RaveThe Times (UK)... It’s impossible to summarise adequately a book so magnificent. This biography is, granted, very long at almost 1,000 pages, but a life so large merits comprehensive treatment. Unlike so many excessively long books recently published, this is not simply a collection of facts carelessly assembled; it is instead a sophisticated symphony of intriguing and complex analysis, delivered in mellifluous harmony. It’s a feminist book, as is appropriate to the subject, but feminist theory is used as a scalpel, not a sledgehammer ... there’s nothing linear about this wonderful book, but its direction is always clear. If it fails to make the shortlists of the main history prizes, I’ll be very cross indeed ... Holmes sublimely illuminates Sylvia’s extraordinary life.
RaveThe Times (UK)... a passionate and illuminating account of the obliteration of knowledge that has occurred over the past three millennia. Ovenden’s aim is \'not just to highlight the destruction of [libraries] . . . but also to acknowledge and celebrate the ways librarians and archivists have fought back\'. Working in a library is usually a rather safe profession, but the characters in this book are superheroes who fight and die for the cultures they are obliged to protect ... This splendid book reveals how, in today’s world of fake news and alternative facts, libraries stand defiant as guardians of truth.
RaveThe Times (UK)Historians too often neglect [the] emotional tapestry [of war]. War is characterised as arrows on a map, tables of munitions, cold casualty statistics. Holland’s great skill lies in bringing these warriors back to life with vivid prose. He’s an enormously prolific historian of the war, but each book he produces is constructed with great care and emotional commitment. He introduces the reader not just to well-known generals, but also to ordinary soldiers ... Since Holland never romanticises them, his account seems honest ... [Holland\'s] war is anarchy. His soldiers fight heroically, but also die brutally, torn to shreds or burnt to cinders. They’re racked with dysentery and typhoid or become gibbering wrecks in field hospitals. Holland is obsessed with war, but fortunately does not seem to love it. He recognises its beauty, but also its vileness.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Despite its unfortunate title, this is a fascinating and well-written book about how two nations embraced the prospect of war. By examining a turbulent year from the ground up, Taylor has inadvertently exposed crucial differences in national characteristics. The Germans, despite all their feverish enthusiasm for Hitler’s militaristic ambitions, were spiritually ill- prepared for war. The British, in contrast, had no martial enthusiasm, but fatalistically accepted war’s inevitability.
RaveThe Times (UK)Buckle your trousers, fasten your seatbelts, here comes Kate Lister. Her curious history of sex is a wild ride, made all the more enjoyable by a wonderfully irreverent approach. If she ever tires of being an academic historian she might try stand-up comedy. I’ve never had so much fun learning stuff ... When discussing sex Lister steadfastly refuses to beat around the bush. She provides a trigger warning at the beginning: \'As far as offensive language goes, you are now entering a hard hat area.\' This is not a book for prudes ... [Lister] is first and foremost a historian with a gargantuan knowledge of sexual practices from classical times to the present ... What makes her so special is her ability to communicate, a talent in short supply in academia ... So many of the hang-ups and phobias about sex have a common origin, namely male fear of female passion. And that explains why this book needed to be written by a woman. Had a man attempted what Lister has achieved so perfectly, it would have been at best mansplaining and at worst rather creepy. It would probably also have been deadly dull — some of the most boring books I’ve read were histories of sex written by men. Bravo to Lister for her honesty, authority, candour and especially her humour.
PanThe Washington PostLarson, a neophyte when it comes to British history, falls victim to entrenched English propaganda. His book, which chronicles the period from May 1940 to May 1941, when Churchill supposedly saved .England,. is firmly rooted in that green and pleasant land, conveniently ignoring those dark satanic mills ... Larson, sadly, falls for the old propaganda, rendering this a rather old-fashioned book. He carelessly uses England and Britain interchangeably, never bothering to learn the subtle but important semantics of a diverse kingdom. He writes of Hitler’s bombing campaign against England, as if Welsh and Scottish cities were not also attacked ... It’s well to remember that England is not just a place but an idea, and that idea is alien and offensive to many outlanders ... Larson is a superb storyteller who cleverly weaves together the colossal and the mundane ... fascinating and entertaining, but it’s not remotely the real story ... reveals the dangers of an author parachuting into a dramatic moment of British history without a full understanding of the context ... The Battle of Britain was won in the factories, not in English country houses. We don’t really need another paean to Churchill, nor to that green and pleasant land. The real story is one of pork pies, warm beer and gritty working-class pluck.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Military history is populated with too many narrow minds, writers who know everything about weapons, but understand little about war’s tragic consequences. Max Hastings, in contrast, can recite the military minutiae, but is also motivated to ask difficult questions about the victims of slaughter — those shot, blown apart, or in this case swept away by a wall of water ... War is ugly; war is sublime. Hastings belongs to a select group of scholars who recognises this terrible dichotomy and attempts neither to disregard nor resolve it. The beauty and the sorrow sit like perpetually feuding brothers, hopelessly irreconcilable.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Moorehead tries not to sensationalise this story; she recognises the importance of ordinary things. She appreciates that what made these women special was their resilience and fortitude. This is a sensitive and perceptive book founded on an appreciation of the role women play in any society, at any time. It is sober and serious, but still an easy read. Those looking for sensational tales of lascivious female warriors who fight and fornicate will be disappointed.
