REVIEW: Jayne’s Non-fiction reading list

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Astronomers’ Library by Karen Masters

Indulge in this collection of the best astronomy books from the past 800 years. The Astronomers’ Library is a rich history of astronomy (and astrology) publishing across Europe.

This is a carefully selected arrangement of publications from all over the continent – Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, and the UK. And of course, as the original world leader in astrology, the middle east is featured, with multiple books from Persia.

Humankind has looked to the heavens since the dawn of time, wondering what is out there, as well as how everything works and (originally) who was responsible for it. Every tribe, race and civilization has wondered about our place in the universe and what lies beyond and what lies within it, below our feet.

Lately, attention has turned to the origins of the universe. From the turn of the millennium, knowledge and ideas were recorded, first on tablets or rock, then in the form of simple manuscripts, and eventually in a much more elaborate fashion as illustrative and engraving skills evolved.

The advent of printed books saw the production of highly illustrated tomes that showed off the skills of the printers as well as the newfound knowledge of the scholars and artists that wrote them.

Many of these works pushed the boundaries of illustrated publishing (and continue to do so to this day). They commanded expert illustrators and skilled engravers and hence didn’t come cheaply. They were treasured in the libraries of the wealthy and their intrinsic worth has meant that there is an incredible wealth of beautifully preserved historic examples from the 14th century onwards.

The significant difference we acknowledge today between astronomy and astrology has a relatively recent past, and the stars have long been associated with creatures, gods, characters and all sorts of divine beings. The study of such has a long, fascinating history that is shown in beautiful detail in the pages of these many beautiful books, and the transition from seeing the stars as characters to understanding them as spinning, celestial beings and part of our huge universe is akin to witnessing the history of the world.


The blurb will tell you almost all you need to know about the book. Professor and author Karen Masters takes us through the best historical books about astronomy/astrology (as for a long time these were synonymous) from around the world. She selects best examples of books and arranges them loosely in chapters such as Star Atlases, Mapping Other Worlds, Astronomy and Culture, and Modern Astronomy – which contains a great resource list for further reading.

Rather than sticking closely to European viewpoint, entries are from all over the world with many more Islamic, Asian, and Mesoamerican examples than I’m used to seeing in similar books. The names by which they’re known might differ but the stars are the same as is the fascination of those who gazed at them and tried to understand them. I did notice a tendency for Renaissance European illustrators to include lots and lots of stargazing cheeky cherubs.

The illustrations are gorgeous and the tidbits and nuggets of information that Masters shares about her selections are fascinating. Given the layout and wealth of images, plus the fact that the digital and hardback prices aren’t that much different, it might be worth it to get a hardback copy in order to better enjoy it. The price right now will probably limit the book to hardcore enthusiasts. B

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A Travel Guide to the Middle Ages: The World Through Medieval Eyes by Anthony Bale

A captivating journey of the expansive world of medieval travel, from London to Constantinople to the court of China and beyond.

Europeans of the Middle Ages were the first to use travel guides to orient their wanderings, as they moved through a world punctuated with miraculous wonders and beguiling encounters. In this vivid and alluring history, medievalist Anthony Bale invites readers on an odyssey across the medieval world, recounting the advice that circulated among those venturing to the road for pilgrimage, trade, diplomacy, and war.

Journeying alongside scholars, spies, and saints, from Western Europe to the Far East, the Antipodes and the ends of the earth, Bale provides indispensable information on the exchange rate between Bohemian ducats and Venetian groats, medieval cures for seasickness, and how to avoid extortionist tour guides and singing sirens. He takes us from the streets of Rome, more ruin than tourist spot, and tours of the Khan’s court in Beijing to Mamluk-controlled Jerusalem, where we ride asses across the holy terrain, and bustling bazaars of Tabriz.

We also learn of rumored fantastical places, like ones where lambs grow on trees and giant canes grow fruit made of gems. And we are offered a glimpse of what non-European travelers thought of the West on their own travels.

Using previously untranslated contemporaneous documents from a colorful range of travelers, and from as far and wide as Turkey, Iceland, North Africa, and Russia, A Travel Guide to the Middle Ages is a witty and unforgettable exploration of how Europeans understood—and often misunderstood—the larger world.


This looked interesting and for the most part it was. After an opening chapter on what travel means (just keep going through this), Bale dives into various historical accounts of (mainly) Europeans venturing far from home for various reasons though the last chapter covers a few journeys made to Europe, Africa, and the Arabian peninsula by people traveling westward from China and Mongolia. 

The most time is spent on religious pilgrimages to Rome, Jerusalem, Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East by European Christians. Maybe this was covered so extensively due to the availability of texts? It’s interesting but does go on a bit. Honestly, the conditions sounded as horrendous as the pilgrims probably found them to be. Traveling simply for wanderlust or pleasure didn’t appear to be that popular though perhaps the Europeans who left home for this reason decided not to go home and thus left no records? Trade was another major incentive to leave home and several merchants and traders left accounts of what they went through trying to buy and sell or set up trade hubs and links in foreign lands.   

The book jumps back and forth from various sources to cover different aspects of a typical journey that might have been made rather than sticking with one person’s narrative for a whole trip. Some travelers were enthusiastic while others were grimly determined and also expecting things to be ghastly. For pilgrims, the suffering along the way seemed to enhance the payoff of the trip (shortening time in Purgatory by years or totally for those who made it to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem but check the 1450 guide in Rome to see exactly what indulgences are available and how much time you’ll save or how to get one soul out of Purgatory!). Some traders loved the chance to see new places while others caught cities or rulers having a bad day. One Chinese traveler was awestruck by Hormuz while a Mongolian Christian enjoyed sitting in a beautiful garden in Naples overlooking a sea battle.  

