Tag: history


Review – The Civilization of Angkor

Posted 10 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Civilization of Angkor by Charles HighamThe Civilization of Angkor, Charles Higham

I love reading books on archaeology. A lot of the information doesn’t sink in — the names and dates and precise contents of tombs — but the interpretations that come out of it do, and I have a great time reliving my childhood dreams of being an archaeologist. (Blame Time Team.) In the case of this book, it’s mostly based on inscriptions and ruins actually found standing, rather than excavations, and I ended up tiring of the succession of names and vague facts, and of being told over and over again what a linga is (it’s a giant stone penis). There’s definitely magic in the ruins of Angkor Wat, and I did enjoy some of the understanding I gleaned of how that society worked… but it got pretty repetitive, just lists and lists of who was related to whom, the gods they venerated and the piles of treasure and groups of workers they supplied for temples.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important stuff to know in the interpretation of the site, but it’s a little… bloodless. It all seemed to be summed up rather neatly in the final 20-page chapter, which was the bit where most of the analysis came in.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Zoo

Posted 31 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Zoo by Isobel CharmanThe Zoo, Isobel Charman

The cover promises the “wild and wonderful” tale of the founding of the London Zoo, but it isn’t really very wild, though you might decide it’s still wonderful in its way. It certainly was a heck of a task, and the fact that the London Zoo still exists is amazing considering some of the difficulties they had. The style is rather fictionalised — mentioning exactly what Charman imagines the protagonists of the story think and feel — and it doesn’t always stick very closely to the founding of the zoo itself. For example, there’s a whole chapter on Darwin, at least as long as the others, and yet of all of them he has almost nothing to do with the actual business of the zoo.

It’s not all about the zoo, then, but the story it tells is an interesting one, and I did enjoy the stories of men that might have been left out of the story in another time — the first vet, the keepers, etc. The people who did the day to day work on the ground, not just the people who designed the buildings or paid for things.

A little slow, really; it was a bit too fictional to give me the sort of details I want in my non-fiction, but too dry for my tastes as a work of fiction.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Hadrian’s Wall

Posted 21 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Hardian's Wall by David Breeze and Brian DobsonHadrian’s Wall, David J. Breeze, Brian Dobson

This is a fairly in-depth examination of the Wall and the archaeology done around it to try and understand what it was used for and at what times. As such, it’s a lot of information that most people wouldn’t expect to hold in their heads after, unless they’re deeply interested in the topic. Which is pretty much exactly why I read this, back during my exam period. I really love reading books like this that sift through the archaeology, present possible conclusions and discuss what is most likely. I don’t expect to remember this or that about the forts — no one expects me to remember it — but all the same I learned about the Romans and the British of the period, and got to connect some dots in what I know.

It’s perhaps not the most scintillating reading if you’re not pretty engaged and interested in the topic, but it’s interesting stuff and they make a good case for their ideas.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Rubicon

Posted 13 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rubicon by Tom HollandRubicon, Tom Holland

With a title like Rubicon, if you know about the significance of that small river, you might expect the book to be mostly about Julius Caesar (if you didn’t notice the subtitle, which differs slightly between editions but always mentions the Republic). It isn’t: in fact, at times early on you might not be quite sure what Caesar has to do with it and what’s even happening to him at the time. Which is fine: there’s plenty going on that you don’t need the big name to make Roman history interesting, but I do think it makes the title a little bit misleading. It’s not really all about that decisive moment of Caesar’s: it’s more broadly about the Republic, and the sense I got was that even if Caesar hadn’t taken the action he did, the end of the Republic would still have come.

Holland’s writing is mostly breezy and easy to follow: sometimes he gets a little too flippant or broad in his translations for my liking (I wouldn’t put it past Romans to call someone a “cocktease”, definitely, but I’ve seen that line translated rather less explosively, too), and sometimes the sheer number of events and names starts to tangle a little. He’s covering quite a lot here, really putting the moment of crossing the Rubicon into context, and it can feel both a little jam-packed and a little dry as he crams everything in.

For the most part a good read, though a fairly traditional account of the doings of men in classical history. (Give me more about Clodia and her influence!)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Devil in the White City

Posted 11 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Devil in the White City by Erik LarsonThe Devil in the White City, Erik Larson

I didn’t expect this one to have me hooked, and to the extent that I was interested, I’ll admit that it was initially mostly in the true crime aspect. I didn’t know much about H.H. Holmes’ actual crimes, just a vague sense of notoriety, so that was really what I was interested in — the design of the World’s Fair, with all the architecture and infrastructure decisions, sounded kind of boring to me. I wasn’t really sure about the juxtaposition of the two, either: it seemed like the story of the World’s Fair would be boring in comparison with the horrors of Holmes’ crimes.

