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Alex Salmond: My Part in His Downfall - The Cochrane Diaries
Alex Salmond: My Part in His Downfall - The Cochrane Diaries
by Alan Cochrane
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

8 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An entertaining snapshot, 6 Jan. 2015
This book has the oddest collection of hostile reviews I have seen on Amazon, ranging from the sensible to the puerile to the frankly incomprehensible - what is 'self-ingratiation' supposed to mean, unless it is a misprint for self-congratulation?

Mr. Cochrane's diary of the referendum campaign was never going to find favour with yes voters - he makes it clear in his foreword that he is a fervent unionist, and the majority of the conversations he reports are with supporters of the 'Better Together' campaign. It is also evident from the beginning of the book that he has a very low opinion of Alex Salmond. This is not to say that he is uncritical of politicians who firmly in the 'no' camp - Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson is frequently described as incompetent, Gordon Brown as paranoid, Nick Clegg as 'a very cold fish' and UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond as an idiot. And his fellow journalists do not escape the author's blunt assessment of their abilities - or lack of them! But the gleeful character assassinations are what makes the book so entertaining.

This is not to say that the book is without a serious side. Mr. Cochrane rightly criticises Alex Salmond for his failure to condemn the bullying antics of some of his more extreme supporters. He also highlights the wildly overestimated oil revenues produced by the 'Yes' camp and recent events have proved him right.

Some politicians do emerge from this book with their reputations intact. Mr. Cochrane clearly has a soft spot for the late Margo MacDonald despite their political differences. 'Better Together' leader Alistair Darling is probably the politician that he regards most highly in relation to the campaign and his calm, measured approach is much praised, but Salmond's then-deputy Nicola Sturgeon receives many positive comments and her abilities are obviously respected by the author, much as he disagrees with her views

The book is not without flaws - accounts of family outings and non-political dinners are of little interest to the general reader, and an index would have been helpful. Those looking for a sober and unbiased history should go elsewhere, as this is not what Mr. Cochrane aims to provide. However, it succeeds overall as one man's entertaining snapshot of a fascinating and important campaign.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 21, 2015 11:40 AM GMT

Isabella: The Warrior Queen
Isabella: The Warrior Queen
by Kirstin Downey
Edition: Hardcover

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Very Disappointing, 16 Nov. 2014
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I was looking forward to reading this new biography of Isabella of Castile, the queen who, with her husband Ferdinand, conquered the last Moorish kingdom of Granada, sponsored the voyages of Columbus and raised Spain to the ranks of the great European powers. However, Kirsten Downey's book failed to live up to my expectations.

The 'blurb' on the front cover was a sign of things to come, as it described Isabella as a 'forgotten queen'. Really? Isabella must be one of the best known queens in history!. She is the subject of numerous modern biographies in both Spanish and English, including recent works by Peggy Liss and Nancy Rubin Stewart, and the Spanish drama series 'Isabel', based on her life and times has been shown in many countries and is currently on its third season.

Accuracy is an essential component of any historical biography, and Ms. Downey significantly fails to achieve this. The book is riddled with factual errors. Dates are wrongly recorded - for example, the siege of Gerona took place in 1462, not 1463 - and King Ferrante of Naples is given two different causes of death. Ms Downey correctly states that the counties of Roussillon and Cerdagne were returned to Spain by France in 1493 but later describes them as cities and says that they were in French hands in 1502. Cesare Borgia is stated to have been transferred to the fortress of La Mota 'under Isabella's watchful eye' but this did not happen until June 1505, seven month's after the Queen's death! Isabella is said to have been married for twenty five years, but as she married in 1469 and died in 1504, the correct figure is thirty five.. These and other mistakes really should have been corrected by the author or her editor prior to publication.

