History Fun

What is it about history that insists on slipping out of your mind (or out of my mind, at least)? History at school was never fun because of the stubborn way that only the most trivial information presented itself at times of crisis, such as during exams.  As a child, I consoled myself with the observation of Sellar (Aegrot: Oxon) and Yeatman (Failed M.A., etc. Oxon) that:

History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember.”*

Perhaps this is why we enjoy historical fiction so much—it helps bring the past alive in stories that stick. Some writers of historical fiction are so proud of their research that they desiccate their tales to the point where we might just as well read non-fiction (not mentioning any names).  Thankfully, some writers mix and bake their tales with the lightness of a soufflé and Jodi Taylor, author of the Chronicles of St Mary’s, is one such writer.


The St Mary’s series (nine novels and numerous short stories by 2018 and still going) is sometimes located within the science fiction genre but it has only one sci-fi premise: that time-travel is possible.  The only other general assumption is that, if anyone is going to do time-travel responsibly, then it’s an historian. The fun comes when we learn that the historians employed at St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research are entirely irresponsible in their all-consuming passion to find out what really happened. They specialise in exploring times that involve historical controversy, anywhere from the time of the dinosaur to recent World Wars. With just a soupçon of romance and sadness, these novels provide an easy way to become absorbed in the past.

They are available in hard and paperback as well as ebook and audiobook (which is how I became acquainted with them—great narration by Zara Ramm). The first of the series is titled, Just One Damned Thing After Another, although there is a short story prequel available, The Very First Damned Thing.



*If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading ‘1066 and all that: A memorable history of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates’ then I recommend the experience. Amazon has it available very cheaply and there are some free pdfs floating about the internet too.

Best audio books 2017

Redphones: Listening to music while waiting for a friend, Garry Knight, Flickr, CC2.0 licence with attribution.

While cleaning out my father’s flat after his death earlier this year, I came across the notebooks in which both my parents kept a listing of the books they had read each year. My own reading habits are not nearly as methodical.  However, new ways of consuming books do such cataloguing work for us.  I have become addicted to audio books as it allows me the chance to read and knit at the same time (unlike my mother who learned to do both simultaneously to defend herself from my grandmother’s accusations of ‘wasting her time reading’).  I subscribe to audible and they sent me a summary of my own (well-spent) 20,250 minutes of listening time this year. Apparently, my favourite genre was ‘crime & thrillers’— which suggests some new writing directions for me later.  I entirely agree with their analysis of my ratings that showed that my favourite author was Philip Pullman and my favourite narrator was Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (narrator for the delightful PC Grant detective series by Ben Aaronovitch, but I’m saving a review about that series for another post).

my top three audiobooks for 2017

 (in no particular order)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

by Gail Honeyman (hard cover and paperback published 2017 by Harper Collins). Audio book released 2017, read by Cathleen McCarron.

Written in the first person, we are taken inside the character of a fascinating woman who leads a highly circumscribed life.  This is a novel about small moments and their effects. The narrator fully captures the tension between Eleanor’s self-awareness and her lack of insight. The newspaper reviews of the book are very positive but often contain spoilers, so if you like to know more about what’s ahead have a look at these: from the Guardian, or from the Washington Independent Review of Books. Reese Witherspoon’s production company has apparently optioned the book for a movie so you could wait till then or, best of all, just dive into the book and find the treasure there.

A Legacy of Spies

by John leCarré (hard cover and paperback published 2017 by Penguin Random House). Audio book released 2017, read by Tom Hollander.

Peter Guillam is called back by the Circus to account for the past Cold War operations of George Smiley.  The reviews of the book have been unanimous in their praise, see the review by the New York Times for example.

Actor Tom Hollander is exactly the right person to read it – a master of restraint in the context of overpowering emotions. (You may remember Tom Hollander from the TV mini-series ‘The Night Manager’, and the TV series ‘Rev’, amongst many other roles.)



La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust, Volume 1

by Philip Pullman (hard cover and paperback published 2017 in association with Penguin Random House). Audio book released 2017, read by Michael Sheen.

Philip Pulman takes us back to the very beginnings of Lyra’s life and the disturbance she brings, even as a baby, to the control exerted by The Magisterium. The heroes of the story are Malcolm and his daemon Asta who must save Lyra when the flooding of the Thames brings both corporeal and magical threats.

Actor Michael Sheen is a captivating narrator. (Michael Sheen was recently seen as Dr Masters in the TV series ‘Masters of Sex’, and you might remember him as David Frost in the film ‘Frost/Nixon’ back in 2008).


This is the first of three planned prequels to ‘His Dark Materials’. I, for one, will be lining up for the others. The reviews have welcomed the return to Lyra’s world, for example see the review in the Sydney Morning Herald. Like the reviewers, I look forward to the next instalment in this series.