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S. Matthews "astafjevs" (Bristol, England)

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The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds
The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds
by Peter Slater
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Indispensible travelling companion, 23 Sep 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: £9.05

4.0 out of 5 stars The Making Of The Modern World, 15 Sep 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: £6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars 'Castles far and wide throughout the land, oppressing the unhappy people', 2 Sep 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: £6.99

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.

Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You: A Guide to the Universe
Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You: A Guide to the Universe
by Marcus Chown
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

4.0 out of 5 stars A Brief and Harmless Introduction to the Universe, 4 April 2014
This book offers the most straightforward explanations of the two biggest theories of modern physics, quantum and relativity, that it's possible to imagine. It's incredibly brief and more than a little dumbed-down, but for what can be such an impenetrable subject it offers curious non-scientists like myself a simple and gentle introduction without either patronising or assuming any prior knowledge.

The book is divided into two main sections and a lengthy glossary which is probably worth the purchase price on it's own.

Despite what the title implies, only the first half of the book contains an introduction to "small things" or quantum theory, with the second half concerning the "big things" in the universe explained by the theories of relativity.

As well as being informative, Chown's writing is entertaining and I've really enjoyed the book. I'd recommend it to anyone who, like me, is interested in news such as the recent "proof" of inflation theory without really knowing why, and although it only really provides the most basic level of understanding, if you haven't read a science book since school this would be an excellent place to start.

The Isles: A History
The Isles: A History
by Norman Davies
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Europe's Off-Shore Islands, 2 April 2014
This review is from: The Isles: A History (Paperback)
This is a magnificent book; a history of the British and Irish Isles from the dawn of time to the present day (when it was written in the late 90s) in a single volume, offering a perspective not just on 'traditional' English (British) history, but also including Ireland, Scotland, Wales and to a lesser extent the other nations of the islands. Norman Davies is a tremendous author and writes with clear authority even on subjects he is plainly not an expert in.

The book begins with an imaginative account of the Cheddar Man, known only from a Neolithic skeleton found in the famous caves in Somerset, and ends with an extended essay on where the future of the United Kingdom may be heading (and seems remarkably prescient in this year of the Scottish referendum). In between, the book is divided into chapters covering broad eras of history, some of which are familiar divisions and some of which are not (most books wouldn't cover Henry II to Elizabeth I in a single chapter, for example). The chapters themselves take the form of a 'snapshot' which attempts to give a vivid picture of a single incident that occurred during the period in question, then a narrative section which fleshes out the history of the period (in later chapters this part is divided again into specific subject headings), followed by an attempt at explaining how contemporary writers, bards and historians saw the period at the time. It's a clever concept, and provides welcome variety in what could otherwise have been a very long slog through many centuries.

Starting in pre-history, Davies dedicates a specific chapter to the pre-Celtic Isles (which he fancifully names The Midnight Isles), Celtic Britain and Ireland (the Painted Isles,), Roman and non-Roman Isles (the Frontier Isles), the post-Roman Isles (The Germano-Celtic Isles), the Viking and Saxon Isles (the Islands in the West), the Norman and early Plantagenet Isles (the Isles of Outremer), the later-Plantagenet era through to the end of the Tudor dynasty with the attendant civil wars, and the Welsh, Scottish and Irish wars of conquest and subjugation (the Englished Isles), the re-establishment of independent countries in the Isles under one monarch and the civil wars of the 17th Century (Two Isles, Three Kingdoms), the Union of the Kingdoms and the establishment of overseas Empire up to the 20th Century (the British Imperial Isles) and finishes with the more familiar story of Post-Imperial Britain.

Davies seems happier both in early British history and then British Constitutional history after the Act of Union after fairly skipping through the medieval period, and he offers interesting views on certain traditional subjects (the Roman era being a temporary occupation soon forgotten, and the Act of Union being routinely ignored by British historians were two of the more contentious, I thought). Throughout the book he is very keen to challenge traditional opinions held by British historians (who he sees almost exclusively as British Imperialists), and in the early part especially he is keen to impress his opinion that British history didn't exist, it was the history of separate entities that shared the islands. Later on, he is very insistent that British and English should not be confused, to the point that I wonder if so much time in his career spent abroad has perhaps clouded his judgement just a little, as I've rarely encountered people confusing 'England' and 'Britain' in my experience.

