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Milo di Thernan (London)

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Revenge of the Rose: A Novel
Revenge of the Rose: A Novel
by Nicole Galland
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Edible, 7 April 2014
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One of the children of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine was Richard the Lionheart. Another, Richard's elder sister, was Matilda, who married Henry the Lion of Saxony. Otto IV was their son, grew up in England and got on well with his uncles, Richard and (the evil) King John (of Robin Hood fame). To avoid courting controversy about historical validity, the edible Nicole Galland names him Konrad and this mischievous, astute, iridescent book is a story about a moment in time in his court. This is not history, but wonderful, imaginative context for history which, in its own way will give you a feel for three permanent historical imponderables - Burgundy, The Holy Roman Empire and Welf/Guelph versus Ghibelline. Konrad/Otto IV should not have been emperor; Frederick II of Hohenstaufen should have been, but he was too young - but pursue this elsewhere....I loved this book. The author must be a great lady to hang around with, because the characters she invents are. Oh, and was that use of the word "edible" appropriate? Not sure, but it sure is suggestive. And so is Nicole Galland's writing.

"In following the great events of the period - the Crusade, the wars with the Lombard communes, and the long drawn out struggle with the papacy - it is sometimes difficult to remember that life at the imperial court was not entirely concerned with affairs of state. There were the daily round of gossip, intrigue and love affairs, dancing, festivities and hunting, the usual diversions at any period of a rich and privileged society revolving around the person of the sovereign. All the more so, in this particular case, because the Emperor himself evidently enjoyed life and was a connoisseur of its pleasures and diversions, who even when he was older still preferred to be surrounded by young people." This from page 202 of Georgina Masson's biography of the other Emperor, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen.

Enjoy the daily round in this feast of a book.


The Ruby in Her Navel
The Ruby in Her Navel
by Barry Unsworth
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars All roads lead to and from Sicily, 20 Feb 2014
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This review is from: The Ruby in Her Navel (Hardcover)
History is accessible only to the extent that it has clear entrances and exits. You can spend years of frustration being haunted by an incomplete understanding of Guelph and Ghibelline or the significance of Naples or the relevance of the Brenner Pass. But the greater the frustration, the greater the delight at some erosion of that ignorance. Look at the Mediterranean from side to side and fix on Tyre, then Carthage, then Gades, the original Phoenician trade route. Now look north from Carthage to Genoa, with a nod to Rome and Pisa as you pass. Sicily is at the heart of the world.

Bu Sicily does not have clear entrances and exits, because everyone covets it.

No chapter in history more resembles a romance than that which records the sudden rise and brief fall of the house of Hauteville. In one generation the sons of Tancred passed from the condition of squires in the Norman vale of Cotentin, to knighthood in the richest isle of the southern sea. The Norse adventurers became sultans of an Oriental capital. The sea robbers assumed together with the sceptre the culture of an Arabian court.

That paragraph is an admiring quotation of one historian, Symonds, by another, Norwich. It captures the pivotal importance of Sicily. Rome wants the Normans to submit to the Pope's religious zeal, which the Albigensians in particular are undermining, but the Normans are tolerant of Moslems. Rome harnesses the military influence of Hohenstaufen Germans north of the Alps, who will evict the Saracens, in an effort to displace the Normans. (In return, the Hohenstaufens receive the Imperial crown from the Pope.) Rome succeeds eventually, with the birth of Frederick II in 1194, after which Rome regrets its actions, because the Holy Roman Empire has encircled Rome and the Swabian Hohenstaufens aren't listening any more. (Their envious neighbours, the Bavarian Welfs/Guelphs, might be more amenable to Papal demands though...)

Imagine the ankle of Italy as a stage where Normans build castles from which to crusade, Germans intrigue with bishops to invade, Greeks fight both along the line from Corfu to Corinth and those at either end of the Constantinople / Venice / Genoa trade route look on, worried that they might be next.

And read this book to get a very personal flavour of all of this, with the kind of illuminating story that stokes your imagination as you settle down to sleep, hopefully to dream in rich Mediterranean colours.


The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc
The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc
by Nancy Goldstone
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 14.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Light, like fiction, yet dense with fact. Magnificent., 19 Dec 2013
Margaret of Anjou never had a chance. Her grandmother, Yolande, was a principal architect of the French defeat of the English, by 1456, one date - fittingly the exoneration of Joan of Arc's reputation - to mark the end of the Hundred Years War. This made her a natural enemy and proof came with the ceding of Maine, Normandy and Rouen in the early years of her marriage to Henry VI. So, the next question is what was that War all about? And much of the answer depends on the madness of Charles VI, which was exploited by his paternal uncle, Philip the Bold of Burgundy, to divide France. I have waited years fully to understand the Burgundy/Valois antagonism. I have waited longer to understand the French claim on Naples, which this book takes me closer to, since Yolande's eldest son, Louis III, spent his life waiting to inherit it. And the new question nagging at me is the relevance of Aragon, which this book has poked and prodded me into considering. Nancy Goldstone is so direct, factual and occasionally mischievous that you can not help being charmed by her writing. And you learn so, so much. This book is a breathtaking achievement. Thank you.


