Badeau, Adam. Aristocracy in England.

NY: Harper & Brothers, 1886.

The author was a U.S. diplomat (and army staff officer, and memoirist of Gen. Grant) who was posted to the Court of St. James between 1869 and 1881 — the heyday of stilted Victorian manners and official behavior at court. He says up front that he makes no pretense to scholarship or to the writing of an “exhaustive treatment” but rather intends to relate his own experiences and observations regarding the royal family and peerage of Britain. With special attention, it should be added, to the “most curious and interesting” bits. Being a self-conscious American, he does this with a frequently raised eyebrow regarding what he perceives as the British need for majesty; every Englishman (he says he was told by a government minister of his acquaintance) “needs something to kow-tow to.”

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Published in: on 30 March 2011 at 11:50 am  Leave a Comment  
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Munro, Alice. Selected Stories.

NY: Knopf, 1996.

To my mind, there are three great Canadian literary figures of my generation (more or less) — or, better, three giants of literature who happen to be Canadian. And that’s Richardson Davies, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro, all of whom brought Canadian literature onto the world stage. Munro is widely regarded, with complete justification, as possibly the best living creator of short stories in English. She’s been doing this stuff since the 1950s and is still going strong. She’s won all sorts of awards and she may yet snag a Nobel one of these days.

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Published in: on 29 March 2011 at 6:56 am  Leave a Comment  
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Cornwell, Bernard. The Last Kingdom.

NY: HarperCollins, 2005.

They mostly won’t admit it (because it sounds unprofessional), but in studying two cultures who come into conflict in the past, even historians have their personal favorites, like anyone else. Not the “best” side, simply the side they unconsciously root for. I tend to favor the barbarians. Of course, one generation’s long-haired invaders are the next generation’s defenders of civilization against the subsequent round of newcomers. To the Romanized Britons, the Saxons were the interlopers. To the Anglo-Saxons a few centuries later, it was the Danes. Cornwell, one of the best writers of military historical novels in the business, makes a very convincing case for the warrior culture of the Danish invaders of the 9th century as the superior side, though they aren’t really that different from the Anglo-Saxons, aside from the addition of Christianity.

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Noël Hume, Ivor. The Virginia Adventure, Roanoke to James Towne: An Archaeological and Historical Odyssey.

NY: Knopf, 1994.

Anyone with a serious interest in colonial Virginia knows (or ought to know) about this author. I first encountered him through his earlier work on Tidewater archaeology, Martin’s Hundred, which was a marvel of both scholarship and accessible writing. This subsequent work shows that wasn’t just a fluke. Roanoke was the project of Sir Walter Raleigh, the first attempt in 1586 to plant an English settlement in “Virginia” (which meant the entire eastern seaboard), and it was a dismal failure for an assortment of reasons. When the supply ship, which was delayed far beyond the intended schedule, finally returned, the settlement on the swampy little island behind the barrier islands of North Carolina was completely empty, thereby creating America’s first unsolved mystery.

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Published in: on 23 March 2011 at 6:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Devil.

NY: HarperCollins, 1992.

Awhile back, I read my way through the complete series of novels featuring rifleman Richard Sharpe and his adventures in the wars with Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France, from his apprenticeship as a private and sergeant in India, through Wellington’s Peninsular Campaigns, to his final battle at Waterloo as a lieutenant-colonel. But somehow I missed this “afterthought” novel. After twenty years in uniform, what does a professional soldier do when the war is over?

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Stockwin, Julian Victory.

Ithaca, NY: McBooks, 2010.

This is the 11th outing for Thomas Kydd, once a young wigmaker in Guildford — before he was pressed into the Royal Navy as a landsman, discovered a natural talent for life at sea, moved up the ladder to Able Seaman and then a warrant as quartermaster, was raised to master’s mate, got himself commissioned a lieutenant, and finally gained independent command of a small brig-sloop. All that in a decade. Now it’s 1805 and, having lost his ship through no fault of his own, and with no “interest” with the powers that be, Commander Kydd half expects to be left on the beach in favor of those with far more seniority. But Bonaparte is on the verge of launching his invasion fleet and if that happens, it’s all over for Britain.

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Published in: on 18 March 2011 at 2:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Sayers, Dorothy L. Have His Carcase.

NY: Harper & Row, 1932.

In terms of pure detection-ism, this is one of the author’s best books featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, debonair aristocrat and talented amateur sleuth, in partnership with Harriet Vane, successful writer of mystery novels, whom Wimsey has been pursuing doggedly since saving her from the gallows. Harriet is taking a break from work by way of a walking tour along the southwest coast and by purest accident she discovers the body of a bearded young man with a profusely bleeding cut throat atop a large stone slab on the beach below the road.

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Published in: on 16 March 2011 at 6:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Durant, David N. Where Queen Elizabeth Slept & What the Butler Saw.

NY: St. Martin, 1996.

I spent a long career as a reference librarian in a very large public library system, and what most civilians would regard as “trivia” is all part of the day’s work to the folks behind the reference desk. Books like this can be very useful in adding to one’s storehouse of miscellaneous knowledge, but they tend to be rather uneven. Subtitled “A Treasury of Historical Terms from the Sixteenth Century to the Present,” the present volume simply represents a gathering-up of whatever the author knew or could find out. Of course, lacking an index, and sometimes being prey to peculiar alphabetization, a book like this is best consumed by browsing — and in that regard, it’s a great time-sink.

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Published in: on 14 March 2011 at 5:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Morillo, Stephen (ed). The Battle of Hastings: Sources and Interpretations.

Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 1996.

I have a longstanding interest in early medieval Europe and the Norman conquest of England (it wasn’t a cultural invasion at the beginning, simply a military campaign) comes right at the end of that period, just before the introduction of feudalism and chivalry and all that. I also have a strong background in military history, so I’ve naturally read a good deal about the Battle of Hastings over the years.

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Published in: on 12 March 2011 at 6:31 am  Leave a Comment  
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Pope, Dudley, Ramage’s Trial.

London: Secker & Warburg, 1984.

This is the 14th novel in the Napoleonic Wars series featuring Capt. Lord Nicholas Ramage, and while it’s not really a bad book, it’s becoming clear that the author was beginning to flounder about somewhat in search of a new story. The Calypso frigate has just completed its historically impossible rescue of French royalists from Devil’s Island on the coast of Guiana and is about to head home when news comes that the captured French ship that Ramage’s prize crew was taking on the short hop from Brest back to Plymouth has gone missing — and with it his new wife, who was a passenger.

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Published in: on 10 March 2011 at 8:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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