sombre and imposing gravity. After swallowing a few of his own decoctions, he became paler, moister, more vague, until he finally subsided into a state of mental mildew, a dim shimmering on the verge of total obliteration. I suppose the cocktail aspect of Mr Tuffle was really due to a belated feeling of counterpoise, a rather pathetic desire to appear manly. A similar impulse, no doubt, induces curates to brag about the drinking of beer.

* * * * * * * * *

Later, Vera woke to splashing water. In the bathroom, she found her daughter on her knees before the toilet, holding her hair in a loose fist behind her head.

“You stupid child,” Vera said, dropping to her knee beside her. Lydia’s head flopped over the toilet seat. “You stupid child, what have you done?”

“I don’t know,” Lydia mumbled, letting the fistful of hair go slack.

Vera had an urge to shout, but she laid her daughter on the floor and made a pillow from the bath towel. A mother comforts. A mother cleans. A mother gives when any reasonable person would deny. Life might affix any number of labels to Vera – Russian, pensioner, widow, daughter. But when she looked to her washed-out reflection in the bathroom mirror, she saw only Lydia’s mother.

* * * * * * * * *

That was the summer I drifted through the city. Did I already say that? Everything I saw had a subtle but unmistakeable doubleness. Each pace was reminiscent of some previous pace, not just because I knew the streets well and had walked them before, though this was true, but because I’d already taken that particular pace. My present had somehow gone before me and was already irrevocably in my past. All the sounds I could hear, slightly amplified and somehow picked out or defined, were no more than echoes, their presence freakish, their availability to me as exotic as a radio signal from a long-ago war.

Each moment, as I lived it, had already been used up. I could not connect things together. They happened to me, they had already happened to me. The helix that spans from birth to death, the unbroken thread of habit and progress that makes a person a person, a self whole and entire, had become as discontinuous and insubstantial as a chain of smoke rings.

* * * * * * * * *

Various holy men and spiritualists had established themselves in the palaces of Russia’s great and good long before Rasputin came on to the scene. Their success cleared the way for him. He was presented at parties and soirées as a man of God, a sinner and repentant, who had been graced with extraordinary powers of clairvoyance and healing. His disgusting physical appearance merely added piquancy to his moral charms. Dressed in a peasant blouse and baggy trousers, his greasy black hair hung down to his shoulders, his beard was encrusted with old bits of food, and his hands and body were never washed. He carried a strong body odour, which many people compared to that of a goat. But it was his eyes that caught his audience’s attention. Their penetrating brilliance and hypnotic power made a lasting impression. Some people even claimed that Rasputin was able to make his pupils expand and contract at will.

* * * * * * * * *

(NB When quoting from audiobooks, I have to make assumptions about the spelling of names, punctuation of sentences, etc., so there may be some differences from the original text.)

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So…are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

Listen, nations! The revolution offers you peace. It will be accused of violating treaties. But of this it is proud. To break up the leagues of bloody predation is the greatest historic service. The Bolsheviks have dared to do it. They alone have dared. Pride surges up of its own accord. Eyes shine. All are on their feet. No one is smoking now. It seems as though no one breathes. The presidium, the delegates, the guests, the sentries, join in a hymn of insurrection and brotherhood. Suddenly, by common impulse – the story will soon be told by John Reed, observer and participant, chronicler and poet of the insurrection – “we found ourselves on our feet, mumbling together into the smooth lifting unison of the Internationale. A grizzled old soldier was sobbing like a child… The immense sound rolled through the hall, burst windows and doors and soared into the quiet sky.” Did it go altogether into the sky? Did it not go also to the autumn trenches, that hatch-work upon unhappy, crucified Europe, to her devastated cities and villages, to her mothers and wives in mourning? “Arise ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth!”

* * * * * * * * *

The sound of running footsteps made them all start. Then the refectory door opened and the round, freckled face of Sister Belinda appeared. She was breathing heavily, and her veil was crooked, showing short tufts of red hair sprouting around her glowing face like unruly weeds in a parched garden.

“Excuse me, Mother, Sisters,” she said. “But there is a police car waiting at the gate and what looks like the Black Maria behind it. Also, another car approaching from the farm and a uniformed constable coming in via the beach path. It would appear that the filth have us surrounded.”

* * * * * * * * *

The crying sounded even louder out of doors. It was as if all the pain in the world had found a voice. Yet had I known such pain was in the next room, and had it been dumb, I believe – I have thought since – I could have stood it well enough. It is when suffering finds a voice and sets our nerves quivering that this pity comes troubling us. But in spite of the brilliant sunlight and the green fans of the trees waving in the soothing sea-breeze, the world was a confusion, blurred with drifting black and red phantasms, until I was out of earshot of the house in the chequered wall.

