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The Roman Guide to Slave Management: A Treatise by Nobleman Marcus Sidonius Falx
The Roman Guide to Slave Management: A Treatise by Nobleman Marcus Sidonius Falx
by Sidonius Falx Marcus
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.44

5.0 out of 5 stars Subversive self-help, 20 Oct 2014
First, do not worry, The Roman Guide to Slave Management is no apology of slavery. On the contrary, it is an explicit portrayal of that brutal institution and its role in the Roman world. It is also true to the sources: the tongue-in-cheek, self-help format repackages disparate primary texts to make them into coherent chapters for the reader. Toner's latest work explores all the facets of Roman slave-ownership: from acquisition to management, from legal rights to private abuse. Narrated by the fictitious, cranky, and old-fashioned Marcus Sidonius Falx, it is an easily read and often humorous volume, at least as much as the subject allows. It also is a reminder that Roman civilization was in large part dependent on slavery, and that much of the civic infrastructure we still admire was built by slaves. Finally, it allows for the peculiarities of Roman slavery, showing that not all slave regimes are the same. Some (a minority) of slaves were better off than free men or women, especially the domestic slaves of high-ranking individuals. Many Roman slaves were manumitted, though as Toner shows, the motivations for that were more complex than simple generosity. Some even went on to make fortunes with the help of their patrons. The Roman Guide to Slave Management is an honest and hard-hitting contribution to Roman history, combining originality with invaluable source references.

Meanwhile, this is the same book as Toner's How to Manage Your Slaves, one being the UK and the other the US edition.


China and the World since 1945: An International History (The Making of the Contemporary World)
China and the World since 1945: An International History (The Making of the Contemporary World)
by Chi-kwan Mark
Edition: Paperback
Price: £20.86

4.0 out of 5 stars No red book, 2 Oct 2014
China and the World Since 1945 tracks China's foreign policy from the end of WWII to today. Concise and to the point, this is an excellent manual, covering a surprising amount of material in its mere 140 pages. Nor does the volume require much prior knowledge of Chinese history, as the author, Chi-Kwan Mark, consistently draws the link between domestic and foreign action. Indeed, it is one of the volume's key themes that China's foreign policy since 1945 has seamlessly responded both to ideological and to conventional power-political concerns. One of the ironies of the period that moreover emerges is that China was ideologically most aggressive when it was weakest and has only become, at least for now, internationally more cautious as it has gathered in strength. Cogently written, with an easy-to-follow chapter-by-chapter chronological format, this is a great primer both on China's rise and on its history since the foundation of the PRC.


The Histories (Oxford World's Classics)
The Histories (Oxford World's Classics)
by Tacitus
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Imperial turning-point, 26 Sep 2014
Tacitus' Histories ought to be more difficult than the Annals. They concern the struggle for imperial succession in the aftermath of Nero's death, in the second half of the first century AD, whereas the Annals run through the scandal-ridden reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. They are more militaristic and conventional than the Annals, preoccupied as these are with imperial abuse and elite Roman politics. Yet I found the Histories more accessible. Tacitus' bad luck is that key parts of the Annals have been lost. If the Annals follow a year-by-year format, moreover, the Histories return to more easily graspable narrative. Tacitus' reputation as a historian is meanwhile exalted, resting on his accuracy, judgement, and caution as to sources. His style has also been praised, though surely that comes out less well in translation. Finally, he is held in high regard for having been the first to take the corruption of power as his subject.

The Histories begin just after the death of Nero in 68 AD. The claims of his successor Galba are disputed, and there soon arise two rival pretenders: Otho, back by the praetorians, and Vitellius, supported by the army of the Rhine. After Galba is murdered, though, and as the rivals battle it out in Italy, there arises a third pretender: Vespasian, father of Titus and governor in the Asian provinces. The Histories track the civil war's progress until the triumph of Vespasian, the founder of the new, Flavian dynasty. In a sense, they mark a return to conventional classical history, with its large share of military narrative punctuated by high-political machinations. At the same time, they describe a turning point and form a sequel to the Annals. For the first time since the establishment of the principate by Augustus, indeed, the empire is being shaken again by civil war. The corruption described in the Annals has set the stage for the instability narrated in the Histories, in a feedback loop that would rock the Roman empire - in between periods of renewed stability - until it would bring it down. Tacitus was Gibbon's favourite historian and, apart from style and good judgement, that this was Tacitus' underlying theme was surely the reason. Of course Tacitus himself, writing in the early second century AD, could not know that the empire would fall or when. Yet perhaps the semi-prophetic character of his Histories, precisely, is what has made them so compelling.


