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Latest Reviews

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The royal succession : a novel / by Maurice Druon ; translated from the French by Humphrey Hare.
Author: Druon, Maurice, 1918-, author. -- Hare, Humphrey, translator.
Publisher: London, UK HarperCollins 2014. -- London HarperCollins Publishers [2014]
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 4/05/2021 1:19:20 PM
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This is the fourth book in a septet, "The Accursed Kings", set in 14th century France. The entire series is as follows
The Iron King
The Strangled Queen
The Poisoned Crown
The Royal Succession
The She-Wolf
The Lily and the Lion
The King without a Kingdom
You can find my reviews on the first three books on the library catalogue under the listing for each of these novels. I strongly recommend that you read these books in order as they religiously follow history: Information in earlier novels will aid comprehension of events in later ones.

In the first novel, Philip IV (Philip the Fair) extinguishes the Order of the Knights Templar, burning its leaders at the stake. As the Grand Master starts to sizzle he curses the king, his chief advisors and the kings successors for 13 generations to follow. Hence the title of this series. Philip dies at the end of this novel barely 12 months after the Grand Master's curse

So, on to book four, "The Royal Succession". The king is dead, long live the king! Well, not quite. As suggested by the title, choosing the next king, and in the meantime a regent, is the central theme of this novel.

After the death of the Iron King (Philip IV) in the first novel, his eldest son Louis X (Louis the Hutin - the quarreller, headstrong, stubborn) takes the throne. At the end of the third novel, Louis is dead, murdered, read it to discover by whom and how. He was on the throne for only 18 months.

The succession is no simple matter. He leaves a six-year old daughter by his first, unfaithful wife. Two problems here. First, she is a girl. There is a move by some powerful figures to ban women from taking the throne. Second, there are questions of her paternity. Is her father Louis or his first wife's lover?

To complicate the problem further, Louis' second wife is pregnant at the time of his death. If the child is male, he will be the heir to the throne. Regardless of whether he, or Louis' daughter, takes the throne, a regent will have to be appointed until the new regent reaches their majority.

There are three candidates for the regency, all powerful and all with legitimate claims. Louis' elder brother Philippe, the second son of the Iron King, proves himself a master political tactician. After much manoeuvring and horse-trading, his regency is approved. But Philippe is more ambitious. He would prefer to be king himself. Bad luck for Philippe. The late Louis' child is born and it is a boy. Unbeknownst to Philippe, he has an ambitious and ruthless ally in his mother-in-law, the powerful and wealthy Countess of Artois. You will have to read this novel to see how she helps him not once, but twice on his path to the throne.

There are a couple of subplots in this novel. First is the stalemate in the election of the next Pope. Between 1309 and 1377, the Papacy resided in Avignon, France. This gave the French monarchy unprecedented influence over the Papacy. In this novel, Philippe is determined to end this stalemate. Observing this tussle merely confirmed my belief that the upper echelons of the established churches are little more than institutions of power and wealth.

Then there is the forbidden love between a Lombard and the daughter of an impoverished family of minor nobility. In previous books, this was merely a side-plot. See how it is woven into a crucial element of the main theme in this novel.

Finally, there is a revolt among the barons of the north. They are revolting not against the crown of France but against their immediate suzerain, The Countess of Artois has to protect her own fief, as well as promote the interests of her daughter and son-in-law, Philippe. Manoeuvring Philippe to the throne will achieve both.

Faithful to history with fair doses of intrigue and suspense, once you start this series you will want to finish it.

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Sacred games / Vikram Chandra.
Author: Chandra, Vikram.
Publisher: London : Faber & Faber, 2006.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 19/04/2021 4:07:28 PM
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I wonder if the author had that classic Indian epic the Mahabharata in mind when he wrote this book. At 900 pages, it is of epic length. Like the Mahabharata, it has two rival families, although in these modern times, these families are the Mumbai-based, Mafia-style crime gangs. These gangs, called companies, have tentacles that penetrate the police and law courts, political parties and institutions, even the national intelligence services of India and Pakistan. Their reach is international. There are heroes and antiheroes. The heroes are not all good, the villains not all bad. And then there is a well-rounded supporting cast that inject an Indian underground or deep-state flavour.

