Book reviews: Royal Cities of the Ancient Maya | Horse Tales & Saddle Songs | The Gathering Stream

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Michael Kerrigan reviews the latest book releases

Royal Cities of the Ancient Maya by Michael D Coe and Barry Brukoff

Thames & Hudson, £29.95

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To the Anglo-Saxon poet of The Wanderer, England’s already-ancient Roman ruins were the “work of giants”. We look with something of the same wonder at Barry Brukoff’s evocative photo-studies of the Mayan cities, built between 2,500 and 500 years ago. As Michael D Coe’s commentary reveals, these sites were always mystic places, ceremonial centres first and foremost, inhabited by an elite: the Maya themselves seem to have lived in “green cities” – loose assemblages of villages strung out across maize-fields for miles around. Much about Mayan life remains elusive. But, Coe insists, we can draw important conclusions about the overarching sweep of Mayan history, in particular how the competition – and conflict – between key cities shaped a civilisation’s rise and fall.

Horse Tales & Saddle Songs edited by Judy Steel

Bordersprint, £10

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The great thing about a good anthology is the way it brings together the justly celebrated with the unfairly forgotten. This one has Walter Scott rubbing shoulders with Francis Merrilees and William Henry Ogilvie with Browning, Betjeman and Burns. Every mood is catered for, from the romantic and the stirring to the silly. The collection has an unmistakeable Scottish accent, though there are a fair few English entrants, as well as Americans such as Robert Frost – there’s even a Serbian ballad. The complement of horses is swelled by a sprinkling of donkeys – and even camels. Add in Judy Steel’s helpful comments and some appealing illustrations and you have the perfect armchair reader – for the seriously saddlesore, it’s the next best thing to riding.

The Gathering Stream by James Miller

Birlinn, £14.99

Less than 60 miles separates Banff from Wick, but what does that signify in the Scottish scheme? The Moray Firth has played a disproportionate role in defining the country’s identity and history. No mere expanse of sea, it’s been a maritime highway linking Scotland to northern Europe; its coastal plain a battleground and marketplace in which Gaels, Picts, Anglo-Saxons, Norsemen and Normans have met and mingled. James Miller’s absorbing history teases out the complexities which have given this region such importance and such a special character. And it looks forward to a future as the centre of Scotland’s green economy.