Tag Archives: History

REVIEW: Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne

REVIEW: Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne

From the writer of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, made into a heart wrenching and immensely successful film, and The House of Special Purpose about the last Russian Royal Family came my first non science fiction read of 2012 – Mutiny on the Bounty, based on the true historical event.

For those who are not aware of the most famous act of piracy to befall a British navy ship, the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ was an incident in the late 18th century on the eve of the French Revolution, just a few short decades after the death of the quickly mythologised hero Captain James Cook (a local boy from Marton in present day Middlesbrough, England). A frigate, captained by Lieutenant  William Bligh who had served with Captain Cook on his great voyages of discovery, was tasked with the most urgent mission in the Empire: the collection of a foodstuff known as the breadfruit which grew in great quantities on the remote island of Tahiti. No, the King wasn’t starving, nor did the Queen have pregnancy cravings. There had not been a poor harvest in England, and indeed the sole purpose of the entire venture was designed to make it unnecessary for the British Empire to have to supply the slave colonies in the Caribbean. The breadfruit was a hardy food stuff that the Kings Ministers intended to have planted in the Caribbean, thereby making it cheap to keep their fellow man in chains. A little ironic when some of those who sailed on the Bounty were not their by choice themselves (as is the case with the stories narrator). After reaching Tahiti and completing their harvest, the crew on the Bounty rebel against their captain seize his ship and promptly dump him and his few loyalists at sea in a little launch boat with a token gesture of food. The new pirates had absolutely no intention of swapping the heaven of Tahiti, for the hell of life in England’s Navy. Miraculously Lieutenant Bligh led his little band back to England to a hero’s welcome and what mutineers could be found in the forthcoming years were rounded up and tried in London to great public interest, soon superseded by the French Revolution.

That is the bare bones of the historical events, and relaying them to you here in no way undermines Mr Boyne’s novel which is not in fact about events but people, relationships between men – master thief and child prostitute, upper class officers born to their position and men who have risen on their merit, captain and servant boy, mutineer and loyalist. It retells in fascinating human detail the ego, the lusts, the needs of these men. It illustrates the conflicted nature of a ‘sea man’ like Bligh, having to deal with being stuck on Tahiti whilst the breadfruit is collected and almost literally crawling up the walls of his little hut to get back to sea – men like him, his hero Captain Cook and my ancestor Lord Admiral Collingwood were men who preferred to be at sea to being on land. Land was their sea, sea their land. They could not understand other men’s pangs for home port and land. Boyne paints a picture of gradually simmering tensions amongst the crew and still manages to spring the inevitable mutiny as a surprise, we are so immersed in the thoughts of our narrator – John Jacob Turnstile, captains servant – that his shock becomes our shock.

John Jacob (“Turnip”) Turnstile’s narration sees us travel from the streets of Portsmouth at the very bottom of the social ladder to a myriad of adventures. His constant occupation is a desire to escape. I was initially unhappy with how the author consistently brought the characters thoughts back to his days in Portsmouth ‘entertaining’ well-to-do gentlemen. Its a strange block for me, but I just cannot read about child abuse in any form and I find those people who buy novels solely about it quite bizarre. Yet here, eventually I realised that Boyle wasn’t using it as some cheap narrative gimmick but very appropriately as a foundation stone in the personality of our Turnip. It informs his interactions with everybody – fellow boys and men, authority figures, women. As a result I think the author has successfully managed a blending of social history – exposing the reader to life as it was for many in 19th century England – and riveting human drama.

We are, after all, made of the best and the worst of our experiences.

If you saw The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, or read it, I highly recommend you get Mutiny on the Bounty, which is available on Kindle. I am certainly considering getting more John Boyne novels after the next couple of books I read. He seems to take a scattergun approach to his writing – sampling all sorts of different topics and genres and I look forward to seeing what other stories I can read from him.

If the real events described in the book and this review interest you then I strongly encourage you to do a little searching online for there is a wealth of diaries, logs, and memoirs from crew and officers that survive to this day. You may also want to learn about those mutineers who were never caught by His Majesty’s Navy and the controversial descendant’s at Pitcairn Island.