Sartaj is a middling Munbai inspector eking out his time dealing with everyday misdemeanours and felonies. Hes not a bad cop but he is not squeaky clean. Poor pay demands supplementary income. And Indian police procedure lacks the book in the expression "by the book".

While Sartaj might be the novel's chief good guy, it is the villain Ganesh Giatonde who dominates the stage. He is the boss of G Company which has crime and business interests that span the globe. His main rival is S Company, a Muslim counterpart to his mainly Hindu company. Like the Sicilian-American mafia, these Mumbai crime companies are a paradoxical mix of fraternity and calculated ruthlessness. There are the odd gang wars that erupt periodically in this rivalry that simmers throughout the novel. However, like the subplots that engage Inspector Sartaj, even this rivalry is secondary to the main plot.

Surprisingly, Giatonde commits suicide early before the end of chapter two. The act takes place in what turns out to be a custom-made nuclear shelter while under siege by Sartaj and the police. About a third of the rest of the novel follows Giatonde's career in flashback mode. We trace his rise from a petty teenage criminal to the crime mogul he is when he dies. The author dribbles this information to the reader as we try to unravel the mysteries that are presented. Our knowledge of Giatonde grows like a tree branching out as he develops into a more and more complex character.

And the mysteries? First, why the nuclear-style shelter? Next, why did Giatonde come back to Mumbai where he could be recognised and was most vulnerable to attack by rival gangs the police and other miscellaneous enemies? Why suddenly do the national Indian intelligence services take a keen interest in him and second Sartaj to ferret out answers to some of these questions? And, finally, who is this mysterious guru-ji from whom Giatonde seems to take guidance and inspiration? Does guru-ji have some sinister plot of his own for which he is using Giatonde?

We meet the somewhat shady Indian intelligence service. Like the portrayal of all intelligence services in fiction, the Indian one is a deep state, employing methods that adhere to the dictum "the ends justifies the means".

Indian politics is equally shady, operating on both sides of the ethical and legal divide. Nothing new here. However, both Sartaj, the lawman, and Giatonde, the criminal, have to sup with this devil.

As well as alternating between Sartaj's and Giatonde's stories, Chandra injects a number of subplots. There is a blackmail case that I could not connect with the main storyline, unless it was to demonstrate police practice in India. However, there are four other major asides (the author calls them "insets"). These are like small novellas in their own right. It is not until one gets to the end of each that the connection with the main story is hinted. The first has a personal connection with Sartaj but also highlights the Hindu-Muslim tensions that beset India. Very important. The second one gives insights into the intelligence services and the India-Pakistan hostilities. The other two are even more enigmatic in their connection with the main story but you will not be disappointed in trying to draw their link.

One small point of annoyance: quite a few slang terms and colloquial jargon is used. It has a specific Indian flavour. Sometimes it was difficult to interpret, even through the context. A glossary would have been appreciated. But dont be lazy. By the end of the novel you will have picked up a few new terms for your own lexicon from India's criminal and police argot.

At 900 pages, the story moves at an easy pace. It is no airport novel. I sometimes became exasperated when a subplot was injected to slow down the main plot. However, these subplots proved rewarding. All of the characters are well developed - deep, complex. They have histories. The reader can develop an empathy with them. Chandra took seven years to write this novel. You won't take seven years to read it but when you finish it you will feel you have been on an odyssey.
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Germs, genes, & civilization : how epidemics shaped who we are today / David P. Clark.
Author: Clark, David P.
Publisher: Upper Saddle River, N.J. : FT Press, c2010.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 12/04/2021 12:12:01 PM
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Many books have been written about the diseases that afflict us and the epidemics that have assailed us throughout history. However, it is the subtitle of this book, "how epidemics shaped who we are today", that makes this more than just a scientific or medical exposition. Just as COVID-19 will leave a legacy long after its virulence has subsided, eg. how we work and socialise, so too does Clark hypothesise on the historical, societal and institutional influences that infectious agents have wrought.

