“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain” by Ian Mortimer (2017)

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“As you lie down on your feather bed on your first night in Restoration Britain, you will notice the quiet.”

The older I get, the more I wish I’d studied history beyond its compulsory years at school. At the time, I wasn’t that fussed, but now it’s easily one of my favourite topics to read up about. I’m not especially talking about the history of warfare, and I’m definitely not talking about the history of trade – one of the few subjects in the world I can’t get interested in is the textiles industry – but more about what life was actually like back then. Ian Mortimer is the king of this subject. This is a history book with a difference.

Mortimer has in previous books covered Medieval and Elizabethan England, and now turns his attention to Britain during the years 1660-1700: the Restoration. The Commonwealth is over, Cromwell is dead, the monarchy has been restored, and the theatres have been reopened. It is a time of great social, cultural and scientific change, with great leaps abound thanks to figures like Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Henry Purcell, John Milton and Robert Hooke. It also sees some enormous shifts in the landscape, as the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroys much of the old London and it is rebuilt from the ashes. But unlike most history books, there is little focus here on these great figures and what they did – this is a guide to ordinary life.

Think of this book, like his others, as a guidebook for history. This isn’t a potted history of the political landscape, but a very real guide to the era. If you were to wake up tomorrow and found yourself in the late 1600s, you’d hope to have this book alongside you. This book focuses on the ordinary people, and teaches you how to blend in: what should you wear, do, think, say, eat, play? Thanks to this also being the era of the first great diarists in figures like John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and, of course, Samuel Pepys, the detail we have is rich and varied.

Mortimer captures with impressive ease the world from the ground up. This is a cold time in history – the Little Ice Age is in full effect, and Frost Fairs are held on the frozen Thames – and we see how clothing changes to reflect that. We see what people eat, and how, with cutlery, particularly forks, going from unusual to commonplace over the period. We get a sense of how much things cost, and how banking becomes a legitimate career path. We find out what people do for entertainment, what illnesses they get struck down by, and how they get from place to place – and, indeed, how far people can generally travel. It’s packed with interesting facts, one of the most surprising for me being that the iron has just been invented, but the mangle, clothes horse and even the ironing board are still in the future. From the peasants eking out a living to the lords and royals with enormous houses and lands, everyone is covered. Using historical records from death certificates to diaries, Mortimer builds up a living, breathing past, where we come face to face with our ancestors and fellow humans, not just statistics of a bygone era.

This is Mortimer’s gift, really. For the third time he brings history alive. It’s all well and good looking at these people as another species, but we are only here because these people were there first. Suddenly the mistreatment of women, the love of blood sports, and the high infant mortality levels become something else entirely when we realise that these were humans, just like us. We might think of this era as one of powdered wigs, new discoveries like chocolate, tobacco and champagne, and a scientific revolution, but it’s more complex than that. Women are still considered their husbands’ property, it’s possible to die of toothache, tensions between religious factions are as high as ever, and heads of executed criminals still sit on spikes on London Bridge.

If you really want to experience history, this is a book for you. It’s incredibly fascinating, richly-described, and in many places downright gory (Samuel Pepys’ bladder surgery will stay with me for some time), and well worth a read. My only advice is that if you are planning a trip into the past any time soon, I’d skip this century. It’s all about to get quite a bit better.

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“A Murder To Die For” by Stevyn Colgan (2018)

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“A warm drizzle began to fall just as the very last piece of festival bunting was being hung.”

As surely anyone who follows me on Twitter or is a regular reader here will know, I went through the crowdfunding publishers Unbound to produce my second novel, The Third Wheel, and thanks to the support of many of you, it will be out later this year (and there is still time to pre-order a copy!) While scratching around the website, however, I of course stumbled across many other works-in-progress, some of which I have supported in turn. A Murder to Die For was already funded by the time I got to it, but that’s no bad thing. As seems to be the purpose of Unbound, it seemed exactly the sort of book I was looking for…

Agnes Crabbe lived a solitary life between 1895 and 1943, penning many murder mystery novels, none of which saw the light of day. By accordance with her will, her manuscripts were revealed to the world at the turn of the millennium, and what was discovered blew everyone’s minds. Some of the best stories from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction were flung out into the world decades after they’d been written, birthing hundreds of TV adaptations, radio plays, stage shows, and fan clubs. Not least of these is the annual Agnes Crabbe Murder Mystery Festival held in her hometown of Nasely.

