Shattered – Dick Francis

2102647Gosh, I love Dick Francis mysteries! I know they can be formulaic, but they are still fun. I read this ages ago but had completely forgotten the story. I could imagine what the main street in Broadway was like as my sister and I had visited a few villages in the Cotswolds in 2014 (real village but we didn’t visit that one). Honey stoned buildings that would still look cheerful in mid-winter with twinkling lights coming through the windows. Like all Frances novels, they are either directly set in the racing industry or the racing industry features heavily in the plot. In this story, the main character is a friend of a jockey who dies early on and the story is the mystery the jockey leaves his friend to solve. His friend goes through the physical wringer but the mystery is solved and he leaves with his girl and new friends.

Aww! But it was exciting too! I had to keep reading to find out what happened. I started reading Dick Francis when I was in my early twenties. I was temping at a local high-school library and the librarian introduced me to Francis. And it’s official – 20 odd years after reading my first one, I still love the stories.

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The Inheritor’s Powder by Sandra Hempel

This work is based around a case of arsenic poisoning case in 1833. It was apparently in 16241150all the papers and the populace were fascinated – resulting in packed rooms during the coroner’s and magistrate’s hearings. The blurb on the back of the book sets you up to expect a ‘race to find the definitive test’, because there wasn’t one at the time of the death  of George Bodle. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning were similar to many other ailments at the time and added to this, arsenic was readily available for all sorts of things from poisoning rats to skin treatments. There were many poisonings and attempted poisonings in the 19thc because it was just so easy and you could get away with it. Investigations were begun where there was a lot of speculation and also when circumstantial events occurred suspicion. But Hempel fails to put all this together and instead goes off on tangents that don’t really have anything to do with the story at hand. Perhaps basing it on one event is the problem. The Bodle case is too thin a foundation to hang the  story on – there isn’t tons of information and events to write about. Hemple mentions other arsenic cases and I’m sure there were lots others that could have been used. Perhaps Hempel should have written about the development of the forensic sciences in the 19thc and hung the legal situation and poisoning cases on that. Still – lots of interesting facts.

City of Sin by Catharine Arnold

19655192 Prostitution is one of the oldest professions in the world and every city has a red light district.  London, one of the oldest continually occupied cities in the world, has had it’s fair share (at one point, having more than 80,000 prostitutes). Viewing the development and history of a city through the lens of its brushes with prostitution gives it a more human reality that is sometimes missed in histories focused on its more privileged. occupants.  One reviewer on Goodreads points out that Arnold makes a mistake when she states that Edward IV was Henry VI’s son (it is a mistake though they are related somehow – both descended from Edward III), I don’t think this is enough to warrant suspicion about the accuracy of the rest of the text. I enjoyed reading about the exploration by Henry Mayhew into the underbelly of Victorian London – and I absolutely loved watching The Secret History of Our Streets (both investigations into the Victorian poor). I’ve downloaded Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor onto my Kindle – it’s freely available from the British Library. And who knew that Burlington Arcade – the epitome of posh – was regularly patrolled by working girls and fancy boys? But it wasn’t just the poor who resorted to prostitution. Arnold’s book tells the story of the people who had to do it to earn a crust to those who engaged in the profession not for impecunious reasons. She also discusses homosexuality and the plight many found themselves in, legal or otherwise. I felt sad on many occasions reading this, but there was also the fun parts of people evading the law through ingenious means. Worth reading if you are interested in different historical perspectives.

The Frock-Coated Communist – Tristram Hunt

I really enjoyed reading this erudite biography of Friedrich Engels. I was first introduced to 8666269Marx and Engels in high school but very briefly. And after reading this biography, I’ve come to the conclusion that the US have the wrong idea of  communism – China and the former USSR are/were not communist countries but political oligarchies which have used the political theory of socialism to communism to their own ends. This is a fascinating look at Engels, the man who is often overlooked. He put himself in that position though because he often demurred when praised and redirected attention to the genius that was Marx. Hunt uses a lot of words that I haven’t come across before and I love that – but it is a bit frustrating when I can’t immediately look them up (I often read on the tram to/from work) and then I forget what they were. I’ve not read any Marx and Engels myself and have rudimentary knowledge of their theories so reading about some of them went over my head a bit. This biography does not go into great detail about the theories themselves – that is in Marx and Engels and others writings – but puts them in context of their lives and the social and political climate of the day. Engels became a good and proper atheist while at university (not an odd occurrence – so many others did and do). He didn’t enter university to complete a degree but attended lectures about Hegelian philosophy which he started reading about years earlier. Engels didn’t take criticism kindly and he was so nit-picky with other political theorists. Can this be explained by his lack of an academic background? He could be mean spirited but very kind. He was also a soft touch and was taken advantage of by the various Marx sons-in-law. Hunt does a brilliant job at demonstrating how Engels ideas changed as he grew older. The main idea when he was younger was that there needed to be an armed revolution, war if need be, by the proletariat. Then in the 1890s he changed his mind when socialism was introduced by the ballot box via expanded franchise. He then thought revolution was unnecessary and he was prescient in seeing a world war in the making, which would be detrimental to the gains achieved by the ballot box. He had revolutionary ideas but he was also a stick-in-the mud about homosexuality and feminism – he never quite got rid of his strict 19thc protestant upbringing. This is a fascinating work and really gives you a feel for the climate of the times.

The Unknown Ajax – Georgette Heyer

3527077“What the devil do you mean by …”, “I’ve got more sense in my knowledge-box than to say…”, “Does it ever occur to you, Mama, that my grandfather is a lunatic?” These are some of the delightful phrases in Heyer’s ‘The Unknown Ajax’. To a stately family’s horror, a misbegotten boy, now a man, is to be the heir to the title. The family is headed by an irascible elderly man who doesn’t take fools gladly. Unfortunately, he considers many of his family fools. Lots of funny episodes of assumption and pride occur as well as drama and histrionics. Heyer was an authority on the Regency period and her books have been used in academic courses. She did a tremendous amount of research during her life and used her knowledge to create believable and in many cases, accurate depictions of manners, language and dress in her Regency fiction. So as well as being a fun read with laugh out loud moments, it is also an educational one if you are interested in this period in English history.

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