A very short review of ‘Tipping the Velvet’

A very short review of ‘Tipping the Velvet’

I’ve not been doing much writing over the last few months which has at least meant that I’ve been able to catch up on some of my reading.

I’ve had Tipping the Velvet on my list of books I want to read for ages and now I’ve finally got round to it. There’s an Afterward by the author, Sarah Waters, where she complains that “like many first novels by inexperienced authors, it is baggy and over written.” I’m nervous about disagreeing with her so much – she wrote it, so you’d think she’d know – but this is just wrong. I loved this book on so many levels but the first thing to grab me, from the very first paragraph, was the sheer wonder of the writing. Sarah Waters can summon up a place, a feeling or a person with apparently effortless prose. And that’s before we get to the story.

According to Waters herself, it’s a romp. It’s also, of course an exploration and celebration of lesbian history and gloriously, obscenely, wonderfully filthy.

Besides the sex, there is lovingly indulgent praise of the joys of the Whitstable oyster, a brilliant evocation of the music hall of the 1890s, an exploration of East End life and the birth pangs of socialism and, ultimately, [SPOILER] a surrender to romantic love and the joys of domesticity.

It’s one of those wonderful books that is widely and lavishly prised and which turns out to be even better than its reputation.

The Last Mughal

The Last Mughal

If you read last week’s blog post about Delhi’s Red Fort, you will have seen a reference to William Dalrymple’s book The Last Mughal. I started reading this before we went to India, read some more while we were there, and then came home and finished it. From which you can rightly conclude that it’s not a short book but it’s well worth the effort.

The Last Mughal describes life in one of the great courts of the world. As its secular power waned, so the Mughal court became a focus for high culture: a world dominated by artists and poets. Dalrymple brings that court to life and gives us some idea what we lost with its total destruction.

Inside the Red Fort today

The book keeps a tight focus on events in Delhi in the run up to the 1857 rebellion and its aftermath. Dalrymple makes a point of not discussing the wider conflict with the battles at Cawnpore/Kanpur and Lucknow. However, his summaries of the politics of the events and his analysis of the causes of the conflict and the way it played out are clear and concise and much better informed than those of many other people who write on this subject. Having produced  a novel set in 1857 India (Cawnpore) and then written various bits and bobs about the war, I’m amazed at how misunderstood events are.

Dalrymple’s writing is informed by his own research in the Indian National Archives and elsewhere, working his way through a mass of documentation:

… great unwieldy mountains of chits, pleas, orders, petitions, complaints, receipts, rules of attendance and lists of casualties, predictions of victory and promises of loyalty, notes from spies of dubious reliability and letters from eloping lovers

It is often said that the war of 1857 is particularly well documented. The British loved paperwork and have their own records of orders and memos. Civilians and soldiers wrote letters home that have survived to this day and after the fighting was over there were inquiries and trials and all this material is easily available to historians. Almost all the records that have been used by British historians, though, derive from British sources. Dalrymple’s book is unusual in that much of it is based on Indian material. It means that The Last Mughal provides an excitingly different view of what happened. Anyone who is seriously interested in the conflict would be wise to read it.

I’m not going to attempt to summarise the contents. It’s far too long to reduce to a few paragraphs in a review and too well-written to need a crib sheet. There are parts that I felt could be usefully shortened, but I suspect everybody will have different opinions has to which bits could go. There was a lot of detail about minor characters on both sides: minor princes and their mistresses; British junior officers and their wives. It was easy to get lost, especially given the close family relationships that meant a lot of overlapping names on both sides of the conflict. There’s an introductory list of the main characters with a quick paragraph about each one, but it could usefully be extended to include a lot more names.

There is also a lot of detail irrelevant to the main themes of the book. The account of “one very stout old lady” fleeing the rebels stuck in my mind. Trapped in Delhi, the only escape for one group was to jump from the walls. Faced with a 25 foot drop, the woman screamed and refused to jump. As they came under fire, “somebody gave her a push and she tumbled headlong in the ditch beneath”. She survived the fall and the story of her escape (told in a letter home from one of the men in the party) gives a vivid picture of the reality of the early days of the Mutiny, with Europeans fleeing for their lives. The stout old lady’s escape may not add anything to our understanding of the politics of revolt but it is the sort of detail that brings history alive. In some ways, the book would be improved by removing extraneous anecdotes, but in other ways it would be very much the poorer.

