Category Archives: Stuff I Like

My Top 5 History Podcasts

My Top 5 History Podcasts

I realised it’s been quite a while since I did a ‘stuff I like’ post, so here’s my top 5 history podcasts in no particular order (webpages included but they’re all available on iTunes):

The Z List Dead List –

British comedian Izzy Lawrence corrals and impressive array of guests to highlight the forgotten heroes and villains of history, the rarely remembered bit-players who nevertheless had an undeniable effect on the course of human events. Examples include miserablist Roman poet and curmudgeon Juvenal, Martin Frobisher the crappiest pirate in history, and genius astronomer Tycho Brahe who had a solid gold nose and a pet elk. Stand-out episode: Series 3, Ep 4 – David Aaronovitch and Jon Ronson on their favourite conspiracy theorists.

Hardcore History –

Veteran US journo Dan Carlin focuses his well-honed insight on a wide variety of historical subjects, ranging from the fall of the Roman Republic to the current epic analysis of the First World War ‘Blueprint for Armageddon’ (18 hours and counting). Stand-out episodes: ‘Wrath of the Khans’, a terrific potted history of the rise of Genghis Khan and the subsequent course of the Mongol Empire.

Revolutions –

Mike Duncan’s follow up to the landmark History of Rome Podcast is an exhaustive look at the major revolutions in human history. Beginning with the English Civil War, Duncan then proceeds to cover the American Revolutionary War before embarking on an epic, as yet unfinished examination of the French Revolution. Stand-out episodes: #1.12-1.15 charting the transition of Oliver Cromwell from heroic Parliamentarian general to military dictator, sorry ‘Lord Protector’ (like that was fooling anybody).

The Civil War (1861-1865) –

Husband and wife team Rich and Tracy Youngdahl have taken on the mammoth task of producing a comprehensive narrative history of the American Civil War. Every major event is covered, the episodes based on a wide variety of sources and skilfully written so as to remain compelling without sacrificing important details. Stand-out episodes (so far): #96-99 ‘Sibley’s Campaign’ – a four part look at the Confederate attempt to carve a path to the western seaboard of the USA, an entire aspect of the conflict I knew nothing about.

How is this Movie? –

In less than a year Dana Buckler has turned a lifelong obsession with all things movie into an unqualified podcast hit. There are a few interview based episodes but most take the form of an in-depth look at a classic movie or franchise with Buckler’s comprehensive research unearthing details that would trump even the most know-it-all film geek – Frank Sinatra was offered the lead in Die Hard, yes really. Stand-out episode: Jaws.

Last 30 days Book Recommendations

My (seemingly endless) mission to recommend a book a day until Christmas continues. Listed below are the last 30 days books recommendations originally made via Twitter with links to my Goodreads reviews, enjoy:

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

The Complete Halo Jones by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson

The 13th Valley by John M. Del Vecchio

Sandman vol 1 – Neil Gaiman

The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo #1) by David Wingrove

Famous Monsters by Kim Newman

Waylander by David Gemmell

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

I am Legend by Richard Matheson

Chickenhawk by Robert Mason

The Terror by Dan Simmons

The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove

Bomber Command by Max Hastings

William Blake: The Complete Writings

1812: Napoeleon’s Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski

Legend by David Gemmell

The Alienist by Caleb Carr

Promise of Blood by Brian McLellan

Count Zero by William Gibson

White Jazz by James Ellroy

The Queen of Bedlam by Robert R. McCammon

The Hell of it All by Charlie Brooker

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

The Smoke by Tom Barling

First Light by Geoffrey Wellum

The Black Death by Philip Ziegler

I, Partridge by Steve Coogan et al

Last 30 Days’ Book Recommendations

My mission to recommend a book a day until Christmas continues (somehow). Listed below are the last 30 books I recommended via Twitter with links to my Goodreads reviews, enjoy:


