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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-09-17

Funny, touching and informative

Allan Jones operated at the top of music journalism business from soon after he was hired by the New Musical Express in the mid-1970's. By pure coincidence he was also friendly with the Clash's Joe Strummer from the early part of the decade when Strummer was a grave digger in South Wales and Jones was at art school there. This was the period when jouralists could be friendly with rock stars and travel as part of a band's tour party and not only witness but also participate in the sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll lifestyle.

Written as a sequence of shortish stories the book starts at the time when Lemmy Kilminster was famous as the bassist in Hawkwind up to the point when new wave artists like Squeeze and Elvis Costelloe were cracking America and Def Leppard began to popularise big hair, tight jeans and white trainers. Jones really had a front row seat for all of this so we get to hear for instance what it's like to meet Lemmy and get on with him well enough to go on a speed fuelled bender. Not everyone was as clubbable as Lemmy however so we suffer with the author as he's beaten to a pulp by Black Sabbath's Toni Iommi and deal with the extraordinarily charmless Elvis Costelloe. And while it's no suprise to hear another anecdote confirming that Van Morrison is a rude git Jones' capacity for getting along with people means we get to hear what it's like to get along with Lou Reed well enough to be invited to hang out with him.

As the book progresses some artists crop up repeatedly as Jones' work intersects with their rising or falling careers. His writing about the Clash is really interesting on that front as he was friendly with Strummer from the days when he was scratching around to find venues that would allow his early bands to play through the period when he reinvented himself as a punk and the singer of the Clash and on to the point where the band were huge and a view was growing that Strummer was a slightly ridiculous political poser. Glasgow's finest, Alex Harvey, also makes a welcome appearance as he takes Jones on a guided tour of Glasgow before it reinvented itself as a city of culture.

The stories alone would be worth four stars and honourable mention should be given to the narrator who manages a range of pretty convncing impersonations of everyone from Lemmy and Lou Reed to Jonny Rotten and Mike Oldfield. What elevated it to five stars for me was the range of tones; real sadness at the fate of Gene Clark for instance; whose huge talent was largely ignored after he left the Byrds end eventually succumbed to a lifetime of substance abuse. Also the slightly Zelig like quality that sees Jones on the spot for incidents like Ozzy Osbourne's infamous visit to the Alamo and the Sex Pistols' legendary silver jubliee boat cruise. And finally a surprisingly affecting final chapter which I won't spoil.

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3 of 3 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 04-08-17

Uncommonly Good

The history of the rock star told through a structure which takes each year from 1955 to 1994 and follows one rock star on a day which will be hugely significant in their career. Hepworth's encylopaedic knowledge of music and consistently amusing prose style allows him to write about some great choices in a way that's both fascinating and entertaining. As with his other audible book "1971" each chapter ends with a playlist of tracks to sum up the year in question. I loved the stories; sought out tracks from the playlist (I'm reasonably knowledgable about music but Hepworth is in another league altogether and his playlists have introduced me to some great performers) and laughed like a crazy person while listening to this on public transport. Particular highlights include Little Richard's first recording session in which his producer has to find alternative lyrics to substitute for the original; wholly unpublishable; words of "tutti-frutti" and the sympathetic chapter on the profoundly damaged Janis Joplin's decision to attend her high-school reunion.

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5 of 7 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-06-17


I didn't know much about the East India Company before making this purchase and it was a pleasant surprise to discover that it delivers on two levels; firstly as a gripping piece of history and secondly as an analysis of how global corporations can turn rotten. The story of "John Company" is a swashbuckling roller-coaster ride which starts in 1600 with Elizabeth the first's blessing for a company of trader/pirates. And despite the highly respectable facade which the company maintained in England Robins makes a compelling case that for the next 350 years or so they remained in the drug trafficking and extortion business with trade in exotic commodities like tea and precious gems maintained as a respectable if not particularly profitable sideline. The author gives us an exciting narrative in which rakish ne'er do wells go to exotic locations, do dreadful deeds and return with a mountain of cash overcoming, along the way, every obstacle put in their path. Just as a story it's great stuff although what the company actually got up to in India and China left me feeling that they were basically a gang of brutal narco-terrorists.

