The King in the North

The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria, by Max Adams

Head of Zeus (2013), Hardback, 450 pages

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Anglo-Saxon history with a dash of Tolkien. Oswald Iding, Oswald Whiteblade, King of Northumbria from 634 to 642, was the inspiration for Tolkien’s iconic Aragorn son of Arathorn, and the flavour of Tolkien’s creation is very strong in this book, one of the chapters even being titled “The Return of the King”. I have had an interest in the kingdom of Northumbria ever since reading about the battle of Nechtansmere in 685 AD, where Oswald’s nephew Ecgfrith was defeated and slain by the Picts in an ill-fated attempt to add large portions of Scotland to his realm. The story of that battle gripped my imagination and when I was in Scotland in 1995, within a few days of the 1310th anniversary of the battle, I visited the site (or what is thought to be the site, there are dissenting opinions), and resolved to learn more about the Northumbrians and what led them to fight and die in this fairly desolate corner of what is now Scotland. Over the years since, I have added bits of knowledge where I can (books about Anglo-Saxon history not being especially easy to lay hands on here in Aus), and now suddenly I have been presented with a sumptuous feat of Northumbrian history here in one volume. I had previously known little about Oswald, beyond the fact he was one of only 2 English kings to be regarded as saints (Edward the Confessor being the other), and that his alleged relics are scattered around Britain and Europe (as far away as Switzerland). However, not only does this book give a comprehensive account of Oswald’s life, death and afterlife (remarkably full given the paucity and unreliability of the sources, it’s not called the Dark Ages for nothing after all), but a comprehensive history of the rise and fall of Northumbria itself.  Oswald’s uncle Edwin unified the two kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira (although tensions remained between those two distinct polities) into a united Northumbria, but was slain during battle with Northumbria’s most enduring foes, the Welsh and the Mercians. Oswald himself was forced to flee with his mother and siblings into exile in the Scottish  kingdom of Dal Riata, where he grew to manhood and learnt the skills of warfare, before his triumphant return to reclaim the kingdom. His reign was brief, but regarded as a golden age, particularly by the church, which benefited enormously from his patronage. Much of Oswald’s saintly reputation comes from his subsequent eulogization by church writers, particularly Bede, who lists in glowing terms his endowments to various monasteries, particularly the holy island of Lindisfarne. However, the need to protect his kingdom was ongoing, and it eventually proved his downfall. He was slain in battle fighting again against the Welsh and Mercians, and his body ritually humiliated by being dismembered and hung on stakes by his victorious enemies. However, his brother made a dangerous journey into enemy territory to recover his remains, which were promptly declared holy relics by the church and claimed to be the source of numerous miracles. The book continues on to cover both the fate of Northumbria and the fate of his relics, which eventually covered more territory in death than he ever had in life. This is a thoroughly comprehensive work, the depth of Adams’ research is extraordinary. It is not easy going, by any means, the intricacies of Dark Age genealogy, of the patchwork of kingdoms and fiefdoms that made up Anglo-Saxon Britain, and the political intricacies of the system can be hard to follow. But if the reader persists, he/she will be rewarded with a wonderfully illustrated picture of life in one of the most shadowy parts of British history. Perhaps more importantly, it gives a real insight into the thinking and mindset of people in that dark and dangerous time, so different from our modern sensibilities. This book is a treasure-house of knowledge, containing enough densely packed information for a book three times its size. It is not a light reading, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the sort of book that leaves the reader feeling enriched and knowing considerably more than when they started. And there’s romance in it too, the feeling of seeing an epic hero, an icon of the modern literary imagination, in creation. Lovers of Tolkien will gain as much from this book as devotees of Anglo-Saxon history. Highly recommended.

