The title of the book A Short History of London: The Creation of a World Capital by Simon Jenkins gives a fair warning to the reader that there is inevitably quite a lot left out of the city’s 2,000 year history in its 400 pages. The focus is very much on the architecture and planning of the city centre in the last century or so with a bit about its governance alongside this. As a lifelong Londoner, Jenkins is clearly passionate about his home city. He has witnessed a remarkable amount of change in his lifetime and doesn’t hold back on his forthright views about recent developments. Having already produced short histories of Europe and England, Jenkins is well-practised at the most important aspect of writing a deliberately short book which is that he writes with pace and is very good at conveying the general sweep of events succinctly in easily digestible chapters. Continue reading
Tag Archives: London
I enjoy following the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction (previously known as the Samuel Johnson Prize) because it is the one book prize which consistently picks winners I actually agree with: Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy, How to Survive a Plague by David France and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald to name a few from recent years. I had just finished ‘The Five’ by Hallie Rubenhold when it was announced as this year’s winner on Tuesday and, once again, I think it is another book which really deserves this prestigious award. It is about the “untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper”, namely Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine “Kate” Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly who all died in 1888 in Whitechapel in east London. Continue reading
I have been going through a mini crime phase in my reading across different genres recently, namely non-fiction, crime fiction and historical fiction. Here are three books I have enjoyed over the last few weeks:
Court Number One by Thomas Grant is an anthology of 11 significant trials held at the Central Criminal Court in London, more commonly known as the Old Bailey, during the 20th century. The majority of these deal with murders, but also include espionage and treason, and as the subtitle of the book promises, Grant shows how the trials defined modern Britain, particularly where attitudes towards social change are concerned. The earlier chapters tend to involve cases which have largely been forgotten such as the Camden Town murder trial in 1907 shortly after the court opened, while those in the second half of the century mostly remain notorious such as those involving John Christie, Ruth Ellis and Jeremy Thorpe. While some chapters are a tad overlong due to the considerable amount of detail, each case is outlined in a gripping narrative, capturing the essence of courtroom drama. Grant, a practising barrister, shines a light on the tactics involved and how and why the trials had the outcomes that they did. ‘Court Number One’ is ideal for a lay reader who wants to understand more about the history of the English criminal justice system, and would be a good companion to The Secret Barrister. Continue reading
It’s been a while since I’ve been to a literary event, and three years since I last went to Chiswick Book Festival in 2016, so another visit was long overdue. Yesterday, I went to two events: Sadie Jones talking to Cathy Rentzenbrink about her latest novel ‘The Snakes’ and Sonia Purnell discussing her book ‘A Woman of No Importance’ with Julia Wheeler.
‘The Snakes’ tells the story of Beatrice, the thirty-something daughter of multimillionaire property developer, Griff Adamson. Having more or less cut herself off from her parents and their money, she works as a psychotherapist and lives in a small flat with her husband Dan, an estate agent from a working-class background who doesn’t know the full extent of Bea’s family’s wealth. They plan to use their savings of a few thousand pounds to travel across Europe for a couple of months and stop to visit Bea’s brother Alex in the dilapidated hotel he runs in the south of France. However, Bea’s parents drop in for a surprise visit and when tragedy strikes, Bea is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about the family’s past. Continue reading
I enjoyed Naomi Alderman’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction-winning feminist dystopian novel The Power and I have recently read her 2006 debut ‘Disobedience’ which won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and Orange Award for New Writers. It tells the story of Ronit Krushka who grew up in a strict Orthodox Jewish community in Hendon in north London and now lives in New York working as a financial analyst having turned her back on her faith and family. She is due to attend a memorial service for her estranged father who was a respected rabbi and it appears that Ronit’s cousin, Dovid, is likely to be his successor. However, when she returns to London, she discovers that Dovid has married Esti, her childhood best friend and former lover. Continue reading