Robins is also interested in the way the company was run, how these governance arrangements effectively created a doomsday effect which meant that irrespective of the founders' ambitions to make money through mutually beneficial trade the EIC would ultimately turn corrupt in the search for larger and larger profits. Finally he extrapolates those insights into some thought provoking conclusions about our current world of globalization and multi-national corporations.

It's clear that an enormous amount of research went into it but the writing is so good that this was a very easy listen and the narrator helped with a clear, characterful performance. It'll be a shock if I listen to a better history book this year.

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9 of 9 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-03-17

Life's Rich Pageant

A previous review suggested that this might be hard work but I found it to be an engrossing listen. Wickham combines a great deal of learning on a dense patchwork of medieval societies from Iceland down to Moorish Spain and from Russia out to the Irish clans. Due to the scope and erudition of the thing there were times when I had to go back and listen to something a second time but it was always worth it.

The book manages to create a deeply immersive picture of what life was like in the various parts of Europe from the Roman Empire's reinvention as Byzantium to the establishment of Protestantism as a state religion in many parts of the north. Wickham provides a nice balance of material about what Kings, Popes and nations were doing while drawing on diaries that have come down to us from ordinary people who long after their deaths can give us a glimpse into what it might feel like to live a medieval life. It's an added bonus that the author has a dry sense of humor which becomes increasingly amusing as the book goes on.

I like history and don't mind wrestling with quite dry books if they have something new or interesting to say but in this case I'd describe Medieval Europe as a serious historian's idea of popular history. It's written for the general public, there are great stories and engaging personality portraits but to get the most from it you have to concentrate from time to time.

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17 of 19 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-02-17

Untroubled by the narration

Audible's painless returns policy lead me to take a punt on this. For some time I'd wanted to know more about the military free companies which revolutionised war on the European continent from the late medieval period. There aren't may audiobooks in English which cover the subject and Lauro Martins seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of their history, their significance in the development of European states and the colourful/psychotic characters who lead and comprised them. A number of listeners seem to have had their enjoyment spoiled by the narrator but on the basis that I could return the thing if I felt the same it seemed like a worthwhile gamble. From a wholly personal perspective I have to say that the narrator is absolutely fine for the majority of this listen. His delivery is nicely varied, he sounds like he's actually reading and understanding the text and the production quality is clear. He does pronounce many foreign place names in very odd ways. I began to wonder if the producers were too cheap or slack to go back and edit in the correct pronunciations but it just didn't bother me that much because the book itself is brilliant. It has a great balance of detail, first hand accounts of ordinary people from letters and diaries alongside interesting historical analysis of how the states of Europe changed over this period. My advice to anyone who likes history but feels put off by reviews from listeners who really hated the narration is to get this but be ready to return it if the eccentric pronunciation proves too much for you. I'm very glad I got it. It covers stuff that I simply couldn't find in other books and Lauro Martins is an excellent historical writer.

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 20-11-16


Got this because it was the deal of the day and Ian Kershaw is always good. Listening to it just after the election of Donald Trump however it resonates particulary strongly. If you'd like to get a preview of how an unstable, inherently dishonest narcissist can destroy a country's political and cultural institutions before destroying the country itself then this is the one for you. Not in any way a pick-you-up but a timely reminder of the dangers of normalising racist demagogues once they get into power

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1 of 2 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 19-11-16

Engaging and Immersive

Niccolo Capponi (or Count Niccolo Capponi to give him his full title) is a member or a patrician Florentine family who can trace their residence in that city back to the 13th Century. He has a PhD in military history and numbers Machiavelli as one of his ancerstors. These qualifications come together to make for a highly informative and oddly charming book. Unlike many current historians Capponi doesn't shy away from drawing character portraits of historical figures. He's also happy to make broad but very entertaining generalisations about Florentines as a whole. In other hands that combination might come across as smug, lazy or special pleading for an esteamed ancestor but Capponi is exceptionally learned, he seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Machiavelli's writings, his extensive correspondence with friends and the power brokers of Renaissance Italy and also of the political and military context within which Machiavellia operated.