* * * * * * * * *

The Utopians dress simply and without ostentation: their clothes are made of undyed wool like the habits of Carthusian monks. And their society is unashamedly patriarchal. Wives act as servants to their husbands, children to their parents, and the young to their elders. Women are treated ‘equally’, but in reality are governed by their husbands. They also work harder – More seems oblivious to this point – since their duties include cooking and childcare as well as manual labour. Even in Utopia, it seems, working women have two jobs.

 * * * * * * * * *

My friend Ellingham has persuaded me to reveal to the public the astounding features of the Reisby case. As a study in criminal aberration it is, he tells me, of particular interest, while in singularity of horror and in perversity of ingenious method it is probably unique.

* * * * * * * * *

I shared a compartment on the night train back with a father travelling to Petersburg with his daughter for her orthodonture work. She’d stumped half the dentists in Moscow, the father explained with obvious delight. The spotlight of paternal pride is fickle and faint, but when it shines on you with its full wattage, it’s as warm as a near sun. My little prodigy. Three drunks flicked over the cabin window. I wanted to be loved as much as he loved his daughter’s bad teeth.

“Go on, show him,” he urged. She gave a great yawn. Her open mouth was a dolomite cavern. Only divine intercession or satanic bargaining could save her.

“Just a little bit crooked,” I said, then gave a wide “Aah” of my own. “Mine are a little crooked too.”

“Mine are in a dental textbook,” she declared. She had me there. Wouldn’t have been older than twelve, and already she’d accomplished more in her life than I had. Rotten little over-achiever!

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 114…

Episode 114…

Hurrah! The TBR has plummeted massively this week- down 2 to 196!! This is a result of my legendary iron self-control – I don’t know why you ever doubted me! And furthermore, I’ve reached the last third of Trotsky! I’ll miss the old codger, you know – he’s quite funny… sometimes even intentionally…

Here are some I should get to soon…

Fiction

First up, the winner of the Classics Club spin is Lorna Doone, so somehow I need to fit it in, in time to review it by the 1st May. *gulp* Of course, it’s one of the longer ones on my list…

The Blurb says: First published in 1869, Lorna Doone  is the story of John Ridd, a farmer who finds love amid the religious and social turmoil of seventeenth-century England. He is just a boy when his father is slain by the Doones, a lawless clan inhabiting wild Exmoor on the border of Somerset and Devon. Seized by curiosity and a sense of adventure, he makes his way to the valley of the Doones, where he is discovered by the beautiful Lorna. In time their childish fantasies blossom into mature love—a bond that will inspire John to rescue his beloved from the ravages of a stormy winter, rekindling a conflict with his archrival, Carver Doone, that climaxes in heartrending violence. Beloved for its portrait of star-crossed lovers and its surpassing descriptions of the English countryside, Lorna Doone is R. D. Blackmore’s enduring masterpiece.

Factual

thomas-more-john-guyCourtesy of NetGalley. I’m not sure what appealed to me most about this – the words “John  Guy”, my favourite Tudor historian, or the words “Very Brief” in the subtitle, most welcome as a little palate cleanser between the tomes of Russian history I’m continuing to accumulate!

The Blurb says: ‘If the English people were to be set a test to justify their history and civilization by the example of one man, then it is Sir Thomas More whom they would perhaps choose.’ So commented The Times in 1978 on the 500th anniversary of More’s birth. Twenty-two years later, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Thomas More the patron saint of politicians and people in public life, on the basis of his ‘constant fidelity to legitimate authority and . . . his intention to serve not power but the supreme ideal of justice’.

In this fresh assessment of More’s life and legacy, John Guy considers the factors that have given rise to such claims concerning More’s significance. Who was the real Thomas More? Was he the saintly, self-possessed hero of conscience of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons or was he the fanatical, heretic-hunting torturer of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall? Which of these images of More has the greater historical veracity? And why does this man continue to fascinate, inspire and provoke us today?

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Crime

scarweatherCourtesy of NetGalley again. My addiction to these British Library Crime Classics re-issues continues unabated. Doesn’t Dorothy L Sayers sound like a total stuck-up book snob in this quote? And yet, oddly, she also sounds just like me… 😉

The Blurb says:  John Farringdale, with his cousin Eric Foster, visits the famous archaeologist Tolgen Reisby. At Scarweather – Reisby’s lonely house on the windswept northern coast of England – Eric is quickly attracted to Reisby’s much younger wife, and matters soon take a dangerous turn. Fifteen years later, the final scene of the drama is enacted. This unorthodox novel from 1934 is by a gifted crime writer who, wrote Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘handles his characters like a “real” novelist and the English language like a “real” writer – merits which are still, unhappily, rarer than they should be in the ranks of the murder specialists.’

