Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

Photo of the book "Index, A History of the" being reviewed

I recently read this new book, exploring the history of book indexes over time. This obviously appealed to me as a book historian and bibliophile. But especially so because a couple of decades ago I retrained as a book indexer, qualifying with the Society of Indexers in the UK. I hoped that it would be work I could manage alongside my progressive neurological illness. Sadly after qualifying I found I was already too ill to work reliably as an indexer. But I maintain a great interest in and appreciation for the form.

The book ranges broadly and deeply over what is very much an abstract concept, often difficult to grasp in some of its more theoretical elements. Yet the book explains these well. I particularly enjoyed the early sections on the medieval origins of the index, and the different approaches of the distinctiones (more subject based indexes) and concordances (more like modern web search indexes), and how these ultimately merged in a way to create the modern book index.

As a book historian the discussion of the transition into the printed book era was fascinating, including the establishment of page numbers. I hadn’t known of the practical difficulties early printers faced trying to print these. The book here included helpful illustrations to show how early books were printed and numbered. Indeed the whole book was illustrated well throughout, often showing example indexes from printed books.

Another highlight section for me was the chapter looking at the especially eighteenth century phenomenon of mock book indexes. Despite in my academic historian guise being an eighteenth-century specialist as well as an historian of reading I was quite unaware of these published works. I appreciated how soundly the discussion of the battles conducted to and fro through published indexes was grounded in the world of eighteenth-century publishing.

Moving closer to the present day the book looks at the establishment of indexing societies in the nineteenth century and some of their loftier goals. Surprisingly comparable to a modern Google-type search index, but rather something that was aimed to be built through the medium of traditional subject indexes. Indeed the role of printed book indexes alongside Internet-type search engines in the present day is a topic that the book returned to time and again.

I was most pleased to see the final chapter of the book cover in depth the working methods of modern professional book indexers. So often people assume that this work can now be done automatically by computer. But to produce a good and effective subject index still requires a human book indexer. This was further demonstrated by the book including part of an index to itself that had been generated by automated computer software. The limitations of the resulting index were clear, especially when viewed alongside the also included subject index compiled by a modern professional – and human! – book historian.

Overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable work, and an example of exemplary scholarship. Recommended of course to any bibliophile or book historian, or indeed to anyone who has found a book index helpful in the past and wants to know more. Thank you Dennis Duncan.

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I recently started reading this novel by Scottish writer Andrew Greig. Set in late 16th century Scotland, it is written in the words of William Fowler, student, poet, and later secretary to Anne of Denmark, Queen of King James VI and I. William Fowler also happens to be my 12xg-grandfather, and someone whose family history I have researched extensively, beyond that published to date.

Reading a good Scottish historical fiction book is always exciting for me. Reading one supposedly written in the words of my ancestor is a step beyond! Early on in the book Fowler starts as a young undergraduate student at St Andrews University, something I would do myself over 400 years later.

Fowler’s family history in the book is problematic for me, with an invented older sister, as well as elimination of at least two surviving Fowler brothers. I have to cut the author some slack though. He is after all writing a work of fiction, and needs to make sensible choices for the story he is telling.

I also have some doubts re the St Andrews sections. A memorable early scene in the book sees young Fowler buying a fluffy red student gown. Historians know St Andrews students were wearing gowns then. But the colour red may have been introduced later. Of course it is the modern colour, that of my own fluffy St Andrews gown, and my husband’s (we met as undergraduates at St Andrews).

However the late 16th century setting is gripping, the characterisations and descriptions strong, and I am finding the book a briskly written real page turner. Even if I do need to switch off my genealogist side a bit! I am looking forward to reading the rest of it over the coming weeks.

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I recently read this book collection of interviews with early pioneers in the computing and video game industries. It’s derived from a series of YouTube interviews conducted by Neil Thomas of the RMC channel, but the book repackages the material, and adds additional details and content. It also includes some bonus interviews not available on YouTube.

The book is most likely to appeal to people interested in the home computing and video game industries of the 1980s and 1990s. There’s a high nostalgia element here, so anyone who grew up in the British home computing context then could find the book of interest. But it’s also a really interesting read from a more abstract historical viewpoint, charting changes during an era of innovation and creativity, especially in Britain, where a thriving 8-bit and late 16-bit home computer and games scene was powered largely by individual “bedroom coders”.

