Book reviews - 2017

Another year, another list..

Score (out of 10)
What  shame to have to start the new year on a bit of a low - but unfortunately that's the case with this one...  I have enjoyed all the Kydd series immensely, the last one ("Tyger") was quite possibly the best in the series, so I was very much looking forward to this coming out, but unfortunately it didn't live up to expectations... the book deals with the siege of Copenhagen and Kydd's involvement is tenuous to say the least (as is Renzi's) - I was talking to a friend who also enjoys the books, and his review sums it up nicely "two Kydd short stories either side of an unrelated story" - don't get me wrong - the book is still OK, but it's not Kydd, and I thought there were a number of missed opportunities in the plot (his relationship with Popham following the court martial was glossed over remarkably quickly for example) .. come back Kydd all is forgiven...!6
Not often this happens but while browsing in my local bookshop I picked this up, started reading it, and had to buy it... the pilot experience of the war in the air during WWI from the perspective of both sides...

See blog post [clicky] for review...
Recommended to me by one of the guys on the sailing forums I frequent... young guy decides to sail, row and motor (mostly motor, with some row, and very little sail) around London via the Grand Union Canal and the Thames..  he doesn't venture south of the Thames so round London is a bit of a stretch, but he does take his dinghy through the Thames Barrier, and under Tower Bridge...  this was "OK"..  there was so much potential and possibility, but Bill Bryson he isn't, and for me he just didn't engage with the description of the journey...  far too much cod philosophy and not enough description of what is a fascinating city when seen from the water...  the history of the parts of London he went through were quite interesting, but definitely a missed opportunity..

More here:
Hard to believe we're up to book five in the series but this remains an absolute belter of a series - the books are set in the 100 Years War in this book we are a couple of years after Poitiers, and Edward and the Black Prince's armies are at the gates of Paris where the dauphin defies them in the face of his imprisoned father the King. Sense prevails and the British and French sign a treaty as it is clear an assault on Paris would be costly to both sides. In order to drum up the money to pay their Kings ransom (literally) the French sign a treaty of marriage between one of their princesses and the Visconti's of Milan and they "do a deal" with Edward to have Thomas Blackstone escort the princess to the wedding...  this despite the fact that they know one of the two Visconti's is responsible for the death of Blackstone's wife and daughter.. so it's a trap, everyone knows it's a trap, but Blackstone still goes as he has a plan..  cracking read..  Italy, mercenaries, condottieri, and over them all the English long bow and the men who drew them...9
The series that single handedly were responsible for a love of boats and sailing that lives to this day - they were as influential to my younger self as Featherstone was to my wargaming interests...I have decided this year to read the series end to end.. this is the second book..  Simply superb - not read this in over 30 years I reckon... The Swallows (the Walker family) are back in the Lake District for another summer of sailing camping and adventures, or so they hope, only to find that first the Amazons (the Blackett's) are confined to quarters by the visit of the fierce great aunt, but also the sinking of their beloved Swallow after she hits a rock and sinks...   Swallow goes in for repair, and the Swallow's camp on the moors in a hidden valley they name Swallowdale..  there then follows a summer of camping, and adventures including the climbing of one of the local mountains..  no one gets shot, no one dies, just lovely calm story telling by an author who clearly knows his boats and sailing...8
Macro and Cato return to Rome following the disastrous campaign against Anglesey, but are soon assigned to Spain as temporary commanders of a unit of Praetorians sent as a scratch force to secure a silver mine from rebels who are revolting against the rule of Rome. Fighting their way to the mine, they then have to defend it against overwhelming odds - both rebel and Roman. OK but not outstanding - and does anyone really believe the sub-plot about Cato's now dead wife..??7
