Machiavelli: A Man Misunderstood, Michael White
Like White’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I’ll confess I picked this up mostly because Machiavelli is an important character in the game Assassin’s Creed 2 (and at one point he even makes a reference to The Prince in the game). I haven’t read The Prince, but I had a certain idea of the content. White’s key point in this biography is that despite the aura of disreputable scheming around Machiavelli, that wasn’t his intent in writing The Prince, and he served Florence well and faithfully. Mostly, he was a shrewd strategist and diplomat, and an observer of human nature, who doesn’t seem — at least in White’s account of it — to have got the respect he deserved.
White’s biographies all seem to be pretty well sourced, and they’re very readable. I’d recommend them.
A Very British Murder, Lucy Worsley
A Very British Murder is an extremely readable, sometimes gossipy survey of the development of crime/mystery literature in Britain, up to the Golden Age of Sayers and Christie. It examines why people loved a good murder story, and what kind of murder story they wanted, while also reflecting on some of the real murders that occurred and the anxieties surrounding them.
I especially enjoyed Worsley’s sympathy for Sayers and Christie, and her defence of Gaudy Night against a male critic’s boredom about it. Quite right, too!
It’s not deep lit crit, or a totally in depth micro-history, but there’s interesting stuff and it’s entertainingly written.
The Hammer and the Cross, Robert Ferguson
If you’re looking for a dynamic and riveting history of the Vikings, this isn’t really it — Neil Oliver’s book might be more your speed. It’s quite slow and thorough, covering a lot of ground in terms of both time and space. For me, that wasn’t a bad thing, since I know my medieval history tolerably well and my Viking history better. A better knowledge of geography might have served me well, but I suck at that.
From all I know, this is well researched and accurate, and there’s a ton of extra reading and footnoting to back that up. If you’re looking for something to bring the Vikings to life, no, but if you’re looking for something by someone who seems to know everything about the period he can find to cram into a book, then that’s definitely this book.
The Carpet Makers, Andreas Eschbach
I loved this, the first time I read it, and it’s stayed with me ever since — not all the details, but an overall impression of great craft in the writing (and no doubt on the part of the translator, too) and a mystery which, once solved, seemed amazing. It’s not a format I’d usually like, since it doesn’t follow a single character or handful of characters through a story, watching them develop and react; instead, each chapter is linked to the previous, but has different characters. Some of the characters, you just don’t know how they end up, or you only see a little glimpse of it. Each story has its own arc, arousing sympathy, horror, curiosity, anger.
It’s a great book — not a collection of short stories, as you find once you’re halfway through. No: it cleverly unravels the mystery in little pieces, revealing it piece by piece until at the end you say — ah!
I won’t say more about it, because the plot needs to be discovered for itself. The writing is beautiful, though; each word feels like it’s in its exact right place, carefully laid out and planned in advance like one of the carpets made by the people of the title. It’s almost fable-like in some places — and honestly, I found that my suspension of disbelief didn’t matter. It was all so clever, and it expected the reader to disbelieve, to feel staggered by the scales, the things suggested.
It’s great. I find it unforgettable.
The Secret History of the World, Jonathan Black
I’m honestly not sure why I have this book — some people have reviewed it as a serious synthesis of all that secret societies have believed, so possibly I ended up with it hoping to read something about that and understand secret societies a little more. Whether the book works for that is arguable: to my mind it mixes together esoteric beliefs more or less at random. The author admits in the first chapter that he’s chosen the societies he thinks had the right idea pretty arbitrarily: “I have also made cavalier judgements as to which schools of thought and which secret societies draw on authentic tradition” — what, in other words your “history” is based on the gut feeling of a single person, you, the author? Hmmm!
It isn’t really a history, though, but a sort of textbook promising to combine all these ancient ideas and show the truth. It handwaves at quantum effects briefly as being part of it, but mostly states that scientists just won’t believe in it anyway. It’s easy enough to read, but just… profoundly wrong and bad scholarship on every subject I know anything about. Hardly inspires confidence, even if it didn’t raise your eyebrows within the first page.
