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.

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

Book Review: Cabriole by Ailish Sinclair

Book Review: Cabriole by Ailish Sinclair

Here we are with Book 2 of Ailish Sinclair’s ‘A Dancer’s Journey’. Think of it as the second act in a three act ballet – the one where everyone runs around in a riot of colour and sexuality (more or less explicit depending on the date of the original production).

We start with Aleks and Amalphia back in the castle after the drama of Tendu. All seems well, but Aleks is worried that Amalphia is being drawn into a permanent relationship without any other life experience. She should, he thinks, live life on her own for a while, meeting other men and finding out what the city has to offer, rather than burying herself in a Scottish rural idyll.

It’s not a totally mad idea and it sets us up for whole novel’s worth of sex and experimentation but – I don’t know, it doesn’t quite do it for me.

Re-reading my review of Tendu, I said Amalphia came over as very young and slightly out of her depth sexually. This goes double (triple, literally at one point) in Cabriole. Perhaps it’s just that I’m a sad old man, but the frantic sex and the constant angst got me down a bit. This is a girl who is beautiful (she always denies it but the modelling shoots give you a clue), talented and sexy, but who spends so much time and energy moaning.

“I was aware that my state of mind was not quite as balanced as it should be; it took very little to send me into a state of dread. A sweet and sickly scent had me recoil and stagger back in the dressing room one afternoon. Someone was wearing the perfume that Michelle had always used… The other girls looked at me and turned away, my role as social outcast more solidified than ever.
At home too, irrational panic would sometimes rise. Was the pain in my legs my own or was I sensing that Aleks was ill or hurt?”

She drifts straight into a job with a well-respected company and I know enough about ballet to have some idea of just how amazing that would be to most people just starting out. Most outrageously, a lover has given her a luxury apartment in London: seven figures worth of property in a city where many young people (especially in the arts) dream of any sort of flat at all. (A dancer friend of mine was kept awake by the sound of rats running across the ceiling of her room.) Does she just luxuriate in the wonderfulness of her life? No, she’s in her early twenties, so she just works on her inner Emo.

What should make it all more fun (for her and the reader) is the sex. Lots of it. Lots of boys, lots of permutations. But it doesn’t really work. She finds that kink (very mild kink, if truth be told) isn’t really doing it for her. And it’s all really quite tame. I live in London. I have dancey young friends. Honestly, Malph, darling, what you’re describing is what people I know call ‘Friday’. (And, to be clear, I have the dullest, most monogamous life you can imagine and even my friends are more exciting than this.)

The story (and the sex) only really comes alive when Aleks returns to the scene which, fortunately for the reader and Amalphia, is quite often. He’s all Ukrainian and godlike, turning her on by speaking Ukrainian in bed. (Side note: why is this sexy? The only time this has ever come up in conversation with my friends was Czechs who insisted that English was the sexiest language for lovers. Perhaps, in the interests of scientific enquiry, I should run a survey.) He is a brilliant character.

There’s another man. I can’t say who because Spoilers. In comparison to Aleks he is, frankly, dull. But nice. And good.

Amalphia is torn. How to resolve the agonising choice she faces: the amazing sex god or the nice guy who truly and straightforwardly loves her.

This is the crux of the book, the point that justifies everything that has gone before. And, sadly, I can’t say anything about it because if I do then Ailish (and possibly you, dear reader) will have to kill me for ruining a satisfying conclusion. Because the conclusion really is good. According to Ms Sinclair, it was too shocking for her publishers to cope with. And, unlike all the sexual shenanigans, it’s genuinely different.

Cabriole was always going to struggle to keep up with Tendu. Tendu had a mad scientist and terrible experiments in a secret dungeon and lots and lots of Aleks (OK, maybe I’ve got a bit of a crush on Aleks) and it was totally insane, but huge fun. Cabriole is more a journey through a confused young woman’s life and I seem to know enough confused young women (at my age, everyone seems young) not to find the fictional versions that exciting. But it’s a fun story and Sinclair writes well and the insights into the ballet world are interesting and, by the end, I’m held again. The third book in the series should be well worth the wait.

Cabriole is available on Kindle at £3.99 (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cabriole-Dancing-City-Dancers-Journey-ebook/dp/B0CGJ1QP4G) or in paperback at £13.99.

My take on ‘that’ film

My take on ‘that’ film

I’m back from watching Napoleon and, given that many of the people I know (and thousands of those I don’t) will be rushing to share their views, I thought I’d join in.

Is it a good movie? I thought so (though my partner, who watched it with me, was not convinced). It is a wonderful piece of cinema. The fact that we watched it on a huge IMAX screen helped. It is, in every sense, a big film and worth catching in the cinema. Waiting for it to turn up on Apple TV may be a mistake.

