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Mr. David M. Gostyn (Eastbourne, Sussex)

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My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots
My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots
by John Guy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shedding Light on Semi-Darkness, 9 Jan. 2013
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I cannot speak highly enough of this book. Other reviewers seem to think the same, and I am not sure I am saying anything new, but my enthusiasm for the book was so great that I just felt I had to write something.

Almost anyone with minimal knowldge of British history knows something about Mary Queen of Scots; they also know quite a bit about Queen Elizabeth and her senior minister Cecil, later Lord Burleigh. Yet this book manages to shed a great deal more light on these important people than even experts would have known before reading it.

The outline is, of course, well known. Queen of Scotland only days after her birth, off to France at the age of 6 to marry the heir to that kingdom, queen of France and then dowager queen almost immediately. Back to Scotland to marry a second husband who then murders a senior advisor of hers before being himself murdered. Then a struggle with the Scottish nobles which Mary comprehensively loses, a foolish third marriage, then flight to England where she spends years as a prisoner before being beheaded for her part in a plot against Elizabeth.

For starters, Guy gives Mary's life a narrative that makes sense of the various individual strands. If I may digress for a minute, I have a post-graduate history degree and almost gave up my studies on day 1 when I started to read the first book that my new tutor gave me to read. It was exactly what I most feared, almost indigestible with intellectual argument where the author's intellect is given a much higher priority than book clarity. Luckily later books were much better and after the first week I was never again tempted to give up. Indeed I could recommend some of the books I read then as enthusiastically as I can recommend this book on Mary. Academic history books can be a good read, but often aren't.

If a good narrative were the only strength of this book I would still have enormously enjoyed reading it, but would not be giving it 5 stars. What makes the book great is a combination of the detailed analysis of some of the more contentious facts, and the insight the book gives on the relationship between Cecil and Elizabeth, showing how strongly they differed on how best to treat Mary, not just after the Babbington plot, but pretty well from the moment she returns to Scotland after the death of her first husband. It also contains some little nuggets of trivia that I feel the better for knowing. I now know that a well know nursery rhyme is based on Mary, and one of Shakespeare's best known characters is a parody on Cecil.

OK I did not know either of those little nuggets. More important, I also did not know that there is strong reason to believe that Mary was completely innocent of the murder of Darnley. Most histories suggest that she was at least in some way involved; he was such a bastard that even if she was completely guilty most people today would be reluctant to criticise her, but at the time her presumed involvement was an unspeakable crime. I also did not realise that Cecil was so fanatically Protestant that he fought tooth and nail to prevent Elizabeth from establishing a good relationship with Mary (as well as being fellow queens, they were, after all also first cousins once removed). The ladies in fact never met. But they certainly would have done had Elizabeth's (and Mary's) wishes not been thwarted by Cecil.

One small criticsm. At the point where Darnley has just been murdered, Guy interrupts his narrative with some chapters analysing the various accounts by interested parties. A serious academic book would have been seriously incomplete without this analysis; they are needed to argue Mary's innocence or guilt. But it does interrupt the flow of the narrative, and perhaps that analysis could have been hived off to an appendix. But that is a very small criticism, and I dare say that other readers are happier with the analysis in line. It certainly does not detract from my overall statement that this book is a first class piece of history.

Within the Hollow Crown: A Valiant King's Struggle to Save His Country, His Dynasty, and His Love
Within the Hollow Crown: A Valiant King's Struggle to Save His Country, His Dynasty, and His Love
Price: £7.19

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Cliched and aimed at an unsophisticated audience, 5 Sept. 2012
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I enjoy reading history as non-fiction, but also like reading well written fiction such as Graves's I Claudius and several Gore Vidal books on fictionalised American history, e.g. Lincoln. With some periods of history there is a choice, but with the reign of Richard II a scouring of non-fiction sources left me empty handed. So I tried Mrs Barnes's book.

Let me start with the positive. As a result of reading the book I have achieved my primary objective, I am now much better informed about Richard's reign.

But there was almost as big a negative. The style of writing seems to have been aimed at a very young or very unsophisticated audience. For example, on learning about the Lollards the very young Richard immediately starts to have 21st century thoughts about the wisdom of religious tolerance and the wisdom of translating the bible into language that the ordinary citizens can understand. How, he argues, can references to the eye of a needle be understood by people who had no idea what a camel was or looked like.

Examples like that just grated. So I did not find the writer's style at all attractive and have no plans to read other bookd by her. Luckily her other books deal with periods better covered elsewhere than Richard's reign.

