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S. Matthews "astafjevs" (Bristol, England)
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Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power
Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power
by David Priestland
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Caste Struggles, 24 Mar. 2015
In this book, the author David Priestland introduces a new way of looking at world history. Rather than concentrate on political or social struggles, he suggests that the mechanism for change throughout world history has been the constant battle between the groups who hold power; he calls these groups 'castes'.

As the title suggests, Priestland suggests that the people who seek power are largely motivated by either money, war or intellectual control (both religious and secular). Over time, these developed into commerce, military power, and bureaucracy and then later into various combinations of all three. The author demonstrates that nearly all of the history of the world can be described and explained by the interplay between these groups. Society is stable only when no single group has too much power. In societies ruled by the sage, a lack of innovation stifles growth and creativity and leads to inequality; rule by the solider inevitably leads to war, and whilst limited merchant power can be good for economies and creativity, as well as living standards, unchecked merchants will always lead society to economic ruin.

It's an interesting idea and the book is written very well. The bulk of the book concentrates on the twentieth century, and it's in the retelling of the "ideological battle" from the Russian Revolution through the Cold War that the book is at it's best, along with the reason for the various economic crises of the last hundred years or so. In the epilogue, the author suggests that in order to end this constant cycle of caste struggle, a more joined up approach is needed. A blend of all three, with sagely leadership and merchant innovation leading to economic security but also social equality.

Whether you agree fully, partly or even disagree with the author, it's certainly an illuminating perspective that begins to explain why things happen and when.


Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman: The Most Notorious Double Agent of World War II
Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman: The Most Notorious Double Agent of World War II
by Ben Macintyre
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

4.0 out of 5 stars Truth is stranger than fiction!, 21 Dec. 2014
I really enjoyed this book and read it in under two days, having bought it to enliven a train journey. I was vaguely familiarly with the story after a visit to Bletchley Park earlier in the year, but the book fleshes out the story superbly. It is difficult to believe it is all true, Mr Chapman clearly led an extraordinary life, and a very unusual experience of World War Two. You can't help but want Chapman to survive throughout the book, as he seems to be immensely likeable, despite the fact he was a career criminal who properly should have been in jail for the whole war. His good luck was to manage to be in a Jersey prison when the Nazi's invaded, and he made the best of the opportunities he was offered to live a relative life of luxury that couldn't have been imagined at home, albeit with the very real risk of death an ever-present possibility.

Whether it is the story of a true British war hero or that of a roguish chancer living on his wits is very much up to the reader to decide, but Ben MacIntyre tells the story very well indeed; the cast of characters are brought to life in fantastic detail and although it's clear we're supposed to be on Chapman's side, his less admirable traits are not glossed over. I enjoyed the book immensely and would recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in World War Two, and I have already ordered two other McIntyre books to enjoy in the future.


The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
by Christopher Clark
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One Continent Divided, 12 Oct. 2014
This is an astonishingly good book about the many varied factors that led Europe into war in 1914. Rather than the traditional story of German aggression, this book suggests that looking for somebody to blame is futile and instead concentrates on how it happened, rather than whose fault it was.

The book opens with a Balkan assassination, but not the one that you'd automatically think of. The first section concentrates solely on 'Roads to Sarajevo', the situation on the Balkan Peninsular, and Serbia in particular, on the one hand, and the ailing state of the Austro-Hungarian "Empire without Qualities" on the other. It builds a detailed picture of how the slow withdrawal of Ottoman control of the peninsular led to a growing sense of Pan-Slavism, how Austrian annexation of the Slavic lands in Bosnia further inflamed the tension, and how Serbia either stoked or failed to extinguish this irredentism.

Part two is an overview of European diplomacy and power-relations in the period 1887-1914 showing how fear of Germany crystallised Franco-Russian relations, a fear of Russian expansion caused Britain to side with them rather than remain neutral in order to protect their own imperial territories, and how Anglo-German rivalry was actually ancillary to these larger imperial concerns. There is a detailed section on the 'many voices' of European foreign policy and how policy was formed in each of the major powers governments, and a good overview of further 'Balkan Entanglements' that further destabilised the peninsular. Finally, a study of how in the years immediately prior to the conflict, the chances of major war appeared to recede.

The final section begins with another Balkan assassination, this one in Sarajevo. A step by step telling of the effect of the murders of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife on Austrian policy and how this dragged the continent to war follows, also concentrating largely on France and Russia and the latter's influence on Serbia. If there is one part of the book that feels a little unbalanced it's this one; I would have liked as much on German policy during these weeks. Ultimately, according to Clark, British support for French support of Russian support for Serbia meant that war was inevitable in light of German support for Austrian outrage against Serbia. No single event caused the war, but a build up of factors amid escalating tension meant it happened anyway.