After an overview in the introduction, Clark spends the next two chapters giving us most of the scientific knowledge we need to understand the nature (or should I use the plural "natures") of diseases.

Diseases have not been with Homo sapiens forever. Some are surprisingly recent. Chapter two explores their origins. This is followed by how diseases are transmitted. The crucial turning point that gave pathogens a leg up was when we abandoned a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle and started settling in towns and crowded cities.

Clark's speculation based on much data and scientific reasoning of the role of epidemics in bringing about the fall of several great civilisations (viz. the Indus Valley, Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire) is enlightening. Tracing and identifying the particular type of disease is a convoluted and complex process that involves history, science and logic.

Chapter five focuses on the role of our diet and how we raise and grow our food.
Next, conflict. Wars were sometimes decided by pestilence. Battles were won or lost, sieges accomplished or abandoned depending on whose side the germ was on. Then there is that fundamental drive of all complex organisms, sex. The intimacy we seek in this act not only drives us, it provides numerous opportunities of lurking microorganisms.

The chapter on religion is interesting. Clark does begin long before the Christian era. When he gets to the plague (the Black Death and its successors), he postulates this pestilence weakened the Churches hold on society. As we progress into modern times, we see a greater and greater loss of faith in the Church being able to explain the indiscriminate death toll and a turn towards science as a source for answers.

The Age of Exploration was followed by the Age of Imperialism. As European powers carved out their empires in the New World, and later elsewhere around the globe, disease usually, but not always, acted in the favour of the colonisers. Many native populations were devastated, even to the point of extinction, by European diseases. There were, however, some imports the other way.

The last chapter is dedicated to some crystal ball gazing. We are just now emerging from the coronavirus pandemic. Read this chapter and pit your wisdom in hindsight against this expert's speculation and foresight.

Chapters in this book are divided into two-or-three-page, bite-sized pieces making the information easy to digest. Explanations are clear and comprehensive. You don't need to be a scientist to follow Clark's reasoning yet you will finish the book more scientifically informed. Clark links biology and epidemiology to societal and cultural developments. An apposite blend of history, science and sociology.
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Make yourself at home / Ciara Geraghty.
Author: Geraghty, Ciara, author.
Publisher: London, UK HarperCollins 2021. -- London : HarperCollinsPublishers, 2021. -- ©2021
Review by: Ireland, Margaret  on: 5/04/2021 10:52:22 AM
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Fabulous read.
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Epidemics and pandemics / edited by Justin Healey.
Author: Healey, Justin, editor.
Publisher: Thirroul, NSW : The Spinney Press, [2021] -- ©2021
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 29/03/2021 4:04:56 PM
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This booklet is one of a vast series titled "Issues in Society". This series constitutes a halfway hybrid between a book and a layman's scientific or social sciences journal. The format is a collection of articles or essays two-to-four pages long sourced from the media, academia and other experts. Some are purely fact based, giving statistics, scientific information and other data. Given that the issues chosen are often controversial or sensitive, it would be remiss if opinion pieces were not also included. These may agree with your preconceived beliefs and values or they may challenge them.

The issues covered by this series fall mainly into the medical health and the cultural-societal domains. As an example, recent issues cover conservation, privacy, democracy, ageing, the energy debate, drug use, artificial intelligence, inequality, Aboriginal issues, pornography and gambling. Twelve new issues are published each year. The library currently has dozens of them.

This particular issue viz. "Epidemics and Pandemics" is divided into two parts. The first part gives an overview of the history of these two disease phenomena, their scientific-medical nature and their epidemiology. The issue of vaccines and immunisation is also tackled.

The second part is devoted to COVID-19, its history, the present state of play (as of the end of 2020) and projecting forward into the still uncertain future.

At the back of the booklet are worksheets, activities and a quiz to test just how well you understood what you read.

