Book reviews: 22 June
HOW THE QUEEN CAN MAKE YOU HAPPY by Mary Killen (Elliott & Thompson, £8.99)
If you can't live like a queen, you can at least live like the Queen, argues Mary Killen in this intriguing small book. Killen, who writes the much-loved Her Indoors column in this magazine, takes the view that since the Queen embodies the best of civilised conduct, we should follow her example when trying to navigate life's many social dilemmas – thus behaving well and, in the process, making ourselves a lot happier. QED.
Arranged alphabetically, under topics such as Digestion, Dogs, Manners, Not Swearing and Smoking, Killen describes how the Queen copes, when giving a party, for instance: apply time boundaries to the invitations, stand at the entry point to the party and never sit down. Other ways to follow in the Queen's footsteps include: never go on Oprah and don't discuss 'emotional matters'. Instead, believe, as the Queen does, in 'post-traumatic growth' rather than post-traumatic stress'. In this Jubilee year, it's plain that the Queen has done sterling work in making this country happy – and therefore more civilised – just by being here.
MARIA AND THE ADMIRAL by Rachel Billington (Orion, £18.99)
The real Maria Graham – Rachel Billington's globetrotting, turban- wearing heroine – died in 1842. But, as in life, Graham refused to be bound by convention, so in death (in Billington's novel, at least) she declines to play by the rules, rising to narrate from beyond the grave. Graham's 1824 journals of her time in Chile and Brazil provide the substance of this book and there's no shortage of drama: in Chile, Graham survived a catastrophic earthquake, while in Rio she served briefly as governess to the daughter of the Empress of Brazil. But it is the friendship between Graham and the Scots-born Admiral Lord Cochrane, sometime head of the Chilean naval fleet, that is at the heart of Billington's tale. Cochrane, the model for Horatio Hornblower, captivated Graham and Billington reads between the lines of her heroine's published writings to imagine what might have been.
Despite the beauty of the setting – the ruby mountains, the emerald ocean – Billington keeps a rein on the romance and while, at times, the reader longs for a swooning love story, one suspects that Billington's clearer-eyed version would have been infinitely more to Graham's own tastes.
THE AGE OF MIRACLES by Karen Thompson Walker (Simon & Schuster, £14.99)
What would happen if the earth started to turn a little more slowly on its axis? If the days – and nights – gradually increased in length? That's the arresting premise here and the answer is, at first, not much. But then as longer days give way to longer nights, plants wither, people sicken and birds fall from the sky, it becomes clear that this inexplicable change might be the start of the end of the world.
The heroine is 11-year-old Julia, a Californian schoolgirl whose child's-eye perspective conveniently allows Thompson Walker to skip the sciencey stuff. As the government insists that people stick to the 24-hour clock, 'day' ceases to mean light, while 'white nights' send sales of sleeping pills soaring. This being California, there are plenty of New Age 'real timers' ready to drop out and start alternative communities in the desert.
Chosen as one of the 'Waterstones 11' best debuts of the year, The Age Of Miracles is cleverly done, if, perhaps, surprisingly tame. This is actually a thoroughly conventional coming-of-age tale that benefits from an extraordinary backdrop.
THE LADY AND THE PEACOCK: THE LIFE OF AUNG SAN SUU KYI OF BURMA by Peter Popham (Rider Books, £8.99)
This readable and politically astute biography describes Aung San Suu Kyi's life from her days in Oxford as a student to her landslide victory and subsequent house arrest in 1988 in Burma, her release in 2002 and her current situation as international political icon.
Tyranny through a child's eyes
BURYING THE TYPEWRITER Carmen Bugan (Picador, £16.99)
One day Carmen Bugan, aged 11, finds her father in the garden burying his typewriter. This odd sight presages a heart-in-mouth account of life in Romania during Ceausescu's tyrannical reign, where typewriters have to be registered with the police. Bugan's father is imprisoned for pinning a typed piece of paper to his chest announcing, 'I fight for Human Rights'. Bugan's story is harrowing, but not depressing: side by side with grim notes on austerity rations and constant fear, are joyful descriptions of Bugan's grandmother's prune jam, sunflowers as big as Carmen's head and the tedium of being forced to watch the chess-masters programme on television every Sunday afternoon.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Shadow across the sun
Christopher Hirst reviews a book about early scientific attempts to observe the Transit of Venus
CHASING VENUS by Andrea Wulf (Heinemann, £18.99)
This month's transit of Venus, when our sister planet could be seen as a tiny black circle crossing the massive fiery disc of the Sun, was an engaging lesson in astronomy. For those in the right spot, and with the inclination to arise at 4.30am, the solar system was transformed into a giant orrery. The revolution of Venus around our neighbourhood star was revealed before our squinting eyes.
If the 2012 transit was a graphic illustration of what we already know, the transits of 1761 and 1769 provided a rare and vital opportunity to advance scientific knowledge. (Transits come in eight-year partnerships once every 112 years and the next won't be until 2117.)
