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Really Underrated Books (Part Four)

Here is the penultimate post of this week’s Really Underrated Books series.  As ever, I hope something here piques your interest, or inspires you to go and find some underrated books of your own!

1. Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo 9613541
Monty and Ada are old friends. They worked together on the frontline in Belgium, where Monty was a nurse and Ada drove ambulances – like the devil. And now, Bleakly Hall hydropathic has brought them together again.  Monty has just arrived to look after the gouty residents – there to take the Hall’s curative waters via nozzle, douche and jet – and Ada is the maid and driver. For all those at Bleakly, the end of the Great War has brought changes. Not all of them good.  Monty has a score to settle with the elusive Captain Foxley; Ada misses her wartime sense of purpose; the Blackwood brothers must reinvigorate Bleakly for a new era; Foxley has his own particular ways of keeping his ghosts at bay. But with the crumbling, rumbling hydropathic threatening to blow its top, what will become of the folk thrown together in its bilious embrace?  This wonderfully original novel brings together an irresistible cast of characters – including Bleakly Hall itself – in the wake of one of history’s great tragedies. To powerful effect, it combines fizzing comedy with a deeply moving look at the aftermath of war.

 

2. Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage by Glyn Williams
The elusive dream of locating the Northwest Passage—an ocean route over the top of North America that promised a shortcut to the fabulous wealth of Asia—obsessed explorers for centuries. While global warming has brought several such routes into existence, until recently these channels were hopelessly choked by impassible ice. Voyagers faced unimaginable horrors—entire ships crushed, mass starvation, disabling frostbite, even cannibalism—in pursuit of a futile goal. In Arctic Labyrinth, Glyn Williams charts the entire sweep of this extraordinary history, from the tiny, woefully equipped vessels of the first Tudor expeditions to the twentieth-century ventures that finally opened the Passage. Williams’s thrilling narrative delves into private letters and journals to expose the gritty reality behind the often self-serving accounts of those in charge. An important work of maritime history and exploration—and as exciting a tale of heroism and fortitude as readers will find—Arctic Labyrinth is also a remarkable study in human delusion.

 

33742493. A School in South Uist: Reminiscences of a Hebridean Schoolmaster, 1890-1913 by F.G. Rea
These are the memories of Frederick Rea, an English teacher who became headmaster of Garrynamonie School in South Uist in the 1890s. At that time, the Hebrides were as remote and forbidding to mainlanders as the Antarctic is to us today, and South Uist was one of the poorer districts. Roads were often no more than rough tracks across the mountain moorland or over the storm-swept machair. His Gaelic-speaking pupils were often frozen and starving, and fever epidemics were frequent. Rea’s memoirs show how he strove to meet these difficulties. His pupils remember him as a sincere, conscientious man and an excellent teacher. This book also reveals his keen powers of observation, and his interest in the unfamiliar scenes and events he witnessed and recorded. His lack of city comforts was more that compensated for by the wonders of the natural world and the uncommon kindness and generosity of the islanders. Dr. Rea treasured his memories of South Uist for the rest of his life, and his love and respect for the islands is wonderfully conveyed in this vivid testament.

 

4. Painted Shadow by Carole Seymour-Jones
By the time she was committed to an asylum in 1938, five years after T. S. Eliot deserted her, Vivienne Eliot was a lonely, distraught figure. Shunned by literary London, she was the “neurotic” wife whom Eliot had left behind. In The Family Reunion, he described a wife who was a “restless shivering painted shadow,” and so she had become: a phantomlike shape on the fringe of Eliot’s life, written out of his biography and literary history.  This astonishing portrait of Vivienne Eliot, first wife of poet T.S. Eliot, gives a voice to the woman who, for seventeen years, had shared a unique literary partnership with Eliot but who was scapegoated for the failure of the marriage and all but obliterated from historical record. In so doing, Painted Shadow opens the way to a new understanding of Eliot’s poetry.  Vivienne longed to tell her whole story; she wrote in her diary: “You who in later years will read these very words of mine will be able to trace a true history of this epoch.” She believed (as did Virginia Woolf) that she was Eliot’s muse, the woman through whom he transmuted life into art. Yet Vivienne knew the secrets of his separate and secret life — which contributed to her own deepening hysteria, drug addiction, and final abandonment: the tragedy of a marriage that paired a repressed yet sensual man with an extroverted woman who longed for a full sexual relationship with her husband.  Out of this emotional turbulence came one of the most important English poems of the twentieth century: The Waste Land, which Carole Seymour-Jones convincingly shows cannot be fully understood without reference to the relationship of the poet and his first wife. Drawing on papers both privately owned and in university library archives and, most importantly, on Vivienne Eliot’s own journals left to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Carole Seymour-Jones uses many hitherto unpublished sources and opens the way to a new understanding of Eliot’s poetry.