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Sherlock Holmes on Audio

sherlock-holmes-stephen-fryWOW!! Courtesy of Audible via MidasPR. Stephen Fry narrating the complete Sherlock Holmes stories, including the long ones? How could I possibly resist that?? Over 70 hours of listening pleasure to dip in and out of. I shall start with The Valley of Fear, I think, since it’s also on my Classics Club list. Stephen Fry is up against Derek Jacobi though – until now my favourite Holmes narrator. Will Jacobi be knocked off the top spot??

The Blurb says: “…it was reading the Sherlock Holmes stories as a boy that first turned me on to the power of writing and storytelling.” (Stephen Fry)

Ever since he made his first appearance in A Study In Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes has enthralled and delighted millions of fans throughout the world. Now Audible is proud to present Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection, read by Stephen Fry. A lifelong fan of Doyle’s detective fiction, Fry has narrated the complete works of Sherlock Holmes – four novels and five collections of short stories. And, exclusively for Audible, Stephen has written and narrated nine insightful, intimate and deeply personal introductions to each title.

He writes: “Popular fiction offers different kinds of superheroes to save the world by restoring order to the chaos, confusion and criminality of our times. Heroes with remarkable gifts are as in vogue now as they have been since they first appeared, perhaps even more in vogue. But although the very first one was launched in serial published form just like his masked and body-suited successors, it was not in DC or Marvel comic books that he made his appearance; rather it was in the sedate and respectable pages of Mrs Beeton’s Christmas Annual in the mid-Victorian year 1887.”

Stephen Fry is an English actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, journalist, comedian, television presenter, film director and all round national treasure. He is the acclaimed narrator of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter audiobooks and most recently recorded The Tales of Max Carrados for Audible Studios. Stephen has contributed columns and articles to newspapers and magazines, appears frequently on radio and has written four novels and three volumes of autobiography.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy

The woman behind the myth…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Elizabeth The Forgotten YearsIn his preface, John Guy suggests that biographers of Elizabeth I of England tend to have paid less attention to the later years of her life, often relying on the accepted story created by earlier writers. Guy has gone back to the original source documents, stripping back the accumulated layers of mythology surrounding her to reveal the complex and very human character beneath.

During the first part of Elizabeth’s reign, she was under continual pressure to marry, partly to provide an heir but also because of the prevailing feeling that women were not suited to be monarchs. Having seen the unhappy and unsuccessful marriage of her sister Mary to Philip of Spain, not to mention the hardly idyllic marriage of her tyrannical father to her soon-to-be-headless mother, Elizabeth was always reluctant to reach a decision that would make her subordinate to a husband. However, marriage negotiations rumbled on throughout her child-bearing years.

But by the age of 50 when it was finally clear that the Queen would have no direct heir, Guy suggests she was for the first time really accepted, however reluctantly, as a monarch in her own right – a Prince or King as she often referred to herself – and felt herself freer to stamp her royal authority on those around her. These later years – the period covered in this book – were dominated by the interminable wars in Europe, concern over the succession, power struggles and conspiracies at home, and, of course, Essex, her arrogant young favourite.

The ageing Queen... Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger c.1595
The ageing Queen…
Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger c.1595

As well as being a serious historian, Guy has a gift for storytelling which always makes his books a pleasure to read. It seems to me he has mastered the art of presenting history in a way that makes it fully accessible to the casual, non-academic reader without ever ‘dumbing down’. He does masses of research, from original sources where possible, then, having decided what ‘story’ he is going to tell, he distils all that information down to those people and events that will illustrate his arguments. It’s a simplification in presentation, but not in scholarship. As with all the best historical writers, he knows what information should appear in the main body of the text and what can be left to the notes at the back for people who wish to look into the subject more deeply. As a result, the cast of ‘characters’, which can often become overwhelming in history books, is kept to a small, manageable level, and the reader gets to know not just the principal subject but the people who most closely influence events.

So in this book, as well as a revealing and convincing picture of the ageing Elizabeth, we also get a thorough understanding of those who were most relevant to her at this later period: an equally ageing Burghley, and the younger men, struggling amongst themselves to win her favour and the political power that came with it – Burghley’s son Cecil, Sir Walter Ralegh, and Essex, who almost shares star billing with the Queen herself.

The dashing Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex
The dashing Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

The first few chapters romp through the early years of Elizabeth’s accession and reign, really just to give the reader a bit of background, then each subsequent chapter focuses on a particular person or event. As is my usual way, I found the sections relating to the wars least interesting, though Guy does a good job of explaining all the shifting allegiances and showing how the various campaigns led to the rise or fall of those leading them. He also shows the contrast between Elizabeth’s concern for her aristocratic commanders and her casual disregard for the welfare of the ordinary soldiers, sometimes leaving them unpaid and with no way to get home from their campaigns. But throughout the period, as usual in these endless wars, those at the top were constantly changing sides or even religions, and no-one really ever seems to win or lose, and I just don’t care!

Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh attributed to William Segar
Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh attributed to William Segar

Much more interesting to me are the power struggles at home and Guy gives a very clear picture of the personalities involved here. In the latter years of Elizabeth’s reign, Burghley was ageing, while Walsingham’s death left a vacancy Elizabeth found difficult to fill. But worse, she had also lost Leicester, the love of her life. She may have had disagreements with all three of these men at various times, but she also depended on them and trusted them to a degree that she would find difficult with the young men coming up. Guy makes clear that, while Essex was a favourite, he was no replacement for Leicester and Elizabeth was fairly clear-sighted about his weaknesses and unreliability. Burghley was keen that his son, Cecil, should succeed him as the main power in the government, while Ralegh and Essex looked to war and naval exploits to gain favour. (Interesting aside for non-Brits – the Cecils have lasted well. The most recent, a direct descendant of Burghley, was leader of the House of Lords as recently as 1997. We do seem to cling on to our aristocracy!)

John Guy
John Guy

Once it was clear that Elizabeth would never have a child, her advisers wanted to settle the question of the succession. However, Elizabeth would never allow this to be discussed, partly through a dislike of thinking about her death and partly because she feared that a settled succession may lead to conspiracies to force her to abdicate or, worse, to murder her, thus making way for the new king. The obvious successor in terms of bloodlines was James VI of Scotland and he had the further advantage of having been brought up in the Protestant religion. Elizabeth’s refusal to name a successor meant that, as she approached the end of her life, even her nearest courtiers were carrying on secret correspondences with James – Essex primarily for his own advantage and possibly to the point of treason, but also Cecil who, while looking out for his own interests too, seemed genuinely to want to avoid major disruption on Elizabeth’s death.

Guy’s portrait of Elizabeth feels credible and human. She seems to have been vain and capricious, temperamental, cruel when angered and vindictive when she felt betrayed. But as we see her age, with all her early advisors dying one by one, including Leicester, her one true love, and eventually also Kate Carey, her greatest friend, in the end she seems a rather lonely and pitiful figure. Another first-class biography from Guy – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Viking Books.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 81…

Episode 81…

 

OK, I’m obviously the victim of a conspiracy! The TBR has reached a ridiculous new high of 169! Given my iron willpower, I find this incomprehensible – it must be one of you. And if I ever find out which of you it is… well, it won’t be pretty, that’s all!

AND there’s been some shocking news that is going to increase the TBR even more dramatically in the near future…

Bloody Scotland 2016

 

A few weeks back the organisers of Bloody Scotland (the big Scottish crime fiction festival) asked for volunteers to read and rate the contenders for the Bloody Scotland Crime Book of the Year 2016. The idea is that they’ll have a pool of people who will each be given five books to read and rate on a scale of 1 to 10, then they’ll collate all the ratings to determine which books make the official longlist. I thought that sounded like a brilliant idea to get enthusiastic readers involved at the grassroots while still leaving it to a formal judging panel to make the final decision. So I applied… and have been accepted! The five books should arrive some time in late May, I think, though I don’t yet know whether we’ll be allowed to blog about them before the final decision is made. It should be fun! 

Meantime, here are a few of the existing TBR that should make it to the top of the heap soon…

Factual

Elizabeth The Forgotten YearsOne of my favourite historians writing about one of my favourite queens, and about the period of her reign that I know least about. And I’m lucky enough to have been sent a copy for review by the publishers, Viking Books!

The Blurb says: A groundbreaking reconsideration of our favourite Tudor queen, Elizabeth is an intimate and surprising biography that shows her at the height of her power by the bestselling, Whitbread Award-winning author of My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots.

Elizabeth was crowned at twenty-five after a tempestuous childhood as a bastard and an outcast, but it was only when she reached fifty and all hopes of a royal marriage were dashed that she began to wield real power in her own right. For twenty-five years she had struggled to assert her authority over advisers who pressed her to marry and settle the succession; now, she was determined not only to reign but also to rule. In this magisterial biography of England’s most ambitious Tudor queen, John Guy introduces us to a woman who is refreshingly unfamiliar: at once powerful and vulnerable, willful and afraid. In these essential and misunderstood forgotten years, Elizabeth confronts challenges at home and abroad: war against the Catholic powers of France and Spain, revolt in Ireland, an economic crisis that triggered riots in the streets of London, and a conspiracy to place her cousin Mary Queen of Scots on her throne.

