Book reviews - 2018

Another year, another list..

Score (out of 10)
I would say a book of two halves..  there was every indication that this book was a bit of a 'tread-water book' written in order to bridge a period in the history the book is set against, that wasn't too exciting - for a lot of the first half, although the descriptions and background, and quality of writing, was as good as ever I kept thinking "yes, yes, yes, but what's it all about?!" - I would say the story only really kicks in in the second half...  from then on it it was a real page turner.. for those who don't know these books this is the fifth in the Master of War series which covers the life and adventures of the English knight Sir Thomas Blackstone and his force of archers and men at arms in the 100 Years War..  in this book his band of men have managed to escape Italy (a good book worth reading if you are into Condottiere) and are back under the command of the King, Edward, charged with taking into control the French towns ceded to the English in the recent treaty between England and France....  against them are roving bands of rogue armed men (routiers), the French army, and the plotting's of the French dauphin who seeks to destroy Blackstone..  very good... and a surprise ending! (no spoilers)8
See blog post [clicky]..8
I enjoyed this one even though the setting is more Gangs of Rome, than bloody battlefield, there is still plenty of action..  Cato and Macro have returned from their campaigning in Spain as hero's but arrive in Rome to find that Claudius has died, his natural and adopted sons are at each other throat for the succession...  the followers of Britannicus his natural son are looking to return to the values of the Republic, whilst those of Nero recognise that he is by far the stronger candidate...  Cato and Macro are pulled both ways before they realise that they are just pawns in a political battle and make their own minds up how to act..  excellent..9
I got three books for a fiver in one of the remaindered book shops..  this is volume one and introduces the hero of the series Captain Daniel Rawson of the Duke of Marlborough's Foot...  a bit "Boys Own" in style but it romps along with a good thick'ish veneer of history over the top..  the characters are all a little one dimensional, the hero is an all round Superman good egg, the girls swoon, and the men a brave or cad's...  this one is set round events just before and at Blenheim..  the coverage of the assault on the Schellenberg was very good..7
Volume 3 in the series (somewhat irritatingly the three books I got are 1, 3 and 5 in the series! ) but by the end of this I'm beginning to realise that Daniel Rawson is a little one dimensional (and lacking in imagination!) - much the same as the previous story but this time ending with the battle of Ramilles..6
Volume 5 in the series - and if I'm honest it's a bit of a relief I didn't have to read all five..  as another reviewer put it - they are a trifle "thin"..  not in terms of pages, just food for thought..  this one ends with the battle of Malplaquet...6
See review here [clicky] 8
See review here [clicky] 9
I really enjoyed this and was a bit disappointed to find it was the last in series (apparently) when I finished it as he hasn't done any more and it's now six years since it was published (2012) and no news of a return on the horizon..  either way fifth in the series of the Sergeant Tanner books though by this stage of the war, Tanner has received his commission, and in this book is now a company commander with the (fictional) King's Own Yorkshire Rangers. The book covers the Sicily campaign, and although the characterisation is a little week and wooden, the background story is excellent..  covers in some detail the deal the American's did with the Mafia (supposedly brokered by Lucky Luciano from jail in the US) and in fact gives the book its title. From a covert operation at the start of the book, Tanner is involved throughout, and finally lands on the beaches with his men for Operation Husky. A good read..9
I read the whole of the dark Materials trilogy a number of years ago, and am in awe at the imagination Pullman clearly has. He has dreamed up an entire world, with elements of 50's and 60's Britain, but with an entirely alternative technology & science. This is a return to that world, and is a pre-cursor to the Dark Materials trilogy dealing with the birth and very early life of Lyra. So we meet her father, Lord Ariel, her mother (boo hiss), and a cast of amazing support characters, one of whom has a three legged hyena as his daemon...  superb! Can't wait for volume 2.. and this is my first 10 of the year10

