Tag Archives: History

Book twenty-three: London Lies Beneath #Duffy

Inspired by real events, this is the story of three friends, and a tragedy that will change them forever.  Set in the working class streets of Walworth South London in the early 1900s the book concentrates on Tom, Jimmy, Itzhak and their families.

If you’re familiar with London and in particular the Walworth area this book is so much more than a story of friendship, it is a story of south London, a history of the streets and the families that made it such a complex place.  Despite progression over the last 100 years or so this book is an echo of life now, families crammed into small houses, parents working all hours to provide for their families, children with dreams of doing something different, not following the same path as their parents, making more of their life, seeing more, doing more, having adventures beyond the streets of Walworth.  Aspirations every child should have and be encouraged to have.

This is the first book I’ve read by Stella Duffy and I’ll certainly be looking up some of her older work.  She is a beautiful writer, crafting the world her characters live in and opening each of them up to us so that we connect with their inner soul.  This book is nothing without the people, although there is one major tragedy towards the end of the book within the rest of it very little happens and yet Duffy keeps you entranced.  The depth and history given to her characters is fantastic and slowly throughout the book she opens up them up to us, sharing their insecurities with us, allowing us to see the last troubling worries before they sleep and the hope and optimism for the future that wakes them each morning.

Life for the families of Walworth was hard, working 6 days a week most of the time, always wondering if they had earned enough to put food on the table, clothe the children, educate them.  The struggles of the families contrasting with the dreams of the boys is an important part of this story which is handled very well by Duffy.  It would have been easy to over dramatize the poverty but she successfully paints a realistic picture whilst also showing us the wealth held within the families.  Close-knit communities where children are cherished and raised by all, where no one goes without in a time of tragedy, where there is always a chair by a warm fire and someone to share the burden.

At the heart of the book are Tom, Jimmy and Itzhak, best friends and partners in crime. When not in school or helping with work and household chores the boys are found exploring south London.  From Clapham to Nunhead every street, park and waterside path offers them a new world to explore.  Always looking for the next adventure the boys are over the moon when a new Scout troop is established in Walworth and they’re given permission to join.  Each boy finds his own strength through the scouts, knot tying, map making, swimming, and leadership and together they prepare to embark on the biggest adventure of their young life a boat trip along the Thames to a summer scout camp in Sheppey.  A Thames boat trip might not seem like much of an adventure to a reader today but when you picture the river of the time, a bustling waterway filled with cargo ships and passenger ships taking people to unimaginable lands, a vast stretch of water which the boys would have rarely crossed never mind travelled upon then you can begin to understand the caution and worry of their parents and the sheer excitement of the boys.

The lives of the people of Walworth were forever changed after the boat trip.  In today’s age we are touched, more often than we’d like, by tragedies that impact entire communities and Duffy details wonderfully the conflict between a families private grief and a community’s need to mourn and commemorate.

This a slow moving book with wonderful stories within the story and it is an absolute pleasure to spend time amongst the families of Walworth.


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Book twenty: The Romanovs 1613-1918 #Montefiore

This a rare book review on this site as it’s not a fiction book.  I would like to say my interest in Russian history and in particular the Romanovs came from some intellectual observation about the growth of Russian power in the period 1613– 1918 and the similarities with the current government’s foreign policy.  But it didn’t.  In fact the first thing to catch my imagination were the rumours of the possible escape from members of the Cheka by Tsar Nicolas II’s youngest daughter Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna.  And yes, my knowledge of these rumours came first from the 20th Century Fox animated film of 1997.

Whilst it might not be the most highbrow introduction to Russian history it did peak my interest and helped make sense of the disco hit Rasputin by Boney M!

Great timing or sheer coincidence I found myself earlier in the year in a bookshop a few days after the end of the BBC adaption of War and Peace.  Having been enchanted by it and wanting to know more I was immediately drawn to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s latest book “The Romanovs”.  (The beautiful book cover is also a definitely draw – not that I judge books by their covers).  It’s taken me quite a few months to work my way through it but it has been a joy and incredibly informative.  Whilst I knew nothing of the growth of Mother Russia prior to reading this book I can now see similarities between President Putin and Russia’s historical leaders; a strong sense of state, a principle of absolute supremacy, a desire to have a strong role of the global stage but always mindful of the need for a strong military as everyone is or could be an enemy of the state.