This was a surprise bargain find on Kindle - found it via one of the emails they send out advertising books from 99p etc etc. - either way although it would have been nice to start from the beginning (and this one is book 7) I liked this one so much I have already ordered part 1..  the books are about an RAF airman named Yeoman in WWII and tracks his career progression through WWII - this one deals with events around the Battle of the Bulge, and by this time Yeoman is a wing commander commanding one of the Tactical Airforce units providing ground attack support to the Allied armies. His squadrons fly Typhoons, Tempests and late model Spitfires, and the book gives a very enjoyable and descriptive read of what it was like to fly the planes, and fight them, on both sides...  not very long, but an enjoyable read chock full of technical detail and history..  bit Clancy'like...  9
Enjoyed Tempest Squadron so much I went back to the beginning of the series - this is Volume 1. Flight Sergeant Yeoman is a fresh recruit to one of the forward RAF squadrons supporting the BEF - the book covers what it was like to train with the RAF, and the experiences of the RAF during the early days of the Blitzkrieg - Jackson is very good on the sheer inadequacy of some of the equipment the RAF had at the time - the Fairey Battles and Blenheim's. Yeoman is caught up in the retreat and sees at first hand the effects on the civilian population after being shot down. Getting back to his unit he is then shot down again while flying cover over the beaches, and just manages to get back to the UK, albeit wounded8
Volume 2 - these continue to be a joy to read - not very long books but at less than the cost of a pint of beer, and delivered direct to your Kindle they are a no brainer. Each one is set against a specific campaign in the war, so where the first one was about the Fall of France, this one covers the Battle of Britain. Newly promoted pilot officer Yeoman - has recovered from the injuries he incurred after having been shot down over Dunkirk, and now back in the UK his squadron is re-fitted with Spitfires just n time for him to be posted to the south coast in time to participate in the Battle of Britain..  Jackson juxtaposes the story of Yeoman with the similar events happening to a Luftwaffe fighter pilot - it's fascinating to be able to see the story from both sides and the description of the sheer bravery of the German bomber crews in the face of attacks by RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires is well written...  8
So easy to read I'm fairly racing (most enjoyably) through them - Kindles are the work of the devil - there are you are sitting in the pub having a beer and a read, and before you know it you get to the end of the book and one press of the button is all it needs to download the next! So in this one - the third in the series - six months after the previous book and Yeoman has been posted to the desert air force flying in support of Eighth Army at the time of the siege of Tobruk and up to Crusader - superb stuff including how he flies into Tobruk to provide communication support between them and 8th army HQ..  the end of the book covers the fall of Crete where Yeoman finds himself shot down and stranded and has to escape..  another cracker - the detail is fascinating 8
Without a doubt the best one yet...  Yeoman has survived the debacle in Crete and on returning to England he is made an instructor at one of the RAF training schools - he is bored out of his mind and worse doesn't get on with his CO - when he finds that one of his fellow officers has been assigned to the Mediterranean theatre he offers to swap and as a result finds himself a few months later flying a Spitfire from an aircraft carrier at maximum range from Malta where he is then engaged in the ferocious (there is no other word for it) air battles for the control of  the island - Jackson gives a fantastic description of life on the island during the height of their blitz (both military and civilian) and paints the picture of why the island was so important and why Hitler decided not to invade when he had the island on its knees....  excellent!10
Back from Malta and Yeoman faces a new challenge with a transition to the twin engine fighter the Mosquito - which until the arrival of the Typhoons must have been the quintessential ground attack aircraft of WWII, but was also instrumental in protecting the bombers on their long range missions deep into Germany. The sheer power of flying one of these planes is described superbly well (they were of a wooden construction and there are only two flying examples left in the world - though there is a third undergoing renovation more here: His opponent, Richter, meanwhile is beginning to see early examples of the Luftwaffe's Me262, and test flies the Komet.9
Follow up to the truly excellent "Harry's Game" which I read a large number of years ago (and really must try and find the BBC version on DVD).. I have to say that this one wasn't quite so good - it may have been intentional but I didn't really find any of the "good guys" to be very pleasant so as a result I found it difficult to engage with them - the ending was shocking, but what I found most difficult to understand was why they even had the supposed "hero" on the staff given his dysfunctionality...  maybe it was different in the 70's! So-so....6