The Queen of Last Hopes: The Story of Margaret of Anjou
The Queen of Last Hopes: The Story of Margaret of Anjou
by Susan Higginbotham
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.11

5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulously absorbing, 9 Dec 2013
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This book absorbed my attention more than most books do, so I have to give it a plug and the author a thank you for so skilfully widening my knowledge of the dramatis personae involved in the 15th century's French-English conflict. Without excellent historical stories like this, how could I ever work out Anne Neville and her husbands? And I suspect the author could have got away without explaining the Louis XI-Warwick-Lancaster axis in the context of the York-Burgundy alliance, but didn't - you are given clear answers to questions that might emerge, so you are not left frustrated. She writes dialogue very well, subtly teasing motive out, but does not waste time getting the story to you. I knew absolutely nothing about Elizabeth Woodville until two months ago, with the opening episode of the excellent Philippa Gregory TV mini series, to which this book is a perfect single volume companion. I now have two more 15th century Margarets to explore - Beaufort and Burgundy - hopefully whatever I find is as accessible and enjoyable as this.


The Girl King
The Girl King
by Meg Clothier
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.15

5.0 out of 5 stars Seriously good, 30 Oct 2013
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This review is from: The Girl King (Paperback)
Fiction encourages you to imagine your own character and the situation he or she is in. History obliges you to imagine somebody else's impression of a character and the situation. Fiction provides no right answer, while history is obsessed with it, so fiction can gallop along at any pace it chooses, while history has to buttress each fact it introduces with reference. Arguably, good historical fiction leaves you with a memory you can recall when you pick up somebody else's take on the same time, place or person, which makes this seriously good historical fiction. But what kind of history is it?

Jean Plaidy, with clipped matronly certainty, gallops confidently through the march of events, with a small number of characters, on whom she remains focused. You learn a lot quickly.

Maurice Druon, with professorial indulgence, emphasises the situation and the selfish individual motivation which sustains it. The list of characters is longer, so you learn less of events quickly, but mischievous psychological subtlety adds colour to the ride.

S J Parris establishes a relationship between one character and a single conspiracy, which acts like a puppet master towards all the other characters.

Meg Clothier weaves a spell. With limited historical reference - it's so long ago - The Girl King somehow helps you understand the way a fractured geography creates a (still) fractured country. Tamar and Soslani have such depth of character that they will stay with you forever. The author is unusually astute in spotting the truth behind any character's behaviour and/or utterance. With brevity and illuminating, original metaphor, she grips your attention.

Events, motivation, personalities, atmosphere - choose your emphasis. They are all great authors. In some ways, Meg Clothier is the most enjoyable, simply because of the direct and yet perceptive way in which she expresses herself. Sadly the book's cover "She must fight to save the land she loves" hints at grandma-lit, which I'm not yet ready for. This is great historical fiction.


Osman's Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1923
Osman's Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1923
by Caroline Finkel
Edition: Paperback
Price: 16.94

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A catalyst - read the 1 star review, but still buy it, aware that it will take time, 7 Oct 2013
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The 1 star review by Mr Dunkin Wedd is spot on, but I would be interested to know whether he finished it, found an alternative, gave up on Ottoman history or is still wondering - because I keep jettisoning this book, for the reasons he gives, only to pick up a year later. Why?

For example, in a single half-page paragraph, this book can summarise an episode to which another historian might devote an entire book, which makes you wonder whether the episode is a meaningful link in the story's chain (in which case, spend a few pages) or a marginally relevant digression (in which case, spare us the detail). So be aware that Osman's Dream surrenders narrative momentum to (often tedious) detail. Yet passages of it can be an absorbing read and these odd half-page paragraphs do at least encourage you to explore events, characters and tales in more enjoyable detail elsewhere. I stop and re-start books these days, a bad habit I have ceased trying to resist, and this book made me put it aside in favour of Crowley's wonderful Empires of the Sea, which I have since let slip for the gob-smacking emotional power of Tim Willocks's The Religion. I know I'll finish all three, but this one will take me a lot longer. Nevertheless, stop-start narrative is a price I'll pay for all the other books (did I mention Jason Goodwin?) it will either lead me to or give me context for. I think.


