Foundation

Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors (The History of England, #1)Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors by Peter Ackroyd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Intended for a popular audience, not an academic one. There are no maps, no genealogical tables, and no footnotes. The style is breezy and narrative, ranging back and forth from kings and politics to the common people. Lots of digressions on various topics like architecture, games and sports, the development of bronze, the practice of medicine, etc. This covers prehistory up to the Tudors, so there is a clear sense of the development of various institutions over time. In his “conclusion” the author emphasizes his decision that this focuses on England only, leaving Wales, Scotland and Ireland for other historians. Though we do get a brief page on Owen Glendower. This isn’t the best historical overview I’ve read, but I enjoyed it, and 4 stars means I’ll likely read more in the series. If I have a complaint, it is that it tries to cover too much. I would have preferred a separate volume on the Plantagenets, which would have allowed a little more detail.

Book description: In Foundation, acclaimed historian Peter Ackroyd tells the epic story of England itself. He takes us from the primeval forests of England’s prehistory to the death, in 1509, of the first Tudor king, Henry VII. He guides us from the building of Stonehenge to the founding of the two great glories of medieval England: common law and the cathedrals. He describes the successive waves of invaders who made England English, despite being themselves Roman, Viking, Saxon, or Norman French. With his extraordinary skill for evoking time and place and his acute eye for the telling detail, Ackroyd recounts the story of warring kings, of civil strife, and foreign wars. But he also gives us a vivid sense of how England’s early people lived: the homes they built, the clothes they wore, the food they ate, even the jokes they told. All are brought to life in this history of England through the narrative mastery of one of Britain’s finest writers.

The Plantagenets

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made EnglandThe Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Very engaging! Covers 200 years of English history from Henry II through Richard II. Very much a book about the kings, their wars, and accomplishments told by a master story teller. Jones manages to deconstruct the myths and legends, while incorporating the latest research and insights into their lives and personalities. We get the good, the bad, and the ugly about these kings and yet Jones still manages to make them human beings. As bad as some of these kings were, they still managed to create a strong and powerful realm, an England that has endured to the present day.

Book description: The first Plantagenet kings inherited a blood-soaked realm from the Normans and transformed it into an empire that stretched at its peak from Scotland to Jerusalem. In this epic narrative history of courage, treachery, ambition, and deception, Dan Jones resurrects the unruly royal dynasty that preceded the Tudors. They produced England’s best and worst kings: Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, twice a queen and the most famous woman in Christendom; their son Richard the Lionheart, who fought Saladin in the Third Crusade; and his conniving brother King John, who was forced to grant his people new rights under the Magna Carta, the basis for our own bill of rights. Combining the latest academic research with a gift for storytelling, Jones vividly recreates the great battles of Bannockburn, Crécy, and Sluys and reveals how the maligned kings Edward II and Richard II met their downfalls. This is the era of chivalry and the Black Death, the Knights Templar, the founding of parliament, and the Hundred Years’ War, when England’s national identity was forged by the sword.

1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt

1381: The Year of the Peasants' Revolt1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt by Juliet Barker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To be honest, I didn’t read the whole book. I made it to page 212 and then jumped to the last chapter. I’m sure this is an excellent and well-researched historical study, but it just was dense and dry. I’m looking more for a good story, not a recital of fact after fact. I couldn’t keep track of all the names without some kind of thread to follow. I liked the political and economic background, but then I just got bogged down in all the minutiae. To be fair, I’m reviewing for a public library audience, not an academic one. The color plates are nice, lots of notes, and yay! a bibliography, but what it really could have used were maps.

Book description: Barker tells how and why a diverse and unlikely group of ordinary men and women from every corner of England―from servants and laborers living off wages, through the village elite who served as bailiffs, constables, and stewards, to the ranks of the gentry―united in armed rebellion against church and state to demand a radical political agenda. Had it been implemented, this agenda would have transformed English society and anticipated the French Revolution by four hundred years. Skeptical of contemporary chroniclers’ accounts of events, Barker draws on the judicial sources of the indictments and court proceedings that followed the rebellion. This emphasis offers a fresh perspective on the so-called Peasants’ Revolt and gives depth and texture to the historical narrative. Among the book’s arguments are that the rebels believed they were the loyal subjects of the king acting in his interests, and that the boy-king Richard II sympathized with their grievances.

The Greatest Knight

The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, The Power Behind Five English ThronesThe Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, The Power Behind Five English Thrones by Thomas Asbridge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An enthusiastic 5 stars, with the caveat that this book is intended for the general reader, and not a scholarly biography. Very “readable” but supported by extensive research and notes, maps, genealogical tables, and color illustrations. There is even a Cast of Characters in the back, but surprisingly no bibliography or suggestions for further reading. I loved the digressions about how to become a knight, the history of tournaments, sword-making, going on Crusade, courtly etiquette and manners, etc. There really are not a lot of details known about William’s life, so this is told through his associations with Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II and his son the “Young King,” Richard the Lion-Hearted, and the evil King John. William dies three years into the reign of Henry III and I was left wanting to know more about this king and how he picked up the pieces after the disastrous reign of his father. I know there is a fairly recent book on Henry III: The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III (2013) and a new one by Matthew Lewis coming out in March 2017. I may also have to seek out Asbridge’s earlier books on the Crusades. This was a great start to my review of recent books on the Plantagenets and the Wars of the Roses.

