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.

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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.

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Famous Trials: Alex McBride

★★★½

In this set of three bite-sized books, barrister and author Alex McBride presents six cases adapted from Penguin’s Famous Trials. This classic series gave readers the chance to read the transcripts of court cases, to study the evidence and to judge for themselves whether the final verdict was correct. In their newly edited form, these cases are short enough to read on a commute, each offering a glimpse of a notorious murder trial. Penguin and McBride have grouped them thematically. In Unwanted Spouses we explore two crimes motivated by marital strife; Thrill-Killers introduces us to two criminals who developed too much of a taste for blood; and Lucky Escapes shows us two people who were acquitted and walked free. But did they deserve it? While I’m not a fan of modern true crime, these cases are old enough to cast light on a different age – while reminding us that human nature, worryingly, might not have changed all that much…

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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?

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Just One Damned Thing After Another: Jodi Taylor

★★★★

The Chronicles of St Mary’s: Book I

Madeleine Maxwell – short, opinionated redhead – is a maverick. She’s also an historian, which amounts to much the same thing. At school, Max is saved by her teacher Mrs De Winter, who channels her disruptive tendencies into a deep passion for history. Many years later, having gained her PhD from the University of Thirsk, Max has a second reason to thank Mrs De Winter, who puts her up for a job at the St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. The historians of St Mary’s have a public reputation as eccentric, shabby and lovable: a band of chaotic academics who pursue the bits of history that others don’t reach. How do you drive a quadriga? How far could Icarus have flown? What are the constituents of Greek fire? But the initiated soon learn a different story. Once Max has passed her interview, she enters a thrilling world where ‘practical history’ takes on a whole new meaning. For St Mary’s have discovered the secrets of time-travel, and there are no limits to their research. A roistering tale of historical skulduggery, physics, and plenty of tea, this is a glorious, geeky gem of a book: historian’s catnip.

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Dorothea Lange: The Politics of Seeing

Lange: Unemployed lumber worker

(Barbican Art Gallery, London, closed on 2 September 2018)

Dorothea Lange was no stranger to adversity: at the age of seven, she survived an attack of polio which left her with a limp for the rest of her life. After studying photography in New York, she moved to San Francisco in 1919, opening a portrait photography studio in the city centre. She became the favourite photographer of the city’s elite, gifted with a shrewd insight into the personalities of her sitters. But in the early 1930s something changed. Lange began to see impoverished men, women and children flooding into the city from the ‘Dust Bowl’ states out east. Droughts and over-farming, coupled with the economic crash of 1928, had ushered in the Great Depression. Their plight electrified her: in 1934 she closed her studio and devoted her life to cataloguing the world around her. The Barbican’s stunning retrospective was a worthy celebration of this remarkable woman: a visionary artist with a social conscience, capturing images which, even a century later, evoke the brutal realities faced by many thousands of her countrymen.

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Fanny and Stella: Neil McKenna

★★★

The Young Men who Shocked Victorian England

London theatres were notorious for their seedy reputations, but the events of 28 April 1870 were shocking even by the standards of the West End. As the audience filed out of the Strand Theatre, two garishly-dressed ‘ladies’ were arrested by police officers, who accused them of being men in drag. Carried off to Bow Street police station, the women were revealed in due course to be Ernest Boulton (known as Stella) and Frederick William Park (known as Fanny). McKenna’s book unfolds the story of their extraordinary trial for indecency and delves into the secret gay underworld of 19th-century London. It’s a fine story, but its historical credentials are undermined by a relentlessly salacious tone and by McKenna’s fondness for floridly narrative, unsubstantiated assertions.

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Dancing Bears: Witold Szabłowski

★★★

True stories About Longing for the Old Days

There’s a fascinating premise behind this book by the Polish journalist Witold Szabłowski. Its first half is devoted to the tale of how Bulgaria’s entry into the EU obliged it to forbid the keeping of dancing bears, thereby destroying one of its cherished traditions. Following the ‘rescued’ bears in their new home, Szabłowski looks at how the animals are coping with their new ‘freedom’ and also follows the fate of their former keepers. In the second half of the book, the bears’ clumsy encounter with their new freedom forms the framework for a series of vignettes assembled in various Eastern and Central European countries, whose peoples are still struggling to define their identities and purpose in the aftermath of Communism. Unfortunately the second half doesn’t live up to the promise of the first part, but the book as a whole offers a glimpse of an unfamiliar world struggling in that gap between death-throes and birth-throes.

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The Ark Before Noah: Irving Finkel

★★★★

Decoding the Story of the Flood

Deep within the British Museum is the Arched Room, a soaring vaulted hall lined with shelves of cubbyholes. This is where the cuneiform tablets are kept and it feels rather like the Holy of Holies. I’ve only been once, but that single visit impressed me mightily: not just the architecture, but the hushed air of industry as scholars and students sat hunched over at the central line of desks, working away at deciphering these ancient fragments. Tablets might be business letters, court records or poetry. It’s an ongoing detective story and my brilliant Assyriologist colleagues never know what they’re going to turn up. In this book, the irrepressible Irving Finkel tells the story of the most exciting recent discovery, when a member of the public brought in a cuneiform tablet which offered fascinating new evidence about the story of the Ark and the Great Flood.

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Koh-i-Noor: William Dalrymple and Anita Anand

★★★½

Back at the beginning of August, I used my summer holidays to play ‘tourist’ in London. My first stop was the Tower of London and, among the ravens, armour and tales of bloody executions, I popped in to see the Crown Jewels. At that point I was already aware of this new history of the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond and wanted to see it for myself. I discovered, as many have before me, that its legend casts a far larger shadow than its reality. Indeed, it looks almost modest alongside the Cullinan I Diamond that sits atop the monarch’s sceptre, or the Cullinan II in the Imperial State Crown. So what was it about this rather unassuming diamond that captured the imagination of generations? With Dalrymple and Anand as my guides, I embarked on an engaging tale of blood, war, ambition, extravagance and conquest.

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