Most of those interviewed in the book are British, but there are also a good number of American interviewees. Many game developers and coders are interviewed, alongside artists, sound designers, and even a voice artist. Here is the full list:

• The Oliver Twins (British 8-bit pioneers)

• Al Lowe (Sierra, Video Game Developer)

• George ‘The Fat Man’ Sanger (Composer, Freelance/Lucas Arts)

• Bill Volk (Developer, Activision/Avalon Hill)

• Francois Lionet (Developer, STOS/AMOS)

• Stoo Cambridge (Artist, Sensible Software)

• Rob Hubbard (Composer, C64 Maestro/Electronic Arts)

• Mike Dailly (DMA, Grand Theft Auto/Lemmings)

• David Fox  (Developer, Lucas Arts)

• Jon St. John (Voice Over Artist, Duke Nukem 3D)

• Ken Silverman (Build engine)

• Chris Sawyer (Transport Tycoon, RollerCoaster Tycoon)

• Mark Ferrari (Artist, Lucasfilm Games, Zak McKracken)

• Richard ‘Lord British’ Garriott (Game Designer, Ultima series)

I jumped straight to the Rob Hubbard interview, as a huge fan of his Commodore 64 SID game music back in the 1980s, and then read the Mike Dailly interview about DMA Design and Lemmings (a Dundee story of course). But then I went back and read everything else in turn. All the interviews were interesting, including those about games and systems I was unfamiliar with. Good questions teased out interesting stories and memories, with additional text blocks and notes providing more details as appropriate. As a whole the book gives a rich insight into the computer games industry in the 1980s and 1990s in particular, and how it evolved.

I backed this book on Kickstarter, but it’s now available to buy directly from the RMC Store. The eBook version is a particular bargain at £4.99, including reflowable text eBooks for Kindle and ePub, as well as a PDF as printed file. Alternatively the hardback print copy is still available to buy from the RMC Store, and is a really nice comfortable sized book to hold and read (see the photo above showing the book beside a mug for scale), with high quality production values.

A thoroughly excellent read about a fascinating period of computer game history. Its subtitle is “Selected Interviews Vol. 1”. Hopefully more volumes will be forthcoming! In the meantime check out the associated YouTube channel.

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I recently read this book, published by the Genealogical Publishing Company. It’s a compact paperback, 171 pages long.

Titled “Scottish Genealogy: The Basics and Beyond”, its emphasis is very much on the latter aspect, introducing the reader to less commonly used material which can be rich in information for people researching their family trees. The author draws on over fifty years of experience in this field, and is well qualified to write on this topic.

After a brief introduction to the basic Scottish genealogy records (birth, marriage and death certificates, census returns, and old parish registers) it turns to the other less known records. Examples covered (and these are just some of them) include other church records, gravestone inscriptions, statistical accounts, tax records, sasines and land registers, maritime records, burgh records, tracing specific occupations, covenanters, military records, education, poor law records, and emigration. It really is quite an extensive list. In each section there is a brief introduction to the type of record, and then a look at key archival sources (including document references) and published (usually in print, not online) guides and indexes.

The approach of focusing on archival and published material is both a strength and a weakness. A strength because it alerts the user to the existence of these records that they may not otherwise know of, and points them towards the original manuscript documents and relevant index material. A weakness because the book sometimes misses newer resources and indexes, particularly online, and because it doesn’t always direct the reader to the most efficient way of searching.

For example, the military records section directs the researcher to paper records at Kew etc but fails to mention the voluminous digitised and indexed versions of many of these records available through subscription services such as FindMyPast and Ancestry. These have revolutionised research into many military ancestors, including identifying records through the new indexes that could not be traced practically before. Likewise the emigration section fails to mention the considerable number of digitised passenger lists, which, particularly for the Victorian period onwards, allow us to newly trace post-1800 migration of ancestors and relatives in a way that was never practical before. Again available through subscription genealogy sites as named above.

