Summer Reads from Aspects of History
Taking a well-earned break from the adventures of Beobrand in his much-loved Bernicia Chronicles series, Matthew Harffy moves forward the best part of one hundred and fifty years in this, his most recent and much-anticipated novel, A Time for Swords.
Set in AD 793, the action opens with the infamous Viking raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne close to the ancient Northumbrian stronghold of Bebbanburh. Seen through the eyes of Hunlaf, a young god-fearing monk, Harffy expertly captures the horror and fear that struck the monastic community on that fateful day.
Sickened by events, Hunlaf is unable to stand back and watch as those dear to him are slaughtered. Despite his upbringing, he finds himself with sword in hand, with which he somehow manages to kill a raider. And thus begins his own journey of discovery as he wrestles with his conscience between pursuing life as a monk or as the warrior he secretly wishes to become.
Forming an unlikely alliance with Runolf – a captured Norseman – Hunlaf gathers a motley band of warriors together to defend the coast from the Vikings’ inevitable return. The parallels with the Magnificent Seven, and the Seven Samurai before that are clear and Harffy does a fine job of preparing the ground for the coming fight.
If you like your fiction fast-paced and action-packed – filled with brutal and bloody battles – but also with characters with whom you can empathise and root for, then this book will not disappoint. Fans of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories will lap this up.
Sometimes the best historical fiction can be woven around small footnotes to history, the things that really happened or may have happened, but which have been forgotten or suppressed – or which don’t fit the approved historical narrative.
William Boyd did that in Any Human Heart. I’ve even tried to do it myself in my Xanthe Schneider books. That is also why I ordered Alan Bardos’ book The Dardanelles Conspiracy (Sharpe Books) which throws his anti-hero Johnny Swift into wartime Turkey in 1915, where he plays a central role in the little known efforts by British diplomats to bribe Turkey out of the war.
As such we meet people like the legendary naval intelligence director ‘Blinker’ Hall, Churchill, Fisher, Hankey and key wartime planners, plus Enver Pasha and General Sir Ian Hamilton, who – half way through the book – takes control of the disastrous Gallipoli landings.
I have to say that I think Bardos has really cracked it. Johnny Swift is an excellent drunken anti-hero, somewhat debauched, but with a good heart. I haven’t read the previous story about him and what we might now call his frienemies – so I found some elements went over my head – but I will now.
In fact, Bardos has recreated a complete world here in 1915 which it is hard not to believe in – and I have written about the moment in time and place myself in Rupert Brooke and Unheard, Unseen – and his version of the negotiations and how they interwove with the decision to try and force the Dardanelles seems to be not just possible but also highly likely.
Having listened rivetted to Philippe Sands’ podcast, The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive, the story of Otto von Wächeter, indicted as a war criminal for murder and torture, who went on the run and fetched up in Rome, I seized on the book which fleshes out the story of Otto’s career, marriage and the mystery of his death in 1949. Aspects of it are shocking – not least the complicity of some member of the Catholic Church and the manipulations by the CIA as Soviet Russia squares up to Europe.
Equally Ben McIntyre’s Agent Sonya had me reading with my mouth open. A young Ursula Kuczynski dedicated herself to Communism and operated as ‘Sonya’. A wily Soviet undercover agent, she channelled, among others, nuclear secrets to the Kremlin, acquired lovers, husbands and children, outwitted the British secret services and ended her days feted in East Germany. It is an extraordinary story and told with Ben McIntyre’s precision married with his gift for electrifying narrative.
Two very different novels caught my eye. Gill Hornby’s stylish and entertaining Miss Austen which centres on Cassandra, Jane’s elder sister, in her later years. Much Austin genre is unmemorable but here the detail, characterisation, plus a mystery wrapped around a cache of letters are excellent. Equally Alix Nathan’s sardonic and chilling The Warlow Experiment is the fascinating, if bizarre, story of an 18th century experiment where a man voluntarily agrees to spend seven years in isolation. Beautifully written, it digs down into an era of political turbulence and volatile class tensions.
Two very different: one myth (or myth-history, if you like), the other hard maths.
Stephen Fry’s Troy: Our Greatest Story Retold is the third in what will be a tetralogy of very intelligent retelling of ancient Greek myths.