Bit disappointed with this if I'm to be honest, and that despite it being a classic..  Afraid I found it a little tedious, and actually gave up half way through...  The problem was, I think, a basic mismatch between what I was expecting and what was actually delivered.... what I was expecting was a little more detail on the troops, their equipment. weapons, experience, tactics etc (as in "All the Kings Men") but what we actually get is a military history of the war as per the strap line...  Just one small chapter at the beginning, the rest of it is pure strategy...  So no score - that's not fair given the fact I didn't finish it..   -
Time for a change of pace....  this brings me up to date with the series as far as I want to go as after the next book (which was where I started) Yeoman heads to the Far East and then Korea....  In this book, still at the controls of a Mosquito, Yeoman's squadron are involved in the defeat of the V weapons - very good on the tactics and difficulties of shooting down or otherwise destroying a weapon in flight - hair raising...  and a nasty twist at the end that you hope he never gets to find out about....  a good, exciting, non-demanding series all in all - recommended to anyone with an interest in WWII aviation... 8
Of all the books he wrote in the Swallows and Amazons series, this one, and Missee Lee, were the two that I read the least - I suspect because my younger puritan self rebelled against the idea that these children would be allowed to go off across the Atlantic, battle pirates, discover treasure, and survive hurricane with just the help of their uncle Jim, and Peter Duck, an old sailor they meet in Lowestofte.... shame really as it is a cracking book, and the sailing detail is second to none - a right rollicking yarn, as they would have said, very much recommended, and I'm glad my decision to read the entire series caused me to pick it up again... 8
See post here [clicky]10
Fourth in the series and one of my favourites...  this one introduces the Callums to the series - Dick and Dorothea - who are staying in the Lakes at the same time the others are..  fantastic, the only book set in the winter so no sailing but plenty of sledges, and adventure as the Swallows, Amazon's and D's battle to the "north pole" in blizzard conditions...  cracking...9
Fifth in the series and another one of my favourites - having introduced Dick and Dorothea as characters in the last book - Ransome shifts them and the action (for the first time) to the Norfolk Broads where we also meet the Death or Glories (three boys who are sons of local boatbuilders), the twins Port and Starboard, and their leader, and president of the eponymous Coot Club, Tom Dudgeon a doctors son. The Coot Club are an early amateur version of the RSPB they are dedicated to bird protection, and when a coots nest looks to be ruined by some careless hire boaters Tom takes matters in to his own hands and ends up as a hunted refugee all over the Broads...  I liked this series as a younger person because I always felt the characters were more realistic..  Ransome clearly loved the Broads as much as the Lakes, and also clearly sailed there a lot given the local knowledge in the book...  cracking...8
Puzo was always a story teller so when I was given the chance to read this again due to a Kindle one days sale it  seemed foolish not to..  everyone must have seen the film(s) by now so the story is known, but in essence it is about the rise of the Corleone family to power in post war America under the redoubtable Vito Corleone...  graphic, brutal, casual violence, sex, it has it all, and is the quintessential 70's pulp fiction..  very entertaining.. 8
Disappointing on the whole unfortunately and not as enjoyable or accomplished as the Sansom "Shardlake" series - I thought the hero (an excommunicated Catholic ex-monk) was a little one dimensional and not altogether likeable - not a good sign when in moments of peril you aren't sat there hoping he'll survive...! Baddies were text book bad, story was OK (series of murders in Elizabethan Oxford University), but no, can't say I'll be going back for more...5
Hammond Innes at his finest - and a different order of story telling to the last book... journalist on holiday is Cornwall at the start of WWII is kidnapped by German agents spying on British fleet movements. He and a companion are transported by U-Boat to a secret underground base, where he is put to work as slave labour..  by the by this would make an excellent skirmish war-game ...  8
