Category Archives: History

Ghost Empire – Richard Fidler

Ghost Empire – Richard Fidler

I bought this book solely for the cover and then ended up listening to it on Audible!

Here’s the blurb …

GHOST EMPIRE is a rare treasure – an utterly captivating blend of the historical and the contemporary, realised by a master storyteller.
In 2014, Richard Fidler and his son Joe made a journey to Istanbul. Fired by Richard’s passion for the rich history of the dazzling Byzantine Empire – centred around the legendary Constantinople – we are swept into some of the most extraordinary tales in history. The clash of civilizations, the fall of empires, the rise of Christianity, revenge, lust, murder. Turbulent stories from the past are brought vividly to life at the same time as a father navigates the unfolding changes in his relationship with his son.

GHOST EMPIRE is a revelation: a beautifully written ode to a lost civilization, and a warmly observed father-son adventure far from home

This book is part memoir, history and travel journal. It has a lovely story-telling feel to it – made all the better by Richard Fidler reading the audio version. I listened to it while running, gardening, knitting and cleaning – I grabbed any opportunity to listen (in fact my house is cleaner than normal because I manufactured tasks so I could listen).

A review here and this is Richard Fidler’s web page.

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Filed under History, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Recommended

Heart: A History – Sandeep Jauhar

Heart A History – Sandeep Jauhar

A friend lent me this book said I would like it, but I wasn’t convinced. However, I was pleasantly surprised. I did like it – very much (apart from some of the experiments – sharing a vascular system with a dog?) and I learnt interesting things.

Here’s the blurb …

The spark of life, fount of emotion, house of the soul – the heart lies at the centre of every facet of our existence. It’s so bound up in our deepest feelings that it can even suffer such distress from emotional trauma as to physically change shape.

Practising cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar beautifully weaves his own experiences with the defining discoveries of the past to tell the story of our most vital organ. We see Daniel Hale Williams perform the first open heart surgery and Wilson Greatbatch invent the pacemaker – by accident. Amid gripping scenes from the operating theatre, Jauhar tells the moving tale of his family’s own history of heart problems and, looking to the future, he outlines why the way we choose to live will be more important than any device we invent.

Definitely worth reading if you like social history and have a bit of an interest in science.

Another review and another.

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The Queen’s Embroiderer – Joan DeJean

The Queen’s Embroiderer – Joan DeJean

I saw this in Dymocks and bought it based on the title (the cover is good too).

Here is the blurb …

From the author of How Paris Became Paris, a sweeping history of high finance, the origins of high fashion, and a pair of star-crossed lovers in 18th-century France.

Paris, 1719. The stock market is surging and the world’s first millionaires are buying everything in sight. Against this backdrop, two families, the Magoulets and the Chevrots, rose to prominence only to plummet in the first stock market crash. One family built its name on the burgeoning financial industry, the other as master embroiderers for Queen Marie-Therese and her husband, King Louis XIV. Both patriarchs were ruthless money-mongers, determined to strike it rich by arranging marriages for their children.

But in a Shakespearean twist, two of their children fell in love. To remain together, Louise Magoulet and Louis Chevrot fought their fathers’ rage and abuse. A real-life heroine, Louise took on Magoulet, Chevrot, the police, an army regiment, and the French Indies Company to stay with the man she loved.

Following these families from 1600 until the Revolution of 1789, Joan DeJean recreates the larger-than-life personalities of Versailles, where displaying wealth was a power game; the sordid cells of the Bastille; the Louisiana territory, where Frenchwomen were forcibly sent to marry colonists; and the legendary “Wall Street of Paris,” Rue Quincampoix, a world of high finance uncannily similar to what we know now. The Queen’s Embroiderer is both a star-crossed love story in the most beautiful city in the world and a cautionary tale of greed and the dangerous dream of windfall profits. And every bit of it is true

I thought it would be about embroidery and embroiderers (probably should have read the blurb). I expected sumptuous materials and social detail about the lives of embroiderers. I did not get what I expected – it is about the machinations of the Chevrot and Magoulet families. Having said that, I wasn’t disappointed. It is an incredibly fascinating story with an enormous amount of information life in Paris in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was easy to read and by that I mean despite the obvious historical research there is no jargon and it has a nice narrative flow.

Here’s another review

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The Birdman’s Wife – Melissa Ashley

The Birdman's Wife -

The Birdman’s Wife – Melissa Ashley

This is a beautiful book – it has some of Elizabeth Gould’s painting reproduced on the cover and flyleaf.