Normally a fairly sedate event where hundreds of fans – usually all dressed as Crabbe’s famous detective, Millicent Cutter – turn up to hear talks, swap theories and drink heavily, this year things go a bit different when the festival opens with a shocking murder. The heads of the different fan clubs begin to spread their own theories and given that the town is overrun with murder mystery fans, everyone thinks that they can be the one to solve the case. However, fiction isn’t as neat as reality, and the police first have to deal with all the amateur sleuths before they can get to the issue of what actually happened. But given that this is a village where the suspects, witnesses and victim are all dressed as Millicent Cutter, things are not always what they seem…

After a run of books that were temperate, unimpressive, or simply not capable to hitting exactly the right spots, it was a delight to breeze through this excellent novel over the weekend. Sat in the garden under a scorching sun, I consumed this in two days and slightly regret having done so, as it just made it end all the quicker. Stevyn Colgan, who has previously appeared in my consciousness as one of the QI elves and as a guest on one of my favourite podcasts, Worst Foot Forward, now turns his attention to fiction and does it with serious skill. A former policeman himself, he knows the ins and outs of the crime solving world and is as such perfectly placed to be able to bring the reality to the table.

The novel joyfully plays up the tropes and themes of murder mystery stories and while some of them are retained in full, he’s not above twisting, bending or snapping the rules as he deems fit. After all, crime stories follow a pattern – real life doesn’t. Colgan wrote the entire book, I’m sure, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, giving the overblown and eccentric characters life in a way I’ve not seen for some time. It’s very silly, but it’s also very clever, much like something by Jasper Fforde. Although Colgan states in the novel’s acknowledgements that Agnes Crabbe’s life story mimics in many ways that of Vivian Maier, a photographer who only received acclaim for her work after her death, there feel enough references in here to also parody the greats like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Beautifully, the novel also opens with an introduction to the life and work of Crabbe, and a complete list of her titles, all of which sound so improbably like mysteries from the golden age that I would love to have a read.

A truly remarkable, funny, sharp, creative and interesting look at murder mysteries. Bring on the sequel.

“Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier (2009)

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“Lightning struck me all my life.”

History, as we all know, has given women a rough ride of it. One could read through numerous history books and believe that, aside from the occasional queen or witch, women hadn’t appeared until the 1920s. This inequality is the reason that Watson and Crick are considered the discoverers of DNA leaving out Rosalind Franklin who did most of the preliminary research, or why Charles Babbage is hailed as the first computer scientist, leaving Ada Lovelace often ignored. Fortunately, we are now righting these wrongs, and one of the women who, after her death, achieved great notoriety is the fossil hunter Mary Anning, whose discoveries shook the scientific community to its core. Tracy Chevalier explores her life in this novel.

Anning shares the duty of narration with Elizabeth Philpot, another fossil hunter who specialises in fossil fish (and was also a real person, but whose story has been eclipsed by that of Anning). When Elizabeth’s brother marries, she and her sisters Louise and Margaret are sent to live in Lyme Regis, a quiet coastal town, because that’s what happened in the early 1800s. There, Elizabeth discovers she has a love for finding fossils on the beach, but her skills are nothing compared to that of young Mary Anning who, despite the age gap of twenty years, she strikes up a curious friendship with.

As the two women grow, they make more discoveries and when Mary’s brother encounters a fossil of a creature unlike anything anyone has ever seen, it becomes the talk of the world and centuries of religious doctrine begin to look a little shaky. Is it possible that animals can go extinct? Did God make some creatures only to kill them off? Is it possible that God made a mistake? The ideas are sacrilege to many, but Elizabeth and Mary are determined that the world should see their fossils and hear the theories. Unfortunately, they’re women, but their passion and loyalty to the fossils ensure that the truth will out.

As they grow, they find much more than just fossils, learning about their places in the world, the meaning of heartbreak and how friendships can be as brittle as any of their findings.

I knew a little of Mary Anning before beginning the book – her face and her fossils are all over the Natural History Museum – but Elizabeth Philpot unfortunately was new to me, although no less interesting. Neither she or Mary ever married, and instead dedicated their lives to their fossil hunting even though, because of their sex, they would never be welcomed into the Royal Society or be allowed to write scientific papers. Philpot, in fact, discovered fossilised ink sacs inside belemnite fossils and even worked out how to revive the ink for use. Anning had the harder life, arguably, being from a very poor background and losing her father at a young age. She however became the first person to find skeletons of both ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons, and the first pterosaur skeleton in Britain. Her legacy is one that should be heralded for what it did to science and the advancement of knowledge.