Shogun: The First Novel of the Asian Saga: A Novel of Japan
Shogun: The First Novel of the Asian Saga: A Novel of Japan
by James Clavell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gripping tale, 26 Sep 2014
Clavell's Shogun may belong to the bestseller genre, but it is halfway to a classic. The plot is relentless and if it pushes all the right buttons, that works. Set in Japan around 1600, the book is part of the author's Asian saga - a series of unrelated pieces except insofar as they concern the meeting of Western and East-Asian cultures. The English captain, John Blackthorne, begins by being shipwrecked off a village on the Izu peninsula. He and his surviving ship soon get mixed up in the power politics of Japan, a three-way contest between an Osaka-based regency, the pretender to the Shogunate Toranaga, and the Japanese Christian lords and their Portuguese backers. Intrigue, long-running battles, and other cliff-hanger type scenes punctuate the plot, drawing in a wide cast of characters from Samurai to courtesan and from dowager to Jesuit priest, and the story also mobilises a doomed love interest.

Shogun is not just racy, though: it is well written in that it captures well the interaction between utterly different people, with all the misunderstanding, frustration, and potential for conflict created by the absence of a common language, values, or mores. The dirty, smelly, meat-eating Europeans get confronted to the hygienic, fish-eating Japanese, and the Elizabethan Christian ethos to the Samurai honour code. I cannot pretend to know much Japanese history, but I have read a little about the contemporary European push into East Asia, and Clavell's descriptions at least ring true, whether on the cultural or the political level, for example on the Jesuits or on European dress or everyday habits.

I can't resist closing this otherwise glowing review, nevertheless, with two anachronisms I have spotted. At some stage Blackthorne comments on the English taste for betting, and among a lists of other things he mentions speculation in joint-stock companies: that was an eighteenth-century invention. Later he is asked about sugar, and says that the English make sugar from beet. Britain would spend two centuries importing plantation-grown cane sugar from the Caribbean islands. The processing of beetroot for sugar began during the Napoleonic Wars, as a result of the continental blockade. These are details, of course, and they don't affect the quality of the plot. If you find more, though, please don't hesitate to write them up in the comment section below.


Phineas Redux (Penguin Classics)
Phineas Redux (Penguin Classics)
by Anthony Trollope
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

5.0 out of 5 stars A triumph, 31 Aug 2014
First a warning: Phineas Redux is the fourth of the Trollope's Palliser novels and, while the six novels in the series can otherwise be read independently, this is an exception, forming also the sequel to Phineas Finn. If you have not read Phineas Finn, then, you need to begin there, and you may also stop perusing this review, which will be found to contain spoilers by anyone who has not read the first in the pair.

I cannot claim to have read all of Trollope's forty-seven novels, but of those I have read, this has been the most exciting. Our hero Phineas, having lost his wife to childbirth, returns from Ireland to run in a fresh election. As soon as he sets foot in London, he is plunged in the maelstrom of electoral intrigue, ministerial rivalry, and party machination that makes parliamentary life. The Conservative leader, Mr Daubeny (i.e. Disraeli), has attempted to pull the rug under Liberal feet by entering a motion to disestablish the Church of England. Phineas, meanwhile, cannot stand the formation of a Liberal cabinet to be thwarted for too long, for he depends on the revenue a ministerial post promises to bring. But the second of the Phineas Finn novels, while it is as strong as the first in its depiction of parliamentary life, also ranges far wider. Murder accusations, a cliffhanger of a trial, vitriolic press scuffles all become intertwined with the political game. Phineas's impossible involvement with Laura Kennedy and the scandal caused by her bigoted husband also weave into the plot, and stand in between Phineas and the mysterious, beautiful, and wealthy socialite Madame Goesler. Phineas Redux is a complex novel with an extraordinarily rich plot, and it as full of suspense as it is verisimilar in its reconstruction of contemporary London life. I found it simply exhilarating.


Music For Torching
Music For Torching
by A. M. Homes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slow-burning, 21 Aug 2014
This review is from: Music For Torching (Paperback)
A.M. Homes is a writer with a fine eye. Her novels capture ordinary psychology with humour and a good sense of the apposite. Music for Torching, though, felt just a little unreal to me. The novel begins as Paul and Elaine attempt to burn down their house by tipping a barbeque. Paul has been unfaithful, and Elaine, the stay-at-home mother of two boys, is aimless and demoralised. Forced temporarily to leave their home, the couple, and the family, flail for a handle on their lives. But as they weave through neighbourhood dinner parties, comical work meetings at Paul's NY office, and fresh affairs, cracks soon appear through the veneer of respectability. Fine: yet set in the 1990s, this has a dated feel about it. It isn't just that the protagonists use landlines, not mobiles, and never check anything on the Internet. The novel has been hailed as a critique of suburban America. But is conventional, middle-class America perhaps something of a writer's myth? Something convenient for laughing at, but perhaps not quite as ordered and conformist as the more bohemian artist would like it? Or is it that with job losses, reduced incomes, and mortgage defaults, suburban America isn't quite what it was back in the boom times? The work scenes, notably, suffer from a lack of contemporary credibility. The book, finally, is penalised by a weak ending. This remains a good read. It is entertaining throughout, and might have deserved four stars with a better ending. But it is not Homes's best novel.


