Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Top Ten Reads of 2014

There have been a number of excellent books which I have had the privilege to read in 2014, some of them history, some of them fiction. In this post I will run down my favourite reads of 2014. Each year, I read a variety of non-fiction and fiction books, and here I have decided to make a list of ten stand-out books which I have read this year. This will hopefully encourage readers to read these books too. I've given the publication date and publishing company for more specific details about the books.

1. Retha M. Warnicke, Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
Retha M. Warnicke, professor of history at Arizona State University, is probably best known for her controversial book, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (Cambridge, 1989), in which she advanced a number of unusual theories about Henry VIII's second and most famous wife. Warnicke has also published lesser-known studies of Anne of Cleves and Mary, Queen of Scots. In Wicked Women of Tudor England, Warnicke examines six Tudor women who were slandered and defamed in their lifetimes and remain controversial even today: the queens Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard; the noblewomen Anne Seymour, duchess of Somerset, and Lettice Dudley, countess of Leicester; and the wives of Sir Thomas More, Jane and Alice. Warnicke's research is painstaking, drawing on an impressive range of sources including diaries, ambassadors' reports, chronicles, legal documents, trial records, poetry, and literary texts. She convincingly demonstrates that none of these women, in fact, were "wicked", but were blamed for their husbands' faults. While I did not agree with all of Warnicke's conclusions, this book is a must read for anyone interested in early modern England and, more specifically, the experiences of high-status Tudor women. The chapter on Katherine Howard is a particular stand out.

2. Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn: In Search of the Tudors' Most Notorious Queen (OneWorld Publications, 2014).
Where Warnicke concentrated on exploring how Tudor women were defamed and slandered in their lifetimes, Susan Bordo's phenomenal cultural study of Queen Anne Boleyn not only considers how, and why, Anne has been negatively misrepresented in the centuries since her death, but asks broader questions that are essential for any student of history. Specifically, she forces us to question what history is. She convincingly shows that the 'history' of Anne Boleyn is, in fact, little more than hearsay, rumour and misrepresentation. While the true character of Henry VIII's second queen can never be known with certainty given the polarising religious and cultural views of those who wrote about her, and given the deliberate destruction of evidence for her existence, Bordo puts forward a credible and moving portrait of Anne as a talented, artistic, sophisticated and opinionated woman. Henry VIII clearly loved her and wanted to make her queen because he respected her. But her inability to provide a son put her in a vulnerable position that was exploited by her many enemies. The stand out feature of Bordo's book, however, is probably her examination of the many cultural representations of the Boleyn queen in the centuries since her death. Anne has been represented as saint, sinner, whore, witch, 'mean girl', Protestant martyr, beloved mother, feminist icon, and everything in between. The multifaceted and multidimensional nature of these representations not only demonstrates how controversial Anne was, and remains, but speaks volumes of how complex she was as a woman to inspire such complex portrayals of her even up to the present day.

3. Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (Vintage Classics, 1995).
In 2008, The Times ranked Angela Carter tenth in their list of "The 50 Greatest British Writers since 1945", and the justification for this lies above all, perhaps, in her masterpiece The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. Carter, who died in 1992, was renowned for her magical realism and her love of the Gothic. Moreover, her feminism allowed her to imaginatively reconstruct much-loved fairytales in a more complex and subtle way than had ever been done before; as Grazia described her fairytales, they are 'fairy tales reimagined for feminist times', and British novelist Ian McEwan rightly interpreted them as 'magnificent set pieces of fastidious sensuality'. In particular, her story 'The Bloody Chamber' is sensational, artfully reinterpreting the disturbing and sinister legend of Bluebeard and interweaving sensuality with horror, seduction with gore and violence with passion. 

4. Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (Granta, 2003). 
When many people think about German history post-1945, the immediate image that springs to mind tends to be that of the Berlin Wall, which divided East and West between 1961 and 1989. In November 1989, amid mounting protests and discontent, the Wall finally fell, and Germany experienced its Wiedervereinigung ('Reunification') between East and West. Anna Funder, an Australian journalist, travelled to Germany in the mid-90s and met a host of Germans willing to tell their stories and experiences before the Wall came down. Her moving book details these experiences vividly and evocatively: experiences that were often dark; sometimes humorous; usually exhilarating; and always emotionally charged. Anyone interested in the history of Germany should read this book: it is beautifully written and provides a vivid sense of what it was like to live in divided Germany before the fall of the Wall in 1989.

5. Susan E. James, Kateryn Parr: The Making of a Queen (Ashgate, 1999).
The drama of Henry VIII's first two marriages and the enduring fascination in the reputed sexual scandals of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard have tended to result in the neglect of the sixth and final queen of Henry VIII, Katherine Parr. Yet Susan E. James's magnificent biography of Katherine compellingly demonstrates that this fiery, intelligent, passionate and educated woman was a remarkable queen consort, who deserves to be known and celebrated for her many accomplishments as Henry's wife. Katherine was the first English queen to publish her own works and was in charge of a household that was famed for its piety, culture and reformist leanings. Katherine can credibly be seen as the first Protestant queen of England and her contribution to the English Reformation was considerable. So radical were her religious beliefs, in fact, that conservatives at court plotted her downfall in 1546 and almost achieved her arrest and imprisonment (possibly even execution) for heresy. Often unfairly seen as nothing more than an aged nurse looking after her irate and volatile husband, Katherine emerges in this book as a complex, passionate, sophisticated and shrewd woman who was interested in art (specifically portraiture), music, fashion and religion. She was involved in politics and was appointed by Henry as Regent of the country when he departed for France in 1544, a mark of his respect for her and confidence in her abilities. She was a devoted stepmother and was close to all three of Henry's children. She was well-liked and respected by her contemporaries and brought a measure of stability and calmness to court after the dramas of the king's previous short-lived marriages. This is, in all respects, a remarkable read, and can with some justice be called the definitive biography of Katherine Parr.