 

5. The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai by Han Bangwing 407756
Desire, virtue, courtesans (also known as sing-song girls), and the denizens of Shanghai’s pleasure quarters are just some of the elements that constitute Han Bangqing’s extraordinary novel of late imperial China. Han’s richly textured, panoramic view of late-nineteenth-century Shanghai follows a range of characters from beautiful sing-song girls to lower-class prostitutes and from men in positions of social authority to criminals and ambitious young men recently arrived from the country. Considered one of the greatest works of Chinese fiction, The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai is now available for the first time in English.

 

6. Once Upon a Time by John Barth
From master storyteller and National Book Award winner John Barth comes a bravura performance: a memoir wrapped in a novel and launched on a sea voyage. A cutter-rigged sloop sets sail for an end-of-season cruise down into the “Chesapeake Triangle.” Our captain: a middle-aged writer of some repute. The sole crewmate: his lover, friend, editor, and wife. The journey turns out to be not the modest three-day cruise it at first seems. As we sail through sun and storm, our skipper spins (and is spun by) the Story of His Life – an operatic saga that’s part Verdi, part Puccini, and more than a dollop of bouffe, a compound narrative voyaging through the imagination. Crisscrossing the past, mixing memory with desire, our narrator navigates among the waypoints of his life, beguiling us with tales of adventure and despair, love and marriage, selves and counterselves, aging and sailing, teaching and writing – steering always by the polestar of Vocation, the storyteller’s call.

 

2684457. The Butcher’s Wife and Other Stories by Li Ang
Li Ang’s highly charged fiction has made her one of the most widely known Taiwanese authors of her time. This new anthology begins with the internationally acclaimed “The Butcher’s Wife,” a novella that evoked shock and outrage in Taiwan when it first appeared in 1983. The shorter stories that follow range from Li Ang’s first story, “Flower Season” (1968), through “A Love Letter Never Sent” (1986), and include stories that are erotic, thought provoking, and cautionary.

 

8. The Tower of Glass by Ivan Angelo
The five interlocking stories in The Tower Of Glass create a singular, powerful account of a nation in turmoil – and a prophetic warning about an oppressive government’s need to control not just the society but the mind. Through symbolism, wry humour, and outrageous sexual frankness, Ivan Angelo tells of businessmen and whores, poor working people and Death Squads, truth and illusion, and methods of political manipulation and terror. From the gritty, bawdy story of “Bete the Streetwalker” to the Kafkaesque portrait of a prison made of glass, the fictional pieces demonstrate Angelo’s masterful wordplay, and his ability to take formal and structural risks without a false step.

 

9. What’s Become of Waring by Anthony Powell 6977196
This fascinating catalog of the comic relates the ironic and ludicrous adventures of a noted (but mysterious) English travel-book writer whose reported “death” throws the London literary world into a tizzy.’

 

10. Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure by Joseph Jay Deiss
A vivid portrayal of life in Pompeii’s sister city, this book includes a detailed description of the ancient Villa dei Papiri, on which the present Getty Museum in Malibu is modeled.

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‘The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets’ by Michael Schmidt ****

Originally published in 2004, Michael Schmidt’s masterful The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets has been given a new – and handsome – lease of life thanks to Head of Zeus.  Deemed ‘exhilarating’ and ‘deeply engaging’ by the Washington Post, and ‘an important new study’ by The Observer, its republication will certainly delight history buffs in the English-speaking world.