Overall, this is isn't a complete history of the Isles, it's very selective in what it covers in detail and what it skips over quickly, but it's a fascinating read with very persuasive ideas that really give context to the development of the United Kingdom as we know it today. Whether Davies is right and the UK's main reason for being was to facilitate the Empire and without the Empire the UK has outlived it's purpose, time will tell. Writing in the late 90's, Davies is clearly an advocate of European integration and sees a break up of the UK as necessary to facilitate greater integration; it's very interesting to read this section from a 21st century perspective knowing now what Davies couldn't have predicted then (the war on the Terrorism, global recession, the Euro crisis etc.).

The book deserves five stars for it's scope and because it's such an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, but I probably wouldn't recommend it as a straightforward primer in British history.

Destiny Disrupted
Destiny Disrupted
by Tamim Ansary
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The Middle World, 31 Mar 2014
This review is from: Destiny Disrupted (Paperback)
This is a very readable and entertaining history of the Islamic world and it's interaction with the West throughout the last 1400 years. It's written in a light-hearted, conversational style and lucidly explains where Islam came from, the conditions that saw it take root and then through successive developments from the Rashidun Caliphate through to nearly the present day. Ansary explains many different strands of Islamic faith, including the Sunni/Shia split, Sufism, secular modernism, Wahhabism and Islamism as well as explaining the similarities and differences between the various dynasties and Empires throughout history.

There is lots of fascinating trivia throughout the book, and it's really interesting to see familiar episodes from a difference perspective, such as the rather marginal effect on Islamic history the Crusades actually had or the perceived similarity between the Great Game in the 19th Century and the Cold War in the 20th. The book defines various elements of `Islamic' culture like the difference between a Sultan and a Khalifa, an Emir and a Vizier, a Seljuk and a Mamluk, and explains various ways in which the Western and Islamic worlds have interacted, for better or worse, over the last two hundred years or so.

The book presents a persuasive argument that lays the cause of much of the tension within the Muslim world and between it and the West lies with Western Imperialism, but at the same time recognises the failure of the leaders of the independent Muslim nations to build an equitable society within their own countries. All in all I have thoroughly enjoyed this book and feel better informed about the Muslim world than I was before I read it, which is what I was hoping for.

The Fatal Shore
The Fatal Shore
by Robert Hughes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.09

5.0 out of 5 stars The Convicts Lament, 19 Feb 2014
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This review is from: The Fatal Shore (Paperback)
The Fatal Shore has two main subjects that are inextricably linked, a comprehensive history of the Transportation system used by Great Britain to dispose of its `criminal classes', and an equally comprehensive history of the founding of Australia. In many ways these stories are the same, as Hughes shows that without Transportation there may never have been a white, English-speaking Australia at all.

The scope of the book is huge, beginning with the crisis in crime and punishment in Georgian Great Britain and Captain Cook's initial discovery of the east coast of Australia, moving through to the story of the First Fleet and the difficulties faced by the first settlers.

Hughes then looks at several subjects in more detail, such as the development through time of the actual voyage between Great Britain and Australia, which went from being unthinkably difficult to begin with to relatively comfortable by the end of the period in question, and a look at the types of people who made up the `convicts'. Separate chapters look at the stories of the escapees and `bushrangers', the sexual habits of the people on board the ships and in the colonies including mistresses, prostitution and homosexuality, and the various means of control exercised by the authorities to try to keep these people under control, from `assignment' to chain gangs and corporal punishment.

As the book moves on we get a more detailed survey of the various nascent states, the relatively prosperous New South Wales and the desperately poor Van Diemen's Land, the special penal colonies set up in places such as Norfolk Island and Port Arthur, and the ending of the system which coincided with, and was accelerated by, the discovery of gold. The effect on the indigenous population is discussed, from the almost comic first meeting on the beach at Botany Bay, to their surprising use as `convict hunters' in later years, and the tragedy of the effect that white settlement had on their traditional way of life.

Throughout the book, the picture emerges of a harsh land, peopled by hard people. At many points, the treatment of the convicts is described in unflinching detail, and there is surely little doubt that in some cases the people in charge were far more unpleasant than the people under their control. If it wasn't for the horrific treatment that they suffered for it, some of the prisoner's insolence in the face of barbaric punishment would be almost admirable. However, it is also clear throughout the book that in Hughes' opinion life in Australia, even as a convict, might well be preferable to the life that the English poor would have had at home in the early nineteenth century.

Hughes' skill as a writer is beyond doubt, the book is an absolutely fascinating study of the near-hundred years from the initial discovery to the end of the system; the level of detail is in turns glorious and gut-wrenching, but even the most unpleasant aspects of the story remain compulsively readable.

Quite simply this is one of the best history books I've read.

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