Blog, Book Review

Review: “A Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England” by Dr Ian Mortimer

It’s Spring—yay! That means it’s time to start Spring Cleaning—boo!

I love to see Tottering Towers clean and shining, but I hate housework. It’s such a bore to be stuck inside when so much is going on outside. One way to make this solitary confinement with hard labour easier to bear is by listening to audio books.

“Words are often as important as experience, because words make experience last.”
William Morris

Listening while I work means my hands can be busy with what William Morris called mindless toil, while my brain relaxes with some fiction. Alternatively, my mind can be occupied with what the Wizard of Walthamstow would have called useful work—research.

This week, I’ve been listening to Dr Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. It’s a real eye-opener. Did you know that in 1557, there was an influenza pandemic which hit the world far harder than Covid has? We’ve all heard of Plague and the Black Death, but that strain of sixteenth-century flu was a real horror too. It is said to have killed 7% of the English population. Compare that to the quarter of one percent death rate in England so far in the Covid pandemic.

Of course, there have been 465 years of improvements in nutrition, living conditions, healthcare, and information technology since then. The even better news is that the Elizabethan flu pandemic, terrible though it was, burned itself out in under two years.

There’s lots of valuable information about life during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and interesting insights into the lives of beggars, aristocrats, and every level of society in between. One of these, the story of Thomas Appletree, shows the limitation of audiobooks. Their data isn’t stored in a searchable form. To make sure I’d got the details right in the story which follows, I had to resort to good old Google, as it was only in retrospect that I thought to include Tom’s story in this review. To paraphrase Omar Khayyam; the spoken word is heard, and having been heard vanishes forever. I didn’t want to rely on my memory alone.

One summer day in 1579, Thomas Appletree was fooling around in a boat on the Thames with some friends. He had a gun, and was showing off by firing it at random. It just so happened that Elizabeth I’s glass-sided barge was passing by. A stray shot from Tom’s gun hit its captain. Tom was caught, tried, found guilty of attempting to assassinate the Queen, and sentenced to hang. He pleaded his innocence all the way through, claiming that it was a complete accident, and he had no idea the Queen was near.

Right up until the second the noose was put around Tom’s neck, nobody would listen—but then a gentleman calmly stepped out of the crowd to hand over a Royal pardon. It turns out that Elizabeth knew all along Tom was no assassin, but thought he needed to be taught a lesson. Talk about a last-minute reprieve!

Image by jo-B

That is only one of a huge number of stories contained in this book. Every chapter is packed with fascinating facts. The music of Tallis and Byrd is so popular now that it’s hard to believe they apparently lost money hand over fist when they first started publishing it. However, this makes more sense when you learn that each piece of sixteenth-century sheet music only contained one part: for a single voice, a viol, or whatever. That meant no musician or singer knew what any other performer would be doing during a performance, so it’s a wonder anyone could a) afford to buy enough copies, or b) manage to organise a performance of something like Tallis’s Spem in Alium, which is written for forty voices.

I particularly liked the illustrations of Elizabethan low-life, with its colourful terms. I couldn’t help wondering whether anyone would really say; “Watch out! That woman’s a demander of glimmer!” rather than “Watch out! She’s a con artist!” (or worse). A second term highlighted another disadvantage of audio books. Despite rewinding and listening twice, I still couldn’t tell whether a horse thief would be called “a prigger of prancers” or “a pricker of prancers”. That’s a criticism of my ears rather than the narrator, actor Mike Grady, by the way.

If you only know Mr Grady’s work from Citizen Smith or Last of the Summer Wine, you’re in for a treat. From direct readings of primary sources to author Dr Mortimer’s own witty asides, he brings everything to life. His narration ranges from sombre to playful, as required.

Image by FotografieLink on Pixabay

Going back to that colourful term for a horse thief, they always say “write the book you want to read, but can’t find”. Listening to this book made me wonder if poor William Shakespeare was driven to write drama because the curriculum at Stratford Grammar was sadly lacking in excitement. I bet Cicero never threatened to “tickle the catastrophe” of any “cream-faced loon”!