Benjamin Wardhaugh’s The Book of Wonders: The Many Lives of Euclid’s Elements traces the reception in both scientific and non-scientific milieux of what was for centuries a standard textbook.
I have been reading the advance proofs of The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World 1490 – 1530 by Patrick Wyman, due out in July. Wyman revisits the crucial question: how and why did tiny and backward Europe come to dominate the world for half a millennium. He nails it down to the development of a set of key competencies in an accelerated burst around the start of the 16th century. These include: exploration, the aggregation of nation states, the military revolution, printing and particularly the powerful leverage of novel financial and banking instruments. Each component, and the interaction between them, is explored around a particular figure: Columbus, Isabel of Castile, Jakob Fugger, Aldus Manutius, Martin Luther and Charles V among others. It’s a fascinating analysis of a critical pressure point in world history even if the writing sometimes lacks something.
Leanda de Lisle
The Red Prince: The Life of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, by Helen Carr. We remember Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt in Richard II, delivering a paeon to ‘this scepter’d isle…this England’. But he was born in Ghent, hence his name – and his England was no ‘demi paradise’. Rather, as Carr vividly describes, it was a place he exploited for men and gold, in pursuit of his ambitions in France and Spain. When Gaunt was eight, the Black Death reached England and he was first taken to war aged ten. At 15 Gaunt was a knight and the following year he was fighting the Scots. Later he was proposed as the prospective King of Scots. ‘This possibly sparked a craving for kingship’ Carr observes. It was, however, the crown of Castile that became his obsession, one he claimed in right of his second wife Constanza, who he married in 1371.
Carr is good at the fighting but Red Prince is not, however, just a book of battles and wars. Carr’s Gaunt is a man who loved as passionately as he fought. He had lost his ‘very dear’ first wife, and this grief was the inspiration for Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess. The following year Gaunt’s mother, Phillipa of Hainhault died. Carr’ sensitive use of contemporary sources paints a poignant death bed scene.
Gaunt had been made Duke of Aquitaine, but his ‘craving for kingship’ had never been be fulfilled. His son, Henry Bolingbroke was, however, destined to return from exile and take Richard II’s throne. The descendants of Gaunt’s children would later rule as the Tudor dynasty and his daughter married Henry III of Castile. For centuries Europe’s society of princes would be united in his bloodline. In Red Prince, it is however, the towering figure of Gaunt, a thoroughly European Englishman, who takes centre stage and it’s a stirring and memorable performance.
Giles Milton’s latest book, Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown that shaped the Modern World, is a masterclass in storytelling and scholarship, providing an enthralling coda to the Second World War. From Yalta to the Berlin Airlift there is not a wasted chapter or paragraph to be found. Post-war Berlin was a hotbed of crime, political intrigue and espionage. The city could have proved the spark, to light the touchpaper on World War Three. Flashes of humour, from the author and his protagonists, manage to temper the bleak landscape, however. Characters – including Churchill, Stalin, Truman, Ernest Bevin, and Frank “Howlin Mad” Howley – drift in and out of the story like a stellar cast from a binge-worthy boxset TV series. The climax of the book is suitably tense, even though we know the outcome. It was a close-run thing. But victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat, or at least a grim stalemate.
It would be wrong to say that Checkmate in Berlin is in anyway a return to form by the author, as Milton’s books always engage and entertain. But I would argue that this is his best book, providing the reader with a page-turning warning from history. Fake news, leftist propaganda, electoral fraud and Communist expansionism are not just things which we can consign to post-war Berlin. Let us just hope that courageous figures like Frank Howley are part of our present and future, as well as our past.
Although the plot of Henry Porter’s new spy thriller, The Old Enemy, partly relates to one of his previous books, Brandenburg (set during the fall of the Berlin Wall), I would be skating on thin ice if I called it a work of historical fiction. I still wanted to include the novel in my summer reads though. The book opens with the protagonist of some of Porter’s previous books, Robert Harland, being murdered. Harland was investigating crimes committed by a member of the Stasi – and the baton is passed onto Porter’s new hero, Paul Samson, to bring the guilty party to justice. The plot is ambitious, straddling both sides of the Atlantic, yet it meets those ambitions. The Old Enemy juggles plenty of characters and plot threads, but they are all brought together by the end. The author is able to marry together what is currently going on in the world, with old-fashioned virtues of storytelling, character development and dramatic reveals.