Summarising, the book did an excellent job of filling a huge gap in historical coverage. But reading it was rather irritating.

One final observation. At the end of the book was a 15 year old's quiz. Why did Richard do that? How did he feel when such and such happened? I would be pretty sure that this final piece of awfulness was not the author's but the publisher's. Whichever, the book would certainly have been better without it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 4, 2013 8:12 PM BST

Arbella: England's Lost Queen
Arbella: England's Lost Queen
by Sarah Gristwood
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Uninteresting story of an uninteresting lady, 2 May 2012
As a keen historian I have read a huge number of pure histories and a large, if somewhat smaller, number of novels based on historical events. Some pure histories are hard work, a couple inevitably by virtue of the nature of the topic, others because of the style of the writer. But the majority are written by people who are really enthusiastic about the period and convey that enthusiasm in their writing. Obvious good writers for the Tudor period and Guy and Starkey, while for the Stuarts (the period in which I specialised for my degree) you could not do better than Miller, Kenyon, Jones, and Kishlansky.

Arbella Stuart comes somewhere in between the Tudors and the Stuarts. In defence of the book's writer, Sarah Gristwwod, Arbella seems to have been a very uninteresting person with no great personality. So it would have been hard to make any book about her all that interesting. But this book really bored me, and I gave up half way through.

An earlier comment got her claim to the throne wrong. At Elizabeth's death, James had what was clearly the best claim, being a great grandson on his mother's side of Margaret Tudor by her first marriage. In addition to which he also had the next best claim because he was a great grandson on his father's side of the same Margaret Tudor, but only by her second marriage. Arbella was only the daughter of a younger brother of the grandson through whom James's second claim was derived; her claim to the throne was clearly weaker.

Being royal she could only marry if the monarch arranged the marriage, and since neither Elizabeth nor James made such an arrangement, she should not have married. That she first tried to and then actually did, was an act of treason, and she was punished. Unfortunate for the lady, but not very interesting. Even her attempts at marriage were uninteresting. The marriages of her aunt Mary Queen of Scots (some time wife of Darnley, Arbella's father's older brother) were much more worthy of report.

And, basically, that is that. Events of neither interest nor significance that came across just that way. The most interesting passages of the book relate to the great Bess of Harwick, Arbella's grandmother on her (non-royal) mother's side. But there is nothing in the book that a half hour on Wikopaedia could not have provided.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 22, 2013 10:22 AM BST

The Man on a Donkey, Part 1: A Chronicle (Loyola Classics)
The Man on a Donkey, Part 1: A Chronicle (Loyola Classics)
by H. F. M. Prescott
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.05

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars very disappointing, 2 April 2012
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This book is recommended in several places. For example, look up Pilgrimage of Grace in Wikipaedia and there is a reference to it. Seeing as the author died in 1972, it is quite something that its reputation has endured at all.

That said, I really did not like the book at all. I felt that 9 pages out of 10 were describing events that were of not the slightest interest. The author is clear on which characters are fiction, or largely fiction, and these are the characters she spends most time discussing.

The descriptions are not always easy to follow. For example, from general knowledge of history I knew that Robert Aske was the leader of the uprising. Early in the book we are introduced to Sir Robert Aske, who has various children, one of whom is called Robin. Suddenly the narrative refers to 'Robert Aske' (admittedly not 'Sir' Robert) and we are meant to realise that this Robert is the son we met a few pages ago as Robin, and not the only one (admittedly a 'Sir') whose name actually was Robert.

All in all, the narrative was slow, confusing, and often irrelevant to the main thrust of the history. Having read the book I know nothing about the Pilgrimage that I did not already know or could not as easily get from an encyclopaedia. None of the characters came to life. I dare say that the second book is where all the action takes place, this book just serving to introduce the characters, but I for one am not going to bother.

For a really good novel on the aftermath of the Pilgrimage, one of the Shardlake novels in C. J. Sansoms's set is excellent. The weakest of Sansom's novels is an order of magnitude better than this one.

The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One
The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One
by Miranda Carter
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but Flawed, 7 Feb. 2012
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This review is going to come across more negatively than is really my intention. Several other reviewers have told of the overall excellence of the book, how three men, whose intelligence ranged from limited to crassly stupid, ruled the three main European powers, with consequences that we were all aware of long before we opened the book.

In fairness to George, for all his intellectual limitations, did much to create the modern monarchy, but that all came after the period that this book discusses.

An earlier review by William Roberts started on the theme that I am going to pursue. He argues that more editing would have improved the book. My argument is that often such editing as has been applied has been downright sloppy.