You would be forgiven for thinking that I had pretty much abandoned fiction based on my blog content over the past few months, but I have started reading more novels again recently. Some aspects of Jessica Andrews’ debut ‘Saltwater’ reminded me a lot of ‘Sight’ by Jessie Greengrass, particularly in its visceral imagery concerning changing bodies and an emerging sense of self. Based on Andrews’ life so far, it also appears that there is a strong element of autofiction in this coming-of-age story in which Lucy is finding her way in the world from growing up in Sunderland to her student years in London to inheriting a cottage in Donegal from her grandfather after she graduates from university. Continue reading
’Transcription’ is the latest stand-alone novel by Kate Atkinson in which eighteen-year-old Juliet Armstrong is recruited straight out of school by MI5 in 1940 not long after her mother has died. Initially given secretarial tasks as well as the roles usually left to women such as making the tea, she soon begins transcription work monitoring the conversations held in a flat in Pimlico between Fascist sympathisers and an undercover British agent named Godfrey Toby who poses as a member of the Gestapo. A decade later, she is working as a radio producer of children’s programmes at the BBC believing that her wartime activities now lie in the past. However, a chance encounter with Godfrey (also known as John Hazeldine), some threatening notes and a sense that she is being followed remind her that the world of espionage is not one easily left behind and there are some who want Juliet to know that her actions have had far-reaching consequences. Continue reading
I will be taking a short break from blogging in December while I sort out moving to my new flat but I have been to two great book events this month to take my mind off some of the stress. Rebecca at Bookish Beck has been on a roll winning free tickets on Twitter recently and after our trip to see Wise Children at the theatre last month, we went to see Barbara Kingsolver in conversation with Samira Ahmed at the Royal Festival Hall in London a couple of weeks ago where we also met up with Laura from our Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel. Continue reading
I went to see ‘Wise Children’ at the Old Vic theatre in Waterloo last week after Rebecca of bookishbeck won a pair of tickets and very kindly offered her spare one to me. I also managed to track down a copy of the book from the library and read it this week. ‘Wise Children’ is Angela Carter’s final novel published in 1991 a year before her death and the stage adaptation is Emma Rice’s first project with her new theatre company (also called Wise Children) since leaving her role as artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2016.
Dora and Nora Chance are the illegitimate twin daughters of one of the great Shakespearean actors, Sir Melchior Hazard, whose twin brother Peregrine is believed to be dead. As Dora and Nora celebrate their 75th birthday towards the end of the 20th century, Melchior is about to turn 100 (and possibly Peregrine too…). The story is narrated by Dora who looks back on the sisters’ humble beginnings in south London brought up by the eccentric Grandma Chance and their career as a double act as chorus girls in the weird and wonderful world of Hollywood, theatre and music hall variety shows. Continue reading
It’s been almost three years since Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith was published and it has been a very long wait to find out what happens following the cliffhanger ending of ex-military policeman and private detective Cormoran Strike’s late arrival at the wedding of his agency partner Robin Ellacott and her insufferable fiancé Matthew Cunliffe. The prologue of the fourth book in the series published last month, ‘Lethal White’, picks up exactly where ‘Career of Evil’ left off and the story then jumps forward a year later to the summer of 2012 when London is hosting the Olympic Games. A mentally distressed young man named Billy Knight arrives at Strike’s office and then flees again shortly after claiming to have witnessed the murder of a child many years ago. Strike is subsequently approached by Jasper Chiswell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport who has been receiving blackmail threats from Geraint Winn, husband of the Minister for Sport Della Winn, and Billy’s older brother, Jimmy Knight. Continue reading
Shortlisted for this year’s Desmond Elliott Prize awarded to debut novels published in the UK, ‘How to Be Human’ by Paula Cocozza tells the story of Mary Green, a woman in her thirties who has recently separated from her partner Mark. Now living alone after buying him out of their home in Hackney in east London, she becomes captivated by an urban fox who regularly visits her garden. Meanwhile, her next door neighbours, Michelle and Eric, regard her new visitor as a pest while Mark makes an unwelcome return into her life. Continue reading
On Sunday, I attended two Jewish Book Week events at Kings Place in London. The first was Adam Kay and Rachel Clarke in conversation with Daniel Glaser about their experiences as NHS junior doctors and the second was a discussion with novelists Francesca Segal and Amanda Craig chaired by Claire Armitstead.