I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of Clark's conclusions; however his suggestion that instead of looking for the single actor to blame for the conflict, we instead understand how each of the major powers, and some of the lesser ones, each held smoking guns and that rather than a crime, the First World War was a tragedy seems like an eminently sensible one for me.

This is a fantastically interesting book, full of detail and a very solid explanation of the situation prior to the outbreak of World War One. In this centenary year, I would recommend it those who are looking to try to understand how it happened.


In Search Of The Dark Ages
In Search Of The Dark Ages
by Michael Wood
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Illuminating the Dark Ages, 12 Oct. 2014
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This is a very readable and entertaining overview of "Dark Age" Britain (concentrating almost exclusively on what is now England) through the stories of the main protagonists of the period. Starting with Boudica and ending with William the Conqueror, neither of whom are strictly Dark Age people, the book charts the development of England through the fall of the Roman Empire, the Anglo-Saxon invasion, the Viking era and eventual unification under the house of Wessex, culminating in the Norman Conquest in the years after the Battle of Hastings.

In telling the story of the major characters, we also get the bigger picture filled in and so many more characters are brought to life in the narrative. I would have liked a bit more detail on figures like King Edgar and the Northern Kings such as Oswald, but this is a good starting point.

Understandably, the story becomes more detailed as the centuries go on and the sources become more numerous, but I enjoyed the speculation and discussion of the sources around the earlier Kings such as the elusive Arthur and King Offa and the identity of the person buried (or perhaps merely honoured) at Sutton Hoo.

The book is very easy to read in a few sessions and mainly feels up to date, although there are a few references to 'the third word' which show that it was originally written a few decades ago, as does 'outdated' spelling such as Boadicea (which is explained) and Canute (which isn't). I would certainly recommend it to anybody who wants to start to learn the history of pre-Conquest England or wants to try to understand a bit more about the Anglo-Saxon or Viking periods, and it's made me keen to get out and walk along Offa's Dyke again as well as visit Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard amongst other historic attractions.


The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds
The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds
by Peter Slater
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Indispensible travelling companion, 23 Sept. 2014
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I found this book indispensible on a holiday to Australia. As a reasonably competent UK birdwatcher who had never been to Australia, I bought it early to familarise myself with the species I might see while over there. Initially daunted by the many similar looking species (not the authors fault), the territory maps came into their own while I was actually travelling around the south east of Australia.

The pictures are excellent, the information accurate, and the maps clear. It helped me achieve a reasonable total of 136 species self-identified on the trip, which was more than the 100 I was hoping for.

I would recommend the book to any birders or wildlife-watchers whether visiting Australia for the first time or for good.


The Cold War And The Making Of The Modern World
The Cold War And The Making Of The Modern World
by Martin Walker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Making Of The Modern World, 15 Sept. 2014
This is an enormously entertaining and interesting chronicle of the Cold War, written shortly after it ended in the early 1990s. Presumably due to the time Walker spent working in both Moscow and Washington, the book is rather more even-handed than stereotypical Cold War history. Certainly, in Walker’s account the Soviet Union wasn’t always the aggressor and the USA not exactly the winner, which I would have thought went against received wisdom at the time it was published.

Walker presents a high-level overview of the Cold War from the Yalta conference to the break-up of the Soviet Union, linking the conflicts of the early 90s in the Gulf and in Yugoslavia to the end of the strategic balance. The story is told at a breakneck pace, with only a couple of chapters per decade, and the book works most effectively as a primer or refresher in Cold War history from which to develop further interest.

Many, if not all, of the events of the Cold War are familiar enough not to need recounting here, but Walker is very good at explaining the background, decision-making and outcomes of each event in the context of the wider war. The narrative is enlivened throughout with anecdotes and quotes from the very many actors involved in the story, even if at some points it gets a little bogged down in economic details.

The book is subtitled ‘and the making of the modern world’, and Walker does a good job of explaining the effect that the Cold War had on the wider world, and how the tension between the superpowers largely created the conditions for the world that followed the thaw. The epilogue, written in 1993, is the only part of the book that feels slightly dated, but even that contains real insight into what would unfold. Richard Nixon’s prediction for what would happen to Russia if the ‘West’ or the USA in particular didn’t invest in the ‘vast new markets’ opened by the collapse of communism seems remarkably accurate given recent events in Ukraine.


Castle: A History of the Buildings that Shaped Medieval Britain
Castle: A History of the Buildings that Shaped Medieval Britain
by Marc Morris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'Castles far and wide throughout the land, oppressing the unhappy people', 2 Sept. 2014
Castles are a familiar part of the British landscape, and visiting them formed a regular part of my childhood. We were always being taken to various castles, the earliest I can remember going to being Corfe Castle in Dorset. I have always found them magnificent, atmospheric and fascinating, and felt like if I could just retune my brain a little bit I'd be able to experience exactly what the castles were like in their heyday.