The Social History of the Machine Gun by John Ellis

The Passage by Justin Cronin

War on the Waters by James M McPherson

The City by Stella Gemmell

Bloody April by Peter Hart

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

Chopper: Song of the Surfer by John Wagner and Colin McNeil

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Skin Tight by Carl Hiaasen

The Gunpowder Plot by Antonia Fraser

The Lost Regiment #1: Rally Cry by William R. Forstchen

Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss

City of Golden Shadow (Otherland #1) by Tad Williams

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

War in the Air 1914-45 by Williamson Murray

Sharpe’s Enemy by Bernard Cornwell

Stalingrad by Antony Beevor

Floating Dragon by Peter Straub

Business in Great Waters by John Terraine

NOS4R2 by Joe Hill

A History of Warfare by John Keegan

Alien by HR Giger

Spellsinger by Alan Dean Foster

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

The First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook

Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall by Spike Milligan

Slow River by Nicola Griffith

On Writing by Stephen King

Flashman in the Great Game by George McDonald Fraser

Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 by Max Hastings

Last 30 Days’ Book Recommendations

For those who don’t follow me on Twitter, on 23rd August I set myself the task of recommending a book a day until Christmas along with a short review on Goodreads. Here’s the list for the last 30 days for anyone who missed it:

Hyperion by Dan Simmons –

The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker –

Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon –

Lord of the Silver Bow by David Gemmell –

Crossed by Garth Ennis –

The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig –

All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings –

Vurt by Jeff Noon –

Watching War Films with My Dad by Al Murray –

Broken Angels by Richard Morgan –

The Thousand Names by Django Wexler –

The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F Hamilton –

The Dead Zone by Stephen King –

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman –

An Animated Life by Ray Harryhausen –

Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club by Robin Ince –

The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy –

Icon by Frank Frazetta –

Neuromancer by William Gibson –

Use of Weapons Iain M Banks –

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence –

Dune by Frank herbert –

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson –

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs –

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub –

Voyage by Stephen Baxter –

War of the Aeronauts by Charles M. Evans –

Dark Fire by CJ Sansom –

The Scar by China Mieville –

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander –

Orbit Website Guest Post: David Gemmell and the Depiction of the Hero

Thanks to the good folks at Orbit UK for hosting my guest post on David Gemmell and the Depiction of the Hero.

RIP Iain M. Banks

A fond farewell to Iain M. Banks, possibly the finest prose writer ever to grace the pages of science fiction. And also goodbye to his long term collaborator Iain Banks, who injected a much needed narrative drive and energy into mainstream literature. I wish I’d met them both.

Top Ten Movie Battle Scenes

Anyone who’s read Blood Song will know my liking for battle scenes, so I thought I’d list my top ten favourites from the movies – as usual in no special order.

Master and Commander – For the Prize! (2003, Dir. Peter Weir)

Patrick O’Brien’s tales of life in Nelson’s navy are brought to vivid life in Peter Weir’s expertly wrought adaptation. Essentially a chase story, as Russell Crowe’s Captain Jack Aubrey pursues a French privateer half way around the world with Ahab-like zeal, paid off in spades in a climactic clash of frigates. The final frenetic confrontation of cannon, pistols and hand-to-hand combat brings home the fact that, for all the romance associated with it, war at sea in the Napoleonic era was still war, and it’s never pretty.

Last of the Mohicans – Huron Ambush (1992, Dir. Michael Mann)

Michael Mann wisely eschews much of Charles Fenimore Cooper’s source novel (it’s frankly unreadable to modern eyes, or at least my modern eyes) to craft a compelling epic of high adventure and romance amid the chaos of the Seven Years War. Mann’s eye for spectacular action is given free reign as Huron warchief Magua (Wes Studi) leads his braves in a brutally effective ambush of an entire British army. War clubs, tomahawks and muskets abound as Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis in pre-cobbler days) fights his way towards his imperilled lady love (Madeleine Stowe in pre-collagen days) and woe betide anyone who gets in his way. Simply stunning.

Saving Private Ryan – Omaha Beach (1998, Dir. Steven Spielberg)

The immediate cinematic impact of Spielberg’s recreation of the Omaha beach landings makes it easy to forget that there was a time when filmmakers failed to present the experience of modern battle as anything other than a stark horror story viewed through the lens of an over-cranked camera. But, despite its many imitators, the real-time progress of Tom Hanks’ shell-shocked captain across the blasted and corpse strewn shore-line has never been topped for sheer visceral shock value. If you ever wondered what a burst of machine-gun fire will really do to a human body, look no further.

Henry V – Agincourt (1989, Dir. Kenneth Branagh)

Branagh’s directorial debut proved he’s as able behind the camera as he is in front of it. Naturalistic Shakespeare is a tricky thing to pull off but Branagh and cast manage it with admirable aplomb – even Brian Blessed gets through the whole film without a single shouty moment. Crucial to Branagh’s desire to present events within a a believable medieval context is his depiction of the Battle of Agincourt as a mud-spattered slo-mo slogging match. Men in armour assail each other with swords, maces and daggers in a rain sodden charnel house shorn of any pageantry or chivalrous pretensions. Grimly compelling.