The Imperfectionists
The Imperfectionists
by Tom Rachman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Gem of a first novel, 18 Aug 2014
This review is from: The Imperfectionists (Paperback)
Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists is half novel, half collection of short stories. Its overarching plot is that of an international, English-language newspaper based in Rome, running from its foundation in the 1950s to its modern fall to the barbarian forces of new media. Each chapter, though, zooms in on the life of one of its participants: reporter, copy editor, accountant, devoted reader, moneyed board member... Nor is the newspaper the only thread running through these portraits: all are people faced with imperfect life situations, forced to make do with a reality far different from the simpler epitomes of the printed word. Rachman is a gifted writer, and the chapters are full of poignant detail, enriched by the choice of Rome as a setting. The newspaper's own story, at first murky, grows on the reader and it eventually interacts with the various characters' fates. And the author, incidentally, seems to have insider knowledge of journalism. Do not be put off by the comparison with short-story collections: a highly original piece, this books quickly becomes a page-turner.


The Annals of Imperial Rome (Classics)
The Annals of Imperial Rome (Classics)
by Tacitus
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Annalistic, 21 July 2014
Though I am no classicist, I have read quite a bit of original Greco-Roman history, from Thucydides to Cassius Dio, and I was looking forward to Tacitus, perhaps the most reputed Roman writer and Gibbon's favourite source. I fear however that part of Tacitus' reputation relies on his style, whose uniqueness gets lost in an English translation. Nor had I realised, firstly, that significant parts of the Annals are missing, and secondly that the book is in format a chronicle, not a history.

Covering the scandal-ridden years AD 14-66, the Annals takes the reader through the reign of Tiberius, the last years of Claudius, and most of Nero. The reign of Caligula, the early Claudius years, and the last of Nero are missing, and one must turn to Suetonius for that. That, with a few exceptions, Tacitus chose to tell his story year by year, or consulship by consulship, is meanwhile no-doubt invaluable to historians, but it makes the book more difficult to follow and less coherent to the general reader. The Annals do have an overarching theme, namely the corruption of absolute power, both among those at the top and among courtiers and aspirants. Yet as an account they are burdened with countless obscure affairs whose protagonists are hard to recognise, and by the marches and counter-marches of military campaigns whose significance is not always established. By contrast, though Thucydides also follows a loosely year-by-year structure, I found his narrative far more absorbing. I am thus only giving the Annals - shockingly, I know - four stars. At the same time, this is well worth reading and is filled with engrossing reading, such as the Germanicus campaigns or Nero's ruthless assumption of total power. And I am turning to the Tacitus Histories, covering the years AD 69-96, with unabated eagerness and anticipation.


The Believers
The Believers
by ZoŽ Heller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Good but somewhat directionless, 21 July 2014
This review is from: The Believers (Paperback)
Zoe Heller is an acute observer with a keen sense of the humorous, and The Believers fails neither to amuse nor to tell. The novel follows the fate of the Litvinoff family while its head Joel, an ageing New York lawyer and civil rights champion, lies in a coma after a stroke. His wife, the irredeemably bolshie Audrey, battles with two daughters that are losing the faith: one to Orthodox Judaism and the other to an extramarital affair, and with an addict of a son who threatens to rediscover simple, earthy American values as he makes a rural escape. All this makes for some pointed scenes and a few good laughs. Yet The Believers is undermined by the lack of a strong plot, as nothing else takes place but the Litvinoff's rather listless petty tribulations. As a book it is never boring, but I found it not as strong as the London-based Notes on a Scandal.


The Reluctant Fundamentalist
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Reluctant home truths, 3 July 2014
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, telling the story of a brilliant young Pakistani's disillusionment with America, caused a stir when it came out. Its revelations, though, are probably not that new to anyone outside the US. There are people who dislike the great superpower, and it isn't just that they are fanatics, or that they hate liberty, but they are actually discontented at American policies and acts around the world. Surprise, surprise. Hamid is a skilled writer, and this novella has a proper plot, with proper characters; it is not a political tract. As is clear from the beginning, the main protagonist, Changez, is suspected of having joined a fundamentalist cell. But this is after he has gone through the promising beginnings of a career at Princeton and an investment banking firm in New York, and experienced a doomed love affair with a local girl. Flawlessly written, this makes for a finely spun tale. At the same time, I enjoyed Hamid's other work, How to Get Rich in Rising Asia, better. My issue with The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the novella format: there was more to say, much more, and going for a full-length novel would have allowed for a richer work, both along the political and the psychological dimensions.


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