6. Eric Ives, Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). 
The late scholar Eric Ives was best known for his phenomenal biography of Anne Boleyn, published in 2004, often referred to as being 'the Boleyn Bible'. His study of the tragic Lady Jane Grey appeared in 2009. In July 1553, fifteen-year-old King Edward VI died. In the months before his untimely death, he had determined to elect his young cousin Jane heir to the throne in the event of his death, thus displacing his elder sisters Mary and Elizabeth, because he viewed them as illegitimate. Although Henry VIII's will of 1544 had restored both sisters to the succession, they had never been declared legitimate. Mary's Catholic faith also rendered her, in Edward's eyes, unfit to be England's sovereign. Ives controversially argues that, because of this, Lady Jane was the rightful inheritor of the throne, meaning that Mary Tudor, rather than Jane, was usurper. He convincingly suggests that Edward, rather than the duke of Northumberland, was responsible for masterminding the 1553 'devise for the succession' that nominated Jane heir to the throne. Ultimately, the weakness and unpopularity of the Grey regime, amidst the strength of Mary Tudor's cause, meant that it quickly collapsed, and Mary became queen in the autumn of 1553. Lady Jane was executed months later, alongside her husband. 

7. Helen Rappaport, Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses (Macmillan, 2013).
An air of tragedy has always surrounded the untimely and violent deaths of Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanova, the four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. Rappaport's elegant narrative documents in exhaustive detail the lives of four young girls who were destined to grow up in a volatile and restless Russia. The lives of these four young women have been surrounded in mystery and controversy, with rumours of their survivals, but Rappaport sets the record straight by providing a factual account of their short lives. She charts their teenage crushes, their friendships, their education, their relationship with their parents and with Rasputin. The four girls were very different in their personalities: Olga emerges as stubborn, complex, emotional and sensitive; Tatiana as sensible, dutiful and reserved, her mother's favourite; Maria as friendly, optimistic and cheerful; and the youngest and most famous, Anastasia, appears to have been boisterous, energetic, playful and troublesome. Rappaport sensitively documents the difficulties these girls must have faced, with an invalid mother who was cordially detested by her courtiers, and with a haemophiliac brother shielded and closeted from the restless Russian population. One cannot but feel sorry for these four complex young women, so brutally killed alongside their parents and younger brother in the wake of the Russian Revolution. 

8. Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Bloomsbury, 2008).

Hosseini is best known for being the author of The Kite Runner, which was later made into a Hollywood film. This beautifully written, evocative and haunting book tells the story of Mariam, who is fifteen years of age when she is sent to Kabul, Afghanistan, to wed Rasheed, who is several decades older than her. Later, she makes the acquaintance of Laila, and a strong friendship develops between the two that, in some respects, resembles the ties between mother and daughter. Set in context of the Taliban takeover of power, Hosseini charts in harrowing detail the struggles these women faced against starvation, desperation and fear. But the underlying theme of the book is love, and the wondrous things that can be done when one loves another. Hosseini conveys the war-torn brutality of contemporary Afghanistan, but positions readers to understand that, even in the darkest of places, can be found love, compassion, hope and forgiveness.

9. Caroline Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (Picador, 2007).
While Marie Antoinette, queen of France, probably never in fact callously commented "let them eat cake", as legend suggests, the legend that she was obsessed with fashion is undoubtedly true, as Caroline Weber's playful, exciting and breathless study compellingly shows. This mesmerising book details the queen's love of fashion, her styles, her dresses, and the ostentatious and captivating outfits she wore to a host of social occasions. But Marie Antoinette was not necessarily frivolous in her love of fashion: rather, like other high-profile trendy queens such as Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette consciously deployed fashion as a political and cultural symbol of the might of the monarchy and the power of the throne. Clothing was used as a symbol of power within the political world. It is a tragedy that, having been renowned for her fashionable tastes, her beauty and her elegance, Marie Antoinette ultimately died a poorly-dressed, bedraggled and aged old woman on the guillotine, loathed by the population. 

10. Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (Black Swan, 2008).
Last but not least, Markus Zusak's masterpiece The Book Thief. This wonderful book tells the story of Liesl, a nine-year-old girl sent to live with a foster family on Himmel Street somewhere in Germany, in the wake of the Second World War. Having lost her parents, who have been taken to a concentration camp, Liesl steals books in an attempt to become literate after being mercilessly taunted at school for her illiteracy. But Liesl faces danger when her family decide to shelter a Jew. This mesmerising book tells of love, friendship, hope and sacrifice. It is a powerful book that lingers long in the imagination, and the film is well worth seeing. 

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