Revered poetry professor Schmidt has focused upon our ‘cultural ancestors’; those individuals who provided the foundations for our poetic heritage, the legacy which they have left behind, and the lasting quality of their work.  As Schmidt explains, ‘Things that inadvertently shape us draw upon structures, forms, legends, and myths that have their origin in ancient Mediterranean cultures’.  Mythology and factual history have been merged most interestingly throughout, and Schmidt writes of figures we have heard of – Orpheus and Homer, for instance – as well as those who are rather more obscure, or who have been forgotten – Linos and Amphion, for example.9781784975975

Schmidt’s account is thorough, which will surprise nobody who has read any of his other work.  The majority is comprised of sections which focus solely on twenty-three poets (indeed, the chapter about Sappho is particularly enlightening), as well as essay-length inclusions which deal with the likes of The Iliad and The Odyssey.  The depth of literary criticism from peers of the poets here is surprising, and many of the profiles which have been included are both entertaining and memorable.  Several of the poets whom Schmidt has focused upon throughout his study have no lasting work, and very little of that by even the more famous poets is complete: ‘some writers are at best a scatter of phrases, preserved by grammarians’.  Despite this, he has wonderfully managed to fashion a six-hundred page tome from this subject matter, and every single page contains something of interest for the modern reader.

The entirety of The First Poets has been beautifully put together.  Schmidt’s writing is intelligent and lucid, but despite his credentials, it does not come across as a purely academic book; its very thoroughness, in fact, makes it accessible to everyone, whether experience with the works of the poets is held or not.  In fact, reading the work of any specific Ancient Greek poets mentioned here is not a prerequisite; verses and fragments have been included and analysed at intervals.  The First Poets is not firmly rooted in the ancient past; several more modern literary works have been referenced, including Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandThe First Poets is a wonderfully informative book, filled with an incredible amount of research.

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The Book Trail: Alice Jolly to Mary Beard

Alice Jolly’s wonderful and heartbreaking memoir, Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, is the starting point for this book trail.  As always, I will be choosing one book from the recommended tomes on the Book Depository Website on each successive page.  Without further ado, let us begin.

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns by Alice Jolly 9781783521050
‘The world of dead babies is a silent and shuttered place. You do not know it exists until you find yourself there. When Alice Jolly’s second child was stillborn and all subsequent attempts to have another baby failed, she began to consider every possible option, no matter how unorthodox. Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is a savagely personal account of the search for an alternative way to create a family. As she battles through miscarriage, IVF and failed adoption attempts, Alice’s only solace from the pain is the faded charm of Britain’s crumbling seaside towns. Finally, this search leads her and her husband to a small town in Minnesota, and two remarkable women who offer to make the impossible possible. In this beautiful book, shot through with humour and full of hope, Alice Jolly describes with a novelist’s skill events that woman live through every day – even if many feel compelled to keep them hidden. Her decision not to hide but to share them, without a trace of sentiment or self-pity, turns Dead Babies and Seaside Towns into a universal story: one that begins in tragedy but ends in joy.’

 

Which leads to…

9781250101037Lust and Wonder by Augusten Burroughs
‘In chronicling the development and demise of the different relationships he’s had while living in New York, Augusten Burroughs examines what it means to be in love, what it means to be in lust, and what it means to be figuring it all out. With Augusten’s unique and singular observations and his own unabashed way of detailing both the horrific and the humorous, Lust and Wonder is an intimate and honest memoir that his legions of fans have been waiting for.’

 

Our third book leads us into the world of fiction…

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf 9781447299370
‘This is a love story. A story about growing old with grace. Addie Moore and Louis Waters have been neighbours for years. Now they both live alone, their houses empty of family, their quiet nights solitary. Then one evening Addie pays Louis a visit. Their brave adventures form the beating heart of Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf’s exquisite final novel.’

 

The fourth choice is 2015’s Pulitzer Prize winner, and one which many have raved about (and which I cannot believe I’ve not yet read!)…

9780008138301All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
‘For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth. In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.’

