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Battle Royal: The Wars of Lancaster and York, 1450-1464
Battle Royal: The Wars of Lancaster and York, 1450-1464
Price: £5.03

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A useful complement to the literature about a terrible war., 29 May 2016
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This is a fluently written history of the Wars of the Roses *, up until the aftermath of Towton. (A second volume, due in October, according to Amazon, or in "the winter", according to this book, will complete the saga.). England plunged from the status of an imperial power to that of one seemingly impossibly riven by aristocratic strife in the space of thirty years. Imperial power, as Hugh Bicheno observes, was hard to maintain, when the empire in question (France) was both vastly more populous and substantially more wealthy than England at the time.

It didn't help that the kingship of England was inherited by a very young boy in 1422, Henry VI. The fact that the new king subsequently proved to have a severe psychiatric disorder (one, Bicheno suggests, that Henry probably never acknowledged) didn't help matters, either, but the regency was running into the sand well before Henry obtained maturity.

Three main characters emerge from this account and the king actually isn't one of them, although Hugh Bicheno does stress Henry's ability to affect affairs negatively (which is not the same as an inability to affect them positively). There is Richard, duke of York, son of the traitor, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, executed in 1415 (and nephew of Edward, duke of York, slain at Agincourt). There is Richard Neville, who managed to inherit the earldom of Warwick and quite a lot else, by marriage, as much as by birth; he became known as Warwick the Kingmaker. Finally, there is Margaret of Anjou, Henry's queen. She is always spelled "Marguerite" by Bicheno, although that seems a bit pretentious, since he himself points out that she spent her whole adult life in England.

I think it's safe to say that Hugh Bicheno admires Margaret, grudgingly appreciates York and despises Warwick. York and Margaret, he argues, came close to uniting England during Henry's incapacity, only for their work to be undone, when Henry made a partial recovery and insisted on taking back the reins of power. When rebuffed by rivals near the king, York came under the influence of Warwick, who had no chance of being the titular power in the land, but did fancy his chances of being the puppeteer.

As with any historian of the Wars of the Roses, Bicheno is contending with sources that are a mixture of very uninformative and intensely biased. The fact, for instance, that we know so little about the Battle of Mortimer's Cross (not very much more than the fact that it happened) may surprise people who haven't had the chance to study early history; yet arguably, until Bosworth, Mortimer's Cross was the decisive engagement of the entire war. Bicheno does very well with the battles. He uses archaeological sources, as much as literary ones. His maps work very well on a Kindle and, I assume, even better in print.

Hugh Bicheno is tempted to take sides in the War of the Roses, even though it ended more than five centuries ago. He's hardly the only one. There must be library shelves groaning under apologies (in the Greek sense) for just about all the participants (I wait to see if he is a defender of Richard III). In the decades following the war, the ruling geometry remained complicated. Although Bicheno's present book doesn't cover this, Henry Tudor won England as the nominal head of the House of Lancaster, but that House, in reality, was extinct, which is why Henry VII wasted no time in getting hitched to the daughter of Edward IV. This inevitably affected the sources with which historians have to work; the Tudors were usurpers (although no more than the Normans were), who managed to claim legitimacy by marrying into the family they had deposed.

There's plenty of room for this account of the first part of the Wars of the Roses in the literature of the period. It's well-written and argued. Hugh Bicheno's witty asides may annoy a few, but I like them. The plates are well chosen, with direct relevance to the text. As I mentioned, the maps are excellent, as are the genealogical tables (vital - and lethal - to this subject), but why are there no links in the Kindle to the maps and the family-trees from the contents? I don't think the trees are detected by a search of the Kindle (I am guessing they are graphics files).

This is a silly flaw, in a very intelligent, if contentious, book.

* I don't think Hugh Bicheno approves of the term, "Wars of the Roses", but it is the name that has stuck and, since we know so little about salient facts about the conflict, the fact we happen to know that roses had nothing to do with it seems a feeble reason for discarding the accepted title.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 17, 2016 7:17 PM BST


24 Hours at Agincourt
24 Hours at Agincourt
Price: £5.49

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, well-argued addition to Agincourt historiography., 13 May 2016
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This is quite a welcome addition to the literature on the Battle of Agincourt. I think it's safe to say that the underlying thesis, concerning the inspiration for the English tactics, is controversial, but it's well argued. Michael Jones has no issue with the generally (not universally) accepted assessment of the relative condition of the opposing armies; i.e. the English were in a sorry state, verging on starvation and wracked by dysentery and heavily outnumbered by the French. They must have cursed the dreadful late October weather, although it would be a major factor in their salvation.