There is a tenuous link between The Old Enemy and my last recommendation, Paul Morley’s You Lose Yourself You Reappear: The Many Voices of Bob Dylan. Not only is there a line from Mr Tambourine Man in the spy thriller, but Henry Porter is also the name of a character featured in the epic song, Brownsville Girl. “The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter.”
Morley’s book is different to any on Dylan that I have read – and there is merit in that alone. It is also bang up to date, dealing with 2020 and Rough and Rowdy Ways. If you are looking for a comprehensive biography of Dylan then look elsewhere. Rather, Morley provides us with insight and personal musings on Dylan. There are wild, mercurial passages of brilliance in his writing. His knowledge of and love for Dylan and his catalogue shine through. The book will inspire its readers to re-listen to old albums or seek out new ones – an outcome which is worth the price of a hardback alone. I agree with Morley that the 80s were not as lost a decade as one might think, that Blood on the Tracks is his greatest album and Modern Times is worth revisiting – which is not to say that I agree with the author on everything.
Like Milton and Porter, Morley is a smart writer, who cares. Like it’s subject, You Lose Yourself You Reappear isn’t perfect. But if you read this book – and more so listen to the albums – you will realise that Dylan is as good as it gets.
This is currently a moment when history is being re-defined. Two books that have stood out for me over the last year have been about crossing boundaries. As I have been stuck at my deeply metropolitan desk, both of them have allowed me to travel beyond the city limits and forced me to question long-held assumptions about power, the countryside and how we do history. Corinne Fowler’s, Green and Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections, is as profound an investigation of our rural past as Raymond William’s The City and the Countryside, as it excavates the economic, social and political tendrils between our most pastoral images of ourselves and the cruelties of Empire. Fowler, who worked with the National Trust on ‘The Colonial Countryside’, has found herself in the centre of the debate on what constitutes history and this book brilliantly does the necessary work.
The second book that has stayed with me for similar reasons is Nick Hayes’s The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us. Part nature book, part history, part criminal enterprise, Hayes goes to a number of sites across England and crosses the boundaries to expose the limits of ownership, and the relationship between power and land. Both books stretch the expectation of what a history book can be. They are active participants in the debates on what History, with a capital H, can be.
Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War, by Tim Bouverie. The roots of Germany’s descent into the political depravity of the National Socialist era are to be found in the trenches of Flanders. So, too, are those of ‘appeasement’, the well-intentioned and largely British political movement that sought above all else to prevent a repeat of the First World War, even if that meant turning a blind eye to Germany’s moral corruption.
Much has been written on this subject, most of which is prejudiced by political bias or moral grandstanding. Tim Bouverie scrupulously avoids these pitfalls by allowing the facts to speak for themselves: a conviction-driven and tin-eared British Prime Minister, convinced of his own negotiating skills, who surrounded himself with like-minded civil servants and who was determined to negotiate a deal alone; a weak and divided Cabinet and House of Commons; a ‘leader-in-waiting’ who was bitterly opposed to the PM’s policy but who enjoyed little support in his own party; a largely supportive media; continental European ‘allies’ weakened by their own economic and political problems; and an utterly unscrupulous counter-party to the negotiations with an inflexible (and none too hidden) agenda.
Without any prompting by the author, it is impossible from the presentation of these facts not to conclude that appeasement, even if it bought a few more months of rearmament, was a huge mistake. Since the book’s publication, Mr Bouverie has joined the ranks of TV pundits called upon to opine on the events that led to the Second World War – and with good reason, for this is a remarkable first book that has justly elevated Mr Bouverie to the status of an appeasement guru, untrammelled by political messaging or virtue signalling. I agree wholeheartedly with the late Professor Sir Michael Howard’s assessment of Appeasing Hitler: ‘The best account of the subject that I have ever read’.
In fiction, I’ve been recommending Robbie Morrison’s Edge of the Grave. The story follows Inspector Jim Dreghorn from a Glasgow adolescence in the years leading up to the First World War to membership of the ‘Flying Squad’ of hand-picked police officers set up in the 1930s to take on the city’s notorious razor gangs. Ostensibly ‘Tartan Noir’, the novel delivers a convincing and nuanced depiction of the ‘second city’ of the British Empire as it struggles with sectarianism, corruption and extremes of poverty and wealth in the inter-war years.
