As 2014 draws to a close, the time has come for me to reveal my favourite books of the year. A few of these are relatively new releases, published within the last twelve months, although some are older.
I’ve divided the list into three sections – fiction, non-fiction and graphical novels – so I hope that there’ll be something for everyone. As you might expect, there’s a strong historical slant: the Middle Ages feature particularly strongly, but my choices also cover Roman Britain, Tudor England and the nineteenth century.
If you’ve enjoyed any of the titles below or would like to share your own favourite books of 2014, feel free to join in the discussion on Twitter (@James Aitcheson) or on Facebook.
Virago, 560 pp., £8.99
Margaret Atwood never fails to impress me with the brilliance of her prose and the scope of her ambition. In a year in which I’ve read no fewer than six of her novels, Alias Grace is the one that has most stood out, and which has left the greatest impression on me.
Based on real events that took place in 1840s Canada, the novel centres upon former housemaid Grace Marks, recently convicted of the murder of her employer and his mistress, and sentenced to life imprisonment. But serious doubts remain regarding her guilt, as the earnest young proto-psychiatist Dr Simon Jordan discovers when he comes to investigate her case.
Told partly through Grace’s eyes and partly from Dr Jordan’s perspective, the novel is an absolute tour de force. Atwood’s prose sparkles throughout, her research into the period is impeccable and her characters are nuanced and fully realised. Alias Grace is one of the most absorbing and complete historical novels I’ve read, and one that almost certainly I will be returning to soon.
Seamus Heaney (trans.)
Faber & Faber, 256 pp., £12.99
As a medieval scholar, it shames me to admit that until this year I’d never read Beowulf, perhaps the most famous text written in the Old English language. The exact date of its composition is unknown, although it is unlikely to be less than 1100 years old and perhaps much older, but the tale of the eponymous hero’s struggles against the monster Grendel and, later, against the dragon remains as compelling now as undoubtedly it was to its Anglo-Saxon audience.
The translation, by the late Seamus Heaney, captures the hero’s vitality and the drama of his deeds, and is all the more absorbing and thrilling when it is read aloud. This bilingual edition uniquely features the original Old English text alongside the translation for easy reference.
- Gentlemen of the Road, a swashbuckling tale of derring-do in the medieval Khazar Empire, by celebrated author Michael Chabon;
- Atwood’s new collection of short stories, Stone Mattress, which was published this summer;
- CJ Sansom’s latest Shardlake novel, Lamentation, set during the final months of Henry VIII’s reign.
The Complete Maus
Penguin, 296 pp., £16.99
For the first time my end-of-year list includes a graphic novel, although graphic memoir or biography might be a more appropriate term. Art Spiegelman’s harrowing telling of his father Vladek’s experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust won the Pulitzer Prize when it was published, and deservedly so.
By choosing to depict the subjects of his narrative not as humans but as anthropomorphic animals, Spiegelman takes a bold step, and one that has come in for more than its fair share of criticism. Far from trivialising the events he describes as a cat-and-mouse chase, however, the effect is to allow him to depict subject matter that otherwise might be too horrific for the reader to bear.
Maus is a masterpiece of the genre, a prime example of the power of the graphic novel if ever there was any doubt. Spiegelman’s companion book, MetaMaus, is also well worth reading, for the insights it offers into his early career and how the project came about, his research, the decisions he made in the course of writing the book, and how it affected his relationships not just with his father but with his own children as well.
Worlds of Arthur
OUP, 384 pp., £10.99
The fifth century, which witnessed some of the most momentous events in British history – the end of Roman rule and the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons – is a period shrouded in mystery. In this hugely important study, Guy Halsall demolishes the pseudo-historical case for the existence of King Arthur and examines the historical and archaeological evidence for what took place in that dark age.
Halsall assumes no prior knowledge, although some of the source analysis may seem impenetrable to the general reader, and so some familiarity with the discussions surrounding the period will undoubtedly help. While not all readers will necessarily agree that the evidence supports his specific conclusions, nevertheless Halsall succeeds in opening up the debate on post-Roman Britain and suggesting some new avenues of enquiry. Cogently argued and well illustrated throughout, this is an excellent piece of scholarship – history writing at its best.
The King in the North
Head of Zeus, 464 pp., £9.99
The early Anglo-Saxon period is one largely unknown nowadays except to specialists. In this accessible and compelling history, Max Adams rescues from obscurity one of the most powerful rulers of that age: King Oswald of Northumbria (r. 634-42), who according to the historian Bede “brought under his dominion all the nations and provinces of Britain”, and whose reign witnessed the establishment of Christianity and the foundation of the famous monastery at Lindisfarne.
Less a biography of a single man than it is a study of a dynasty, The King in the North depicts a ruthless and volatile world in which Britons fought Anglo-Saxons, pagans fought Christians, and fortunes of entire kingdoms could be overtuned at a single sword’s blow. For a more in-depth discussion, take a look at the fuller review I penned earlier in the year.
Magna Carta: a Very Short Introduction
OUP, 152 pp., £7.99
2015 will mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the great charter between King John and his barons that sought to restrict and regulate royal authority. The document casts a long shadow: even today, it’s often held up as one of the cornerstones of modern democracy, not just in Britain but in the United States as well.