Another such factor, acting in Henry V's favour, was the complacency of the French leadership. The English invasion had triggered an unlikely unity in France, where even the perpetually truculent Burgundians and Bretons rallied to the French cause. It was a fervour more usually associated in history with defending "Mother Russia" than with the French and possibly not seen again until the Battles of the Marne and Verdun in the First World War. The problem, for the French, was that passion was no substitute for professionalism. Jones argues, persuasively, that, of the two armies, England's was the better-trained, disciplined and organised, however ragged its appearance. A French man-at-arms, well armoured and trained from childhood in the use of very sharp objects, was not to be trifled with, but concentrating a lot of heavily armed complete strangers for the first time in the face of the enemy did not amount to sound tactics. Jones points out that the French commander's original battle-plan might well have succeeded, but it was scrapped, partly because Boucicaut, whose proven experience qualified him to command, could still be shouted down by nobles who had no intention of taking orders from somebody they regarded as vastly socially inferior. In the end, almost all of the French leaders took part in the first wave of the attack, leaving the subsequent waves relatively leaderless and possibly with barely a clue as to what was happening ahead of them.

Jones emphasizes that, at the outset, the English were the ones who needed to open the way to Calais. On the face of things, they needed to attack and the French had a pretty good idea as to how bad the English situation was. Consequently, Jones believes, since the English plainly had no means to drive the French away by launching a frontal assault of their own, the French had only to wait, for the English army to disintegrate spontaneously.

I'm not sure I find that line of argument entirely persuasive. The French could not concentrate an army and then keep it concentrated, while inactive, for one thing (the longer they waited, the bigger the French army would have become and, no doubt, the more unwieldy). On top of that, their fanaticism would not have permitted the French to fail to take the battle to Henry eventually. It's an attitude epitomised by the (ironically, not altogether French) Duke of Brabant, who arrived late for the battle and went into action with minimal protection and no forethought, to be felled just moments later.

Jones is very good on what Brabant tells us about the mentality of the French and their allies, but, in his version, Henry still had to provoke the French to launch an attack. This must be the most controversial aspect of the book, but it's well argued and intriguing, because Jones suggests that, far from being an ad hoc solution to a looming disaster, the English tactics were rooted in English life and tradition, even literature, and provide more evidence of the unconventional professionalism of the invaders' army.

I have a couple of problems with the way in which the book is constructed. Firstly, there is the let's-bung-all-of-the-notes-into-a-slab-of-text which seems to be becoming more common, these days (although I do realise it's no novelty). I don't see how that arrangement can be successful for any format of book, but it is certainly useless on a Kindle. To be fair, though, the notes are there and Michael Jones refers to his sources very frequently and judiciously in his main text.

The other complaint I have is that Jones could not, apparently, decide whether to divide his chapters thematically, or by chronology - and ended up doing both. It's not a disaster, but it doesn't really work. It leads to a lot of repetition. A topic may be relevant both to the events before nine o'clock and to those after nine o'clock, but that doesn't mean that the same background information needs to be supplied in one chapter and then trotted out, almost verbatim, in the following one. In many respects, this book is much better edited than many that appear in the Age of Spool-choc, but somebody should have pruned the duplicated passages.

Jones doesn't overdo the Shakespearian references, since Stratford's favourite son lived to see the two hundredth anniversary of Agincourt and can hardly be considered a source, but I am intrigued by how closely Shakespeare's version of events tallies with the one provided by Jones. Michael Jones isn't an unquestioning admirer of the English king, but he castigates him more for the excessively brutal punishment of often minor misdemeanours committed by Henry's own soldiers, while justifying, strictly in the context of Fifteenth-Century warfare, the killing of French prisoners, when a new attack seemed imminent. This is a curious moment in the play, never entirely explained, or resolved. As against that, Jones believes there must be a large kernel of truth in the way Shakespeare has the king motivate his troops and in the sentiments he mobilises. Henry was the first truly English-speaking king of England, even if he was only following a trend set by Edward III and accentuated by his own father, Henry IV. He could address his English soldiers (but possibly not the Welsh ones) in a language they understood. In 1415 and for centuries afterwards, most people in "France" couldn't understand French. Jones believes, plausibly, that Henry was able to rouse his army in a way that would have been beyond the comprehension of the French nobility.