The story itself adds much colour to both ladies, as well as the scientific men around them, and Chevalier freely admits that she has embellished much of what happened in their private lives, but that’s not a fault, as it just gives the women more depth. Parts of the story do drag a little, I can’t deny that, but in general it’s an interesting read featuring two remarkable women. Chevalier has a good eye for metaphor and the two narrators are wonderfully distinct in their styles.

A fascinating and thoughtful look at some figures many may not have heard of, but should have.

“Death And The Dancing Footman” by Ngaio Marsh (1942)

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“On the afternoon of a Thursday early in 1940, Jonathan Royal sat in his library at Highfold Manor.”

As the sunshine finally breaks through and the northern half of the planet remembers that spring exists, I instead make my way back to the 1940s to a snowy scene of murder and mystery. Yes, it’s a return to the works of Ngaio Marsh, the woman I’m currently interviewing as a replacement for Agatha Christie. Both women are hugely regarded in their field, and people it seems tend to view one or the other as superior. My loyalty remains to Christie, but Marsh is certainly not one to be trifled with.

Jonathan Royal is throwing a party, but not just any party. As he tells his first guest, his friend the playwright Aubrey Mandrake, each of the other guests has been specifically invited to create the most drama possible. For a start, there’s no love loss between brothers William and Nicholas Compline. Chloris Wynne was first engaged to Nicholas, and is now set to marry William. Their mother, Sandra Compline, dislikes the woman, adores Nicholas and all but ignores William, the son who dotes on her. As if this wasn’t enough, Royal also invites Francis Hart, a plastic surgeon who is the man responsible for the failed surgery on Sandra’s face that has left her with a tragic appearance. He is enamoured, so it seems, with Elisa Lisse, the woman responsible for the break down of Nicholas and Chloris’ engagement. Completing the set is Royal’s cousin and Lisse’s rival, Lady Hersey Amblington. Everyone has accepted the invitation unaware of the fellow guests, and now they’ve all arrived, fireworks are sure to fly.

Things, however, begin to get out of hand when the arguments are slightly bigger than Royal perhaps imagined they might be. A snowstorm traps everyone in Highfold Manor, many miles from the nearest town, and the phones are cut off. As tensions rise and secrets are revealed, nasty events that can hardly be called accidents begin to happen to some of the guests. Everyone feels their lives are in danger. And then one of the party is found dead. As everyone professes their innocence, it can only be the case that someone is lying. It all seems to hang on the testimony of Thomas, the dancing footman…

Not that I didn’t enjoy my first tromp into Marsh’s work, Surfeit of Lampreys, I found this one much more engaging. Sure, it took me a while to get through (part of that is due to having started watching The Crown on Netflix) but it’s been a while since characters leapt quite so readily off the page. Each one appeared to be very visually and so the action seemed all the more intense. There are plenty of red herrings abounds in the story, as is the nature of the genre, but by now I’d managed to pick up on a couple of them and saw them for what they were. However, it doesn’t mean I caught them all, and I still didn’t get the solution, although I think a couple of extra clues and I would have done.

A tricky novel, but one that is clearly enjoying itself very much.

“The Queen And I” by Sue Townsend (1992)

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“The Queen was in bed watching television with Harris.”

It’s no good pretending otherwise. Despite my left-leaning political views and modern ways of thinking, I can’t help but retain a lot of admiration for the Queen. Her family, sure, but there’s something about her. What she’s really like as a person, we’re unlikely to know, but the snatches we see suggest an intelligent woman with a good sense of humour, a love of her family, and a firm understanding of her responsibilities. She was taught that above all, the crown comes first, and I find it impossible not to admire her as she has carried on her duties without public complaint for over sixty years. She never expected to become monarch, especially not at such a young age. Despite me having no real issues with her lot carrying on, one does sometimes wonder, what would this country be like if it became a republican nation? In 1992, Sue Townsend, more famous for creating Adrian Mole, gave us a suggestion.