These booklets are excellent starting points if you wish to explore issues in the humanities or scientific field. Have you ever picked up a 300- or 400-page book on some subject only to find yourself becoming bamboozled by technical detail and excess data? Maybe you needed to have read some more concise introductory material first. I feel the "Issues in Society" series fulfils this prerequisite
to a T. It is for this reason I rate the series four stars.
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Collapse : how societies choose to fail or survive / Jared Diamond.
Author: Diamond, Jared M., author.
Publisher: London : Penguin Books, 2011.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 9/03/2021 1:26:48 PM
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Civilisations come and go. All nations face crises at some time in their histories. What is the nature of these crises? What are their causes? Why do some nations pull through while others collapse? These are some of the questions this book attempts to answer.

Jared Diamond doesnt just present facts. True, he does provide extensive background for each case study, but then he analyses and compares. In his prologue, he outlines five criteria (viz. environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, friendly trade partners and responses to challenges) which he uses for his analysis. By applying these criteria to each case, the reader is able to compare. For astute leaders in the contemporary world, there may be lessons for them to detect impending crises and take steps to avert them.

Diamond presents his material in four parts.

Part one looks at a rural region in Montana, the challenges it faces and the various responses being used to maintain sustainability. This seems to be presented as a template for the method of analysis Diamond uses for the more extensive case studies that follow.

In part two, Diamond presents four cases of historical collapsed societies (viz. Easter Island, Henderson/Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific, the Anasazi in New Mexico, the Maya and the Norse in Greenland). He finishes this section with a look at contrasting paths to success. The New Guinea highlands is an unfinished story. Tikopia contrasts sharply with Easter Island. Modern-day Japan probably offers the best example of success.

Next, Diamond tackles modern societies. Rwanda's genocide was far more complex than a simple but tragic ethnic conflict. His analysis may be controversial. The island of Hispaniola accommodates two nations, each with sharply different trajectories. Everybody loves to look through a crystal ball at the rise and rise and fall of China. And just for us, he finishes this section with Australia. We certainly have some challenges to address.

In the final section, Diamond brings his analyses of the past and the present, of collapse and success, together. He attempts to answer the key question of why some societies choose to take a road to collapse or work for survival. He considers the role of big corp. By looking at oil and mining, forestry and the seafood industry, he argues that the perspective does not have to be business OR the environment - it can be business AND the environment. He presents examples of both paths. He also refutes 12 common arguments presented by anti-environmentalists and other naysayers. Strangely, he finishes with a review of the Khmer Empire and its capital at Angkor. Strange, as I felt this case would have been most appropriately presented in the first section about past societies.

This is an excellent and systematic analysis. In each case study, copious background information is presented prior the analysis. In the subtitle, Diamond uses the word "choose" to describe each culture's response to its challenges. Is it choice or is it ignorance, or pig-headedness, or perhaps a mix of all three? Maybe after reading you can tell me.
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The taliban cricket club / Timeri N. Murari.
Author: Murari, Timeri.
Publisher: Crows Nest, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin, 2012.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 9/03/2021 1:25:36 PM
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A Taliban cricket club? Surely this has to be an oxymoron - like chalk and cheese, an incongruous impossibility. Yet here we have it, presented in this novel.

The Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001. During this time, this extremist, fundamentalist, Islamic sect imposed strict Islamic Sharia law. Music, movies, television, computers, picnics and wedding parties were banned. No New Year celebrations, no mixed-sex gatherings, no children's toys, no card or board games. No cameras or paintings of people and animals. No pet birds, cigarettes or alcohol, magazines, newspapers and most books. Women were prohibited from working and girls from attending school. In order to leave their homes, women had to wear the head-to-toe burka, viewing the world through a gauze. They had to be accompanied by their mahram - a close male relative who acted as supervisor and escort.

Rukhsana is a young, educated Afghani who worked as a journalist in pre-Taliban days. Life under the Taliban is stultifying but she tolerates the intolerable for the sake of her ailing mother. Then, the Taliban announces its intention to send a national cricket team to Pakistan to be trained for international competition. What's going on? It seems the Taliban recognised by only a couple of countries and suffering international sanctions wants to show a civilised side to the world.

The plan is to hold a preliminary competition between locally formed teams. The winner will be the team to go to Pakistan. What an opportunity to escape without the expense and risk of employing a people smuggler. Rukhsana is one of few Afghanis who know how to play cricket, who knows the cricket culture, its spirit and élan. She attended university in New Delhi and was a star in her college team. She has a large family of cousins who would welcome the opportunity to leave Afghanistan. She can teach and coach them.