The book is also strangely unbalanced by the inclusion of material which is of limited relevance. Ms. Downey expends a whole chapter on the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, an event which occurred when Isabella was only a baby. She also writes at some length about the invasion of Spain by Moslem troops in the 8th century, but includes little information on the subsequent Spanish reconquest through the medieval period. The ten year war waged by Ferdinand and Isabella to conquer the kingdom of Granada is given only one chapter, but was undoubtedly one of the Queen's major achievements. There is little or no information on the Queen's economic policies and very little on her efforts to reform the Castilian church, in contrast to the amount of space devoted to the failings of the papacy of Rodrigo Borgia.

Although the book is generally well written, it is marred by some clumsy terms of phrase such as 'she had had to learn to live with' and 'he took up company with other women'. The author is over-fond of quoting from secondary sources within the text rather than leaving these to the footnotes. Her lack of training as a historian sometimes shows in her lack of understanding of contemporary terms - for example, 'lusty' means strong and healthy in sixteenth century English, not lecherous. She struggles to critically evaluate her sources, most notably in her treatment of the Spanish general Gonsalvo de Cordoba, who was a favourite of the Queen. Ms Downey takes contemporary and modern hagiographies of 'the Great Captain' at face value, criticising Ferdinand for sidelining him after Isabella's death.but the King had good reason to be suspicious of a man who attempted to use Spanish resources to win himself a state in Pisa, took kickbacks from contractors when Viceroy of Naples and leaked state secrets to the Venetian ambassador.

However, the greatest weakness of this biography is its treatment of Isabella's husband Ferdinand. Ms. Downey clearly believes that many of Isabella's achievements have been wrongly credited to her husband. Whilst this may have been the case with some contemporary writers such as Niccolo Machiavelli, modern writers have generally redressed the balance. In her efforts to address what she sees as an injustice, Ms. Downey falls into the trap of virtually ignoring Ferdinand's contribution Although Isabella was, as the author says, the driving force behind the conquest of Granada, she could hardly have achieved this without Ferdinand's leadership of the army Bizarrely, she also describes Isabella as the driving force behind foreign policy, an area in which Ferdinand took the lead. She appears to base this assertion on Isabella's involvement in the negotiations with England for her daughter Catherine's marriage, but this was only one part of Spain's international relations. The author also dismisses Ferdinand's achievements as sole ruler of Castile after Isabella's death as almost nothing of significance', ignoring the consolidation of Spanish power in Italy and the Americas and the conquest of the kingdom of Navarre. As a result of this prejudice against Ferdinand, Ms.Downey fails to explore one of the most interesting and unique aspects of Isabella's reign, namely how she worked in partnership with her husband.

Readers who want to learn more about Isabella and her achievements should seek out the excellent biographies by Peggy Liss and Nancy.Rubin Stewart rather than this book. The television series 'Isabel' also gives a more accurate account of the life of this important Queen. ..

The Queen's Vow
The Queen's Vow
by C W Gortner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Pleasantly surprised, 1 Mar. 2013
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This review is from: The Queen's Vow (Paperback)
Having read Mr. Gortner's novel 'The Last Queen, which features some of the same characters and is told from the point of view of Queen Isabel's daughter Juana, I picked up this book with some trepidation. Whilst I enjoyed the pace and writing style of the previous book, I was irritated by the numerous inaccuracies and changes to the circumstances and behaviour of the historical persons depicted.

However, this book was a very pleasant surprise. Apart from one major change, which the author makes clear he made in order to introduce a major character at an earlier stage in the narrative, the book is generally true to historical fact. It also retains the positive qualities of the previous work by bringing the world of early Renaissance Spain convincingly to life.

Mr. Gortner vividly depicts the difficulties which the young Princess Isabel endured - her sheltered childhood in a remote castle with an increasingly ill mother, her shock when plunged into the middle of her brother's debauched court and her successful evasion of a series of unappealing suitors. Her love for her husband Fernando and their strong and mutually supportive relationship is very well portrayed, although the author tones down some of the latter's behaviour in order to heighten the romance.

