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Niel Black (UK)

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Breakfast at Sotheby's: An A-Z of the Art World
Breakfast at Sotheby's: An A-Z of the Art World
Price: 9.49

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What makes art sell ?, 5 Jan 2014
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I bought this after reading excellent press reviews. It deserves them. Philip Hook gives an entertaining guide to what drives prices for artwork and artists, based on 35 years of experience, mostly at Sotheby's and Christie's. Many conclusions are fun, essentially that people pay more for works that look good on walls (including one buyer who wanted a Matisse that matched the blue his wife was painting the walls with); so prices are higher for bright colours, attractive people and popular subjects - apparently railways are particularly popular, go for big but not too big to fit through the front door, and Impressionists are so partly so pricey because they used pleasing colours - his suggestions for the most popular exhibitions imaginable are 'Monet: Colour and Light' and 'Picasso's Women'.

He has made the book as easy to read as possible. It has five sections ('Wall Power', 'Market Weather' etc) each broken up into short lively sections - for example on Nazi Germany's censorship of 'degenerate' art, or the economics of art theft. He mixes analysis and anecdotes - such as setting himself on fire trying to light a client's cigarette. Far from precious about art he mocks the art world - including a Glossary of pretentious terms ('Challenging: obscure, incomprehensible or unpleasant'). I raced through the whole thing in a couple of days, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

I sometimes felt I would have liked two different books - one of more thorough analysis of the art market, one just of his anecdotes. But by putting them together, he both gave me an excellent read and made sure I will think differently next time I hear what a piece of art has sold for.


The Kingdom in the Sun, 1130-1194
The Kingdom in the Sun, 1130-1194
Price: 8.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully told medieval history, 28 July 2013
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Volume 2 of Norwich's history begins with Roger's success in forcing the Pope to crown him and make Sicily a kingdom. This started Norman Sicily' Golden Age (perhaps Sicily's only one), whether measured by political power, beautiful architecture, intellectual curiosity, or religious tolerance. Norwich focuses on the first two; this is mostly a chronological political history, with asides to cover the greatest Norman Sicilian buildings (based on Norwich's visits in the 1960s - and partly written up when he was stuck in Sudan by the 1967 Six Days War).

The political focus means there is less space for economic and social history - what life was actually like for Sicilians during the Golden Age. But the sheer fascination of the period makes up for that. It has everything: Byzantine, German and Muslim Emperors; Saints and Popes (rarely the same people); noble rebellions and religious wars; Sicilian Muslims, Greeks and Jews; and castles, palaces and cathedrals. And the great overarching drama of Norman Sicily's spectacular rise, and then decline, ending a uniquely tolerant era in an intolerant age.

This is both a great piece of medieval history writing and a fascinating insight into Sicilian history. So good for either those interested in history or anyone visiting Sicily - if you are both, you are really in luck.


Altai: A Novel
Altai: A Novel

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good historical novel, but no Name of the Rose, 28 Jun 2013
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This review is from: Altai: A Novel (Kindle Edition)
Altai is written by the same four Italian author behind Q, using the pseudonym Luther Blissett. Like Q it is a self-consciously literary historical novel. It is set among Jews of the Mediterranean, the Sephardim exiled from Spain and Portugal, facing persecution in Christian Europe and fragile protection in the Ottoman Empire during the late 16th century. The protagonist, a lapsed Jew turned spycatcher in Venice, is forced to flee to Istanbul, where he becomes caught up in the plotting of Joseph Nasi, the leader of the Jewish community there.

There is plenty to like - a fascinating period in European history (featuring the Ottoman capture of Cyprus from Venice and the great naval battle of Lepanto) and the equally fascinating but less widely known Jewish history of the period. The writing is stylish, in short chapters, with a big theme around loyalty and betrayal.

But for me it suffered from the inevitable comparison with Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, with its great plot, characters and writing. Which Altai does not quite have. The style sometimes feels self-conscious, and the characters and plot thin.

