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877 / Peter Frankopan - The Silk Roads

The Silk Roads is part of the genre of popular history books that purports to tell the history of the world through one particular theme or from one particular vantage point, and is better than most of them. Peter Frankopan is a trained historian, and so knows how to synthesise a great deal of information from cultures across Asia and Europe and the span of several centuries in a nuanced manner. As an example of a sweeping chronicle, there's much to admire here. The author knows how to keep a narrative moving at a brisk pace and when to throw in the occasional wry aside, which also helps the reader to move quickly through such a thick book. Frankopan's main point—that central Asia is far more central to world history than is popularly thought or than most Western textbooks teach—is well-made, if not exactly new. I found the early chapters of this book particularly engrossing, as Frankopan—a Byzantinist—is clearly most at home in those centuries.

Sadly, as the book progressed, I got a little more dissatisfied with it. Once the European Age of Exploration begins, the focus shifts so that we get more of a sense of how imperialist powers used Asia to fight their battles than anything else. This is, of course, an important story, and I learned some new things about British, French, and Russian involvement in Iran and Iraq to appal and depress me. But what I didn't get much of a sense of was the voices of those who lived in those regions and the reactions which they had to the forces swirling around their homes. Nor did I get a sense of the interactions between central Asia and the world to the south and east of it. There's little about China and nothing about, say, the Swahili coast. This serves to subtly, and I am sure unintentionally, reinforce the idea that the history of central Asia is important inasmuch as it helps to contextualise things that happened in the West. This may well be a function of the secondary scholarship on which Frankopan is drawing as he moves further and further from his areas of expertise, but it's a shame.

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Really a three-and-a-half star collection; it suffers from the problem endemic to many scholarly essay collections, in that when they're good they're very very good and when they're bad, they're... you get the idea. Some of these are a bit too wonky and field-specific to be broadly useful; others suffer from being written by a non-native English speaker; none of them are really suited to orienting absolute neophytes in the area of digital humanities. However, the best of the essays here do provide both a broad overview of some of the newest projects and approaches in the field, as well as providing vocabulary and methodology which can be used to encourage new scholars to dip their toes into DH.

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875 / Roxane Gay - Bad Feminist: Essays

Given the title, Bad Feminist has understandably been marketed as a collection of essays on feminism and gender. It isn't. It's a grab-bag of various essays, blog posts, and online columns which Gay has written on a variety of topics—some of them to do with feminism—gathered together in print format and without any evident subsequent editing to make the essays cohere with one another.

A couple of them are interesting; some of them I found frustrating (her take on trigger warnings, for instance, which was like a topic lesson in constructing a straw men); and others, like the one about competitive Scrabble tournaments, completely pointless. (I mean, there's a time and place for an insight into the world of competitive Scrabble tournaments, I'm sure, but I don't think that a book called Bad Feminist is it.) I might have forgiven some of this if it felt like I was challenged or pushed by what Gay wrote, if she'd taken on the challenge of such a provocative title—but ultimately there's nothing here that I hadn't already encountered.

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Despite the title, this book is less about Chartres itself than it is about exploring the intellectual and technological circumstances which made the construction of it and the other great Gothic cathedrals possible. Ball is not a medievalist, and so Universe of Stone is largely a synthesis of the works of other historians and art historians. He does write compellingly, particularly when it comes to conjuring up the sheer mass and weight of these buildings. Yet while Ball's clearly read some of the big names, the lack of breadth in his reading is apparent.

There are some silly factual mistakes—for instance, a cartulary is not (or isn't always) "the cathedral records" (64)—but more importantly, a failure to understand some of the ways in which the medieval worldview was different to our own. For a patron to claim (or be claimed as) the one who had built (or "made", fecit) a church wasn't the mere consequence of aristocratic or clerical disdain for manual labour—it reflected a very different understanding of the relationship between conception and execution. (If you want a modern example, look at Damien Hirst's art—what is "his" and what isn't?) There are a number of anachronistic takes like that scattered throughout the text. While Ball may know the mechanics by which the stones of Chartres were fitted together, his understanding of the universe which they inhabited is less complete.

