“Veni, Vidi, Vici” by Peter Jones (2014)

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“Romans came up with two stories about how they were founded.”

So far this year, I noted that I’d been pretty low on non-fiction fodder, having worked my way through just three non-fiction books based on the future, economics and poison. Part of this is because I’ve been going through some stuff this year, and my default position is to hide inside fiction, and I’d made myself very comfortable there, escaping into imaginary worlds. However, I decided to step out and headed back in time to learn about the Roman Empire.

Peter Jones provides us with a whistle-stop tour of Ancient Rome, from the mythical Trojan War that started the whole thing in 1150 BC to the empire’s fall in 476 AD. He covers almost every aspect of the time, including politics, religion, entertainment, economy, hygiene, architecture, war, literature, discovery, mythology and diet. Each chapter is divided into bite size chunks of information regarding a particular aspect of the time period.

This is probably where I fell down with this book. It seems to be designed to be dipped into, not read all in one go, as I’ve spent the last week doing. It’s interesting, for sure, and Jones has an engaging writing style, but in places it’s really quite dense, and there are so many names in here, most of them fairly similar, that before long I found I couldn’t keep up with the rotating cast list of emperors, politicians, philosophers and writers. That’s all on me though, and I don’t claim the book to be boring at all. It’s just rather a lot to take in.

I think Ancient Rome for many people means Julius Caesar, public baths, slavery, Pompeii and gladiatorial fights. All of these are discussed in detail here, of course, but there’s also a lot regarding some of the more obscure or nasty emperors, the role of women in society (they had no power and were generally believed to be sex-crazed) and the fact that sexuality was defined entirely different here than it is today. There’s no distinction between “gay” or “straight”, and men had sex with men as a matter of course, just as women slept with other women. Heteronormativity was right out the window with the ancients. It was also great to learn more about Hadrian, whom I know for building a wall and not much else.

Other historical figures also make appearances, emphasising just how long the Romans ruled for. Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ and Attila the Hun all play pivotal roles in the story of Rome, and there’s much to be made of the fact that in 1000 BC, Rome was just a small collection of huts on some hills. It is remarkable that the small town ended up dominating much of the known world at the time, and the ramifications of that dominance are still in evidence today, found in our calendar, language and architecture.

If you want a quick introduction into the world of the Romans, this is the book for you.

“Death Comes As The End” by Agatha Christie (1945)

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This murder is ancient history...

This murder is ancient history…

“Renisenb stood looking over the Nile.”

Agatha Christie lived an interesting life. After her first marriage broke down, she found happiness with Max Mallowan, an archaeologist of some renown. Being fourteen years her junior never seemed to stop either of them from being incredibly happy in one another’s company and soon Christie was joining him on his digs to North Africa and the Middle East. Her novels Murder in Mesopotamia, Death on the Nile and Appointment with Death all make use of her knowledge of archaeology and the landscape she and her husband were visiting, but then one book took this to a whole new level. Unique among the canon of Christie, Death Comes as the End is the only one that doesn’t take place in, what was to her, the modern day. Instead, we are catapulted to 2000 BC to the shores of the Nile, where we are soon to learn that humans haven’t actually changed all that much in the intervening four millennia.

Young Renisenb has returned to the home of her father Imhotep, a priest, and her extended family. Her brothers Yahmose, Sobek and Ipy live here still with their wives, along with her grandmother Esa, and several other workers around the house including the bright and charming Kameni, the doting and wise Hori, and the snivelling, creeping Henet. Things seem much as they were when Renisenb left eight years ago, but soon her father returns from his travels with a stranger in tow, his new concubine, Nofret. This new woman soon has turned everything in the house upside down.

However, soon things go from bad to worse when Nofret’s body is found at the foot of a cliff, crumpled and dead. Imhotep is adamant that it’s an accident, but Renisenb has other ideas. It seems too convenient that a woman who was so hated has suddenly died, and it’s only when other members of the household start to be killed off one by one that everyone becomes a lot more wary. Murder is hardly a new thing, and here we are, thousands of years in our past, dealing with a serial killer and a complex web of lies, in classic Christie fashion.

As I said above, this is a Christie novel that is in many ways unlike any other, but then again, it contains all the usual hallmarks of her work. Human nature never changes, which is something Miss Marple in particular always notices, so it’s great fun to see a classic murder mystery set somewhere entirely different. The outcome remains the same and the issues of love, family, jealousy and murder are just as at home here as they are in a little English village in the thirties. Esa, indeed, as a character reads a lot like an Ancient Egyptian Miss Marple, and Renisenb has much in common with the spunky, adventurous girls of her modern books. The characters are almost archetypes – the domineering wife, the doting mother, the spoiled child, and creepy servant – and yet each character also manages to be fully fleshed out.

The murderer in this novel, unusually, has a wide range of methods of murder at their disposal, rather than picking one and sticking to it. Christie makes excellent use of her knowledge of the time period and while she occasionally seems to dip into more exposition than is necessary for the story, such as listing of gods or going into detail on burial practices, it actually just adds to the colour rather than distract and feel like showing off.

Christie has done something entirely different and it has worked. This might be one of her novels that I like best. Fresh, smart and a touch creepy.

“A Million Years In A Day” by Greg Jenner (2015)

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million years“The shrill klaxon of the alarm clock startles us from a deep snooze.”

I don’t have many regrets, but a big one is that I didn’t study more history in school. It was compulsory for the first three years of secondary school and then became optional, at which point I stopped, meaning I haven’t had a proper history lesson since 2002. In the past five or six years, however, I have got back into history and started finding it fascinating. OK, I have limited interest in the particulars of warfare, and anything about the textile industry seems important but is just really dry, so I prefer the darker, weirder, funnier and less recognised parts of history. This brings us to Greg Jenner.

Greg Jenner is a historian who was the sole person responsible for historical accuracy in the Horrible Histories TV series, a series that I’m well aware was for kids, but nonetheless was hugely entertaining. This time he’s turned his attention to an older audience, sharing with us a strange history of every day life. In this book, he details the events a modern Saturday and explains how all the things we take for granted have long, and sometimes bizarre, historical origins.

By looking at an average modern day, he follows us from waking up to our morning routine, meals, dog walking and socialising, right up until bed time comes and we set the alarm clock once more. Along the way he introduces us to the chequered and interesting histories of toilet paper, toothbrushes, champagne, bread, underwear, dogs, newspapers, table manners and even time itself. Along the way we’ll discover that what we do isn’t really that much different to anything humanity has been doing since the time of the Stone Age.

Witty, sharp and occasionally silly, the book is nonetheless completely factual and straddles that perfect line of educating while entertaining, whether discussing how forks came to exist, the fastest ways to send messages, or detailing just what exactly the customs were throughout history regarding sleeping arrangements. We meet history’s most famous faces and encounter some that we may not know so well, even though their achievements continue to be important in modern times. I’m thinking of the monk Dom Perignon for one, whose addition to society is probably obvious from his name, or Pierre Fauchard, the man who invented false teeth, fillings and braces.

It’s a book that will undoubtedly make you think, and make you realise that so much of what we take for granted has such hugely complicated origins, as well as that history does indeed move in circles, as people chop and change their habits depending on what’s fashionable. Perhaps the most pervasive of the ideas is that all of this has been going on a lot longer than we think, and that clothing, beer and beds have been going on since our caveman days.

The notion of breaking the book up into chapters comparing history to modern day is brilliant. It means that each chapter has a specific topic. For example, the first chapter, in which we bash our alarm clock into silence upon waking allows for a talk about how we measure time and have come to use the calendars we do. The second chapter has us attend to natural business at the toilet, giving us a chapter on the history of this essential item. And on it goes, from breakfast to bedtime.

Anyone with even a passing interest in history can enjoy this, and it’s full of tasty nuggets to bring out at any social occasion at any time of day, although maybe some of the ones about hygiene and the ever-changing standards of cleanliness throughout the ages are best avoided over the dinner table. A really compelling and hugely fascinating read.

“Who Cooked The Last Supper?” by Rosalind Miles (1989)

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last supper book

A woman’s work is never done.

“The story of the human race begins with a female.”

Quickly, without giving it too much thought, name ten famous historical women. Got them? Right. Probably you’ve all gone for the same ones. Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, maybe Victoria, possibly Marie Curie, Jane Austen, Florence Nightingale? Emmeline Pankhurst?

OK, now name ten more. Who’ve we got this time? Cleopatra? Boadicea? Mary Seacole, Amelia Earhart, Harriet Tubman? Not so easy that time, was it?

Now do it again. Struggling? Horrendously, so was I. And yet if I’d asked you to name fifty historical men, you might not have even had to pause for a moment, reeling off a checklist of men from Alexander the Great to Winston Churchill. Why, then, is it so hard to quickly recall even a handful of history’s greatest women? Simply, because men wrote the history books and have edited them ruthlessly.

In Rosalind Miles’ book, Who Cooked The Last Supper?, she laments this lack of women throughout history, pointing out that wherever men were, women had to be there too, usually being treated far worse and often without much public outcry. Her story begins in the caves of old, where women gathered most of the food for their tribes and leads us through history up to the last century where women fought for their rights to suffrage, contraception and independence.

Along the way, she talks about the hypocrisy of men as they struggled to keep women under their thumbs, deciding almost arbitrarily that women are weaker and more stupid, making them unable to do the jobs that men could do, despite the fact that women had been doing them for centuries before. She covers every horror that women have faced over the advancing millennia, from rape and slavery, to genital mutilation and the punishments doled out for having the audacity to menstruate. Women had originally been worshipped as goddesses, creators who gave life to everything, but as soon as men realised that they had something to do with childbirth too, then that was that. Woman’s fate was sealed and the phallus was held up as the greatest thing on the earth.

There are tales of genuine horror in here, such as the trials of female coal miners, the sex slavery that most women endured, and the horrendous, almost vomit-inducing tortures forced upon those women who dared to step outside of the norm.

Miles pulls no punches here, never for a minute accepting that men weren’t at fault here. She is out to redress history and show that women have been there all this time, even if the history books so often don’t show that. There are stories of great women in history who worked as laborers, soldiers, teachers, scientists, writers and doctors, only to have most of their achievements blasted out of history by men. But women are responsible for some of the biggest leaps forward in humanity’s history. The first novelist was a woman, and so was the inventor of calligraphy, and thus the art of handwriting. Female gynecologists ruled the wards of Ancient Greece, and there’s always been women willing to go out and teach others.

It’s an interesting book and will make you look at history in a completely different way, but I warn you now that this is at heart an academic text, and Miles is an academic, so it’s fairly dry in some places. With such a seemingly frivolous title, I expected it to be a bit lighter, but it was not to be so. Also, there are a few tales of famous women who should be remembered better, but few of them are much fleshed out, and it would have been interesting to read more of these.

In any case, it’s a stark reminder that men did not build this world alone, and that some backwards thinking people may continue with their beliefs that women are lesser than them, but they are wrong. Of course women should have equality, but it’s been a long, torturous process to get to the point we’re at now, and we’ve still got further to go.

An important read for men and women alike.

“Gimson’s Kings And Queens” by Andrew Gimson (2015)

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gimson“William I conquered England.”

The throne of our island has been occupied by forty-one individuals: a Stephen, a John, an Anne, a Victoria, two Marys, two Elizabeths, two Jameses, two Charleses, three Richards, four Williams, six Georges, eight Edwards and eight Henrys. You’ll usually find the number racks up at forty though, given the odd co-ruling of Mary II and William III, but you can expand the number further if you’re going to include Matilda and Jane. In short, though, the role of monarch is one that is held by very few people. In Andrew Gimson’s marvellous and entirely up-to-date new book, he spills the beans on every single person who has taken control of England (and later Britain) since 1066.

Gimson explores each monarch in turn, starting from William the Conqueror with his 1066 invasion, and passing on right up until Elizabeth II, dedicated two to ten pages to each king or queen. A brief biopic of each character is then laid out, going over their greatest achievements (if any) and biggest failings, what the public thought of them, how their legacy lives on, and how they got on with the rest of the family and dealt with other issues of war, religion, politics, disease, sex and money.

Some of the kings and queens featured you’ll know rather well. Victoria, Henry VIII, both Elizabeth I and II, and perhaps Richard III, are the most well-known of the people who have worn the crown, but they are far from the only ones who are interesting. It’s a great book for realising that there are may well be some pretty huge gaps in your knowledge of the royal family. You might know all about Henry VIII, sure, but did you know that his father Henry VII was responsible for providing the royals with immense riches, working more like an accountant than anything else? Did you know that William II was so hated by his people that he when he was found dead, people thought it was more likely murder than accident? Do you know which king had a head shaped like a pineapple, who was an avid stamp collector, and which queen had two phantom pregnancies, so desperate she was to believe that she could provide the country with an heir? And do you know anything about Henry IV or William III?

While the book doesn’t pull any punches with pointing out the utter stupidity of some of the monarchs, noting which ones had no interest in art and culture, and which ones were always in debt, it also doesn’t really write any of them off. They are all important to some degree or another (possible exception to be made for Edward V who ruled for just 78 days) and they paint a fascinating picture of the country as it evolved. Gimson’s even fairly nice about Oliver Cromwell in the short section about the country’s brief time as a republic, and while he doesn’t outright accuse Richard III of murder, he’s going to lay down the facts for you anyway and let you decide for yourselves.

I’ve always been something of a monarchist, really, perhaps just because I’m a sucker for this kind of traditionalism. I know a lot of people are for abolishing the monarchy, but in reality I don’t think the country would ever really go for the idea. I’ve always found it fascinating that it’s been the same family – with rather widespread branches from time to time – ruling the country for nearly one thousand years. They serve to unite our history as a people, ruling first England alone and then adding in Scotland under Queen Anne. Gimson discusses some of the ideas as to why it’s survived as it as in a final chapter.

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the most interesting family in British history, or want a quick refresher course in who was who and who did what, then you can’t ask for more than this book. Sharp, funny, astute and hugely readable, this should be the glanced at by everyone. It’s especially poignant right now as, should Elizabeth II still be on the throne on the 9th September this year (that’s in six days at the time of writing), she overtakes Victoria as the longest-serving ruler in British history, an absolutely outstanding achievement.

So whether you’re mad for Mary I, crazy about Charles II, gaga for George V, or just think that Richard III was rotten, I advise you to take a look at this book and see if still feel the same after. Or even if you’re not enamoured, it’s almost worth it just for the excellent cartoons of each king and queen preceding each chapter.

“The Winter Ghosts” by Kate Mosse (2009)

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It leaves a chill, certainly.

It leaves a chill, certainly.

“He walked like a man recently returned to the world.”

If, like me, you live in Britain, you will have probably noticed how hot it’s been these last few days. The unseasonable weather, while ultimately welcome, seems to have made most of us sweaty, irritable and  uncomfortable. In a vague attempt to cool off, I hoped that a book with “winter” in the title and a snowflake on the cover might have the same effect as a cold shower. Now though, I think that “damp squib” is a better description for the book than “cold shower”. And I’m still too hot.

Giving away the twist and the main plot in the three words of the title, The Winter Ghosts takes us to France between the world wars. Freddie Watson has arrived in Toulouse in 1933 to find someone who can translate a letter he’s been carrying. When the translator, Saurat, asks where he found the letter, which may just be a priceless historical artifact, Freddie tells his tale.

Five years earlier, Freddie had gone to France after a spell in a sanatorium. He is unable to get over the death of his older brother during the Battle of the Somme and it has driven him mad. Seeking closure, he goes to France but his car gets caught in a snowstorm and hurled off the road. Travelling through the blizzard, he arrives at a town that seems deserted, but takes refuge in the hostel of M and Mme Galy. They invite him to a celebration that night that all the villagers will be attending. Deciding to go along, he finds the place in question and enters, being introduced to various members of the crowd.

One of them stands out for him though, the beautiful, ethereal Fabrissa. They talk into the night, Freddie telling her his tragic story, when the party is interrupted by soldiers carrying swords. In the scuffle, Freddie and Fabrissa escape into the mountains where, once safe, Fabrissa tells her story. The next morning, Fabrissa is gone and Freddie can’t be sure if she was ever there in the first place, but he is determined to find her.

I’ve never read Kate Mosse before so didn’t really know what to expect; I certainly didn’t expect it to turn into a ghost story, assuming, at first, the title was metaphorical. Given that the bulk of the story is supposedly Freddie telling Saurat the tale, it genuinely does (at first anyway) feel like Freddie is telling you the story personally. The imagery and the location are both beautifully handled, and Freddie’s struggle to cope with his brother’s death feels realistic. It seems rarer to contemplate how siblings feel after a death, focus instead tending to go to the parents. Here, Freddie has to cope with the loss of his whole family, really, as it’s made patently clear, both to him and us, that George was the favourite brother and his parents had little time for Freddie, even before George’s death and especially after.

For all that though, the book is flawed. It was apparently originally released as a short story, and you can definitely tell that’s the case. It feels like it’s been padded with superfluous description and dialogue, like an overstuffed armchair that’s lost its shape. Freddie is the only character who is properly fleshed out, and his heel face turn after realising that Fabrissa isn’t quite what he thought seems a little strange. He’s a dim character, apparently completely unaware for a long time that he witnessed something stranger than usual. When it comes down to it, the beautiful language cannot mask the fact that nothing really happens here. It’s immediately forgettable, chilling in all the wrong ways and I’m not tempted to read Mosse’s earlier work.

If I had a five-star rating system, something it’s too late to implement at this point, then this gets a solid three. It is neither outstanding in being either really good or really bad, and it will pass a couple of days, but it just never grabbed me. You may not agree, but you’d have to make a good case for me to change my mind.

“Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell (2004)


cloudatlas“Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints.”

I’ll wager that many of you have heard of Cloud Atlas. I started reading it ten years ago when I was seventeen and thinking that no book was able to stop me from plundering its secrets. I never finished the book then. In my head I’d made it about quarter of the way through, but upon picking it up this time, I found the bookmark on page 59 of 530. Not quite a quarter, then. If you don’t know the plot, you may at least know that it is one of the most intricate of modern literature. I’ll try and explain it as best I can, but please be prepared that I’d imagine this will be a long post. Strap in.

We begin with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, the personal diary of an American notary. It’s 1850 and in New Zealand, he awaits repairs to his ship. While there, he witnesses a slave being beaten by his Maori owner and the slave, Autua, notices kindness in Ewing’s eyes. When back on board ship, Ewing finds that the slave has stowed away with him and begs Ewing not to reveal his presence. Meanwhile, Ewing approaches the ship’s doctor Henry Goose to discuss an ailment that he is suffering from. Goose thinks it a parasite and begins to prescribe medicine to his friend. The ship makes sail for Hawaii and…

There the story abruptly ends mid-sentence and turns into Letters from Zedelghem. We are now in 1931, Belgium, and reading the letters of an English musician Robert Frobisher, which are all addressed to his lover in England, Rufus Sixsmith. Recently kicked out of his family home and now penniless, he flees to Belgium to work as an amanuensis to the composer Vyvyan Ayrs, who can no longer write his own compositions down. While here, he begins an affair with Ayrs’ wife, and also starts selling off his employer’s books to keep himself in money. Frobisher agrees to stay until the following summer but…

The third story, Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, takes place in California in 1975 and is written like a thriller novel. The titular Luisa Rey is a young journalist who comes across a story suggesting that a new nuclear power plant poses a threat. She is tipped off by none other than Rufus Sixsmith, now an old man, who has a report documenting his findings on the danger. Before Sixsmith can get the report to Luisa, however, he is murdered and her car is driven off a bridge, sending her plunging to…

The next story, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, takes us to modern day England and is the most comedic of the tales. Sixty-something publisher Cavendish is in trouble with a gangster client and his brothers after an issue with the contract that has made Cavendish rich and left the author with very little to show for his work. Seeking help from his brother, Denholme, Cavendish is shipped off to a hotel where he signs himself in, only to find the following morning that his brother has tricked him and he is now in a nursing home run by the barbaric Nurse Noakes from which there is no escape. He plots a way to escape but before his plans are complete…

An Orison of Sonmi~451 takes place in Nea So Copros (Korea, to you and me) about a hundred years into the future, and is a recorded interview between the clone servant Sonmi~451 and an archivist who is recording her story with great interest. As a clone, she has been bred simply to work at a fast food restaurant called Papa Song’s. There, she stands for nineteen hours a day, shows no interest in the exterior world, drinks her Soap before she sleeps, then repeats the whole thing the following day. However, when some of her kind begin to show signs of self-awareness, she too is forced to realise that there must be more to her life. Saved by a student, Hae-Joo Im, she goes on the run with the authorities always a few paces behind. When she finds that her rescuer has been arrested …

We come to the final story, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After. In a post-apocalyptic world, Zachry, tells a story from his young days. He lives in Hawaii, worships a god called Sonmi and doesn’t know what the ‘Old Uns’ did to bring about the end of their world. He’s more concerned with not ending up a slave to the rival Kona tribe. The primitive visitors are occasionally visited by a group of people of vastly superior people in terms of both intelligence and technology known as the Prescients, and the natural order is disturbed when one of these, a woman called Meronym, comes to stay with the village for a while. Zachry’s world is turned upside down and…

Well, actually, there is no interruption here. We hear all of Zachry’s tale, then return back to Somni~451’s, hear the second half of Timothy Cavendish’s ghastly ordeal, find out what happened to Luisa Rey, read Robert Frobisher’s last letters and finally once again meet an ever-sicker Adam Ewing. The six stories nest into one another and if you’re still here with me after all of that, well done to you. Just try reading the book.

There are so few faults with his novel that it’s hardly worth throwing any of them up. Each story has an entirely new voice that is fitting with the character and the time they’re from. While Cavendish reads like a modern novel, Ewing is most certainly from his time, a Christian man who does not swear, and Zachry comes from a future where language has changed again somewhat and involves a lot of apostrophes and words that have had their meanings subtly shifted. The idea of having them interlock is so smart, and allows for much foreshadowing to occur. Vyvyan Ayrs, for example, has a dream of Papa Song’s one night. Both Robert Frobisher and one of Luisa Rey’s peers share a thought about money, but reach different conclusions. There’s an implication throughout that the main characters are reincarnations of one another, emphasised by the fact they all share a comet-shaped birthmark, but this is never made explicit.

The interlocking also works (and the midpoint cut-offs are admirably explained) by the fact that each character finds the previous story. While at Ayrs’ place, Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s diary, but only the first half of it. Luisa Rey inherits half of Frobisher’s letters. Cavendish reads the first half of Luisa’s story, as it has been submitted to his publishing house. Sonmi~451 watches a film adaptation of Cavendish’s plight. And Zachry worships Sonmi~451 as a god. At the end of each of their stories, they find the second half of the material, and so we wind down and get to share them too.

It’s mostly a sublime tale of how humanity never changes. The same themes of love and hate, time and space, slavery and power, life and death, run through the whole novel. Later events reflect earlier ones, and the issues that are present in the 1850s are still just as valid in Zachry’s time, hundreds of years later. In fact, it’s fairer to say this is a collection of six short novels, each about eighty pages long. I’ve had to put it into several categories to accomodate its scope, but that just really shows what a talent David Mitchell is. This is the book that he will be remembered for best, I guarantee you that.

I feel I’ve mostly just described the plot rather than reviewed the book, but I’ve still left out so much. It’s a hugely intelligent, confusing, conflicting, masterpiece of a novel, and it’s totally worth the time you put into it. Still, if you’re not tempted, there is also a film version that came out a couple of years ago that is similarly masterful, mixing up the stories and further emphasising the reincarnation theme by having the same actors play different roles in the six stories, although often swapping age, sex and even race as they do so. It’s also a book that has shown me that old adage brought real – books will find you when you are ready for them. At seventeen, I wouldn’t’ve got the same things from it. Evidently I didn’t. But this time I found a real beauty about the novel, and I promise you that if you want to, you’ll find it too.

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