What it isn’t is a film about Napoleon, the historical character. It’s best viewed as a romantic drama loosely based on the characters and events of Napoleonic France. There’s no point in playing every historian’s favourite game of ‘spot the mistakes’. They start in the first few minutes of the film, which are so determinedly ahistorical as to suggest that Ridley Scott is making it plain that this is not a conventional historical drama. This is historical entertainment for a generation brought up on the Amazon version of Vanity Fair or on Downton Abbey.

I enjoyed it because I liked the interpretation of the romance of Napoleon and Josephine. Josephine has a significant role in my book Burke and the Pimpernel Affair, so I’m interested in her character, but I do not claim to be an expert. The way the relationship is shown in the film seemed credible to me even if some of the details did not. How you feel about Scott’s take on Napoleon and Josephine’s marriage will probably define how you feel about the film as a whole because everything else is subordinated to it. Most notably, Napoleon abandons his army in Egypt not because of the military and political imperatives that drove him back to Paris but because Josephine has been having an affair. Whilst it’s true as Ridley Scott points out, that I — and other, better, historians — weren’t there, so what do we know? it seems implausible, especially as the affair had been flagrantly started back when Napoleon was on campaign in Italy.

Napoleon’s military achievements are sketched out simply as a background against which to tell the story of his romance. Even the Russian campaign is presented mainly through letters home telling her how much he’s missing her. Yes, he was married to Marie-Louise of Austria by then, but, as far as the film is concerned, it’s still all about Josephine. Marie-Louise is introduced in one scene, produces a son in the next and is then never seen again. Josephine is given more screen time holding the heir than his mother.

When I say the military achievements are ‘sketched out’, I’m being generous. While the battle scenes are enormous, there a very few of them. We get a quick sketch of Toulon, then straight on to the Battle of the Pyramids. (That’s one battle I do know about because it features in Burke and the Bedouin and it’s fair to say that Scott’s depiction of it has hardly any details in common with the real thing.) We get wonderful aerial shots of Austerlitz and then we’re retreating from Moscow. In the next scene (literally) we’re abdicating. (The abdication document is easily available online, so I’m not sure why even that detail doesn’t look quite right, but I’m trying not to quibble.)

The strangest editorial decision is the way that the Battle of Waterloo is represented. It’s entirely understandable that Scott isn’t concerned with what historical purists think about the representation of the other battles, but Waterloo is a famous battle in film, as well as history books. Why Scott has decided to present such an idiosyncratic and, let’s face it, wrong picture of the battle is a mystery. I was really looking forward to the battle of Waterloo and ended struggling to watch.

After that, it’s just an interview with Wellington aboard the Victory (standing in for the Bellerophon and confusing my partner, who may not be a Napoleon buff but who recognises the most famous ship of the time in Britain) and then St Helena where he is shown sitting in the garden and rewriting history before apparently dropping dead on camera, ahistorical to the last.

So, yes, a good movie but not a great movie, and a horrible waste of a wonderful story.

James Burke and Napoleon

My James Burke books are all set during the Wars with France and Napoleon is the big bad wolf behind most of the plots, but only once do we see the man himself. That’s in Burke and the Bedouin, which has a rather better account of the Battle of the Pyramids than Ridley Scott offers, as well as a thrilling story of derring-do in the desert. It features the Battle of the Nile, too.

To encourage everyone to get a better picture of what Napoleon was doing in Egypt, Burke and the Bedouin is just 99p on Kindle until 29 November.

The Battle of Waterloo also features in the series in the unimaginatively titled Burke at Waterloo. You get the Battle of Quatre Bras and an assassination plot against the Duke of Wellington thrown in.

Josephine fans may enjoy Burke and the Pimpernel Affair, which is a relatively light-hearted romp with a prominent role for the Empress.

The Illusions: Liz Hyder

The Illusions: Liz Hyder

When I read that The Illusions is a historical novel (it’s set at the end of the 19th century) that combines a story about stage magicians with supernatural elements about people playing with actual magic, I couldn’t resist it. That’s the central idea in my own novella Dark Magic although that’s one of my contemporary books. I wanted to know how another author had tackled the same issues. In fact, Hyder’s story is more similar to mine than I had expected. It pits some regular stage magicians against an evil dark magician, in the same way that mine pits a company of stage magicians against a company dabbling with Black Magic. There’s an additional twist in The Illusions, as some of the stage magicians have real magical powers as well, although they do not reveal these to their friends.

All that said, The Illusions has very little in common with Dark Magic. For a start, Dark Magic is a novella while The Illusions is very long. I had an e-book, so I can’t say how many pages there were but it seemed to take a while to read. It also has quite a large cast of characters. As the story goes on you learn which of these characters are important and which are secondary and the relationships between the important characters become clear. At the start of the book, though, the characters are introduced one by one and it is not at all obvious what they have to do with each other.

