The King’s Assassin: Benjamin Woolley

★★★½

The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I

History is littered with stories of royal favourites who’ve clawed their way up from modest roots to dazzling heights of influence – but few did so quite as spectacularly as George Villiers. At the age of twenty, the future Duke of Buckingham had precious little going for him. He was a penniless gentleman, the second son of a second marriage, whose dead father had left everything to the children of his first marriage. In most cases this would have been a one-way ticket to obscure poverty, but George had several key advantages. He had a remarkably tenacious and ruthless mother, Mary Villiers, who recognised potential when she saw it. He had extraordinary good looks, remarkable charisma and intelligence. He (Mary decided) would be the catalyst by which his family dragged themselves to wealth and power – and there was one very obvious way to do that: to catch the king’s eye. This is one of British history’s great stories of social climbing, and Woolley delves into the detail with relish – even if I felt the book lacked the vivacity and panache that its captivating subject wielded with such ease.

Continue reading

The Impossible Life of Mary Benson: Rodney Bolt

★★★★½

The Extraordinary Story of a Victorian Wife

On 23 June 1859, eighteen-year-old Minnie Sidgwick married her distant cousin Edward Benson. The couple had known each other since Minnie was a little girl and Edward had hoped to marry her ever since she was eleven, when he had admired her brightness of spirit and her intelligence. Perhaps marriages of this kind did sometimes prove to be happy. But not this one. Minnie, or Mary as she became as an adult woman, passed from being an anxious, eager-to-please daughter to being an anxious, daunted wife. As her husband vaulted up the ecclesiastical hierarchy, Mary Benson played the role of dutiful clergyman’s wife, culminating in the greatest challenge of all: the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But who was this woman who stood behind one of the most influential men in the land? And why should we care about her? In this utterly engaging biography, Rodney Bolt brings together family documents, diaries, letters, novels and contemporary material to give us a deep and absorbing picture of an extraordinary woman whose experiences offer a fascinating picture of the Victorian age.

Continue reading

What Hell is Not: Alessandro d’Avenia

★★★★

Don Pino Puglisi is a ray of light in the bleak Palermitan suburb of Brancaccio. More than fifty years ago, he was brought up in this claustrophobic neighbourhood and now, as a priest, he has returned to minister to his flock. And to the children most of all. For Brancaccio is a hell on earth. Dominated by the Mafia, it is a place without hope, without prospects, overlooked by the government ministers who are too frightened, or too corrupt, to intervene. There is no middle school; there are no parks; no space for children to grow. And so Don Pino comes home to fight for Brancaccio’s visibility: to campaign for a better world. Love, hope, compassion: these are things which challenge the Mafia’s stronghold and which try to make hell a better place. But of course the Mafia don’t take kindly to meddling priests. Gritty and heartbreaking, this is a story of one man’s struggle to change the world. It will appeal to those who’ve read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, but there’s a twist in the tale; for this is a true story.

Continue reading

A Notable Woman: Jean Lucey Pratt

★★★★

The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt

I have decided to write a journal. I mean to go on writing this for years and years, and it’ll be awfully amusing to read over later.’ It was Saturday 18 April 1925 and fifteen-year-old Jean Lucey Pratt was making a start on her first diary. Unlike most teenage girls, she actually kept it up: sixty years later, she’d produced over a million words, encompassing national, local and family politics, her ambitions, the frustrations of being a clever woman in a man’s world, her friendships and, most movingly, her constant desire for love. Simon Garfield, the editor of her journals, came across her work as a participant in the Mass Observation project, which gathered the experiences of ordinary people across the country during and after the Second World War. But Jean’s personal diaries go beyond the social history contained in her consciously ‘public’ journals. Here is an intelligent, smart, hopeful woman, longing to live to her full potential – but also a fallible, flawed human being who makes poor decisions, lacks courage, and manages to have whole love affairs in her imagination with someone she’s never actually spoken to. She is inspiring, exasperating and pitiful by turn: a fully-realised, articulate and hauntingly familiar personality.  There is, I think, a little bit of Jean Lucey Pratt in all of us.

Continue reading

Innocence: Roald Dahl

★★★★

Tales of Youth and Guile

What a crazy few weeks it’s been! Having shuttled back and forth between London, Oxford, Leeds and Washington, I expected to get lots of reading done, but unfortunately I’ve developed an irritating tendency to fall asleep as soon as the train or plane gets moving. Now back home, having shaken off the worst of the jet-lag, I took refuge on my sofa from the nasty cold rain outside and treated myself to the first of several books of Roald Dahl’s short stories, recently reissued in thematic collections by Penguin. Like most people, I suspect, I read lots of Dahl when I was small but never progressed to his writing for adults. This particular collection, with its themes of childhood and naivete, includes Dahl’s autobiography Boy (written for children), as well as a group of other short stories (for grown-ups), some of which reflect his own experiences through a fictional lens.