But things take a more urgent twist for Rukhsana. A ruthless government minister becomes infatuated with her. He wishes to propose marriage, likely as a way to exert his maleness and tame this free-spirited woman. It is now imperative that she escape. And soon. As she temporarily goes underground, this minister's even-more-ruthless brother breathes down her family's neck.

There is plenty of tension in this story as plans are made only to be thwarted and new plans having to be devised. Rukhsana and her cousins barely keep half a step ahead of their nemeses. There is also a love story originating in Rukhsana's days in New Delhi. A forbidden love: a Muslim-Hindu union without hope that must be revived to bring her escape to fruition.

Learn a little of what it was like to live or die under the Taliban. Travel with Rukhsana and her cousins as they seesaw through the labyrinth of Taliban oppression seeking their freedom.
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Seven and a half lessons about the brain / Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Author: Barrett, Lisa Feldman, author.
Publisher: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 9/03/2021 1:24:07 PM
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If you know nothing about the brain, this is the quintessential introductory book. If you already think you know something, you're in for some surprises. Commonly held beliefs are dismantled, myths exploded. This book is written by a highly qualified academic but in terms easily comprehendible by the great unwashed.

Barrett opens with the half lesson by introducing one of our earliest ancestors 550 million years ago. Amphioxus showed the earliest evidence of a proto-brain from which all other more complex brains may have evolved. The question is asked: why a brain? What is a brain actually for? The answer will likely not be what you think. I'm not telling. Just read the book!

In the following seven lessons, Barrett compares the brains of other animals: How similar? How different? Is ours that special?
What are the structures that compose the brain, their roles and the mechanisms that facilitate brain function?;
The importance and process of brain development in the first 25 years of life;
The relationship between the brain and the senses (the brain not only interprets and puts meaning into sensory stimulus but often predicts it);
The cooperative/social brain - its upside and drawbacks;
The mind as distinct from the brain, mood as distinct from emotion, different minds in different cultures;
and finally, reality - where is it? Out there or in our brains? Maybe we live in a real-life virtual reality. Certainly, much of our reality is a social construct, a commonly agreed upon abstraction.

There! What else do you need to know? These lessons take only 130 pages but after absorbing them youll feel you've just completed your first year at university. There is, in addition, a 30-page appendix giving more scientific background to some of the items mentioned in the main text.

A marvellous handbook. Concise and informative.
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White coolies : an account of the true story which inspired the film Paradise Road / Betty Jeffrey.
Author: Jeffrey, Betty, 1908-2000, author.
Publisher: Sydney, N.S.W. Angus & Robertson, 1997. -- ©1954
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 23/02/2021 12:12:32 PM
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This is straight from the horse's mouth. White Coolies is the diary of Betty Jeffrey while she was a detainee in a Japanese internment camp for almost four years. You could probably not get a more authentic account of life in such circumstances than a diary written periodically at the time event's occurred. To be accurate, I will call it an internment camp as it was for civilians rather than a POW camp for captured military personnel.

Of course, that is not to say that diaries tell the whole story. We are selective about what we put in diaries. Some of us may see the world as a glass half full and avoid recording negative events or put a silver lining on them. Others, seeing a glass half empty may use diaries as a sounding board for complaints and despondency. Betty Jeffrey's diaries, although occasionally venting frustration, do overall give a sanguine outlook. There may have been another motive for avoiding being too critical of her captors. What if her hidden diaries, for they were forbidden, were discovered? Too much criticism would not have gone down well with those who could make her, and her companions lives, hell. But here, I can only speculate.

Betty Jeffrey was an army nurse in Singapore when the Japanese invaded. She was placed on a ship and evacuated. However, the ship was sunk off Banka Island, between Singapore and Sumatra. She, and some of her fellow passengers, survived to spend the rest of the war in internment camps on Sumatra and Banka Island.