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This read like fairly cheesy and trope-ridden fanfic. Fanfic is essentially what it is (given that the playwright is expanding on a core idea of J.K. Rowling's), or at least Harry Potter-as-franchise, but I've read some good fanfic in my time and this was... not that. If this had just been a fic I was reading, the on-the-nose and clunky dialogue alone would have made me back-button out of it. Even granting that dialogue will sound different when performed rather than simply read, this was local am-dram society bad—nary a hint of subtlety or subtext.

While I appreciated that there was an attempt to backfill/explain actions taken by some of the characters in the book series—things that readers have long argued about and nitpicked over—I couldn't necessarily see the through-line of characterisation here between the Trio in Deathly Hallows and their middle-aged versions here.

All of that grumbling aside, there were some nice little bits of world-building here, and the two main characters of Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy had the potential to be truly engaging (perhaps their characters do come to life on the stage). In the hands of a better writer (and a bolder one who felt less hampered by heteronormativity), a genuinely good story could have been built around their relationship.

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This is a very useful guide that introduces students to the basic concepts of argumentative writing at the college level. Graff and Birkenstein stress that students remember they are not writing in a vacuum but rather to a particular audience as part of a larger ongoing conversation. Some of the templates they provide for students to incorporate into their writing are a little clichéd, sure ("On the one hand... On the other hand"), but they will help students who are only beginning to learn how to write critically.

(It's not, after all, necessarily an intuitive skill—one of the things that left me confused and anxious as an undergrad was getting back papers with comments that read, in their entirety, "More analysis." Now when I look back at my earliest work, I can see clearly what my professors meant; then, I thought that that was what I was doing and couldn't figure out how to do better.)

Graff and Birkenstein's templates are like training wheels for student writers, helping them to formulate ideas in ways that are new to them and hopefully to be discarded as composition and analytical skills improve. "They Say/I Say" is also a useful book for instructors to read, as it provides several reminders of the kinds of things that may now be second nature to us but which are likely to be stumbling blocks for students.

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I didn't know this was a sequel when I picked it up, and haven't read the first installment about the life of Sir Robert Merivel, but Tremain's writing was accessible enough that that wasn't an obstacle. This is an amiably picaresque novel set in the twilight of Charles II's reign, vividly written and with characters that are well-drawn. Tremain does a good job at conjuring up a main character who is intelligent and flawed, someone whose reflections have the power to move the reader but not to render them insensible to his role in creating his own problems. There were a couple of scenes which seemed a bit clunky and included more for shock value than anything else—the gangbang in the French coach comes to mind—but overall Merivel's melancholy gaiety is engaging.

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At best mediocre. I simply couldn't suspend my disbelief at the underlying conceit of the novel, and the prose and characterisation were too weak and ham-fisted to compensate for that. Also, Somoza appears to have a grasp of Plato's theories which I would find weak in a first year undergraduate—ironic in a book which seems designed as a showpiece for how clever the author is.

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A fun conceit—a review of some of the key points of fifty years of Avengers comics as told through interviews with the characters themselves. This makes it a useful primer for people like me who are much more familiar with the cinematic than the comic-book versions of the characters. Bendis is able to give some of the characters, like Clint and Janet, their own voices (though I didn't much like his take on Cap and Thor sounded a bit two-dimensional) and he is willing to poke some fun at storylines (Clint having to take on a guy dressed as a killer whale). That said, this is the kind of conceit that I've seen fic writers do before, and do much better—they're willing to dig further and poke at the more uncomfortable parts of comics canon in a way that for obvious contractual reasons, Bendis just can't.

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A five star book for the first half; a two-and-a-half to three star book by the end; all of which averages out to about four stars. The Summer Before the War is strongest when Simonson is sketching out life in a small Sussex village, the new home of impoverished would-be writer and Latin teacher Beatrice Nash. Some of the characters—Beatrice herself; Agatha; Hugh—are well-sketched, and while others are less well-realised, they are reminiscent of some of the minor comic characters in an Austen novel. In their interactions, particularly in the aftermath of the arrival of a group of Belgian refugees in the village, Simonson is able to touch on issues of women's roles and rights, class distinctions, and ethnicity.

However, when that last idyllic summer fades into the actual war, the book loses its way a little. Simonson is better at writing the clouds on the horizon than she is the actual storm. Several minor plotlines and characters drop away, and in trying to avoid one kind of predictable sentimentality in the ending, the novel succumbs to another. Still, a quick and pleasant read which is at its best when Simonson lets her prose dwell on the small details of life in a bright but fragile England.

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