The Romanovs remain the longest and most successful reigning family in modern times.  During their dynasty they ruled over q sixth of the world’s surface.  But how did they do it? And how did they lose it? In this book Montefiore introduces us to twenty tsars and tsarinas and a world of limitless power, empire-building, fierce rivalries, affairs of the heart and murder plots.

I have often struggled with non-fiction books in the past, finding them too academic focusing on the facts and missing a story-telling element.  Montefiore on the other hand has written a perfectly balanced book.  There is definitely not a shortage of facts, but I do feel his primary goal is to keep the flow of the story using footnotes to expand on the wider context and/or provide additional important facts. Whether this is a simple testament to the author’s ability or whether the Romanovs naturally lend themselves to stories it would be difficult to say without reading other books by Montefiore.

The books spans a long period and we are introduced to many characters both within and outside of the family.  I do not think it possible to remember every detail, name and position without reading more and committing significant time to study the period.  But, if you wish to have a general knowledge of the growth of the Romanov family and the role they played in the formation of Russia as we know it today then this is a very good starting point.

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Book fifteen: House of Secrets #Stacey

Madeline and her daughter Poppy live with Madeline’s boyfriend Liam O’Grady.  A fairy tale romance has turned sour, Madeline lives on the edge wondering when Liam’s mood will next change and fears for her daughter as she becomes more withdrawn in Liam’s presence.  After discovering Liam cheating with his boss, Madeline decides enough is enough and leaves him to go and live at Wrea Head Hall the hotel owned by her father.  As Madeline makes new friends and starts to discover the history and secrets of Wrea Head Hall she begins to imagine a brighter future but Liam has very different plans.]

Warning this review has spoilers    

This debut novel by Lynda Stacey shows great promise.  The stories are enjoyable and the characters likeable, she has a good rhythm to her writing and can paint pictures in your mind of her settings.  Sadly, whilst there were things to enjoy about this book I also felt parts of the story were rushed, the storylines clashed and it was very easy to see how the book was going to end.

As a fan of the radio two serial drama the Archers fan I was immediately hooked as Stacey laid the foundations for Madeline and Liam’s relationship in the first couple of chapters.  I was preparing to settle down to a thrilling but slightly uncomfortable story of manipulation and power struggles reminiscence of the current Helen Archer and Rob Titchener saga.  On that front I’m sorry to say House of Secrets did not live up to my expectations.

I think my main issue with this book is that in some ways it feels like two books in one competing for the author’s attention.  The Liam O’Grady storyline given more development would make a fantastic suspense filled thriller, kidnapping, torture, murders by the charming Irish man would be a real page turner.  In O’Grady Stacey has created a compelling psychopath, the mystery surrounding his parents, the locked up rooms in his house, his long-term obsession with Madeline – these are things great thrillers are made of.  The reader is intrigued, we want to know more about him, even if we have to read it from behind a pillow.

The pacing of the book is also off for me.  I would expect to have snippets of Liam’s behaviour revealed to us, we should question his involvement in “accidents” unsure of whether he was responsible or is the author showing us a red herring.  Instead, too much is laid bare too soon.  Madeline suspicious of nothing has an epiphany after one threatening encounter is suddenly putting all the pieces together, it just happens too quickly.

In the other half of the book we have a brilliant romantic mystery, comparable with the works of Kate Morton.  The finding of a diary which gives us insight to the lives of those living in the hall during World War II, secret passages and rooms, blossoming relationships, the Wrea Head Hall storyline is thoughtfully developed and like a period drama is a pleasure to get lost in.  But again, Stacey reveals too much too quickly.  They mystery of the book should be what links Emily Ennis to the current residents of the hall, who was Eddie, what happened to their child and yet quite early on in the story it is revealed that Bandit’s father talks of walking through tunnels and going to see the lady in the hall.  It does not take a genius to put the pieces together and in a moment the storyline unravels before us leaving no surprises.

One of the things I did enjoy in this book was the characters Stacey has created and the way she crafts the relationships between them.  In particular I felt the portrayal of the reunion between Madeline and her father was perfectly captured.  The awkwardness on both sides, the longing for closeness, the bond that even years apart cannot dampen.  In Bandit, the hero of the book, Stacey has created a dark and brooding damaged man, the type of man we all dream about, the one that just needs us to fix him.  Snippets of his previous army life add depth to him and his link to the hall and the estate gives a spiritual element.  Madeline herself is also a character you warm to, you see strength in her particular when it comes to protecting her daughter Poppy.  And yet there is also a sense of vulnerability, something that could have more made of it had the story focused more on O’Grady’s manipulation and obsession.