Early in the book we were told something about Bismarck. And about three pages later we were told exactly the same thing. Later the following sentence about George appears:

"... he would complain about 'his own position, and the terrible cross-fire' to wh. he conceives himself to be exposed."

This 'wh.' is surely a typo. Yet the same sentence, typo included, is repeated half a dozen pages later.

I was also unhappy with the style of the author's references to Edward VII. She and other writers dealing with the period are unlucky in that three of the four men who reigned as king of UK in the 20th century chose to give themselves a regal title different from their every day forename. Victoria's son Bertie chose to reign as Edward VII. George's sons David and Albert later chose to reign as Edward VIII and George VI. So an author has to decide how to refer to these men. Especially seeing as there were as many references to Bertie relating to the time before he became king as there were after, I would have thought that referring to him as Bertie was the obvious choice. Carter is inconsistent, but on the whole she refers to him as Edward, which I found very confusing.

Later, referring to George's feelings at the deaths of Nicholas and his family, the book states that "George's son, the Duke of Windsor, said that ...." Now that really is confusing. Some time after George's death, his oldest son David did indeed become Duke of Windsor, but he never held that title during the period covered by the book. And he is referred to as David in many other places in the book. Is the author referring to something that David said after he had become Duke of Windsor? If so, she should have clarified.

Overall, a good and interesting book that could, with greater care, have been a lot better.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 30, 2012 11:46 AM BST

Haydn: The Complete Concertos
Haydn: The Complete Concertos
Price: £21.60

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haydn Concertos in a New Light, 4 Feb. 2012
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Like other reviewers, my view on Haydn is as a great composer of symphonies and string quartets, rather than as a composer of concertos. His trumpet concerto can be argued to be the greatest concerto ever written, but the rest - or so I believed - consisted of a couple of cello concertos (the CD set actually contains three), and about a CD's worth of OK violin concertos and another of OK piano concertos, all listenable rather than anything special. In much the same way as Mozart's concertos are the works of genius while most of his syphonies are no more than good, that observation seems to apply to Haydn in reverse.

Well, I am not going to argue that this CD set reverses that jusgement. Apart from the trumpet concerto, no work in the set remotely challenges Mozart's great concertos for brilliance. But I got quite enormous pleasure from this collection and have no hesitation in giving the set the maximum 5 stars. The works are all given good clean performances, and the booklet (actually a complete discussion of Haydn's symphonies, piano sonatas, and string quartets as well as his concertos)is as good as any CD accompaniment I have seen.

The works that were new to me, e.g. some for woodwind and non-piano keyboard, were all refreshingly played. As were the violin and piano concertos that I had heard before. The whole experience was one long source of musical pleasure. The set is hardly expensive, and beautifully presented as well as beautifully played, and I heartily recommend the set.

The Hog Takes to Precision
The Hog Takes to Precision
by Victor Mollo
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.95

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, a regurgitation of old ideas, 26 Jan. 2012
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According to the Amazon website, Mollo's Bridge in the Menagerie was first published in 1965. That was roughly the time when I started both playing bridge and buying bridge books, and Menagerie was one of my first purchases. Menagerie contained some very good bridge hands and was very funny; deservedly, it was very successful.

So successful that Mollo produced several more in exactly the same style. I shall not attempt to list them all, though I do have them all in my book collection. The trouble was, increasingly, that the books were not only in the same style but also contained regurgitations of exactly the same hands and jokes. After a while a new Mollo book was more repeat than new material.

This latest, Hog Takes to Precision, is by far the worst of the 'repeats'. There was hardy a deal or situation that I did not recognise from a previous book.

There was also an aspect that really puzzles me. On odd occasions, the book contains references to today's top players and writers. Now Mollo died in 1987. Would he even have heard of Eric Rodwell and Jeff Meckstroth, or of Barry Rigal? It was not his style to discuss actual players, yet in this book he discusses players whose arrival at the top, or even arrival at a status whereby Mollo might have heard of them, came after his death. I cannot help thinking that the material is not all Mollo.

Overall I cannot recommend this book. I bought it for completeness because I owned every previous Menagerie book. On reflection that was a poor reason. For a reader who is not familiar with Mollo, then by all means buy the vastly better Bridge in the Menagerie. For someone who has some Mollo and wants more, you will be, as I was, seriously disappointed.