Overall, I enjoyed it - but as good rather than great, which I had hoped it would be.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 26, 2013 1:40 PM BST


The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I
The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I
Price: 4.68

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great subject, not quite a great book, 12 May 2013
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Most people know that Elizabeth 1 had one of the world's first spy systems, under Francis Walsingham, that helped find the evidence that led to Mary Queen of Scots execution at Fotheringay Castle. But many (or at least me) are hazy on the detail. Alford sets out to tell the full story, including: the spies themselves (notably Thomas Phelipes, one of Walsingham's code breakers); the political and religious context; and some of the great cases (the Babington Plot, the execution of Mary, the arrest of Edward Campion etc). Alford read many original documents (commenting on handwriting and amendments), and paints a vivid picture of paranoid times.

Alford tries to strike the difficult balance between providing enough background history for non-experts and enough detail about spies to be new. This did not quite work for me. Too much was a quick history of Elizabethan England (but well done) and there were gaps in the analysis of spying - eg how ciphers were broken, letters intercepted or intelligence used by Elizabeth. I don't blame the author, who clearly wants to reach a wider audience.

So while I enjoyed the book overall, it left me wanting either to buy a history of Elizabethan England, or a more detailed history of the episodes covered in the book. But as an introduction to either, this book works well.


Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire
Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire
Price: 4.50

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars New take on spying and empire, 4 April 2013
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Walton deserves four stars for putting together two well known topics - espionage and end of empire, and coming up with a new take on both. Many of the sources (official documents) are new, making the book feel fresh. I liked his argument that intelligence links were an effective - and cheap - way of prolonging British influence in the former empire. And that many of Britain's end of empire failures were intelligence failures - particularly failing to predict or infiltrate anti-colonial movements, in Cyprus, Kenya etc, or learn lessons from past failures. There is a short, but informative, history of British intelligence, and a straightforward country by country (Palestine, Cyprus, Malaya, Suez etc) account of events, which is easy to follow and allows comparisons.

That said, I do see why some reviewers were less kind. I could have lived without strained analogies with 21st century torture and rendition (see Alastair Horne's 'A Savage War of Peace' about Algeria for a better condemnation of torture). This may grate on some readers. And he often seemed amazed that spies spy on people. By relying on written sources, mostly on MI5, the story sometimes feels dry, and incomplete (eg in comparison to Gordon Correra's 'The Art of Betrayal' on MI6 after WW2, full of first hand accounts and detail).

But the topic and thesis helped me overlook that, and I found it a fast and fascinating read that made me think a little differently about Britain's exit from empire.


Diamonds, Gold and War: The Making of South Africa
Diamonds, Gold and War: The Making of South Africa
by Martin Meredith
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Readable history of colonial South Africa, 27 Jan 2013
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Meredith, a prolific writer about African (mostly post-colonial) history, covers southern Africa from the discovery of diamonds through to 1910 and the Union of South Africa - and so packs in a fasinating chunk of events and people - diamond and gold rushes, Zulu and Boer wars, Cecil Rhodes and Paul Kruger. It focuses on what is now South Africa, but covers most of British-ruled southern Africa, including the founding of Rhodesia.

The books greatest strengths are a great topic and readability. I got through the 523 pages pretty fast, helped by plenty of quotes from contemporaries and lively detail - like the decoration of Rhodes Capetown mansion of Groote Schuur. I found him particularly good on Rhodes', and later Milner's, political manoeuvrings designed to expand British influence, against Bower opposition and scepticism in London - and to the great cost of the black population (don't buy it if you want to feel good about British colonialism). I bought the book about South African after a holiday in South Africa, feeling ignorant about its history. This book addressed that perfectly.

It's perhaps not ideal for someone who knows the subject well. Packing so much in means that each topic is covered pretty swiftly, and there is more narrative than analysis. But as an introduction it is great.


Commando: Winning World War II Behind Enemy Lines
Commando: Winning World War II Behind Enemy Lines
Price: 4.35

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classy military history, 19 Oct 2012
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Commando tells the history of the Commandos, from their birth soon after Dunkirk to VE and VJ day. It includes SBS's role, their joint operations with SAS, and their merger with the Royal Marines - and covers every theatre of war, from Norway to Dieppe to the War in the Desert - even West Africa and Lebanon.

The book is broken down into chapters covering individual operations - from huge battles like D Day and Dieppe to small raids - and from well known operations like the Cockleshell Heroes and Raid on Rommel to less known ones - like pirating Italian ships in a Spanish colony. That structure is much easier to follow (the Commandos had a truly bewildering history), lets individual stories to be told, and gives a sense of the weird and wonderful range of what the Commandos got up to.