Apart from the repetition, mentioned above, Michael Jones writes very well. He describes the context and the battle with great skill. I think this is a good book.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 10, 2016 10:20 PM BST


The Chaco War: Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932-1935: Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932-35
The Chaco War: Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932-1935: Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932-35
Price: £75.84

4.0 out of 5 stars The best English-language account of the Chaco War, 9 Mar. 2016
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This is a very expensive purchase, so not really recommended for the casual reader, who may or may not be interested in the subject matter. It remains, after twenty years, the only detailed study of the Chaco War, between Paraguay and Bolivia, in the English language (there is an Osprey book about uniforms and equipment, which is probably a useful companion). Farcau delved into the Spanish-language archives as diligently as any Potosi miner and reconstructed the war about as well as can be imagined.

From the start, he insists that the war was stupid: a fight about rivers, fought on a land without rivers, often without water, between two land-locked countries. Both countries had seething resentments from their crushing defeats in the Nineteenth Century. Bolivia had lost what it saw as its Pacific coastline (the Chileans insist it was theirs, all along); Paraguay had suffered a huge reduction in territory and population, after trying to take on Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil, all at once. Bolivia needed a way to the Atlantic. Paraguay thought Bolivia was just after what territory Paraguay still had. Paraguay is still a lot bigger than, say, the UK, or Italy, but it's sandwiched among much bigger countries.

Neither side came to the war exactly prepared. The army, Farcau sardonically points out, was something used to achieve political supremacy, rather than the defence of the nation. Bolivia had a tiny air force (a pretty dangerous business to be in, even in peacetime, given Bolivia's rare topography), whereas Paraguay had invested in artillery and mortars. The geography and conditions in the Chaco seem to have taken both sides by surprise. Rightly, Farcau never ceases to observe how deadly the Chaco could be to people unaccustomed to such an environment, regardless of machine-guns and artillery. Although Bolivia is mainly lowland, the population was mainly highland and the Andes and Altiplano were the places from which the army conscripted. In peacetime, Bolivia rightly prides itself on its myriad varieties of landscape. When the fighting was in a blisteringly hot countryside, which supported insects and insectivorous birds, but not much else, both sides found their surroundings hostile, but the mountain Bolivians, even more than the Paraguayans, found themselves in a version of Hell. Just as Farcau's book is a condemnation of the governments and military commands, the Bolivian one in particular, it is a tribute to the extraordinary tenacity of the soldiers on both sides and to the not-infrequent humanity which both sides displayed, once the machine-guns stopped (or just ran out of bullets).

The Chaco is a dreadful environment: dry, usually hot, often unbelievably hot, but occasionally very cold. The ground is very porous, so that even a real downpour simply disappears into the ground. Fleas, lice, snakes, mosquitoes plagued the soldiers, even when they weren't fighting. On the odd occasion when it did rain, the soldiers would gratefully use any receptacle to collect the fresh water, only to find that rain flushed snakes out of their lairs and into the military shelters.

I remember seeing a response by Bruce Farcau to a review on Amazon.Com, which had complained about the lack of a good map in the hardback edition. Farcau rightly responded that he just didn't have the money to provide one. That was a fair point. I'd recommend getting maps of Bolivia and Paraguay, before you start reading. You'll be at least one step ahead from where the generals were.

I don't know how the transfer was made, from paper to digital. It was generally successful. Don't expect the notes to have links. The book is impressively annotated, but the notes work better in paper form. I think that any problems in the text date back to the original version.

My only problem with this is that it wasn't proof-read. I am as liable as anyone to type badly spelled words, because I can't type. When I re-read what I have typed, I catch some of my mistakes, but it may take a couple more readings to spot the rest. That's all it would have taken for a wordsmith as talented as Bruce Farcau to solve this problem.

All in all, this isn't the best English history of the Chaco War simply by default. I can't believe there will ever be a better one. As I said, to own it, in any format, will cost you, but this book deserves to be read.


Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II Camera Body - Silver
Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II Camera Body - Silver
Offered by Pure Blue Sense
Price: £750.00

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not really an SLR, but a very good camera, all the same, 15 Feb. 2016
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Until I used this camera, I thought the Canon EOS 5D MkIII was probably the best generally available camera in the world. Some of the Canon's features are a bit primitive, since it is essentially an attempt to marry Canon's outstanding film cameras with digital technology. Canon did a brilliant job at the time and the achievement of this Olympus camera is that it achieves comparable results from a much smaller body.

I went for the E-M5's E-M1 sister after being charged for excess baggage with my Canon on an Indian flight. Since then, I've taken the OM-D E-M1 around the world and I have been generally happy, despite the inability of Olympus to provide any useful information as to how it works.

What you need to know about these diminutive Olympus SLR-lookalikes is that they are not SLRs. Everything is electronic, including the viewfinder, which can take an annoyingly long time to wake up. Because so much of the camera depends on the battery, it does churn through the electricity supply very fast (much faster than my Canon), so I'd recommend having at least one fully-charged battery available, as often as possible.

I'd never give the OM-D EM-1 more than three stars. It's much too fiddly. This camera, the OM-D EM-5 Mark II, is invincibly better. It's much smaller and lighter than the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, but it feels chunky and robust. I am seriously impressed with how it copes with different strengths of sunlight and interior light. There is a room in the British Museum, where I have taken to test any new camera of mine. Flash is rightly forbidden, so it is a good environment in which to test a camera which can cope with subdued lighting. This one does it superbly.

I have always tended to prefer shutter priority but this camera seems to work just as well with aperture priority. The one failing, I think, is "manual focus'. It's not really manual and it really doesn't work.

This probably isn't a better camera than the Canon EOS 5D series, but it weighs so much less. It's definitely the one for air travel. The lenses match the weight of the body. If you're looking to use a really long lens, for nature, or for sports photography, perhaps, you will still need to go for Canon, or Nikon. I'd say that this Olympus should be the amateur's choice now. I was not terribly bowled over by the EM-1, but this thing is quite special.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 9, 2016 4:56 PM GMT


Olympus PEN E-PL7 Interchangeable Lens Camera - Black (16.1MP, M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 EZ Pancake Lens) 3.0 inch Touchscreen LCD
Olympus PEN E-PL7 Interchangeable Lens Camera - Black (16.1MP, M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 EZ Pancake Lens) 3.0 inch Touchscreen LCD
Price: £399.00

3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A rather disappointing hybrid, 14 Jan. 2016
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I bought this as a backup to an Olympus OM-D E-M1 (do these designations actually make sense in Japanese?). The EM1 and this camera share lenses, but not much else. The EM1 is quite a complicated camera, with far more functions than it really needs, but it does have the basic functions all to hand. This less complicated camera also has plenty of functions, but less easy to get to. I may be wrong, but I see no way, for instance, to change the "film-speed", other than by scrolling through the menu.

Olympus cameras are vastly customisable, so I expect there is a way to set something up to change "film-speed" a lot more conveniently, but the information provided, which ought to explain all that stuff, is also a problem; in fact, it's rubbish. There are good YouTube lectures out there, admirably presented by dedicated users, but Olympus should be providing that sort of thing.

When it comes to the actual pictures, we're getting to the "bad workman..." end of things and I don't claim to be a great photographer, just a fairly experienced one. I get a persistent yellow cast on photographs taken in low-light, flash-forbidden locations, which would include any great museum that permits photography. The camera menu includes options to tailor the hue, but that doesn't seem to make any difference. In any case, why should I adjust my view of the world, just because my camera insists everything is banana-coloured? I spent a number of days in Paris and took this camera to the Louvre one day. Partly because the Louvre is so vast, but also partly because I was so disappointed with my photographs, I went back the next day, with my EM1, and got far better pictures, in identical conditions.

This has no viewfinder, so it has the problem every compact (what this is, expensively) has: you're supposed to take the photo with a screen which is blank in bright sunlight. To be fair, the screen is better quality than most, being pretty big and, in the right conditions, clear. I prefer something with a viewfinder, even if it's only the electronic variety, found in this camera's big brothers.

