Book reviews - 2019

Another year, another list..

Score (out of 10)
The Christmas 2018 Dickens.... not often I  get to start the year in such a high but such is the case with this one...  it is my tradition every Christmas to read a Charles Dickens, and in previous years have read David Copperfield (good), Nicholas Nickleby (exceptional), The Old Curiosity Shop (OK), Tale of Two Cities (disappointing), Olive Twist (good), and Christmas Carol (short but good) I was looking for options when I remembered that this book had formed the basis of one of the main plot lines in the much enjoyed "Dickensian" BBC drama of a few years ago..  decision we have the story of the foundling boy Pip, Mrs Haversham, Satis House, the truly horrible but turned nice Estella, his Uncle Joe (lovely depiction), the lawyer, Jaggers (WAY better than the depiction in "Dickensian") and over all Magwitch the escaped convict. Stunning piece of work, laugh out loud funny in places, irritating in others - cracking read and I was genuinely a bit depressed when I'd finished it - the sign of a good book...10
Kindle bargain...  see review [clicky]10
First read this when I was only just a teenager and it's just as much fun now..  I have this one earmarked to read to grandson as I think he'd like it in a year or two..  Emil goes to visit his grandmother in the city, and while he asleep on the train is robbed of some money his mother has given to him to give to his grandmother..  how he gets it back is the subject of the story which is set in Berlin in Weimar period..  lovely...9
A good but short introduction to the major battlefield organisation changes of the late 16th to mid 17th centuries, giving an overview of the Dutch, Swedish, and composite German methods and how they were utilised in the 30 Years War, the Bishops War, and the English Civil War. A damn good primer..8
I cannot rate this series highly enough and would recommend all of them without reservation -  the books [clicky] are set against the British submarine service in the Second World War and feature 'wavy Navy' officer Harry Gilmour - this is the fourth and Harry has been int he service coming on for two years and has been invited to do the Perisher course, the passing of which is the precursor (and still is), for submarine command. Having passed it Harry is posted to the Mediterranean based first at Malta where he commands a number of submarines in temporary capacities before finally being given his own. The books are hugely good on detail, what it was like to serve in a submarine at the time, the attack descriptions re excellent..  at the end Harry and his submarine are transferred to another command and he comes up against an old enemy (in his own service!)..  'nuff said, no spoilers, can't wait for part 5! 9
Not one of his classics, but eminently readable as you would expect..  he'll always be a story teller even when he's not trying very hard, as is the case here I thought..  quite short, and almost a collection of short stories welded into a single book - a young computer genius is taken under the wing of an old Cold War warhorse, and unleashed on the enemies of the free world..  good fun, completely implausible, but an entertaining read and not a waste of time..  besides, the baddies get spanked...  
You can almost set your watch by these now, though having said that there was a two year wait for this one, and is it sacrilege to say I didn't really miss it until it arrived? Oh don't get me wrong I'll always read anything Bernard C. puts out I even enjoyed "Fools and Mortals" (which was the reason for the delay in this one coming out I think) but this series has long gone past the point I think it should have stopped...  I wouldn't be able to tell you what happened in each of the previous books because to be honest they are all the same..  Uhtred saves the day and there is a shield wall or two..  oh, and the Christian Saxons are largely perfidious, and the Pagan Norse are wicked but largely good fellows you would have a drink with...  and so it is with this book as well..  there are signs that Uhtred is getting older and slowing down, there are signs that the English as a nation are coming, and you know there is going to be another book..  enjoy it like a comfy pair of slippers, nothing new to see here but enjoyable none the less..