Book Description: Renowned historian Thomas Asbridge draws upon the thirteenth-century biography and an array of contemporary evidence to present a compelling account of William Marshal’s life and times. Asbridge charts the unparalleled rise to prominence of a man bound to a code of honor yet driven by unquenchable ambition. Marshal was the true Lancelot of his era — a peerless warrior and paragon of chivalry. As a five-year-old boy, William was sentenced to execution and led to the gallows, yet this landless younger son survived his brush with death and went on to train as a medieval knight. Against all odds, Marshal rose through the ranks — serving at the right hand of five English monarchs — to become a celebrated tournament champion, a baron and politician, and, ultimately, regent of the realm. This knight’s tale lays bare the brutish realities of medieval warfare and the machinations of royal court, and draws us into the heart of a formative period of our history. It is the story of one remarkable man, the birth of the knightly class to which he belonged, and the forging of the English nation.

Wesley the Owl

Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His GirlWesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey O’Brien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this very touching story of a woman’s experience raising a barn owl and living with it for nineteen years. Their bond was something very special. The book apparently has “wonderful photos” which I will have to seek out. The audiobook was narrated by Renee Raudman and I have to say she did a great job with Wesley’s vocalizations! I laughed out loud at some of her tales. Not for the faint of heart – there are mouse guts galore – and I will never forget her description of testicle soup – how scientists do research on human fertility. I read this because I love animal stories, but also because I consider the owl to be my own personal inner totem. I think her philosophical comments about “The Way of the Owl” could equally apply to “owl” people like me.

Book description: On Valentine’s Day 1985, biologist Stacey O’Brien adopted Wesley, a baby barn owl with an injured wing who could not have survived in the wild. Over the next nineteen years, O’Brien studied Wesley’s strange habits with both a tender heart and a scientist’s eye—and provided a mice-only diet that required her to buy the rodents in bulk (28,000 over the owl’s lifetime). She watched him turn from a helpless fluff ball into an avid com­municator with whom she developed a language all their own. Eventually he became a gorgeous, gold-and-white macho adult with a heart-shaped face who preened in the mir­ror and objected to visits by any other males to “his” house. O’Brien also brings us inside Caltech’s prestigious research community, a kind of scientific Hogwarts where resident owls sometimes flew freely from office to office and eccentric, brilliant scientists were extraordinarily committed to studying and helping animals; all of them were changed by the animals they loved. As O’Brien gets close to Wesley, she makes astonishing discoveries about owl behavior, intelligence, and communication, coining the term “The Way of the Owl” to describe his noble behavior. When O’Brien develops her own life-threatening ill­ness, the biologist who saved the life of a helpless baby bird is herself rescued from death by the insistent love and courage of this wild animal.

The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All Over the Place

The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All Over the Place: The Art of Being MessyThe Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All Over the Place: The Art of Being Messy by Jennifer McCartney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A short and wickedly funny book that pokes fun at all the books on decluttering, especially “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Now I don’t need any help being messy. Right now just about all the dishes I own are on the counter waiting to be washed (no I don’t have a dishwasher…) In fact, I have a magnet on my refrigerator with the words laundry, dishes, cleaning, ironing, etc. and in the middle in bold it says “Just Say No.” I’ve worked hard for 60 years to accumulate what I have, including at least 9 floor to ceiling book cases full of books. So here’s a philosophy that I whole-heartedly endorse!

Book description (from back cover): We are being brainwashed into thinking that there is some life-changing magic to be had by throwing out our belongings. It doesn’t work. With this book, learn to break free from the bonds of tidiness and triumph over the boring forces of uniformity and predictability. You’re born messy and you die messy, but someplace in between you get bullied into believing that you should be neat and organized. This is wrong. No one likes tidy people. They’re uptight. Messy people (you) are awesome. You would never let the threat of clutter stop you from any purchase. So buy this book and leave it wherever you want.

Downton Abbey: A Celebration

Downton Abbey - A Celebration: The Official Companion to All Six SeasonsDownton Abbey – A Celebration: The Official Companion to All Six Seasons by Jessica Fellowes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A large, coffee-table book all about Downton Abbey, the show and the characters. Lots and lots of photos throughout, character sketches of all the main characters, organized by location, i.e. the great hall, the bedrooms, the servants’ workrooms, the farms, Downton village, London, etc. Ends with an episode guide to all six seasons, although the sixth season is left rather sketchy, I suppose to avoid major spoilers, since the book came out before the final episode had aired. Not much behind-the-scenes info. All in all, a lovely tribute to this well-loved television series.