Right now, I'd recommend the EM-5 Mk II. It's twice as expensive, but at least twenty times as good.
Comment Comments (10) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 29, 2016 1:30 PM BST


Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning
Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning
Price: £5.49

18 of 32 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Breath-taking, but in all the wrong ways, 14 Nov. 2015
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Timothy Snyder joins the long and inglorious list of historians who think they can foretell the future. If I call his final chapter here "insufferable", I'm pretty much paying it a compliment. For reasons which I shall explain shortly, the concluding chapter helps to de-rail everything that has gone before.

This book is not intended as a straightforward history of the Holocaust, so anyone looking for that should try Martin Gilbert's works on the subject. Snyder tries to place the Holocaust in the context of Hitler's bizarre cod-philosophy, of Polish pre-war politics, of Stalin's schemes and of Zionism. He is very sure of himself, stating as incontrovertible fact things which many would be inclined to doubt. He is particularly keen on ascribing motives to people where evidence is thin. In one of his better chapters, where he discusses the motivation of those who attempted to protect Jews from the mass-slaughter, he acknowledges that there was no one overriding motive that applied to all and that, even when asked, the people in question rarely gave very informative replies (quite possibly because they had never had the time or saw the necessity to rationalise their actions in words). On the other hand, while he does attempt to discern less simplistic reasons for the Holocaust's murderers than have very often been trotted out (e.g. pre-War anti-Semitism cannot be a fully adequate explanation), his own effort, combining unpersuasive economics and a theory about the destruction of states, is not fully convincing. I found his narrative rather inconsistent with his own "Bloodlands".

The footnotes are numerous, but not very useful. Plenty of things that require annotation do not receive it. Snyder's writing here is painfully repetitive, perhaps an indication that he knew he was trying to spin out a rather thin thesis beyond breaking-point.

I said, however, that Snyder's conclusion was what destroyed the whole book for me. Snyder is an American academic, which means he is fully capable of being stupid, arrogant, ignorant, credulous and offensive. This is far from a Golden Age for American universities and Snyder's spectacularly overweening final chapter is a classic example of why.

He devotes most of it to "climate change" (by which he means the chimaera once referred to as man-made global warming), a subject of which he is demonstrably completely ignorant. He fires off every extravagant alarmist claim, either unaware of the extremely suspect ways in which such claims see the light of day, or uncaring. Presumably, he doesn't realise that even the alarmist IPCC doesn't subscribe to the claims he makes about projected temperature increases, or about disastrous sea-level rises; nor does the IPCC connect climatic trends to "extreme weather", which is no more common now than it was a century ago. Apparently, he doesn't know that the world's food supply would extend a lot further, if grain from vast acreages had not been diverted into utterly pointless "biofuels" (of which the painfully right-on Snyder, presumably, approves). His most laughable comment is the one about the Himalayan glaciers and the Chinese water supply. Unfortunately, the laughs are unintentional, since Snyder is up on his high horse, and he pointedly uses the word "deny" to refer to those who disagree with his opinions regarding global warming. As is well-known, the word "denier" was introduced to the climate debate, in order to shut it down, by deliberately equating sceptics with those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. There is no similarity whatever, but the term is not only intellectually unjustifiable, but is consciously dehumanising. To find this word used in this way here, in a book actually about the Holocaust, is more than just crass. Don't imagine that it's just an isolated instance. Snyder repeats the word again and again. He knows what he's doing.

All in all, this last chapter negates anything of value in the rest of the book, because I fail to see how someone so poor in judgment can be relied upon to evaluate sources in a reliable, objective way, or to cite those that don't happen to support his pre-existing ideas.

That's the state of American universities in a nutshell.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 10, 2016 8:52 AM BST


1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear
1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear
Price: £5.03

27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lear, Macbeth and Guy Fawkes - and what they share., 18 Oct. 2015
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William Shakespeare tends to be thought of as an Elizabethan playwright, but he was active, too, for the first years of the reign of James I, who reigned from 1603 in England, Wales and Ireland. As the only child and successor of Mary, Queen of Scots, James had, by 1603, already been king in Edinburgh for nearly all of Shakespeare's life and, if he had originally been merely a figurehead for various ambitious individuals, he had long since outgrown that phase of his reign.

