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I don’t find it easy to review non-fiction books so thought that I would provide a quarterly (or thereabouts) round-up so that I don’t miss any of my 2018 reading. This post covers the first quarter of this year.

  • The Midnight Assassin by Skip Holdsworth – “Panic, Scandal and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer”, this covers the crimes of the person who became known as the Servant Girl Annihilator in Austin, Texas during the period 1884-5. Never caught, there was serious consideration of this man (probably) as Jack the Ripper a few years later. So interesting I’ve gone off and purchased the novel by Steven Taylor which recreates the murders and the various trials.
  • The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards – a history of the Detection Club as founded by Dorothy L Sayers and others, counting most of the greats (including Agatha Christie) in its membership. A breezy history of the club and the development of the classic murder mystery, this led me down several rabbit holes including rewatching some old TV series and finding successor authors picking up unfinished stories before creating their own. Dangerous for its potential impact on book spend.
  • I’ll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara – “A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer – the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorised California for over a decade – from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.” So well written, totally fascinating and really sad whenever you come across sections where it’s made clear that they were reconstructed from the author’s notes. I read this in tow massive chunks one weekend. Gripping.
  • Bright Young People by DJ Taylor – this is one of the rabbit holes I mentioned above. We watched an adaptation of my favourite Lord Peter Wimsey novel (Murder Must Advertise) which has a number of characters described as bright young things, which led me to this book which gives a history of the Bright Young People, who they were, what they got up to and how they, mostly, declined. Includes various Mitfords and Evelyn Waugh for a start. I’m not sure it delivers much in terms of analysis but there is plenty of society gossip. I can’t resist tales of aristocratic ladies!

I seem to be very attracted to true crime at the moment – watch this space 😀

 

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I actually didn’t read that much non-fiction while I was away from the blog, probably because my fuzzy brain was incapable of dealing with anything too complicated. But I did manage the following:

4259Nick Hornby’s Housekeeping vs the Dirt and Shakespeare Wrote for Money

These are the last volumes collecting together Hornby’s book columns from The Believer magazine. As I think I’ve said somewhere previously, whether you enjoy these or not will depend almost entirely on whether you like Hornby’s personality (at least as it comes across here) but I definitely do so I was very happy reading 4457297these. After all, this is a man who has been able to articulate why I have never got on with the works of Thomas Hardy, to wit:

Hardy’s prose is best consumed when you’re young, and your endless craving for misery is left unsatisfied by a diet of The Smiths and incessant parental misunderstanding.

It is worth mentioning that I never got The Smiths either.

24861532Val McDermid’s Forensics (subtitled The Anatomy of Crime)

I love Val McDermid. I am ashamed to say that I have not kept up with her novels but I think she is just fabulous, and I will remedy the book thing at some point (I have at least made a note of what I haven’t read so that i can do the thing.) This was a fascinating book; I can’t resist this sort of thing as my dedication to  watching CSI and related shows will testify, and this was a great introduction to the various techniques and how they have developed over time using key historical (and more recent) cases as illustration. So well written, I devoured this in a couple of sittings. You will notice that there is a fly on the cover. It appears in random places throughout the book and I can’t tell you the number of time I turned the page and forgot what it was and tried to brush it off the paper. Idiot that I am 😀

Into the Woods by John Yorke

John YorkeI think it’s worth saying up front that I am not a writer. I use my blogs (here and at Screen God) to record my feelings about books and films so I can share them with others who might be interested, and that’s all. I know lots of bloggers who write fiction or poetry but that’s not me. But I am fascinated by the creative process; as well as loving to read about books, I like to read about how writers write, and Into the Woods (subtitled “How stories work and why we tell them”) definitely falls into that category, though its focus is on film and TV scriptwriting. It’s really fascinating, wonderfully write and full of insight. I now understand a little better three and five act structures and how they still apply even when the writer is consciously trying to subvert them. Lots and lots of practical examples (one of the appendices has the act structure for Raiders of the Lost Ark), I now spend my time looking for Inciting Incidents in everything I’m reading. Very worthwhile.

Darling Monster by Diana Cooper

IMG_0073I have mentioned elsewhere I’m sure the fascination I have with aristocratic and Royal ladies especially, and I couldn’t resist the letters of Lady Diana Cooper to her son John Julius Norwich, written between 1939 to 1952, so covering the momentous events of WW2 (when her husband Duff Cooper was in Churchill’s government) and their time spent in the British Embassy in Paris. Full of gossip and clothes and politics and culture and farming, this is a really touching collection and I was absorbed all the way through.