As a younger man I read all of Steinbeck's Monterey books after I saw the film "Cannery Row" with Nick Nolte in 1982 (!). Good as I remember the film being (and I need to watch it again), and although this book is not strictly speaking in that Cannery Row series, I struggled a little with this one until I attuned myself to the pace and style (often find that when I finish one book I struggle with the next until you reboot your reading mind).. once I got there though the book romped along, and you began to really understand the hearts and minds of the little group of drifters who clustered around Danny as their focal point, and who eventually separate when his focal point is removed...  living from day to day, caring for each other, drinking wine by the gallon, and having gentle and not so gentle adventures, while living by an immutable set of paisano rules..  very gentle...8
Squadron leader Yeoman series - this time set in the Suez, period, but rather than the main theatre of operations this is set in a fictional Arab country in the region, and deals with the ever present (for that area) struggle against Russian who are looking to increase their sphere of influence.

The Russian's have sought to influence the ruler of one of the smaller Arab nations with offers of military advisors, hardware, and the ability to invade the adjacent country who they have long had as enemies... What the ruler doesn't know, or only suspects, is that the Russians want more than just to help..

In the other country - Yeoman and two squadrons of Venom fighter jets are tasked with helping them to resist the invasion..

A good enough yarn, full of twists and turns, Jackson is good on planes and hardware, but not one of the best in the series...
Been meaning to read this for years, and then Amazon threw it up as a daily bargain for Kindle so I took the plunge and sent them my 99p..

It just goes to show what value you can get for 99p.. simply superb..  an atmospheric, descriptive, account of his first year in Provence having taken the decision to sell up and move there after years of holidaying there ..  each chapter is a month, and full of well written accounts of neighbours, restaurants, food, and wine..  and always the food...  very good.
See blog review [clicky] 8
Been looking forward to this and was not diapointed - Radcliffe is one of those natural story tellers, and this tilogy details the fictional life of Theo Trickey, a paratrooper in the the early days of the parachute regiment...  Radcliffe continues Theo's story, using the same present and past view of his life, and that of the doctor who nurses him in the present while they are in a POW camp following Arnhem. Absolutely fascinating and a real page turner...  so Trickey trains as a commando is transferred to the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute regiment is on the Bruneval raid (Operation Biting), before being seconded for SOE operations (a mission that ends in a particularly harrowing way...) in Italy at the time of Mussolini's overthrow, and then rejoining the regiment in time for Operation Torch in Tunisia..  absolutely excellent - can't wait for volume 310
There are a number of authors that classify under the category of "master story tellers" - they're the one's who grip you from the first page, and just tell a story you really want to hear the end of, and Nevil Shute is right up there in the upper reaches of the list..  Pied Piper, Trustee from the Toolroom, On the Beach, and this one, are absolute classics...  told from the perspective of the heroine, Jean Paget, this is the story of her life from the moment she is captured by the Japanese in Malaya, to her survival under brutal conditions, to meeting Joe an Australian POW, her immediate post war life, inheritance, and a life in Australia..  a belter, no other word for it, and an absolute time capsule...  recommended...10
What an absolute belter - I have had this in hardback for some time, and read it when it first came out, but it came up on one of the Kindle deals a few weeks ago for 99p and it seemed stupid not to at that price (his Ardennes, and Stalingrad books also popped up for the same price and I also snapped them up - I suspect they are drumming up interest for the imminent release of his history of Arnhem) Immensely readable history of the Normandy landings from the point when the meteorological team gave the "go", to the freeing of Paris, and covering all the beaches, the breakouts, Caen, Operations Goodwood/Epsom/Totalize etc, the truly harrowing description of the fighting around Falaise, the American breakout by Patton, and the politics, always the politics of Eisenhower's truly monumental role in keeping the Allied forces pointing in one direction, while at the same time having to deal with Churchill/Montgomery, Patton, and de Gaulle...  an amazing book, chock full of first hand accounts, insights into the way the two sides fought wars, a re-appraisal of Montgomery (Beevor and I have to say I are not fans)...  my takeaways? The importance of propaganda at keeping the Germans in the war, the absolute ferociousness of any fighting involving the SS (both sides... and although it's Hollywood fiction put "Fury" in mind), the single mindedness of de Gaulle/Leclerc, and the bravery of the men on the ground...  very much recommended...10
I'm a big fan of Robert Harris, Fatherland, and especially "An Officer and a Spy" about Dreyfuss are all absolutely riveting..  I have the new one he's just written ("Munich") on my list for holidays in four weeks time...  this one was another of those Kindle bargains that pops up every now and again (well worth getting on the daily email distribution - not always any good but every now and again a nugget turns up) and was on a subject I knew absolutely nothing about until this book..  like old school Forsyth/Clancy, Harris has immersed himself completely in the process the Roman Catholic Church goes through to elect a new Pope, and it is absolutely fascinating..  told from the perspective of the Dean who is the official in charge of conducting the process, it involves the stories of the 118 elected cardinals who will chose the new Pope, how they go about it,l their back story, how one is favourite, and then is not, before finally arriving at the decision, and the white smoke issues to let the world know that a decision has been made...  in this book we have Lomeli the aforementioned Dean of the College of Cardinals, struggling with his one faith, while also ensuring the election of a new Pope..  the struggle between conservative and liberal wings of the church, between the Italian core and the other "newer" countries, there is human frailty uncovered which affects the result, and at the end while I guessed the result, the last bomb shell wasnt expected at all..  recommended.. 9
See Blog review [clicky]...9
Read this years ago but had missed "Munich" (see below) so decided to have a re-read...  a worthy entry to that group of novels covering life in a Europe where Hitler had won the war..  this one is set in the mid-60's