Hamburg: A Cultural and Literary History
Hamburg: A Cultural and Literary History
by Matthew Jefferies
Edition: Paperback
Price: 12.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Unlocks the city, 3 Sep 2013
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Nobody can teach clutch control or explain fractional reserve banking to you. There is no effective substitute for personal experience, trying and failing and trying again, working it out until it becomes instinctive. But I'll never forget the driving instructor and the name of the book which started me off on both. Why? Because they didn't just give me facts, but also provided context (why the facts matter) and judgement (why they matter to them). In lightly sharing theirs, they unlocked my enthusiasm. A travel guide will give you the facts and many pictures, but this book unlocks the city - and I haven't even been there yet. (I'm off next weekend with a handful of bad lads.) But I sure as hell know where I'm going, since his writing was so captivating that Michael Jefferies made me want to get on google maps and walk the streets with him as I read. It is tightly written and factually dense, but light-hearted rather than professorial. Most importantly, it really does feed your appetite to know and experience more of Hamburg. He has done the city a great favour.


A Victim of Stars, 1982-2012
A Victim of Stars, 1982-2012
Price: 11.28

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars These fires never stop, 15 Aug 2013
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Heartache occasionally overwhelmed me when I was young, for the usual reasons. Overcome by the sudden stop which the loss of her forced on me, nothing could address the torpor. David Sylvian's Brilliant Trees album came to dwell there with me, offering company, not advice. His music did not provide a way out, but a way in, to the recesses of bleak sadness. Gently leading you through the cavernous depths of your stasis, it helped you feel sorry for yourself with a thoroughness that was calm, not angry. Since calmness listens, while anger transmits, a single epiphany resulted: you were no longer alone. And once your heart experienced the constructive epiphany of companionship, even the remote kind provided by a stranger's songs, a light went on; you began to query the possibility of a way out. We are all carpet crawlers; we all have to get in to get out. 25 years on, with substantial emotional success in the bag, I chanced upon this album and listened to it in the car and was powerfully reminded of the acute sensitivity of my pain, something vital, which made me smile. Brilliant Trees gave me more insight into how I felt than anything I've chanced upon since, helping my heart to acknowledge, which then invited my head to explore, so buy that album first. But buy this one too, for Forbidden Colours, an old friend, and the lyrics on Orpheus, a fresh acquaintance. These fires never stop.


The Iron King (The Accursed Kings, Book 1)
The Iron King (The Accursed Kings, Book 1)
by Maurice Druon
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Illuminating, 12 Aug 2013
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Some authors can establish intimacy with a character with well chosen analogy. Marguerite is an intriguing vixen, Robert of Artois a tree trunk of a man, Beatrice D'Hirson a captivating and possibly vicious femme fatale. Knowing them, their individual motivation becomes obvious, colouring in the history they influenced, for there is more history than fiction in here even if the fiction is absorbing. If all medieval history was blessed with as learned a story-teller as Maurice Druon, we would all want to know much more about our past. I have ignored the George Martin controversy expressed in some reviews, but am delighted that his sponsorship facilitated the reprint of a series of books I might never have discovered otherwise. Introducing the Valois era as clearly as it does, this story clarifies the link between Normans of the 11th and 12th centuries and Bourbons of the late 16th, but also starts you off on Edward III's precedents in England. Before long, thanks to the story-telling ground laid by this author, I expect to have a decent command of The Hundred Years War, which will bathe pre-Tudor English history in bright sunlight. Edward III was Isabella's son and his victory at Crecy in 1347 is as pivotal as was his great grandson Henry V's victory at Agincourt in 1415. Read all about Isabella and her times in this fabulous series of books.


Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia
Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia
by Sheryl WuDunn
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Where do the children play?, 10 May 2013
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A husband and wife team, both New York Times reporters, explain their experience of Asia, particularly Japan, with clear reference to facts garnered from World Bank statistics or their own bank of interviews with rich and poor Asians. Clearly written, they weigh the evidence well, recognising the bad things that capitalism does (to, for example, Japan's Mom & Pop lumber business in Omiya or child health in Badui, in China's rural Gansu Province), but ultimately believing in the efficiency and productivity gains you get from free markets. Which makes the book, written in 2001, feel slightly anachronistic, given the sneaking contempt we all have towards a capitalism which has resulted in the insolvency of banks and governments in Europe, as well as mass youth unemployment. This is a good thing, however, because viewing everything through the lens of the 2007 - 2013 global financial crisis, makes you magnify one thing: debt. So you risk missing many of the things that credit and markets have made possible, like rising respect for females and their participation in the labour force, or the magic of clean water, electricity and flushing loos. Of course, there are passages which you know you have read before, generic allusions to World Bank data, but these are unavoidable and kept to a minimum by a pair of authors committed to originality as well as truth. A high quality explanation of Asia, infused, dare I say, with the spirit of "Where do the children play?" by Cat Stevens. I have one reference, in particular, to thank them for, an expression by W.B. Yeats that "education is not filing a bucket, but lighting a fire."


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