Book reviews - 2017

Another year, another list..

Book
Comments
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...
8
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:

http://www.classicboat.co.uk/articles/circle-line-sailing-around-london/
7
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: http://www.peoplesmosquito.org.uk/the-aircraft/). 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/read...so 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
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