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2012-09-16
Highly recommended introduction to Augustus

I have just read Karl Galinsky's Augustus. An introduction to the life of an emperor, released by Cambridge University Press earlier this year. The subject is a vast one - something of which I am constantly reminded as I work on my own biography of Rome's first emperor. Augustus lived so long and did so much that any biographer has to deal with a great many different subjects. For many the evidence is poor, and on top of that the man himself remains a mystery. It always seems appropriate that he chose the enigmatic sphinx as one of his seals - only one though, because Augustus was never easy to pin down in any aspect of life. After all this is a man born in September, who nevertheless chose the Capricorn as his symbol. This is one of many curiosities explored in a text box, Like so many other aspects of Augustus' life, it defies an easy answer. Galinsky reviews the evidence with skill and perception, and most importantly admits that there are many gaps in our sources which makes certainty impossible on many issues, both great and small.


This is a slim volume. I have four or five times the space for my own biography of the first emperor and know that I will have to leave out a huge amount of material. This makes it all the more impressive just how much Galinsky crams into less than two hundred pages. There are plenty of illustrations and maps. Students starting a course on the wider period or Augustus in particular will find this invaluable. Anyone else with an interest in the theme, or who simply wants to gain a glimpse of such a remarkable and important historical figure, can do no better than to start with this short book.


 
2012-08-08
New Novel in hardback - Send Me Safely Back Again
This week sees the UK release of my third novel, Send me safely back again. The formal release date is tomorrow, but by the look of things amazon.co.uk are already shipping copies out, and on Friday I'll be signing some copies for Goldsboro Books and Hatchards in London for those who like to have my scrawl in the front. I have added a new page to the website about the new story third novel which tells you more about the story. There are also some additions to the page listing some of the sources I have used for the story.
 
2012-07-22
Napoleonic Lives

The subtitle of Carole Divall's new book Napoleonic Lives: Researching the British soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars tells you its main purpose. It is a detailed guide of how to find out information from all the different archives and museum collections written by someone who has spent a lot of time delving into these sources. I know a lot of people who are very keen to build up a detailed family trees and this is certainly the book for you. I would also heartily recommend it if you simply have an interest in the army of this period. Chapters cover different individuals from a range of regiments, including a man from the 69th who served on board ship as a marine, to cavalrymen and gunners. There is a also a chapter focusing on two army wives - Biddy Skiddy who is depicted so vividly in George Bell's Memoirs (& in a display in London's National Army Museum, showing her carrying her husband on her back when he was exhausted, and the lesser known Agnes Reston, a sergeant's wife who is described by Donaldson of the 94th in an episode I may one day incorporate into one of the novels.


I have always found the letters and memoirs of this period fascinating, and writing the novels has given me a good excuse to go back to them and look in much greater detail. This meant that reading the book was often a very nice reminder of some of the characters from these, both the authors and the people who figured in their stories. Even more fascinating is the comparison between the stories and the official archives - finding out more for instance about some of the famous writers such as Wheeler of the 51st. Sometimes these hint at fascinating little stories. So Sergeant Nicolson of the 42nd Highlanders, who served in Egypt, was left behind in Portugal when his battalion marched with Sir John Moore into Spain and the next year found himself serving in a Battalion of Detachments at Oporto and Talavera, figures in one of the chapters. Less famous than other memoirs, it is a vivid account, and especially interesting since he describes being left among the wounded when the army retired and his subsequent capture by the French. The introduction to his published memoirs state that he ran away from home and joined the army at the age of 15. However, his discharge papers state that he enlisted at the age of 20. Divall notes that the 1851 census confirms the age claimed in the memoirs, and make it likely that the lad added five years when he joined the army - something so familiar from the First World War.


As a research tool this is a great guide, but it is also a really good read in its own right. Beat the Drums Slowly is dedicated jointly to my editor and to Carole, who has been kind enough to read each manuscript and has stopped me from making mistakes when talking about regimental life. This book, and her others, are marvellous for these human, everyday stories of the period, and are heartily recommended. You can find more detail at her website

 
2012-07-05
Some WWII novels

Over the winter I also came across Alexander Baron's From the city, from the plough about a fictional battalion of British infantry before and during D-Day and the Battle for Normandy. The author served in the army at the time and this shows throughout the book, although given his background it is unsurprising that the Londoners come across more convincingly than the country lads mixed in with them. It's a warts and all portrait. One officer is dangerously reckless and eventually shot by his own men. An old sweat appears who works the system for his own benefit. Yet on the whole it is more about the courage of the mixed bag of citizen soldiers, and the price they paid during the invasion. It's odd, but not too many modern authors can create a convincing picture of the 1940s. It almost seems harder to do this than to write about the distant past, probably because that is so distant that we don't know what it was really like. I had heard of this book for years, but this was the first time I saw a copy and I would heartily recommend it.


Another novel ringing with authenticity because the author was there is Geoffrey Powell's Men at Arnhem. I am not sure whether or not this is in print, but I recently came across a copy I bought years and years ago and re-read it with great pleasure. Once again it gives a vivid portrait of that generation and the way the British army worked.


 
2012-06-22
Some novels

A couple of months ago I read Christian Cameron's Marathon, the sequel to Killer of Men set during the Persian Wars. I have written about this author in the past, and all I can really add now is that I think this series is even better than his earlier novels. (As an aside, I have not yet had a chance to read his novel about Alexander, but am very much looking forward to it). There has to be a lot of invention about any story set in the ancient world, but these have the right feel about them. I think he portrays the life in a city state very well, and presents the most convincing picture of Classical Greek warfare and battle in fiction and non fiction alike. Definitely recommended if you like historical novels and have a fondness for the period.


More recently I finished The Prow Beast, the fourth and final book in Robert Low's series of Viking novels which began with The Whale Road. As the author himself says in the note at the end of the latter - 'this is a saga, to be read round a fire against the lurking dark.' That sums them up nicely. These are terrific stories, frequently very violent, but conveying a wonderful sense of a different world. It's a nice change that the bulk of the action is set out on the Steppes, and includes visits to Constantinople - and even Masada in the second story. This is not my period, so I cannot comment on the historical background, but once again it comes across as convincing. If the Viking Age was not really like this, then it really ought to have been!

 

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