Month: July 2016

Too Many Beheadings, Too Little Hygiene

Review: Eliza Rose – by Lucy Worsley

I think I’ve mentioned before that Game of Thrones has encouraged me, by dint of being both awesome and fuelled by gore, to seek out other historically themed gross-fests. As such, I accidentally spent 6 hours yesterday watching The Tudors. Late to the party, as always, but isn’t it a ridiculous show? There is actually a ghost in it. A ghost! And everyone is young and sexy. Almost everyone!

I’ve never been a big fan of the Tudor part of history – too many beheadings and too little hygiene – but recently there have been quite a few documentaries which have opened up the period for me like never before.

Of course, we all know Henry VIII – a capricious, bearded, fat man who couldn’t catch a break when it came to siring heirs.

Arguably my finest work.

He’s the one with all the wives – so many we made a rhyme about it just to remember them all. What else do I know about his wives? Well there was the one who was too old, the one who might have been a witch…  and another four, one of whom was likened to a horse…

Perhaps it’s because I am now so very old that I can’t remember much we learned about the Tudors in school. Perhaps it’s because it’s not a period I’ve read a lot of fiction around, but boy, did I know hardly anything about those wives!

Sometimes with history, with lives already lived, finished and conclusively summarized, it’s easy to forget these were three-dimensional people with their own motivations. We remember people by their York Notes, but condensing six wives – the lives of six queens, one of whom inspired a change in this country’s entire religious structure and sparked years of religious persecution – down to a rhyme doesn’t feel like enough for me anymore. And they were such interesting people. I don’t expect to get a particularly true account from The Tudors, but I do always find that reading fiction around a subject is a good way to learn a broader overview of the facts. Enter, Eliza Rose.

I like Lucy Worsley. I’ll stop there, rather than subject you to my sycophantic bleatings, but be aware that I like Lucy Worsley like Lesley Knope likes Ann Perkins.

With my interest kindled by The Tudors and an appetite for fiction, what better book to come up on my Amazon recs than Eliza Rose? I did mainly buy it because it’s by Lucy Worsley, though.

Eliza Rose Camperdowne is young and headstrong, but she knows her duty well. As the only daughter of a noble family, she must one day marry a man who is very grand and very rich.

But Fate has other plans. When Eliza becomes a maid of honour, she’s drawn into the thrilling, treacherous court of Henry the Eighth …

Is her glamorous cousin Katherine Howard a friend or a rival?

And can a girl choose her own destiny in a world ruled by men?

Now, this is pitched as a children’s book so I thought that, like the first Harry Potter book, it might be difficult to read as an adult. Not so much, as it happens – it certainly isn’t written down. It’s both a coming of age book for Eliza, our fictional main character, and a lovely humanisation of Katherine Howard. In spite of not knowing much about her, she’s been my preferred of the wives for a while, if only for the whole being called Katherine thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Katherine isn’t portrayed here as a particularly nice person – she’s controlling, flirtatious and often cruel – but Worsley explores her motivations fairly and fleshes her out beyond a two dimensional “silly girl” who didn’t realise she couldn’t just sleep with anybody she wanted while she was married to the King.

With Eliza, I learned what a position at court really meant, and what she had to be prepared to do to succeed. Eliza Rose made real – albeit in a gentle, suitable for children way – the decisions any young woman at court had to make. Eliza Rose, and Katherine Howard too, were very human, vulnerable and clever. It’s an interesting book I devoured in one sitting, and has such a wealth of glorious historical detail. I’d expect nothing less. Highly recommended, and I’d love a sequel!

I’m on the lookout for some good fiction around the rest of the wives, I’d love to hear if you’ve any recommendations?

Try Eliza Rose here, and let me know what you think!

The Murder Bit.

I’ve been on holiday this past week, which you might think would mean I’ve had plenty of time to do loads of my own personal work, unhampered by the ties of the day job. You would be incorrect. What’s actually happened is I’ve ground to a shuddering halt and watched two full seasons of Game Of Thrones. Time well spent, yes, but it has put me behind on reading for this blog.