Whilst I found this book to be a clash of stories and styles there is enough in there to make me give future books by Stacey a read.


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Book ten: Wolf Hall #Mantel

Wolf Hall has been an absolute pleasure to read and I am only sorry that I have not been able to dedicate more time to it.  It’s the sort of book you just want to curl up on the sofa with, a log fire crackling in the background and a glass of red wine in your hand.  Instead, I’ve been reading snippets on my commute and during a rare lunch break where I’m left alone by my colleagues.

Here’s a tip, if your colleague is sat reading they probably don’t want to talk avoid the urge to start a conversation with them forcing them to put their book aside.

Despite the awards and general furore about Mantel’s Wolf Hall I was a little sceptical about how engaging it would be.  I’ve often found historical books to be laboured, lost in the language and lacking a real exposure to the characters.  Wolf Hall could not be further from that.  Mantel’s prose is flowing and so accessible you truly do get lost in the pages.

For the one person living under a rock who doesn’t know what it is about, Wolf Hall presents a fictional portrayal of the court of Henry VIII leading up to and during his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and eventual split from the Roman Catholic Church.  The story is told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who rose to become a lawyer and chief aid to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and eventually confidant and minister to Henry VIII.

Wolf Hall has two great things going for it.  A plot full of adultery, treason, secrecy, blackmail, weddings, births and deaths; and characters that we love and loathe in equal measure at different times.

Mantel brings to life the world of Henry VIII with such vividness and detail it is easy to feel you are watching the story play out.  She has diligently spent time developing and understanding each character, no matter how small a role they play in the book and this depth of character allows us to immerse ourselves in their lives.  The choice of Thomas Cromwell as protagonist is fantastic, from the silent man who watches and knows everything we see him rise.  Wolf Hall has a dark undertone, throughout the book there is a sense of foreboding, we all know how the story ends and yet in reading it I still felt on edge, feeling like I was a co-conspirator with Cromwell as he manipulated and steered the world of the court to the King’s and his liking.

With a vast array of Dukes, Lords, Knights, Ladies in Waiting, English Royal families, French Royal families and Spanish Royal families it is easy I must admit to get a little lost remembering who everyone is related to and what value or leverage they have to Cromwell.  But this complexity comes from history, from the every changing allegiance of the time rather than Mantel’s writing.

Wolf Hall ends in 1535 with the death of Sir Thomas More.  The next book in the series is Bringing Up the Bodies which carries us through the collapse of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and his subsequent 3rd marriage to Jane Seymour, masterly orchestrated by Cromwell.   You just know it’s going to be juicy and I can’t wait to read it!

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Diamond Street: The Hidden World of #HattonGarden Review

When I move to a new area either to live or to work I like to do a bit of reading and find out about the history of the area. I think understanding how a place has changed over the years can really help you understand how it had become the place you know. But, I struggle to read non-fiction history books; I just tend to find them quite dull and instead glean my knowledge from websites, local history sites and walking tours.

When I started working in Farringdon London a number of years ago I had no idea about its rich history and in particular the strong links it has with religious orders and the Church (both Catholic and Church of England).   I quickly began spending my lunchtime wandering round the streets, exploring alleyways and picturing what the area would have looked like when Farringdon was a pastoral area on the outskirts of the City of London with the River Fleet running through it.

When chatting with a good friend who is currently training to be a Blue Badge Tour Guide she recommended Rachel Lichtenstein’s book on the history of Hatton Garden and the wider Clerkenwell area. I must admit I was a bit uncertain at first explaining to Sue my difficulty with reading history books. But, she assured me this was a book worth trying and she felt Lichtenstein’s style would be more amenable to me than other historical writers.

And she was right. From the very first page there is something conversational about Lichtenstein’s writing style. Rather than being filled with dates and facts she takes you through the ages with anecdotes and stories often from interviews and conversations she’s had with people with long standing connections to Hatton Garden.

For history buffs or those particularly interested in the growth of the diamond and jewellery trade in Hatton Garden this is a must read book. The characters Lichtenstein introduces you to and the stories you get to hear are incredibly captivating. I would have preferred more information on the religious links, The Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, the Nunnery of St Mary, the Carthusian monastery, and the Bishop of Ely’s palace and grounds.   Although touched upon I would like to know more about their influence over the area and people who lived here.

All in all this was a thoroughly fascinating read and I would recommend it to anyone wishing to know more about the Hatton Garden area.

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