Book Reviews: Dark Novels, Vanished Kingdoms, and Online Communities

This week’s books were all quite intriguing. From fact to fiction, I learned something new from each one.

Read on for reviews!

Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies

Vanished Kingdoms by Norman DaviesWithout a doubt one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read, Vanished Kingdoms charts European history through places that no longer exist, or states that are disputed. When we talk about history today, we tend to refer to territories as we now know them: France, Germany, Spain, Bulgaria, etc.

But they weren’t always that way, and in this book Norman Davies provides an insight into how much borders can change over the centuries.

There were some interesting comments on how states are managed:

“As a Byzantine commentator had noted, the Empire was not protected by ‘rivers, lagoons or parapets, but by fear’ – fear being ‘an obstacle that no man has surmounted once he is convinced that he is inferior.'”

And more than a few relatable characters:

Plus, one of my favourite quotes by Balzac:

“Il y a deux histoires : l’histoire officielle, menteuse, et l’histoire secrète, où sont les véritables causes des événements.”

I love reading books that include ungoogleable information, too, and Vanished Kingdoms fulfils this criterion.

If you’re at all interested in European history or politics, this book is for you.

Maestra by L.S. Hilton

Checking my mailbox a couple of days after Valentine’s Day, I was greeted with this intriguing card:


What could it be? I wondered.

Turns out it was a promo card for L.S. Hilton’s book Maestra. When I opened the larger envelope and pulled the book out, I was immediately struck by the cover, which reminded me of Lucio Fontana’s artwork. I love his work because I find it both provocative and simplistic – somehow compelling despite being, for want of a better word, quite basic.

Maestra by L.S. HiltonIt’s either about sex or self-harm, I thought of the book, judging it by its cover in exactly the way you’re not supposed to. I wasn’t far wrong, though.

The dedication was intriguing (I love reading dedications): To the Norse God of Everything, with thanks. Now, I’m not an expert in Norse mythology (although I am an expert in the history of paganism, which isn’t far off), but I’m pretty sure there isn’t a Norse God of Everything. There are plenty of Norse Gods for various occasions, though, so perhaps this is what the author means. In any case, it’s an intriguing dedication, and I do enjoy a bit of intrigue.

The book follows the story of Judith, who works in an art house and ends up finding a job moonlighting with an old friend as a hostess at a gentlemen’s club. The nature of sex work had obviously been quite well-researched, and Hilton had also evidently read Belle de Jour, because she talks about the famous extract in which Belle tells us that if you’re looking for a female sex worker in a hotel, it’s likely to be the most conservatively-dressed woman there.

Judith’s story began compellingly. There were plenty of moments that will be relatable to anyone who’s pulled themselves out of working-class life and tried to move into an area that involves being around rich people.

“They were – civilised. And being civilised means knowing about the right things. However much people pretend that it doesn’t matter, it’s true. Disclaiming that is as foolish as thinking that beauty doesn’t matter. And to get amongst the right things, you have to be amongst the people who possess them.”

“When you’re no one from nowhere it’s best to know your limits. Rich kids can play at bohemia, but wealth has long tendrils – it twines into a safety net which can also be a trap for the unprepared. Rich kids have families and backgrounds and connections, they ask questions, because their world functions on being able to place people.”

There was also, I thought, a really important point being made in the early part of the book about people’s denigration of sex workers and the implicit sexism that happens in day-to-day life. I spent a while hovering over the chapter that describes Judith’s visit to a sleazy old art collector, thinking feminist thoughts, before moving on.

And then the story got a bit… well, lacklustre.

Judith’s adventures become more and more improbable, and as a character she ends up so far removed from reality that she no longer feels relatable. This is a shame, because if the book had stuck to its original premise – i.e. expanding on roughly the first third of the story – rather than trying too hard to be exceptional, I think it would have made a much more exceptional novel.

There were loads of sex scenes, which isn’t something I enjoy, but they were scattered enough to be skippable without missing much of the plot.

On the whole, I think it’s a book I’d recommend, although if you put it down after reading about a third of the way through, I don’t think you’d be missing anything.

In A Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

In A Dark Dark Wood by Ruth WareThis weekend I wanted something that required precisely no effort to read. I’d picked this one up in a supermarket a while ago, and it seemed to fit the bill.

It did, but it was actually a really good read. If you’re looking for a fast-paced crime novel with intrigue, friendship, dark secrets and webs of lies, this is a good one!

The story revolves around two old friends, Nora and Clare, who haven’t seen each other since Nora moved to London ten years earlier. One of Clare’s friends from uni is organising Clare’s hen do, and Nora receives an invitation. Deciding to go along, she tells herself this will be a good opportunity to put the past behind them and perhaps rebuild a friendship.

But the trouble with the past is that it has a nasty habit of refusing to stay where it belongs…

A solid, satisfying crime novel in which you might guess one of the twists, but probably not both.

Grouped by Paul Adams

Grouped by Paul AdamsPart of my work online has always been the setup and management of various forums. I love forums; despite the growth of other forms of social networking, they’ve always been one of my favourite ways to communicate.

In a bid to make some of the forums I manage better, I recently invested in a few books about managing communities online. Grouped was the first of these I read, and actually it was more about marketing and why “influencer targeting” is largely bullshit, but it was a good read nonetheless.

If you don’t work in marketing, but you want to promote something online, this is a great book to read, because it cuts through the crap and tells you what might actually help to sell your product, rather than giving expansive (and expensive!) promises of “going viral”.

What have you read this week? What do you think I should read next? 

Do you have a book you’d like me to review? Drop me a line through the Contact form.

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