It was educational to observe the striking difference in attitudes and treatment among various individuals in the Japanese military. It reminds me that human nature varies greatly among individuals from empathetic helpfulness to sadistic authoritarianism. There didn't seem to be an official Japanese policy of viciousness towards internees. Treatment depended more on the luck of the draw, on the nature of the guard or soldier with whom one had to deal.

Jeffrey's diaries don't evince any of the oppressive scenes commonly seen in movies. Sure, there was deprivation and there were shortages. But remember, wartime is a time of austerity for all regardless of where you reside. That said, conditions continued to deteriorate as the war dragged on. How humans can suffer and survive such physical and psychological destitution beggars belief. Of course, some didn't.

It is also inspiring to witness how the internees tried to set up a life that mirrored as closely as possible their lives before the war. Entertainment was organised - educational classes conducted, gardens maintained, work rosters scheduled, committees elected and cottage industries established. There was a mini-economy. Some had money to pay others for goods or services. Local vendors from outside the camp were also allowed to sell goods to internees.

As indicated above, either my perception of life in a Japanese POW internment camp, largely shaped through movies, is exaggerated or the author is consciously or subconsciously writing with a positive bias in her diaries. This could be a psychological strategy to block the unpleasant and focus on the heartening - a coping mechanism, a means of keeping hope alive. I was certainly amazed at how internees struggled to keep life as normal as possible. I suspect my perceptions may have been skewed. If you read this book, you too may be inclined to revise your perceptions of life in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

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The intimate bond : how animals shaped human history / Brian Fagan.
Author: Fagan, Brian M, author.
Publisher: New York Bloomsbury Press, 2015.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 23/02/2021 12:11:28 PM
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This book is a marvellous history of early human societies and cultures. How we domesticated animals and wove them into our lives cannot be told without also extrapolating to the various and changing strategies humans adopted to survive. Domestication of animals not only changed our economic survival strategies but also our politics, social infrastructure and customs.

Before we began to farm around 12,000 years ago, all humans were hunter-gatherers. The hunter-gatherer world view saw humans as being an integral part of nature along with the animals they hunted. With the Agrarian Revolution, humans began to settle. Nature and wild animals began to be viewed as something apart from human society, something to be conquered or put to service. True, there was one animal that was domesticated before agriculture - the wolf-cum-dog about 15,000 years ago. But this was a symbiotic development with the dog domesticating us as much as we domesticated it. Beginning about 10,000 years ago, humans made determined and purposeful attempts to domesticate wild animals, whether for nomadic herding or to assist agriculturalists.

Domesticated animals are sources of meat and milk; of hides, furs and textiles; and of many other by-products. They have provided transport for goods and humans. They have featured in religion and ritual; and been symbols of power and measures of wealth. The type of bond we have established has varied depending on the uses we have made of these animals.

It is interesting that the wolf, depicted as evil in folklore and mythology, feared and despised, should ultimately be the ancestor of the pet with which we have embraced the most intimate bond.

The unsung hero in this book is the donkey. Its image in our aphorisms is not complimentary - as stubborn as a mule, as silly as an ass. It has often been abused and neglected. Yet the donkey, as the first true beast of burden, opened lucrative trade routes over which no other animal could travel. It was the true work horse - not quite the right term - of history.

Contrast the star-studded career of the horse, especially in its use by monarchs and nobles and in warfare - the latter given extensive coverage.

Other animals discussed include in chronological order the pig, sheep and goats, cattle and the horse. The elephant is absent. Chickens only get a cursory mention at the end. Birds kept as pets are inappropriate given the theme of this book viz. domestication.

With the industrial revolution, followed last century by the world's exploding population, has our relationship with animals changed? Has our intimacy with them lessened? Do we have a more mercantile and utilitarian view of our domesticated companions?

This is history writ large. From a narrow perspective, a history of our taming of, and relationship with, domesticated animals. From a broader perspective, a history of human societies. I continually referred to the maps Fagan appropriated - provided at the front of the book. He often introduced chapters or sections with novel-like scenes of early human-animal interactions. He also provided sidebars focusing on particular people, animals or activities that were pivotal to the bigger picture.

Logically organised. Clearly elucidated. Be an animal lover or not, your attitude to some of our millennia-long companions will be changed after you read this book.
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