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Fiction

 

the power of the dogCourtesy of NetGalley. Chosen purely because I think the blurb sounds great. Delighted to see it’s getting almost universally positive ratings…

The Blurb says: First published in 1967, Thomas Savage’s western novel about two brothers now includes an afterword by Annie Proulx. Phil and George are brothers, more than partners, joint owners of the biggest ranch in their Montana valley. Phil is the bright one, George the plodder. Phil is tall and angular; George is stocky and silent. Phil is a brilliant chess player, a voracious reader, an eloquent storyteller; George learns slowly, and devotes himself to the business. Phil is a vicious sadist, with a seething contempt for weakness to match his thirst for dominance; George has a gentle, loving soul. They sleep in the room they shared as boys, and so it has been for forty years. When George unexpectedly marries a young widow and brings her to live at the ranch, Phil begins a relentless campaign to destroy his brother’s new wife. But he reckons without an unlikely protector.

From its visceral first paragraph to its devastating twist of an ending, The Power of the Dog will hold you in its grip.

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Crime

 

the murdered bankerCourtesy of NetGalley. Chosen because the publisher is Pushkin Vertigo, who seem to specialise in reissues of crime classics, a lot of them translations. I haven’t tried this author before, but have heard good things about him…

The Blurb says: A body is discovered in a Milan apartment, and Inspector De Vincenzi investigates. The apartment happens to belong to an old university friend of his, Aurigi. When the body turns out to be that of Aurigi’s banker, and a phial of prussic acid is discovered in the bathroom, suspicion falls on the apartment’s owner, and De Vincenzi is agonisingly torn between his sense of duty and his loyalty to an old comrade…

This intensely dramatic mystery from the father of the Italian crime novel, Augusto de Angelis, is the first to feature his most famous creation–Inspector De Vincenzi.

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Thriller

 

fear is the riderNetGalley again (I’m on a mission to clear up some of my NG backlog). I picked this one after reading Orange Pekoe’s review. She says…

“Oh my, what an adrenalin rush! I never would have imagined detail about gear changes and road surfaces would have me enthralled. The only reason I didn’t read this in one sitting is because I had to take little breaks whenever the tension briefly subsided in order to calm my heart!”

The Blurb says: A young man driving from Sydney to Adelaide for work decides to take a short detour into the desert. He turns his hatchback on to a notoriously dangerous track that bisects uninhabited stone-covered flats. Out there, under the baking sun, people can die within hours. He’s not far along the road when a distraught young woman stumbles from the scrub and flags him down. A journalist from Sydney, she has just escaped the clutches of an inexplicable, terrifying creature. Now this desert-dwelling creature has her jeep. Her axe. And her scent…

From the author of the classic novel Wake In Fright comes a terrifying short novel, a chase into the outback, towards the devil lurking at its center.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

 

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
SEPTEMBER

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it.

So here are my favourite September reads – click on the covers to go to the full reviews…

 

2011

 

gods without menA young autistic boy disappears on a trip to the California desert, a disappearance that echoes other incidents in the history of this empty and mysterious place. Kunzru takes the reader back through the history of the various people who have visited this place or made their lives there. Each is fundamentally changed by their experiences there. A beautifully written novel, enigmatic enough to allow for different interpretations. For me,  it is about the search for faith – the desire for belief. The fascinating characters bring so many gods to the desert over the years, and it seems that the desert absorbs them and weaves them into its mystery. But the book is not preaching a particular line – the overwhelming feeling left at the end is that, for the author as well as for some of the characters, the question of whether there is something beyond the rational remains unanswered, perhaps unanswerable. I’ve been waiting for four years to read Kunzru’s next novel… still waiting.

 

2012

 

my heart is my ownIt was John Guy’s brilliant biography of Thomas Becket that reawakened my enthusiasm for reading historical biography after a lapse of many years. This earlier book of his is a sympathetic portrait of the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots. Meticulously researched, as Guy’s books always are, but he’s also a great storyteller who makes his books as enjoyable as they are interesting. He set the standard that I’ve looked for ever since in non-academic histories – that is, to assume no knowledge on the part of the reader, fill in all the necessary background, give a picture of the wider society and tell the whole thing in an interesting way. Mary is one of the endlessly fascinating characters in history, still attracting supporters and denigrators centuries after she died. Guy is undoubtedly a supporter – in fact, at times I almost felt he’d fallen a little in love with his subject. But then it seems Mary had that effect on many men…

 

2013

 

the bones of parisIt’s 1929 and Paris is filled with avant-garde artists leading the bohemian life. So when Harris Stuyvesant, ex-FBI agent turned private investigator, is hired to find a missing young American woman he fully expects to find her so immersed in this exciting world that she’s simply forgotten the folks back home. That is, until he meets Inspector Doucet, a man worried about unsolved disappearances stretching back for years. As Harris plunges into the strange and twisted world of surrealist art, Grand Guinol theatre, decadence and drugs, he begins to realise that the glittering artistic society hides a dark secret…

A fairly slow-burn thriller, this works well as a standalone although it’s the second book in the Harris Stuyvesant series. Some of the adjectives I used in my review were macabre, gruesome, dark, sensual, disturbing. The story somewhat takes second place to King’s brilliantly convincing picture of the amorality of the bohemian scene in 1920’s Paris.