One of the most striking aspects of the book is how Mr. Gortner handles the decisions the Queen made which are the most shocking to modern readers - the introduction of the state-controlled Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews. Instead of a gung-ho fanatic intent from the outset on persecuting and expelling all non-Catholics, we are shown a devout but rigid woman who grapples with a very difficult set of circumstances before embarking on a tragic course of action. This seem to me to accord with the known facts, as Isabel hesitated for several years after the Pope granted permission prior to implementing the Castilian Inquisition.

The book has some flaws - the second half feels somewhat rushed, particularly when dealing with the long war to reconquer Granada, and the ending is rather abrupt. A longer volume would have been welcome and would have enabled the events of Isabel's reign to be treated in more depth.

Overall, I would recommend 'The Queen's Vow' as an excellent read that gives a good insight into a period and place which may be unfamiliar to British readers. It would be good to have a sequel in which post-1492 events are seen through Isabel's eyes rather than her daughter's - I was amused to note that much of the first chapter of 'The Last Queen' concerning the fall of Granada is here dismissed by the Queen as one of Juana's flights of fancy!

The Last Queen
The Last Queen
by C. W. Gortner
Edition: Hardcover

25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A well-written story - let down by inaccuracy, 28 April 2009
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This review is from: The Last Queen (Hardcover)
Juana of Castile, the Queen of Spain who never ruled, is a fascinating subject for a novel - a life full of intrigue and drama. The second daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, sister of Henry V111's queen Katharine of Aragon, she is married at sixteen to the Archduke Philip, heir to the Emperor Maximilian. Reluctant to leave home, she falls in love with her husband at first sight. But the marriage turns stormy as Juana is torn between conflicting emotions and political demands. She finds herself in the middle of a bitter power struggle between her husband and father - a struggle in which she can only be the loser.

Unlike her parents and sister, the real Juana wrote very few letters, and her personality therefore remains an enigma - perfect material for a novelist.

Does Mr. Gortner pull it off? Well, in part yes. He writes well, with a gift for conjuring up the sights and sounds of Renaissance Europe. His characters are lively and the story grips as it moves along at a fast pace. The twists and turns of the political machinations which surround Juana are well described, as is Juana's increasing bewilderment and sense of isolation.

But he plays fast and loose with the facts from the very beginning. His description of the surrender of Granada bears little relationship to the true story and his account of the conquest of Naples is even less accurate. Some characters - most notably the Emperor Maximilian - bear virtually no resemblance to their real life counterparts. Most crucially, he turns Juana into a helpless victim by underplaying or omitting some of her more bizarre behaviours. He also overplays the sexism angle - it was Juana's personality, not her sex, which convinced her family that she was unable to rule. Even her mother and sister considered her incapable and unstable. The novel's 'afterword', apparently factual, is riddled with inaccuracies.

Does this matter? Well, yes. In a novel where all the characters are real people, the novelist must of course invent dialogue and interpret events, but must surely base this on events that really happened. Mr. Gortner fails in this regard. A pity, because this book has many good qualities.

Mistress Of The Art Of Death: Mistress of the Art of Death, Adelia Aguilar series 1
Mistress Of The Art Of Death: Mistress of the Art of Death, Adelia Aguilar series 1
by Ariana Franklin
Edition: Paperback

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an excellent historical thriller, 11 July 2008
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Ariana Franklin (the pseudonym of Diana Norman) has created an engaging and believable character in Adelia, a doctor with a special interest in pathology who is called in by Henry 11 of England to investigate a series of child murders.

Adelia is forced to battle prejudice and sexism in her search for the truth, but wins the trust of the Cambridgeshire people by her skill and the love of the King's representative, Sir Roland, by her feisty character.

The mystery is very well plotted and the background both well-researched and believable. Ms. Franklin's characters are lively and I particularly liked her portrayal of the shrewd and forceful King Henry. The grim circumstances of Adelia's quest are lightened by some welcome touches of humour.

I have enjoyed several of the author's previous historical novels, published under her own name, but found this book her best yet. I am looking forward to her next one, 'The Maze of Death', which continues Adelia's adventures.

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