FIRST CLASS: A HISTORY OF BRITAIN IN 36 STAMPS  I'm sure I join a fair few readers of this as an ex-philatelist.  Having been born in Zambia my Dad got me started on Northern Rhodesia, not to mention the British SA Company and Nyasaland.  As a nine year old I was rather more drawn to the somewhat lurid and large later stamps with the pictures of rhinoceri and snakes.  Anyway, in this playful history 36 of our most expressive, quirky, beautiful and sometimes baffling stamps tell us the story of Britain, through Dickens and the potato famine to Thatcher and punk.  We learn about the Penny Lilac which united a nation in 1881; the day the Queen's head was nearly chopped off in 1966; the first non-white Briton to grace a stamp in 1982, and many more.  (Random House, 2012, HB, 257pp, isbn 9780224095464)

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SWORD - TOM HOLLAND The author of Rubicon and Persian Fire, is known for his vivid prose style, bringing ancient times to life through visceral detail however, at times, gory. This latest offering is his most ambitious yet in considering how the decline of the Roman and Persian empires dovetailed with the rapid rise of the Arabs from the sixth century, an empire whose impact is sometimes underestimated. He argues that what Jews, Christians and Muslims believe about the origins of their versions of monotheism is open to debate.  The timeline, glossary and Dramatis Personae at the end help to keep up with this epic story. (Little Brown, 2012, HB, 527pp,  rrp£25, currntly on offer here at £18, isbn 9781408700075)

THE TIME TRAVELLER'S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND - IAN MORTIMER  The past is a foreign country; they did things differently there... Mortimer asks us to engage with history via a nice conceit - imagine we were transported back to the fourteenth century. What would we see, hear, smell?  Where would we stay? What to eat?  We'd need to be ready for the prevalence of a shockingly brutal brand of "humour" out on the street for sure.  Sheep are the size of dogs, 30-year-old women are regarded as so much "winter forage", and green vegetables are considered poisonous.  And there's lots about jousting knights and fair maidens which is always fun.  I really enjoyed this and think I may be right in saying it is our history bestseller.  Mortimer has a sequel out, tardis-ing this time to the Elizabethan era, the hardback of which we have here too. (Vintage, 2009, PB, 344pp. £8.99, isbn 9781845950996)

ALL ROADS LEAD TO FRANCE: THE LAST YEARS OF EDWARD THOMAS - MATTHEW HOLLIS   Edward Thomas was perhaps the most beguiling and influential of First World War poets. "Now All Roads Lead to France" is an account of his final five years, centred on his extraordinary friendship with Robert Frost and Thomas' fatal decision to fight in the war. The book also evokes an astonishingly creative moment in English literature, when London was a battleground for new, ambitious kinds of writing. A generation that included W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost and Rupert Brooke were 'making it new' - vehemently and pugnaciously. These larger-than-life characters surround a central figure, tormented by his work and his marriage. But as his friendship with Frost blossomed, Thomas wrote poem after poem, and his emotional affliction began to lift. In 1914 the two friends formed the ideas that would produce some of the most remarkable verse of the twentieth century. But the War put an ocean between them: Frost returned to the safety of New England while Thomas stayed to fight for the Old. It is these roads taken - and those not taken - that are at the heart of this remarkable book, which culminates in Thomas' tragic death on Easter Monday 1917. (Faber, 2012, PB, 416pp, isbn 9780571245994, £9.99)


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