A German police man investigates the death of a man discovered at the edge of a lake and discovers his death is part of a concerted attempt, coordinated at the highest levels, to remove all attendees/witnesses to the meeting where the Final Solution was first mooted and discussed.

German is about to host America for international talks and evidence of the meeting is the last thing the Nazi leadership needs faced as they are with continued resistance in Russia..
When in need of easy reading and a good yarn then the Francis's are a 'sure bet' (to keep with the usual theme of the books!) -  Dick is dead now but his some Felix has taken up the mantle, and writes in the same easy, steady, style..  they are always about horse racing, steeple chase always, and I have no idea why I like them as much as I do but I think I've read almost all there considerable output now..

Another feature of any Francis novel is an underlying theme/interest...  it can be anything (I remember architect, artist, glass blowing, various investigators, diamond trader, horse transport, author, etc) but it gives the background picture to the story and in this one the main character is a doctor with mental health problems - anxiety based depression and an eating disorder. No reason to stop her being a doctor (she is getting treatment) but she is susceptible to panic attacks. When a man is bought in from the nearby race course dead, there is nothing to identify who he is but her interest is piqued and then she can't stop trying to find out who he is. She identfies he has been killed by opiate poisoning, and then identifies the delivery method and the police begin to assume foul play - doing further digging of her own (despite her husband and police saying not to) she begins to receive threats anonymously, and is then pushed into the path of a lorry that only just misses her..  as her personal life falls apart, she finds herself more and more driven to find out who the man was and hat is behind his death and the threats...  a riveting read...
Huge fan of Robert Harris and this is his newest offering which had been on special at the local bookshop and I was disapointed to miss..  the time gap between hard and soft back seems to be getting shorter though, so this was a welcome but unexpected sight..

"I have in my hand a piece of paper" - most people remember the hrase by Chamberlain when he came back from Berlin after talks with Hitler tha promised to offer if not peace a period of stability, and this nove by Harris covers that period of history, or rather the two or three weeks covering the talks..

Told from the perspective of an English civil servant (Hugh Legat a rising star of the British diplomatic service), and his friend from when they were at Oxford together, and opposite number, Paul von Hartmann (who is on the staff of the German Foreign Office)

Hartmann is a member of the early/nascent anti-Hitler resistance and has documentary evidence that Hitler is planning European conquest in support of 'liebens raum', British intelligence asks Legat to meet, and see what he has..

Set against the background of the talks regarding Czechoslovakia, and Hitlers intention to invade in support of the Sudetan Germans living there, the tone of the novel is of Chamberlain's unceasing work to ensure that the events of the First World War are not repeated, while also trying to ensure that Britain's interests and world standing are not impacted..

Claustrophobic, and paints an entirely different to the usual picture we have of Chamberlain as an appeaser*..  at the time he was not seen as that at all, both British and German crowds cheered him when the papers were signed...  very good and interesting view of a period of history that I didn't know a huge amount about..

*Harris has Chamberlain saying at one point that even if the treaty didn't last, he was looking for a year so as to build up British military strength.. not the view of an appeaser, more a realist..
See Blog review [clicky]..10+
Having been completely and utterly enthused by the Falcon of Sparta book, I felt the need for some more hoplite action, and more specifically some Spartan hoplite action, so I turned to this old favourite that has been on my bookshelf for years - a novel depicting the battle of Thermopylae and simply superb as an introduction and taster into both the Spartan way of life (in a word, "military"), the background to the campaign, and how the battle was fought...  his descriptions of what it must have been like to fight in a hoplite shield wall are second to none, and the book is hugely recommended by me..10
The first of two memoirs of RAF Battle of Britain pilots, one a survivor, but in this case one who died far too young.. Richard Hillary flew with one of the front line RAF squadrons int he Battle of Britain but was shot down and burnt horribly before being rescued from the English Channel. The book was written by him as part of his recovery from those burns, and covers the first experimental work by doctors on treating burns victims..  the book is sobering, and painful, but under it all there is also the story of a young guy taken from school, put under huge strain, and who begins to grow up as he receives treatment..  what is so sad, is that having recovered, he goes back to flying and was subsequently killed in action..  sobering doesn't even begin to describe it..9
This was recommended to me by one of the guys I follow on Facebook (of all places), as I mentioned I had been reading Hillary's book, and the author of this biography Geoffrey Wellum, had just recently died - in this RAF Centenary year it seemed apt I read it, and damn pleased I did as it is without a doubt another 10+ book (it has been an exceptional year for books..) Geoffrey Wellum has been described in may places as the youngest Spitfire pilot in the RAF when he qualified, I think I read somewhere else that he wasn't by a few months, but by the by he joined straight from school, and was thrown in at the deep end..  he is a very un-pretentious writer and is more than happy to criticise his faults, but the description of learning to fly (Tiger Moth's), flight training school (Harvard's), his deep love of flying, and his eventual selection for fighters and assignment to a front line Spitfire squadron must have been so typical. What was unusual about him was that he survived - a tour and three quarters on the front line in Britain, and then just before his second tour ended he was sent as part of the Spitfire force that re0-inforced Malta as part of Operation Pedestal before being sent home on sick leave completely physically and emotionally drained..  he recovered, of course, and went on to test the Typhoon, before ending the war as a gunnery instructor...  the descriptions of aerial dog fights over France are spine tingling..  that constant worry about how far you were from home, and the sheer physicality of flying a Spitfire on the edge in combat..  simply superb...10+
My wife is a huge fan of these books and must have read the series at least four or five times now, in addition to being absolutely gripped by both the current and the old BBC drama series...  so I've been meaning to give them a go for some time. First in the series and we meet Ross Poldark - the central character of the series...  there is nothing stand out exciting about these books, what you get is a good story, with a lot of social history, and what life was like in 18th Century Cornwall.. ok...  8
..and in this the second book, the focus shifts to ross's wife Demelza who he marries in the first book - this is about her coming of age, her first child, and how she begins to develop into gentry from her earlier working class ("the vulgar's") beginnings.. there's more social history.. trouble is brewing in France (the storming of either the Bastille or another major prison are alluded to), money is short, food is also short..8