Nicholas Vincent examines the history and context of Magna Carta, including how it was reinterpreted and reframed in the generations following 1215, and asks whether the mythic status that it has acquired over the centuries is justified. Concise and yet comprehensive, it includes a translation of the full text of the original issue. An excellent introduction to the subject.
- Jared Diamond’s latest book The World Until Yesterday, in which he asks whether as wealthy Westerners we can learn any lessons from traditional, pre-industrial, stateless societies;
- The Middle Ages: a Very Short Introduction, Miri Rubin’s new addition to the long-running series from Oxford University Press, which offers a broad overview of medieval Europe and its society and culture.
- Under Another Sky, part travelogue and part work of history, in which classicist and journalist Charlotte Higgins explores the legacy of the Romans in Britain.
A prince-in-exile makes his triumphant return from obscurity, slaying the tyrant who was ravaging his homeland and reclaiming the throne that, half a lifetime earlier, was stolen from him, before establishing himself as one of the pre-eminent kings of his age and ushering in a golden age for his people. The story of King Oswald of Northumbria (reigned 634-42) is a remarkable one – indeed the stuff of legend – and yet nowadays his achievements have largely been forgotten by most except Anglo-Saxon specialists.The seventh century was a golden era in another, quite different sense. This is the age of Sutton Hoo, with its marvellous treasures, as well as the recently excavated Staffordshire Hoard. These and other discoveries illustrate the vibrant craft and culture and the immense wealth of Oswald’s world, but in constrast the documentary record for these years is incredibly thin. Certainly compared with the tenth and eleventh centuries, my own particular period of specialism, the seventh century truly is a dark age. What written material does exist is not only sparse in the detail it provides but also very often fragmentary, and not easy to piece together. Reconstructing a narrative of events therefore presents a tough challenge for historians, but Max Adams rises to it admirably in The King in the North, sifting through the complex primary source material and, where possible, tying that in with more recent archaeological evidence.
In keeping with the book’s subtitle, “the life and times of Oswald of Northumbria”, Adams does not examine his subject’s career in isolation, but also explores the array of societies and cultures – religious and secular – that inhabited seventh-century Britain, and so places his reign in its historical context. While Oswald, his achievements and his afterlife as the focus of a saintly cult form the backbone of the book, a significant amount of attention is given also to the career of his predecessor Edwin (616-32) as well as to the long reign of his successor, his brother Oswiu (642-70). Indeed The King in the North is less a biography of a single man than it is a study of a dynasty, and of the leading role played by Northumbria in the politics, religion and culture of seventh-century Britain. This was a land divided: a land of seemingly perpetual conflict between rival families, Anglo-Saxons and Britons, new and old customs, pagans and Christians, and even between different branches of the Church: the Irish, the British and the Roman traditions.
Oswald’s reign as king was relatively short – only eight years – and yet his impact in that time was decisive in forging the Northumbrian kingdom. After ousting a Welsh army from his ancestral homelands in order to claim his crown, he proceeded first to unite the ancient provinces of Bernicia and Deira under one rule and, later, to win a great victory over a coalition of forces drawn from the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which in the following century led the historian Bede to assert that he had “brought under his dominion all the nations and provinces of Britain.”
Exactly how much can and should be read into these words isn’t clear. It would perhaps have been useful to have seen a deeper interrogation of Bede’s statement, which Adams accepts at more or less face value. There’s no doubt that both Oswald and Oswiu were among the most powerful rulers of their age, and widely respected throughout these isles. What’s more questionable is the extent to which they can be justifiably said to have been overlords over all the kingdoms of Britain, south as well as north of the Humber. What might this overlordship have entailed? How might it have been achieved and exercised in practice? What was the exact extent of their authority, and was it was uniform throughout the territories that lay beyond their kingdom’s borders? Given that their power base was centred upon Bamburgh, it is hard to imagine how they could have exercised much influence over Wessex or Kent, for example.Oswald was also responsible, during his years as king, for establishing Christianity in Northumbria. Edwin was the first to accept the faith into Northumbria, but his support was never more than half-hearted. It was under Oswald (634-42) that churches were first built across the kingdom and the monastery at Lindisfarne was established, under royal protection just a few miles from the fortress at Bamburgh. In contrast to his predecessor, he was an enthusiastic promoter of the Church: so much so that after his death in 642 at the Battle of Maserfeld – probably near Oswestry in Shropshire – at the hands of the pagan Penda of Mercia, he was regarded as a Christian martyr. The spot where he was said to have fallen became associated with miracles, and his relics became the object of veneration, thus ensuring the survival of his reputation for centuries to come.
Around these events Adams expertly weaves his account. If the title of The King in the North is intended as a nod towards George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, then the comparison between the world of Oswald and that of Eddard Stark is an apt one. The political landscape of seventh-century Britain was a ruthless and volatile one, in which rival dynasties pursued vicious bloodfeuds and in which fortunes of entire kingdoms could be overtuned at a single sword’s blow. Elaborately constructed networks of alliances and tribute rarely outlived the rulers at their head. Power rested in the hands of the most military successful: those who were able to attract the largest warbands, and who were able to prove their throne-worthiness through victory in battle.
The great triumph of Adams’ study is in bringing all this to life. Impeccably researched, compellingly written and accessible to the general reader as well as to the specialist scholar, The King in the North vividly reconstructs the world that Oswald not only inhabited but also helped to shape.
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