I recommend this book as a fascinating read (or listen), and an absorbing introduction to this period in our history. I’ll definitely check out more of Dr Mortimer’s work.

If I go on to use any of this information in my work, I’ll need to get a real, “dead-tree” version of The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England in order to go back to the sources quoted.

Queen Elizabeth I— Pic by WikiImages

That touches on something which applies to all non-fiction books, whether audio or actual. If you are researching a subject, always cross check every fact with other reference works. Use the sources cited, where possible (and practical) track right back to primary sources, and look for work on the same subject by other authors.

No matter how learned and talented a researcher might be, each one brings their own prejudices to a subject. When you’re writing non-fiction, it’s vital to watch out for any unconscious bias.

If you only write fiction, you might think absolute historical accuracy isn’t important. Not so! There’s always at least one reader who knows exactly how much your hero should tip an ostler in 1589, for example. You don’t want anybody in your audience to think your drop-dead gorgeous aristocrat is either mean as dirt, or a reckless spendthrift, so look up the going rate—and double-check.

Reading (or listening) widely will give you the best chance of creating a story world based on a foundation of generally accepted truths, rather than a one-sided imaginary version which might disappoint or annoy your readers.

Spending time with books is always enjoyable, anyway!

Blog, Book Review, self help

Is This A Self-Help Book That Actually Works?

I wrote here about a course provided by the University of Gloucestershire to boost the self-esteem of women post-graduates. Every one of us who attended the course learned we suffered from so-called Imposter Syndrome to a greater or lesser degree.

Imposter Syndrome is where you live in fear of being discovered as a fraud. For example, you believe you can only have been given your job or promotion through luck, because your face happened to fit, or the boss felt generous that day. It surprised us all to find out how common this feeling is. That’s because to sufferers, it’s a guilty secret. If nobody ever lets on to experiencing this, how will any of us discover that we aren’t alone in the way we feel?

We’re all in this together…

There was a resource table available during the course. It was full of articles and books about successful women, their career tips and research. There was also plenty of information about improving self-confidence and getting that dream job. The Imposter Cure by Dr Jessamy Hibberd was on the table, and it proved a popular choice.

I can never resist a self-help book. My favourite is The Success Principles by Jack Canfield. It’s the book that persuaded me to start writing again, when I had run out of inspiration and was feeling really fed up. The Success Principles put me back on the road to, well, success!

After flicking through The Imposter Cure , I ordered it straight away. The book didn’t disappoint me. Dr Hibberd is a fellow stationery fan. Anything that includes the instruction buy yourself a notebook to use alongside this book sounds good to me. That sentence on its own promised three enjoyable experiences. I had the fun of selecting a new notebook, using it, and then checking my progress against my notes afterwards.

This book is in three sections: Understanding Imposter Syndrome, Why You Are Not An Imposter, and How To Say Goodbye To The Imposter For Good! Part One reassures the reader they are not alone, and explains how and why Imposter Syndrome takes hold. Your definition of competence has an impact on what you expect of yourself, says Dr Hibberd.

She then goes on to outline the five accepted patterns of perfection which torture us all. These are; The Perfectionist, The Natural Genius, The Soloist, The Expert, and the Superwoman/man. Most people have problems under combinations of more than one of those headings. It was fascinating trying to decide which nagging perfectionist had its claws in me. Actually, I have one perched on each shoulder! I’m a combination of Soloist (unless I’ve achieved something completely on my own, it doesn’t “count”) and Superwoman (multi-tasking to exhaustion because I can’t bear to delegate).

A notebook, some resolutions, and off you go!

This is a chatty, informative book. The text was easy to read, and included plenty of real-life case studies, flow charts, bullet points and chapter summaries. I found it useful, and learned strategies to disarm the symptoms of my own Imposter Syndrome.

The most important thing is to remember that everyone feels insecure and uncertain at times. Study your own reasons for thinking you’re an imposter, one by one. Dr Hibberd has a cure for them all. For example it wasn’t “only luck” that got you that dream job. Luck might have played a small part, but think: you did the work to get the relevant qualifications and experience, sent in the application form, and turned up for the interview. Hundreds of others never got that far. You then went on to be the best candidate on the day. That’s not simply luck. It’s a winning combination of determination, forward planning, ability and charm.