9.5/10

Manzikert 1071

Manzikert 1071: The Breaking of Byzantium, by David Nicolle

Osprey (2013), Paperback, 96 pages

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I am a great fan of these Osprey military history books, although some might dismiss them as potted, simplified “Military History for Dummies”, I find them to be carefully thought-out, succinct, and highly readable little books, which take often obscure, but significant and interesting military campaigns and make them accessible to the general reader. As a bonus they are always accompanied by high quality illustrations and excellent maps. That is certainly the case with this example, which deals with the battle fought on August 26,  1071, near the obscure Anatolian town of Manzikert, where the Byzantine army of Emperor Romanos IV was decisively defeated by the Saljuc Turkish army of Sultan Alp Arslan. Although largely unknown today, it was one of the significant battles of the Medieval era as it all but ended Byzantine control of Anatolia and is generally regarded as the beginning of the end for the Byzantine Empire, which had already lasted more then 600 years in its own right and more than 1500 years as part of the Roman Empire. The book carefully lays out the background to the battle and the reasons why it was fought, the make-up and tactics of both armies, the character and behaviour of both leaders, and why they made the decisions they did, and the consequences of those decisions. The aftermath of the battle is also summed up, and the fates of both leaders (neither living very long afterwards) and their respective empires. For myself, I’ve long been interested in the Byzantines, ever since reading the wonderful trilogy by John Julius Norwich on the history of the empire, and consider this little volume a worthy addition to my knowledge of this era. It’s not a thrilling read, its a technical book and makes no apology for that fact, but it is absorbing and informative, and by no means devoid of the emotion of the story. I’ll take little books like this, succinct and informative, over bloated, thousand page, self-important histories anyday. It’s simply a good little read.

8/10

The Inheritor’s Powder

The Inheritor’s Powder: A Cautionary Tale of Betrayal, Poison and Greed, by Sandra Hempel

Weidenfield & Nicolson (2013), Paperback, 288 pages

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Not the sort of book you might want to read before, or especially after, dining. The Victorian era was the golden age of poison, and an unprecedented number of people discovered that after eating, they developed stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness and in many cases, they did not recover. The problem was not bugs from the highly polluted water which was all that was available to most of the population, although they were certainly common enough. It was in fact the after effects of consuming a odourless, tasteless white powder, which had come into use much earlier as an ideal, cheap and easy way to control rodents and insect pests. It was of course, arsenic, the so-called queen of poisons, and enterprising individuals had discovered that in addition to removing pests it was also ideal for removing human obstacles, including inconvenient spouses, superannuated lovers, and in particular wealthy relatives who were standing in the way of substantial inheritances and stubbornly refused to pass on in the natural manner, hence the term “inheritor’s powder.” Arsenic was ideal because it was extremely hard to detect and tests to identify it were unreliable in the extreme. It was against this background of uncertainty that in 1833 four members of a wealthy Kent family became ill after consuming coffee, one of them, the patriarch of the family, succumbing to the ailment. Poison was suspected, and the grandson of the dead man was charged with the crime. At around the same time, an unassuming young chemist working at the Woolwich Arsenal named James Marsh, after consulting with the great Michael Faraday, developed the first reliable test for arsenic in the human body. The Marsh test, with some refinements developed by others, went on to become the standard toxicological test for arsenic for more than  century, although Marsh himself benefitted  little from his discovery, apart from receiving a few awards, he struggled to support his family on a miniscule salary and died in poverty with his wife forced to beg for a pension from the government. These two intertwining stories form the basis of Hempel’s book, which is an absorbing account of the struggle of modern forensic toxicology to develop as a reputable science. The Bodle case itself is an unremarkable and sordid tale of a dysfunctional family torn apart by greed, but the twists and turns of the case are an enlightening insight into Victorian jurisprudence. In the event, John Bodle was acquitted more from lack of evidence than anything, but the case remains an important one in the history of forensic toxicology. This is not an exciting book by any means, but its  quite enthralling and keeps to the attention to the end. Hempel does a great job in taking the science,  a difficult and complicated subject for the lay reader, and making it accessible. With the interest of the human element thrown in as well, it makes it certainly a worthwhile read.