Bale doesn’t shy away from the fact that – just like today – people had their prejudices and preconceptions. Some of these are racist. Some people are great to travel with while others are grumps. What got written about depended on what a person thought was important rather than what we might love to read about today. 

Several fun tidbits of information are included such as an exchange rate so you know how far your plapparts will take you (also change money in Bruges where there’s a bank), don’t forget a staff (support and beating off bandits) and a bag, where to find a licensed guide in Venice who won’t cheat you while booking your travel on to the Holy Land, some travel costs in Egypt and the Holy Land (just accept that you’re going to be stiffed for money all along the way), that the locals who aren’t making money off of you will probably be annoyed by you (jeering and stone throwing are probable), some handy phrases translated into Greek, Albanian, Turkish, and Arabic, medical advice for those traveling overseas (some of which is … not bad), India has both manticores and unicorns, and when traveling from Tana to Khanbaliq (Beijing) don’t be chintzy when hiring a dragoman – splash out and hire a good one,. 

The little snapshots of things I hadn’t expected – life in a caravanserai (like a modern travel pit stop); that people from all over the world had traveled much farther into distant lands than I expected; that an Italian saw and saved two Tartars in bondage in Italy, one of whom he’d met before on his travels – were what made the book for me. It ends with sources, references, and further reading.  When it’s all said and done, it appears that travelers and traveling experiences haven’t changed all that much over the centuries. B      

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Otherworldly Antarctica: Ice, Rock, and Wind at the Polar Extreme by Edmund Stump

With stunning original photographs, an Antarctic scientist and explorer takes us to one of the most sublime, remote, and pristine regions on the planet.

The interior of Antarctica is an utterly pristine wilderness, a desolate landscape of ice, wind, and rock; a landscape so unfamiliar as to seem of another world. This place has been known to only a handful of early explorers and the few scientists fortunate enough to have worked there. Edmund Stump is one of the lucky few. Having climbed, photographed, and studied more of the continent-spanning Transantarctic Mountains than any other person on Earth, this geologist, writer, and photographer is uniquely suited to share these alien sights.

With stories of Stump’s forty years of journeys and science, Otherworldly Antarctica contains 130 original color photographs, complemented by watercolors and sketches by artist Marlene Hill Donnelly. Over three chapters—on the ice, the rock, and the wind—we meet snowy paths first followed during Antarctica’s Heroic Age, climb the central spire of the Organ Pipe Peaks, peer into the crater of the volcanic Mount Erebus, and traverse Liv Glacier on snowmobile, while avoiding fatal falls into the blue interiors of hidden crevasses. Along the way, we see the beauty of granite, marble, and ice-cored moraines, meltwater ponds, lenticular clouds, icebergs, and glaciers. Many of Stump’s breathtaking images are aerial shots taken from the planes and helicopters that brought him to the interior. More were shot from vantages gained by climbing the mountains he studied. Some were taken from the summits of peaks. Many are of places no one had set foot before—or has since. All seem both permanent and precarious, connecting this otherworld to our fragile own.


Fifty years ago, geologist Edmund Stump began a love affair with the beautiful but also brutal world of Antarctica. Luckily for us, he’s also a great photographer and he snapped gorgeous pictures of the continent while doing scientific research there. Major bonus points that he accomplished this in an age before drones.

Think of purest white—the brilliance of all colors—and fathomless blue. Sprinkle in a few dark rocks and the total lack of green and you have Antarctica’s minimal pallet.

If someone offered me a chance to visit Antarctica, I’d be hard pressed to turn it down regardless of my risk of panic attacks while flying. Seriously, it wouldn’t be pretty. But if I could see IRL what I see in these images? I might take a deep breath, live better with chemistry, and go for it.

We were suspended on a transparent surface surrounded by bits and pieces of sparkling crystal, tinged blue beneath the waterline. A dome of matte gray illuminated the shadowless landscape. Ringing the cove were steep walls of ice fed by glaciers from the slopes above. Their faces bore the scars of tension and release where they had calved the icebergs that spread throughout the cove. The ice of the walls was young, only faintly blushing blue.

The book is divided into three sections: Ice, Rocks, and Wind. Stump adds geographic information for each image as well as describes his time there. There is a lot of scientific geology-speak to explain what readers are looking at which is helpful but Stump is also awed by his surroundings.

In the lifeless world of Antarctica, the wind is an animate force active in human-time— miles per hour, a heartbeat. It may be fierce, it may be calm, it may be steady, it may be restless or fickle or faint. Sometimes it isn’t even there at all. It is the bearer of cloud and the deliverer of snow. It can be a fearsome force, roiling through the mountains.

I found myself spending more time studying photos, inhaling this truly “otherworldly” place. Some photos made the landscape appear to be an intimate 50 or so feet across only to have the author reveal a scale of miles instead. Other images are up close and have a span of mere twelve inches. This is another book which is probably best as a coffee table hardback edition. B

If I had one hour more to savor Antarctica, it would be on a névé—a snowfield, circled at a distance by low mountains, snow gracefully rising to narrow ridgelines. A light breeze would nip my nose to remind me of where I was. The midnight sun would be low in the southern sky, casting long shadows and a faint alpine glow. And I would be standing in the midst of a field of the most exquisite sastrugi—wind-carved snow—as far as the eye could see.

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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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