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Posted by on March 12, 2012 in Fiction


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Review: ‘Sin in the Second City’ by Karen Abbott

Review: ‘Sin in the Second City’ by Karen Abbott

Readers to the blog will recall that late last year I read a book called The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, a non-fiction, brilliantly vivid account of the Chicago World Fair 1893 and the exploits of a serial killer in the shadows of the festivities. The use of the principle figures own words and documentation to tell the story in such a narrative manner brought the period alive for me and hooked me on the story of this magnificent and brutal American city.

‘Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul’ by Karen Abbott is, amongst being a rather wordy title, another look into the Windy City’s very soul and picks up almost immediately after Erik Larsons book finishes. Indeed both books are published by the same company (Random House) and there is a little overlap in that Larson refers vaguely to the ‘disappeared’ women who travel from far and wide to Chicago in search of a better life. Karen Abbotts book picks up the tale of the disappeared and tackles the issues of ‘white slavery’, police and civic corruption and a nation wrestling with its own morals.

Much like the Devil, Sin is written exclusively from the testimony of people of the time, newspaper and county records and other recorded evidence. It is a marvellous feat in informative storytelling, and I do wish that all history books were written like this because the take up in colleges of History would be so much the higher. The language is never too dense, though it liberally sprays colloquialisms from the time which using the Kindle dictionary I was able to look up if I needed to. A very professionally laid out hyperlinked contents page, breaking the story up into vignettes that can last from two page turns to 20 page turns lends a certain momentum to the plot. You can put it down at any moment given the opportunities for a break, but its very lay out makes you want to keep pushing on. Once again Random House have included a wealth of original photography in the Kindle edition, maximising the potential of the format and providing a reading experience that is a real pleasure.

The figures at the heart of the story – the upstart madams known as the Everleigh Sisters, bitter and vengeful former Queen of the Levee Vic Shaw, Zoe Millard, Bathhouse John Coughlin, Hinky Dink Kenna, Ike Bloom, the Weiss brothers, Big Jim Colosimo (predecessor to Al Capone), Ernest Bell, Clifford Roe, Mayor Carter Harrison II (his father having featured prominently in Larsons book as mayor) – all loom larger than life. The portrait photographs of the notorious and grand, and the notoriously grand, alongside descriptions of their personality and quotes from their own lips provide intimate insights into real people living extraordinary lives.

It almost seems impossible to believe now, but the Levee district, being the designated segregated area for prostitution, gambling and drugs with the full endorsement of politicians and police at the turn of the 20th Century feels like a part of the fabric of life. At times you could almost be forgiven for agreeing with the principles that a ‘segregated’ area was better than driving it underground such is how well Karen Abbott draws the personalities of the people involved.

The central narrative line for Karen Abbotts work is this issue of White Slavery – innocent white American girls being tempted or forced into coming to Chicago to work in the vice trade and being unable to leave it until their ‘debt’ is paid. This was a toxic topic for politicians (who received much of their electoral money and votes from the vice district leaders) and reformers at the start of the 20th Century. They could accept foreigners working the vice trade but not the idea that the wholesome young American woman was being corrupted and coerced into a (very short, according to the reformers) life of sin. Still, the topic was a bit of a taboo and religious ministers and lawyers spent considerable time looking for that one story that could blow the whole issue up into a national crisis.

The Everleigh Club where working girls and punters had to meet criteria

Into this tension come Minna and Ada Everleigh who open arguably the most famous(They were referenced recently on an episode of crime drama The Chicago Code) brothel in the history of the United States – the Everleigh Club at 2131-2133 South Dearborn Street.  Naturally a target for reformers, they also alienated their fellow madams with their attempt to elevate the oldest profession in the world to some kind of classy respectable level. No drug abuse here, no stealing from the punters either. The Everleigh sisters ‘butterflies’ as they called their working girls were educated in order to hold their own in conversation with the leading men of the city, who after spending some hours listening to the ‘professor’ on the golden piano and enjoying the glorious Pullman Buffet in one of the themed rooms would then retire upstairs with one of the girls of their choosing. It wasn’t so much an act the Everleigh sisters were selling but an experience. And those ‘butterflies’ could earn more in one night at the Club than in a week at other brothels. Minna and Ada had to fight against the jealousy of their fellow madams, play the game of greasing the wheel of local politics and smile sweetly in the face of ranting preachers foreseeing fire and brimstone for the women.