Few histories can have been told as often as that of the Jacobites and their final stand at the Battle of Culloden, but Paul O’Keefe’s Culloden: Battle and Aftermath is a refreshing re-examination of the ’45 Rising and of its bloody aftermath. With a highly-readable style that brings a sense of immediacy, O’Keeffe takes a multi-faceted approach to events and those who experienced them, often illuminating his account with significant details passed over by others.
For my own summer reading, Paul Lay’s Providence Lost: the Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate will be travelling to the back garden with me, and I will be making a trip to the Ullapool Bookshop for Mary Paulson-Ellis’s Emily Noble’s Disgrace . Paulson-Ellis’s novels are boxes of delights, where the life of a fictional character dying, anonymous, in the city of Edinburgh is gradually traced and re-imagined through fragments and artefacts of the earlier 20th century.
I’ll be spending much of the summer reading Sean McMeekin’s huge and magisterial Stalin’s War, a timely reassessment of Stalin’s pivotal role in World War Two, and an important demolition of the surprisingly durable propaganda fiction of the benign, avuncular “Uncle Joe”. The best history should make the reader challenge their assumptions and rethink the story, McMeekin’s book does that in spades.
I have also just finished Wendy Lower’s new book The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, a compelling and forensic investigation of mass shooting during the Holocaust in Ukraine. Lower turns detective and works from a single photograph to uncover the truth about a previously unknown atrocity. Brilliant microhistory.
With the recent success of the project to raise money to provide a statue to honour the names of Mary Anning and her dog Tray in Lyme Regis, it pleased me to pick up a copy of Tracy Chevalier’s re-imagining of this famous collector of fossils in Remarkable Creatures. The novel uncovers some of the most important discoveries of the 19th century in the field of fossils, but it is far more than that as it unwraps the complex relationship of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. Although very different in status, both find it difficult to make their voices heard in a male-dominated society, particularly an academic one. Their relationship, spoiled by envy and misunderstanding, must be smoothed out and loyalty preserved. An interesting re-creation of the 19th century debate, of the place of women within it, and the enduring friendship between two remarkable women.
What an incredibly satisfying and intriguing read Nicola Cornick’s latest time-slip novel proved to be. The Last Daughter unwraps two of history’s most compelling medieval enigmas; the fate of the Princes in the Tower and the inexplicable disappearance of Viscount Lovell, close friend of King Richard III, all set against the dramatic backdrop of present-day ruined Minster Lovell Manor. Did the two Princes live to escape, or were they murdered? What was the fate of Lord Lovell after the battle of Stoke; did he flee abroad or was the skeleton discovered trapped in an underground chamber at Minster Lovell in 1708 that of the Viscount? Both lively debates are ingeniously and skilfully interwoven with a 21st Century crime scene and the fascination of a well-hidden family secret. Well researched and stylish, full of emotion from past and present, this is an engrossing mystery to keep the reader turning the pages. Perfect for those who enjoy Richard III novels.
Many years ago, coming to live in the Welsh Marches, I read Barbara Erskine’s Lady of Hay, a time-slip novel, a genre with which I was then unacquainted, and was instantly captivated. The chilling ambience of the borderlands between England and Wales in the 12th Century was brought vividly to life. The Dream Weavers, Barbara Erskines’s latest novel, which takes us back to a far distant era in that wild and isolated region, does not disappoint. What a master-class it presents in once again creating the brooding atmosphere of the lands that border Offa’s Dyke, both today and long before the Normans set up their marcher lordships. The tale is full of magic, mystery and ambition, woven through with a disturbing haunting that continues into the present day. This is a novel that beguiles and intrigues in its depiction of a woman caught up as a pawn in Mercian politics. Sins of the past must be laid to rest before all can rest at ease. Be prepared for some late reading nights until all is resolved…
Profoundly moving, conversational – amusing, angry – Edmund de Waal’s Letters to Camondo is a short book of immense emotional power. It takes the form of a series of letters between de Waal and Count Moise de Camondo, whose Parisian palace and its collection becomes a museum and a double memorial, first to a son who died in the First World War and then, tragically, to descendants murdered in Auschwitz. De Waal’s writing is enchanting; he summons a period of French history up out of the clay like one of the delicate pots he turns on his wheel. Part history, part memoir, part art history – a sequel of sorts to The Hare with the Amber Eyes.