As an adult I have continued to visit castles regularly, most recently Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight where I picked up this book, but I must admit as I got older I was finding it more difficult to imagine what life in a castle would've been like or to remember what castles were really built for.

It's a very brief read but really interesting throughout, written in an informal and engaging style. Starting with the earliest castles and a description of the familiar motte-and-bailey design, Marc Morris provides fascinating evidence of how castles spread throughout the country and how the locals (or at least the monks) felt about them. The book is well structured, concentrating on a particular theme in each chapter, from the original earth and wood castles, through massive stone keeps such as the Tower of London and Rochester Castle, the archetypal castles of the thirteenth century built by Edward I in North Wales which remain among the most impressive to still stand, and then on to the more `fairytale' designs such as Bodiam Castle in Sussex, Scottish `tower houses' and then concluding with the mass destruction of the castles following the English Civil War.

I learnt plenty of new things from the book, including how it's possible to trace the masons that built Edward's Welsh castles back to their apprenticeships in Switzerland, how by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the defensive purpose of the castle had largely given way to becoming an impressive home that projected power locally, and how the extravagant castles built in the South East of England were financed by plundering France in the Hundred Years War, and also read good accounts of events I was vaguely familiar with such as the harrying of the North, the siege of Rochester Castle, or the conquest of North Wales.

As said above, it's a brief book and there's absolutely loads of castles that don't get any sort of mention at all (not least Carisbrooke, where I bought the book) but it's still a great read and a good basic introduction (or re-introduction) into castle history. It's certainly helped to bridge the gap between my enthusiasm for castles and my actual knowledge about them like how they were built, what they were for and why some still stand but others don't, and it'll certainly give me more to look for and think about at the next castle I visit. Well recommended.


American Slavery: 1619-1877 (Penguin history)
American Slavery: 1619-1877 (Penguin history)
by Peter Kolchin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A Solid Overview, 6 May 2014
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I was prompted to read this book, which provides an interesting and unbiased account of the history of American slavery from its colonial origins to the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, after watching the excellent recent film 12 Years A Slave.

Neatly dividing the era of slavery into three specific periods, colonial slavery, revolutionary slavery and antebellum slavery, Peter Kolchin has summarised academic developments over several decades to provide a useful overview of the institution of slavery itself, its effect on both white and black Americans, and how the institution and its effects changed over time.

As I read the book, it dawned on me that I’d never really considered either the origins or the development of the slave system in the USA, although I’d have said I was familiar with it from studying certain literature and the American Civil War at school and from popular culture ever since. The book reveals that American slavery was neither homogenous nor static throughout the three periods it was in existence and that it developed over time, and that it was absolutely integral to the economy of the Southern colonies/states, becoming a millstone that held back the development of the South when compared to the more industrial North.

Kolchin argues that some aspects of slavery actually got more repressive as time went on, and that the restricted autonomy of slaves and racist prejudices of the owners got worse rather than better after the American Revolution. He explains how some forms of slavery were worse than others, and outlines how the Deep South developed a harsher slave environment than the Upper South. He also concentrates on the relationship between ‘Master’ and ‘Slave’, and the paternalistic attitude that many, but not all, owner’s had for their slaves. An interesting observation was the esteem in which former slaves interviewed both immediately and many decades after abolition held their former owners. Kolchin contrasts this with treatment meted out to freedmen after abolition, where the paternalism of the former relationship was removed and the same planters became bullies or worse.

The explanations of how slaves lived and developed their own communities over time were illuminating, as were the explanations of aspects of African-American culture that aren’t obviously explained such as the enthusiasm for protestant Christianity within black communities. I was also surprised to learn that the majority of slaves did not live on large plantations, but in much smaller groups, and how this in itself helped to prevent large-scale rebellion amongst the slaves, and that the natural birth-rate amongst slaves actually exceeded the number brought in by the slave trade.

At times, Kolchin explains that conditions for slaves were probably not that much worse in the period than for peasants and later the working classes in other wealthy nations. However he never loses sight of the fact that what made slavery worse than other situations was what defined it as slavery in the first place; a complete lack of freedom that no amount of autonomy (even where it was available) could atone for. And the book contains many examples of where life for the slaves was unimaginably distressing.

A great introduction to the subject, and an entertaining and well-balanced account of a harrowing subject, this book is well recommended.