Do the Everleigh sisters succeed in transforming the perception of prostitution? Do they be able to counter the attacks by fellow Madams, preachers and politicians alike? What is the ultimate destiny of the thousands of people working and living in the Levee? Download a sample from the kindle store, and I am sure you will purchase the full ebook (which isnt cheap but is worth every penny). It is as thrilling and unpredictable as the best fiction, and every word spoken, every major action taken… really happened, down there, in rooms like the Japanese Throne Room of 2131-2133 South Dearborn Street, Americas most famous brothel.

Did you know? The expression “I’m going to get laid” according to Karen Abbott can be traced back to South Dearborn Street. She believes it to be a corruption of “I’m going to get Everleighed”. That’s how famous Minna and Adas venture became – it won a permanent place in the English language.

Next: Having read up on 50 years of Chicagos history now, I am itching to get a book in the same style on the life of Al Capone which should link via Big Jim Colosimo to the items I’ve already read.

The Japanese Throne room was just one of many themed rooms including the famous Pullman Buffet.


Final Word: The Everleigh Sisters retired to New York with $1,000,000 cash. ($22m in 2007 terms)

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Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Non-Fiction


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Review: Past Caring by Robert Goddard

The first of the three books that I picked as part of the Transworld Crime Caper was Robert Goddards debut crime novel Past Caring. Past Caring tells the story of a down on his luck, divorced, history teacher being given the opportunity to research the background of a former Home Secretary in the Pre-WW1 Liberal cabinet. What seems to our narrator as a straight forward tale of one mans fall from grace rapidly takes on sinister notions. Somebody conspired to ruin the career of this man, and possibly kill him. The story by and large chases down the who and why, dove tailing with the ghosts of the narrators own problematic life.

I chose Past Caring as the first book because I am myself a trained historian. My historical interests including the period which this book covers. What appealed to me was a work of historical fiction being set in a ‘present’ of the 1960s but pursuing the ghosts of the 1910s. The research to make it authentic must have been immense.

I had the unusual situation when reading it of finding myself not being particularly keen to get round to it, but every time I did pick it up I found I couldn’t put it down for hours. Have you experienced that situation with a book before? Influencing this was probably what I thought was a weak prologue and a rash of typographical and other mistakes in the text – it really needs proofreading – a surprise considering how long ago it was first published. The occasional use of a technique where the narrator referenced events that had not happened yet were also a little annoying and disrupted the tension and flow of the work. A lot of the characters also seem to talk with a similar well-educated polite voice. Perfectly acceptable in the memoir of the deceased Home Secretary and in conversations between historians but a little out of place when we listen in on other less well-educated people.

That said, there are two fantastic qualities to the book that deserve a recommendation. On the one hand there is the memoir that forms a good chunk of chapter 1 (which is about a 6th of the size of the full book) and all the different vivid stories characters tell. The first person narrative really works in these passages and pulls you right into the middle of the mystery. The second quality is the representation of historians, historical debate and processes. I read passages of conversation by historians in the book that felt incredibly authentic. Robert Goddard knows his characters inside and out and has written a tight, gripping crime story. Certainly memorable and, although I hope you get a printing that is corrected, I do recommend reading it if you enjoy your mystery and Georgian England.

Time is running out for me to complete the Transworld Crime Caper 3 book challenge. I’m going to have to up my game. Pretty sure I can get the 2nd book, “The Business of Dying” by Simon Kernick read, but all three? College and work have something to say about that. I’m not throwing the towel in yet though…
You can order the edition reviewed in this post from Amazon here.

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Posted by on March 6, 2011 in Fiction, Reviews


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The Lazarus Experiment – Research and Notes workplace images

The Lazarus Experiment has been a different story to different people. For myself it was ostensibly a pulpy affair – a straight forward revenge thriller – under the guise of being an alternate history / science fiction piece. The idea that fired the story’s exceptionally well received first part was that as far back as the 1930’s there were researchers actively trying to make death a mere obstacle to overcome as opposed to an inevitable end to our lives.