Dalrymple’s extensive use of contemporary accounts, quoted at length, leads to a problem that many historians face: that of whether, and how much, to systematise spelling. Places are referred to by both their European and native names and, in some cases, the native spelling varies from writer to writer. This can create confusion. There is a glossary, which can help but it’s at the back of the book and I didn’t realise it existed until rather late in the day. It’s also not immediately obvious, in a book with hundreds of unfamiliar terms, which of them might be found in the glossary. Had I known it was there, a great deal of flicking backwards and forwards would have been involved. A more systematic use of italicisation or emboldening to indicate when definitions were available might have been useful.

These are quibbles, though, and whichever approach Dalrymple had taken, I am sure he would have annoyed somebody. The book is an astonishing glimpse into a lost world as well as a brilliant account of the historical details of the end of the insurrection and the way that the British handled the aftermath.

It is in the account of the fall of Delhi and the atrocities that followed that the book has, I think, resonances for today.

There is no doubt that the Mutiny (in the early days it was, first and foremost an uprising of troops in British service) was attended by graphic acts of horrific violence, much of it directed against civilians and with terrible casualties amongst women and children. As the British organised a belatedly effective response to an outbreak that had taken them by surprise, the idea that they were fighting a legitimate war of vengeance became common. Many officers expressed the view that it was appropriate, and maybe even necessary, to kill every last one of the Indians who had risen against them and maybe anyone who might have sympathised with the uprising. Here is Lieutenant Charles Griffiths writing after the war was over:

“… Christian men and gallant soldiers, maddened by the foul murder of those nearest and dearest to them, steeled their hearts to pity and swore vengeance against the mutineers… The same feelings to some extent pervaded the breasts of all those who were engaged in the suppression of the Mutiny. Every soldier in our ranks knew that the day of reckoning had come for the atrocities which had been committed, and with unrelenting spirit dedicated himself to the accomplishment of that purpose … it was a war of extermination, in which no prisoners were taken and no mercy shown … Dead bodies lay thick in the streets and open spaces, and numbers were killed in their houses … many non-combatants lost their lives, our men, mad and excited, making no distinction.”

Dalrymple provides many details of the atrocities committed. They’re not an easy read: even the British authorities eventually agreed that things had gone too far.

It’s important to remember that some of the British involved in these atrocities had lived and worked alongside Indians for years. Some had Indian relatives by marriage. Yet they killed without mercy, with significant public support. The Delhi Gazette reported:

“Hanging is, I am happy to say, the order of the day here… Six or eight rebels are hanged every morning.”

It seems that, faced with terrible atrocities, people can turn on their enemies and exact a vengeance that goes beyond anything that was done to them and which later generations will be appalled by. We don’t have to look too hard to see similar behaviours today.

Another aspect of the British response to the uprising which echoes down to today was the way that the blame for everything was pinned on the Muslims. A show trial of the Emperor concluded that he had headed a Muslim conspiracy with “a Mahommedan clandestine embassy to the Mahommedan powers of Persia and Turkey.” It was, according to the prosecution, “a religious war for Mahommedan ascendancy.” The fact that the Mutiny had started among Hindu soldiers and had been supported by wide swathes of the local population was simply ignored. “Hinduism,” claimed the prosecution, “… is nowhere either reflected or represented.” Even more than a century and a half later, the British authorities will never allow the facts to get in the way of an anti-Muslim rant.

In summary, Dalrymple’s remarkable scholarship has produced a wonderful book casting new light on the events of 1857 and providing food for thought for those analysing some of the conflicts of the modern day. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in Indian history and has much to offer everybody.

Jack and Jill Went Downhill

Jack and Jill Went Downhill

Another book review from me. It’s a bit of a change from the sort of book I usually write about, being by R J Gould who, according to Amazon, writes contemporary fiction about relationships or, bluntly, romances.

Jack and Jill meet on their first day at university and fall head-over-heels in love. Their love unites them despite their very different backgrounds. It is not enough, though, to keep them together faced with the pressures of working in 21st century London. He’s a City trader and she’s a teacher, both working ridiculous hours and constantly stressed. He turns to drugs and alcohol and occasional lovers. She nags a bit and eventually takes a lover of her own. There are authorial suggestions that they are both to blame, which seems a bit overly-generous to the patriarchy, but it’s still a credible portrait of a disintegrating marriage. The final straw is two very public scandals. Both make newspaper front pages, which brings out the Oscar Wilde in me: “To make one newspaper front page may be accounted a misfortune; to make two looks like a writer over-egging things.”

