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Tom Williams (London, UK)

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Fingersmith
Fingersmith
by Sarah Waters
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars An absolute joy to read, 23 May 2016
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This review is from: Fingersmith (Paperback)
'Fingersmith' is a real page turner. If the plot is at times Dickensian, with twists and turns, mad houses and long lost relatives, thieves’ kitchens and grand houses, then this is at least consistent with its period. And what a grasp of period Sarah Waters has. Many writers force historical factoids down our throats to prove that they have done their research. Others wear their learning so lightly that, even if there are no anachronisms in their books, the characters and situations are not rooted in their period. 'Fingersmith' is remarkable in that every page oozes the reality of the mid-19th century, without ever throwing history at the reader. It is written in the first person and, of course, to somebody living in the period the realities of daily life are mundane. Waters does not make the mistake of drawing attention to things that her characters would have thought un-noteworthy, but all the detail is there. I never, for one moment, doubted that I was seeing the real world of Victorian London.

I can't enthuse in detail, because the plot contains several dramatic twists and it would be a shame to spoil it if you haven't already read the book. So you will just have to take my word that the characters are fully rounded and their idiosyncrasies make sense. The plot, like all convoluted Dickensian confections, sometimes twists a little too much for its own good. ‘Wouldn’t it have been simpler if they’d just …’ you find yourself saying. Sometimes the reason for the confusion becomes clear, sometimes not – but you keep turning the page and I was never disappointed as things unfolded.

If you like 19th-century historical novels, you are almost certain to love this. And if you have never tried this genre before, this will be a good starting point.


Henry V
Henry V
Dvd
Price: £4.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The definitive Henry V, 23 May 2016
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This review is from: Henry V (Amazon Video)
Astonishingly modern production that holds up better than some later versions.


Blackstone and the Rendezvous with Death (The Blackstone Detective series Book 1)
Blackstone and the Rendezvous with Death (The Blackstone Detective series Book 1)
Price: £0.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Recommended read for Victorian history fans, 23 May 2016
'Blackstone and the Rendezvous with Death' is set in the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee: 1897. It's a crime thriller which travels from the East End to the homes of the aristocracy as Inspector Blackstone struggles to solve the mystery of an aristocrat’s son who was found murdered on an insalubrious stretch of the River Thames. Issues of class and poverty feature prominently in the story, so, having just written 'Back Home', a story of crime and violence in the London slums of 1859 where issues of class and poverty are also pretty central, I expected to be on familiar ground.

I was reminded, yet again, just what an era of change the late 19th century was. 1897 is often seen as the height of the Victorian era, but we are moving much more into Edwardian times. I was constantly taken aback by the modernity of the story. People are always on the telephone and at one stage using a telephone box. There is a reference to a Remington typewriting machine that looks at least twenty years old. Horseless carriages are referred to as automobiles. I was sure these were anachronisms, but a quick tour of the Internet proved that they were not. Admittedly Blackstone does seem to be on the cutting edge of things. Remington typewriters have been around but very little more than twenty years. There weren't very many telephone boxes or automobiles. But Sally Spencer seems to know her stuff. The only apparent error I picked up was a mistake in the licensing laws, which unfortunately occurs right at the beginning of the book and made me unduly suspicious of the rest of it. Still, pub closing times were a complex area with different rules for different kinds of pub and frequent changes in the law, so perhaps she is right and I am wrong.

The important thing is not that Ms Spencer seems to be well ahead on the game of "try to catch the author out": it is that her thorough grounding in the detail of the period reflects the confidence with which she takes us through it. This London of 1897 is a world away from the London I wrote about in 1859. Confident, modern in a way that is recognisable to those of us who knew the city in the 20th century, a society and a city comfortable on the cutting edge of technology, assured of its natural right to rule over much of the world. The appalling callousness towards the lives of the poor which had characterised London only fifty years earlier has passed. The poor are still poor, as the author frequently reminds us, but few of them are dying of starvation in the streets. Proper sewerage, the availability of clean water and improvements in housing mean that life may be grim but it is civilised.

Against this broader background of London life Spencer draws a more detailed picture of some aspects of the city, particularly of "Little Russia" in the East End. I was unaware of the number of Russian emigres who had formed their own world in the alien land of London, complete with shops selling Russian food and banks catering for those wanting to transfer money back to families at home in the East. It was a fascinating glimpse of a bit of London’s history that was completely new to me.

Spencer's research is extensive and her descriptions of people and places are convincing without suffering from long paragraphs which mark out the less sophisticated historical novelist, determined to shovel in all the research that they have done. There is perhaps an element of this in the detailed descriptions of Queen Victoria's Jubilee parade, but it must have been a splendid sight and I think we can forgive anybody who wants to dwell on it at length. And it does come at a crucial moment in the plot.

As far as the plot goes, it's more thriller than detective story. The villains leave a chain of corpses for the detectives to follow and eventually they are tracked and their evil plan is foiled in the nick of time. [No real spoilers there.] The plot relies rather heavily on a deus ex machina figure to appear at moments of crisis and there is a conveniently helpful love interest to explain life in Little Russia to our inspector, but these tropes are well within the rules of the genre and I was happy to go along with them. Indeed I was happy to go along with the whole thing, as Ms Spencer has an easy writing style that carries you effortlessly through a plot filled with incident.

The best historical fiction, I think, should entertain while giving you some insight into a past world that you might not be familiar with. Blackstone and the Rendezvous with Death does exactly that and Spencer is to be congratulated on her achievement. If I have one quibble it is the opening. The book starts with a prologue in which a character is chased through the streets of London on a dark foggy night until the murderer catches up with him and the foul deed is done. There seems to be a fashion at the moment for insisting that books should start with "something exciting". Hence prologues like this. It doesn't add to the story and, possibly because the author doesn't really believe in it, it is one of the least well written and least convincing parts of the whole book. It nearly put me off reading it. If it annoys you, just skip it altogether: it will make no difference whatsoever to your enjoyment of what follows.