Robert Cornish, mentioned in the introduction of the story, was a real person. He really used a see-saw style machine to bring dogs back to life. He really got a death row prisoner to volunteer to be experimented on in 1948 and was really refused permission though I have never quite found the explicit reasoning for it. The Soviet Union is well known for having done extensive work on encouraging animals back to life after having their heart and brain stopped. They most famously are remembered for transplanting one dogs head onto another. In 1943, Soviet researchers did present their findings to American researchers in New York. You can view a video reputed to be showing such experiments on Youtube. Whilst the original inspiration came from a Daily Mail excerpt of a science book long forgotten, in the process of writing I actually found an archive of old Time magazines including this story about Mr Cornish and this one about the Soviet presentation. For any kind of writer, primary materials such as the Soviet video and Time magazine is like catnip for writers. It allows us to drape a veil of credibility over our fiction and discretely kick at reality beneath, reshaping it to our vision.

Of course, the experiments that were conducted have directly led to the incredible advances we have now in medicine. Heart patients once chilled can have their pulmonary system stopped for more than 90 minutes before being gently warmed and revived. An average of ten minutes seems to be the rate for being revived after death without brain damage, though again this can be extended in circumstances of extreme cold (a drowning for instance in a frozen lake). The story then, whilst reading as quite fantastical is actually a fast and loose play with facts. Providing just enough information to intrigue without so much that connections with modern medicine are made. It helps that, unlike how Robert Cornish planned, Doctors these days do not use hoovers to bring you back after dying on the operating table.

Who is to say whether or not some Nazi or Allied scientist considered the practical applications of their research in the way expressed in the story? It would appear a logical wartime move, particularly in a non-religious society. The lack of moral and spiritual restrictions in place on the Nazi’s fostered a hideous corpus of research and skills that were exploited by the Americans and Soviets after the Second World War.

Robert Cornish, if your wondering, was quietly asked to vacate the premises at the University of California Institute of Experimental Biology following the amount of press coverage he was attracting though he continued to receive independent funding. All his surviving dogs were brain damaged.

For a first time attempt at writing a serial (for the purposes of writing a longer short story than I have done in recent times) I am very proud of the results but also conscious of several lessons. In the first instance, the reaction on Facebook, Twitter and the Blog was wonderful. In the space of a month I had accumulated at least 50% of the views the blog had taken over the previous half year. The statistical comparison of views on each part of the story shows I have lost some of those initial readers, suggesting that the second part of the story was not strong enough to retain readership or that I did not promote it as effectively.

The sheer pleasure of writing to beats and to a larger word count than previous has fostered a surge of creativity in myself. I am quickly filling my Moleskine notebook with outlines of ideas and returned to previously dismissed projects with renewed enthusiasm. By trying to hit in and around that thousand mark and finish each thousand with a cliff-hanger I tasted some of the high excitement that pulp can deliver and I hope people really enjoyed the pace of Lazarus in that context.

I have also been able to detect and recognise my own writing voice in the work as a result of spending so much of the last month on this work and looking at the ideas for further stories. The themes of death, purpose, loyalty and power hold strong to me. They can manifest themselves in many different ways – the Lady Medusa, The God Particle, For Daniels Benefit and The Lazarus Experiment show that I can tackle the same themes in different environments. I need not confine myself to a genre, but can dismiss such boundaries to build my stories on their own terms.

The Lazarus Experiment is not a perfect work, but I think it lends itself to my pulp leanings all the more for it. Forget your rules, just jump on in and enjoy the ride in reading or writing. Action is everything. Internal or external, keep things happening. I hope to be back with a further serial in about a month’s time which is currently under the working title of ‘The Harvesters” and will be a more obvious work of science fiction set on two distant moons.

My favorite comment received on the story as a whole was provided by Andrew Brown who kindly beta read the final finished piece. He said;

“Given how fantastical the scenario is, you’ve managed to make it feel entirely normal and possible – never while reading am I doubting what’s going on”

This is probably a note for all writers reading this blog – you can break all the rules, you can make the world as fantastic as you want, but keep the story human at its core and your readers will buy it. Despite the bells and whistles of reanimation, Lazarus is the story of one mans quest for answers and ultimately revenge.

I will be getting the completed story proofed hopefully and then be offering the whole thing around to see if I can get it published. Until next time, I thank all of you for reading and sharing your comments and hope to continue sharing stories with you all.

UPDATE: Parts II, III and IV have been taken down due to moves to publish the story. I hope to bring you more details as and when I can. I thank you for reading.

Image from

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Posted by on January 30, 2011 in On Writing


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“The Wild West” By Henry Brook (Review)

Native American Chief by Elwood W. McKay IIIThe area of the United States west of the Appalachian Mountains – beyond the original colonies on the eastern seaboard – has always held a mystique and wonder, both for the people who lived it and the people who look back to a place and time unrecognizable in the modern world.