The biggest omission for me was that there was no mention of the Scottish Indexes website. This, for many years now, has been providing free access to a growing number of indexes – all directing the user to original manuscript records with reference numbers, usually in the National Records of Scotland. These indexes cover many aspects of Scottish genealogy. As I write this review, the website’s Scotland’s Criminals Database now includes 178,654 entries (including 38,872 prison register entries), its Mental Health Records Index has 117,882 entries, and its Scottish Paternity Index contains 41,178 entries. These indexes cover many parts of Scotland, and facilitate access to manuscript records impractical to search before.

Such omissions are of particular concern because often the family historian, especially if at a distance as they often are, really needs good advice on how to search most efficiently and effectively for ancestors. With the mass of resources available now this is often best done using a mixture of online and offline resources.

Another niggle for me is the testamentary records section. This allows six pages for a very extended list of local testamentary index books (published, in print). Examples of index entries from each commissary court are given, but there is no guidance about the detailed content you might find in an original will or testament document. For example the sort of detailed information you can get on debt and credit, legacies, sometimes lists of personal possessions etc. That would have been a much more helpful use of space. It’s also worth noting that most Scottish genealogists now will search these records using the indexes online at ScotlandsPeople, not through the earlier published print volumes.

Nevertheless, and despite the above concerns, most of the book is extremely useful stuff, and is especially good as a reference source. I particularly enjoyed the sections on maritime records, burgh records and tracing specific occupations. I should also praise the emigration chapter, which draws on the author’s own rich experience in this (reflected by how many of his own useful indexes he refers to). Although as noted, this chapter has some weaknesses in its post-1800 advice. And its depth of coverage of the historical background for emigration feels somewhat indulgent compared to the briefer coverage of other topics elsewhere in the book that could be equally deserving.

A key question is who the book is for? I’ve already commented that I think it’s an excellent reference resource, albeit not totally comprehensive. In terms of practical use the book offers the greatest potential to someone able to conduct research on the spot in Scotland, especially in Edinburgh in the National Records of Scotland. Yet even for Scottish descendants at a distance it provides a good introduction to a large range of lesser used Scottish genealogical sources, and pointers to many published indexes, albeit missing many useful online resources. Although many of the manuscript records the book directs the reader to will still involve research in Scotland, and so it may be necessary for someone at a distance to hire a professional researcher.

So yes while I may have some concerns certainly regarding coverage and applicability, my assessment is generally positive overall. I’m certainly glad that I read this book.

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Recently I read the second in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy of novels. These books provide the reader with a vividly immersive glimpse of Tudor life, a subject that has fascinated me since I was very young. I still have to read the third novel, probably later this year. But to keep me in the Tudor world for a bit longer I turned to another book, this time non-fiction.

Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, was Henry VIII’s uncle, illegitimate half brother of Elizabeth of York. Lord Lisle is mentioned occasionally in the Mantel books, sending a dog to queen Anne Boleyn. But very much as a background character.

Throughout much of the 1530s Lord Lisle was Constable of Calais, then under English control. Later he was suspected of treason, and his correspondence was seized. And this cache of letters, ones written to him and his wife, and copies of letters from them to others, survives to this day. In 1981 a complete transcribed version was published, edited by Muriel St. Clare Byrne. Reading this, even in transcript, would be quite a challenge. More accessible is the abridged version, by the same editor, first published in 1983. I was able to nab a low-cost secondhand copy of the Folio Society edition of this, and have been slowly working through it.

The letters are presented in chronological order, together with explanatory notes about them. Many of the letters concern daily business of governing Calais, but others are letters to/from the royal court in England. The canine gift to Anne Boleyn crops up, as do other letters about gifts of animals.

Read in sequence the letters provide a different view of Tudor court life, seen at a distance and from a somewhat different perspective from usual, let alone as in Hilary Mantel’s popular fiction. For example Thomas Cromwell does not come across well in the letters, frequently acting as an unmovable obstacle to Lord Lisle’s frequent and seemingly reasonable requests for help.

It is also astonishing from a modern perspective to start to grasp the sheer enormity of correspondence and paperwork represented by these letters, many related to the high-level management of one English dependency at the time. It is also somewhat amusing to see the polite and diplomatic – and also extremely verbose – courtly letters nevertheless reveal true feelings and often frustrations, albeit always expressed in the most careful way.