In the end, I was more interested in the World’s Fair sections, and I don’t know why. Partly the people discussed, I guess: they had a powerful vision, they had determination, and they achieved a lot in a very short time. Regardless of the topic, that kind of drive can be fascinating. And Larson’s writing works for me — it feels crisp and to the point, and evokes feelings and motivations that the people involved may have felt without feeling like he was going out on any limbs or fantasizing too much.

I think in the end, despite my initial sense that H.H. Holmes would be more interesting, the thing is that psychopaths are psychopaths. I’ve read about psychopaths before, but the challenges of organising the Chicago World’s Fair were a one-off thing that nobody has or could repeat in quite the same way.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Amazons

Posted 8 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Amazons by John ManAmazons, John Man

This was a really fun and quick read, even if it wasn’t quite what I expected. When someone says Amazons, you get a very clear picture, right? But John Man goes beyond the myth and digs into first the origins of that myth, and then into other societies which might more or less be considered Amazons (whether they were ever identified with Amazons or not). There’s also stuff on why Amazon.com is called Amazon, and other detours like that. It becomes a sort of cultural history of warrior women — and that’s not a criticism, because I found that more enjoyable than something which focused myopically on something the evidence suggests was never more than a rumour born from a rumour, or even political convenience.

And though the subtitle is all about warrior women of the ancient world, there’s a good discussion of modern warrior women too.

Overall, enjoyable — and left me very curious to read more about the Scythians and the archaeology of the people of the steppe. One book leads to another… Anyone got any recommendations along those lines?!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Little History of Archaeology

Posted 20 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

A Little History of Archaeology, Brian Fagan

I love archaeology, and I must confess I really love the kind of general books that do a bit more of a survey — like Cline’s Three Stones Make a Wall, for example. This looked like it was going to be good in that line, and it wasn’t bad; there’s definitely a lot of info in it and stuff I want to research more, but overall it’s a bit too brief for me. It’s definitely a little history, just a little; there’s so much more to be said about so many of the people and sites that Fagan skims past in giving an overview.

Which is not exactly the fault of the book, but sometimes I feel that the history of archaeology would’ve been better followed through fewer key sites or key archaeologists, rather than a general mix of the two, which ended up feeling unfocused.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Templars

Posted 17 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Templars by Piers Paul ReadThe Templars, Piers Paul Read

This is a rather exhaustive account not only of the Templars, but of the Crusades and the interactions between Popes and Kings during that period. That’s not a bad thing, though I had expected something a little more focused on the Templars as a group, and maybe more discussion of individual Templars as examples. Instead, there was a lot about individual kings and their reactions — fair enough, there’s probably more material available on them, but I still found it a little disappointing.

Still, it’s kind of fun reading it as someone who has played Assassin’s Creed, and playing spot-the-name-I-know and spot-who-got-assassinated-by-Altair.

I think it was a bit stodgy in places, but informative. And dude, you totally protested too much in the other direction that Templars weren’t ever gay. Let’s be real: the reality is that some of the Templars will have been gay, some bi, many straight, and some will have remained celibate while others won’t have done so.

Rating: 3/5 

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Review – The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu

Posted 8 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie EnglishThe Book Smugglers of Timbuktu, Charlie English

This story is, in general, more impressive until you get to the bit at the end where doubt is cast on the veracity of some of the modern stories. It feels really cheap to get to the end and read this critique that suggests things presented as fact never occurred, and the things that do appear to have been true may be rather overexaggerated. It feels dishonest in a way that it wouldn’t have done if these critiques were presented side by side with the accounts, and it makes me wonder about the author’s integrity in the other parts of the book as well.

I mean, reading it credulously, it’s a heck of a story and these people are heroes. And surely, surely, you think, the author must have done his research to verify these accounts as far as possible. And then you find out, well, he did, but he didn’t feel like saying so at the time.

Tell the story, by all means. It’s a heck of a story after all, and it remains absorbing even if you know there are questions about it — but if you only know that at the end and look back, well, it all seems a bit of a sham, and can you really trust the author to tell the ancient story straight?

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Great Mortality

Posted 20 May, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Great Mortality by John KellyThe Great Mortality, John Kelly

The Great Mortality is how the Black Death was referred to, before we came to know it by that evocative name. There’s a lot of detail here if you’re interested in the historical aspects of the plague: where it struck, how people reacted, the changes it brought about. The scientific background is a bit more lacking, though: there’s some tantalising hints, like a brief discussion of the increased virulence of the illness compared to the modern version that’s still endemic in some parts of the world, but for me with my primarily scientific rather than purely historical or sociological outlook, it began to drag.

So, not a bad read, but not what I was really looking for.

Rating: 3/5 

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