Saturday, 28 December 2013

Some of my favourite reads of 2013

Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle. Leanda's biography of Lady Jane Grey and her sisters Katherine and Mary is my favourite historical biography and I loved this take on the well-trodden story of England's most dysfunctional Royal family. De Lisle's writing style is so delicious that if it were edible, you'd almost certainly end up the size of a house and/or Henry VIII, the porky sovereign who for once is not allowed to stand centre stage in this dynastic tale of wife-changing, religious revolution and palaces more blinged up than an MTV crib. The women and minor members of the family are allowed their day in the metaphorical sun and de Lisle's refusal to play favourites guarantees fair treatment for all. Buy it, read it and I'm sure you'll love it. 

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Originally published in 2004, I half-read it at my friend Colin's suggestion at university but returned to it when the wonderful movie adaptation (below) starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, James D'Arcy and Ben Whishaw was released. The story of various reincarnated souls passing through the centuries from pre-abolition America, the inter-war years in Britain, a nightmarish twenty-second century Korea and a dystopian future is haunting, clever, nimble, beautifully written and very moving. If the story of Sonmi-451 doesn't devastate you, see a therapist immediately.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. Once you can get past the trademark horrors that Hilary Mantel seems to make of all her female characters, this 1992 novel inspired by the biographies of three male revolutionaries - Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre - is actually a beautiful novel that captures perfectly how even the leaders of the Great Revolution of 1789 began to fear its strength and wonder how it would all end. (Hint - not happily for more or less anybody involved whose surname wasn't Bonaparte.) A Place of Greater Safety even manages to make Desmoulins interesting, charismatic and almost sympathetic - no mean achievement. A wonderful example of historical fiction.

The Night's Dark Shade by Elena Maria Vidal. The festering underbelly of the Cathar movement and the clash between two rival faiths in thirteenth-century France make this novel very interesting, very enjoyable and, reading for pleasure this time, one of the most intriguing takes on religious controversies of the Middle Ages. If you are a fan of medieval stories, then this one is certainly worth picking up.

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. Famous for inspiring the 1958 movie of the same title (above), I had never actually read this minute-by-minute dramatisation of the Titanic disaster of 1912. Lord interviewed many of the survivors, had previously travelled on the Titanic's nearly-identical sister ship the Olympic, and approached the story of the sinking with a respect that bordered on the reverential. Unlike the 1997 take on the story, there are no fictitious love stories at the centre of Lord's novel. Instead, it's a gripping and almost forensic account of one of the greatest tragedies in maritime history. It also manages to capture the syntax and attitudes of 1912 perfectly. I loved this book and I wish I had read it earlier. 

Shiverton Hall by Emerald Fennell. Released early this year by Bloomsbury, this children's story is, and I kid you not, actually as close as I can come to the horror genre without suffering nightmares and/or dousing my room with water from Walsingham. A glorious return to the Victoriana world of camp macabre and horror, Shiverton Hall is the perfect book for a child who loves to read, anyone who enjoys a good boarding school tale or, for the adults in your life like me, who like to be scared but only within due reason. There'll be no Norman Bates meets Emily-Rose in my nightmares, I can assure you.

The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned Peace for the First World War by Margaret Macmillan. No one but Margaret Macmillan could have approached the story of how "Europe's century" ended in the horrors birthed by 1914 and produced something so compulsively readable. Focusing on both the wider social context of the Gilded Age and the political figures who helped make the terrible decisions which resulted in a global conflict, Macmillan has produced a book that is irreverent, thoughtful and wonderfully written. 

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: In Search of the Tudors' Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo is a cultural biography of how Anne Boleyn acquired posthumous immortality, what attracted her legion of modern-day fans and critics, and how her story has been used and abused by subsequent generations. With interviews with two of the actresses most famous for bringing Boleyn to life on screen, this is a fascinating book with its finger kept firmly on the pulse of modern culture. Scholarly, but also funny, wry, sarcastic and emotive. And as the UK cover proves, we always knew Annie B could rock a pair of aviators. Once a fashionista...

The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder the Changed the World by Greg King and Susan Woolmans. Any suspect story about Archduke Franz Ferdinand is perhaps rightly declared as something to be treated with caution and scepticism in this book, while similarly improbable and damning anecdotes about any of his blood relatives are repeated as fact. Thus, the title figure emerges as a devoted family man, while his elderly uncle is described as a border-line autistic syphilitic and Franz Ferdinand's brother, Otto, was apparently a sadomasochistic pervert if Viennese gossip was to be believed. It's one standard for Ferdy and another for the rest of the Hapsburgs, which is a shame because otherwise this was a fascinating and wonderful biography of a man who is probably the most important assassination victim in history. Greg King and Susan Woolmans deserve great praise for rescuing his personality and his tragic love story with Sophie Chotek from obscurity. Fast moving, sympathetic and engagingly written, The Assassination of the Archduke was a truly gripping biography of the first victim of the First World War. Highly recommended.

Counting One's Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother by William Shawcross. The late Queen Elizabeth's biographer returns with a volume of her selected letters, chosen from across the remarkable century of her life and eight decades in the public eye. The late Queen's wit, impish sense of humour and inimitably effervescent mode of expression come across alongside her steely determination, quick intelligence and pathological ability to avoid anything too unpleasant until the last possible moment. A beautiful book from the pen of a celebrated and popular Royal, Counting One's Blessing was a joy to read. And made me hanker for a gin in the Highlands.


  1. Thank you, Gareth honey, for mentioning my book, The Night's Dark Shade. I am honored for you to have read it. Have a Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year!!! xoxoxo

  2. I am perfectly happy to read historical novels, as long as I do not have any expertise in that area of history. So The Night's Dark Shade by Vidal would be perfect reading - a fascinating period but one in which I have read no primary sources.

    In areas where I have done all my reading, don't give me novels. The War That Ended Peace would be perfect, as long as Mcmillan's references and footnotes are all in place. Thank you for a great book suggestion.


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