The final years of Elizabeth Tudor had been ones of decline and decay, so the peaceful transfer of power, even a transfer to a Scot with a veritable army of Scottish favourites, was initially welcomed. Although James had at least as strong views about religion as Elizabeth (he wrote extensively on the subject), he was thought, to begin with, to be less divisive. James Shapiro is very careful not to make any assumptions about Shakespeare's own religion. He points out that one (but not the other) of Shakespeare's daughters had suspected Catholic leanings at this time, but he doesn't claim that as evidence of Shakespeare's own faith.

In all, James Shapiro is very judicious with regard to the claims he makes about Shakespeare's career. He doesn't doubt, for a moment, that Shakespeare WAS "Shakespeare"; i.e. the Bard of Avon really was a relatively humbly born genius, not a randomly selected aristocrat. On the other hand, he refuses to affect to see autobiographical details in the plays and he steers away from the dubious biographical accretions. Where Shakespeare reflected Jacobean life and times was, as Shapiro shows, largely in the things he left out of his plays, at a time when English history became suddenly explosive (if not quite as much so as certain men intended).

The Gunpowder Plot, of 1605, is absolutely central to Shapiro's narrative, more so, in fact, than the creation of "King Lear", alluded to in the book's title. The Plot was a decidedly Midlands-based conspiracy. Shakespeare probably did know a number of the plotters and certainly a few of those arrested in the aftermath, whether justly or not, because of known Catholic sympathies. There is no serious doubt that the Plot would have killed anyone present in England's Parliament. Shapiro follows others in suggesting general devastation of London as a result. I'm not entirely convinced by that. The 1666 Great Fire didn't affect Westminster and the 1690s fires in Whitehall didn't ignite London. These weren't explosions, admittedly, as the Plot would have been, but I'm sceptical that Guy Fawkes' gunpowder would have devastated the City.

It didn't matter, really, since the Plot was foiled and since James was principally worried about the potential fate of Parliament, with himself and his family inside it. His daughter Elizabeth (the future Winter Queen and, ironically, ancestor of the Hanoverian dynasty, the ultimate Jacobite bete noire) was intended to be the conspirators' puppet on the throne and was genuinely indignant at the notion; she must also have been still a very Scottish girl, having spent all of her life, up to 1603, in Scotland - a curious figurehead for what was intended to be an intensely anti-Scottish regime. I don't think it's possible to know how England would have reacted to a successful attack on Parliament. Swathes of the English elite had been removed in the Hundred Years' War, the Black Death and the Wars of the Roses, but an entire echelon of leading society had never been obliterated so completely, or so suddenly (quite a bit of the Scottish nobility would have been killed, too).

James, reasonably understandably, was vengeful. This is where James Shapiro turns to the plays which Shakespeare was writing at this time. There is a Scottish element in two of them: obviously, in "Macbeth", less blatantly in "King Lear". Shakespeare has to do that incredible balancing act, where Cordelia leads the forces of good, but still gets defeated, because she is relying on French troops. The Duke of Albany, whom everyone will have recognised as Lear's Scottish son-in-law, is a less sympathetic, but equally moral character, with the potent advantage of an English army behind him.

Shapiro has insightful things to say, particularly in the context of 1606, about "Macbeth". It wasn't hard to suggest that killing a Scottish king was generally a reprehensible thing, but it is a bit awkward that "Macbeth" sees the deaths of two Scottish kings, one with the help of English soldiers; there was a decidedly English Nationalist flavour to the Plot. The author also has interesting comments about the political relevance of "Antony and Cleopatra".

It's a very well written and well argued book. I don't entirely understand the vogue for unnumbered end-notes, but Shapiro certainly doesn't stint on them. If you disagree vociferously with anything he says, you can identify his sources.

The map of London is fuzzy on the Kindle. Whitehall is the bit on the left and London the much more densely populated bit on the right.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 15, 2016 4:30 PM GMT


Lao Basics: An Introduction to the Lao Language (Downloadable Audio Included) (Tuttle Basics)
Lao Basics: An Introduction to the Lao Language (Downloadable Audio Included) (Tuttle Basics)
Price: £11.51

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Another poorly thought out use of the Kindle platform., 30 Aug. 2015
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I got a couple of pages into this, before realising that the Kindle version is a failure. The text is discussing tonal symbols. At the size of character I have always used on my Kindle Fire (size 4 and whatever the default font is) the symbols are tiny and hopelessly illegible. If I increase the font size, even very dramatically, guess which part of the text remains microscopic and completely unreadable... Yep, that tonal symbol, which is the bit I really need to be able to see. This is true throughout. Lao characters don't change size with the font, because they are enclosed in graphics files. They can be double-clicked, to magnify them, but the magnified characters are pretty fuzzy and the tonal symbol is still hard to make out.