Original Sin (Inspector Adam Dalgliesh Mystery)
Original Sin (Inspector Adam Dalgliesh Mystery)
by P. D. James
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Moderate throughout, absurd ending, 20 Nov. 2011
Opinions seem to be very divided on this one. A reviewer in the Observer is claimed to have described the book as 'outstanding, while the reviewer in the Financial Times has described it as 'James's finest novel to date'. Needless to say, the book does not quote the poor reviews but I note that some Amazon reviewers have disliked it as much as I dad.

I have read several James novels including some - I have 'A Taste for Death' particularly in mind - that I so enjoyed that I was hoping that somehow my reading the book would never end. However, this is not the first of hers that I have found weak, so she clearly comes across to me as a very variable writer.

I found Original Sin particularly poor, and completed it only as a matter of principle. The central characters, mainly partners and emplotyees in a publishing company, are described in some detail and none are either particularly interesting or even particularly believable. The revelation that leads to the identification of the murderer is quite unbelievable, as is the final twist.

I will continue to read James's novels. But despite this one, and not because of it. For a James enthusiast who wishes to read everything that the good lady has written, then clearly reading Original Sin is a must. But I can think of absolutely no other reason for reading it. To my taste it was quite significantly the weakest of hers that I have yet read.

The West Wing - Complete Season 1-7 [DVD] [2006]
The West Wing - Complete Season 1-7 [DVD] [2006]
Dvd ~ Martin Sheen
Offered by 101Trading
Price: £44.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding with minor flaws, 9 Sept. 2011
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I have just finished watching the complete set, and, with no more to view, I feel as though I have just lost a friend. From start to finish the West Wing provided completely credible first class entertainment.

If I had to give marks out of 10 I would unhesitatingly give 10, Marks out of 1000, yes there were some tiny flaws so I guess I would only give 995. In view of the overall excellence, it seems churlish to list the flaws, but I shall, as follows:

a) The writers were constantly trying to introduce new characters to give some variety, and on the whole their attempts were not successful. In the first series they introduced us to a lobbyist who drove like a maniac and shouted like she was high on something. A series of two later they introduced a Republican lawyer into the staff of a basically Democratic White House. That attempt was almost embarassingly bad.

b) Some of the actors spoke their lines very badly. With one exception this criticism only applies to the minor parts. But the actor playing the lady who spent most of the series as assistant to the deputy chief of staff, the character's name was Donatella Moss, needs elocution lessons. I would guess that I understood only one sentence in three of hers.

c) The writers introduced two scenes where people played chess. These writers clearly do not know the first thing about the game. It would have taken five minutes for someone with just a passing acquaintance of the game to correct the quite crass chess related aspects of their scripts. This did not really detract from the story, but I would think that any viewer, like myself, who does have a minimal knowledge of the game would have been very irritated.

That said, there were six or seven central characters who were present throughout, or almost throughout the series, and were uniformly excellent. They really seemed like a well practiced team, both as actors and as characters. For the last series or two, they introduced Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits as opposing candidates for the presidential election to replace Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen), the president for the whole series. Both these two acted brilliantly, though perhaps credulity was a bit stretched in both cases when they stood by their principles and said what they believed not what they thought it was electorally judicious to say. I so disbelieve and distrust every politician on both sides of the Atlantic that I just found their honesty a bit hard to take.

Give me a few months and I think I will go back to the beginning and watch the lot again. I had no missing discs. Not one disc was in any way faulty. I can only give a (pretty well) unqualified recommendation.

Sapphire [DVD]
Sapphire [DVD]
Dvd ~ Nigel Patrick
Price: £5.30

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars About Time Too, but need to see the actual DVD, 23 Aug. 2011
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This review is from: Sapphire [DVD] (DVD)
I have a relatively short list of films that have not - at least thus far - appeared on DVD, and I look them up on Amazon about them every so often. Sapphire is certainly on my list, and I share the enthusiasm of the other reviewer for the film. One detail that he did not mention is that some of the action takes place on Hampstead Heath.

One word of warning. Another of the films on my short list has recently been released on DVD and I noticed that the Amazon critics were unanimous in slating the very poor quality of the picture. I wait with interest for the first reviews from people that have actually seen the film on this new DVD. I bought the DVD of anothere on my list, Patterns, and the picture quality was dreadful. Once bitten ...

Until then all I can say is that is a fine story with good characterisations and excellent acing. The other reviewer did not mention Nigel Patrick who plays the main part, the detective investigating the murder. Patrick has never turned in a less that excellent performance. Surely most watchers of films of this vintage can remember him as Jack Hawkins's No 2 in League of Gentlemen. He was also magnificent in one of the Somerset Maughan short story adaptations, as Mr Knowall (in a film called Trio).
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 12, 2012 7:52 PM GMT

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