Earlier on I said this book opened with a suggestion which gave me three enjoyable experiences. There was another one waiting for me at the end. I had the satisfaction of discovering that The Imposter Cure really did help me stop being so self-critical. I would recommend this book to anyone who has ever felt insecure. And remember, as Dr Hibberd states on Page 253:

There’s a reason you haven’t been found out so far: there is nothing to find out.

Have you ever found a self-help book that worked for you?

Book Review

Review: ‘Instant Confidence’ by Paul McKenna

Writing is my dream job, and has been from the moment I could hold a pencil. When I discovered I could spend hours shut away on my own thinking about stuff, writing some of it down AND getting paid, without having to do any of that scary human interaction stuff involved in retail (my mother and sister’s speciality) or tricky computing calculations (like OH) I threw myself into my career.

That was fine in the days of posting manuscripts out to magazines, agents and publishers. The cycle of sending new work out every week and getting cheques, acceptance letters or rejections in the post was leisurely, and anonymous.

Things have changed. The old publishing model has gone forever. There’s so much on offer online for free, writers must become a brand. We have to sell ourselves as well as our work if we’re to have a hope of making a living. I’ve been struggling when it comes to self-promotion.  When I saw a book called Instant Confidence mentioned online on the same day I got a £5 credit from Amazon, I wondered if it could help.

Instant Confidence is a book and hypnotic trance system (yes, I was highly sceptical, too) by Paul McKenna. It  is subtitled The Power To Go For Anything You Want. It was also on offer, reduced from £12.99 to £9.99. With my Amazon credit bringing it down to the positively tiny price of £4.99, I took a gamble. 

I’ve never seen any of McKenna’s TV appearances so I had no idea what to expect. You listen to a 30 minute audio download each day, then read the accompanying book. I listened to the audio every morning before I got out of bed. It’s very relaxing and at first I was worried I’d go back to sleep, but that never happened. McKenna wakes you up at the end, in any case. His voice is pleasant, persuasive—and here’s the really clever thing—what he says is simple common sense. It’s the kind of thing most people put into practice every day.  McKenna’s skill lies in peeling back all the layers of uncertainty, misapprehension and self-doubt that stop people like me having a fun time all the time, like the rest of you.

I read the accompanying book each evening, working through the exercises. Although I finished the book within days,  I carried on with the CD for nearly a month. The reason I stopped when I did was because of what happened when I read a business email one morning. It involved some photographs I’d taken years ago, when I was writing non-fiction for magazines. I was asked to contact the magazine, and get some information from them.

Until I read Instant Confidence, I’d have spent a day or two agonising about whether the publication that printed the photos would remember me, then I’d have drafted a detailed email, before deciding the query would be better explained over the phone. That would start me worrying I’d be interrupting them, and they’d be annoyed at having to pay me more money. I’d then write out a script of what I would say, for fear of taking up too much of their time and making mistakes. And I’d have put off the awful moment of actually talking to them for as long as I could. 

This time, I picked up the phone straight away. The amount of time between me reading the initial email, and picking up the phone to get the information was about a minute. I didn’t think twice about taking action. That would never have happened in my pre-Instant Confidence days. The conversation I had with the editor on the other end of the line was so relaxed, I found myself pitching for more freelance work, and this was after a decade away from that side of the writing business. From discovering a problem to grabbing a job opportunity in under ten minutes is a record for me.


The Instant Confidence system hasn’t only worked well for me in a business setting. Until last week, I always chose the same lunch option at every meeting of the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Marcher Group. I’d had quiche and salad every time, from the first meeting I attended. I definitely love quiche and salad (and our venue, the Courtyard in Hereford offers a delicious variety of both), but it’s also true it was my default option. I felt uncomfortable with the idea of trying something new—until I read Instant Confidence. When the waiter arrived at our table last week with fish pie for me, the regulars thought there had been a mistake. We all laughed.  