I regret to say I had to put this one down unfinished - probably me but I found the number of main characters difficult to track and the action shifts around all over the place and in time (I think) and int he end it was hurting my brain....3
I've read this one before, but a long time ago - set in the early days of the Punic Wars of the Roman republic this series is about the birth of the Classis Romanum - the Roman Navy - and the ability it gave them to extend their military presence in the Mediterranean. In this first book the background is the Carthaginian invasion of Sicily where two Roman Legions are campaigning, and now stranded as a result of the blockade by the Carthaginian fleet. Against such a background we have the military and political manoeuvrings that resulted in a Roman fleet taking to the water in a little less than a month..  excellent!9
Atticus and Septimus continue to serve in the Roman navy facing off against the same foe as the last book, the Carthaginians - Sicily continues to be the focus of campaigning, and this time they face a cleverer and more thoughtful hero..  Political shenanigans in the Senate continue but eventually - against all the odds - turns out a Consul who Atticus (as a Greek born Roman) can at least begin to respect. He has however made enemies, and Scipio, and his new poster boy Varo, continue to cause trouble for his imagined failings  ...  elsewhere the arms race steps up and the trireme's are being superseded by the quinquiremes..  exciting stuff - another volume to go but first a small change to re-wet the appetite...9
First in the Maigret series, and it is  now on my bucket list to read all of them following that sublime Christmas themed short story selection I read in December which well and truly got me hooked...  stupidly easy reading, but the story has more twists than a twisty thing, the background of 1930's Paris is gorgeous in all it's light and shade, and you just got to like Maigret..  he's a stayer...  no spoilers, but Petr the Latvia has an interesting past, and is a major player in international financial hoax's...9
The last in the trilogy, and Atticus has been promoted to the Roman naval equivalent of Admiral (Prefect) in command of a fleet of the new quinqiremes.. As a non-Roman citizen his life continues to be turbulent, and despite the respect of a number of the leading senators/leaders, as Greek born, he is looked upon with suspicion...  his love life in tatters due to his Greek birthright which has also estranged his friendship with Septimus, he is also subject to plots by a number of his enemies from the past including Scipio who has been re-voted consul.. all (of course) ends well, with Rome triumphant at sea, and the Carthaginian's for the time being at least subject to a harsh peace...  8
Fresh from his exploits in the Baltic and after a short spot of home leave Kydd and the crew of the Tyger are sent to Spain and Portugal in support of the blockade and are on station when through a series of strategies Bonaparte invades and claims the throne of Spain..  the Spanish rebel, and after years of enmity Britain finds itself allied with Spain in the war against Napoleon. The books details the period leading up to the retreat of Sir John Moore and is well up to the best of the previous books..  recommended...8
Oh my, well worth the wait...  final part of the trilogy, and after a long, brutal, and exhausting war the book opens where the last one ended with a wounded and recovering Trickey (the hero of the book) hiding out on a farm in Italy, and encouraged to return to the regiment (the Para's). He is back in time for Arnhem (as we know) and this book is about the fighting in Arnhem, but also more specifically about the last days of Rommel (who he has met, and knows) and the activities of SOE. Superb..  Radcliffe is a yarn teller for sure...9
A bit of a whistle stop apologia for the actions of the Earl of Essex while in charge of Parliaments main field army at the time.The authors are well known (especially for their Edgehill book which isa must read on my project) and they specifically state that the coverage of the earl's battle is deliberately kept shoprt as their are plenty of other books (including theirs ) available that do it in more detail. it's an interesting book that left me with two thoughts - one they really did need a little more detail on the battles, and two, for an apologia it had the reverse outcome of what the authros actually wanted. I got to the end of it and couldn't help thinking that Essex came across as a bit of whiner..  he was overly attentive of his position as commander in chief, spent a lot of time bickering with both his political masters, and his fellow generals over questions of position and status, and at the end of it I was left with a far poorer impression of him than clearly his soldiers had - it may well be of course that he just had two sides, but I didn't warm to him..  even his strokes of tactical genius as described by the authors seemd to me to be a bit, errr, lucky..  good book, some decent background, fails in the objective but still worth reading..8
This was a Kindle bargain a while ago and having had an interest in this particular war since my youth (when I first read Homage to Catalonia, For Whom the Bell Tolls, As I Walked Out One Summer Morning etc.) it was a "must buy". In much the same way as the English Civil War has always sat in the back of my mind as a potential wargames project this has also done the same...  I am fascinated by the possibilities of those inter war armoured vehicles, planes, Moroccan's, and most of all the International Brigades. I still may very well do this one day (also either Wellington in India or Bonaparte in Egypt). This is the expanded version of the book that first came out a number of years ago, and is huge - but just over half the book is notes and bibliography. Covering from the very beginning of the war to well after the fighting ceased in mainland Spain, this is a huge old read - took me two weeks - it's also not an easy read...  The Republican's (and it's not always made clear, but they were the elcted government at the time hoistilities broke out) seemed doomed to fail from the very beginning - every shade of red (politically), yet none trusted the other and their ability to cooperate doomed them to failure from the beginning. What won the war for the Nationalists/Franco was
  • a singularity of purpose, 
  • the support of the western world who distrusted "Bolsheviks" almost as much as they wanted to appease Hitler/Mussolini (and thereby also stopped all means of waging war reaching the Republican armies except from Russia), 
  • the support of Hitler who used the war as a test bed and provided the Condor Legion (which was not just airforce, but tanks/artilery/infantry as well),
  • the support of Mussolini (who almost bankrupted Italy with the cost of the support provided)
  • the support of the Roman Catholic church - which among many other things influenced the US not to provide weapons to the Republicans as a result of lobbying by Roman Catholic pressure groups within the US
Points of interest for me - how much Russia and Germany gained from the war - the Spanish republican government transferred their gold reserves to the Russians as a way and means of continuing to get the arms and ammunition they needed to continue the war - the Russian accounting method was ver "interesting" in their favour. The Germans on the other hand got (if I remember rightly) 15% of the Spanish output of iron and steel as payment - set back the Spanish economy by years. In a practical way the Germans learnt how effective the 88 was in a ground attack role, how good the Stuka was (ditto), how they needed to urgently replace the Pz I as it came up against heavier Russian tanks, how to make fast/effective attacks with all arms..  the list goes on, and then there was Guernica.

