Mark Neumayer

author of the Valda & the Valkyries series

Tag: book review

Book Review: The Book of Swords

book_of_swordsThis is going to be a very short and sweet review. The Book of Swords by Hank Reinhardt is an incredibly good read for those of you interested in the history and development of pointy things. The major selling point of this book for me is that it reads like a friendly conversation. You get the feeling of sitting around a table while a man who has devoted most of his life to studying blades shares his knowledge with you. Yes, he rambles from time to time (as he admits himself) but all of those ramblings are just as interesting and informative as the rest of writing. I have read a great number of books on weapons and the history of arms over the years but this one has easily become my new favorite and taught me a few things I didn’t know.

If you’re wanting something dry and scholarly, keep looking. Some of Reinhardt’s theories are nothing more than guesstimates, based on a lifetime of study, but still guesstimates. However, he also actively tested his theories, hacking and slashing with replica weapons to find out how they really worked.

It is a shame he died so soon but it is fortunate that we have a book like this to share his life’s work.

Book Review: The Normans by Lars Brownworth

NormansI just finished reading The Normans: From Raiders to Kings (Full disclosure, I received a free review copy from Crux Publishing via Librarything.com) and I can heartily recommend this book. Most people probably have a very limited idea of who the Normans were, their knowledge not going beyond “those were the guys in the Bayeax Tapestry.”

Lars Brownworth‘s book fills in the gaps, and provides a detailed history of the Normans were. He also sets forth a convincing argument for how the Normans helped lead Western Europe out of the Dark Ages and into a place of prominence in the world.

The majority of the book revolves around the Hauteville family. This one family, descended from Vikings: conquered Sicily and Southern Italy; influenced events in Europe, Asia and Africa; and participated in the Norman conquest of England. You get separate chapters on each of the major family members, covering the high points of their lives in thorough detail. That leads to one of the quibbles I have with this book. When you give us a thorough telling of the life of say, Tancred of Hauteville and then follow it with a chapter covering the life of Tancred’s son William Iron-Arm  there is bound to be repetition. Tancred had three sons that became legendary figures in their own right so this happens more than once in the book.

That is a minor thing though, especially when you consider that Brownworth has a very readable voice. The Normans conveys a lot of information but it always feels like it is telling you a stirring adventure – not lecturing you. Too many history books are dry and boring. This one feels very vibrant and exciting. It is an informative, excellent read and I recommend checking it out.

Book Review: A History of Weapons

I recently finished reading the Kindle version of A History of Weapons: Crossbows, Caltrops, Catapults & Lots of Other Things that Can Seriously Mess You Up by John O’Bryan. I have mixed feelings about this book – which is odd. I jump at the opportunity to read about different ancient weapons. I have lots of books about medieval knights, Vikings, obscure Chinese throwing weapons,  Indonesian and Filipino martial weapons. I even have catalogs from museum arms and armor exhibits. A book like this should be right up my alley – but it isn’t.

I can’t recommend this book because of O’Bryan’s language. He is going for a humorous approach. The subtitle drops a not so subtle hint. Any time you see a subtitle that contains the phrase “seriously mess you up” you can assume it is not going to be a dry, scholarly work, right? There is nothing wrong with that – if you want to have fun with your subject then go right ahead and have some fun. Unfortunately, O’Bryan’s idea of fun is to use the f-word over and over again to the point where it becomes tiresome. It strikes me as a young kid trying to prove how cool he is by cursing as often as he can. That is a shame because there are some funny lines that don’t contain any profanity elsewhere in the book. I’m not saying that people can’t curse. It’s just that O’Bryan’s use of curses seems needless and, ultimately, repetitive. That’s a shame because without the profanity this would have been a great book for younger kids interested in the subject.

Viking: The Norse Warrior’s [Unofficial] Manual – Review

VikingManualI recently finished reading John Haywood’s Viking: The Norse Warrior’s [Unofficial] Manual and highly recommend it. The author covers basic details such as why a Norseman would choose to be a Viking in the first place, the various social levels in Viking times, weapons and tactics and the various types of Viking ships.

I like the way Haywood packs in a lot of historical information about life as a Viking and manages to do this without ever being stuffy. The whole book is written in a friendly tone that comes across more as a talk between friends than a lecture or lesson. There is a nice sections that breaks down the different countries of the world and describes them in terms of how hard it was to raid them and what kind of spoils you could expect to plunder there.

