A Forger’s Tale by Shaun Greenhalgh

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A Forger’s Tale is the biography of the Bolton Forger, Shaun Greenhalgh. Quietly producing fakes from his parents’ garden shed over a span of twenty years, he was eventually caught and sentenced to four years in prison. This fascinating memoir recounts his career in forging some of the most famous fakes in the world. It’s a prison autobiography crossed with a how-to guide for any aspiring forger. 

For better or worse, Edward’s tone suffuses the whole novel with multiple asides: protestations of innocence and personal grumbles. Despite his argument that a lot of his work was never intended to be true fakes, more in-the-style-of, Greenhalgh is being pretty disingenuous to think he’s not culpable. 

Art forgery is that appealing Robinhood of crimes- stealing from the rich to give to the poor. There’s some anti establishment joy in putting one over smarmy Mayfair gallery owners or faceless millionaires but it feels a lot more depressing conning a small regional museum out of half a million pounds. 

Whilst he doesn’t absolve himself, his passion for the artists he emulates is one of the most endearing things about this biography. You can’t help but be awed by the sheer volume and span of Shaun’s output: from Egyptian stonework to Saxon jewellery to Lowry paintings. It’s a great gallop through the history of art.

Read: To inspire you to sign up for your local pottery class

While the Gods were Sleeping by Elizabeth Enslin

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It takes a brave woman to travel halfway across the world to remote Nepali cowshed to give birth. Part memoir, part anthropology study, While the Gods were Sleeping recounts a young American woman’s experience of motherhood as part of a Brahmin family in Nepal. 

Elizabeth Enslin is a anthropology major when she meets her fellow student and future husband Pramod at Stanford. They agree to complete their fieldwork together in India when Enslin gets pregnant and reluctantly ends up in the tiny village of Chitwan with his family. 

I enjoy books that explore cultural differences- Enslin’s dissection of caste, status and race amongst the women she lives is really interesting. It’s very much a feminist tract in many ways, following the women of this Nepali village in their quest for literacy and political power. Her interactions and new relationships bring to life these social concepts. 

Less interesting were her personal musings on childbirth and the concept of motherhood. This is where it all gets a bit Earth-mother and meaningful. I guess that’s her prerogative though in her memoir, rather than an academic anthropology paper. 

Read: For a glimpse of Nepal away from the mountains

A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee

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Ruth Ellis was the last woman to have been hanged in the UK, at Holloway Prison in 1955. She was convicted of shooting and murdering her lover, racing driver David Blakely.

This book is a good piece of social history. Ellis’s short life spans some major 20th Century trends: the ebb of traditional industry in the UK caused her family to constantly move in search of work, she had a child with a Canadian pilot with all the devil-may-care attitude of the Blitz, and then in her role as a nightclub hostess in fast London society. 

The combination of seedy nightclubs and glamorous race tracks are potent. Christine Keeler, Stephen Ward and a Maharajah make cameo appearances. Showbiz, sex and class intermingle. You can see how amidst this a peroxide blonde bombshell, soaked in booze and with multiple lovers, scandalised Britain at the time.

Where Carol Ann Lee gets into trickier territory is where she theorises on Ellis being wrongly convicted by malpractice or misunderstanding. It’s true there are  unanswered questions, and no doubt the double sin of being working class and a woman played into her unsympathetic treatment. Ultimately though, there’s no getting round the fact that Ellis definitely committed murder.

This moral relativism is unhelpful in an already a fascinating, sympathetic portrait of a young woman trying to hustle her way to a better life. 

Read: To see if the crime fits the punishment 

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

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I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara is about a prolific American serial killer you’ve never heard of. The Golden State Killer raped and murdered a huge number of victims, prowling around suburban California in the late seventies.

This book, and generally the True Crime genre, is as much about the investigators as the ghoulish subjects themselves. There is an amazing amount of detailed research here, from geo-profiling (mind- blowing) to forensic DNA. The parallel obsessive, stalkerish behaviour is fully acknowledged. No getting away from the fact that by reading we’re also voyeurs.

Aside from keeping me awake at night, it’s a superb social history of 1970s and 80s suburban America affected by a Post Vietnam war malaise and social restlessness. There are skater boys, ageing hippies, teenage runaways, aspirational couples.