Stunning book - well worth reading - and that project will come to fruition one day!
Maigret #2 (and as he wrote 75 of them it may take me an enjoyably long period of time to complete the series! ) .. Maigret is called to investigate the strange death in a country village hotel of a travelling salesman with interesting connections, and a sad marriage...  with every book, Simenon is painting a stronger and stronger picture of Maigret (who really isn't very like Rowan Atkinson in appearance, but Rowan I think does get the character..)..  just lovely..  best of all is the depiction of a France between the wars.. 8
Maigret is following a disreputable looking young Frenchman who is in Germany for no good reason and seems curiously attached to an old battered suitcase...  thought a sad set of circumstances he is also there when the young man commits suicide.. why did he do it? Maigret sets out to investigate and what he finds is a set of friends hiding a dreadful secret since their university days..  superb..  best one yet..9
So everyone is probably well aware that Robert Galbraith is actually JK Rowling (of Harry Potter fame) but that should be abundantly clear the moment you pick the book up purely because she is such a consumate story teller..  she writes books that you hate to put down until you find out the final twise, and at the same time you feel a physical disapointment when the book ends...  this one is no different..  HUGE book but wholeheartedly and completely recommended - chock full of plots and sub-plots (not the least of which is the cintinuing disintegration of Robin's personal life, and her relationship with Strike)..  my third ten'er of the year!10
Follow up to the book I read last year - the story is based around the struggle of Macedonia against Republican Rome and specifically about the military match up between the Pike Phalanx and the Legion told from the perspective of soldiers in each army. The story climaxes at the epic battle of Cynosephalae where Rome and the Legion were triumphant. Not as good as the first book I thought, certainly not as good as Falcon of Sparta (the new Iggulden series) - it's never a good idea when one of the two hero's of the book then die, for what I thought was very little dramatic reason - the book just tailed off after that really...  7
Following on in his periodic fascination with the Vietnam war (old hippy, what can I say) I first read this as a considerably younger Steve the Wargamer, I till have a hard copy on my book shelves, but it must be 20 years since I last read it..  this popped up on Amazon as one of their occasional bargains so I snapped it up purely because it was too cheap not to, and then having finished the previous book, and sat in the pub with nothing to read I spotted this in my Kindle library, and I off I went..! What a stunning book, the biography of a Huey helicopter pilot with the "Cav" flying 'slicks' (the troop carriers) roughly '64 through '66..  it is an amazing read, I absolutely galloped through it...  the author is honest, human, insightful, and it is an amazing narrative that covers all aspects of the helicopter war in Vietnam. Very much recommended..
Number five or six in a series, and it's one of those series where you really need to know what went before to understand what's going on..  misfit Royal Navy officer (promoted by the mad King and resented by all his fellow officers as he was a common seaman before) stumbles through a series of scrapes and mishaps, while proving he is far better than everyone else thinks..  passable...  not going back though 
Bit of a surprise this one..  not sure where I heard of it, it may have been recommended on one of the yachting forums I frequent, I think..? Either way, a most unusual background for a novel set against the Falklands war.. misfit ex-Marine, is sailing his wooden yacht to the Pacific and stops over in the Falklands before attempting the Cape (Horn)..  there he is caught up in the events preceding the invasion, spying, political machinations, and a love interest, and ten serves through the war as an unofficial guide...  the author has a considerable background and it shows..  good read..