Andrea Wulf's immaculately researched book describes the endeavours of the early scientific community to observe the transit around the world. Surprisingly, perhaps, it is an absorbing, even exciting yarn.
The best spots for observation tend to be at the extremities of the world. Inaccessible even today, these places took many months of arduous travel to reach in the 18th century. For the 1761 transit, British astronomers went to the Cape of Good Hope and St Helena (despite the island being 'infested' with clouds).
French astronomers took sightings at Tobolsk in Siberia and the island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean. A third would have gone to the French outpost of Pondicherry in India, but was obliged to view the transit onboard a swaying ship since the British invaded the port shortly before his arrival. Astonishingly, this international scientific effort took place even though the participating nations were at war. As Wulf points out: 'The interests of science transcended national boundaries.' Edmund Halley first identified the opportunity offered by the transit in 1716, but since he would have been 104 by the time of the next transit, it was a Frenchman, Joseph Nicolas Delisle, who urged scientists into action.
By comparing the times taken for the transit of Venus from a number of locations, it was possible to discover the distance of the Earth from the Sun, as Wulf explains, 'using relatively simple trigonometry'. This might not be quite simple enough for most of us, but the expeditions mounted for the 1769 transit, which involved Captain Cook sailing to Tahiti and the Frenchman Chappe d'Auteroche continuing to make observations while dying of typhus in Baja California, enabled a British mathematician to calculate the distance of the Sun at 93,726,900 miles, just 800,000 miles more than the current estimate. We finally knew our place in the universe.
DERBY DAY by DJ Taylor (Vintage, £7.99)
Masterly pastiche of a Victorian mystery by the eminent critic and novelist DJ Taylor. This time his plot centres on a Lincolnshire squire whose horse is favourite for the Derby. Step forward a caddish rogue determined to make some money out of the situation. A fine melee of the virtuous and the vicious is resolved on Epsom Downs. Gripping all the way.
DOUBLE FAULT by Lionel Shriver (Serpent's Tail, £7.99)
First published in the US in 1997, before Shriver's smash hit, We Need To Talk About Kevin (2005), this edition is timed to take advantage of Wimbledon-inspired tennis fans. Double Fault explores the passionate rivalry between Willy (tennis fanatic) and Eric (aspiring player) in love and marriage, and, as Eric's game improves, on the court as well.
THE BOY IN THE RIVER by Richard Hoskins (Pan, £7.99)
Grisly account of the notorious 2001 murder case in which the mutilated body of a child was found floating in the Thames at London's Tower Bridge. Hoskins, a professor of theology specialising in African tribal religion and whose own past was scarred by tragedy, co-opted on to the case by a baffled murder squad, made the wholly shocking discovery that a series of children had been ritually sacrificed in London.
LIONEL ASBO Martin Amis (Cape, £18.99)
New novel by Martin Amis, bloodied but unbowed by adverse criticism of recent work. This one takes an energetic, often amusing, swipe at the lower classes, introducing belligerent lottery winner Asbo and his self-improving nephew, Des.
MICHAEL MORPURGO: WAR CHILD TO WAR HORSE Maggie Fergusson (Fourth Estate, £18.99)
Collaborative biography of the former Children's Laureate who, through the now famous Spielberg adaptation of War Horse, is a national treasure.
Q&A: Alison Weir
Mother of two and one-time teacher Alison Weir writes historical fiction and popular histories. Recent books include a biography of Mary Boleyn and a history of royal weddings. Her new novel is out this month.
What inspired you to study history, particularly the Tudors?
When I was 14, I read Henry's Golden Queen by Lozania Prole and devoured it in two days. As historical fiction, it was trite, but it led me to history books to find out what really happened, and I've been trying to find out ever since.
How do you feel about the way history is taught in schools?
I am appalled. There seems to be an aversion to teaching pupils the overall sweep of our history. How can you understand the Tudors if you haven't studied the Middle Ages? And why do educationists fight shy of monarchs, dates and prominent historical figures? We need to know the political framework as well as the social history.
What makes for a good historian?
Good historians approach their subject objectively. They trawl exhaustively through original sources and only then look at secondary sources and assess what other historians have written.
Tell us about your next book.
My new book is a novel entitled A Dangerous Inheritance. It tells the stories of Lady Katherine Grey, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1562 by her cousin Elizabeth I, and of Kate Plantagenet, the bastard daughter of King Richard III. Katherine and Kate find out that incurring the wrath of princes is a dangerous game and that being near in blood to the throne is a curse rather than a blessing.
To read more about Alison Weir: www.alisonweir.org.uk
Non -fiction books by Alison Weir also include
- The Six Wives Of Henry VIII (1991)
- Elizabeth, The Queen (1998)
- Britain's Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy (2002)
- The Ring And The Crown: A History Of Royal Weddings (2011)