The first person we meet is Arter Evans but he dies quite early on. The character who matters is his assistant, Cecily Marsden, always known as Cec. Cec appears soon after Arter, but the opening paragraphs are entirely from Arter’s viewpoint and this makes it difficult to immediately relate to Cec – a difficulty increased by introducing her in terms of what she has learned of magic, rather than how she feels about it.

No matter. A few pages later, Arter is dead and Cec flees to “the one person in all of Bristol that might be able to help”. So we meet Skarratt. There’s a hint that Cec does not like Skarratt. She’s right not to – he’s a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work – but we do not know why she dislikes him so much or, indeed, why he is the one person who might be able to help.

No matter (again), for we leave Cec and are introduced to Eadie. She is picking at a loose thread on her dress. She is, we are told, nervous.

I am not one to insist that it is always a crime to ‘tell’ rather than to show, but it would be nice to occasionally see things internalised. If we were in Eadie’s head we would see that she was nervous. We would not have to be told that she picked up a loose thread “nervously”, nor that she is “reassuring herself” that she does not need to be frightened.

Perhaps there simply isn’t time to get into Eadie’s head, for we are about meet another character, George Perris. They are both there for a séance. Eadie intends to expose such seances for the frauds they are. (I never quite worked out how but I may just not have been paying attention.) Perris’s approach is more direct. He breaks up the séance, causing real distress to the sitters. Eadie is angered by this and berates Perris but, already, she can’t miss that he is “one of the most handsome men she’s ever seen”.

Somewhere in the roomful of characters at the séance there is another significant person in the story, but don’t try to work it out because now we are in Paris at a performance by Valentin, who is seeing visions of a woman called Olivia who…

You see why I was frustrated at this point.

Once the characters have come together and we know the relationships between them, everything makes a great deal more sense. The plot is quite complicated but revolves around a feud between Skarratt on the one hand and Valentin and George on the other. Valentin and George are putting on a magic show intended to cement George’s reputation as the greatest magician in England, while Skarratt is set to wreck it largely out of spite and jealousy. Fortunately for George both Valentin and Cec possess real magical powers with which they are able to foil at least some of Skarratt’s evil plans.

The story draws in the early days of moving pictures (Eadie is developing new techniques, though we learn little of the technology), and a complicated series of relationships as the characters (except the loathsome Skarratt, of course) sort themselves into romantic couples.

The descriptions of tricks from the Golden Age of magic are fascinating, though I fear the author is often as misdirected as the audience. The thing about magicians is that they often seem to do things that appear impossible. This doesn’t mean that they actually do impossible things, but some of the descriptions of the tricks here clearly are impossible. This means that the distinction between the tricks that are being done by expert magicians are difficult to distinguish from those which are being done by expert magicians who are also possessed of genuine magical powers. That, I think, weakens a central element of the idea behind the book. By the end (no spoilers) stuff is happening that is clearly absolutely impossible. In fact, so impossible that you would think even the audience would notice. But perhaps they, like us, are lulled into a false sense that it’s all just a magic show by the number of impossible tricks they have witnessed from regular magicians. It’s still odd that Valentin is prepared to do some of these tricks given that he is supposed not to be letting his friends know about his magic powers. Never mind: it’s a dramatic ending to the book.

The failure to show us how the characters feel, rather than just to tell us what they are feeling, meant that they never really came alive for me. As a result, I found my interest slipping. On the other hand, I was drawn back in by the plot, which zips along. I had the impression that it was written more for younger readers who may be less worried by the rather two dimensional characters and more interested in the plotting, which is fair enough. If that’s you (or a young friend) you may well enjoy this book.

Dark Magic

If you like the idea of seeing real magic and stage magic mixed together, but in a more contemporary context, you might consider reading Dark Magic. All the stage magic in the book is true to life (I’ve spent far too long hanging round with magicians) and the ‘real’ magic is gloriously over-the-top. Reading The Illusions, I did feel that there was an absence of real jeopardy. With all this magic and evil flying about, nobody seems to get really hurt. (There’s one broken limb but it heals rapidly and with remarkably little pain.) For me, a book with ‘real’ magic and a villain like Skarratt really wants to have some seriously unpleasant things happening. Be warned: Dark Magic does do horrible things to its equivalent of Skarratt. On the other hand, it is often laugh-out-loud funny (or so reviewers tell me). I’m not sure that The Illusions wouldn’t benefit from more humour, come to think of it.

Anyway, if stage magic and dark forces are your thing, why not read them both?

Dark Magic is available on Kindle and in paperback. The Kindle edition costs just £1.99.