Because of the author’s untimely death, McNamara’s book isn’t a cogent whole. There are chapters missing and it has an odd structure so it reads as if it were a box of evidence- some narrative, letters, transcripts, photos. It’s quite fitting but makes for disjointed reading.

To say I enjoyed isn’t quite right (should one ever ‘enjoy’ reading about serial killers and their victims?) Rather it was fascinating and horrifying, redeemed by the glimpses into Southern California lives.

Read: If you listened to Serial

A Column of Fire by Ken Follet

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Reading A Column of Fire is to swashbuckle your way through the important historical moments of Reformation Europe. We witness the French Wars of Religion, the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, the attack of the Spanish Armada, and even Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Follet squeezes a lot in.

I loved the first two books of the series. The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End were original in that they accessibly showed the intersection of religion and everyday life within small Medieval communities. They really demonstrate the power of good historical fiction to both illuminate and entertain.

This riffs off similar themes: Protestant merchant’s son Ned Willard falls in love with Catholic local entry Margery Fitzgerald. Religion and social mores divide them and so we follow the course of their (inevitably exciting) lives, amongst those of a whole cast of other characters.

Fans of the first two books might feel disappointed as this feels quite a different style. Because of the huge scope, some of the narrative suffers as reader attention is spread too thinly and not much action happens in Kingsbridge, diluting the bubbling community feel that made the first two immensely readable.

As a stand-alone, it’s as entertaining as watching pirates plunder a ship with all guns blazing (perhaps because that’s an actual scene for the book). Which is to say, very.

Read: For an armchair Tudor adventure

Stalin, The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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What would a dinner party at Stalin’s house be like? While reading mainstream history, my mind turns to mundane questions: what food would he serve? Should you bring a bottle of wine? The private lives of famous historical figures are always interesting but even more so here because of how ideologically driven and puritanical the Soviets were.

This is the premise of Sebag-Montefiore’s book- the hidden lives of Stalin and his revolutionary elite. It’s a fascinating domestic portrait of men with famous names like Kruschev, Molotov and Beria, and their lovers, families and enemies. They spy on and manipulate one another around their living rooms or on idyllic holidays, with Stalin as the ultimate puppet master. It’s weird reading about men who’ve sent millions to the gulags lovingly playing with their children.

It spans about a century to show the breadth of Stalin’s machinations and the evolution of the inner circle, but the nuance is usually captured in the multiple small details, resulting in some slow chapters around the war. Not one for a USSR newbie but, once you’ve read your school history, this is a rich exploration into the boundary between the state and the self in the Soviet state.

Read: To understand the do’s and don’ts of a Soviet dinner party

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

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‘The course of love never did run smooth’-Alain de Botton’s philosophical treatise on the changing, multi-faceted nature of love confirms Shakespeare was right.

Yuk, I hear you say. But hold on.

This is an unusual book. De Botton uses a fictional couple Rabih and Kirsten to explain. They tentatively meet, fall passionately in love, and mature together in married life. An ordinary modern couple- they are based in Edinburgh, have two kids, are paying off a mortgage, and juggling childcare and work.

Their story is punctured with interludes of philosophical treatise. My biggest problem with reading philosophy is how abstract it often is. So by having a specific set of complex, realistic characters to follow, we can apply the ideas to ‘real life’. Rabih and Kirsten become a parable- their trials and tribulations forming universal lessons we can all learn from or at least relate to.

The hypothesis he poses are deeply insightful- a sulk as a significant sign of closeness because ‘you should really understand why I’m angry without me having to tell you’. The way one punishes a significant other for not meeting incredibly high standards reserved for no one else. The way petty arguments are lightening rods for larger issues and patterns of behaviour.

De Botton (almost incidentally) creates some of the most believable, elegantly written fiction I’ve read this year. This is modern philosophy at its best- when you have been taught a lesson, almost without realising because you’ve enjoyed it so much.