That doesn’t sound like much of an anecdote, but only a few weeks ago I would have stuck with my usual option, and the thought of people laughing at any decision I’d made (no matter how minor) would have crippled me with embarrassment. The fish pie was delicious, by the way. Will I have it again next time? I don’t know. It depends what else is on the menu—and I wouldn’t have said that before reading Instant Confidence!

It’s obvious this book and CD approach really worked for me. It may not work for you, especially if (like my son) you relax so well you sleep through McKenna’s wake-up call. It definitely won’t work unless you can suspend your initial disbelief (my sceptical OH didn’t manage that). However, as OH has never lacked self-confidence, he wasn’t the target audience.

I do have a couple of reservations about Instant Confidence£12.99 is a high price to pay for a book with so many blank pages, and very large type. At a rough estimate, I’d say it only runs to 20-30,000 words. If you can’t get this book at a discount, only you can decide whether increasing your self-confidence and self-esteem is worth £12.99. I would never have bought this system at full price, but within weeks of shelling out that £4.99, I’ve obtained some spectacular results. It would have been a good investment for me, even at the recommended retail price. 

My other point concerns the whole Paul McKenna oeuvre.  He is a very clever man, who has capitalised on his skill to produce a range of self-hypnosis systems. Good for him—although I suspect many of the things he says in the hypnotic trance for Instant Confidence could be easily tweaked to create hypnotic trances for all the other subjects he covers.  

Flushed with success after tackling Instant ConfidenceI might try another of McKenna’s book-and-trance combinations when I’ve got some spare time. I’ll be posting about my progress on here, and on my facebook author page at . Follow me, and like my page to find out what happens…

Bigfoot, Book Review, C.M.Kosemen, Chupacabra, Cryptozoologicon. John Conway, Cryptozoology, Darren Naish, De Loys' Ape, Flag Fen, Kelpie, monsters

Cryptozoology—The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name…

A Kelpie.  Or maybe a horse, standing in water…

Review of Cryptozoologicon Vol I, by John Conway, C.M. Kosemen and Darren Naish. ISBN 978-1-291-62153-2

My guilty secret is out. DD discovered a few months ago that I love to be scared witless at the idea of mysterious creatures,  whose natural habitat is the urban myth. She bought me Cryptozoologicon Vol I for Christmas, and it’s a winner.

As a child, I listened to months of reports filed from Darkest* Africa by James Powell’s expedition who were hunting for the fabulous Mokele-Mbembe. In common with the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and the Chupacabra, the shadowy dinosaur-like Mokele-Mbembe managed to keep one step ahead of all its pursuers, despite their highly developed brains, opposable thumbs and state-of-the-art equipment. Nobody Powell’s team spoke to had ever seen the thing themselves, but their grandfather’s neighbour’s cousin’s wife, or the delivery man’s son’s best friend knew someone who’d…well, you get the general idea.  Mokele-Mbembe was always somewhere else. It was off on its travels, rumoured to be terrorising the next village along the Congo. Funny, that.

Like Comet Kohoutek and the Millenium’s River Of Fire, media excitement was in inverse proportion to results in the search for Mokele-Mbembe. Those African folk employed exactly the same technique English villagers use.  When strangers roll into town asking questions, tell them exactly what they want to hear.  Nod, and smile confidently at any pictures or maps they show you. Then point them a few miles further down the track, where they’ll find someone who knows a lot more than you do. That gets rid of your pesky visitors, and often earns you a big fat tip into the bargain.

London’s River Of Fire? Or tail of a Bird Of Paradise?

Three cheers, then, for scientist Dr Darren Naish and his fellow contributors to Cryptozoologicon! They aren’t taken in by this sort of malarkey, whether home-grown or exotic. They set out to shine a light on the sloppy and wishful thinking that brings cryptozoology into disrepute, and their illustrated book does exactly that.