Following on from the 1992 election, a republication party led by Jack Barker gets into power with plans to give everyone in Britain a fair and equal existence, and the first step of that is simple – remove the Royal Family. Given just a few days to clear their belongings out of their palaces, and with the Crown Jewels sold off to the Japanese, the Queen and her family find themselves suddenly living on a rough council estate in the Midlands. Their new home – dubbed by the neighbours as Hell Close – is far from the luxury they are used to and they now find themselves with the most deprived of society, with no money and no servants.

The Queen gets to know her neighbours who are instantly interested in the posh new residents – although new laws forbid them from treating the former royals as better than them – and enters into a world of difficulty. She’s never even had to put her own bra on, or open a door. Suddenly, she’s lost and alone, as Prince Philip refuses to leave his bed and the Queen Mother begins to lose her marbles in her bungalow. Some of the others, however, take to it slightly better. Prince Charles feels freed of his responsibilities to focus on his garden, William and Harry soon join the local children in terrorising the estate, and Princess Anne is so captivated by her new world that within minutes she’s unloaded the van and is plumbing in her own washing machine.

But the country, it seems, is having difficulty adjusting, and Prime Minister Barker’s plans require emptying the vaults of the Bank of England to make them a reality. With Philip becoming weaker and weaker, and Charles facing jail for attacking a policeman, the Queen struggles to retain the composure and dignity that she has been trained from birth to possess.

Sue Townsend, who died four years ago this week, was and remains one of the greatest comic writers the world, and Britain especially, has ever seen. Like Victoria Wood, she was naturally funny but her work contained so much pathos that everything seemed bittersweet. You feel for her characters and their struggle, and this has never been truer than here. The Royals, the Queen particularly, are portrayed with affection and even the jokes at their expense are still tinged with reality and you don’t feel any of it is acerbic. It’s just gently comical. Jibes are made about the fact that the Queen Mother has never had to open her own curtains, they have to have antique furniture destroyed to fit it into their new houses, and the Queen and Philip are horrified at having to share a bed. They are shown to be real humans and despite their sheltered upbringings, have retained compassion, some degree of understanding, and a sense of duty. In turn, the poor and downtrodden residents of Hell Close are shown to be loving and community-driven, even if their ways of expressing these ideals are not what many would expect.

Because the book is twenty-six years old, the Queen and her family are much younger than we know them now. There are also a few characters present who have long since disappeared – namely the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and, of course, Princess Diana. Later that year in real world history, Charles and Diana would of course separate, but here they remain married, although it’s clear their marriage is on the rocks. A number of other characters are absent. Prince Andrew is mentioned in one throwaway line, and Prince Edward is hardly present either, currently working for a theatre in New Zealand. It’s also unclear what happens to the other minor royals and all other members of the aristocracy, as Barker’s vision for Britain is one of total equality.

Whatever you think of the Royal Family, this book is surely worth a read. Townsend portrays both ends of the social spectrum of Britain with charm, warmth and realism. Whether one day the British public will tire of being led by characters who seem to belong in a fairy tale remains to be seen, but personally I can’t see it ever happening.

“The Twitch” by Kevin Parr (2013)

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“I’m not certain whose head I can see the top of, bobbing rhythmically into view about the low brick wall by the potting shed.”

I like a bit of nature spotting, and there is something particularly endearing about watching birds. I’m not someone who’s going to be haring up to some remote coast to get a glimpse of a curlew, but I’m quite happy to sit and watch them in the garden. Our garden isn’t particularly big and we only really get collared doves, jackdaws and blackbirds popping in. My grandparents have a plethora of feathered visitors from blue tits to woodpeckers in their garden, and when I was at university, I lived not far from a colony of wild parakeets. It’s the birds of prey that really do it for me though. I still get a lurch of excitement when I catch sight of a kestrel or a buzzard. For some people, however, this is more than just a hobby – it’s a way of life.

Edward Banger took up twitching a couple of years ago under the tutelage of his friend Mick. It’s January and time for the annual competition to see who in the club can spot the most birds in the coming year. Edward is determined to break the record and be crowned the champion, but he’s got some stiff competition from rivals who have been doing this a lot longer than him and seem to be using knowledge granted to only the group’s “inner circle” to bump up their tick lists.

After a couple of his rivals die in strange circumstances that Edward may or may not have been intentionally responsible for, he begins to realise that the best way to win would be to bump off the others and make sure they won’t be around to compete. Becoming obsessed with ticking off every bird on the list, he begins to spend his life on the road, letting his job fall by the wayside and ignoring his home life with his wife and two daughters. Around him, he cannot see what is happening to his life as he’s a man on a mission, and nothing is going to get in the way of him achieving his goal. Nothing.