Continue reading

All That Remains: Sue Black

★★★★

A Life in Death

Death. It isn’t something that any of us like to think about, is it? However, the one certainty of being alive is that, one day, we won’t be. The funny thing is that nowadays, with all the medical and clinical advances of the modern world, we’re more divorced from death than we have ever been; and we fear it more than ever before. I’m in my early thirties and the only dead bodies I’ve ever seen are in museums. I have never been with one of my relatives when they’ve died, nor visited them in a chapel of rest (the result of living a long way away from the rest of my family). And I feel that something is missing, somehow. Not that I want to be ghoulish, but I do want to understand what and how things change at that final threshold. Hence the attraction of this book, written by Sue Black, an anatomist and forensic anthropologist at Dundee University. Black combines dazzling distinctions (she’s a Professor and a Dame) with refreshing down-to-earth Scots candour, and her remarkable book is part memoir, part treatise on death.

Continue reading

Nefertiti: Joyce Tyldesley

★★★★

Unlocking the Mystery surrounding Egypt’s Most Famous and Beautiful Queen

Writing about icons is a difficult business. Even biographers of modern stars like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley must wade through a morass of secrets, theories and fantasies. How much more difficult to choose a subject who lived 3,500 years ago, who emerged from nowhere, disappeared back into obscurity, and whose brief, glittering existence has been the subject of fierce iconoclasm! Thanks to the glorious portrait bust in Berlin (see below), Nefertiti is one of the most recognisable figures from Ancient Egypt, but the facts of her life remain tantalisingly elusive. As Joyce Tyldesley teases out the meaning of symbols, inscriptions and sculpted reliefs, Nefertiti’s lost world blossoms into life, in an archaeological story that reads like a detective novel. This is a tale of religious revolution, intrigue, iconoclasm, romance, and mysterious, powerful women. What’s not to like?

Continue reading

This Is Going To Hurt: Adam Kay

★★★★

Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

In August 2004, bright-eyed and full of enthusiasm, Adam Kay sets off for his first day as a hospital doctor. Six years later, exhausted and traumatised, he leaves the profession. In-between, as an obstetrician and gynaecologist, he delivers over a thousand babies, saves lives, gets soaked in other people’s blood, and removes odd objects from a variety of orifices. This collection of diary entries take us through his career and, as you might imagine, they’re not for the squeamish. They made me wince, and very often I laughed out loud; but they also made me sad. Kay gives a sobering picture of the British National Health Service at a time when its funding is being stealthily shaved away by the government, and the Health Secretary seems to have precious little idea of what doctors are actually doing. These diaries show us what it’s like on ground zero, and it’s not a pretty sight. With humour, sarcasm and compassion, Kay demonstrates how desperately stretched our doctors are. Vital reading, and painfully timely.

Continue reading

The Madness of Moscow: Cary Johnston

★★

One Man’s Journey of Life and Love in Russia

I was attracted to this book by its promise of revelation. Even in the modern age, Russia is still ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, and its role on the international stage is becoming ever more complex, fascinating and not a little worrying. Recent news has cast it as a country of hackers, oligarchs, corruption and assassins; but how true is all of this? What’s it actually like to be in Russia right now, as a Westerner? What makes the Russians tick? How open is modern Russia to the West and what it stands for? I hoped to find the answers to some of these questions, and hopefully many others, in this book. Unfortunately, though, I was disappointed. Johnston’s account offers little beyond a memoir of partying, vodka-drinking and his eternal and somewhat wearying quest to find his ideal ‘Russian Bride’. For a reporter, it shows a profound lack of curiosity.

Continue reading

Bite-Sized Memoirs

Bite-Sized Books

Following on from the first batch of bite-sized books, here is a clutch of memoirs to amuse, inspire and gently break your heart. We follow an academic as she braves the shark-infested waters of online dating; a young woman struggling to make ends meet in the post-recession desert of the job market; a young man who has defied the challenges of a rare medical condition; a woman who moves from the city to create a new life focused on simplicity, fresh air and chickens; and the story of a heartrending divorce from the more unusual male perspective. Some really moved me; some didn’t; but all offer engaging scenarios, so take a look and see what might appeal…

Continue reading