 

2014

 

rebel yellI feel I’ve been banging on about this book forever, but since it won my Book of the Year Award last year, it could hardly not be the best book of the month! So, since I have nothing left to say about it (other than – read it!), I’ll just apologise instead for nearly reigniting the Civil War on Amazon US! It all started with one comment on my review from someone who felt I shouldn’t have shown any admiration for a Confederate. I replied with a fairly bland response to the effect that of course I wasn’t intending to imply any kind of support for slavery. I then got blasted by another commenter who felt the need to explain to me – at some length, I may say – that the Civil War wasn’t fundamentally about slavery. (He had clearly failed to spot I’d just read a 400-page book on the subject.) This did not please Mr First Commenter! (Yes, of course they were both men – did you ever doubt it?) He replied forcefully and at equal length. A ding-dong ensued, which gradually spread to about a zillion people all hurling Yankee and Confederate insults at each other. I dropped out of the conversation at about the fifth comment but it still rumbles on, as a new reader comes along, reads the thousands and thousands of words, leaves their own comment and starts them all off again…

 

2015

 

the voices beyondA difficult choice, since September was filled with 5-star books, but this is one of the best crime/thrillers I’ve read in a long time. Set in two timelines, this takes us to present day Öland in Sweden, and back to Stalinist USSR at the time of the Great Terror. While the present day story is good, it’s the USSR strand that lifts the book so far above the average. This time of horrors is brilliantly depicted – no punches are pulled, and there are some scenes that are grim and dark indeed. Theorin doesn’t wallow, though, and at all times he puts a great deal of humanity into the story which, while it doesn’t mitigate the horrors, softens the edges a little, making it very moving at times. Back in the present, the main protagonist is 86-year-old Gerlof, and his characterisation is another of the book’s major strengths. This is the fourth book in Theorin’s Öland Quartet, all featuring Gerlof, and led to me immediately adding the other three to my already groaning TBR…

* * * * * * *

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for September, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

 

The Tudors: A Very Short Introduction by John Guy

A romp through history…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

the tudorsThe Very Short Introduction series from Oxford University Press began in 1995 and now lists more than 300 titles, according to this book’s blurb. I’ve seen positive (and not so positive) reviews of several of the titles, but this is the first one I’ve read. I thought that starting with a subject I’m familiar with would give me an opportunity to see how well the book captures the essentials.

First off, the book is not only Very Short but also very small – with a very small font. So handy to carry in a pocket or bag, so long as you don’t need to tote along your reading lamp and magnifying glass. However, it is well laid out and contains some illustrations to break up the text. The reading material in this one runs to 129 pages, plus a list of further reading, a chronology and an index. Handily it also has a genealogical table and a note explaining the value of currencies.

Written by John Guy, one of my favourite historians, I expected the history to be accurate and well-presented, and it is. It’s roughly divided into a chapter per monarch (from Henry VII to Elizabeth I, who gets two in recognition of the length of her reign), with a couple of extra chapters on the Reformation and on Arts and Culture. You can tell from the scope that this must therefore be an exceedingly quick romp through the period. It gives the basics, but not much more. I found it pretty unsatisfying in the early parts where I was most familiar with the history – up to about mid-way through Elizabeth’s reign. I felt the facts were there, but I didn’t get much feel for the personalities or the international picture. However, when we reached the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign, about which I knew very little, it seemed much more rewarding. So I concluded that the error was mine – I should probably have read one on a subject about which I know nothing to really find out how effective these little books are.

tudors

Overall, then, a decently presented little history, well-written by a respected historian, that will give the reader the basic facts, but doesn’t add anything new for the reader who may know a little about the subject. I may try another of these at some point in the future. They cover all kinds of topics other than history – philosophy, science, even literature – so it shouldn’t be too hard to find something I know nothing about!

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 9…

Episode 9

 

The TBR continues to grow exponentially – in fact, it’s way more frightening than anything that’s turned up on so far on Tuesday Terror! Here’s a few of the books that have added themselves to the list when my willpower was at a low ebb…

Courtesy of NetGalley:

 

the sleeperThis will be my fourth Gillian White since I discovered her earlier this year.  Two were very good, the other was great – which will this be…?

“The sins of the past haunt an isolated farmhouse as a snowstorm rages outside . . .

It’s not shaping up to be a very merry Christmas. Clover Moon feels trapped in her life as a farmer’s wife. She certainly doesn’t enjoy hosting Fergus’s mother, Violet, who always finds new ways to publicly humiliate her unsatisfactory daughter-in-law. But would Violet ever seek a more violent way of expressing her disapproval?

