It’s that time of year again! Following on from 2011′s top historical reads, I’ve selected a few of the books that I’ve most enjoyed in 2012: new releases as well as old favourites, some of them historical and some of them not. Here are a couple to get you started. I’ll be posting some more of my recommendations before the end of the year, so watch this space for Part Two coming soon!
The Ruby in Her Navel
Penguin, 336 pp., £7.99
Set in the twelfth-century in the young Kingdom of Sicily, this novel by the late Barry Unsworth, who died earlier this year, is the tale of a Norman would-be knight named Thurstan Beauchamp. A purveyor of entertainments, envoy and occasional spy attached to the palace administration of King Roger II, he is ambitious but naive, and it is because of those very qualities that he soon finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, treachery and conspiracy.
Brilliantly evocative and skilfully written, The Ruby in Her Navel captures a sense of the religious, political and cultural tensions undermining the nascent kingdom. Unsworth’s facility with description is second to none, and the sights and sounds and smells of Thurstan’s world are brought to life in vivid fashion. For those with an interest in medieval fiction, there are few novels I can recommend more highly.
I first read this book in 2007, as I was just embarking on the novel that would later become Sworn Sword. It was a real inspiration for me at the time, and, even when I came to read it for a second time earlier this year, it didn’t disappoint. For a fuller review, click here.
Penguin, 590pp., £9.99
My top non-fiction read of the year, Collapse seeks to explain how and why mighty civilisations have fallen in the past, and what lessons we might learn from their failures.
Drawing on examples from both recent and ancient history, Diamond, who is Professor of Geography at UCLA, explores the various forces – cultural, political and environmental – that led to the demise of societies in the past. His researches take him all across the globe, from the lost civilisations of Easter Island and Norse Greenland to modern China, Australia and Haiti, all of which are facing many of the same struggles.
It’s a fascinating and in-depth study which offers plenty of food for thought about our modern lifestyles, and how Western civilisation needs to adapt if it is to survive the pressures of resource depletion, pollution and climate change. A must-read.