A lucky find in a book pile at the apartments while on holiday in Kefalonia..  cracking read as you would expect from tis author...  the background to tis one is artificial intelligence in machines, and a machine that has been taught t think  for itself so well that it is taking over the company it was designed to serve.. ostensibly an algorithm based trading system (buying and selling shares based on data analysis of past behaviour) this one has been introduced to big data, and the secret of it's success is analysing the worlds news for evidence of fear basing it's buying and selling on what level of fear it see's..  very clever, and you'll never guess the ending..  very good.  
Maigret #4..  in this adventure he has been asked too investigate the mysterious death of a well dressed and pretty young woman in a working canal side industrial area..   what is she doing there..   who is the mysterious British ex-colonel of the Indian army moored there in his yacht (with an ex-Russian navy sailor as crew)?? Cracking...  
Hard to believe this is #21 in the Kydd series...  they've all been good, there were a run of a couple where I thought they were a little below par, but with the last two or three Stockwin is well into his stride.. this one is a cracker..  quite possibly up there with Inferno which has been my favourite to date... so...  Kydd is in the Mediterranean on the coast of their new ally Spain, bringing confusion to the enemy in conjunction with fellow crack frigate captain, Cochrane...  the action then switches to the Atlantic French coast and the Brest blockade.. along the way there is a brush with a new venture in Lloyds of London, and his friend Renzi is embroiled in skulduggery for the British government in the world of high finance... it all ends with a cracking naval battle..   superb! 
My Dad sent me a couple of books in this series as he's a bit of a fan, but given they were later in the series I thought I'd better check out number one just so I could get the back ground..  so the series is about Matthew Hawkwood, ex-officer in the 95th Rifles (yes them), reconnaissance officer for Wellington, and  now Bow Street Runner...  in this the first one, and as a scene setter, the back story is Alexander Fulton the inventor of the first submarine, and an attempt on the Prince of Wales's life..  gritty, but a good yarn...

A wine dealer in Concarneau, is wounded by a gunshot when returning home drunk from the local hotel and Maigret is called in by the Mayor to solve the crime. Maigret stays at the hotel and starts his investigations with the wine dealers friends and acquaintances (who are a mixed bunch!) and also the staff of the hotel..  disappearances and further shootings follow ..  and why does a large yellow dog appear at moments of drama? Cracking..   
#3 in the series and the background for this story is the prison hulks holding French prisoners of war in the Thames. There have been escapes, and attempts to infiltrate the hulks to find out how have failed ..  time to call in Matthew Hawkwood.  More gritty realism, the descriptions of the hulks are a bit stomach churning, but Hawkwood manages to escape and then the race is on to try and get the information to his employers, while not letting on to the smugglers who have organised the escapes. Good story..
#4 in the series and my least favourite of them so far..  Hawkwood goes under cover in Paris with an old colleague of his from the Peninsula to try and engineer a rebellion against Bonaparte..  dragged on a little this one for all the fact the story is well told and plausible..
What a superb book...  last read it more than 10 years ago and had forgotten what an immensely readable account of the history of the island in WW2 this is - history is the right word by the way as the book covers all three of the periods - pre invasion, the German air assault phase, and then the post invasion/resistance phase...  some of this was fresh from my reading "The Cretan Runner" last year (and we do meet him in the book). I particularly enjoyed the assault phase of the book, and realised again how very close the Germans had been to be being defeated - some fairly fundamental errors on the Allied side, and at that phase of the war almost a psychological sense that we weren't good enough to beat the Germans (but try telling the Maori's that!). Much recommended..10
Maigret #6 already...!  With this one I thought Simenon was beginning to hit his stride with Maigret, possibly the most action packed of the stories so far with a back story of gangsters, smuggling, drugs, and fast cars...  you'll never guess the outcome..  I didn't!9
An American is caught up in events in Athens as the Germans are about to enter the city and the British are in retreat... somehow he finds himself in possession of a list of contacts vital the Allied war effort, but he also finds himself trapped..  can he escape before the Gestapo find him..  a good enough story, but only Uris's second (written in 1955!) and it was a little clunky at times..  a good enough read though..  
Simenon continues to delight - Maigret has been asked to help the local Dutch police force in the investigation into  murder that involves a French national. The action is set in a little Dutch village (which reminded me of some Stepford Wives nightmare) ultra conservative, but only on the surface..  fantastic..