First in what is known at the "RFC trilogy" (although chronologically it's the last).. this is about a squadron of pilots flying SE5's, set in the period from January 1918 to the time of the German spring offensive of March 1918. Their commander (Woolley) has been fighting since the beginning of the war and despite being only 23 is battle hardened, cynical, and not a little mad..  the book is widely regarded as being true to the experience of WWI pilots as the author read personal letters and diaries extensively, which makes the book even more brutal...  very good...7
Written by the same chap who writes the books featuring Thomas Blackstone in the Hundred Years War (see the Vipers Blood review from earlier in the year). A retired US army major and his (coloured) friend who are veterans of the Indian Wars and now retired to Dublin where he practices law. In summary, a son has died, his wife becomes unhinged and is confined to a home and he has not told the other son that she is still alive and in addition is overly protective. Son runs away to war (Boer War) and father and friend follow him with the intention of bringing him back.. there follows a damn good story set against the events of the war, depicting the difficulties the British had, and what must be the first stirrings of the free press in moulding public opinion of what the British army was doing in South Africa.. very good I thought..  slightly pro-Boer, dastardly British but there was enough depth to show both sides were not saints or sinners..7
An order of magnitude better than the SJ Parris book I read a few weeks ago, even though the background concept is roughly the same (this book is set in the Henry VIII period, the Parris book is slightly later being mostly set in Elizabethan times). A good read, Sansom is becoming one of my favourite "thoughtful" authors of fiction - Shardlake is a lawyer, but he has Cromwell's attention as being an excellent investigator who has the habit of getting to the bottom of difficult cases. In this book, Cromwell is struggling frantically to retain the Kings support and is hoping to present him with the secret to Greek fire, the "Roman napalm", in return for his continued trust and friendship... unfortunately Cromwell's enemies are trying to do exactly the same for the opposite result..  Shardlake is engaged to investigate and find what happened to the brothers who had successfully demonstrated the weapon, but have then disappeared..  as do other people involved in the case one by one...  cracking story, with lots of background on life in Tudor England...9
A return to the master...  funnily enough this was the next book he wrote after the last one I reviewed/ in summary ex-reporter has been called up for WWII where he is a gunner in an ack-ack battery on an RAF airfield at the time just at the start of the Battle of Britain and just after Dunkirk...his battery shoot dwn a German bomber and before eis taken away the pilot (a dastardly Nazi) blurts out that there is a plot to invade all the airfields in the south of England prior to an airborne assault by paratroopers.. cue much racing round to find the fifth columnists, quislings, and when the invasion will happen.. total hocum, but an enjoyable read, and very good on what I imagine it would have been like too have served at the time, and in those conditions..7
Review here [clicky]..10
If ever there was a book made for a film this is it.... Oh, they did.... If you've seen the film then you've read the book as unlike most the film follows the book almost completely... Cracking... Still not sure bout the Nazi helicopter though... 9
Found this in the book basket at the apartment in Kefalonia we were staying at..  bonus, as I'd not read it before...! Francis likes to pick a different background to each of his books while still being focussed on the world of horse racing..  this time it's films and film making..  movie director visits an old friend who is dying, and who mistakes him for the priest in his death bed delirium and tells him something that people start getting stabbed for shortly after... pure Francis, likeable main character..  good story!8
I have come to the conclusion that Sansom is confirmed as one of my favourite "proper" authors..  I absolutely loved the two modern stories he wrote ("Dominion" and "Winter in Madrid")  - this is the second in the Shardlake series (about a lawyer in the times of Henry the Eight). This one is about Henry dissolving the monasteries, in reality a massive land grab to get access to their untold wealth..  Cromwell gives Shardlake the mission to find out what has happened to the commissioner who has been sent to a remote monastery to "persuade" the abbot to turn over the monastery, but who has been murdered.. cue fascinating detail about life in the monasteries, a murder and then more murders, 8