It may be that the paper+CD version of this book works well. I am happy to give it a try. I cannot, however, recommend the Kindle edition.


Who Built That: Awe-Inspiring Stories of American Tinkerpreneurs
Who Built That: Awe-Inspiring Stories of American Tinkerpreneurs
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Paean to Invention, 17 Aug. 2015
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Although this book is clearly aimed at an American readership, it deserves to be read more widely. Michelle Malkin uses a series of cases to demonstrate how, through a combination of genius, supremely hard work and consideration for their fellow human-beings, entrepreneurs have monumentally improved the lot of society, not just in the United States, but all over the world. All the inventions she discusses were made in the US, but quickly made their way across the Atlantic and the Pacific, not merely for perfectly good commercial reasons, but because they improved the quality of life and greatly benefited other businesses.

Some of the entrepreneurs had received extensive formal education, others barely any. Some were born into wealthy families, many more into impoverished ones. A lot of the inventions were deceptively simple, but, in every case, the innovation transformed lives and businesses. Good examples are the cases of William Painter, creator of the crimped bottle-top, and of Edward Libbey and William Owens, who, between them, revolutionised the bottle-making industry. When the latter pair combined their ability to make strong, standardised glassware with Painter's new designs for bottle-tops, drinks could be produced more quickly, bottled more hygienically, transported further, preserved longer and drunk by more people than ever before.

Most of the entrepreneurs acquired considerable wealth through their long endeavours and did so by putting their inventions in the hands of as many people as possible, by being able to sell them at prices which more and more people could afford. Michelle Malkin draws a very sharp distinction between these free market capitalists, on the one hand, and "crony capitalists", for whom she displays withering contempt, on the other. An example of a "crony capitalist" cited is JP Morgan, who backed Edison against Westinghouse in the so-called "War of the [electrical] Currents", when Edison used some decidedly underhand means to try to impose his preferred direct current, to the disadvantage of the alternating current system invented by Nikola Tesla and developed by Westinghouse. Morgan achieved the rare feat of stabbing both Edison and Westinghouse in the back and, of course, he made plenty of money in the process, but, unlike Tesla and Malkin's other entrepreneurs, who ramped up patents in astonishing numbers, Morgan made precious little else.

Michelle Malkin has some stern comments on the subject of the contemporary state of patent law in the United States. She believes that recent changes to the law, through the America Invents Act, deliberately militated against the small-scale inventor, in favour of big corporations with legions of lawyers attached. Malkin contrasts the inventor who painstakingly perfects his or her invention before seeking to patent it, with the corporate behemoth which files a much less precisely worded patent, often with no intention of ever turning it into a finished product, but solely with a view to deterring competition. Many patents in nineteenth century America, she points out, were submitted as working models, precisely because the inventors lacked the literary skills to express their ideas satisfactorily on paper. For these patent applications to be successful, as so many were, these models had to be able to show that the idea was both original and workable.

Alongside the crony capitalists and their corporate lawyers, Michelle Malkin takes aim consistently at one contemporary target: President Obama. The clue is in her title: "Who Built That"? This is a reference to Obama's notorious electioneering sneer, when he had the effrontery to tell entrepreneurs who had succeeded in creating thriving businesses and personal fortunes, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." Throughout the book, Malkin subtly alludes to Obama's crass belief that statist government, not individual effort, is the true stimulant behind a decent standard of living and a strong economy. She also observes his hypocrisy in condemning entrepreneurs for being supposedly too rich, while he almost incessantly jets off in Air Force One to attend fund-raisers with crony capitalist billionaires.

Although the book does have a definite message, it is certainly not just a polemic. Malkin writes very well and her book is highly informative.