What an excellent and readable history of the period this was - despite the title by the way this is far more than a history of the long summer of air battles by the RAF over Britain..  Holland chooses to cover the period from the BEF and their retreat at Dunkirk, up to the end of October 1940 after the RAF was seen to be the acknowledged winner of the air battle. He sets the battle in the context of Hitler's overall war strategy, and also in the context of the battles by coastal command, the Navy, and all the other myriad organisations (observation corps, LDV/Home Guard, etcetc). He gives a very good overview of the organisation of both air forces, supply chain, plane design, etc. He also describes the contrasting tactics, and shows how the utterly inept handling of the Luftwaffe by Goering undoubtedly made a very hard battle win'able by the RAF. His depiction of Dowding, Park, and behind them all, Churchill is excellent..   Stunning book...  recommended.10
Maigret is asked by a good friend to travel to the town of Quimper a fishing village on the French Atlantic coast (Brittany, and I have actually been there..) to investigate the arrest for murder of the fiance of the daughter of a friend. Persuading Madam Maigret that this would be the ideal spot for their summer holiday they holiday for a week while Maigret manages to get to the bottom of what actually happened on the fishing boat Ocean while fishing for cod for months...  another cracker...  I only managed to get what the key event was just before the end of the book..  8
I can't remember how long ago it was that I last read this, but prompted by the news of a lovely re-print by the publisher Slightly Foxed [clicky] and then the lucky find of my original Puffin copy in a big clear out in the loft it was too much of a hint not to sit down and read it..  cracking...  remember that this is children's literature, but it is old school children's literature that doesn't condescend, or patronise, but also teaches without you even knowing it..  smashing...  what a lovely visit to old times..  recommended.9
One of those books that when you finish it you feel physically sad that the experience is over.. the mark of an outstanding book in my view. So many questions prompted by the reading of it though, I really must read a little more about the Greek Civil War and the years of the Colonel's, and also the history of the takeover by the German's once the Italian's surrendered.. it's a fairly common view that atrocities by the German's during the ware were almost always as a result of actions by the SS, Cephalonia (and Poland) would indicate that the Heer (regular army) were just as ruthless. The massacre of the Italian troops on Cephalonia [clicky] was as big an affair as Katyn...  hugely sobering, and dealt with at length in the novel...  No need I think to describe what the book is about - you'd have to have been a hermit not to have seen the film or heard about the book, but it is not just about an Italian mandolin playing artillery officer, it is also about Greece, the spirit of the Greek people, life on an island, how that changed post war, and about the waste of war (to all sides)..  brilliant book - if I could give it 11, I would do...10
A re-read of one of Cornwell's best.. I seem to remember that Thomas Hookton (the protagonist) also appears in one of the books in his Grail series (Harlequin etc) but this is a standalone, and is pretty much a fictional re-telling of the Agincourt campaign, starting just before the invasion, and covering the Channel crossing, the appalling conditions and the siege of Harfleur, the chevauchee afterwards (an attempt basically for Henry to save face) and then the battle and it's totally unexpected outcome..  excellent...9
Set in the Mediterranean in the early 1940's, this story continues from the one I finished earlier this year and is equally as good. Anyone with a basic knowledge on naval warfare in WW2 will know that the life span of a British submarine in those years was usually very short..  waters are comparatively shallow, and the quantity of surface ships and air cover high. In his book Harry ad the rest of the crew of the S-Class submarine HMS Scourge, have been tasked with patrolling the Mediterranean and supporting operations for the Allied forces, usually in the form of landing commandos and other cloak and dagger types on various Greek islands in the dead of night. If that wasn't difficult enough, however, Harry has now been at sea, on a war footing, for over a year without leave so he is beginning to feel that he is losing his edge, and he also continues to receive the malicious attentions of his old Captain, Charles 'the Bonny Boy' Bonalleck VC. In the end, things begin to look up, but no spoilers here and as I said last time..  can't wait for the next book!9
CC writes these books out of sequence, so although this was the last/latest book he wrote in the life of Jack Absolute (the hero of the story), it is chronologically before the first book he wrote..  if you see what I mean... The novel series features the imagined life of one of the main character in Sheridan's play "The Rivals" and is a corker, as are the others in the series.. romps along nicely.. a back plot of Jacobite plotting, Rome of the Grand Tour, Bath (of course), and the 16th Light Dragoons (his regiment) in the Portuguese campaign (the 1762 one, not the later Napoleonic one)...  only one word for it..  rollicking..!8

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