Of course another joy of reading lengthy and detailed correspondence is the insight they give into the personalities involved. Lord Lisle comes across as largely well-meaning, conscientious in his appointed rule, and often frustrated in the difficulties he encounters day to day. His wife Honor is more opaque, but clearly a lady of fashion, trying to keep up her standards, buying things by mail order from London. You do rather feel she feels very cut off where they are.

So a fun set of letters, well presented, in an accessible edited abridged edition. If you want a different glimpse of Tudor life I highly recommend reading these. I believe the book is out of print now, but secondhand copies (both hardback and paperback) are readily available to buy.

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Alice in Wonderland in Border Scots book cover

I’ve long been a fan of Lewis Carroll’s whimsical Alice books, loving them since a very young age. I recently discovered that there are many modern translated versions, published by Dundee-based publisher Evertype. These include a large number of Scots translations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, covering different parts of Scotland. And for Borderer me there is even a Border Scots version. I bought a copy, and have been reading it.

The book thankfully retains the original Tenniel illustrations alongside the text in translation. Border Scots has quite a lot of variety within it, from dialect spoken in the Tweeddale area, through Berwickshire, and the somewhat stronger twang of the Hawick and Jedburgh areas. Fortunately for me from Hawick the translator of this edition is a fellow ex Hawick High School pupil, and the language used includes many words and expressions familiar to the area.

Having said that I’m not the strongest Border Scots speaker myself, yet the book has much vocabulary that I recognise. It reads well, though may be a trickier read for those less familiar with the dialect. As for how best to read it, I found reading fast in my head worked well, especially if I made an effort not to dwell too long on individual words, which could break the flow.

Some vocabulary did take me by surprise. Like ‘hink’. But checking in Douglas Scott’s comprehensive and encyclopaedic Hawick Word Book it is a bona fide local word. Other vocabulary was clearly bang on, such as ‘how’ for ‘why’, and ‘teesh’. I was also highly amused by the translator changing the treacle reference at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party to the much more quintessentially Scottish foodstuff tablet.

I greatly enjoyed reading this, and admired the work by the translator Cameron Halfpenny. It’s a lot of Border Scots for a reader to read, but an even bigger task for a translator to produce! I think the book would be enjoyed most by Borderers or those with Border connections. For Scots elsewhere I would perhaps suggest that you might like to try the translated version of Alice for your area.

Best of all I now want to read more Border Scots. Evertype can we please have some more translations?

I am also now about to dive into Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice, that I’ve long wanted to read, and the Border Scots Alice reminded me of. There may be a review forthcoming of that other Alice book in due course.

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I recently read this book, published by the University of Chicago Press, in their Writing, Editing and Publishing series. It’s a compact paperback, 166 pages long.

The book is divided into 28 main chapters, split across the following core sections:

  • Writing in Academe
  • Using Tools that Work
  • Challenging Writing Myths
  • Maintaining Momentum
  • Building Writing Support

Of these I found the sections on tools, challenging writing myths and maintaining momentum most effective. The book’s author is nicely to the point, doesn’t mess about, but gives straightforward, honest advice. There’s much that many academics could benefit from, including making time for writing in a busy academic life, dealing with imposter syndrome, and coping with perfectionism. I also found the book had great advice for handling multiple projects at once, and the generally less often discussed challenge of keeping writing fun, in a context in which it might often seem to become a chore.

On the downside I did personally have big issues with the depiction of humanities scholars, presented as people with only one writing task to focus on, and a relatively easier task as a result than scientists. As an academic scientist turned historian this didn’t fit with my experience. Humanities scholars often juggle multiple writing projects at once too. And, perhaps even more crucially, are often single authors, so must handle all the tasks of academic writing, not shared among a group i.e. all of research, planning, writing, revising, editing, submitting, dealing with peer review, and hopefully proofreading and final publication processes. The challenge can be immense. I don’t think the author of the book grasped that at all. Perhaps she was looking back to more halcyon days.

I also found that it was a shame the book avoided commonly used writing terms like procrastination, which can often be such a problem for many doctoral students. The book does have some good writing tips for postgraduates, but is aimed squarely at later stage academics, who have more challenges fitting writing in alongside their other academic workload. Though the book could be of more benefit to part-time postgraduates than full-timers, who must fit vital writing time in around other commitments, including in some cases full-time jobs. I just think that with a few relatively small tweaks and refocusing the book could have been adjusted to help more postgraduate students as well.

