This book offers the best type of history: one that tells a gripping story while shedding ample light on both power politics and human nature. The author starts by apologising for taking a personality-centric stance, but there’s no need to worry. You do form a presumably accurate picture of the doltish Henry VI, the rakish Edward IV, the frustrated turncoat Warwick, and the monster that was Margaret of Anjou; but the characters are part and parcel of a narrative that, after some stage-setting, keeps driving forward. The only negative is hardly Weir’s fault: the Lancastrian and Yorkist treachery and savagery were so unremitting that you may end up begging for peace to break out.
My only disappointment was that, this book having been written as a prequel to Weir’s earlier ‘The Princes in the Tower’, the story stops short of Richard III and Bosworth Field. Hence it feels like a Shakespeare tragedy minus the final act – so you really have to buy the other book too. She writes so fluently and clearly, however, that I was happy to forgive her. You just wish someone had told her that ‘prevaricate’ does not mean ‘procrastinate’ - a much repeated mistake.
Maggie Mash reads intelligently, and even knows (refreshingly) how to pronounce foreign names, albeit not the word ‘propaganda’. It was certainly brave (or foolhardy) to read all quotes in a modern version of the original accent. She only really goes wrong when apeing men, who all sound as though they have a sore throat; and one medieval bigwig comes across like a well-oiled Victorian judge.
Overall, another example of a book I’d never have bought in hardback, but that Audible turns into an excellent listening experience.
Having so often seen this book mentioned in other texts, I was interested to find out what all the excitement was about. Having finished it, I could only wish I’d read it fifty years ago, when the ideas contained within it must have sounded much more revelatory than they do today. To be fair, it’s unusually articulate for a scientific text, and the central hypothesis is still robust and thought-provoking. But it's not what you'd call an entertaining read. Kuhn does illuminate some of his ideas with historical examples, but nothing like as colourfully as a good popular-science writer would today. Consequently, much of the book is, in all honesty, pretty turgid. In between the passages where the pace picks up, there are long stretches of rather hard going. It even takes Kuhn several chapters just to establish his premises before embarking on the main argument. By then, I didn’t really feel that bothered any more. Still, it’s intelligently read and well produced, it’s pretty short (4.5 hours on x2), and at least you can say afterwards that you’ve read it, and not just read about it.
Even attempting to sum up the world’s most long-lived and arguably greatest ever nation in three hours is audacious, but Murray Sayle makes a very good fist of it. What I particularly liked was his argument that, despite the breathtaking changes it’s been through, China has retained a coherent philosophical tradition that explains not only its longevity but also its opaqueness to westerners. You can find plenty of books to fill in more of the historical details, if you want to, but this one will give you the kind of insightful overview that should put all you hear about China henceforth into a more comprehensible framework. Certainly I found it more enlightening than Rana Mitter’s ‘Modern China’, which for me scored better only in its evocation of modern Chinese popular culture.
Richard C Hottelet is an interesting choice of narrator: not your laid-back orientalist or prissy academic analyst, but an urgent Walter Winchell-style commentator who makes four thousand eventful years pass with quite some pace. The idea of using different actors to read the many quotes in appropriate accents also works well for my money, though the English personages do all sound like members of the royal family, and the Scots like Dr Finlay.
Even if, like me, you’re left a little frustrated that this 2006 narrative concludes too soon to cover the big social and ecological issues latterly thrown up by China’s economic miracle, you should find this a tidy insight into the nation that, to outsiders, is still an enigma wrapped inside a fortune cookie.