Next in the Shardlake series..  Henry was not a popular monarch, his dissolution of the monasteries had not pleased everyone as there was still a massive divide between the reformers and the old church...  taxes, lack of representation and a number of other issues had lead to open rebellion in the north of the country, which Henry had put down in his usual manner (ruthless cunning mostly!) - as a result - as a kind of propaganda ploy, Henry goes on a massive tour of the northern counties..  Shardlake is appointed lawyer to hear petitions to the King in York, he is also given the job by Cromwell of ensuring one of the traitors from the earlier uprising is brought safely back to London for "questioning".. very good..  the background to what life was like in early Tudor times is outstanding..   and you won't believe the ending...9
..anyone popping by here will know I have a fascination with 60's/70's pulp fiction..  this is a cracker...  luxury liner(the SS Campari..! ) is hijacked in order to take part in the capture and robbery of gold bullion being transported from the UK to the US...  suspenseful, perfect movie fodder...8
Darkest of the Shardlake books to date...  I found it quite hard going, not because it wasn't good, but because the subject matter was fairly dark and horrible...  early Tudor serial killer starts enacting seven of the prophecies from the book of Revelation...  Shardlake's best friend is the second victim and he promises the widow to try and get to the bottom of it, but is soon also engaged on the investigation by his new patron Archbishop Cranmer...8
"Shardlake goes to war" is the strapline - not quite but damn close..  this is the only one of the books that I had read before, but it was sufficiently long enough ago that I had forgotten the key outcome of the plot. The Queen (Catherine Parr) has asked Matthew Shardlake for assistance with the matter of one her lady's maids son who has committed suicide, seemingly for no reason. He in turn was tutor to twins who were a ward of court of a family in Hampshire - could this be connected? Shardlake visits Hampshire to discover the truth, at the same time as Henry VIII is marshalling his forces in Portsmouth against a French invasion. I come from Portsmouth so the historical background is fascinating - as is the description (at length) of how Sansom imagines it was on board the Mary Rose..  superb - probably the best to date...9
Once again the Queen (a very sympathetically portrayed, Catherine Parr) calles upon Matthew Shardlake for help..  in the almost super charged period of the last days of Henry VIII the power factions are deploying to grab power from the vacuum that will surely exist when he dies..  at the same time Britain was in a state of flux between the new Protestantism in its infancy, and those who still supported the older Catholicism... against this background the Queen has a book of personal thoughts and religious beliefs stolen and is worried for her life if Henry gets hold of it, and what will happen if her enemies decide to use it against her faction..  enter Shardlake...  cracking!8
I'd been wanting to read this for years, but the new TV series (which is very good) prompted me to get the Kindle version when it was on offer one day a few weeks ago..  heartily pleased I did..  the current Mrs Steve the Wargamer and I have an affinity with Greek islands, and Corfu is one of the ones we particularly like and this biography of the naturalist Durrell's early life on the iland is superb..  you can almost feel (and smell) the heat, hear the cicada's..  and then there is this cast of characters, and of course the animals, insects and invertebrates...  wonderful9
Volume 2 in the trilogy and more of the same..8
Volume 3 in the trilogy, and the well of stories is drained...  I read elsewhere that the other members of the family were not altogether pleased with his depiction of them, Margot in particular..8
Robert Radcliffe is a bit of an unknown, but one of those people who know how to tell a story in such a way you can't put the book down..  a few years ago I read the first two books in a WWII trilogy he was writing.. Under an English Heaven [clicky] and Upon Dark Waters [clicky], but the third wasn't released so I kind of lost track (it's now out so Beneath Another Sun [clicky] is now on my "to read" list).

Those first two books were superb (about Bomber Command and the Battle of the Atlantic) and then I spotted this which is the first in a trilogy about the Parachute regiment..  it ranges far and wide and actually starts at Arnhem but through a series of flashbacks of the two main protagonists (a hostilities only doctor who volunteers for the parachute battalion, and a Tyrolean half English/half Italian volunteer..  don't ask! )  we get in addition to Arnhem, Dunkirk, the concentration camps, Italian resistance, the early operations of the British commando and parachute troops (their successes and their failures), life in the Stalag's, and a whole lot more - well worth reading!