Cryptozoologicon asserts that “…cryptozoology should be seen as a mixture of sociology, psychology and ethnology as well as zoology.” With this objective in mind, the book examines a selection of weird and wonderful creatures. Each is given a chapter to itself, and an illustration.  These are often quirky, and quite honestly with a few exceptions they aren’t as entertaining as the text. One of those exceptions is the Chupacabra on Page 34, illustrated by John Conway. A thing more of suggestion  than detail, it stopped me going out into woods after dark for a night or two, I can tell you!

Like all the best books, Cryptozoologicon produces nuggets of fascinating (and genuine) information where you least expect it. If you’ve ever wondered how bats evolved or why there aren’t any large, water dwelling marsupials, this book gives you the answers. It also gives a disturbing insight into how images can be manipulated. A prime instance of this is the De Loys’ ape.  In one of my few criticisms of this book, Cryptozoologicon provides only a re-imagined illustration, when it needs the inclusion of the original photograph in its cropped and uncropped versions (you can find both at’_Ape).  Touted as a missing-link ancestor of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the De Loys’ ape was publicised by anthropologist George Montandon, at around the time the dangerous idea of eugenics came into the public arena. Go figure, as our American brothers and sisters (every one of them sprung from Eve, whether mitochondrial or biblical) would say.

I loved this book, especially as it seems to support a theory I’ve held for a while. At least some of these creatures owe their existence to what the emergency services call “false alarms with good intent”. 

Mum! The babysitter’s here!

Imagine you are the parent of a mischievous Bronze-Age child, and living in the middle of Flag Fen. Their accident-prone antics drive you insane. Which is the best way to stop him or her from drowning—a) scream at them at least ten million times a day to keep away from the water or b) invent some terrifying creature living in the bottomless depths that will carry him/her and their friends down to its watery lair, to be gobbled up at leisure?

Answer a) relies on constant watchfulness and repetition, and every parent knows children are selectively deaf at the best of times. Accidents happen the second your back is turned, so why not recruit a watcher in the deep? One who never sleeps, and is always on the lookout for an easy meal,  mwahaha…

To sum up, if you’re absolutely certain those noises you heard while camping were the mating cries of Bigfoot, and that breeze rushing past your face on a midnight walk was your close call with an Aloo, Cryptozoologicon is most definitely NOT the book for you.

On the other hand, if you’re fascinated by why legends are born and develop, and how people always try to explain away the unusual, you’ll devour this book like a hungry Kelpie.

* we were allowed to call Africa (and Peru) that, in the far-off days of childhood fiction.

Book Review, Fantasy, Liveship Traders, Robin Hobb, Ship of Magic

Review – Ship Of Magic by Robin Hobb (#1 in the Liveship Traders Trilogy)

I gave this book 2 stars on Goodreads (out of 5 stars), but please don’t let that rating stop you giving it a try. If you like fantasy, you’ll probably love it: Ship of Magic is well written, the characters are detailed and three-dimensional, and it lays the groundwork for a very popular trilogy. However, the only reason I read it was because I wanted to try something outside my usual field, and DD recommended it to me. I’m a stranger to this genre, so my views reflect this.

As a slow reader with limited opportunities to pick up a book, at first I found this one a real trial. The characters are all very realistic, but not necessarily in a good way. Although I warmed slightly to Kennit and Wintrow right from the start, and was really cheering for them both at the end (despite the fact they’re on opposing sides!) I found most of the characters (especially Kyle and Malta)  actively unlikeable. In fact, I  wanted to give some of them a good shake (Keffria for example, and the liveships at their most childish). I haven’t felt so annoyed by any fictional characters since meeting Lydia Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Dora Spenlow (David Copperfield), but I hope Robin Hobb can take that as a compliment. Malta’s deceit about the dress and her awful come-uppance were glorious, and I loved the scenes on board ship, especially the great chase at the end.

The only thing that stopped me giving this book three stars is because my difficulties with reading made me want to give up on it, at least to begin with. I need a book to grab me fast, and never let me go. Ship of Magic didn’t really do that for me until page 822, but I have to say that once I got to that point I read the remaining pages in one fell swoop, and asked DD if I could read the next in the trilogy.