There are lots of notes, but they aren't numbered. I can't quite see the point of that, since numbers which link directly to notes (and then directly back again) are ideally suited to the Kindle. Here, the notes do link back to the text, but the text itself contains no indication as to which sections are annotated. Apart from the occasional typo, e.g. Emily Roebling's dates, quoted incorrectly from the Brooklyn Bridge plaque, that's my only complaint and it does not justify begrudging a star.


Catastrophic Failure: Blindfolding America in the Face of Jihad
Catastrophic Failure: Blindfolding America in the Face of Jihad
Price: £3.96

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Vital points, but this is the ammunition, not the artillery., 2 Aug. 2015
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This is a flawed book, but also an important one. To start off with the importance, Colonel Stephen Coughlin shows how the response of US intelligence and other Federal agencies to militant islam is fatally impaired by a refusal to recognise that militancy and islam are part and parcel of the same phenomenon. The sharia is not a legal system followed by a few eccentric muslims. It's utterly central to islam. In fact, Coughlin demonstrates conclusively that one can't really be a practising muslim, while opposing sharia.

He goes on to cite the ways in which muslim actors, prominent among them the muslim brotherhood and the Turkish government, have latched on to "politically correct" Western vocabulary, while attaching to it definitions that non-muslims would not recognise. "Defamation", "blasphemy", "human rights" and "terrorism" all have drastically distinct meanings to non-muslims from those they have to muslims. For instance, to muslims, any criticism of islam by a non-muslim is characterized as "defamation" under sharia. For a non-muslim even to read the islamic holy texts is accounted "blasphemous". Since muslims regard their religion as the ultimate, they accord no reciprocal respect to any other religion. Coughlin is withering about the useful fools in American churches and synagogues who fail to grasp how lop-sided their so-called "interfaith" relationship with islam is, but he is even more contemptuous of the Vatican.

Most of all, he spells out how the US government has completely abdicated its responsibility to defend against islamic entryism. A host of US departments, including Justice, State, Defense and Homeland Security, long ago collaborated with fronts for the muslim brotherhood to fillet analysis and training texts for future analysts of all references to the enemy (including the concept of an "enemy"). Those fronts had already been identified in law as such, when the above named Departments permitted them to vet their use of English.

There is a chart where he compares a series of counter-terror reports made since 2001. After the first such report, the words "muslim", "islam" and "jihad", along with a whole list of others with similar connotations, were banished. The report on the Fort Hood massacre of 2009 not only failed to mention that Nidal Hasan, the killer, was both a muslim and an admitted jihadi, but also managed to avoid even mentioning the terrorist's name.

Coughlin is an expert on the texts, which is a vital skill in this context. A large part of his point rests on his ability to prove that supposedly mild verses in islamic sources are routinely abrogated (i.e. definitively superseded) by explicitly violent verses. Modern "interpretations", in turn, slavishly follow those "extremist" verses. There is no doubt that he is entirely successful in making that case, just as he is in exposing the dishonest way in which islamic bodies say one thing to non-muslims and quite another to their co-religionists.

I suggested at the start that the book was flawed, however, and it is. It really doesn't need to be this long. The islamic religion is full of repetition and, as I've already said, Coughlin is entirely correct to point that out, because it's salient to the nature of islam and the threat facing the West. The book does, nevertheless, read like a series of very dense lectures, in which Coughlin refers to texts, illustrates other texts for (entirely legitimate) comparisons, but then keeps referring back to those texts. It makes for a very long book (yes, I have read longer). I can see how that can work in a lecture theatre. I'm not convinced it works here.

To say that that's a shame is putting things mildly, because Coughlin is an expert in his field, who rightly thinks that his message is profoundly important to his country (and, by extension, to the rest of the West). He is, ironically, a prophet without honour in the United States, among his former employers, at least, but this book needs to be synopsized, to get a wider readership.

Another thing: this isn't very well edited. Coughlin is inordinately fond of inserting "[sic]" into quoted passages. As often as not, he is just objecting to spellings rendered in British, rather than American, English. There are whole sentences in his own text which defy understanding, as well as lots of spellings unknown to any dictionary. This matters, because the enemies of reason won't hesitate to isolate the bits of incoherence and pretend that they are representative of the whole.

All in all, this amounts to a good primer for somebody to use as the basis of a more accessible, wide-reaching and influential book.
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