A panoramic view of the same period, France’s Third Republic, can be found in James McAuley’s The House of Fragile Things. McAuley, who was Washington Post correspondent in Paris, has woven the story of several intermarried Jewish families and their art collections with sensitivity, curiosity and an impressive breadth and depth of research. Fascinating. Both books are rewarding to read together.
Two favourite, compelling biographies: Antonia Fraser’s The Case of the Married Woman resonated with me particularly because there were so many parallels between her refusnik of a protagonist and mine – a society woman caught in patriarchal marriage laws. Wonderfully, Fraser finally metes out justice to Caroline Norton. And Paula Byrne’s The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is the story of more recent lost world, a literary heroine brought vividly into focus in surprising and entertaining fashion.
Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues that Made History. ‘History is gone. What we have is the memory of history, and that is always contested,’ writes Alex Von Tunzelmann in this astute, fascinating and often very funny survey of an issue that has polarized opinion across the world and led to a new awareness of how, as the author puts it, ‘History is told and re-told, used and abused.’ The selection of statues is top and tailed by George III and George Washington in the US, and includes studies of the fates of a Stalin statue in Hungary – where there is now a statue commemorating the taking down of the statue! – George V in India, ‘rotting in scrubland north of Delhi, rarely visited except by stray dogs’, Saddam Hussein’s rigorously stage-managed toppling in Iraq, and the demented phallic ‘Imposing Erections’ of murderous tyrant Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.
All are enriched by deep contextual knowledge – the author has written excellent books on India, the Dominican Republic and Hungary – and a mastery of the complexities and nuances of each case, as well as their frequent absurdities. At the same time, the statues that started all this debate are here as well – Rhodes, Robert E. Lee, and Bristol’s Edward Colston (in a chapter called ‘Making a Splash’). Forensically unpicking polemical arguments from all sides in the debate, Von Tunzelmann calmly and deftly guides us through this important issue, while never stopping being hugely informative, surprising and entertaining.
Skelton’s Guide to Suitcase Murders from David Stafford is a 1920s mystery told, mainly from the viewpoint of Barrister Arthur Skelton, a salt of the earth character, but still a little too wrapped up in his own life to be entirely aware of everything around him. It’s a wonderfully plotted novel, with a cast of unmissable characters that is an absolute delight to read. It made me laugh out loud on many an occasion, and the eclectic mix of cast and events keeps the reader hooked as the story progresses, from the problems with his daughter’s guinea pig to the motorcycle ‘bad-boy,’ from London to Leeds to Whitley Bay to Scotland. And oh, how I loved the long and rambling letters from Cousin Alan with his delightful take on humanity.
The story trundles along at a wonderful pace, filled with exquisite detail, and I would struggle to decide on a favourite character because all of them, even the bit part characters, are so well sketched. This is genuinely an absolute treat if you enjoy a mystery deeply steeped in the times (1929-1930), with a hint of gentle humour and a fabulous cast, and that’s without even mentioning the mystery’s resolution, which will keep readers guessing.
Masters of Rome by Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty is the stunning sequel to Sons of Rome and the juicy jam? in this trilogy about Maxentius and Constantine and the state of the Roman Empire in the early 300’s.
It is a book of vast scope and yet perfectly held in check by the twin authors, Turney and Doherty, both taking the part of one of the main characters. Taking the reader from Rome to Africa, from Gaul to Rome, the novel’s scope is massive, yet it never feels it. Never.
I am in awe of the skill of both authors to bring something as complex as this period to life with such apparent ease (I know it won’t have been easy, but it feels it). Each chapter flows into the next, the desire to give both characters an equal voice never falters, and quite frankly, I have no idea how the trilogy is ultimately going to end, but I am desperate to know.
I highly recommend Masters of Rome, especially for those who have no knowledge of the period’s history (like me) because it is fascinating and told with panache and skill, with an eye to detail. And those who do know the period, you’re still in for a treat as we follow the lives of Constantine and Maxentius and the inevitable march to war.
