Thursday, 28 December 2017

My Books of the Year (Non-Fiction)

It's the time of year for introspective posts, so I thought I'd put together a list of the top ten books I've read this year.

This list isn't in any particularly order.  It had been my intention to choose five fiction and five non-fiction titles, but I found that I hadn't read as much non-fiction as I'd thought, and that in choosing five I was struggling and excluding some fiction that deserved the cut.  Nevertheless, I;ve still been able to waffle on about them at suffient length to justify splitting the list into two posts in order to give you a break.

So, here we go...

Claire Tomlin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self.  
A  biography of Pepys, who shouldn't need any introduction to my readers.  The C17th "isn't my period", but Tomlin did the trick of making Restoration politics interesting and giving a good, rounded picture of the world Pepys was operating it.  
Unlike some other of his biographers, she devotes as much energy to Pepys' life after he stopped writing the diary as before.  In doing so, she reminds us just what an interesting life he led, and us what a loss it was that it ended where it did.  
We're so used to the diary set-pieces being thrown as us - what would it be like if they included his impressions of Paris, the death his long-suffering wife or the short reign of James II?  What would we learn about the machinations that saw him elected to Parliament, Secretary to the Admiralty, imprisoned in the Tower, tried as a cypto-Catholic and serving out his time as a non-Juror?  What personal revelations would we find about 'the second Mrs Pepys', the mistress that he kept for 20 years?  
This is a damn good read, and the best book I read this year.

DA Thomas, Edwin's Letters: A Fragment of a Life, 1940-43.    
As the subtitle suggests, this is a biography on a much smaller scale than the one of Pepys.  Thomas has collected letters (mostly from Edwin to his mother) relating to his brother's time in the RAF, from call-up, through training, to joining a bomber crew, being declared 'Missing' and finally the confirmation of his death in action. 
It's the fact that very little of this book concerns itself with operation matters that appeals to me. The great majority of the letters concern themselves with a young man thrown into a strange world and bothered about things like whether he will have to re-sit his exams on navigation yet again.

Geoffrey Bennett, Naval Battles of the First World War. 
Capt Bennett's study - first published in 1969 - is now a classic, and perhaps somewhat dated.  Despite this it's well worth the read if you want an introduction to the Royal Navy's activities during the war, particularly the Big Ships.  If you want something more comprehensive that covers all theatres, nations and types of naval combat, read Paul G Halpern's A Naval History of World War I, which I also heartily recommend,
Bennett starts with a consideration of how the German merchant cruisers were tracked down and neutralised - concentrating as you'd imagine from the title on von Spee's squadron and the Battles of Coronel and the Falklands - and the pursuit of the Goben and Breslau.  After that, despite a couple of interesting chapters on the U-boat campaigns, he is firmly focused on the North Sea face-off between the Grand Fleet and the Hochseeflotte.  
For those of you who are naval wargamers, this provides a lot of inspiration and food for thought: not least on the problem of how inadequately wargames represent the fog of war, mis-identification, lack of communication and sheer bloody cock-up.

Elizabeth Speller, Following Hadrian: A Second Century Journey Through the Rom an Empire.
I picked this book up thinking that it would be a travelogue, following some of Hadrian's peregrinations.  It isn't.  In a way it's more than that, it's a consideration of Hadrian's philhellenism and how that affected his attitude to ruling an empire.  Mainly it is concerned with the visit to Greece and Egypt in 128-130CE and how the mysterious death of his lover Antinous changed him and quite possibly his plans for the Empire.
I'm not a Roman scholar, or even anyone with more than a general knowledge of Roman history, so I can't vouch for the accuracy of Speller's arguments.  Certainly, I can imagine that for someone with a 'serious; interest in Roman history her insertion of large chunks of a fictitious diary of one of the Empress' confidants would grate.  For me, those bits were well done and reminiscent of Allan Massie's books (his praise is the cover blurb), but perhaps they belonged in another book.

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