So we get eye witness accounts of the struggle for Florence to maintain its' republican identity in the midst of a struggle between the French, the Holy Roman Empire and a gallery of psychotic/decadent/dim-witted Popes. We also get a real sense of why Machiavelli's contemporaries liked him to much with tales such as the one in which one of his powerful patrons helped him to blag a luxurious stay at a notoriously stingy power brokers' palace by sending ornately decorated envelopes on a daily basis which purported to contain top secret and potentially valuable intelligence. In fact they just contained a lot of ribald gossip: "I was taking a crap when I recieved your letter....." typifies the tone.

We also get a rich picture of Machiavelli as funny, clever, disadvantaged by humble roots despite Florence's claim to republican values and incapable telling a diplomatic lie when the bald truth was staring him in the face. Hence his rather turblent career.

This gets four stars rather than 5 because the production quality is good but not great and it took an hour or so before I was fully gripped. However, I'm very glad I stuck with it and now regard it as a real gem.

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3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 18-09-16

Great story but quite dry

Noel Malcolm catalogues the fortunes of the Bruti and Bruni families as they make their fortunes on the borders of the Ottoman and Venetian empires during the renaissance. The story his dilligent researches have uncovered is fascinating and vividly brought to life. Many of the families sons trained as translators and their work as professional "ransomers"; acting as agents for wealthy christian families seeking the return of loved ones from the Ottomans; puts them at the centre of historical events. We are promised Knight, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies and Malcolm delivers.

However; I liked this book rather than loved it and I think the reason is that Malcolm wants to write as much as possible about the beginnings of Albania as a country and I wanted to hear more about the "Game of Thrones" stuff. It's an impressive achievement and I stuck with it because he has produced something immersive and original but it was heavy going at times. Recommended if you love history and are ready to stick with books that become periodically dry.

If you're still not sure after reading this review there are a couple of newspaper reviews online from June 2015 in the Guardian and Daily Telegraph. They loved it; which probably means that I'm a bit shallow

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3 of 3 people found this review helpful

3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-06-16

Half a book

In the introduction to this book Dan Jones explains that this picture of everyday life in the reign of King John represents the material he couldn't work into his earlier book on Magna Carta. Plenty of other historians manage to combine major historical events with day to day detail but I plugged on at least partly as a result of a very favourable review in the Daily Telegraph of 12th November 2015 by Toby Clements and a very engaging slot on the 15th October 2015 BBC History Today podcast. Having listened to a Realm Divided; which clocks in at just over 5 hours and checked the unabridged running time of Magna Carta (3 hours and 21 minutes) I think he would have been better to combine them into one book of decent length. This has some nice details but it's too short to represent acceptable value and the structure's all over the place. It still reads like left over notes for another book. If you haven't listened Ian Mortimer's "Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England"; "England; Arise" by Juliet Barker; "King John" by Marc Morris or the mighty "Distant Mirror" by Barbara Tuchman then give this a swerve and buy with one of those instead

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1 of 2 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 14-03-16

A brilliant picture of dark age Britain & Ireland

I wasn't sure, based on the description what to expect from "The Land of Giants". The thought of a travel book with bits of history thrown in wasn't that appealing and the praise for the author's lyrical writing had me worried that it was going to be a bit like Jan Morris' Venice; enormous unpunctuated sentences and little discernible structure. I needn't have worried; this is a completely brilliant listen.

Max Adams is a practicing archeologist with a deep understanding of the obscure period between the end of the Roman occupation of Britain and the re-emergence of written records under the Saxons known as the Dark Ages. In order to describe what's known about that period (about 400 to 600 A.D.) he takes a number of tours around Britain and Ireland using two forms of transport that were available to our dark age ancestors; walking and sailing. He describes in enchanting detail a rich landscape of lost kingdoms, hilltop fortresses, fenland walkways, busy river routes and seagoing trade.

This approach is possible because the physical record; in the shape of castles, churches, grave sites and place names is still accessible despite an absence of written material from the time. In other hands this could have been dull but Adams uses his mastery of the subject matter to describe not only what we might see if we went back in time but also what's known about the tumultuous period of plagues; war; migration and religous conversion from which Offa's dyke, the legend of Arthur and current conceptions of Britain and Ireland started to emerge.

Five stars, straight back on for a second listen

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7 of 8 people found this review helpful