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10 January 2024

From Bettany Hughes to Aniefiok Ekpoudom: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Our Moon by Rebecca Boyle and Trapped in History by Nicholas Rankin.

By Michael Prodger, Samir Jeraj, Morgane Llanque and Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by Bettany Hughes

Every schoolchild could once list them. Now only trace memories remain of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, just as there are barely signs of the original structures left: only the oldest of them, the Great Pyramid at Giza, still stands. Bettany Hughes’s vivid book is a work of reconstruction in which she recreates not just the buildings themselves but the reactions of the travellers of antiquity when confronted with the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, the Colossus at Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria and the rest. 

The seven buildings were, Hughes writes, “staggeringly audacious impositions on our planet”. She travels to the places where they once stood, examines what remains – a 70-tonne fragment of a doorway from the Lighthouse, a fragmentary horse that once topped the Mausoleum – invokes fabled names from Alexander the Great to Nebuchadnezzar, quotes travellers, and dispenses facts liberally. There is no hint of the dry-as-dust lecture here, rather a palpable sense of her own excitement in disinterring these extraordinary edifices. These were not just buildings, she insists, but “adventures of the mind”.
By Michael Prodger
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 416pp, £25. Buy the book

Trapped in History: Kenya, Mau Mau and Me by Nicholas Rankin

The horrors of the British empire were largely perpetrated out of sight and out of mind in its colonies, and imperial nostalgia and denialism remain present in British public life. Nicholas Rankin’s history of Kenya, its colonisation and its independence struggle, serves as a reminder of the atrocities that were well known at the time: the use of concentration camps, mass executions and torture. This in order to defend control of a colony that seems to have had little purpose for the empire other than the prestige of possession, and the power wielded by its white British settler community.  

Rankin’s book draws on published histories and texts, from accounts of the massacres carried out in order to build the infamous “Lunatic Line” railway, to the writings of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Stitched in around the edges are the reflections of Rankin himself, who lived in Kenya Colony as a child, and the impact of the brutal violence that allowed his family and other Europeans to live in relative comfort. His book does not seek to put the empire on trial, as others have done to great effect, but to thoughtfully set out the histories and experiences of those who survived British rule. 
By Samir Jeraj
Faber & Faber, 576pp, £25. Buy the book

[See also: New books for 2024]

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Our Moon: A Human History by Rebecca Boyle

As China, India, Europe and, regrettably, Elon Musk race to be the next to plant a flag on the moon, the American science journalist Rebecca Boyle presents a biography of our biggest celestial obsession. Once you get through the astrophysical maths that details its creation, Boyle makes good on her promise: after reading this book, you will never look at the moon the same way again.

In Our Moon Boyle takes us on a fascinating journey through its shaping of our culture, religion, philosophy and science. She argues how, without the moon and its tidal pull, complex life on Earth could never have arisen because our microbial ancestors would simply never have made it out of the water. She explains that it was only when we began to track lunar movements that humans were able to invent the concept of time and use it to our advantage, such as for the ideal hunting and harvesting schedules, or to guarantee the success of D-Day: as Winston Churchill noted in his diary, a full moon was necessary to ensure the best tidal conditions for boats to approach Normandy, and to provide enough light for the Allied paratroopers to advance.
By Morgane Llanque
Sceptre, 336pp, £22. Buy the book

Where We Come From: Rap, Home and Hope in Modern Britain by Aniefiok Ekpoudom

The mainstream British press has too often associated rap music with violence and social deprivation. This book by the journalist Aniefiok Ekpoudom is the perfect corrective. Ekpoudom travels around his native south London and to the West Midlands and South Wales to track the development of contemporary UK rap, which grew out of late-1960s reggae, as it morphed into dub, ragga, jungle, garage, drum and bass, and then – in the early 2000s – grime, popularised by acts such as Stormzy and Skepta.

Ekpoudom uses the anecdotes from his many interviewees with ease, telling them in his own, close style that often slips into a familiar second person. This is a music book, but a social history too, and Ekpoudom writes movingly about the many migration narratives that lie behind rap’s biggest stars, making musical links, for example, between the West Midlands DJ Big Mikee and his Jamaican roots. “MC culture is an act of narration,” he writes, “a history of a city, a town, a country now documented and made permanent, cave paintings that linger in the ether reminding us that on this land, in this time, a community once stood.”
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £20
. Buy the book

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[See also: From Elton John to Wendy Cope: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously