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Pharaoh’s Treasure

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Fancy a fascinating dip into some non-fiction history? Here’s a subject you might not have sought out, but one that might capture your fascination. I read the title and the description and simply decided I wanted to know more. It’s not a text I need for research, but like so many good books, it is one that when read will inform everything I ever look at hereafter. It is the history of paper, and with it the written word.

It’s a subject that’s always hovered on the edge of what I do, since the day I wrote about Caesar’s ‘paperwork’ and then panicked about the fact that the Romans didn’t have paper. But did they? Now that’s a question that this book will address. It is informative and interesting, yet despite everything for me the most important value it has is that it has defined the word ‘paper’ and I will cite it forever in my author notes for books.

The book begins with ancient Egypt, as you might guess from the title. The Pharaoh’s Treasure? *Said in a worryingly Rolf Harris voice*: ‘Can you guess what it is yet?’ Well, without wanting to spoil the book for you, said treasure is the oldest paper ever found, in a box, in a tomb. We move from there to the first written record. No surprises that this is also Egypt, the records of one of the pharaoh Khufu’s administrators. Typical of humanity that the earliest writing found was not left by a playwright or a comedian, but a bureaucrat, eh? Still, an astounding discovery.

There is a lot of focus on the importance of the written word. In Egypt this means the book of the dead and all the burial texts. The Eighteenth to Twentieth centuries unearthed ever increasing numbers of important texts in Egypt. The vital part paper had in the Egyptian world is clear, and the book moves from there into the Judeo-Christian world and the same value that is applied to paper and written records there.

There is some fairly in-depth discussion of the manufacture of papyrus (yes, we get the word paper from it, as the book reminds us), and on its production, which reached an almost industrial scale in later Egypt. We move on from there into Greece and particularly Rome. This is, of course, my specialist subject. Anyone who studies Rome will know that their culture were the first to become almost obsessively bureaucratic, and Rome moves the written word to the next level. Apparently (according to Pliny who lists the different grades of Roman paper) there was even a type of Roman packing paper!

The book then moves on to examine the new value of paper and the written word for fiction, text books, theatre, and on to libraries, the vast trade in writing, in ink, in pens and so forth. The existence of the Great Library. We move on into the Byzantine world, where bureaucracy reaches a peak perhaps unseen in the history of man, and then to the Roman Church, where it’s value and use is blindingly clear.

Then there was something that brought a massive surprise to me. Something that probably made more impact than anything else in the book. The history of paper and the written word changed immeasurably, following the events of a specific battle in the 8th century. I’m not going to spoil that one for you, and I’m not even going to mention the battle or its long-reaching effect. You’ll have to read the book for that.

There is some final rounding up of the data and conclusions, but that’s it. And if you don’t read the book for anything else, I hope you’re intrigued enough about the battle to go for it. It’s a very specifically-aimed book and will be of little direct actual use to most folk, but as a fascinating piece of historical research with some startling conclusions, it is well worth the time. Recommended.

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Written by SJAT

February 7, 2019 at 11:41 pm

A Gross of Pirates

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While there’s really no way I could claim to have read this for research, read it I did, and entirely for fun. I have written about pirates many times: the fictional Ghassan and Samir in Dark Empress, Kemal Reis and other Barbary sailors in The Priest’s Tale, and the Mauri pirates in my forthcoming fourth book in the Praetorian series (Lions of Rome), and so I thought I had a pretty good handle on pirates of all sorts of eras and cultures. Heck, I even own three textbooks on historical piracy.

This book opened my eyes. And gave me so many ideas for novel plots it’s untrue, to boot. A gross of pirates is exactly what it claims to be. I expected it to be another informative, and perhaps dry, history of piracy. This it is not.

What it is is a catalogue of real historical figures. A gross of them, in fact, categorised into eras and cultures. There are well-known names in there: John Paul Jones, Barbarossa, Morgan, Drake, Calico Jack. But with 144 pirates in there, clearly you are going to find names you’ve not discovered before.  For me, particularly fascinating were Jeanne de Clisson, Uluj Ali, and Henry Every.  In fact, of 144 pirates, I could say in truth that I knew less than 20, which is pretty good.

Each pirate is treated with a brief precis of their life – a mini but well-presented biography. With 308 pages and 144 pirates, you can immediately work out roughly how much page space is given to each character. As a writer, I can tell you that this is no bad thing. Having a word limit imposed makes you hone and pare down the text so that what you end up with is a really well-written and pertinent piece of writing, rather than perhaps a rambling account given to descriptive. The old Dragnet line leaps to mind: ‘Just the facts, ma’am’. And Breverton does an excellent job with this. Each account is engaging and informative.

In short, if you are an academic or writer with even a remote interest in the sea and its history, this book will give you endless resources. If you are just a lover of history or the sea, this will be an engaging and fascinating collection. If you simply like to read something fun, then this is actually for you too. Read. Enjoy. ’nuff said…

You can buy the book here, and I urge you to do so. 🙂

Written by SJAT

December 15, 2018 at 10:29 pm

Silk and the Sword by Sharon Bennett Connolly

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Almost a year ago, I read and reviewed one of the most innovative and refreshing historical texts I have ever come across, that being Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly (my review can be found here).

Imagine my glee in being able to dive in to Sharon’s second treatment of historical women, then. Silk and the Sword: the women of the Norman conquest is released in just three days’ time (15th of November). You can pre-order it here.

In ‘Heroines…’ Sharon gave us a very detailed, thought provoking, and fascinating view into an aspect of history that is rarely covered in academia: the feminine perspective. She explored what it meant to be a woman in the Medieval era, illustrating her narrative  by telling us the tales of some of the most interesting women ever to grace the pages of history.

Silk and the Sword is at one and the same time a similar sort of treatment, and yet quite different. Once more we are shown the lives and events and personalities of some incredible women, but in this case, those women tell a tale in almost chronological order. ‘Silk’ attempts to give us the events of the 11th century, and the book is split into three constituent parts.

Part one sets the scene from the beginning of the century, explaining the lead up to those tumultuous events of 1066. The political and social situation is revealed, and the acts and struggles of the kings, dukes, earls and other great men are shown to us through the lives of the women who were part of it all. From an initial chapter of ground-laying, we move into the lives of Emma of Normandy, the famous Godiva of Mercia, Gytha of Wessex and Judith of Flanders. Given the regions I’ve just described in the names of these women alone you can also see another aspect of this book that I appreciated. Too often the tale of 1066 is told with a focus on Normans, Harold Godwinson and the Norwegian invaders. This treatment gives us a much more holistic view, approaching the events of that year, the lead-up, and the aftermath, from many angles.

Part two deals with the conquest itself, again with an opening chapter to set out the facts before leading us through this critical time via the lives of Edith of Wessex, the series of women in the life of the fascinating Harald Hardrada, the mysterious Edith Swanneck and Ealdgyth of Mercia (Harold’s early love and his later wife). And do not think because Sharon is focusing on the women of the time that any of the war and politics of the invasion is missed out. This is not the case.

Part three leads us through the aftermath of the conquest, once more with an opening chapter setting out the facts. This chapter ends with one line that seems to seal the fate of the country: “England had been conquered by the Normans.” But there is more to the aftermath of 1066 that simply a change in the ruling family. We’ve all seen right down a century and a half later in the tales of Robin Hood how the land is still portrayed as a broken and divided one between Norman overlord and Saxon underdog. This section of the book deals with the events following the conquest and the world it creates, seen through the lives of Matilda of Flanders, Queen Margaret of Scotland and Gundrada de Warenne (and here, for me, we start to enter more familiar territory, for I am aware of the powerful de Warenne family.) But the very last chapter of this part is for me the most fascinating of the book, for I love a historical mystery, and I enjoyed watching Sharon attempt to piece together the possible identity of a mysterious women shown in the Bayeux Tapestry (Aelgyva).

On a personal note, I wrote Caligula a couple of years ago, and Commodus this past year, both of which deal with famous, or more realistically infamous, Roman emperors and great events, and both are told from the point of view of the women in those emperors’ lives. So it was nice to see something similar happen to the great men of the Norman conquest. And in an odd moment of synchronicity, the paperback of Caligula is released on the very same day as Silk and the Sword.

Once more a refreshing and unique look at the women of British history, this book offers a perspective you’ll not find in any other work on the events of 1066. If you know the era and it’s already of interest to you, then you’ll find something new here and if, like me, you only knew the bare bones and the more famous names involved, then you’ll learn much in an enjoyable and innovative way.

Silk and the Sword is a valuable addition to any reference library on the Medieval world and simply a very good read.

Highly recommended.

Written by SJAT

November 12, 2018 at 11:33 am

Lucius Verus by M.C. Bishop

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Sometimes books just appear at serendipitous times. Last month this book was released, penned by one of the top scholars in his field, a man whose work I trust implicitly. I happened to have just finished writing my novel on Commodus and sent it to my editor. But since Verus was the uncle of my emperor and has an important role in my tale, I simply had to read this. Glad I did. There was so much in here that I needed to add to my story, and fortunately I had that opportunity during the editing stage. ‘Lucius Verus’ was something of an eye-opener.

Bishop starts out on his journey through Verus’ life by explaining that he is not attempting to ‘rehabilitate’ Verus and remove the stigma that history has left, but rather to remove the chaff from accounts and reveal only what truths or perceivable truths lie beneath the endless bias of biographers ancient and modern. In a way, he might have failed in that task in the nicest possible way, because by the end, I found Verus thoroughly rehabilitated and sympathetic. Much, fortunately, like the character in my novel. Phew.

This book is actually two subjects rolled into one, as the title suggests. It is at one and the same time a detailed and as accurate as it is possible to be biography of the man who co-ruled the empire with the great Marcus Aurelius, and a military narrative on the Parthian campaigns of the 160s AD. That it achieves both aims smoothly and without feeling at odds with one another is superb.

For those who are unfamiliar with Verus, you will probably be aware of his adoptive brother Marcus Aurelius and his nephew Commodus. From 161 AD until his death in 169, he shared the rule of the Roman empire with Aurelius, the two working in consort as co-emperors. Verus is not one of those emperors who was damned by the state (with whom I am gradually dealing) but perhaps by dint of being an easy comparison with his famous brother, he has been somewhat tarnished and sullied by biased historians after his death in much the same way the damned emperors were. Aurelius is the great philosopher-king, an emperor who shunned war, yet spent much of his reign on the borders fighting the enemies of Rome. A man of wit and wisdom and a calm and mellow one, even. Verus has ever been painted as the dissolute playboy prince. He is presented to us by historians as a drinker, a hedonist, lazy and a poor comparison to Aurelius. Bishop set out to pull apart the clear bias and try to find the real man beneath. An admirable attempt, I have to say. Throughout the text, Bishop repeatedly shows two facets that make his work stand out:

  • An almost unparalleled knowledge and understanding of the Roman world, which manifests in every tiny detail he produces being presented with clarity, sureness and relevance.
  • A wry wit and easy style that prevents any danger of the book slipping into dusty irredeemable academia.

The book begins by explaining its purpose and goals. Bishop then goes on to examine in detail all the sources on Verus’ life and evaluate them carefully. From there, he moves onto a biography of the emperor’s life until his accession to power with his brother. We then learn of the situation in the east and are treated to a little history of the borderland. An examination of the joint emperors’ rule and the nature of their sharing of power follows before we head east with Verus to examine his campaign in more detail than I expected. On the conclusion of that, Bishop then goes on to tell us of Verus’ life from there until his untimely death, before evaluating the ‘wastrel’ emperor and presenting his conclusion to the reader. The appendices are as interesting and important as the rest of the text, too, including copies of the emperor’s letters ans, most impressive of all, an attempt at redacting the infamous Historia Augusta, trimming the chaff and presenting a more factual, more reasonable selection within it.

I am not going to go into any further detail on the contents here, though I will say that there was not a section or even a page that I was tempted to skim over. And I challenge anyone to read the book and not have their opinion of Verus altered. In short, the book is probably my favourite of Bishop’s works (and I have a dozen or so), and as a clarified biography of a maligned man, it matches Winterling’s Caligula, which was the main basis for my own last imperial work. Pride of place on my shelves and a more than worthy exploration of a man who has been largely ignored thus far by historians.

HIGHLY recommended.

Written by SJAT

June 15, 2018 at 11:47 am

Joan of Arc by Moya Longstaffe

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Joan of Arc is one of those fascinating iconic figures that we are all drawn to: an underdog who stands her ground and defies the establishment. I have had a minor fascination with her since I was a kid, standing in Rouen and looking up at the tower that bears her name, or looking at the horseshoe she reputedly nailed to the door of a church in Chablis.
That being the case, this was guaranteed to be an interesting book for me. But it was so much more than I expected. I should have noticed the clue in the title. Joan of Arc and the Great pity of the land of France. This is more than just a biography of the maid of Orleans (it is that too, and it’s a good one, but she’s been dealt with often.) What this really excels at is putting Joan in the historical and political context.
I expected to belt through the first few chapters that were essentially scene-setting. Mistake. Partially due to the fascination of the subject, and partially due to the way Longstaffe puts it over, I as dragged deep into the text on every page, always learning, always fascinated. The mad king of France in particular impressed me. By the time we started to learn about Joan, it was extremely easy to see how the Franco-English situation had created the perfect world for such events, and how she fitted into it.
The portrayal of Joan and the examination of her life and events that follows is detailed without being a slog, colourful, interesting, and above all objective. In fairness, I’ve read other biographies and seen documentaries and films, so little was truly new for me, though there was some deeper investigation into some of the more obscure angles. It was a good, solid biography though, as I said before, made far superior by the context into which it fit.
The last third of the entire book deals with her capture, trial, execution and the ongoing story. This was nice. All too often a book on Jeanne skips the preamble and the later moves. Often they rush to Joan believing she was given a task by god so they can trawl through the military and political manoeuvrings that constituted her life and works, and then pretty much end with the gruesome burning. Not this book. Just as it sets the scene and then places Joan in it, it slowly, methodically, and very thoroughly, wraps it all up. we are treated to an in-depth investigation into her trial and then tantalising ideas of what it meant for the future.
All in all, this was an excellent biography. Not necessarily new ground, but examined in a new way for me, and made richer and more meaningful in doing so. I heartily recommend it not just for research but also simply for the joy of learning. A lovely read.

Written by SJAT

March 21, 2018 at 11:23 pm

Heroines of the Medieval World

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In the interest of transparency, I’ve been a friend of the author of this book on Facebook for years, our joint interest in history being the connection. That being said, our direct historical paths have rarely intersected, mine being military in the classical era and hers being more of a social history angle in the Medieval era. Then, oddly, there came a convergence. In the same year I signed up to writing a Medieval novel and selected as major characters two strong women, Sharon Bennett Connolly announced this book. Given the odd connection, I was dying to read it. I was therefore really pleased to be offered a review copy and a chance to be part of her blog tour.

My Medieval heroine characters (whose identity I will not reveal for fear of spoilers) actually do not appear in Sharon’s books. In fairness they are REALLY obscure characters, so that’s not a surprise. But the fact is that, despite their absence in the text, Sharon’s book is a wealth of information and a learning curve for anyone wanting to research the role of women in the era. And, of course, for anyone simply with a passing interest in the subject. It has great value for research and just for general interest and gave me a number of new insights that will inform my own tale.

I had expected the book to be a series of biographies, with each section focusing on a different woman. I was surprised, therefore, to find that it had instead a thematic approach. Each chapter covers one aspect of women in the medieval era. One, I was interested to find, was about women and religion, which was the subject that currently interested me. But there are other aspects that also touch on my subject. Really, the book covers ever angle I can think of on the subject, missing nothing.

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(Medieval women playing music)

I shall condense my review of the book into pros and cons. You will be pleased to hear, no doubt, that I have only one con to mention and consequently I shall start with that.

Cons: The only downside I found in the book may be more of a failing in me. There was, I thought, a tendency to assume that the reader was familiar with the era and comfortable with the names and details. Consequently, I spent time either dazzled by a machine gun barrage of Medieval names or having to read back and re-check facts. I am, of course, used to writing Roman military, and while I’m currently working on Medieval stuff I spend a lot of time double and treble checking and correcting things. I suspect that this con is unlikely to touch on the general readership, since most people who buy and read this book will be more comfortable with the era and conventions than I. The upshot? Not much of a con at all I guess.

Pros? Well there’s plenty, but four deserve mention specific here:

  1. The sheer level of depth and research Sharon has put into every nuance of her book is impressive. In fact it is this level of detail that led in some way to my only con (noted above.) It is impossible to argue against the veracity of her text, she is simply that thorough. I consider at best 50% of my non-fiction books to be ‘go-to’ texts that I feel I can completely trust. This book has joined that illustrious section.
  2. Also, it is put together in an almost conversational fashion, the information delivered in an easy, informal manner. There is an almost skald-like way she approaches these characters, as though they are not so historical characters under the microscope as friends about whom she has SO MANY STORIES.
  3. The thematic approach means that I could concentrate on the aspects that had more connection with my own subject. I suspect that as a reviewer I should approach all aspects equally, but that’s not really what non-fiction works are for. They are for specific research. And the organisation of this book works well in that respect in that it is also therefore non-consecutive and the reader can leap back and forth to the sections that are most pertinent without having to rely on missed text in between.
  4. Finally, this book covers a huge swathe of time and geography. From the pre-Norman conquest world deep into the age of chivalry this is a really all-consuming text. One might think, given the very specific nature of the subject that it would focus on a short period or locale, but this is actually a more far-reaching work than I expected.

Bravo to Sharon for her depth of work.

In short, this is a very accessible and informative book that should appeal not only to the serious student or researcher into the subject but to anyone with an interest in the Medieval world and/or the role of women in history.

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So there you go. Do have a look at the other pages in this blog tour, all of which are fascinating (I read them ALL yesterday!)

A review by Annie Whitehead here

An article about non-warrior heroines here

A guest post here

Another guest post by Sharon here

An extract here

Another excerpt here

An excellent review here

An interview with Stephanie Churchill here

A video review here 

A guest post on Nicolaa at the Review here

Another guest post here

And an extract here

About the author:

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Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London. She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses. Having received a blog as a gift, History…the Interesting Bits, Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which was published by Amberley in September 2017. She is currently working on her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018.

Written by SJAT

November 11, 2017 at 8:40 am

Rome’s ballistic missile

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Whether you’re a reenactor or a historian or a writer or reader of Roman history, you will have come across this weapon. Along with the gladius, it is the staple of the Roman soldier. In fact, given the varied evolutionary form of Roman swords, the pilum might be the ONLY staple.

Prepare to have your horizons broadened once more. I thought I knew quite a lot about the pilum. I was, of course, wrong. I suspect Mike Bishop counts ancient Roman military facts to fall asleep at night. By the time he moved into long trousers, he was already more knowledgeable than I will ever be.

Osprey produce some of the very best works of military history. Bishop produces the best in Roman text books. The combination is always going to be good, as was proved in his earlier outing with the gladius in the same series.

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This book opens by shattering the common myths of the weapon. The book moves through the disputed origin of this most infamous weapon, into its development and the many changes it underwent during the great length of Roman military power. Even relatively unexplored aspects such as the ‘throwing strap’ are dealt with – and this is something I only came across a year or two ago in my research.

The section on the pilum’s construction and manufacture is detailed enough that the reader (if he was more competent than I, anyway) could go away and make a pretty good example.

Other sections cover the methods of usage throughout Roman military history, maintenance, ownership, transportation and more. Notably, he even explores the end of the weapon’s usage, its successors and influence, but also the limitations and failures of the weapon.

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Not only is the text enlivened throughout with excellent illustrations, many by the author, but is also explained and clarified with tables of appropriate details from excavations and ancient sources

One thing that always stands out for me with Bishop’s work is how clearly it is the most explored and reasoned of studious texts. Constantly Bishop compares archaeological evidence with a wealth of primary historical sources, which is as far as many historians get. But Bishop also compares the work of reenactors and utilises common sense and logic to answer questions that none of these sources could do on their own. As such, I trust his judgement on Roman military equipment above all others.

And as a final note, the section of the throwing of the weapon makes it look so easy. I’ve done it. It isn’t!

Anyway, if you like your Roman history or your military/weapon books, this is a cracking tome. I like my Osprey books, but this is one of the best, and one to which I will repeatedly turn while writing my novels.

Go get it.

Bishop

Written by SJAT

May 24, 2017 at 9:30 am