So yes I do have critiques. But generally I came away from it feeling very positive. I don’t think that any academic would use every tip and idea in there. But there are lots of good ones presented. And many ideas challenge oft-held unproductive mindsets. It’s also an easy read, well written, that you can dip in and out of. So yes, thumbs up.

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I recently read the new book by Murray Pittock about Edinburgh in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and thought I’d jot down some notes. I was keen to read it, having studied urban history in my postgraduate taught Masters degree. But I also worked as the research assistant on the Scottish small towns project started by Bob Harris at Dundee, and later involving Charles McKean. Both of whom were successively my history PhD supervisors.

The book considers what made Edinburgh at this time such an ideal breeding ground for Enlightenment ideas. To do this the book examines the nature of Edinburgh society, the myriad of networks and connections within the city, and the wider influences at play, such as European links. A series of chapters focus on specific topics and themes in detail, such as trades and professions, the arts, and the literary aspect of life in the city as seen in bookshops and libraries. Generally these sections of the book worked well, and especially those where the complex intermingling of different parts of society was clearly demonstrated. The huge number of pieces of evidence cited could be overwhelming, but is generally well handled, and used effectively. A rare weaker subsection for me was that on divisions within the Church, which seemed to be more narrative than argumentative, and not adequately tied in to wider Edinburgh society and the core arguments that the book was making. But this was a rare exception in what was, generally, a well-written series of chapters and case studies, which amply demonstrated the complex networks within Edinburgh society well.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter examining demographic and socio-cultural aspects of Edinburgh life at this time. This relied to a large extent on incomplete data, especially for the seventeenth century. Fortunately a number of key sources were well utilised, and this chapter laid essential groundwork for all those that followed. Likewise I was constantly struck by how many connections the book highlighted between Edinburgh and the Netherlands, including in trade, education and the arts. I hadn’t realised that these links were so strong at this time, and the book demonstrated this very effectively.

Happily I also greatly enjoyed the chapter about print and reading culture, with its astute presentation of the state of newspapers, bookshops and libraries in Edinburgh. This was a mix of detailed examples – for example Allan Ramsay – and more numerous pieces of evidence, such as an insightful discussion of Edinburgh bookselling as a whole. I also appreciated, given that this fell within my PhD speciality, that this chapter of the book was reassuringly well grounded on prior research and academic writings.

I do have some other critiques though. Firstly for a book incorporating modern Smart City theory so prominently, including in its title and the publisher’s marketing and advertising, I would have preferred a more straightforward explanation of what Smart City theory is, and, indeed, what constitutes a Smart City. There is some coverage of this in the opening chapter, but not to the point enough for me; a pity in a chapter otherwise very good at introducing key concepts to the reader, such as theories of and approaches to the Enlightenment and relevant wider Scottish history. I wonder if the Smart City emphasis was added later in the publication process, but given the title of the book it would have been good to see it addressed more directly at the start.

The other major omission for me is the lack of any concluding chapter. In the print culture chapter the very last paragraph does act as an overall conclusion of a sort. But it’s extremely short, and it would have been nice to allow more space for reflection and a summary of the factors that made Edinburgh at this time such a hotspot for fermenting Enlightenment ideas. A section briefly addresses this in the opening chapter, but it was a shame not to see the threads of the arguments drawn together at the end of the book. Also some of these ideas have been theorised before, for example I well remember my supervisor Charles McKean covering many similar arguments in our urban history seminars nearly twenty years ago. But it could have been usefully summarised here, along with a clear statement of the book’s new contributions to the academic debate.

Those are downsides, but in other respects I would recommend this book highly to readers, and think that it makes an extremely valuable contribution to Scottish history in this period, and urban and Enlightenment history more generally. I would also like to praise how readable it is, very much a page turner. I found it frequently highly compelling, and dripping with interesting snippets. Also I would like to praise the decision to initially publish the book as a low-cost paperback alongside a more costly hardback version. This is still relatively unusual for an academic history book, and makes the book affordable for a wider audience, as it deserves to be.

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