Reading The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes is a bit like ordering your favourite dish in a good restaurant and somehow coming away disappointed.
Barnes’s technique is as excellent as might be expected. Lively, perfectly balanced sentences feign a simplicity that can only be achieved with great skill. Wry asides entertain and inform. Glorious details sprout everywhere.
The book is a biography, I think. The subject, Samuel Pozzi, was a real man, a magnificent painting of him was made by John Singer Sargent, and Julian Barnes swears to the reader that he is not making anything up. Pozzi was a society doctor, a gynaecologist, and a discreet adulterer. A wealth of fascinating detail about Dr Pozzi, his family and his friends is served up, with thought-provoking comments on him, his circle, the Belle Époque and the nature of biography. The book is a masterful portrayal of life in Paris in the thirty years before the First World War.
There are great sketches and portraits of the dandies, the writers, the actresses and the countesses with whom Pozzi mingled, especially the Count Robert de Montesquiou and Pozzi’s daughter Catherine, but we never really get to know Pozzi himself. The author shows us what others said and thought of him, but we see only him obliquely, indirectly. The book has no strong narrative pull and no strong central character.
I believe this is a failing on Barnes’s part. An intentional failing perhaps – the author’s whole point is that “we cannot know” about a biographer’s subject in the same way we can know a novelist’s protagonist – but it still left this reader unsatisfied.
And yet. I’m really glad I read it: it made me think, and I’m still thinking. So try it this summer and see for yourself.
Alan Judd’s A Fine Madness is a beautifully written short historical novel about the murder (or was it assassination?) of Christopher Marlowe in 1593. Judd’s own background in espionage only adds to the verisimilitude of his accounts of what Sir Francis Walsingham and his heroic group of spies did to protect Queen Elizabeth I. There are circles within circles, all wrapped up in not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit.
Bill Murray is the son of Winston’s Churchill last bodyguard, Edmund Murray, who turns out to have had an extraordinary backstory, serving in the French Foreign Legion from 1937 onwards. Taken almost entirely from his father’s correspondence, but with some impressive sleuthing done by Bill too, Churchill’s Legionnaire: Edmund Murray is full of surprises and interesting apercus about pre-war and wartime Britain, France and Africa.
Two books that I’ve enjoyed this year are debuts. Cat Jarman has tapped into the endless fascination with the Vikings in her River Kings: A New History of Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads. This is essentially a detective work, tracing a bead found in a dig at Repton to its origins in India, along the way telling the story of the reach of Viking traders. I liked the visual way Cat Jarman presents her adventure: she’s done television work, and presumably this is why she so successfully writes to picture. And it’s a fun book, too.
Helen Carr’s The Red Prince: John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster is a successful attempt to bring John of Gaunt – son of one king (Edward III), father to another (Henry IV), and a brother of the Black Prince – back to the prominence that he’s lost over the past half-century or so. Helen Carr has a lively style of writing that makes the fourteenth century relevant and intriguing. If you enjoyed Michael Jones’s excellent The Black Prince, I’m pretty sure you will enjoy this vivid piece from the same period.
From early 19th century Westminster to early 20th century Cairo: two perfect Summer books about battles for women’s freedom from male constraints. Antonia Fraser’s The Case of the Married Woman will delight her millions of admirers while giving every man among them a kicking reminder of the not very distant past when the laws of property and child custody deemed a married woman not to exist. Her subject, Caroline Norton, proved her existence by novels, poetry, legal reforms, grim personal tragedy and a star part in a courtroom adultery drama whose leading man was the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Fraser’s flawless art brings her to life on every page.
Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt’s Roaring ‘20s, by Raphael Cormack. A century later in Egypt the night life of the capital gave opportunities for women to break out of even broader restrictions on their lives, not just as singers and dancers but in business, politics, media and finance. In his first book, ‘Midnight in Cairo’, Raphael Cormack takes his readers away from the familiar tales of Alexandria made famous by Cavafy and Lawrence Durrell to the Ezbekiyya district of Cairo, its nightclubs, newspapers and stars whose fights with repressive bans on sex, drugs and singing he traces back to a poet’s last days of freedom in the thirteenth century. This is important new territory vividly traced by an outstanding new writer of lost history.