 

Our fifth book is one which I hadn’t heard of before, but which sounds appealing on differing levels…

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham 9781846689949
‘Tilly Dunnage left her hometown of Dungatar in rural Australia under a black cloud of accusation. Years later Tilly, now a couturier for the Paris fashion houses, returns home to make amends with her mentally unstable mother. Mid-century Dungatar is a small town, and small towns have long memories. At first she wins over the suspicious locals with her extraordinary dressmaking skills. But when the eccentric townsfolk turn on Tilly for a second time, she decides to teach them a lesson and exact long-overdue revenge…’

 

The sixth choice in this book trail is a gritty short story…

9781474603041The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
‘A young woman is making a living faking it as a cut-price psychic (with some illegal soft-core sex work on the side). She makes a decent wage mostly by telling people what they want to hear. But then she meets Susan Burke. Susan moved to the city one year ago with her husband and 15-year-old stepson Miles. They live in a Victorian house called Carterhook Manor. Susan has become convinced that some malevolent spirit is inhabiting their home. The young woman doesn’t believe in exorcism or the supernatural. However when she enters the house for the first time, she begins to feel it too, as if the very house is watching her, waiting, biding its time…’

 

Our penultimate choice is a fascinating look into Russian history…

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore 9780297852667
‘The Romanovs were the most successful dynasty of modern times, ruling a sixth of the world’s surface. How did one family turn a war-ruined principality into the world’s greatest empire? And how did they lose it all? This is the intimate story of twenty tsars and tsarinas, some touched by genius, some by madness, but all inspired by holy autocracy and imperial ambition. Montefiore’s gripping chronicle reveals their secret world of unlimited power and ruthless empire-building, overshadowed by palace conspiracy, family rivalries, sexual decadence and wild extravagance, and peopled by a cast of adventurers, courtesans, revolutionaries and poets, from Ivan the Terrible to Tolstoy, from Queen Victoria to Lenin. To rule Russia was both imperial-sacred mission and poisoned chalice: six tsars were murdered and all the Romanovs lived under constant threat to their lives. Peter the Great tortured his own son to death while making Russia an empire, and dominated his court with a dining club notable for compulsory drunkenness, naked dwarfs and fancy dress. Catherine the Great overthrew her own husband – who was murdered soon afterwards – loved her young male favourites, conquered Ukraine and fascinated Europe. Paul was strangled by courtiers backed by his own son, Alexander I, who faced Napoleon’s invasion and the burning of Moscow, then went on to take Paris. Alexander II liberated the serfs, survived five assassination attempts, and wrote perhaps the most explicit love letters ever written by a ruler.’

 

Today’s final selection is a book by one of my favourite historians, which I cannot wait to pick up (especially after a recent trip to Rome!)…

9781846683817SPQR by Mary Beard
‘ Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us. Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome. SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.’

 

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Flash Reviews: ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’, ‘Sisterland’, and ‘A Place of Greater Safety’

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers ***
9780330456715I was unsure what to except from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The only Eggers which I have read to date is his take on Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and I very much enjoyed that.

The prose here was well written, even taut in places, but I found the dialogue deliberately rather dull. I did admire the many different prose styles employed throughout the book, but didn’t enjoy reading some of the reflections – of the magazine which Eggers set up, for instance. I felt that such an inclusion, whilst evidently important in his memoir, was drawn out, and made the whole lose some of its originality, and some of its personable nature. Both the interview transcript section and some of the conversations were drawn up to the point of tediousness.

On the basis of this, I’m not sure whether I’ll rush to pick up another of Eggers’ books, or another memoir like this. I did enjoy the familial aspect of it, especially in its unusualness, and it did keep me entertained for the most part, but there were whole sections which felt dull and superfluous, and which I had to stop myself from skipping through entirely.

 

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld *** 9780552776592
I purchased Sisterland on a whim during Oxfam’s Scorching Summer Reads campaign. Sittenfeld is an author I’ve seen in various bookshops, but have never picked up; the blurb appealed to me, so I thought I’d give it a go. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I had hoped that it would be a great read; its publication by Black Swan certainly prodded me toward this conclusion (publishing, as they have, the work of favourite author Kate Atkinson).

Considering its length, Sisterland is a quick and easy read. There were elements of chick-lit to it, and far too much was involved with rather mundane parenting for my liking, but I wanted to see it through to the end to see what would happen. It was actually really absorbing in places; more so than I thought it would be on the basis of the initial two chapters, anyway.