Fire and Steam: A New History of the Railways in Britain
Fire and Steam: A New History of the Railways in Britain
by Christian Wolmar
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Loses Steam Towards The End!, 24 April 2014
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I have really enjoyed this interesting and informative history of the railways in Britain, from their earliest origins to the opening of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Mr Wolmar is an unabashed railway enthusiast, but this account is remarkably even-handed, containing much praise for the railways when they were working well but not holding back the criticism during the periods of inefficiency and poor standards.

This book is a history of ‘the railway’, the big companies and main-lines that are familiar to most travellers, and the overarching story from their industrial origins and the opening of the famous Stockton and Darlington railway, through the Victorian railway mania, the consolidation the in the early 20th century, nationalisation after the Second World War, and privatisation in the 1990s. Where individual branch lines are mentioned, it is largely in the context of the main narrative or a significant event, such as an accident or the war effort.

I have learnt train-loads about the railways from this book. Whilst I am old enough to remember British Rail, and even the closure of the Great Western Works in Swindon, I had little idea of the picture before Nationalisation after World War Two, and even less of the way the railways developed in the 19th Century. Whilst not exhaustive, this book does a really good job of explaining the various eras of rail travel in this country, and contains lots of fascinating trivia and anecdotes to help illustrate what a fascinating story it is. It is no exaggeration to state that the railways transformed Britain, and astounding that virtually the entire modern network was in place by the end of the 19th century. It also explains why there are so many disused railway-lines around the country, many of which have found new uses as leisure facilities or heritage railways but many others have all but disappeared with only remnants still visible.

Wolmar argues that there never really was a golden age of rail travel in the UK, as even during the heyday of steam the train companies were struggling to make profits, the passenger journeys weren’t always very pleasant, and the safety record left a lot to be desired, but never loses sight of the fact that the building of the railways and subsequent running of the very complicated network were huge successes for the country. The rationalisation of the industry into the Big Four railway companies was, in hindsight, an obvious precursor to nationalisation.

Although he is adamant that the railways deserved a better treatment than they got under nationalisation, and while the Beeching cuts were undoubtedly too deep and too wide, reform of the railways was obviously needed by the 1960s. The reluctance to replace steam as the main source of power for the trains and the fact that British Rail continued building its own trains are two examples of obsolescence in the industry in the second half of 20th century, but Wolmar argues that overall British Rail was a triumph when compared to the mess after privatisation in the late 1990s.

Unlike the rail industry, the book doesn’t lose steam towards the end and Wolmar is remarkably optimistic about the future of rail travel in the UK, however this book is very much about the history of the railways rather than the future, a story of both triumph and disaster, innovation and obsolescence, transformations and missed opportunities. Given the way it has been run at times during its history, we are perhaps lucky to have such a solid infrastructure on which to build 21st century rail travel in Britain.

As the author himself admits, the full story is far too big for a book of this size and there are masses of detail about the history of specific railways missing. However, as an introduction to the railways of Britain I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book. Even the endnotes are fascinating and the bibliography contains masses of suggested further reading.


Vietnam - A War Lost and Won
Vietnam - A War Lost and Won
by Nigel Cawthorne
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars The Unwinnable War, 14 April 2014
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The Vietnam War has become a staple of Hollywood films and provides the back-story of many American TV shows, but it seems to me that surprisingly little recent coverage has been to the real story of the war. This book covers the entire conflict from beginning to end, and provides a good introduction to the war.

In order to set the scene, Nigel Cawthorne gives a brief introduction to Vietnamese history, moving swiftly through the ages to the outbreak of the Second Indochina War, to give it it's less familiar title, but not before choosing to launch the book with the storming of Nam O Beach in 1965. This attention-grabbing trick is rather typical of the book as a whole, where things don't always seem to happen in the right order. However, the author covers a lot of ground including some excellent detail on conditions in the Vietnamese jungle for soldiers on both sides, a good account of the aerial war, as well as a discussion of the domestic situation in the USA throughout the war leading to the Anti-War demonstrations and eventual withdrawal. There are interesting sections on the situation in post-war Southeast Asia, including the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and on the effect of the war on popular culture.

It's a good book which contains lots of information, but at the same time it's a frustrating book. Nothing is referenced, some of the statistics seem rather arbitrary, and there's a reliance on acronyms and jargon which only sometimes get defined. The book would have benefited immeasurably from an editor, a glossary, and a list of characters, but then that would have probably added a few pounds to the price and this book is aimed squarely at the popular, budget market. At times the book veers into the more salacious or outright gruesome territory, but overall it's an entertaining and informative read.

It's inspired me to order Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: a History, which seems a rather more scholarly book, and I also realised how much of the dialogue in Apocalypse Now Redux [DVD] [1979] was going over my head before I re-watched it at the weekend having read this book.


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