PositiveThe Times (UK)... seemingly insignificant \'facts\' are subjected to rigorous analysis in this mammoth book. Cast aside what you think you know about maritime history ... This is a very long book because there are so many significant accomplishments to recount ... Abulafia is more interested in people than ships; there is little detail about actual vessels ... it’s difficult to find a geographical area that’s neglected. He also finds room for ephemera such as pirates, cruise ships and, of course, herring. I was repeatedly struck by just how much Abulafia knows ... a very long book packed with minute detail...Is this one too long? Perhaps. Abulafia occasionally reminds me of my uncle who told tales interesting only to himself. For the most part, however, this is a fascinating book that never descends into arcane theorising ... The material is neatly ordered and presented in fluent, accessible prose. Seafaring tales are told without opulent or contrived drama; what instead makes this book special is the sheer breadth of its coverage ... This book should not, however, be approached lightly. The reader will form a relationship with it that will last for weeks or perhaps months; it’s not a book for those who fear commitment. The Boundless Sea is best read slowly. Put it on the bedside table, read a chapter at a time and feast on the magnificent bounty that Abulafia has to offer.
PositiveThe Times (UK)This is an engaging book, even if its central thesis seems flawed. Holland strives to be \'as objective as possible\' — the virtues and the evils of Christian civilisation are exposed — but objectivity is not the same as neutrality. He’s not remotely neutral. He insists that the goodness of western man has Christianity at its core. That seems like cultural conceit ... Are these values Christian, or are they simply humane? Holland’s thesis implies that they were not as powerful before the advent of Christ nor as prevalent in places unaffected by his teachings ... I’m not so sure. The values described as Christian seem more like simple human nature ... The idea that charity and tolerance are evidence of Christian influence seems too ethnocentric ... While I don’t remotely accept Holland’s thesis, I have to commend the originality of this book, not to mention his brave ambition. Holland, I suppose, would think that very Christian of me.
RaveThe Times (UK)... gloriously opulent ... Dalrymple, who lives on a farm outside Delhi, clearly adores India and finds Clive’s bigotry and greed repulsive. But his love for the country does not cloud his judgment; this is not a superficial story of rapacious imperialists and their innocent victims ... There is, thankfully, little detail about the dull bureaucrats who ran the show ... India is a sumptuous place. Telling its story properly demands lush language, not to mention sensitivity towards the country’s passionate complexity. Dalrymple is a superb historian with a visceral understanding of India. Yet from this book of beauty, a stark warning emerges...It’s an old story, but also a very modern one.
RaveThe Times (UK)The book is, first, a conventional biography, superbly researched and enormously entertaining. That by itself would make this one of the outstanding books of the year. But Phillips also addresses that enduring adoration of Saladin by offering an analysis of cultural memory. The topic of memory is popular among historians at present, but their treatment of it is often so laden with arcane jargon and theory that it becomes incomprehensible. Phillips, in contrast, is clear, concise and illuminating, shedding light on animosities in the Middle East today.
RaveThe Times (UK)This book...is testimony to the dangerous effects of staring at the moon ... This book is a moon primer, loaded with technical detail that is kindly processed for the layman. The moon, we learn, is dark like tarmac, with only slight variations on shades of grey. It reflects only 12 per cent of the sunlight that hits it, yet that’s enough to produce its enthralling luminosity. It smells like wet ashes ... The moon is an empty vessel into which we pour our hopes, dreams, ambitions and animosities ... I have read almost everything written about the lunar missions, yet I have never encountered a book that captures so perfectly and so lyrically the ridiculous power that the moon holds over human sensibility. This is a beautiful book about Luna — a \'Moon of many stories, Moon as might be and Moon as always was, Moon longed for and Moon happened upon\'. It exposes the magnificent desolation of the lunar quest, yet still captures the beguiling hold that the moon has over all of us. Well, most of us. Not me.