Sisterland is well written; whilst the prose wasn’t beautiful, it was tight. The pacing was very close to perfect throughout too. I enjoyed the simple structure, where alternating chapters were set in the past and present. Kate, the novel’s narrator, was very realistic. I got the feeling whilst reading that Sittenfeld is a very perceptive author, and on this basis, I will definitely read another of her books in future. Only the ending let it down for me, hence its three-star rating.

 

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel ***
9780007250554Disclaimer: this novel really, really hurt my hands, it is so heavy.

I thought that if I didn’t take this on holiday to read before my PhD begins, I would probably wait for years to pass before reading it. I very much enjoy Mantel’s work on the whole, and a holiday in France seemed rather a good place in which to read a novel of the French Revolution. Funny, that.

I absolutely love the way in which the plot unfolded here, and Mantel’s introductions of the different characters. The whole is so well written, as I knew it would be from reading some of her other books. A Place of Greater Safety is really well done on the whole, but it feels as though less attention to detail has been placed upon it than in works such as Wolf Hall. At times it feels as though Mantel has either completely forgotten, or completely disregarded, the rudimentary elements of both history and the like of scientific discoveries. A shame, I think. Other readers could get past this, I imagine, but I am a self-confessed history geek, and the details which did not conform, both in terms of this and the far too modern phrasings, did disappoint. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but I cannot imagine many people in 1791 saying ‘Oh, fuck this!’, for instance.)

Some of the sections were overdone, given their length and the little that consequently happened within them. On the whole, Mantel has done a grand job in bringing a pivotal period of French history to the fore, but silly inconsistencies let it down. This is a long book to be even momentarily peeved by, after all.

 

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Flash Reviews: ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ and ‘Uprooted’

Time for some more flash reviews!

Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser *** 9780753826546
I am very much interested in Mary’s story, but haven’t studied any history of the period since I was at secondary school. I chose to read Fraser’s account of hers because she is so well revered; I thought that if anyone could present her tale in a fascinating and memorable way, it would be her. Alas, I have a few issues with the book. Mary Queen of Scots held my attention for the first 150 pages or so, but I felt as though it shifted after that point, losing some of its initial sparkle. Fraser’s effort is also a little protracted; it would have been better, and far more successful, had it been presented in a book of half this size. As it is, Mary Queen of Scots (book, not person – although she did stand at the height of five foot eleven…) was rather a behemoth.

The entirety is very repetitive; there is so much emphasis placed upon the (frankly largely unimportant) details of Mary’s appearance and height, and the reiteration of such things feels unnecessary. Fraser’s writing is not bad, but given her stature as a biographical historian, I had expected that it would be far tighter, better structured, and more expansive. Much of the vocabulary is used again and again, sometimes in the same sentence. The book could have been riveting – indeed, I thought it would be after reading the witty and amusing introduction – but it felt flat.

I would like to pick up another Fraser in future to see how it compares, but I shouldn’t think I will be doing so for quite some time. After all, the wrist ache needs to subside first…

 

Uprooted by Naomi Novik **
9781447294146I must begin by stating that I am not really a reader of fantasy novels, and tend to prefer a healthy dose of realism. That said, I largely decided to try ‘Uprooted’ since it was splashed all over my Instagram feed, and everybody was saying how amazing it was.

I did not find this an amazing book. Whilst the beginning captivated me, and left me wanting to know what was going to happen, I felt as though it immediately became plodding and rather dull. The narrative voice did not feel a realistic one to me, and it was repetitive to boot. The pacing was off, too. Reading it felt like wading through a pool of treacle; the end was in sight, but I just couldn’t bring myself to get there.

The elements of fairytale here would have captured my attention if they hadn’t been so trite. This book had so much scope to be good, and even original, but I feel rather disappointed that I had to abandon it 100 pages in; it just wasn’t doing anything for me.

 

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One From the Archive: ‘After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945’ by Ben Shephard ****

First published in November 2012.