This is the story of Elizabeth Gould wife of the more famous John Gould. Here is the blurb …

Inspired by a letter found tucked inside her famous husband’s papers, The Birdman’s Wife imagines the fascinating inner life of Elizabeth Gould, who was so much more than just the woman behind the man.
Elizabeth was a woman ahead of her time, juggling the demands of her artistic life with her roles as wife, lover and helpmate to a passionate and demanding genius, and as a devoted mother who gave birth to eight children. In a society obsessed with natural history and the discovery of new species, the birdman’s wife was at its glittering epicentre. Her artistry breathed life into hundreds of exotic finds, from her husband’s celebrated collections to Charles Darwin’s famous Galapagos finches.
Fired by Darwin’s discoveries, in 1838 Elizabeth defied convention by joining John on a trailblazing expedition to the untamed wilderness of Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales to collect and illustrate Australia’s ‘curious’ birdlife.
From a naïve and uncertain young girl to a bold adventurer determined to find her own voice and place in the world, The Birdman’s Wife paints an indelible portrait of an extraordinary woman overlooked by history, until now.

I knew nothing about the Goulds John or Elizabeth. So to learn about them and the whole culture of discovering and classifying species was fascinating. In the modern photographic era you forget or dismiss how hard it must have been to describe definitively a new species. The Goulds, and many of their contemporaries I assume, painted pictures (Elizabeth’s work) and provided stuffed specimens. I must admit there was a lot of killing and stuffing in this book.

Elizabeth was an intrepid (and hard-working) adventurer who embarked on an expedition to Australia leaving all but one of her children behind. She valued her work and arranged her household so that she could work – quite modern in her approach.

I am not a fan of first person narrated historical fiction there is something about the way it flows or doesn’t flow that I don’t like. There were moments in this novel where the research sat heavily on the story – I felt I was being lectured. However, I am glad I have read it and I now feel I know more about Elizabeth Gould and collecting and classifying animals.

Another review …



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Filed under Fiction - Light, History

To Be Queen: A Novel of the Early Life of Eleanor of Aquitaine – Christy English

To Be Queen

To Be Queen – Christy English

My historical book group read this novel. I have to say I was surprised when I saw the cover!

Here’s the blurb …

After her father’s sudden death, fifteen-year-old Eleanor is quickly crowned Duchess of Aquitaine and betrothed to King Louis VII. When her new husband cannot pronounce her given name, Alienor becomes Eleanor, Queen of France.

Although Louis is enamored of his bride, the newly crowned king is easily manipulated by the church and a God that Eleanor doesn’t believe in. Now, if she can find the strength to fight for what she wants, Eleanor may finally find the passion she has longed for, and the means to fulfill her legacy as Queen.

There is no doubt that this was a bodice ripper, but I found Eleanor fascinating and I want to read more of her and her time. Therefore, this novel is a good starting of point and I think the history was reasonably accurate. My plan is to move onto some of the novels written by Elizabeth Chadwick (like The Summer Queen), or finish Alison Weir’s biography. Ralph V Turner has a biography as well.

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The Viceroy’s Daughters – Anne De Courcy

I went to a talk on ‘The Mitfords’ by Susannah Fullerton (President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia) and she recommended this book.

Based on unpublished letters and diaries, “The Viceroy’s Daughters” is a riveting portrait of three spirited and wilful women who were born at the height of British upper-class wealth and privilege.

The oldest, Irene, never married but pursued her passion for foxes, alcohol, and married men. The middle, Cimmie, was a Labour Party activist turned Fascist. And Baba, the youngest and most beautiful, possessed an appetite for adultery that was as dangerous as it was outrageous.

As the sisters dance, dine, and romance their way through England’s most hallowed halls, we get an intimate look at a country clinging to its history in the midst of war and rapid change. We obtain fresh perspectives on such personalities as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Oswald Mosley, Nancy Astor and the Cliveden Set, and Lord Halifax. And we discover a world of women, impeccably bred and unabashedly wilful, whose passion and spirit were endlessly fascinating.

This book was great – well researched and full of interesting social detail. These women lead fascinating (and salacious) lives. They seemed to know everyone in the public eye, e.g. Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson, Winston Churchill, Oswald Mosley (one of them married him, another one slept with him and the third one had an affair with him!), Nancy Astor and Lord Halifax (the foreign secretary during Word War Two). It was a time of excess in all things, which, of course, makes for fascinating reading. I found the bits about the Duke of Windsor (formerly King Edward V111) compelling – he was so self-centred and self-serving. It’s not just about people behaving badly though – these women supported many charities (Baba was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her work with the Save The Children Fund).

Other reviews …



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