Platoon – NVA Night Assault (1986, Dir Oliver Stone)

Long before such crimes against cinema as Natural Born Killers and Alexander,  Oliver Stone was a good director, proven in this semi-autobiographical tale of brutalised grunts in the Vietnam War. Stone’s protagonists are rarely heroic, quick to panic and would probably shoot John Wayne in the back if he pissed them off. The graphic depictions of combat and atrocity make for often harrowing viewing, complete with massacred civilians, gang rapes and murderous intra-grunt enmity, stretching the viewer’s nerves to the point that the climactic NVA night assault is actually something of a relief. The subsequent battle is a frenzied mix of cacophonous gunfire and flashing tracer bringing home the random nature of combat. It seems in modern war, cowardice and heroism make little difference to odds of survival. Luckily, most of us will never have to find out if that’s true.

Zulu – Rorke’s Drift Rumble (1964, Dir. Cy Endfield)

US emigre director Cy Endfield’s retelling of the siege of Rorke’s Drift in the first Zulu war is a carnival of British cinema delights; a soaring score by Bond composer John Barry, a stand-out breakthrough performance by Michael Caine and Jack Hawkins playing against stiff-upper-lip type as a drunken missionary “Can’t you see you’re all going to die!!” But the real star of the show is the cinematography, capturing the beauty of a South African landscape marred by the bloody spectacle of thousands of Zulu warriors charging through massed rifle fire.

300 – “This! Is! Spartaaaaggh!” (2006, Dir. Zach Snyder)

Frank Miller’s stylised comic book version of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE is given lavish homage by Snyder as muscular bare chested men in leather pants engage in a mutual admiration fest before embarking on slo-mo Persian slaughter viewed through a series of prolonged tracking shots (for some reason 300 has come to be regarded as having a strong gay subtext, can’t think why). This is an unashamedly non-realist approach to ancient warfare featuring battle-rhinos, giants, grenade throwing alchemists and (if you’ve seen the deleted scenes) midget archers – and all the better for it.

Gladiator – Roma Victa! (2000, Dir. Ridley Scott)

If you know a little about Roman history you’ll be aware that Gladiator belongs more in the ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘based on’ category of historical epic – Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Pheonix) was murdered in his bath-house by a slave nine years after assuming the throne rather than being slain in the Coliseum by a former general (who never actually existed) a few months after killing his father – an event he may well have had no part in. But, despite its factual shortcomings, Gladiator contains probably the most accurate depiction of the Roman army at war as General Maximus (Russell Crowe again) leads his legionaries against the barbarous German tribes. Fire arrows fill the air, ballista bolts pin men to trees and catapults rain down fiery destruction on the uncivilised horde as the legions hack and slash their way to victory. “Roma Victa!” indeed.

The Return of the King – Pelennor Fields (2003, Dir. Peter Jackson)

The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers was a remarkable achievement in itself but even that is eclipsed by the sheer scale of the spectacle offered in Peter Jackson’s final instalment of The Lord of the Rings. Sauron’s hordes of orcs, easterlings and war elephants bear down on the beleaguered city of Minas Tirith in a screen-filling tide that wouldn’t have been possible even in the days when extras would work for less than a dollar a day. However, thanks to CGI we are treated to an unrestrained and largely faithful depiction of the central clash of armies in Tolkien’s classic. From the Ride of the Rhohirrm to the arrival of the Dead Men this is a wondrous spectacle, made all the more impressive by not allowing the visuals to overwhelm the drama – poor old King Theoden, but it was a good death.

Glory – Assault on Fort Wagner (1989, Dir Edward Zwick)

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry was the first black regiment recruited by the Union Army in the American Civil War and earned a blood-soaked place in history by leading an assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner in South Carolina in July 1863. Zwick – later to conjure some highly impressive set-pieces in The Last Samurai – brings home the scale of the sacrifice as Matthew Broderick’s Colonel Shaw leads his troops in an ultimately hopeless charge against the Confederate ramparts, braving a hail of cannon fire and musketry to fight their way into the fort at bayonet point. Although the film makes no bones about the fact that this was a military defeat for the Union, the final scene of black troops and white officers being tossed into the same mass grave conveys a sense that it was at least a battle worth fighting.


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