Thursday, 17 April 2014

Ten Historical Periods, Ten Great Reads....

So, within minutes of asking B.L.M. 'likers' what they'd like to see more of a couple of weeks back, I got a request for more Top 10's, so, loving lists as much as our 'liker' Nerys Webster, (to whom I humbly dedicate this one) I have got right on the case!

Now this is very much my personal niche, History, Non-Fiction. I know it's not everyone's thing, but for me, the best stories from the past are the real ones. History has been a great passion of mine for many years, so much so that around 75% of my personal book collection are history or historical biographies. I have them all lovingly arranged in chronological order.... yes, I really do!!

I apologize for the Euro-centric nature of this list, I'm English, by birth, default, and inclination (which I don't apologize for) so my interest in history tends to reflect this, (though not exclusively, and without judgement of other cultures!).

So, without further rambling and ado, here is my "Ten Historical Periods, Ten Great Reads" List!! (Chronologically, of course...)

1: Prehistory: Really, Really, Early....Prehistory by Colin Renfrew

Before written records there was.. Prehistory. This fascinating book not only delves into the development of the human mind and how it formed ideas and concepts that still motivate us today, it looks at the idea of pre-history itself and examines the way we have, in more recent times, viewed our own past. Colin Renfrew is the former Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University in England and has been a noted figure in the development of radiocarbon dating and the prehistory of language and it's importance in the development of human culture. Whilst informative, this book is not a dry, dusty, educational work, but delivers the subject matter in a way that I found both interesting and stimulating. At only two hundred and fifty four pages, it will not scare off newcomers to the subject either.

2: 1066: etc etc.... The Year of The Conqueror by Alan Lloyd

Every English schoolchild, even if they knew nothing else about their nation's history knew about the Norman Conquest of 1066, though I'm admittedly not sure if that is still true! Considerably less would've known about the other deeply entwined events and battles that also took place in that year, arguably the most significant in Britain's early medieval history. Published in 1966, this is story of three medieval figures and their personal quests to take the throne of England for their own, Harold Godwinson, the short-lived incumbent, Harald Hardrada, the Scandinavian with an eye on expanding his personal empire and William, Duke of Normandy, determined to take the realm he sees as his by right of succession, from the usurper Harold. You may know the outcome, but the the year 1066 has much more to teach you.

3: Medieval: 1154 to 1399.... The Plantagenets by Dan Jones

This is a might tome indeed, six hundred and thirty odd pages takes you through the great and the good, (and not so good) rulers of England for nearly three hundred and fifty years, the house of Plantagenet. Eight generations of this royal dynasty took rulership of the island nation from the Normans and passed it on (albeit grudgingly) to the Tudors, dragging the country kicking and screaming through the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses in the process. With a cast that includes Richard the Lionheart, Henry V, Edward I, Queen Isabella and her lover Mortimer, the story is a bloody one, of family feuds, coups, civil war, rebellion, plague, romance and revenge. This is the time period that been the inspiration for a wealth of fiction since, if you think Game of Thrones is exciting, you'll love the Plantagenets.

4: 16th Century: 1501 to 1601....  Winter King by Thomas Penn

It's all too easy, with knowledge you've acquired in school, or through TV dramas and movies, to get the idea the Tudors were all about Henry VIII, his love of a wedding and of the brave and fearless virginal Good Queen Bess, his daughter. Well, if you really want to know about the family that dominated the 16th century, at least in England, you need to go right to the patriarch, Henry VIII's father, Henry VII. The man who stole the crown from Richard III, leaving the poor old hunchback to spend the next 400 years under a Leicester car park, Henry Tudor was the man who built a realm that his son was able to rule by right. The consummate Machiavellian Prince, Henry was ruthless, with both his enemies and his own subjects as it suited his purpose. When his reign ended England breathed a collective sigh of relief.