Richard Woodman’s Nathaniel Drinkwater has long been recognised as an equal of Horatio Hornblower. However, he has recently published novels with a more modern setting. Favourite amongst these is Cold Truth, a brilliantly constructed narrative wherein a corvette commander sailing with the North Atlantic Convoys in WW2, tells the story of a doomed expedition to the Arctic in the 1930’s. The tale comes section by section during his lay-overs in Liverpool, as he tells it to the daughter of the man who financed it. Adventure, romance and authenticity worthy of Joseph Conrad.
Next is Candace Robb’s A Choir of Crows, the 12th of her unputdownable medieval whodunnits featuring Owen Archer, his family and friends, set in a brilliantly realised C14th York caught up in minutely researched historical events. Also focussing on historical events is Sons of Rome by Gordon Doherty and Simon Turney. Each of the two outstanding writers follows the story of either Constantine or Maxentius from childhood to their fatal meeting at the Milvian Bridge as they each battle for supremacy in Rome. Sons is the first of a trilogy (followed by Masters and Gods), all of which are simply brilliant.
Finally, there’s Simon Elliot’s Roman Britain’s Missing Legion, a gripping reassessment of what might actually have happened to the Legio IX Hispana who so famously vanished from the historical record having last been stationed on Hadrian’s Wall. Dr Elliott weighs the alternatives in fascinating detail as he tries to solve the mystery that, for many of us, started our fascination with all things Roman: whatever did happen to The Eagle of the Ninth?
The Witching Pool by John Pilkington: Judge Belstrang returns, guiding us through another Jacobean mystery. I’ve become obsessed with King James’s ostentatious reign, and this novel plunges us into it, in all its superstitious glory.
The Wrecking Storm by Michael Ward: a gripping novel which covers the turbulent years of the mid-seventeenth century, and which features a central mystery mired in the murk of intrigue, politics, poison, and code-breaking.
The King’s Painter by Franny Moyle: I devoured this book in days. It brings to vibrant, colourful life the man – Hans Holbein – who gave us almost our entire visual understanding of Henry VIII and his court. Thoroughly researched and written with a verve and style that makes reading it like reading a good novel.
House of Lamentations by S G MacLean: I was almost sad to read this, as it marks a close to the Damian Seeker series. However, once started, it’s impossible to stop, as you’re drawn into seventeenth-century Bruges: a city which, like Seeker, seems to have little to look forward to, as the royalists roar towards triumph over the fading Cromwell’s republic.
The Imperial War Museum has been releasing classic novels written by veterans of WW2 (you can read more about it here), and so, intrigued, I read Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes. I was blown away by this brilliant book of perfect satire, sitting happily between Joseph Heller and Evelyn Waugh. The story is starts with the Phoney War and ends at Dunkirk. It is witty and tragic, compelling and exciting. I once spoke to a distant relative who was present at the evacuation, and his words were: ‘It was bloody awful’. Rhodes, who experienced the retreat, has captured what I had imagined it to be. The series has been put together immaculately by the IWM, with wonderful artwork on the covers of each novel.
Nazis & Nobles. The History of a Misalliance, by Stephan Malinowski, translated by Jon Andrews. Since 1945, the high-profile involvement of aristocrats such as von Stauffenberg and von der Schulenburg in the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler has allowed the German nobility to give the impression that as a class they remained aloof from the Nazis, merely doing their military duty to the fatherland.
In this extensive and nuanced study of the attitudes and behaviour of the inter-war German nobility Malinowski explodes this myth. His impressively broad research (the sources take up over a hundred of the 470 pages) reveals that they joined the NSDAP en masse, many of them long before Hitler came to power. They were motivated by a predictable mixture of opportunism and often greed, as well as fear of socialism, but also by the hope of rebuilding some measure of their former power and influence, based on the assumption that they were the natural leaders of the new Germany Hitler envisaged.
As this book convincingly argues, their belief in exclusive breeding, in the superiority of their race, in all the volkisch rot about blood and soil, combined with their disdain for democracy, gut fear of liberalism and capitalism, not to mention their antisemitism, made them spiritually at one with the Nazis. It is a fascinating read, full of telling personal detail which brings into sharp focus the realities of political and social life in interwar Germany.
Summer Reads from Aspects of History