Prompted by the excellent "Airborne", I was prompted to go back and read those original two books I read all those years ago... have to say I was not disappointed, despite only being able to find number 2, a swift Kindle purchase saw me launched into volume 1. Radcliffe wrote three WWII books loosely linked, but on different subjects - some of the characters in one book may appear briefly in another, but in essence they are all stand alone and can be read in isolation. This one, the first one, is based about the American bomber offensive in Europe and the truly terrible time they had of day light bombing deep into Germany prior to the existence of good long range fighter cover...  so the book is about an American bomber wing based in eastern England, about the sorties, the casualties, the hideous attrition, the relationships they form with local people, their mental state, their physical state..  absolutely excellent...  read this, and then read Deighton's "Goodbye Mickey Mouse" for some of the best (fictional) insight into the American bomber offensives..10
..for the second book, Radcliffe shifts focus to the Battle of the Atlantic - the story is about the crew of a Flower class corvette (*sound familiar? ) but there is also a truly compelling side story based around pone of the officers upbringing in Uruguay, and features certain events around Graf Spee. Once again the book is about all aspects of what it was like to serve in corvettes, the discomfort, the poor food, the cold, the danger, and the fear of fighting a foe that (at the time of the book) was largely undetectable..  basic ASDIC only.. superb... *then go read the "Cruel Sea" you know you want to...  in my view this book is easily as good as Montserrat9
..for the third book - only recently released despite having been finished for some time, Radcliffe shifts focus to the fall of Singapore...  in one of the blurbs he wrote that the reason the book wasn't originally published at the time fo the first two was because his publisher told him it was too grim reading..  so for this one he self published..  glad he did as it too is an excellent read though shocking.. the story is based round an RAF pilot who after completing training in one of the northern England squadrons ends up being posted to Singapore in time for the defeat..  he is captured, and put to work on the Burma railroad, and the book is about what it was like to be a prisoner, the conditions, the disease, the filth, the lack of food, the brutal and inhumane treatment, and the work...  very, very, dark, but a hugely readable book as he also describes what life would have been like for family and wives/girlfriends... 10
Sixth in Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazon's" children's sailing series... not read this one in a number of years, but something a little lighter was required after the last book by Robert Radcliffe's and as a literary palette cleanser this delivered in spades..  not one of my favourites in the series, but still top drawer...  mid summer, and drought conditions lie over the Lakes, water levels are down, and fire is a constant risk..  against this background the Blackett's (Amazons), Walker's (Swallow's) and Callum's (the D's) meet in the school holiday and foment a plan to go gold prospecting prior to the return of their Uncle Jim from a failed prospecting trip in South America...  excellent!8
£1.99 well spent - I'd forgotten how good this was despite having read it at least 2 or 3 times over the years - set against the background of the Philadelphia Campaign under British General William Howe, this is an excellent account of the campaign, and the difficulties the British faced in America during the Revolution - the British would have needed an army ten times the size of the one they had in order to suppress the colonists and Parliament didn't have the cash or the inclination to do it...  as it was they only ever had enough men to hold three area's and with the French entry to the war, too many area's to hold...  an excellent story while providing good historical background..  cracker...9
I had mixed feelings about this one - happily this was a marked and considerable improvement over the previous one (see book reviews). For one, Kydd actually features in the book (which is more than he did in the previous one) but also there is fighting and battles on the high seas (the Baltic again) and although the ending is a little far fetched - Kydd ends up married...  good one 8
A new series set in Restoration period England by the author of the superb Robin Hood series...  what a cracker...  the series is based round the experiences of Holcroft Blood, the son of Colonel Thomas Blood, he of the Crown Jewels theft...  the background is superb, the conspiracy theory as to why Blood attempted to steal the jewels is thought provoking (and entertaining) and along the way you get vignettes of Barbara Villiers, Charles II, the young Churchill/Marlborough, and others...  excellent - very much looking to the series as it progresses in his career as an artillery officer under Churchill in the Wars of the Spanish Succession.... 9
This is the first (published) novel by fellow wargamer, Blogger, and Miniature Wargames columnist, Conrad Kinch... followers of his current written efforts will know that he is entertaining, and a not a little witty, so I was hoping for much from this little tome...  set in Japan at about the time of the Edo Period (think approximately "The Last Samurai" period) when the European and American global powers are beginning to make trading inroads to Japan, and the samurai class are not always happy about it...  the story is about a young American called Robert Hood, and a Japanese samurai called Otaro. Hood is ex-cavalry (it mentions his services in the Plains Indian wars, and Mexico), and handy with a weapon, and languages; Otaro is a Japanese master swordsman and magistrate. Hood is in Japan looking for commercial opportunities for his family (who are merchants), his family have suggested he travel with otaro to learn more of the country. either way, both characters are likeable, and on the journey to Otaro's first case they come upon evidence of bloody murder, and the book is about the background to that..  I enjoyed it very much, lots and lots of period interest and colour, details on the Japanese sword schools/styles was fascinating, and the story fairly rips along without being unbelievable...  it reminded me (very favourably) of Henty..  recommended! 9
...this is a story about Shakespeare told from the perspective of his brother..  more when I've finished reading it....

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