A Kestrel Rising
A Kestrel Rising
Price: £5.40

5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written war-time romance, 5 Feb. 2016
This review is from: A Kestrel Rising (Kindle Edition)
This is a straight-down-the-line romance: a traditional tale of love lost and love found. There's nothing erotic (although it is by no means prudish) but a great deal of passion. It's set in the Second World War and there is an awful lot of saying goodbye in railway stations, which left me feeling I was on a constant rerun of 'Brief Encounter'. There's a lot of 'darlings' and quite a lot of upper lips are being starched, but then it *is* wartime and the sense of period seems to me to be spot on.

It's not really my sort of book, but I kept going because it's just very well written with credible characters who you come to care about. There's not a lot of suspense: you pretty well know who will die and who will make it through to the peace (at which point everyone is very rapidly demobilised, serving the interests of dramatic flow, rather than history, but that's me being picky). Much of the story is set in aerodromes, where the Few are trying desperately to ignore the horribly poor odds on their survival. S A Laybourn has a scaringly precise grip on the different sorts of fighter planes used in the war and the various ways in which you could die in all of them. The story, though, is told from the point of view of a young woman in the WAAF who also serves though she only stands and waits - or, in her case, drives lorries from base to base. The sense of heightened awareness of life combined with mind-numbing boredom - conflicting emotions that so often characterise warfare - is very well communicated.

This is a bit like Sunday evening TV (in fact, a TV adaptation would work well - I hope Laybourn has a good agent). It's a book to relax into like a hot bath. It won't challenge or inspire, but the people are lovely, the costumes nostalgic, the soundtrack (there's a lot of dancing) wonderful, and the scenery (miles of open road through ripening wheatfields) gorgeous.

One to read with a bottle of Chardonnay and a CD of big band music playing low. Tub of ice cream optional.


A Trail Through Time (The Chronicles of St Mary Book 4)
A Trail Through Time (The Chronicles of St Mary Book 4)
Price: £2.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Another palpable hit, 18 Jan. 2016
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Not her best, but I love these books. If you've read them up to here (and you really do have to read them in order), you'll stay on for the ride and get off dizzy and happy.


Fighting Napoleon: Guerrillas, Bandits and Adventurers in Spain, 1808--1814: Guerrillas, Bandits and Adventures in Spain 1808-1814
Fighting Napoleon: Guerrillas, Bandits and Adventurers in Spain, 1808--1814: Guerrillas, Bandits and Adventures in Spain 1808-1814
by Charles J Esdaile
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £30.00

2.0 out of 5 stars Oh dear!, 18 Jan. 2016
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There aren't that many analyses of the guerrilla war in Spain that are published in English. Unfortunately, I went for this one.

It's the sort of book that gives historical revisionism its bad name. Traditional historians over-praise the efforts of the guerrillas fighting Napoleon, so Esdaile sets out to balance this by a careful selection of examples of the negative side of their activities.

War is messy and confused and obstinately refuses to give us good guys and bad guys, so this ends up as bad as the hagiographic histories of Spain's little war that he so despises. The final chapter is more balanced and nuanced but by then the damage has been done. I'll just remember a heavily edited series of selective accounts telling me little more than I could have gleaned in one good, short article. And, unfortunately, the advantages of lots of detailed examples are offset by the rambling, disorganised presentation that had me fighting to get to the end of the page.


BaByliss 7432U Mains Clipper Kit for Men - 22 Piece
BaByliss 7432U Mains Clipper Kit for Men - 22 Piece
Price: £14.45

4.0 out of 5 stars It's a clipper kit. It cuts hair., 1 Jan. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Cheaper than the rechargeable version and much more capable of dealing with thick hair.


A Christmas Carol (Enriched Classics)
A Christmas Carol (Enriched Classics)
Price: £0.00

4.0 out of 5 stars A Christmas(-ish) present to yourself., 1 Jan. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
You know the story, right? But have you actually read it? Are you sure?

It's short, it's an easy Christmas read, it's part of the traditional English seasonal celebrations. And it's free.

Just do it.


Zeon Ceramic Dr Who Tardis Cookie Jar
Zeon Ceramic Dr Who Tardis Cookie Jar
Price: £21.57

5.0 out of 5 stars Dr Who and the invasion of the cookie monsters., 1 Jan. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Good quality with a nice seal on the lid. Unfortunately, not bigger on the inside.


Britannia's Wolf: The Dawlish Chronicles: September 1877 - February 1878
Britannia's Wolf: The Dawlish Chronicles: September 1877 - February 1878
Price: £2.39

5.0 out of 5 stars 'Britannia's Wolf' is set in 1877 as the age of ..., 4 Nov. 2015
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'Britannia's Wolf' is set in 1877 as the age of sail is giving way to the age of steam. The hero (for hero he is) Richard Dawlish finds himself with his first command, a modern battleship of the Turkish Navy, fighting in the Turks' war against Russia.

The detail of naval warfare in this age reflects the author's detailed knowledge of his subject (his blog, 'Dawlish Chronicles' offers an astonishing wealth of information) and he also knows a lot about the Russo-Turkish war. Unfortunately, most readers will know little about this war and care less so, although Dawlish is a fleshed out character with a detailed back-story, it is, at first, difficult to engage with the story. The liveliness of the action and the smoothness of the writing go some way to off-set this and once Dawlish has a personal quest to motivate him (the fighting threatens the woman he loves) the reader is drawn into a plot that moves through convincing details of battle and retreat to a sudden, but satisfying, end.


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