Dictators by Frank Dikotter

To continu with non-fiction November, I picked up ‘Dictators’ by Frank Dikotter. This was my choice because, as a history teacher, you always seem to be sharing knowledge of some of the famous dictators of history – how they get there always seems to make sense, but how they successfully stay there always seems to be harder to explain. I am always without a doubt asked why nobody stops them, and the obvious answer is always the fear many of them used to control. But also, as this makes clear, ‘ordinary’ people really did support them – however hard that is for some of us to believe.

This book is absolutely fascinating as it guides you through the history of eight 20th century dictators. And, it really explains how they managed to build up such a cult following which led to them having genuine support from their people. A ‘misguided’ idealism from each of the men led to them establishing their regimes. However, there was also a carefully crafted celebrity status created for each of these men, either by themselves or by those that surrounded them.

I found it interesting how similar at points the tales of these characters of history were. And that, in fact the biggest threat to any dictator and their regime is themselves.

This is a great book for any fans of moder history. A concise overview of some figures of history and a well-written and clear to follow guide to some of the 20th century’s most infamous figures.

Black and British: A Short, Essential Guide by David Olusoga

It is non-fiction November, and I have been a little slow off the mark with it this year, because there are just so many books to read. However, I have now started with a truly fantastic read.

I am a huge fan of the work of the historian David Olusoga and often watch his documentaries. I found out that he had a book that makes his work ‘Black and British’ accessiable to a younger audience, I decided I really wanted to read it, especially, as a History teacher I am always looking for books that I can recommend to the pupils.

Yet, this is a book that I would recommend everyone should read. Olusoga takes us through the ages to educate us about the meaning of ‘Black and British’ throughout history. It also makes key links between the slave trade and British history, and how sometimes these links are forgotten as we discuss key moments such as the Industrial Revolution.

I learned so much as I read this book, especially about more recent history, which is definitely something that seems to remain in the past. However, it is brought bang up to date with the events of 2020, which has become a spark to reignite the passion to ensure Black and British history is given the true and accurate representation it deserves.

This is beautifully written in Olusoga’s distinctive voice; you almost feel that he is reading the book to you.

A sign of a great non-fiction book is that it makes you want to find out more about the things you have read, and that it is exactly what I am ready to do now.

Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness by Bill Bailey

I was so excited when I was gifted a copy of ‘Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness’ as part of a readalong with the other brilliant bookworms of Tandem Collective UK.

I cannot think of anyone better than Bill Bailey to share ideas about those simple things that bring happiness. This is an ideal book for the current situation, as it really makes you reflect on those little things things that can bring a sprinkle of happiness to everyday life.

Told in short, sharp chapters, it guides you, with warmth and humour, through steps that can bring happiness; some of them so simple that they are probably already part of what you do, but you may not appreciate or realise it. As I read this, I really started thinking about the real happiness of a fresh cup of coffee or sitting down to write a letter (yes, I still do that).

I get the impression that the current situation had quite an influence on Bill Bailey as he wrote this book. And that almost makes the book more enjoyable, as you realise how we have all probably re-evaluated our lives and the things that bring us happiness.

I am pretty sure that I had a smile on my face as I read every page of this book. Bill Bailey’s combination of anecdotes and data from studies make for an incredibly enjoyable read and may even have you want to try something new.

This really is a remarkable guide to happiness.

Fearless by Dr Pippa Grange

A non-fiction read for me, which is about something other than history or interesting figures, is really quite unlikely. However, I was gifted ‘Fearless’ by the lovely Tandem Collective for a readalong, so, of course, I gave it a go.

Fearless is a bit of a self-help guide to help readers find ways to live a life without fear. To begin with, you may think you are not the target audience of this book, and think that fear has no impact on your life (I did a little). However, Dr Pippa Grange explains how fear is often in the background, having an influence on decisions we make. For me, it is definitely the fear of failure that follows me around a little on a day-to-day basis. Yet, this book makes you realise that it does not have to control you and, in fact you can make it work for you and not against you. There are many times these experiences can be made into a positive.

