Book Review: Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History

Book Review: Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History by Antony Mason

For about 12 centuries, the English have been ruled by monarchs, and eventually this form of government spread to all of the British Empire.  That’s a lot of history, and many kings and queens to take account of.  This small volume with cartoony illustrations gives the reader an overview of those people and what they did.

Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History

There’s a brief discussion of monarchs before the official first king of the majority of England, Alfred the Great, starting in 871 C.E.  This includes the legendary King Arthur who may or may not have been based on an actual person.  After that is a chronological listing of English kings and queens, with a paragraph or page for each, with chapters cutting away to the Scottish monarchs.  (The Irish kings do not get the same courtesy.)  With King James I & VI, the lines are consolidated, and after that they’re all British kings and queens.

This is very much a highlights-only history book, with only the most famous bits of each reign mentioned for most of the monarchs.  There are, however, frequent sidebars on such subjects as palaces, revolutions, jewels, the Magna Carta and mistresses.  The serious scholar of British history is unlikely to learn anything new.  The book finishes up with a glossary, timeline, and index to make it easier to find the particular monarch you’re looking for.  It’s current as of January 2015.

Due to some salacious subject matter, I’d rate this as suitable for senior high students on up.  (There’s also a lot of violence; many of these people left the throne via murder.)  This would make a nice gift for your Anglophilic friend or relative, or Game of Thrones fans who have somehow never read the history that show is loosely based on.

 

 

Book Review: Age of Daredevils

Book Review: Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson

This book covers two generations of the William “Red” Hill family of Niagara Falls, Ontario.  They were river men, swimmers, rescue workers, boat handlers–and some of them were driven to perform dangerous stunts.  And around Niagara Falls, the most daring stunt imaginable was to go over the Horseshoe Fall in a barrel.  The Hills, father and sons, were involved in most of the attempts at this feat until the 1950s.

Age if Daredevils

Parts of the story are fascinating; the first survivor of a deliberate attempt to go over the falls was a woman in her sixties, Annie Taylor.  And there’s quite a bit of family drama, particularly in the sibling rivalry of Red’s sons “Junior” and Major.  I found the contrast between the acceptance of ultimate risk and the careful shaving off of every bit of lesser risk that could be managed a fair assessment of the character of a daredevil.

The author is a local newspaper reporter who knew the Hills in his youth and has extensively interviewed several of them over the years.  This means that certain details are covered in great depth (and often repetitively), but others are given short shrift–later attempts to go over the falls alive that didn’t involve the Hill family are summarized in a paragraph or two, despite sounding just as fascinating in their backgrounds.   The book also engages in mind-reading from time to time, reporting what a person who did not survive likely felt during certain events.

There’s an extensive sources section and chapter notes, but no index.  This is more of a memoir than a formal history.  I should note that there is discussion of suicides related to the Niagara River.

Recommended for those who have a fascination with daredevils and especially those who have an interest in the Niagara Falls phenomenon.

Book Review: The Sculthorpe Murder

Book Review: The Sculthorpe Murder by Karen Charlton

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Sculthorpe Murder

The year is 1810, and Bow Street Runner Detective Stephen Lavender has been called from his native London to Northamptonshire.  It seems that an elderly man, William Sculthorpe, has been robbed and murdered.  The most likely suspects are a gang known as the Panthers, whom the local authorities have been unable to put their hands upon.  But when Lavender and his friend Horse Constable Ned Woods investigate at the request of a wealthy noblewoman, they find clues that suggest otherwise.  Most notably, the testimony of Sculthorpe’s son Billy who actually saw the murderers.  But he’s an unreliable witness who talks about “dark elves”, so has been mostly ignored.

This is the third Detective Lavender mystery, and I have not read the previous volumes.  According to the author’s notes, her main character is loosely based on the life and activities of a real Stephen Lavender, who was an officer of the Bow Street magistrates.  Likewise, this book’s case is based on one Mr. Lavender actually solved, though Ms. Charlton took liberties with even the bare bones account provided by historical records.

Billy Sculthorpe has Down syndrome (called “cretinism” in the story because Dr. Down hadn’t even been born yet, let alone started studying the condition.)   Lavender quickly realizes that despite his moderate mental disability, and a vivid imagination fed by spooky stories his recently deceased Mum had told him, Billy is a talented artist and has a good memory.  Billy’s testimony leads the detectives to discover clues about William Sculthorpe’s actual past and other possible motivations for his murder.

The sleepy village of Middleton and its surroundings turn out to have many dark secrets that get turned up by the murder investigation, multiplying the number of suspects.  There are even ties back to London, which allows Lavender’s love interest Magdalena and other city-bound characters to make an appearance.  Meanwhile, Constable Woods finds his own past catching up with him.

As often happens with historical mysteries, Stephen Lavender as the protagonist is perhaps just a little too enlightened for the times he’s living in, believing in religious tolerance and treating the women in his life with respect for their intelligence and opinions.  Woods is a bit more believable as a person of the early Nineteenth Century, but not so much so as to make him unsympathetic.

I found the solution to the mystery satisfying; genre-savvy readers will spot one of the murderers very early on, and clues as to how it was done are abundant.  Much of the last part of the book is Detective Lavender negotiating just how  many of the crimes he’s uncovered must come to light, and which must face justice of a more subtle sort.

Possible trigger issues:  There’s some discussion of spousal abuse and animal abuse in the backstory, including the fact that it was even more difficult to get out of an abusive marriage in the Eighteenth Century than it is today.  There are some slurs hurled by less sympathetic characters towards Billy because of his condition, a bit of slut-shaming, and anti-Catholic slurs.

Recommended to fans of the historical mystery sub-genre.

