In Review of… 2020 (Part One)
To start off the twenty-first year of the new millenium, I thought I would look back at the year that was – a year that has changed our outlook on the world and the people that we share it with. Whilst events have been felt in every corner, and by everyone, rather than look back at this turbulent, well-documented time, I wanted to focus on the things that have kept me going during the pandemic that has changed all of our lives.
As I write this, despite the promise of a vaccine, a return to normal ways still feels a long way off, and I hope that some of the things that have comforted me, may well, if they haven’t already, do the same for you.
So, for part one, I look back at three of the books that I have enjoyed during 2020.
Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland
Currently, I am writing my sixth novel, and this book will give away where it is set. Having read this book cover-to-cover twice last year, and filling it with post-it notes and stickers, it is never far from my side. Charting the rise and decline of what was probably (as the publisher’s description says) ‘one of the most remarkable states in history’.
But what sets this book aside from the plethora of books on this subject, spanning many hundreds, thousands of years? From Cicero, Julius Caesar, Tacitus and Suetonius, through to Edward Gibbon, Christopher Hibbert and much later, Mary Beard and Barry Strauss, all of these writings have inspired me greatly, but it was Tom Holland and Rubicon that brought this ancient world to life for me in a way that no other writer had.
Historian, writer and broadcaster Tom Holland’s research is detailed and comprehensive – and to many that would make it sound like a dry, stuffy book, full of great insights and history, but one of those tomes that you might dip into and feel like tumble-weed is blowing across the pages – it is, thankfully, quite the opposite.
The author brings the Roman Republic and the ancient world to life, painting vivid details in a way that would make fiction writers blush. Recounting this turbulent, successful period of ancient history, Holland grips you with the time and place, the sheer scale of what the Roman’s achieved and how this triumph, ultimately, ended in, as the book suggests, great tragedy.
To capture and inspire, inform and educate a reader through 406 pages is the real triumph of this book, and if you are interested in that time in any way, I cannot recommend this highly enough to you.
Publisher: Abacus; New Ed edition (21 April 2011)
My rating: 5/5
War Lord by Bernard Cornwell
All good things come to those who wait, and in October, when the postman arrived a day early with my signed copy of the final book (13) in Bernard Cornwell’s epic Last Kingdom series, I swore to myself that I would savour every line, every word and immerse myself in this great series, one last time. I did the all of the above, except that I read it in four days, which is a record for me in recent years.
TV series aside (we will come to that in the next few weeks), I love these books and my anticipation was laced with trepidation, that one of favourite series of novels in the last well, as long as I can recall, would stumble over the line and leave me disappointed and broken, like a crumpled shield wall.
Why did I fret? I have read so many of Bernard Cornwell’s books over the years, falling in love with his Sharpe novels, his Azincourt books, and my favourite series of all time, his Warlord Chronicles.
To the very end, the story and recount of the main protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg; a conflicted warrior, born a saxon, but captured and raised by Danes, is gripping, when, so deep into a series, if could have easily been jaded and lacklustre. No spoilers here, but the last paragraph, for me, was just perfect, and I wonder if the author had this in his mind from the very first book, so wonderfully poignant as it was.
If you haven’t read any of these books, set in the time of Alfred the Great and the events that would eventually lead to the forming of one nation under one King, England – then I urge you to give them a try and start with The Last Kingdom. As with the previous book, and despite being primarily a work of fiction, this paints a vivd portayal of the time, blending fiction with fact in a way that would make many historians blush.
Read the books, then search for the TV series, you won’t be disappointed. As Uhtred would say ‘Wyrd biõ ful ãræd’ Destiny is all!
Publisher: HarperCollins (15 Oct. 2020)
My rating: 5/5
The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss
Hollywood and television aside, the story of Spartacus and the two-year slave revolt that brought the Roman Republic to it knees for a time, has inspired so many people throughout history. But little was known about the man, probably not even his real name, and in this excellent book, Historian and Professor Barry Strauss attempts to filter through the fiction to discover the facts about the man that so little is known about.
Who was he? What was he like? Why did so many people flock to his banner and lay waste to the Roman countryside, even threatening to advance on Rome itself, before culminating in a great defeat that left thousands of rebels crucified along the Via Appia, the Appian Way.
As with Tom Holland’s book, Barry Strauss’s style of research and writing, gives breath and blood, flesh and bone to this period of time, giving you a sense of the man, and why he was driven to break out of his confinement at a Gladiator School in Capua. With so many levels to this book, it is enthralling, to the point where it adds even more mystery to the legend – Spartacus’s body was never found… and there are so many questions left unanswered.
It could end up being a book full of speculation, but the author never gives you reason to pause and question anything he might say – he bases all of his research on visits to the ancient sites and exclusively on the ancient texts.
The Spartacus War is a fascinating, compelling read that can only increase the myth of the man – just try to read it without uttering those immortal, but wholly fictious words at least once…
Publisher: Weidenfield & Nicolson First edition (2009)
My rating: 4.5/5
Join me next week as I revisit the films that kept me going through 2020. Stay safe and a very happy new year to you!