And now I really want a book that actually delves into the why and wherefores of the history of secret societies…
Drawing Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis, Kathryn Lougheed
Or mostly the making of it, since unmaking it has been so far beyond human powers.
If you think of TB as something that happens to other people, in other countries, or even only in the past, then this is a necessary corrective. It highlights the disease burden borne in particular countries (usually where poverty and poor nutrition support it), among particular groups (refugees finding it hard to access care; homeless people in London) and in people already suffering reduced immune function (people who have HIV). TB is still very much with us, and there are already strains out there which are completely drug resistant.
Let me say that again: we’re so far from beating TB that there are completely drug resistant strains out there which can only be treated with a Hail Mary approach of toxic antibiotics like kanamycin or surgical intervention. And there have only been two new anti-TB agents in recent years, and neither of them are ready to deploy on a large scale. Oh, and by the way, we don’t even have sufficient global supply of the current first line drugs.
I appreciated Lougheed’s focus on mentioning the fact that this drug resistance isn’t due to people not complying with their medication schedules. Antibiotic resistance naturally arises in TB, even if a patient is observed 24/7 and every pill or shot is administered on a precise timeline. We can’t just put this down to people being careless, though there’s no doubt that in some cases that could cause antibiotic resistance.
If you’re a fan of UKIP, you won’t like Lougheed’s commentary on racism, etc; she shares my views, as far as I can tell from this book, but she’s very vocal in giving little respect to that area of the public. I found her likeable for it, but your mileage will no doubt vary.
Anyway, all in all, this is an interesting, timely, not too technical history of the science of TB, and it’s a bit of an eye-opener even for someone relatively aware of the state of things. I found it very readable and illuminating.
Leonardo: The First Scientist, Michael White
I’ve found myself quite enjoying White’s biographies, and this is no exception. I think it’s difficult to argue that da Vinci wasn’t a scientist, when you look at the kinds of things he was interested in and the methodical way he went about it, including (as White points out) using the scientific method. I have to confess I picked up this biography after playing Assassin’s Creed II, and I did spend the entire time trying to work out how the chronology fit in with Ezio’s adventures…
White’s books are definitely very readable, and they seem to be sourced and well thought out. I’ll probably pick up other biographies written by White in the future; I enjoyed his one on Machiavelli, too.
A Rare Book of Cunning Device, Ben Aaronovitch
Narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, this is a short story set in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London world. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is a great narrator and sounds just perfect for Peter, and while it’s a short story, it’s fun and features Toby and Postmartin… and the British Library. And, of course, a rare book of cunning device.
I won’t spoiler you if you haven’t listened to it, but it really is fun, helped by Holdbrook-Smith’s delivery. If you enjoy Peter Grant and his brand of humour, you’ll be in for a treat. And as I recall, it’s free on Audible…
Mask of Shadows, Linsey Miller
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 29th August 2017
I was intrigued by the sound of Mask of Shadows, because the main character is non-binary and throughout the story, asks to be addressed by pronouns that match what they’re wearing — and by neutral pronouns (they/them/their) if they’re ambiguous. I thought it was reasonably well done; people didn’t get too obsessed with finding out, and not everyone was a total douche about it either. The narrative didn’t linger on it, either.
On the other hand, it’s basically Throne of Glass with a bit of The Hunger Games, apart from maybe the figure of the queen, who is intriguingly ambiguous in the end, although she starts as a saviour figure. There is some interesting world-building — the shadows — but really, it feels so much like Throne of Glass. I enjoyed Throne of Glass well enough, but I don’t want to read it again.
There’s a couple of issues with pacing too — sometimes the story seems to jerk forward, leaving me wondering where something came from. But for the most part, it’s fun; just not original.
The Wimsey Family, C.S. Scott-Giles, Dorothy L. Sayers
This is quality piffle, right here. It’s a short volume, and perhaps better in concept than actually in execution, at least as something to read straight through. It assembles a bunch of stories that Sayers and her correspondents came up with, explaining Peter’s family and where exactly he came from. It untangles some inconsistencies, and basically rationalises everything.
A nice thing for a collector of Sayers’ work to have, and for a major fan of Lord Peter, but perhaps not the most entertaining just to sit and read.