 

UnknownWhat’s it all about?

Who survives when disaster strikes and why. A journalistic investigation into man-made and natural disasters with first-person narratives and discussions with researchers about what makes some people more likely to survive than others

Why did I want to read it?

The Book God and I watched a couple of episodes of a series whose name I have now forgotten (Perfect something or other) on one of the satellite channels tucked away somewhere far down the TV listings (I want to say the Hitler History Channel but that may not be right) which gave dramatic reconstructions of disasters through the ages, e.g. the Lisbon earthquake, the hurricane that flattened Galveston and so on. The acting was pretty awful and the narration overly portentous but the one bright spot in each programme we watched was Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkablewho was able to give some insight into how people behave in these situations. So I got the book for my Kindle app.

What did I think about it?

Very easy to read, quite fascinating in places, written int hat breezy American journalistic style that I quite enjoy, assertions supported by proper evidence and a solid set of footnotes. Good author’s note where she goes through her methodology in detail so you can have some  confidence in her work. She also gives some practical tips on how to improve your chances. Really interesting.

IMG_0123What’s it all about?

The subtitle of Oliver Burkeman’s book gives us a clue: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. It’s basically a collection of newspaper columns that he wrote for the Guardian about the problem of human happiness (his words) where he began to delve into

self-help, happiness studies, life hacking, and other ideas with an emphasis on practical implementation by a mass audience

Why did I want to read it?

I heard Burkeman being interviewed on the Guardian books podcast a couple of years ago and he sounded so interesting and non-judgemental that I thought this was worth a look. And there’s also a tiny part of me (which I try to disown) that thinks there might actually just possibly be a simple answer to life, the universe and everything and that this could possibly just be found within the pages of a self-help book.

What did I think of it?

It is a really fascinating book, very funny in places and extremely quotable.  For example:

  • he talks about journalling, and the fact that though focussed writing can be very positive, people who journal a lot to tend to wallow a bit and tell the same story over and over again (I am ashamed to say that I recognise this in myself which is why my diary is not something sensational to read on the train as Gwendolen Fairfax would have it but a fairly boring repetition of the same whinges – though I may be being a little hard on myself there);
  • in talking about stress, he asks whether rather than doing things that avoid triggering our stress response we should try working on our response instead;
  • that the best thing to do when you get an unwanted invitation is just to say no and not try to come up with a justification or elaborate excuse (he suggests Emily Post’s “I’m afraid that won’t be possible” can’t be beaten);
  • that meetings should be abolished;
  • that you won’t transform your life in seven days, but you won’t do that by reading books called Transform Your Life in Seven Days either.

Conclusion

Well worth a read if you are at all interested in any aspect of the self-help industry.  I enjoyed it very much.

Girl in a Green GownEarlier this year I enjoyed watching a series on BBC4 about Flemish painting written and presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon. One of the paintings featured was the Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck, one of the most recognisable pictures in the world, and a firm favourite of mine. A few days later I happened to be in King’s Cross station and spotted Carola Hicks’ Girl in a Green Gown: the history and mystery of the Arnolfini portrait and just had to buy it.

I’m so glad that I did.

What I hadn’t realised is that, unusually for a painting this old, its provenance can be tracked from the date it was painted right up until it became part of the collection in the National Gallery in the 1840s. What makes this book so fascinating is that it alternates the stories of the various owners (including one of my favourite historical figures, Philip II of Spain) with various detailed aspects of the picture itself – the mirror, the clothes, the chandelier, the dog etc. – explaining both the symbolism and the technical skills involved.

There is heaps of information in this book but it’s presented in a light and engaging way which certainly held my interest and had me looking up further information elsewhere. there is also a fascinating chapter on how perceptions of the picture have changed over time and how it has ben adopted and adapted for satirical and advertising purposes among others.

Sadly, Carola Hicks died from complications relating to cancer before she had put the finishing touches to the book, but her notes and amendments were incorporated by her husband so that her work could be published. I’m so glad he was able to do so because this is just a delight and if you are at all interested in art you should seek this one out.

About time for another National Gallery visit I think!

Bride of the Book God

Follow brideofthebook on Twitter

Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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