Book Review: In the Wet

Book Review: In the Wet by Nevil Shute

This is rather an odd book by the author of On the Beach and A Town Like Alice.  It starts as the story of Roger Hargreaves, an aging Anglican priest in Northern Australia in the 1950s.  In the course of his parish duties,  Father Hargreaves meets a colorful local character, an old drunk named Frankie.   Frankie may have some sort of precognitive abilities, or maybe he just got a lucky guess.  Still, there’s more to Frankie than meets the eye.

In the Wet

During the rainy season, (as the locals call it, “in the wet”,) Hargreaves receives word that Frankie is dying.  Along with a local medical woman, he hurries to the remote cabin Frankie is staying in.   They lose their medical supplies in the floods, and the lamp fuel is almost gone.  There’s not much to be done for Frankie but allow him to smoke opium to dull the pain.   To distract Frankie, Hargreaves asks the dying man to tell the priest about himself.

But the story Frankie tells is of Wing Commander David Anderson, an Australian test pilot who is asked to become a member of the Queen’s Flight (kind of like Air Force One for us Yanks.)  As the story continues, it becomes clear that Anderson lives in the 1980s, a time of crisis for the Commonwealth.

After this paragraph, I’ll be going into SPOILER territory, and also some racially charged language.  For those who don’t want to see that, I’ll say that this is an interesting book, but On the Beach was better.  Some very nice sketches of North Australian life in the 1950s at the beginning and end, though, and the aviation scenes are excellent.

SPOILER WARNING

1980s Britain is not, in many ways, like the one in our timeline.   For starters, there’s still food rationing.   Rosemary Long, our hero’s love interest, has a good job at Buckingham Palace and can afford her own good sized sailboat, but has never seen an intact pineapple before, let alone had enough meat to worry that it might spoil.  (In real life,  rationing officially ended in 1954, with many items being derationed well before that.

Also, Britain is largely Socialist, with Labour having been in power almost uninterrupted for the last thirty years.  (Evidently, Mr. Shute did not have confidence in Winston Churchill’s ability to hold onto the Prime Minister job.  In real life, he was able to swing the voting to the Conservative party for quite some time.)  This has resulted in the Prime Minister, Iorweth Jones being a barely disguised Communist, (Communism having gone out of favor after “the Russian war”) with a class warfare mentality.  Also, the Secretary of State for Air is so out of touch with the state of aeroplane technology that he is unaware planes have things called “radios” now.

One thing Mr. Shute did get right was that Queen Elizabeth II is still on the throne, with Charles as the Prince of Wales.  Charles is married and has two sons.  Well, he does on page 111.   A daughter pops up as well on page 181.

We don’t get much information about the Russian war; it was a few years ago, Commander Anderson spent most of it in the Philippines, it evidently did not go nuclear, and there’s no mention whatsoever of the Soviet Union.  As mentioned above, the end of the war discredited Communism as a viable government style.

Britain is also undergoing a population crash, due to heavy emigration (in our timeline they mostly had immigration from the former colonies and Commonwealth.)   Things have gotten bad enough that the government nationalized housing after the 1970 crash and hasn’t given it back since.  Rosemary has never seen a new house being built, to her memory.

Meanwhile, Australia’s been doing great, thanks to the new multiple vote system.   Every adult gets one basic vote.  if you get higher education, you get a second vote (Anderson got his for officer school.)  Working outside the country for two years gets you the foreign travel vote (Anderson admits this is pretty much a racket so military veterans get an extra say.)  Getting married, staying married and spawning two children who you raise to at least fourteen gets you a family vote.  (Divorce, widowry or your kids dying or disappearing means starting all over.)

There’s also a business vote for anyone with an earned income over a certain amount (and it’s substantially high) and a religious vote for anyone holding an office in an approved Christian church.  That last one would never fly in America!  Finally, there’s the Queen’s Favour vote which you get in much the same way you would a knighthood.  Thus a truly dedicated person can have up to seven votes; somehow this has led to Australia getting a better class of politicians.

By the end of the book, England is looking to install the same voting system.  Notably, England had had a similar thing called plural voting up until 1948 in real life, when it was reformed for a one person one vote system.  Instead of multiple voting, real life Australia went with “preference voting” instead, where you rank candidates in order of how much you like them.

In other political oddness, the Queen seems much more involved with ruling the Commonwealth than the largely figurehead role she had in the real 1980s.  She even moves the Royals to Australia, and appoints a Governor General for England as it’s clear Parliament can’t handle the job.

Oh, and what will be truly horrific to some of you, rock and roll never caught on, and ballroom dancing with live orchestras is still the thing.

And then there’s the racism weirdness.  Mr. Shute was against racism, especially Southern United States style racism, but it’s expressed oddly here.  Commander Anderson is mixed race, being one-quarter Aborigine, and apparently is light-skinned and fine-featured enough that most people assume he just has a tan.  He goes by the nickname “Nigger,” and insists all his friends call him that.

You can sort of see that, as a way of “reclaiming the word” and apparently Commander Anderson’s worried that people will think he’s trying to “pass” if he doesn’t bring up his ancestry directly.  But it’s still very jarring.  Especially when he uses the phrase “nigger in the woodpile” unironically.  It’s clear that most of the characters consider his deeds more important than his ethnicity, and indeed, he’s the only one to ever bring it up.

The sections set in the 1950s have more obvious casual racism.  There’s a bit of author blindness to sexism; the Queen rules but all the other speaking women in the 1980s are secretaries, telephone girls,  stewardesses and maids.  Rosemary majored in history and paid special attention to the suffragette movement, but otherwise seems content with a 1950s style romantic relationship.

If you’ve read the book and have some comments, by all means let me know.

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