8/10

The King’s Grave

The King’ Grave: The Search for Richard III, by Phillippa Langley & Michael Jones

John Murray (2013), Hardback, 320 pages

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This is a story that has personal meaning for me in more ways than one. For a start, I am a declared Ricardian, having been a member of the Richard III Society for a number of years. I have always believed, being a natural sceptic, that Shakespeare’s deformed and villainous Richard could not possibly be the genuine article and that the real Richard has had a raw deal, my own reading and research over the years has done nothing to convince me otherwise. Secondly, I have a personal connection with the battle that ended Richard’s reign and his life. Some of my ancestors originated in Market Bosworth, the little Leicestershire town with little claim to fame except that it’s hard by the scene of the battle that ended the Wars of the Roses and saw the death of the last English king killed in combat. It’s quite possible my ancestors witnessed the battle, perhaps, given that historical accounts mentioned in this book record that in a display of churlishness by the victors, the bodies from the losing side were left to rot, they also engaged in the time-honoured practice of robbing the dead. I’ll never know, but as you can see, any book concerning Richard has a significant personal significance for me. It was with unfettered joy that I heard about the discovery and subsequent identification of Richard’s body last year, it seemed almost unreal to me, that such an incredible historical mystery was being resolved literally in front of my eyes. That the grave of such a famous figure could be discovered now, in a car park of all places, seemed to be right out of a Hollywood scriptwriter’s fevered imagination. So in order to ground it in my own personal reality, I have been waiting for this book to appear and read the full story of the discovery and everything that led up to it. And I havent been disappointed. Its a fantastic read, a story of high emotion, tragedy, pathos and redemption – and that’s just the story of how the dig came to be. Richard’s personal story, which is interwoven with the progress of the dig, is another order of classical tragedy altogether. Although the book is jointly authored, it is really Langley’s story, and her emotional, sometimes bordering on the hysterical, tone resonates through the book, a near-pathological aversion to the word “hunchback” being just one manifestation.  It was her idea and her obsession, and it was entirely thanks to her unremitting efforts that the dig came to be and that the only English king since the Conquest without a marked grave was finally discovered. For that, you can perhaps forgive her for her sometimes OTT preciousness regarding Richard’s remains, to the point of being absolutely obsessive about who can view and not view the bones. Both authors are clearly dedicated Ricardians, and that urge to posthumously free Richard from the Shakespearian shackles is very obvious throughout the book, although to their credit they are scrupulously careful not to sugar-coat the less palatable aspects of his reign, especially the much-disputed murder of his nephews. They even go to the trouble of presenting an appendix which gives pro & con views of Richard’s guilt or otherwise in this crime. This is, quite simply,  a terrific read, whether you care two hoots about Richard or not. It is both a great piece of history and a great historical detective story. I have no doubt that there will be other books over the years, the Richard III industry has been a profitable one for many writers for centuries and this massive discovery will spur that endeavour on to even greater heights, but this is the first, this is the one that best captures the emotion of the greatest archaeological find of the millenium so far. Read, and enjoy.

9.5/10

The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets

The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, by Simon Singh

Bloomsbury (2013), Paperback, 272 pages

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I have a definite love-hate relationship with mathematics. I always struggled with it at school, and came to the conclusion it was one of two areas of my otherwise acceptable intellect that were completely deficient (the other being languages). I studiously avoided the higher mathematics, preferring to play in the decidedly downmarket area of social mathematics (what is contemptuously referred to here in Aus as “veggie maths”), eventually achieving quite high marks in that area, with which I was well satisfied. However, in the manner of those who have a hankering after something that they can never attain, I have maintained a curiosity about mathematics, not doing it, but reading about it, and reading about those who do it. I have read Singh’s book on Fermat’s Last Theorem, and loved it (even though I understood about .01% of the maths involved.) And now he’s produced a book that is an unlikely combination of higher mathematics with a very popular primetime TV cartoon, which also happens to be one of my favourite programs. Although at first glance the Simpsons seem to be totally unconnected with the arcane world of mathematicians, Singh reveals the Simpsons is probably one of the most mathematically advanced programs currently on TV, due to a very high proportion of its writers being either graduate mathematicians or just fascinated by numbers. Singh methodically notes their continuing insertion of equations, famous mathematics problems and solutions, unique numbers and tributes to famous mathematicians in subtle and not so subtle ways within the show. It was a revelation to me, although I was aware that the Simpsons, far from being a simple cartoon show, is one of the most densely layered programs ever to air on primetime TV. There have been literally crates of books written about the show’s pop culture references, as well as its philosophical, spiritual, historical and politico-social nuances. To this has now been added mathematics. Singh has written a very entertaining book, careful not to overwhelm the lay reader with too much heavy calculating. He has a proven sure touch when it comes to keeping a heavily technical story moving, and he demonstrates it to perfection here. There’s plenty of humour, plenty of in-jokes, which some will recognise, others will not but it doesn’t matter, the result is a clever, carefully crafted book that will delight both fans of popular culture and advanced calculus. A very worthwhile read.

9/10

Underworld London

Underworld London: Crime and Punishment in the Capital City, by Catharine Arnold

Simon & Schuster (2013), Paperback, 352 pages.

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An entertaining if often gruesome romp through London’s criminal past, beginning with the first hangings at Tyburn and concluding with the rise of modern ethnic gangs. In between Arnold covers the history of London’s notorious prisons, especially Newgate and the Tower, medieval torture and executions, the parade of highwaymen and murderers to the Tyburn Tree, the real-life Fagins, pickpockets and cutpurses of the Victorian underworld, the rise of murder among “respectable” people, the crimes of passion, the poisonings, the Ripper era, the London gangs, the Krays and other assorted villains, and the disputed cases of Bentley, Ellis, Evans and Hanratty,  which finally brought an end to capital punishment.  Nothing is covered in any particular depth and there is nothing here that hasn’t featured in numerous other books, but Arnold has pulled the whole story of criminal London together in one chronologically-ordered package and done it very well. There is a bit of gratuitous moralising here and there, which sits rather awkwardly with the voyeuristic nature of the book, but overall it doesnt detract from the book’s sheer entertainment value. If you have a strong stomach, a morbid interest in judicial murder and take satisfaction in seeing justice done however brutally, you will love this book. I certainly did.

8.5/10

Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly, by Peter FitzSimons

William Heinemann (2013), Hardback, 848 pages.

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I must admit I am not a huge fan of FitzSimons’ writing style, although I understand why he writes the way he does. Basically, he writes history for people who would never normally read history. Obviously a very clever man, he figured out quite early there was a huge untapped market for books on Australian history written for people who were more used to reading popular fiction and popular magazines, and has cashed in, to the extent he virtually owns the popular Australian history market now. A prolific author, he churns out massive books written in a very novelistic style at an apparent rate of about 2 a year. I have only read a handful of them, as I said, his style does not really appeal to me, although I will make an exception if the subject is of interest to me personally. That’s certainly the case here, as I’ve been an unabashed fan of the Kelly story for as long as I remember. For those who may not be familiar with Kelly, he is of course the quintessential Australian hero-criminal, antipodean equivalent to Dick Turpin or Jesse James, a self-proclaimed revolutionary who, with his gang, led police a merry dance through northern Victoria and southern New South Wales between 1878 and 1880, ending in a epic shootout at Glenrowan where Kelly’s gang were killed and Kelly himself taken alive to stand trial. His subsequent inevitable conviction and execution merely elevated him into the Australian pantheon, and he remains one of the most iconic figures in Australian folklore, a byword for defiance of authority and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. “As game as Ned Kelly” became, and remains, an essential Australian aphorism for bravery. I have made the quintessential Kelly pilgrimmage, to all the places associated with the gang in Victoria, Greta, Benalla and Beechworth, Euroa and Jerilderie, Glenrowan of course, and a number of visits to the place where it ended, Old Melbourne Gaol where Kelly was hanged on November 11, 1880 and where the gallows still stands eerily recreated as it was on that day. FitzSimons follows Kelly’s story from cradle to grave and omits no detail, it is in every essence a thorough work. There are no startling new revelations in FitzSimons’ book, he is not that kind of historian, although his books are extremely well-researched he does not go in for painstaking digging for new evidence. He takes stories that are well-known and retells them for a new audience and does it extremely well. And I wholeheartedly support him in this. His books are not my cup of tea, but they are manna for many people interested in Australian history but intimidated or simply bored by conventional history texts. And that is a good thing. In short, this is an enjoyable book, the subject matter is fascinating and exciting. Fitzsimon does not take a polemical position on Kelly as hero or villain as is popular these days, he just tells a story and does it very well. If you want the history of a fascinating period in Australian history without the politics and just a damn good story, this is the book for you.