Oh no Jon Snow!

I did read a book while I was on leave, but it was in no way relevant to a blog which is, at best, tenuously linked to historical mysteries. I’ve linked it here, it you’re interested, but otherwise I’m not going to mention it.

In lieu of that, and bearing in mind that if I stop posting weekly I’ll probably never start again, let’s look at some books about DEATH.

Click the images for more information.

Amazing True Stories of Execution Blunders – by Geoffrey Abbott

These days, I consider myself something of an historical death aficionado, in so much as a person can be when they read a lot of fiction and are easily grossed out. I know all about the old punishments and the ones which never really happened, but this introduced me to several more disgusting methods which I had known nothing about. It’s not quite so Horrible Histories as it looks, either, and was a heavily sobering look at how awful people used to be – and still sometimes are.

The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death – by Timothy Taylor

Yes. This one.

I think it’s always a sign of a good book when you can remember, over a year later, exactly what you were doing when you started it.

I was on a train to London early one morning, sitting by myself in a deserted carriage. I was nervous about what I was going to London for – something to do with the day job – and wasn’t at all sure I’d chosen the right book to bring. I was testing myself – it was the first non-fiction book I’d ever read about death, and given my history and temperament, it could have set me off into a quivering, shrieking mess. Parts of it almost did.

The Buried Soul is a comprehensive look at the culture which has grown up around death, dating far back into pre-history and spanning the globe. It takes a close and respectful look at the taboos surrounding the way we treat our dead, the superstitions which have developed in different parts of the world and why, and what I found most interesting of all, our changing attitudes to cannibalism. Both grim and enlightening, a non-judgemental and intellectual study of why we do what we do, and why we stopped doing what we did.

Ladies! Beware!

Review: Kill Me Again – Rachel Abbott

As a person who is constantly aware of the creeping shadow of death, it surely won’t surprise you to learn that I practice constant vigilance. If I’ve learned anything from all of these thrillers and mystery novels I’ve been reading, it’s that most people are psychopaths, and you probably won’t find out until it’s too late.

As a young(ish) lady of a naturally anxious disposition, it’s been reassuring to have what I strongly supposed backed up so consistently. I have the pessimist’s pleasure of being proved right.


Unfortunately for the heroines of what I like to call Lady Mysteries(TM), they do not share my sense of constant vigilance. In Kill Me Again, in spite of her career as a defence lawyer, and therefore regular contact with serial killers, Maggie Taylor is not of an anxious disposition, nor does she mistrust all people. Indeed, she believes she lives a pretty idyllic life, until her husband disappears.

When your life is a lie, who can you trust? 
When Maggie Taylor accepts a new job in Manchester, she is sure it is the right move for her family. The children have settled well although her husband, Duncan, doesn’t appear to be so convinced.
But nothing prepares her for the shock of coming home from work one night to find that Duncan has disappeared, leaving their young children alone. His phone is dead, and she has no idea where he has gone, or why. And then she discovers she’s not the only one looking for him.

When a woman who looks just like Maggie is brutally murdered and DCI Tom Douglas is brought in to investigate, Maggie realises how little she knows about Duncan’s past. Is he the man she loves? Who is he running from?

She doesn’t have long to decide whether to trust him or betray him. Because one thing has been made clear to Maggie – another woman will die soon, and it might be her.

It’s an odd thing, the idea that you can be married to someone for ten years, think yourself blissfully in love, and then find out that you didn’t know them at all.  On the one hand, how could anyone possibly be so stupid? But on the other hand, I regularly find out things I didn’t know about friends or co workers who I’ve known for years, and they weren’t things they were trying to keep secret. I’ve been in close relationships with people who have manipulated and lied to me for years without my knowledge. It happens.