Read: When you’re having a fight with your partner.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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In a time where NFL football players are kneeling to protest the treatment of Black Americans, Angelou’s exploration of oppression and the legacy of slavery is topical. There is a passage in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings where a VIP speaks at the local high school’s graduation; he talks about the young students as the next boxers or football players, earning glory on the field. The predominately poor black Southern community listening deflates, as their academic aspirations and dreams are disregarded.

The book is not ostensibly about race, but of course it permeates Maya Angelou’s life. It manifests in the subtle, the unwritten- there is a heartbreaking scene where her proud grandmother is forced to beg the white dentist to give Maya treatment. Though we see no lynchings, Angelou’s autobiography thematically explores what it is like to have limitations and segregation.

A young black girl in Stamps, Arkansas, Angelou is looked after by her god-fearing grandmother and shuttled between her hustling parents. She’s downtrodden, sexually abused and left to fend for herself. Depressing and traumatic as it is, it is also incredibly joyful, funny and uplifting.

Aside from being a cultural artefact or the subject of extensive literary criticism around form and genre, it is the specific experience of growing up. Angelou’s pre-pubescent anxiety is universal to teenagers across globes and centuries. Her story is relatable and poignant because of her best friends, her relationship with her brother, her chores, and her love for books. The dignity and humanity of Angelou’s coming-of-age is what makes this so powerful.

Read: To recapture the process of growing up

Crown of Blood by Nicola Tallis

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Crown of Blood is a very sensational, melodramatic title for what is a fairly sensible historical biography.

I knew very little about Lady Jane Grey- put on the throne by unscrupulous relatives as Queen of England for nine days, before being beheaded by her cousin Mary I. Tragic. This book sets out to combat the idea of Jane as a powerless pawn, the classic Victorian heroine.

Tallis does this fairly well. I was surprised at the level of Jane’s academic ability, shown in her epistolary relationships with comtemporary leading thinkers. Her intellect tied to the strength of her convictions in the Protestant faith fuel Tallis’s thesis that Jane would have made a good queen.

It’s a tough sell though because there’s not that much source material available. Jane lives an obscure life until the age of 11 and then is executed at the age of 16ish- we don’t know her age. Much of the writing is conjecture: Jane ‘could have’ met this person or ‘might have’ felt scared. We don’t even have an actual portrait of her- a real shame as they’re effectively the Tudor equivalent of paparazzi shots in OK magazine.

Where we do have more information, interesting characters emerge. Her father Henry Grey is despicable- selfish and easily-swayed, he effectively gambles away his daughter. Her guardian Thomas Seymour is a real wheeler-dealer, always angling for the next improbable jackpot. Tallis also adds colours by talking of context and convention of the time.

It doesn’t totally change my views of Lady Jane Grey (I’m not sure they were that well formed with to begin with), but it does flesh out a girl often consigned to a postscript of history.

Read: If you like Antonia Fraser or Alison Weir

Ripper by Patricia Cornwell

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Jack the Ripper is excellent material for countless writers of both fact and fiction. A serial murderer of five down-and-out women, the Ripper menaced the gloomy streets of London, teasing the Police with hundreds of creepy letters before vanishing. A mix of seedy music hall glamour and gin-soaked slum squalor, all overlaid with a good dose of Victorian morality and ruffles.

This is Crime writer Patricia Cornwell’s thesis on the true identity of Jack the Ripper. Her theory is that acclaimed British artist Walter Sickert. It’s certainly plausible as Cornwell methodically lists up the reasons why; master of disguise, similar writing paper, symbolism in his art, geographical proximity and so on.

It’s really interesting as she recounts each case of murder- from her Kay Scarpetta novels, she certainly has an eye for forensics and crime scenes. The extensive research and contextual exploration of London at the time and Sickert himself are fascinating. It all tallies up rather satisfyingly.

Except for the fact there’s absolutely zero solid proof.

I don’t doubt that Cornwell truly believes the culprit was Sickert. You don’t spend two years and lots of time and money on something clearly unfounded (unless she got a huge book advance!) She’s vehement, branding those in disagreement ‘Sickert apologists’ which is a bit harsh considering there’s no conclusive evidence.

Still, I’m fine with considering the Ripper’s identity a mystery lost to time if only to fuel the imagination of countless more writers.

Read: If you like a good conspiracy theory.