8/10

Storming the Eagle’s Nest

Storming the Eagle’s Nest: Hitler’s War in the Alps, by Jim Ring

Faber & Faber (2013), Hardback, 384 pages.

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Just when you thought every possible story about WWII had been covered, up comes a book like this and reveals so much new. While aspects of this book have been represented tangentially in many other books, Ring is the first to bring together a comprehensive history of the Alps as a geographical entity in its own right in WWII . The heart of the story concerns Switzerland, the only nation contained entirely within the Alps, an island of democracy surrounded hy hostile fascist states, Germany, Italy and Vichy France, twice coming within hours of German invasion, but surviving through luck and advantageous developments elsewhere in Europe. This is the first book I have read that deals comprehensively with Switzerland’s war experience, a nation that is in the background of of so many other war stories, as refuge for escaping Allied POWS and Jews fleeing genocide, a haunt of Allied and German spies, the only place where warring nations could conduct business with each other, and less palatably, as the eager recipient of Nazi gold ripped from the mouths of concentration camp victims. In addition Ring deals with other little known campaigns of WWII, the heroic and usually doomed fights of French resistance fighters and Italian anti-fascist partisans, and the British playing off the communist and royalist resistance in Yugoslavia against each other until they decided to support Tito’s communist partisans, with major consequences for post-war Europe. Also covered in depth is Berchtesgarden, Hitler’s Alpine retreat, its place in Hitler’s heart and in his plans including as part of a planned impregnable redoubt to stave off defeat. It’s not a perfect book by any means, sometimes it drags, and an occasional tone of forced jocularity is awkward, but for what it represents, bringing a largely neglected theatre of WWII together in its proper historical and geographical context, it is a great read and a genuine revelation.

8/10

The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Bloomsbury (2013), Paperback, 512 pages

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As I said, I don’t read all that much fiction, and particularly popular fiction. I did not entertain reading Gilbert’s previous well-known effort, Eat, Pray, Love, which sounded exactly the sort of self-indulgent and self-centred book I would usually run a mile from. However, when I heard the premise for this book, I was intrigued, and decided to give it a try, and I have been rewarded beyond all my power to measure. Having read it once, I promptly read it again, and found it even more enthralling. What an extraordinary, captivating, moving and thought-provoking piece of writing! Words really cannot describe this work, it must be read and savoured to be fully-appreciated. Suffice it to say it features one of the most entrancing heroines I have encountered in a lifetime of reading. If you are not moved beyond expression by Alma’s story then you truly have a heart of stone. At once made of steel and at the same time extraordinarily vulnerable, she just grabs you and wont let go. The book itself is literally a roller-coaster of emotion, of discovery, of experience, you simply have to read it to see what I’m talking about. Beyond excellent, it borders on greatness. It may well be among the top 10 books I’ve read in my life. Please, please read.

10 (+10)/10

Yes, in case you’re wondering, after reading this stunning book, I am considering giving Eat, Pray, Love a go. Watch this space.