The Wild West earned its name in history on the back of stories about cattle and pony rustlers, marauding Indians, bank robbing gangs, saloon shootouts and whooping prospectors striking it rich in the various mining towns of the west. It earned its reputation fast with stories traversing the infant United States by rail and telegraph new technologies that cemented and helped exaggerate the reputations of real people.

Henry Brook takes on the mission of distilling the modern legends of the 19th and early 20th Century in as easily accessible a fashion for Usborne Publishings True Stories line. It is certainly not an original topic to approach but one which this western obsessed reviewer enthusiastically approaches. The task is always clear – make it readable, make it interesting, make it educational.

The old favorites are in attendance as the book comes with ten stories including such western luminaries as: Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, the Daltons, Buffalo Bill, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, my old favorite Wild Bill Hickok and one story I hadn’t read about before on mountain man Hugh Glass, which is an extraordinary tale.

Brook accomplishes his task with three approaches. He introduces each new story with a narrative passage that throws you into the setting like a fictionalized novel and then pulls out to give a sufficiently fleshed out historical account of the story in question. Added to this the book is dotted with interesting sketches in much the similar fashion of the ‘Dime Novels’ that first gave these legends legs. Brook regularly gives definitions of words readers might not be familiar with allowing them to expand their vocabulary.

At 150 something pages, the ten chapters do not stretch the readers interest allowing short quick reads each night or day (if in school) and whilst not going into detail the book does what all good young readers books should – it leaves the reader wanting to know more.

My only reservation is that whilst a map is included at the front of the book it is symbolic of the scope of the book rather than of any particular use. It can become very easy reading the stories to lose track of any sense of locality and as the American west is probably unfamiliar to a British student, maybe a small sketch of the narrative area at the start of some of the stories would have been illustrative of events. The story on Butch Cassidy is an example – a sketch of the two Americas highlighting the distances traveled would have been impressive on the reader and helped them track the people involved.

The cover price is £4.99, good value for something which can keep a kid occupied for a week or two and who knows – like an old book on the west did for me when I was a kid, Brooks book might spark a wider interest in history for the young reader.

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Posted by on November 13, 2010 in Non-Fiction, Reviews


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Yeehaw! “Cowboys” by Catriona Clarke (Review)

Last weekend a couple of non-fiction books landed in the post in double quick fashion from the children’s book publishers Usborne. They had been hoping to have a lovely rush of book reviews to coincide with National Non-Fiction Book Day. Fabulous idea, alas I accidentally refused to play ball by not noticing this desire and getting all caught up in preparations for a job interview and well, feeling sorry for myself after said job interview.

To make up for it I am sat typing this review out on my blackberry at work in the hopes of posting it before Non-Fiction Day passes. The book, “Cowboys” by Catriona Clarke is part of those set of books aimed at new readers but caught the attentions of everybody in my household – parents, fiancé, and myself.

The presentation itself is clean and tidy with a mixture of paintings, cartoons and photographs to illustrate succinct points made in the text. I teach American West at GCSE level, and even I learned something useful which is a great credit to the scope of the book. It covers a simple definition of a cowboy, what they do and how they dress to the rise and decline of the Cattle Drives of the mid 19th Century, the prominence of the West in pop culture like movies and books, and lastly how the cowboy survives today (part extreme sportsman, part tourist attraction, part farmer).

The book was a little difficult for a young Czech boy who was still developing his English but it still provided a great talking point for the child and his support teacher and part of what we look for is ways to get children from different backgrounds talking and participating.

For children and teachers looking for inspiration and a talking point I highly recommend this book as the pictures are certainly a pleasure to look at. It’s the kind of book I would have snatched off the shelf during a wet break time and read again and again as my imagination carried me off into the pictures. Anything which stimulates conversation or imagination in young children gets my thumbs up.

Another book from the True Stories collection called “The Wild West” by Henry Brook will be reviewed as soon as possible. Keep an eye on the twitter feed or register for updates on this site for an alert when its done.

You can browse the Usborne catalogue here.

Can you recommend any non-fiction books for primary school readers? Post them in the comments below.

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Posted by on November 4, 2010 in Non-Fiction, Reviews


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