Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

NY: Liveright, 2015.

Until recently, Beard wasn’t that well-known outside the world of academic classicists, her occasional appearances on BBC notwithstanding. Then this engaging and engrossing volume of her thoughts on the Roman republic and the early empire came out after (literally) fifty years in the making, and everyone’s reading it. She may have done more for popular interest in ancient Rome than any writer since Gibbon.

First, she makes it clear that this is not a complete history of the 1,500 years of Rome’s existence in various forms. She’s interested mostly in the city’s establishment and the slow, nearly mythical formation of the Republic from its period of what were essentially warlords and gangsters. And she ends with Caracalla’s extension of citizenship to all free people within the empire in 212 CE, because after that it was an entirely different game with different rules, and not really “Roman” any more.


Gruen, Sara. At the Water’s Edge.

NY: Random House, 2015.

Gruen is best known for Water for Elephants, but this novel, her fifth, is rather different. It’s January 1945 and Maddie Hyde is a wild child in New York society. She’s been married to Ellis for a couple of years now, but she’s really more of a mascot for him and his best buddy, Hank, than she is a wife. Also, her in-laws hate her, her own father ignores her, and she feels guilty for her scandal-ridden mother’s suicide a decade before.


Pratchett, Terry. Johnny and the Bomb.

NY: HarperCollins, 1996.

This is the third adventure of thirteen-year-old Johnny Maxwell and it’s also the closest to a classic science fiction plot. Johnny has been working on a project for school (telling adults you’re “doing a project” will get you in almost anywhere you really ought not to be) on the bombing of his little town of Blackbury by the Germans during World War II. It was all a mistake, the Luftwaffe thought it was somewhere else, but an entire street was destroyed and all its residents killed.


Anvil, Christopher. Pandora’s Planet.

Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.

Anvil never really hit the big time, but he was a popular author in the 1970s and ’80s, when he was a regular contributor to ANALOG. His signature style was wry and ironic observations and commentary about those irritating humans, and this novel (his third) is filled with that sort of thing. It’s an original on the “invasion of Earth” theme, in that the Centrans (who somewhat resemble humanoid lions) conquer our planet — but just barely.


Lord, Walter. Day of Infamy.

NY: Holt, 1957.

Lord was one of the best popular historians of the mid-20th century, best known for his classic books on the Titanic and the San Francisco earthquake and the major events of World War II. And seventy-five years ago last December an event took place after which the entire world changed completely and forever: The Japanese sneak attack on the American naval presence in Hawaii. It brought the U.S. into the war, all isolationist thoughts forgotten, with a thirst for revenge. (No one these days announces they’re about to go to war, but in 1941, Americans were still outraged at being jumped from behind.) And that did, indeed, change everything.


Published in: on 27 March 2017 at 7:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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Roach, Mary. Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.

NY: Norton, 2016.

Roach has become known for her popular science journalism which combine a dorky sense of humor with an investigative journalist’s endless curiosity. She likes short, punchy titles and her subject matter often is not for the squeamish: The first book of hers I read was Stiff, about cadavers.


Published in: on 1 March 2017 at 7:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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Hill, Reginald. The Wood Beyond.

NY: Delacorte, 1996.

This excellent police procedural series has reached the point now where the author feels sufficiently secure to experiment with narrative methods and side-plots. And it mostly works. DCI Peter Pascoe of Mid-Yorkshire CID is away from the job at the moment, overseeing the cremation of his recently deceased grandmother, who (he’s regretfully aware) could be hard work at times. The old lady had a lot of secrets, the most important ones dating back to her girlhood during the Great War. Pascoe is going to spend much of the book gradually uncovering those unsettling revelations and they’re going to have a profound effect on him.


Lord, Walter. The Good Years.

NY: Harper, 1960.

Lord was one of the best popular historians of the mid-20th century, best known for his classic books on the Titanic and Pearl Harbor. His method was always to go to the original sources, especially the people who participated in, or at least witnessed, events. Behind that would be family correspondence, newspaper accounts, and anything else that was “up close and personal.” I got hold of this book my first year in college, shortly after it was published. I was already hooked on social history and I loved it. A half-century later, it well repays rereading.


Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels.

NY: Random House, 1974.

Shaara had been a professional fiction writer for two decades, and he made a decent living at it, but he never hit the big time until a family vacation visit to the Gettysburg battlefield inspired him to begin researching and writing this book. After he finally finished it seven years later, it took him another two years to sell it. And then it won the Pulitzer Prize. The first time I read it, I was already a history librarian and I knew immediately it was a great piece of work. I know now that it’s not only a great historical novel, it’s very likely the greatest piece of fiction ever written about the American Civil War — not excepting The Red Badge of Courage.


Published in: on 19 January 2017 at 4:14 am  Comments (1)  

Winkler, John F. Point Pleasant, 1774: Prelude to the American Revolution.

Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2014.

Because of my own family connections, I have a strong interest in the colonists who settled along the Ohio River and in western Virginia and southwest Pennsylvania generally during the mid-18th century. That includes involvement in the Battle of Point Pleasant, which set the stage for the fight between Britain and the new “Americans” in the west.


Published in: on 16 December 2016 at 3:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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