William Dalrymple: Return of a King

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In 1839 an expeditionary force entered Afghanistan, deposed the ruling family and placed their own choice of king on the throne. Over the next three years that force was harassed, attacked and eventually driven out of the country at devastating loss of life and humiliation.

The invading force was British and their motivation was to do with the relationship between Afghanistan and Russia. However the local tribes disliked the British more than they disliked each other and chose to work together to restore some form of independence for their country. Starved of supplies and facing a harsh winter the British choose to retreat over the Khyber Pass, some were fortunate to be captured and held as hostages, others were less fortunate. Eventually the British regrouped and invaded from India to wreak their revenge but the first Afghan War was a lesson for the British Empire.

Fast forward nearly two centuries and Afghanistan is still an area fought over. The Russians invaded in the 1980s and were driven out by the western-sponsored Taliban, now the Taliban are the enemy and the intertribal warfare still continues. The roots and the background to the modern conflict are evident in the events described in this book.

William Dalrymple has produced a meticulously researched account of the first Afghan War. He has used source material from all protagonists to great effect, no-one is a hero and some terrible decisions were made.

Leif G.W. Persson: Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End

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It’s the start of winter in Stockholm and what seems like a routine suicide. A young American man has fallen to his death from a high window and for the local police there is nothing more to add. However in his shoe is a message for Superintendent Lars Martin Johansson, described as the only honest policeman in Sweden, and as Johansson looks into the death he realises that it is not as straightforward as it seems. Johansson’s investigations take him from the USA to the heart of Swedish politics and corruption at every level of Government and law enforcement.

I picked up this book following a press review and it is a revelation. Intricately plotted with a cast of characters who are both believable and frightening, the story is engrossing. The conspiracy theories are not so farfetched as to be unrealistic and this goes beyond the usual scandal-noir murder investigation.

Anthony Quinn: The Streets

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David Wildeblood is the disgraced son of a middle class family who has been employed as a researcher/journalist looking at the slums of Somers Town in London. He makes both friends and enemies amongst the people he meets in the course of the working day. David also comes into the social circle of his Godfather, a rich and important man of business with some connection to Somers Town. David uncovers a social experiment which will remove the poor from the streets and also enrich the developers who want to realise the potential of the area. This leads him into danger.

It took me a while to get into this book but once I’d got through the first third I became completely hooked. The slum life of North London in the 1880s is carefully realised and there are some well-drawn characters. David is a bit of an insipid hero at first, the innocent abroad and easily duped. However by the end of the book the compromise conclusion makes complete sense.

As a social history this is a little light, as an exciting thriller it is a little weak, as a combination of the two it works very well and therefore is an enjoyable read.

Maria McCann: Ace, King, Knave

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Sophia is a naive heiress whose new husband isn’t all he seems. Betsy-Anne is a prostitute and kept-woman pining for her former lover, son of her madam. Fortunate is an african slave, trying to come to terms with life in London. The lives of these three characters are intertwined together in a tale of resurrection, gambling, prostitution and vice set in the 18th century. The link between all three is a fortune hunter whose background in vice has led to a disregard for others and a need for the high life. Work as a card shark, then a grave robber, finally he abandons his wife as fate catches up with him.

The use of the bon mot of the times is a real clever characteristic of this book, although I am glad I didn’t get the e-reader version as at first I was constantly turning to the glossary. However this is a really enjoyable tale, expertly researched and with an excellent plot. I much preferred it to McCann’s earlier works as it feels more alive and ‘of its time’. The descriptions of life in all strata of society is detailed and hypocrisy and snobbery are never far away.

Ian Mortimer: Centuries of Change

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This is really original and fascinating concept, looking at the last thousand years of Western history, which century has seen the most change?

Ian Mortimer is an excellent historian, his works on the Middle Ages are both entertaining and academic. here he has widened his remit to look at the key factors causing change over time and the proportionate effects. Taking each century in turn Mortimer explores the changes that took place economically, societally and scientifically and looks at their impact on life. He also considers which individuals had the biggest influence through their work.

What makes this book more that just a personal view of history is the attempt to quantify some of the information and actually produce a more scientific conclusion than mere opinion. Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and a range of statistical sources Mortimer actually comes up with an answer.

Jessie Burton: The Miniaturist

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Nella has travelled from the countryside to Amsterdam to live with her husband. In 17th Century Holland Nella has class and Johannes has money so it is a fortunate match. However all is not right in her new home, her husband does not seem to want marital relations, her sister-in-law is cold and difficult and the servants are familiar. Johannes buys Nella a model house and the link with miniaturist is made.

This book has had mixed reviews, most of them very positive but a few concerned that the book does not live up to the hype. Perhaps I am fortunate in that I know the book was well-thought of but I hadn’t seen the reviews. In fact this is a terrific little book which blends a little supernatural (but not too much), a little illicit sex (but not too much) and a good deal of knowledge about society in 17th Century Amsterdam. The story is interesting and original, the writing crisp and surprising not too overblown or sentimental. It’s a great read.