..following the death of their little girl, Julia in the previous book, life continues hand to mouth for the Poldark's and ross is in court on trumped up charges of wrecking - he is aquitted, and what is further good news is that Ross finally makes up with Francis, and in a shared endeavour opens up an old mine in search of copper which he believes is there in some concentration following advice from a miner friend who hides out there while escaping from the law for having killed his wife..  (you have to read the book..)... on the continent the troubles in France continue to escalate (the book is set at the beginning of the revolution, and Louis has just been arrested and imprisoned)... short of money Ross comes to an arrangement with the local smugglers touse his cove as a landing point, an arrangement fraught with danger as there is an informer about.. the book ends with Demelza giving birth to their son..  Jeremy.. and Francis dying (drowned) in the mine..  
Fourth and last of the initial Poldarks (Graham had a 20 year hiatus in real life between this one which was written in '53, and the next one 20 years later), and I shall take a sabbatical (but slightly less than 20 years!) after this one so I can read the Ben Kane book...
So a return to Cornwall after a 20 year author hiatus in real life, to find that the Poldark's are still at the throats of the Warleggan's - or at least Ross and George are..  a new child has been born to the Warleggan's with a brother to Geoffrey Charles, but given previous incidents an unanswered question surrounds his parentage. Geoffrey Charles has a tutor employed who then proceeds to fall in love (which is reciprocated) with one of Demelza's brothers. Meanwhile Ross is working to rescue Dwight Enys; captured by the French, and imprisoned in a prisoner of war camp in Brittany...  the description of the French Royalist attempt to invade Brittany, and then the rest of France is fascinating.. the rescue attempt is riveting...8
Very much a continued return to form for Julian Stockwin, which, after the somewhat lack lustre "Inferno" started with "Persephone", and very much continues on an upward trajectory with this one. Kydd is still in the Baltic, this time faced by the (very real at the time) issue with Bonaparte's constriction of trade in Europe. Faced with the possibility of bankruptcy due to Bonaparte's denial of trade, Britain is forced to send a fleet to the Baltic to preserve not only the last possible trading option (Sweden), but also to protect their main source of supply for items to keep the navy at sea (tar, and wood for masts). An excellent read, Kydd shows all the signs of having to adapt for senior command - rather than "just charge at them" he now needs to start thinking about the bigger picture..9
See review here [clicky]..8
Standard Francis fodder - a good story, likeable "hero", nasty bad people, good guy gets the girl...  A lawyer working for a low profile company providing crisis management services is engaged by one of their clients (an Arab sheikh) to find out why his horse, a favourite for the Derby, has been killed in a stable fire...  when a body is also found, the investigation becomes a murder case...  splendid!8
See blog post [clicky]...10+
Time got away from me so no specific post on this one lest my blog turn into a giant book review... This is another cracker in the Holcroft Blood series the first of which I read last year..  basically, and in broad summary, Holcroft is the son of the same Blood that in history tried to steal the crown jewels - but he is very different to his father not the least difference being that he is on the autistic scale and has some very unique skills.. the book is set a number of years after the first book, and Blood has been employed in the interim period as a spy doing secret work in Paris, before managing to escape by the skin of his teeth moments before betrayal and arrest. Returning to England he finds employ in the Royal Artillery, which he takes to as a natural, due to his natural flair for maths and trigonometry. While going about this daily business however, he hears via one of his old channels that a French agent, known only by his code name, has followed him across the Channel with intent to destabilise the monarchy, and also intends to murder him. During all of this, Blood gets married, is present with the artillery at Sedgemoor, and then subsequently has to decide how we will respond to his good friend Churchill's (yes, that one..) invitation to join the conspirators in the Glorious Revolution..  what a cracker..  can't wait for the next book!
 See blog post [clicky]..9
This one came out of nowhere and I loved it..  watch for a review of both parts (see next) on the blog.. 9
Liked the first one (see previous) so much that despite a full reading pile I went and got this and started it straight away!9

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