Edward is an appalling human being, and steadily gets worse as the novel progresses. He has such little interest in his family that when one of his daughter’s mentions she can drive, he admits he didn’t even know she’d had a test. The obsession that consumes him is one that is probably a genuine issue for some people, but I can’t imagine being this enamoured by anything. While everything does crumble around him, it’s very difficult to feel any sympathy for him as he’s pretty much brought on all of his issues himself. He’s not entirely irredeemable, though, despite being a murderer. He has a sweet – but increasingly strained – relationship with his younger daughter Nicola, and he’s portrayed as having a good turn of phrase, meaning he’s quite a funny man. But he’s selfish beyond all sanity, and his friends are hardly the most pleasant company.

I also found it odd that, despite many high-profile members of his twitching club all dying in strange circumstances, the finger of suspicion never seems to point at him, and indeed, no one ever seems to find it particularly odd, giving the impression that this competition is such a big deal that it’s quite common for three or four of the twitchers to die every year. There are also a few plot threads that seem to be leading somewhere and then never do. For example, Edward says he is terrified of gulls, and yet we never really find out why and nor is there any payoff to this.

It ends rather abruptly with a lot of unanswered questions and I’d certainly be intrigued to find out quite how he managed to restore order to his life and what happened, but I guess he’ll just continue being an obnoxious git until he’s snuffed out in a tent. It’s darkly funny and quite interesting, but there’s only so many bird names I can read before they all start merging into one. A nice concept though, and a great look at how obsession can make anyone do things they never thought they could do.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“The Escape” by C. L. Taylor (2017)

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“Someone is walking directly behind me, matching me pace for pace.”

I got through my two festive books this year long before Christmas had even begun, which put me in the strange position of reading a tense psychological thriller on Christmas Day – the moods didn’t match in the least. Did it contribute to Boxing Day melancholy? Or is that just tiredness and the inability to move after doubling my body weight in chocolate? Maybe we’ll never know. Anyway, C. L. Taylor was a new one on me, and it’d been a while since I read a book like this, so always good to shake things up.

Jo Blackmore is walking back to her car after work one night when she realises there is someone behind her. This woman, Paula, catches up to her and asks for a lift home, but she seems to know far more about Jo and her family than is normal. She knows her husband, where they live, and she has a glove belonging to Jo’s two-year-old, Elise. Paula gives a subtle threat and Jo is terrified, rushing to pick Elise up from nursery and getting her back home safe.

But home doesn’t seem to safe anymore. Paula keeps turning up, her threats becoming more blatant. She claims that Jo’s husband, Max, stole something from her and she wants it back. Max says he’s never met Paula in his life – she must be a relative of someone he framed in his role as a crime journalist. Things get worse when the police arrive on Jo’s doorstep with a warrant to search the premises, and find drugs in the toilet cistern. Following her arrest, social services are soon involved, and even Max now doesn’t believe that Jo is capable of looking after Elise. Everyone is against her, so all Jo can do is run. But sometimes you can’t escape…

Like many thrillers, it’s formulaic. Several standard cliches are present, such as the uncertainty of what the antagonist wants, and chapters from their point of view, giving away more information than the protagonist knows. While Jo is the only character who has chapters written in the first person, we do we insights from several other figures, but they’re all written in third person, so we can never really truly know what’s going on inside their head. Jo is painted as an agoraphobic with a supposed drug problem. This feels similar to The Girl on the Train, in which someone’s personal problems mean that they aren’t trusted.

While it’s a zippy plot, and I was caught up in it, I have to admit that the whole thing relies heavily on two things: coincidence and stupidity. The general rule, as I’ve heard (and played with) for writing is that only coincidences that lead to further problems are allowed. Here, people stumble into one another and while it works organically enough, it still feels a little too contrived. I also feel that Jo exacerbates her problems too much. Sure, I get that if she didn’t then there’s no novel, but realistically she over-reacts and simply digs herself deeper. Also, as a supposed agoraphobic, suddenly getting on a ferry and moving to Ireland doesn’t feel particularly fitting. Her personality would suggest that, despite the fear she has of living at home, it would have been far more plausible for her to be too scared to leave, and simply changing the locks.

Good enough as pure entertainment, but very little we haven’t seen before.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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