There are a good number of period illustrations scattered throughout the text along with some color photos of a modern combat reenactment group demonstrating some fighting techniques. While the book delivers a ton of information it also lists sources for further reading. John Haywood definitely has the pedigree to write an authoritative book on this time period. With Viking: The Norse Warrior’s [Unofficial] Manual he has written abook that is also entertaining.

Norse Mythology by John Lindow – A Review

JohnLindowI got three new reference books on Norse mythology over the past few weeks and as I work my way through them I wanted to share some of my thoughts. If you have any favorite books on the subject feel free to give them a shout-out in the comments.

This week I have been reading Norse Mythology by John Lindow and I am very happy with it. If you’re looking for complete tales of the various gods, giants and what-not it won’t be your cup of tea. However, if you want an encyclopedic reference to help further your understanding of the Norse mythos, I can heartily recommend this book. For example, if I look up Glitnir I find:

  • it is the hall of Forseti, Baldr’s son.
  • I am told what saga or sagas mention it, often with specific stanzas
  • cross-references are given within the book (i.e. see also Forseti)
  • other scholarly papers are listed where relevant

The book does more than list the people and places of the myths. There are chapters on The Nature of Mythic Time and The Importance of Norse Mythology, as well as other overarching themes. I have complained more than once about sources that don’t list where their information comes from and this book definitely does NOT have that problem.

A clear writing style with touches of humor, numerous quality illustrations, and further reading suggestions all combine to make Norse Mythology by John Lindow a solid reference. If you are looking for a book that covers Norse mythology from Æsir to Yngvi, this is an excellent choice.

Who To Trust

norsegodsbookI’ve been reading Norse Gods, Goddesses, Giants, Dwarves, Elves & More – A Complete Guide by H.A. Guerber. It is a hefty book published way back in 1909 that really tries to live up to the subtitle’s claim of being “complete.” (I give it bonus points for being edited by A. Thor.) In addition to the many stories it also gathers together over 60 illustrations. I have the Kindle version which claims to have been “revamped” in 2011.

While I do recommend this book for any fans of Norse mythology, I have to deliver that recommendation with a very big caveat – I am not sure that I can trust all of the stories in this book. This isn’t a scholarly book – it has no index and there are numerous mentions of “various sources” without any naming of those sources.

Don’t get me wrong, the book is an enjoyable read. It presents its information in a clear straightforward style that is entertaining. I have read some other reviews where people complained that it had too many poetry excerpts. I can understand that is just a byproduct of the time when the book was written. My quibble with the poetry has more to do with the author using both quotes from the Eddas and later sources such as Longfellow and Wagner. The similar presentation subtly implies that all the poetry has equal merit in depicting Norse myths. But while I have a certain level of respect for Longfellow and Wagner and the work they have done in helping to popularize the Norse myths, I don’t look to them as experts in the field.

Yet this brings up another issue – how accurate was Snorri? Nancy Marie Brown has a fascinating series of blog posts titled Seven Norse Myths We  Wouldn’t Have Without Snorri. In those posts she lays out her arguments for why she thinks Snorri didn’t just transcribe Norse legends, but made some of them up on his own. She makes some good arguments and the series is worth a read.

The whole issue of what the ancient Norse really believed is such a thorny one. We don’t have the written records for them like we do for the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. So we may never know definitive answers. And that is what can be so frustrating about this field and ultimately about Guerber’s book. I kept reading little bits and pieces of information and thinking “that’s so cool, I haven’t read that before.” But without some explanation about where exactly that nugget of information can from I am hesitant to use it. I’ve been burned by sources before – in my first book, Valda & the Valkyries,  I have Loki claiming to be a fire god because that is what so many sources used to say. I’m a bit gun-shy now. It could be a result of living in the interconnected world of the internet where all the information I could want is at my fingertips. Unfortunately it happens to be mixed in with all of the misinformation that I don’t want and there aren’t always clear signs telling me which is which.

Ultimately I can recommend Norse Gods, Goddesses, etc … as an entertaining read and a good overview, but I would hesitate to endorse it as 100% accurate.

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