5: 17th Century Pt 1: 1600 to 1700.... Cyrano by Ishbel Addyman

Most people today, when they think of Cyrano de Bergerac, if they know of him at all, think of a rather comic-romantic figure, Gerard Depardieu, with a large prosthetic nose. Many would not even be aware, in fact, that he was a real person. Legendary swordsman, diplomat, adventurer, poet, lover, openly critical of religion and the church, almost certainly bisexual and critical of prevailing small-minded attitudes to same-sex relationships at the time, he was all these things. Then his story was "kidnapped' as later writers parodied the legend, turning him to a figure of fun and entertainment that was to last much longer than the story of his real life. This great little book gives us a chance to glimpse the man himself once more through a piece of literary detective work. A wonderful read.

6: 17th Century Pt 2: 1600 to 1700.... Samuel Pepys The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin

Samuel Pepys diaries are undoubtedly one of the best known literary works of the 17th century. In this excellent biography Claire Tomalin reveals much more about the writer and public figure who lived through the English Civil War, the Restoration of the monarchy following Oliver Cromwell's death, the plague and the Great Fire of London. His diary is filled with accounts of great public events and the minutiae of his own private life, interspersed in a way that reveals both the man and the time. Tomalin's research expands what we know of the man and draws a revealing portrait of a not always likeable character. His story is fascinating, a fact that he would have found extremely satisfying. Pepys was nothing if not egocentric, but to consider him nothing but that would be folly. Entirely human, his story is still wonderfully engaging.

7: 18th Century: 1700 to 1800.... Citizen Lord by Stella Tillyard

Another historical biography, this time of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Irish revolutionary, the son of a Duke and heir to power and influence, he fought for the British in the American War of Independence in his youth but his youthful rebellious spirit soon saw him 'going native' and being adopted as a native Indian chief! He then moved into the sphere of influence of legendary revolutionary figure, Thomas Paine and, through contacts in revolutionary France, became active in the Irish rebellion. His story could have come straight from pages of romantic adventure novel, and sadly, so could his demise. As the bloody revolution raged around him, Fitzgerald was captured and died, raving and wounded, branded a traitor.

8: 19th Century Pt 1: 1800 to 1900.... The Maul And The Pear Tree by P.D.James & T.A.Critchley

Before Jack the Ripper's reign of terror on Whitechapel's streets in the late 19th century, the most famous true crime horror story in Britain was that of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders in 1811. The brutal murders of two families, including the clubbing to death of a young mother and her baby, had the dark streets of the poverty-stricken east-end swinging between fear and a desire for revenge on anyone who might fit the bill. The ineptitude of the justice system of the time comes into stark relief, as they settle on a suspect, who is tried and executed in indecent haste, but this work uses numerous sources to bring the conviction into question. P.D. James is more famously known for crime fiction but this is a story worthy of any mystery thriller that will leave you wanting more.

9: 19th Century: Pt 2: 1800 to 1900.... The Sydney Assassins by Leicester Cotton

Possibly the most difficult to find a copy of on this list, I'm pretty sure it's out of print and only likely to crop up at second-hand book stores in Australia. Another murder mystery, this time in 1870s Sydney. Two bodies are dragged, at separate times from the Paramatta river, trussed up and beaten to death. The local populace are in fear for their lives until the perpetrators are apparently apprehended, but again, modern research sheds new light on the crimes, including the bizarre fact that both of the supposed victims do not, on closer examination, appear to be who they were thought to be! Evidence indicates both of them are seen after the time of their murders! A great mystery story.

10: 20th Century: 1900 to 2000.... The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

One of the most well known books of the 20th century, you'll obviously have no trouble getting hold of a copy of this book. there are a number of editions around, with varying degrees of editing, partly, in earlier versions, due to Anne's father Otto Frank's insistence on removing some material he saw as inappropriate. I'd be surprised if anyone reading this blog had not read this book, but if you haven't, it's a 'must read'. Putting the writings of a child into context, when read from the perspective of knowing how she met her end in a Nazi concentration camp, makes this a somewhat harrowing experience but an entirely essential one. We do often seem to be doomed to repeat history, but that might just be less likely if we force ourselves to read books like this.

So there you go, ten books to get a bit of history in your life. far and away my favourite genre, for me, truth is almost always more interesting than fiction.  Happy reading.


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