What I liked about this book (and usually the reason I would avoid such books) is that it is not patronising and it is not preachy. It is practical and to the point (although there are a lot of sport examples). Every now and then it may be a little awkward to read, especially if you recognise yourself, but just give yourself a little reminder that it will allow for change.

(Please remember that this is not a definitive guide – there is a lot of support out there if you need it).

Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

I have read this as part of a Twitter History Bookclub, however, it is not like I really needed an excuse, as I have been kee to get my hands on a copy as soon as I knew this book was going to be brought to the world.

I am fascinated by stories from history – good job as I am a history teacher. And, like many who have a passion for history, it was not any of the big stories or artefacts that sparked that passion – it was a story of a portrait and an execution, told to me by a Beefeater at the Tower of London. So, ‘Dead Famous’ is perfect, despite being about the history of celebrity, for lovers of some of those lesser-known tales. You will have heard of some of the characters you encounter, but, for me, much of the joy came from reading tales of those that I did not know. Again, sparking an interst to find out so much more (pleased to say Greg Jenner kindly supplies additonal reading material at the end – so don’t be surprised if your to-be-read pile shoots up).

This book is beautifully written, with humour throughout, is not a daunting read, but fully informative as it attempts to tackle the complex idea of celebrity; something that you will certainly be left rethinking by the end of the book.

I can certainly call this book a lockdown highlight and would urge you to pick up a copy if you can. You may come to the end of it with a new love of histoty, or at least much more of an idea of exactly what makes a celebrity, ot what creates a celebrated figure.

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Why did I not pick this book off the shelf sooner? This could be one of my favourite reads of 2020. What a book!

Hallie Rubenhold has told the story of five fascinating women who, over time, may have lost some of their identity. These are the women who became victims of the infamous Jack the Ripper. I hesitate to refer to ‘The Five’ as this, though, because they were, of course, so much more and it suggests that ‘Jack the Ripper’ is almost the one who deserves the attention. (Don’t get me wrong I have had and still have an interest in one of the most famous unsolved crimes of all time, but now I have a different perspective).

This book, introduces the context, tells the full tale of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary-Jane, and reaches a fascinating conclusion. I felt like I learned so much about these people, misconceptions were broken down and clear historical context added. This is not a story linked only to Whitechapel, but a story about England and beyond. These women were victims of their circumstances, tragedy was almost written in the stars, and we should remember the five women as they lived and not just for how they died, providing fuel for the Victorian media circus.

Rubenhold’s book gives them back their identity and, by the end , they are most certainly not just ‘The Five’.

A History of the World in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

Early this year, I read ‘A History of Britain in 21 Women’, so spent a lot of the rest of the year waiting for this one to come out in paperback. Therefore, it was a great choice for my ‘Non-Fiction November’.

The best thing about these books is that they are a short and sweet introduction to some wonderfully fascinating women who you want to find out more about. Of course, this is not a definitive collection of fabulous females – and you may not agree with all of Murray’s choices – but you will certainly learn something.

As I read about some women who I had never come across – such as Pharaoh Hatshepsut – I found myself admiring the determination of all of these women who have all fought for their place in ‘Her-story’, often against all odds.

The stories that really made me think and have left me wanting to find out even more were those of Joan of Arc, Marie Curie and Artemisa Gentileschi. Of course, I have a working knowledge of the first two women, but now I want to find out even more about them to draw my own conclusions. However, Artemisa Gentileschi was a figure new to me and her story, as well as her art, has really caught my attention.

All of these stories are those of women who have changed the world. In their own way, they have made an impact on the history of the world, and should be an inspiration to us all to make our mark.

There is only one small issue with the book. A teeny, tiny one that even had me texting my mum for confirmation. The book suggests in the TV series ‘Morse’ you never find out Inspector Morse’s christian name. However, as a dedicated fan (I was brought up on all the classics), I can confirm that this is incorrect – you do indeed find out his christian name. But, let’s be honest, it does not stop it from being a great book.