When Maggie begins to unravel her husband’s lies, she struggles to cope with the idea that she’s married to a stranger. Yet the important part of Maggie’s story is less about what she did not know, and more about the choices she makes when she does find out the truth. She’s torn between Duncan’s betrayal of her, and the idea of betraying the man she loves to the police.

As the story evolved and more and more was revealed, I was drawn in to the point where I couldn’t put it down. It’s tense – I read the last 20% with my hand over my mouth and in a mad rush.

I’ve been thinking about this book from a feminist aspect, too. The women in this are almost all victims in the hands of men. They’re lied to, murdered, tortured, threatened. That seems to be the way in these things, doesn’t it? Serial killers usually are men, after all, and historically, women are the victims. Perhaps that’s why I always look out for books which tend the other way – it is fiction after all. I’d love any recommendations, are there any thrillers you’ve enjoyed with female serial killers?

All the men in Kill Me Again are awful in some way or another, apart from DCI Tom Douglas, the chiselled hero and Maggie’s son Josh, who is a small child. I honestly don’t think it would pass the Bechdel test, but that isn’t to say that all of the women are weak, in spite of being victims. I enjoyed the women in this, and that is because of Maggie’s actions towards the end. It was a great twist and I’d definitely read a Maggie-centred sequel, which there would be room for. In lieu of that, I’d definitely pick up another Rachel Abbott book.

Give Kill Me Again a try here, and let me know what you think!

If you like psychopaths (or reading about them, at any rate), and you haven’t yet read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, then I can’t recommend it more highly. And if my word isn’t good enough, perhaps Louis Tomlinson will sway you.

About The Author

Review: About The Author – John Colapinto

To start with a gross generalisation, there’s little more interesting to writers than writers, and the most interesting writer to any writer is themselves. We marvel at our own artistic process, the way we can torture ourselves and hate ourselves and bleed into the page, and create unreadable rubbish and then – on magical moments – emerge with words of true genius. Words we may not even remember writing, but which speak to humanity with truth and ageless wisdom.

It’s the allure of the artist, the god creator, world builder, and purveyor of lies and truth in equal measure. And we write about ourselves, and then lie about it.

Experience colours what you write, and I am written into every line of sin and murder in my own books by dint only of having written them, (not, I hasten to add, due to having done any of that stuff). Perhaps that’s because I’m a ham writer, but perhaps it’s just the nature of being human. We can never fully dissociate from ourselves.

Enter About The Author, a Hitchcockian thriller about precisely that – the separation of the story and the writer.

Cal Cunningham lives a debauched life filled with hollow love affairs, only so at some point he can write the next great American novel about it all.

He doesn’t write a word for years.

Unbeknownst to him, his quiet flatmate Stewart harbours his own dream to be a writer, and has written a novel based on stories Cal has told him, even using Cal’s title – Almost Like Suicide.

Following a freak accident which claims Stewart’s life, Cal feels no qualms about stealing the manuscript and passing it off as his own – he is the protagonist, after all! It’s based on his own past, his own words are quoted. Never mind that Stewart’s skilled prose far exceeds anything Cal could hope to have matched.

What follows is a tense path to fame and riches, followed by increasingly desperate actions on Cal’s part to try and prevent his fall from grace.

Let’s not beat around the bush – Cal’s an asshole. An unmitigated asshole. He is selfish and self-obsessed, and the bruising of his ego at the discovery of Stewart’s hidden talents is the catalyst for the hot mess of Cal’s ascent to the glory he thinks he deserves, but has yet to earn.

But Stewart, the poor, wronged genius taken too soon, is also an asshole, and so too are most of the people in the book. Yet in spite of all this assholery, I found myself warming to Cal. I wanted him to succeed because by the end, boy did he work for that success. As to whether or not he gets it, I’ll leave to you to find out.

About The Author is a masterclass of rising tension, and a pleasantly uncomfortable read.

See if you agree here, and I’d love to know what you think!

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