After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945 is the newest offering from historian Ben Shephard. The book begins with a short yet informative prologue which outlines the state of the world just before Belsen’s liberation, and an introduction in which the author states his reasons for writing such a book. Rather than an exclusive history about the camp, Shephard is concerned with the aftermath. He has aimed to present the story of all those who helped the 60,000 people in the camp to overcome typhus, starvation and dysentery ‘with only the most primitive drugs and facilities available’.

All who know just the slightest crumbs of what occurred in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during the Second World War will be able to comprehend just how horrific the conditions for and treatment of its prisoners were. ‘When British troops entered [the camp] in 1945,’ Shephard says, ‘they uncovered scenes of horror and depravity that shocked the world’. Upon its discovery by the Allied forces, the camp was seen as ‘a humanitarian disaster, a challenge to the conscience of the world’. The British people involved ‘regarded their conduct at Belsen as one of the great epics of medical history’. And so the book begins.

Unlike many of the concentration camps which included a majority of Jewish prisoners, Belsen was split into several different sections which also housed ‘criminals’, ‘neutrals’ and political prisoners. The most famous of its inmates was Anne Frank, who sadly died of typhus just weeks before the camp was liberated. By using so many different sources – ‘contemporary military records, the diaries of those who worked at Belsen and the testimony of survivors’ – the author has successfully built up a full picture of what occurred in April and May 1945, those pivotal months for all involved. A wealth of diaries and letters have been included throughout which help the author to reinforce points and illustrate the horrors of the camp, all taken from accounts and testimonies of individuals from all walks of life. These begin with the diary of a schoolteacher from Sarajevo and go on to include a lawyer from Amsterdam, a French musician, British colonels involved with the liberation, speeches from various members of the British Government, stretcher bearers and Red Cross volunteers, amongst others.

Along with his main body of text, Shephard has included two appendices which state the death toll in Bergen-Belsen and the evacuation of its prisoners, a section of notes which expand upon things mentioned in the book, and a far-reaching bibliography made up of dozens of consulted sources. Shephard has aimed to make After Daybreak accessible to a wide readership, rather than creating a purely scholarly or academic text. Here, he succeeds. His account is incredibly informative and is presented as a very readable history book. Shephard does not involve himself with long, laborious sentences, but with the presentation of facts, which he has presented in an accessible and fully explained manner.

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‘One Summer: America 1927’ by Bill Bryson ****

One Summer: America 1927 is historian Bill Bryson’s newest number one bestseller.  In this fascinating book, he writes of the summer in which ‘America came of age and changed the world for ever’.  The book’s blurb states that he masterfully ‘spins a tale of brawling adventure, reckless optimism and delirious energy’.  The Observer believes it to be ‘surely the most sublime distraction published this year’, and upon reading it, one cannot help but to agree.

‘One Summer: America 1927’ (Black Swan)

As the book’s blurb states, an incredible amount of events occured from the May to September of 1927 in the United States, many of which were wonderful advances for the age, and the majority of which we still use and rely upon today: ‘It was the summer that saw the birth of talking pictures, the invention of television, the peak of Al Calpone’s reign of terror… and an almost impossible amount more.’  It is an incredibly interesting year to focus such a work of non-fiction upon, and it is nigh on impossible to be bored at any point whilst reading it.

As with all of Bryson’s books, One Summer: America 1927 grips from the very beginning: ‘On a warm spring evening just before Easter 1927, people who lived in tall buildings in New York were given pause when wooden scaffolding around the brand-new Sherry-Netherland Apartment Hotel caught fire and it became evident that the city’s firemen lacked any means to get water to such a height’.  He goes on to encompass Charles Lindbergh, the murder of art editor Albert Snyder in his own home, reading in America, the rise of the tabloid newspaper, the problems the presidency faced, how American baseball legend Babe Ruth was spotted, and how Henry Ford built up his empire, amongst many other interesting elements.

Bryson has written an extensive prologue and epilogue in One Summer: America 1927, and has also included a vast bibliography and well-considered list for further reading suggestions.  Such a lot has been taken into account throughout.  One event is linked to the next so well, and the whole is really a joy to read.  Bryson presents history as it should be; accessible, and incredibly gripping.  One Summer: America 1927 is sure to delight history nerds everywhere.

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