There is a good mixture of accounts of fights, the battles in London over strategy and tactics (whether the Commandos were raiders or assault troops; and rivalry over who controlled them) and fascinating detail - the use of German Jewish refugees disguised as Germans, or the history of commando training. The author is honest about failures and uncertain overall effect, while highlighting the bravery of the individual soldiers, and impact on future generations of soldiers.

It's neither ridiculously gung ho nor a dry military history - and written in a clear straightforward style - often using the words of the Commandos themselves. So highly recommended to anyone interested in WW2 - or as a present for someone else who is.


An Expensive Place to Die
An Expensive Place to Die
Price: 2.48

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fun snappy thriller - but not Deighton's best, 6 Oct 2012
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"An expensive place to die" has all the elements of a classic Deighton thriller: a British anonymous hero (who may or may not be Harry Palmer, played by Michael Caine in films like Funeral in Berlin"); a cast of fun characters (a psychiatrist running a brothel, a Frencch secret service agent modelled on someone Deighton knew, a flaky playboy); lots of snappy dialogue; and a brief case full of nuclear secrets. As in many Deighton books, much of the fun is trying to work out who is on whose side, with plenty of twists and doublecrossing.

The title comes from Oscar Wilde's quote "dying in Paris is a terribly expensive business for a foreigner". As Deighton says in his new introduction (a big bonus in these new Kindle editions), Paris itself became one of the film's main characters - there is lots of 60s atmosphere, from art parties to local cafes.

I loved the style and liked the characters - but the central plot, revolving around a high class brothel where spies and diplomats compromise themselves, seemed a bit Hollywood to me (perhaps I move in the wrong circles). So I would recommend other Len Deightons - Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin etc. But if you like them, Expensive Place will give you a fun read.


The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama
The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama
Price: 3.08

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written, fascinating topic, but odd focus on Crusades, 21 Sep 2012
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Vasco da Gama's voyages had more immediate impact than Christopher Columbus or Magellan's. In a few years, Europe went from not knowing whether you could sail round Africa, to colonies in India and shortly China and Japan. This turned Portugal (and Vasco da Gama) rich, and transformed the economies of the Mediterranean and eastern Europe, as Europeans could buy spices (relatively) cheaply through Portugal, not ruinously expensively through the overland route.

This book is mostly an excellent and well researched guide for the non-expert on how that happened. There is a good mix of context and strategy (eg Venice's attempts to retain its spice monopoly), original sources, and colourful detail - the realisation that Europe had little to sell that the more sophisticated Indians wanted to buy, or the history of 'Prester John'. The style is clear and readable (apart from occasional purple prose of "he looked out, over the storm tossed Atlantic" type that you can skip).

The problem is the 'Crusade' title, or rather the author's desire to make it relevant. The book starts with the founding of Islam and ends with Al Qaeda, which I could live without. Portugal is not mentioned until Chapter 3, and Da Gama until Chapter 5. This is at the expense of, for example, a better understanding of why Portugal, rather than anywhere else, led the colonial era, or why European influence expanded so rapidly in Asia.

So there is scope for a better book on the subject and by the author. But for both a good read and overview of the subject, I would recommend.


River of Shadows: A Commissario Soneri Mystery (Commissario Soneri 1)
River of Shadows: A Commissario Soneri Mystery (Commissario Soneri 1)
Price: 3.96

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A good read, but not a stand out, 11 Sep 2012
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Like most such detective stories/series, River of Shadows combines character (Commissario Soneri) and place (the Po Valley in Northern Italy), along with a quirky murder (a barge captain whose barge is found floating down the river pilotless) and a bit of history (the partisan fighting in Italy in later WWII).

With so many books following that model, standing out is a challenge - which this didn't quite meet. Soneri didn't quite comes to life (at least for me), and neither did his companions and girlfriend, or life in northern Italy. The plot has only limited suspense and twists, and the partisan back story doesn't feel compelling. It suffers by comparison with Andrea Camelleri's Inspector Montalbano - which have more charm, character and fun.

The best thing about the book was the description of the River Po in the flood - as an atmospheric backdrop, as a plot driver and even as a character. And it is well written enough - I happily ploughed through it in a weekend. So it's worth trying, but there are better peers out there.


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