Jack and Jill have both screwed up and both regret it. It’s like the situation in the Jennifer Aniston movie, The Break-up. And, as with the movie, it’s a convincing story of how marriage problems escalate out of control and the distress that ensues.

How do things end? No spoilers here, as Gould is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and it is a rule of romance writing that you must have a Happy Ever After. So, implausibly, Jack and Jill bump into each other in a romantic city that they are both passing through (it’s a small world after all). Jack has given up the booze and pills and Jill is ready to forgive him. Our princess’s prince is back and they can ride off into the sunset together.

This would have been a much stronger story if Gould had stuck to his guns and had his couple (as in The Break-up) looking back on the life together that they had lost but accepting that sometimes we can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube. That, though, may be an ending that the romantic fiction market is not yet ready for. I wish it were. Gould writes well and (the odd appalling misogynistic family member apart) with layered characters who even a miserable old git like me is drawn to and cares about. It would just be better if it had ended with me shedding a reluctant tear, rather than drifting off into a sugar coma. Still, this is probably as edgy as hard-core romance readers are going to tolerate and they should enjoy the ride.

Jack and Jill Went Downhill is available on Kindle at £3.99.

Fouetté: Ailish Sinclair

Fouetté: Ailish Sinclair

I’ve been away for a few weeks and I’m well overdue a review of Foutté, the last book in Ailish Sinclair’s trilogy, A Dancer’s Journey. I’m quite glad to have had a few weeks to digest this one because Foutté is a wild ride.

The first thing to say is that the book is definitely not a stand-alone read. You’ll need to be up to speed on the adventures of our heroine, Amalphia, and the men in her life. Fouetté brings the story of passionate, talented Amalphia to its conclusion. (At least for now: Sinclair has promised that she will be revisiting Amalphia’s growing family soon.) The book ties off a lot of loose ends and we find out what has happened to many of the people who featured in the two previous books.

I mentioned a growing family and children are central to this book. Polyamorous Amalphia is living happily with two men and three children, but more children appear throughout the story. Much of the plot depends on parent-child relationships, both loving and abusive. The story centres around Amalphia’s love life, now rather less chaotic but still enthusiastic. Sexy Aleks is there, occasionally brooding but consistently magnificent. Loveable Will spends much of his time pursuing a successful career in the States but he returns regularly to Amalphia and the children. The three of them enjoy various combinations and permutations with the sex scenes particularly explicit, though never crossing the line into pornography.

It’s impossible to describe the plot, partly because anything I say will contain spoilers, but also because so much happens. There is magic and mayhem, evil plots and cruel revenge, and a lot of love and laughter. Some themes from the other books seemed more obvious to me this time. There’s a lot of attention to houses and homes, verging on property porn. Food features all the time – especially chocolate.

The story is not overly concerned with mundane reality. Frankly, it’s mad. A tiny part of me hated myself for reading it but I could hardly put it down. I galloped through it, loving every moment.

Fouetté is a particularly good example of why star ratings for books are so ridiculous. If, like me, you love this book, it will be an obviously five-star read. If not, then one star will seem generous. Will you love it? I have no idea, but if you enjoyed Tendu, you should definitely give this a go. (If you are not sure if you will enjoy Tendu, you can read my review HERE.)

I found the second book, Cabriole, less fun, but it sets up the situation for Fouetté. Think of the series as a classic three-act ballet. Tendu introduces the characters and has a lot of plot, Cabriole is the second act with lots of dancing and excitement but not a lot moving forward and then Fouetté is the final act where evil is vanquished and good triumphs and everybody gets to do a wonderful ensemble finale.

This reader for one, was happy to join the standing ovation.

Fouetté is available on Kindle at £3.99.

2023 Book Reviews

Every year I point out that this is not a book blog but every year there seem to be so many reviews… 2023 has been a comparatively quiet year with only 11 books. Click on the titles to go to the full-length reviews.

As ever, the majority of the books reviewed are historical, but there are a few contemporary novels too.


Wellington’s Smallest Victory: Peter Hofschroer

I have often visited Siborne’s model of the battle of Waterloo, which is displayed at the National Army Museum. I love it, despite the fact that in one very important aspect it is totally misleading. Peter Hofschroer’s wonderful book explains why and includes lots of fascinating detail on the battle. A must read-title for Waterloo fans.

This Bloody Shore: Lynn Bryant

I’m a huge fan of Bryant’s Manxman series, looking at the Peninsular War from a naval standpoint. This is the third in the series and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The Gods of Tango: Carolina De Robertis

Obviously I like history and I love tango, so i would be enthusiastic about this book even if it wasn’t simply one of the best novels I have read in a very long time. I can’t begin to summarise how good it is in this snippet. Read my full review and then please go on and read the book.

Three books by Deborah Swift

I’m something of a Deborah Swift fan. She is an astonishingly prolific author and writes historical fiction in several different periods. Two of these, The Silk Code and The Shadow Network are set in World War II while the third, The Fortune Keeper takes place in Renaissance Venice. Swift’s ability to write convincingly about such different periods (she has good line in 17th century England as well) is astonishing and she has gripping plot lines too. Recommended.

The Illusions: Liz Hyder

I should have loved this book. It’s got conjurers, history and supernatural happenings, but it just didn’t work for me. I honestly can’t recommend it, but that doesn’t mean you won’t like it.


Legacy: Chris Coppel

This is a supernatural horror story: not my usual sort of thing, but the author contacted me and asked me to review it and the opening pages gripped me enough to carry on to the end. It’s a very good example of the genre.

The Retreat: Karen King

A mystery with more than a touch of romance from the ever-reliable romantic novelist, Karen King. It’s a fun, light read, likely to appeal to Agatha Christie fans.

Ailish Sinclair’s dance trilogy

I loved the first book in this trilogy, Tendu. It’s got sex and ballet and a touch of X-men superpowers. What’s not to like? The second in the series, Cabriole, didn’t work as well for me but, so far, the third, Fouette, has me completely gripped.

Me, me, me!

Beside reading all these books by others, I managed to put out two books of my own this year. As with the books reviewed, my efforts were partly historical (Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras) and partly contemporary (Monsters in the Mist). I obviously haven’t reviewed them, but others have said:

I can heartily recommend this thrilling adventure

Amazon review of Torres Vedras

100% recommend

Amazon review of Monsters in the Mist

The Shadow Network: Deborah Swift

The Shadow Network: Deborah Swift

We’re almost halfway through January and Deborah Swift’s latest is published next month so now seems a good time to get my review out.

The Shadow Network takes us back to the world of WW2 espionage that she introduced in The Silk Code. This story features Neil Callaghan from the earlier book but it is a separate story about a different aspect of Britain’s secret war against Germany. It centres on the work of the Political Warfare Executive which pumped out black propaganda to the Reich. It was a significant part of the British war effort, pioneering tactics that we see used in conflicts nowadays. It’s fascinating stuff and deserves to be better known. Swift, as ever, writes with authority and I loved those parts of the book.

The social background to the story also gives vivid insights into the world of the time. The heroine, Lilli Bergen, is a half-Jewish German, who we first meet living in Berlin. Swift gives some idea of the reality of life for Jews at the time. Lilli’s (non-Jewish) father disappears into the camps – her mother is already dead – and Lilli flees to Britain. There, she thinks she is safe until she is caught up in the anti-German hysteria that saw Jewish refugees rounded up alongside Nazi sympathisers and interned on the Isle of Man. Swift catches the terror of Jews who had lived under a police state being suddenly ordered from their homes to live, without family or friends, behind barbed wire.

Fortunately for Lilli, the Political Warfare Executive needs a German singer to entertain on a radio show designed to appeal to German soldiers. The songs are interspersed with propaganda designed to undermine morale.

In her new job she meets an old boyfriend from Germany – somebody she believes to be a Nazi collaborator. Instead of denouncing him to the police, she decides to investigate on her own. It’s a trope of this sort of fiction (one I’ve been accused of myself) that your hero will find themselves in a situation where they have to undertake a risky job without any kind of backup, although they are surrounded by people who could easily help them. Swift does a good job of explaining why Lilli insists on becoming a (frankly unconvincing) Mata Hari even when she has clear evidence that her ex-boyfriend is a wrong ’un, but I did struggle to suspend my disbelief. I had particular problems when she gets engaged to the villain and moves in with him. I know it was wartime and that people let things slip a little, but I was surprised that nobody seems to have thought this was odd. What, to me, was even odder was that, though the man is a cad and a bounder, he accepts that they will share a bedroom without actually having sex. That’s a necessary plot device, as there is a romantic subplot in which Lilli is saving herself for her true love.

Will Lilli save the day and will her apparent philandering be forgiven? No plot spoilers here, but no great surprises in the book either.

Like all Deborah Swift’s books, this is a joy to read and the story bowls along fast enough to skim over the more implausible elements – and you learn a lot about the war years on the way.

The Shadow Network is published in February and is already available on pre-order on Kindle and in paperback.