Violet is a medium, and the voices of the dead sometimes encourage her to do disturbing things. During her stay at the farmhouse, she claims to sense an intrusive presence. Fergus then discovers the dead body of a woman floating in their flooded cellar, and elderly Miss Bates, resident of a nearby senior home and a client of Violet’s, is missing . . .”

*****

we need new namesAnd this will be the fourth Booker shortlisted novel I’ve read. The Testament of Mary was great, Harvest was very good, A Tale for the Time Being was so-so…what will this be…?

“‘To play the country-game, we have to choose a country. Everybody wants to be the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and them. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti and not even this one we live in – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?’

Darling and her friends live in a shanty called Paradise, which of course is no such thing. It isn’t all bad, though. There’s mischief and adventure, games of Find bin Laden, stealing guavas, singing Lady Gaga at the tops of their voices.

They dream of the paradises of America, Dubai, Europe, where Madonna and Barack Obama and David Beckham live. For Darling, that dream will come true. But, like the thousands of people all over the world trying to forge new lives far from home, Darling finds this new paradise brings its own set of challenges – for her and also for those she’s left behind.”

*****

the strangling on the stageMy first Simon Brett, though I’ve heard a couple of the Charles Paris BBC Radio 4 adaptions. Hopefully this will be a light and enjoyable romp…

“When Jude agrees to lend her vintage chaise longue for the local Amateur Dramatics Society’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, little does she realize she’ll end up in a starring role. It’s an ambitious play, culminating in a dramatic execution scene: a scene that’s played for real when one of the leading actors is found hanging from the especially-constructed stage gallows during rehearsals. A tragic accident – or something more sinister? Carole and Jude make it their business to find out.”

*****

Pre-order:

 

days of fireI’m so far behind with factual reading (mainly because The Cave and the Light looks like it’ll take me about ten years to read) that I have no idea when I’ll get to this. But it should also be a fun romp…

“In Days of Fire, Peter Baker, Chief White House Correspondent for The New York Times, takes us on a gripping and intimate journey through the eight years of the Bush and Cheney administration in a tour-de-force narrative of a dramatic and controversial presidency.

Theirs was the most captivating American political partnership since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger: a bold and untested president and his seasoned, relentless vice president. Confronted by one crisis after another, they struggled to protect the country, remake the world, and define their own relationship along the way. In Days of Fire, Peter Baker chronicles the history of the most consequential presidency in modern times through the prism of its two most compelling characters, capturing the elusive and shifting alliance of George Walker Bush and Richard Bruce Cheney as no historian has done before. He brings to life with in-the-room immediacy all the drama of an era marked by devastating terror attacks, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and financial collapse.”

*****

Courtesy of Vine:

 

the tudorsJohn Guy is one of my favourite historians. Since I’ve read most of his long histories of the Tudors, I’m not sure whether this will add anything, but somehow those words ‘Very Short’ were irresistable…

“The monarchs of the Tudor period are among some of the most well-known figures in British history. John Guy presents a compelling and fascinating exploration of the Tudors in the new edition of this Very Short Introduction. Looking at all aspects of the period, from beginning to end, he considers Tudor politics, religion, and economics, as well as issues relating to gender and minority rule, and the art, architecture, and social and material culture of the time. Introducing all of the key Tudor monarchs, Guy considers the impact the Tudor period had not only at the time, but also the historical legacy it left behind. ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.”

*****

All blurbs are taken from either Amazon or NetGalley.

What do you think? Any of these that you’re looking forward to too? Or are there other new releases you’re impatiently awaiting?

My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots by John Guy

A sympathetic portrait…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

my heart is my ownHaving thoroughly enjoyed Guy’s biography of Thomas Becket, I had high expectations of this book, which Guy more than fulfilled. A meticulous historian who prides himself on stripping back the layers of accepted history by returning to and re-evaluating the original sources, Guy also has the skill of a true storyteller. For a non-historian like myself, it is this skill that makes his books so readable, that makes his characters emerge as rounded human beings with strengths, weaknesses and emotions.

A very sympathetic portrait, this – Guy goes into Mary’s French upbringing and education in some depth to provide support for his view of her as a strong, intelligent and ingenious woman, well prepared by her Guise relatives to take on the role of Queen. It is particularly interesting to contrast Mary’s education and preparation for monarchy with that of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth, described in Guy’s most recent book The Children of Henry VIII.

John Guy
John Guy

He fills in the background to Mary’s reign well, giving a clear picture of the divisions and ever-shifting factionalism in the Scotland of her time. At points it seems almost as if Guy himself had fallen a little in love with this woman whom he describes as ‘glamorous, intelligent, gregarious, vivacious, kind, loyal to her supporters and friends’. He works hard to clear Mary from any remaining suspicion of her involvement in Darnley’s murder and convinced this reader, at least. Guy doesn’t gloss over the unpalatable truth that Mary’s misguided relationship with Bothwell to a large degree brought about her own destruction. However he explains convincingly how Mary’s usual good judgement and ingenuity may have been affected by the events following Darnley’s death.