‘This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor’ is based on Adam Kay’s experiences working in NHS hospitals from 2004 to 2010 specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology. It’s fair to say his book isn’t for the squeamish reader – the “degloving” incident is among the most memorable as is the Kinder Surprise story which Kay also read out loud to the audience. The title is apt – much of it is painfully funny while other parts are achingly sad and the ending in particular comes as an abrupt shock. Kay decided not to continue his medical career as a result of this tragic incident and it was the junior doctors’ strike years later in 2016 which compelled him to share his experiences. Kay and Clarke agreed that the term “junior doctor” is unhelpful – it implies someone in their early 20s straight out of medical school but it also applies to doctors on the verge of becoming consultants with multiple postgraduate qualifications and many years of experience. Continue reading
Set in eighteenth century Britain, ‘The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock’ by Imogen Hermes Gowar tells the story of Jonah Hancock, a middle-aged widower and respectable Deptford merchant who discovers that the captain of one of his ships has sold his vessel in exchange for a stuffed “mermaid”. Although initially horrified by this transaction, Mr Hancock is later persuaded to profit from the rare curiosity he has acquired and loans the mermaid to Mrs Chappell for display at her infamous high society parties and Soho brothel. Celebrated courtesan Angelica Neal is tasked with entertaining Mr Hancock which she sees as an irritating distraction at first. However, as the display becomes the talk of London, Angelica decides she wants a mermaid of her own and Mr Hancock does whatever it takes to find another one. Continue reading
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a preview screening of the film adaptation of ‘The Sense of an Ending’, based on Julian Barnes’s bestselling novella first published in 2011. The story follows Tony Webster, a divorced, middle-class, semi-retired man living in London where he runs a vintage camera shop. His memories of events in the past concerning his relationship with Veronica Ford at Bristol University and friendship with Adrian Finn in the 1960s and the tragic consequences which followed are somewhat different from how others remember them. When Tony receives a letter from a solicitor regarding a legacy left by Veronica’s late mother, he is forced to re-examine what actually happened so many years ago. Continue reading
‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith tells the story of two mixed-race girls, an unnamed narrator and her friendship with Tracey who grow up together on neighbouring council estates in north-west London in the 1980s. From Fred Astaire to Michael Jackson, music and dance dominate their lives but it is only Tracey who has the real talent to pursue a career as a dancer. The narrator goes to university and works as a personal assistant for mononymous international pop star Aimee who decides to set up a school for girls in west Africa. The story alternates between the past and present and even though the girls spend a considerable time apart in later years, Tracey’s influence can always be felt. Continue reading
I have been to a number of individual literary events in London over the last few years but until this weekend, I had never been to one of the many book festivals held in the capital each year. Now in its eighth year, Chiswick Book Festival in west London runs from Thursday 15th – Monday 19th September with talks from a wide variety of authors and other speakers. Armed with an all-day pass, I went to four events at St Michael and All Angels Church and the Tabard Theatre yesterday.
Longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, ‘Serious Sweet’ by A. L. Kennedy is set over the course of twenty-four hours in London in 2014, following a day in the lives of 45-year-old recovering alcoholic Meg Williams and 59-year-old divorced senior civil servant Jon Sigurdsson. At first, the characters appear to lead seemingly separate lives but it is gradually revealed that their paths have already crossed before. The day revolves around the pair attempting to meet and whether they are able to move on from the traumatic events which have shaped their lives. Continue reading
‘The Muse’ by Jessie Burton tells the story of a young Trinidadian woman Odelle Bastien who lands a job as a typist at the prestigious Skelton art gallery in London in 1967, five years after she moved to the city. Odelle’s new boyfriend Lawrie has recently inherited a painting rumoured to be the work of Isaac Robles, a talented young Spanish artist who mysteriously disappeared during the Civil War in the 1930s. The painting causes quite a stir at the Skelton and Odelle’s enigmatic boss, Marjorie Quick, appears to have a personal interest in the painting as well as a professional one. Odelle sets out to uncover the true origins of the lost masterpiece whose secrets lie with the wealthy Anglo-Austrian Schloss family who employed Isaac’s sister Teresa as their housekeeper in Malaga at the beginning of the war. Continue reading
‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry tells the story of Cora Seaborne, a keen amateur naturalist and recent widow who moves to Colchester in the 1890s with her servant-companion Martha and son Francis and meets the local vicar Reverend William Ransome. There are rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent which once stalked the Blackwater estuary has been spotted again near the coastal village of Aldwinter, and some mysterious deaths have sent the local residents into panic. Cora and Will are both sceptical of the rumours surrounding the return of the beast but for very different reasons with Cora believing the creature could be an undiscovered species whereas Will’s concerns lie in his parishioners’ apparent lack of faith. Yet despite these differences, they start to form a close and intense bond. Continue reading
‘A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West’ by Luke Harding outlines the chilling murder of a Russian dissident which resulted in the rapid deterioration of Moscow’s relationship with the West. Former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko fled to London in 2000 with his wife and son after publicly criticising the Kremlin and later worked as a journalist and consultant for MI6. He was poisoned with polonium at the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair in November 2006 and the subsequent investigation into his murder has had a significant impact on Anglo-Russian relations over the past decade. Continue reading