Over The Top by Jonathan Van Ness

This is a book that I challenge you not to read in the Jonathan’s dulcet tones – in fact, he even makes reference to the fact that, as a reader, you may be doing exactly that.

Anyway, down to business: book two of ‘Non-fiction November’ is ‘Over The Top’ from another star of my beloved ‘Queer Eye’. Jonathan Van Ness is responsible for grooming on the show (just in case you have never seen it – which, of course you have). However, he does not make his tale about ‘Queer Eye’. I mean, do not get me wrong, it gets a mention, but it is not the full focus of the book. This is a bit of a warts-and-all telling of the journey Jonathan Van Ness has been on to become who he is today.

This not a book for the faint-hearted, as Jonathan is honest about the demons and struggles he has had in his life. However, it is told, at times, with humour and always with strong emotion. This is not a sob story, but it will allow you to build even nore respect for Jonathan.

An interesting point was that Jonathan presents meeting Karamo very much as Tan did in his book. And the way that they talk about their time on the show suggests they are really the team that we see on the screen – which makes me happy!

I feel that putting this book together was an important step for Jonathan Van Ness on his journey, and I am so glad that he has put pen to paper, because it will be a story to help others.

This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay

Again, I am late to the book party. ‘This is Going to Hurt’ has been all over the book world since it was published, however I was never sure it was the book for me. Yet I gave in and decided to give it a go. My word, it really is a book for me.

Adam Kay has shared with the world his diaries from his medical days. His own secret diaries from his shifts on the front line working for the NHS. This is one of the most revealing books about life on the hospital wards that you are likely to read.

There is such humour in the writing (not sure it is always intentional) some moments of horror (especially if you are squeamish) and real heartbreak. In fact, never has a book had quite such a powerful ending.

What is clear about this account is that it has not been written to name and shame the NHS. However, it does show the frustration that Kay felt working in such a profession that is being forced to survive in such difficult circurmstances thanks to outside factors. It is obvious why so many are forced out of such careers, despite their best efforts.

This is a book that I hope mamy of the readers in the UK – and maybe even the world – will pick up to educate themselves and raise their awareness of the medical world.

Have you read a memoir that is like an education?

Poirot and Me by David Suchet

As you may have realised, I am a fan of Agatha Christie’s work and, in turn, a fan of the TV adaptation with David Suchet in the role of Poirot. This book seemed it would be a perfect read to offer a little insight into the work of Suchet as the iconic Belgian detective , which spanned 25 years and included all of the Poirot stories being brought to the small screen.

The book starts incredibly emotionally at the end, with Poirot’s final case, ‘Curtain’, and led me to shed a few tears. Suchet writes about Poirot with such love and affection that you are immediately drawn in and almost forget that he is in fact a fictional character. We are then taken back to the beginning of Suchet and Poirot’s story and taken on their journey.

David Suchet explains the process he went through to create the Poirot he believes would do Christie’s work justice. How he stood up for the man he created to ensure that Poirot remained ‘real’. Each story is described as it was made, with anecdotes about those many actors who starred alongside Suchet to bring us these wonderful stories. The dynamics between Poirot and Hastings, as well as Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon, is always spoken of with great affection and is something that I always think is clear when you watch the episodes. Although, I feel that I was always as disappointed as Suchet when these three were not in the stories – but I guess it is always best to try to be loyal to original works.

David Suchet does not restrict his tales to Poirot; he also offers insight into other parts of his work during the Poirot years. In fact, the story about a Duke and a mango was one of my favourites – especially as it made its way into a Poirot.

This book was a lovely insight into the world of one of our best-loved actors playing one of our most-loved fictional characters. It has certainly filled me with a desire to rewatch all the Poirot episodes. This is so much more than the memoir of Suchet – it is the memoir of Poirot!