Svetlana Alexievich, Trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
RaveThe Times (UK)Last Witnesses is a painful book, but also a seductive one. These terrible stories demand to be read ... Random memories merge, forming a kaleidoscope of suffering ... Every page is packed with misery, violence and loss, but also with incredible resilience ... Childhood memories of war are elemental, stripped bare of political nuance and moral relativism. These subjects tell Alexievich precisely what happened. Their memories are often linked directly to the senses ... This book is a relentless torrent of unspeakable horror ... Despite all the horror, a message about human kindness somehow percolates to the surface. All these children survived because someone, usually a stranger, helped them at a crucial moment.
PositiveThe TimesThis story has been told countless times ... Holland boasts that his book is something genuinely new, promising \'radically different conclusions\'. To be honest, I didn’t find anything particularly revelatory. However, this is still a superb account of the invasion that deserves immense praise. What makes it original is not its revelations, but its style. Holland tells this story \'at the tactical level\'; in other words, we feel what it was like to be a soldier on the beaches and in the bocage. To convey the human drama of Normandy requires great knowledge and sensitivity. Holland has both in spades.
RaveThe TimesMoore gives us a wonderful biography of a ship while shedding light on the culture that shaped and surrounded it ... With exquisite prose, Moore captures the atmosphere as that small container of Britishness headed south ... n extraordinary book about an unlikely ship that defined an age. The book reminded me of one of those opulent 18th-century feasts enjoyed by King George — endless exotic dishes all delivered with exquisite style. Like the age it recounts, it is a book of energy, creativity and self-confidence.
PositiveThe TimesThe author, a prizewinning American military historian, is never afraid to digress; he interrupts meticulous battle narratives with detours about the treatment of smallpox ... This is not a book for anyone in a hurry. Atkinson takes his time, but there’s delight in all that detail ... Atkinson is a superb researcher, but more importantly a sublime writer. On occasion I reread sentences simply to feast on their elegance ... In his previous life Atkinson was probably a Romantic poet.
RaveThe Times...[an] extraordinary book ... Dartnell understands geology, geography, anthropology, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and history. That’s quite an achievement, but what makes him really special is the way he communicates the interconnectedness of these disciplines in a clear, logical and entertaining way. Origins is one of those rare books that dissolves mystery through the steady application of sublime lucidity. While reading it, I kept thinking: \'Oh, that makes sense\' ... Perhaps the most profound lesson of this superb book is that nothing is permanent, or predictable.
PositiveThe TimesMr Five Per Cent is a remarkable book, if only because Gulbenkian is not an easy subject. His single-mindedness — in the pursuit of art treasures, sex or money — renders him rather dull. Yet Conlin somehow constructs an engaging tale about this one-dimensional man. Every page is packed with figures, but there are also delightful details that provide welcome contrast to all those labyrinthine deals ... Gulbenkian fascinates not because he’s particularly interesting in and of himself, but rather because of the shady deals, broken friendships and family turmoil that littered his life. Gulbenkian, writes Conlin, became \'so fixated on protecting his fortune . . . that he seemed uninterested in the purposes for which it was being preserved\'. Other than that brief moment of reflection, Conlin refrains from criticism. Yet this book still provides an important moral lesson about the pathology of greed.
MixedThe Times (UK)Borman, the joint chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces, claims that this \'biography from the outside in\' offers \'a new perspective\'. That’s not quite true, since others, including Hilary Mantel, have ploughed a similar furrow. Leaving aside its grandiose boasts, Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him does offer some interesting insights into the king’s character.
MixedThe Times (UK)Lambert is, without a doubt, the most insightful naval historian writing today. His range is immense, his understanding colossal, his sensitivity to his subject profound. This is, however, a very serious book which never attempts to be fun. It will remain a standard text at universities for decades to come, but readers who want to feast on fascinating tales of the sea will probably be disappointed. I found this book admirable, but not particularly enjoyable.
RaveThe Times UKI used to think that John Guy’s biography of Mary, My Heart Is My Own, could never be bettered. That’s probably still true, but this book nevertheless adds something significant to our understanding. Rival Queens is marketed as an account of the conflict between Elizabeth and Mary, but in truth is yet another biography. What makes it special is Williams’s understanding of how gender shaped Mary’s life. This is a feminist history, but not a clumsily theoretical one. Theory and sophisticated analysis never smother the pacey narrative.
MixedThe TimesPigeons are small. They played a small role in the war. They deserve recognition, but in a small way. [This] is a fascinating book, but it’s longer than it needs to be. Corera gets bogged down in the minutiae of interservice rivalries and occasionally pads the narrative with uninteresting detail. In the process, we lose sight of those quirky birds. They’re the real story ... Regardless of the intelligence they brought back, they were a boon to morale, a winged symbol of the determination to prevail.
