Books I Read and REALLY Liked in 2014

I've been enjoying everyone's end of year summings up (in various fun forms) and thinking on making one of my own - and I couldn't quite come up with a way to rank anything. Which is I suppose what happens when you end up reading a variety of random things. Anyway, there's no order to this - except I have a particular fondness for the first book mentioned. History wins out this year, which isn't always the case.


Annoyingly all my favorite reads have also been the ones that I haven't written reviews for. (Except one!) But I think I can explain that! (There's a trend of laziness too, but we'll ignore that bit.)


[Jan 2, 2015: Since this has been linked at booklikes I thought I should add - a few of these are much more academic than others and have what I'd call "some dryer patches" reading-wise. Mad Madge in particular. I'll go into more detail when I review them, and add links to this. In this list I was more focused on how the book impacted me personally - I usually post more info as to readability in my reviews to give readers a head's up. Which is usually why I go quote-happy.]



Mad Madge: The Extraordinary Life of Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, the First Woman to Live by Her Pen

by Katie Whitaker


This book was the perfect sort for the mood I was in - but it also requires a bit of backstory. So about a year ago I started the fun process of getting divorced, and it turns out that ends up effecting everything, even things you'd not thought over. Like what you enjoy reading.


Madge is Margaret Cavendish, and she gradually realizes that not only does she enjoy writing, but that it's important to her. And she wants to publish a book. Noble women of her day did NOT do this. They especially did not do this without asking their husbands first. Margaret did both. The author spends a good bit of text quoting what contemporary men and women felt about women authors (and educated women) - not much of which is positive. And because I've read enough fiction, this looked like the ol' set up of Woman Tells Husband Her Big Secret and He Reacts Badly. (I always have hated the Big Misunderstanding/Disagreement trope.) Here's the fun part - in reality William Cavendish was not upset, and in fact was extremely proud of his wife and wents on to brag about her to anyone and everyone he knew (and some no doubt rolled their eyes a good deal). Theirs was also a love match, and there's a chapter that's full of some of the love poems he wrote to her.


I had to set the book aside at one point - where Margaret is going to tell William about publishing the book - because I really didn't want to read about William's possibly negative reaction. And then (after checking wikipedia to see what I was getting into) I read on to discover how supportive and oddly modern in his esteem for and treatment of his wife he turned out to be. While she didn't have his level of education during their courtship, during their marriage he encouraged and participated in her studies (they both loved telescopes) - and gradually it was a marriage of educated equals. (They were intellectual equals early on.) He was just as pleased with her then as when he'd been the older, more knowledgeable husband. (She wasn't easy to live with btw, but then he wasn't either. Not perfect people by far. But that's another part of the story.)


None of that really mirrors my life experience. But the acceptance and the partnership aspects of the story - well, let's just say it was good to read a positive story like that, and have it be set in the 1600s when you don't expect that outcome. I'm the type that really enjoys reading such stories because other people's happiness has always cheered me up. (It's one of the reasons I'm such a junky for reading posts where bloggers gleefully share their book purchases.)


One of the reasons I haven't written the review is that I do plan to go back and copy out some of William's more frisky poetry. First because that's always worth a smile, and second because he was in love with her more than just intellectually. It's not often that we have historical documentation for that sort of thing. (I always imagine researchers finding this sort of document and doing a little dance of joy - and then immediately calling their colleagues for a "guess what I've found out about Lady SoandSo!" moment. But then, researchers do that with a lot of documents. They're fun that way.)



Behind Closed Doors: At Home In Georgian England

by Amanda Vickery


I bought this because I was hoping for more information about women who created art - like Mary Delany (I'm a fangirl of her paper art). This is one of those history books where all the chapters tie together, but you can tell that each one is really a research project in itself. And so I found myself absolutely fascinated with the unexpected - like how cheap wallpaper changed interior decorating and how much you can learn about people through the paperwork of a business that sold wallpaper in the 1770s. The wallpaper chapter is short, and yet I've kept myself from writing a review because I sense I'm going to do a separate, gushy post on wallpaper and its history. Which I'd never thought about before. I spent a ridiculous amount of time online after that just looking up historic wallpaper. Also I'm going to go quote happy - I already have some all typed up.


I've been putting this one off long enough that I think I should just accept that sometimes I can't help but write multiple part reviews. As long as I'm polite and put the extreme lengthiness under the page break (with suitable warnings of what's about to happen), I assume we'll all survive this.



First Gentleman of Bedchamber : The Life of the Duc de Richelieu : Courtier, Warrior, Man of Affairs, and Marchal of France

by Hubert Cole


This book wins for the least amount of money spent for the most enjoyment it gave me. It's a dollar thrift shop purchase, and I didn't expect much from it. Or much sexy gossip, even though it was written in 1965, because so many authors can make the most exciting history dull. I was SO very wrong. But then I had no idea the Duc de Richelieu was the man that Dangerous Liaisons' Valmont was based on. Or so the gossip says anyway, and the Duc was usually helping that kind of gossip into circulation - so it's hard to make a final judgement there. I posted about the book three or four times - and once because I had to tell the full story of The Secret of The Chimney, which is probably in a movie somewhere because the plot is too perfect. (Seriously read that post of mine. You can't help but visualize it.)


Why haven't I written the review? Well, I already have oodles of quotes typed up (a groan-worthy amount), so this was another one I was afraid would go on too long. Also I got a bit bogged down by typing up a list of books I found via the bibliography - because there are a few you can look at immediately online (thank you, Open Library).



The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace

by Lucy Worsley


I really enjoyed this book and - now that I think of it - remember why I've put off writing the review. Worsley's writing is everything I wanted and the details she discusses are also fascinating. But there are a couple of stories where the royal parents use their children in a tug of war/fight for political power, which effected everyone for decades and generations to come. (Not that this is a new thing when the first born son eventually is set up as a rival for the father's seat of power.) Worsley asks questions about these events, and makes you aware of the continuing fallout from these actions for both adults and children. If you ever disliked any of the Georges, this will give you a few new reasons. Those stories aren't the crux of this book - there are many other fascinating aspects of the history - it's just those were the most memorable bits of "I did not know this story" for me.



Necropolis: London and Its Dead

by Catherine Arnold


Ah ha, now this book I read AND finished a review. So here's a great example of how looong I can go on when a topic really fascinates me. (Note that I do warn you about this in the first few lines!) Happily my thoughts are at the top of the page, and it's the quotes that take up most of the rest. So you get a huge chunk of the bits that I enjoyed most.


I don't know that I would recommend it to anyone with only a passing interest in the subject, because I'm a huge fan of cemetery history so I'm biased. (And very forgiving of somewhat dull writing in this area, as my shelves will show you.) But it's a good survey of a few time periods and has a helpful bibliography to work from.



And finally there's this book:



A Traveler in Italy

by H. V. Morton


On this one I'll just link to some posts where I was in the progress of reading it:


A Rescued Book, Famous Skeletons, and a Problematic Author

Not that I know how problematic Morton really is as I still haven't read much more about him.


But then I have him to thank for reminding me of the Ceiling Crocodile:


Why I Will Eventually Have A Stuffed Crocodile Hanging From My Ceiling


Reading in Progress: A Traveler in Italy: Return of Ceiling Croc!!!


So after all that fun (with links and crocodiles) I have to mention this book as another "I did not expect this!" source of fun. I'm not going to recommend anyone use it as a serious history reference, but it's a fun book to start with or read as a supplement.


I have not yet started to construct my ceiling croc. But I have a long history of making critters out of paper mache. So this will indeed happen.