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aplivings (London, UK)

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Red Plenty
Red Plenty
by Francis Spufford
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Docu-drama in prose, 5 Nov. 2010
This review is from: Red Plenty (Hardcover)
I bought this book after reading a favourable review in The Economist, so I knew it was not an ordinary history book. When I started reading it and found it was more fiction than fact, I was initially disappointed because I didn't know how much of the history was imagined. The author does warn about this in the introduction, but it's hard to adjust to because it's marketed and priced as a history book, not a novel, so there are certain expectations of accuracy and format that are not addressed.

Now that I've read all the way through it I think the best way to describe the book is as my title. This is very much like a modern dramatised history, or docu-drama, that you see on TV all the time. The characterisation is very good, the scenery very vivid, the author precedes segments of the book with a voice-over type narrative to position the chronology and some exposition to explain some of the ideas and challenges. The rest is done in-story by character conversations, and it's a good way of dumbing down complicated theories of political and ideological thought so that they can be easily comprehended and digested. Also explains some mechanical, industrial, and biological concepts, again using picturesque writing to implant the scene in your mind. On the whole I liked it a lot, would recommend it to people to read (but not necessarily to buy), and would give it 3.5 stars out of 5 if possible.

I see a lot of people have given it 5 stars, which is fine for them, but I wouldn't agree it's that brilliant, that classic, or that re-readable. But a good introduction to the subject matter, and that's worth a lot.

The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean
The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean
by Viscount John Julius Norwich
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.45

16 of 32 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Don't be fooled by non-specific, sycophantic praise..., 29 Jun. 2010
This book has a very interesting blurb: "The Mediterranean has nutured three of the most dazzling civilizations of antiquity, witnessed the birth or growth of three of our greatest religions and links three of the world's six continents. To the peoples living around its periphery, it has served at various times as a cradle and a grave, a bond and a barrier, a blessing and a battlefield. It has inspired writers from Homer and Virgil to Norman Douglas and Patrick Leigh Fermot. Geographically, it is unlike any other sea in the world; in historical importance also, it stands alone."

Sounds interesting, right? You might imagine from this that the book you are thinking of buying is going to examine the importance of the fertile crescent, the legacy of the ancient world, the cultural renaissance. Everything that has endured and is important in defining the modern world, and its modern people. Wrong.

To be specific, this type of book should be called a chronicle, in that it narrates historical events from a starting point (around 3000BC) to a finish point (end of WW1), without analyzing them or tying these events into a larger theme. The subject matter is therefore a political-military history, of monarchs and 'great' people, armies, wars, sieges, sackings, massacres, dates. Rather than look at how people lived we're forced to read about how people died, how empires fell. Like digressions of Papal and monarchical bed chamber gossip, it's all banal and irrelevant. The middle chapters on Italian history (read: conflict between Emperor and Pope) are really, really, boring.

There are reasons this would have been a great book: twenty years ago. The focus on 'great' people is today considered unfashionable. I don't object to the focus so much as the subject matter, because the actions of these 'great' people are invariably transitory. Today there are far better narrative histories on Wikipedia, which at least have the advantage of further exploration, and are free. When I buy a book, I expect some 'added value', something new and original. Instead all there is the occasional personal judgement on a person's impact.

On Isabel II of Spain: "Apart from her nymphomania she was not a bad woman, but she had been a hopeless queen and her country was better off without her."

Opinions like that would be better left unsaid, and left out of books that people have paid real money for!

There are the occasional gems: the architecture and court life of Norman Sicily, the decline and fall of Venice, and Byzantium, speak highly of the author's scholarship and erudition, as you would expect. Unfortunately these states were less important to the legacy of the Middle Sea than Ancient Greece, Rome, and Renaissance Italy, about which little is said. I also enjoyed reading about the siege of Gibraltar and Napoleon's march through Italy, and campaign in Egypt. These are well written and covered in sufficient depth. But arguably have no place in this book.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 28, 2011 6:45 PM BST

The Intruders
The Intruders
by Stephen Coonts
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Coonts' Magnum Opus, 2 Feb. 2008
This review is from: The Intruders (Paperback)
I think the point made about Coonts' ability to write fiction is quite shrewd. In this book you have a capable narrative of naval aviation that is grounded in personal experience. I do love the way Coonts writes about flying. And even in the short story 'Al-Jihad' demonstrates an ability to write in a different style, using different characters, about a different kind of war. Coonts is very, very good at this.

And this book has Jake Grafton. Come on! Buy, read, enjoy :)

Beat to Quarters (Hornblower Saga (Paperback))
Beat to Quarters (Hornblower Saga (Paperback))
by C. S. Forester
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.16

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Caveat UK readers, 2 Jan. 2007
Just to second crab_books, whereas the Hornblower anthologies were published by Penguin in the UK, this "Beat to Quarters" is published by Back Bay Books. Both 'Back Bay' and 'Little, Brown and Co.' are divisions of Time Warner Book Group. 'Back Bay' re-published the book in paperback. This is another example of identical books published in the U.S. under different titles and it can catch the unwary. So be wary :p

Wintersmith (Discworld Novels)
Wintersmith (Discworld Novels)
by Sir Terry Pratchett
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars good enough, 27 Sept. 2006
What to say without spoilers? The third Tiffany Aching novel (for younger readers...?) this is a worthy follow up with interesting plot lines and further character exploration. There was plenty of humour to keep me giggling, but much of the philosophy is recycled from earlier stories, so: different book; same message.

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic
Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic
by Tom Holland
Edition: Paperback

31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book by another name...UK readers beware!, 19 Nov. 2005
This is the same text as "Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic", so previous comments apply. Don't be silly and buy both titles :)

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