PanThe TimesIt’s an impressive trawl of data, but what she does with that research worries me ... Patterns...always seem obvious when looking backwards, like footprints in the snow. Behold, America is a connect-the-dots history, or, to use another metaphor, the past viewed through the wrong end of a telescope ... the past should not be shoehorned into a convenient narrative. Had Churchwell stuck to the task of analyzing the past in its context, as historians are supposed to do, she might have produced a classic text on the American dream or America first.
PositiveThe Times (UK)The French are going to hate this book ... Napoleon has, for the most part, enjoyed an easy ride from historians, who are usually too intoxicated by his daring military victories to notice his serious flaws ... Zamoyski’s research is meticulous, his writing sublime, but the story suffers because of his admirable refusal to indulge in romantic fantasy. This is probably one of the truest biographies of Napoleon, but unfortunately the truth can sometimes be dull. That qualification aside, this book undoubtedly needed to be written.
RaveThe Times\"Hastings is perfectly suited to write about the Vietnam War. He witnessed its peculiar tragedies at first hand, arriving in Saigon in 1971 as a reporter at the age of 24. It’s fitting that a journalist should chronicle this war, since journalists played such a prominent part. The fact that Hastings is British is an additional advantage, since American writers are often blinded by their insularity ... This is a long book but not a bloated one; this war demands the detail that Hastings provides. His basic arguments are not particularly new, but the book itself is still original. What makes it so magnificent is its intimacy. Hastings possesses the journalist’s instinct for a good story, the tiny anecdote that exposes a big truth. Large tragedies are illustrated through very personal pain.\
RaveThe TimesIf you have wondered why so many classical statues are missing heads, arms, noses and genitalia, now you know ... The Darkening Age is a delightful book about destruction and despair. Nixey combines the authority of a serious academic with the expressive style of a good journalist. She’s not afraid to throw in the odd joke amid sombre tales of desecration. With considerable courage, she challenges the wisdom of history and manages to prevail. Comfortable assumptions about Christian progress come tumbling down.
RaveThe TimesIt’s sometimes difficult to keep track of all those brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and cousins in castles scattered across Europe. That difficulty is compounded when the focus of attention is on a royal family with 13 children. But Goldstone is a master juggler. She tells a good story, always with a delightfully light touch. In the process, extraordinary women are given the attention they deserve. Goldstone brings them to prominence in a way that preserves their femininity while highlighting their strength. This is a feminist history without ever trying to be one. Women saved this family. Sisters did it by themselves.
Benjamin Carter Hett
MixedThe TimesAJP Taylor once argued that Hitler’s rise was as inevitable and unsurprising as a river flowing into the sea. Hett rejects that notion, offering instead a perfect storm of economic misery, government incompetence, popular prejudice, a flawed democratic structure and a febrile public mood. This is an intelligent, well-informed explanation, but not original ... Hett’s stories promise much, but he is much more interested in sober analysis of politics at the highest levels and the sometimes tedious machinations of scheming politicians in the Weimar years. I missed the ordinary people, the banal multitude who made evil possible.
MixedThe Times (UK)David Christian is not a big fan of micro-history. \'Specialisation,\' he argues, \'makes it difficult for any individual to stand back far enough to see humanity as a whole.\' ... Origin Story is first about physics, then chemistry, and finally biology. With 13.8 billion years covered in just over 300 pages, there’s little room for minor details such as politics, culture or morality.
At the same time the book annoyed me...On one page he argues that \'more and more people are joining the new middle class as the numbers living in extreme poverty fall\'. In the next paragraph we learn that \'there are far more people living in extreme poverty than there were in the past\'. The contradictions baffle me.
PositiveThe Washington Post[The] variety leads to an inconsistency of tone: Some are lighthearted, others somber. The short ones should be longer, the longer ones shorter. But does this matter? Probably not. This is an untidy book, but a great one. In truth, this is not really travel writing in the recognized form of the genre. The reader who expects a collection of quirky anecdotes about fascinating places will be disappointed. Far & Away is not just a voyage around the world; it’s also a voyage around Andrew Solomon ... intense purposefulness is what makes this book extraordinary. Travel is usually self-serving. Solomon’s is seldom that. Hope fuels his voyages ... This is a very noble book. It’s also a very depressing one.
PanThe Washington PostWinik’s attempt to change history is ultimately unconvincing. The field of Holocaust studies is crowded with books much more worthy. In truth, 1944 left me rather annoyed. It’s poorly conceived and shoddily presented.