Overall this is not only a scholarly, well-researched book, but also a hugely enjoyable one. In my review of Guy’s Becket I said ‘For a non-historian, this is exactly how history should be presented – assume no knowledge on the part of the reader, fill in all the necessary background, give a picture of the wider society and tell the whole thing in an interesting way.‘ Guy has done exactly that again. An excellent read – highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim: A 900-Year-Old Story Retold by John Guy

A full and rounded picture…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

thomas becketWritten in a way that is very accessible to the non-historian, this book gives a full and rounded picture of the life of Thomas Becket and the politics of the court of Henry II.

Throughout the book, the author fills out the political and social background to the events of Becket’s life, so that we see the contrast between Becket’s relatively humble origins (coming from what would now be thought of as the middle-class) and the exalted court and religious circles in which he later moved. Guy suggests that his lack of an aristocratic background played its part in Henry’s attitude towards him and subsequent fury at Becket’s refusal to submit to his will.

thomas murder2As someone who knew only the bare bones of the Becket story, I felt that the author explained very clearly the different political strands that contributed to his eventual fate – Henry’s ambitions in Europe, the involvement of King Louis of France, the ongoing schism in the papacy. Relying throughout on original sources, Guy gave a convincing picture of how Becket was seen by his contemporaries, both friend and enemy. He also looked at how Becket’s story had been written over the centuries, pointing out where he felt that inaccuracies had crept in and going back to the original sources to support his own interpretation.

John Guy
John Guy

But although this is clearly a scholarly, well-researched book, it is so well written that it reads almost like a novel; the lead up and execution of the murder were particularly finely done. For a non-historian like myself, this is exactly how history should be presented – assume no knowledge on the part of the reader, fill in all the necessary background, give a picture of the wider society and tell the whole thing in an interesting way. An excellent read – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Children of Henry VIII by John Guy

Children of Henry VIII“Some are born great…”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

I first encountered John Guy through his wonderful biography of Thomas Becket and I give him the credit for re-awakening my interest in reading history after a lengthy gap. As well as being a first-rate historian, he has the true skill of the storyteller, managing to turn his thorough and extensive research into an accessible and enjoyable read for the non-academic. In this book he tackles the subject of Henry VIII’s struggle to produce an heir who could ensure the continuance of his dynasty. This is very much a personal history of the children, though because of their positions as potential heirs, there is also much about the politics of the time, particularly the religious machinations of this divided family.

John Guy
John Guy

Guy goes into considerable depth about the children’s early years telling us who was given charge of their upbringing and education. He describes the differences in education of the males, Edward and Henry Fitzroy, to the females, Mary and Elizabeth; showing that the boys were trained in those skills which were deemed necessary in a king, such as the ability to give public speeches, while the girls were restricted to moral and religious works, on the basis laid down by the scholar Vives that a woman should hear and speak only ‘what pertains to the fear of God’. However, he also produces some evidence to show that the girls’ friends and supporters may have found ways to supplement these restrictions.

Guy also shows Henry’s inconsistent treatment of his children, first humiliating Mary by raising the prospect of the illegitimate Fitzroy as heir, then by making her play second fiddle to Elizabeth during Anne Boleyn’s short reign. The declaration of both his daughters as illegitimate, his treatment of their mothers and the way he brought them in and out of favour depending on who was Queen at the time impacted heavily on both, as did his will declaring that they could only marry with the agreement of the counsellors he appointed before his death. But with the early death of Fitzroy, Henry was eventually forced to accept the rights of both his daughters to be in the line of succession in the event that Edward should die childless.

Happy Families?
Happy Families?
Although most of the book is about the children’s early years, Guy finishes with a fairly quick romp through each reign, again concentrating more on the personal than the political except where they were intertwined. He points out that Henry’s tragedy remains that, for all his efforts to secure his dynasty, none of his children produced heirs, so that on the death of Elizabeth in 1603 the Tudor era came to an end.

As always with Guy’s books, this one is very well written and a pleasure to read. There may not be much new here but the format Guy has chosen lets us see the family dynamics more than biographies of the individuals usually do. I felt the adult years were somewhat rushed and really only there to take the book to a conclusion, and I felt Guy surprisingly let Elizabeth off the hook very easily on the subject of the suppression of the Catholics during her reign (for more of which I recommend John Cooper’s biography of Walsingham, The Queen’s Agent). But I enjoyed the detailed look at the childhood of these major figures in English history and heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in the Tudor period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link