Book reviews - 2020

Another year, another list..

Score (out of 10)
First book of the year and also the Christmas Dickens..  huge book, and deals on this occasion with the demerits of the old Chancery court, specifically for this book, the fictional long running, and hugely expensive, case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce - a case so huge and long running no one knows what it actually arose from (contested wills I think) but which is now some great self feeding monster keeping untold numbers of lawyers in work while not delivering any result.. the heroine of the story is one Esther, the result of a liaison between the tragic Lady Dedlock and Captain Hawdon. Believing him dead in an accident she goes on to marry Sir Leicester and spends most of the book trying to hide the liaison/child from her husband and society, while the truly odious lawyer Tulkinghorn is doing the opposite. In the meanwhile Esther has been bough up by Lady D's sister, and on her death by one John Jarndyce (one of the plaintiffs), John has two additional wards who also have an interest in the case, but on the opposite side. Cue young ward going off the rails due to an unhealthy and consuming interest in a court case that will never deliver, consumption, illness, disease, poverty and you have another cracking tale by Dickens. Enjoyed it, but it took a while to get going..  my favourite character? Inspector Bucket of the Detective..  superb.. 8
See blog post [clicky]..9
Recommended by a fellow blogger, who had made it sound interesting enough that I ordered it straight away (99p Kindle bargain!)..  written by an ex-RAF pilot from WW1, the novel is about a Camel squadron on the Western Front in the period 1917 through  '18. It details in depth the kinds of missions the Camel squadrons performed (they were apparently the fighter bomber of the time - slower and lower ceiling than the SE5's and Sopwith Dolphin's), the particular challenges of flying a Camel that were also it's strengths in a dog fight, the unreliability of the rotary engine, and the sheer physicality of flying a 2 or 3 hour mission in one. Along side that we get a good view of what the German tactics were at the time (they hear that Richthofen is shot down half way through the book) the shift of the Germans to the Circus's, and their tendency not to seek out a fight on the Allied side of the lines, leaving the Camels to go well into enemy airspace to prosecute the air war.. Squadron life features alcohol heavily, and by the end of it you worry for the health of its protagonist, Tom Cundall who must be downing a bottle of whisky a day as the number of his friends dying grows by the day...  it's a good book, harsh, realistic I suspect given the authors provenance, and fairly draining...  the flying sequences are stunning, the ground sequences tend to feature occasional long diatribes against the war, and the bankers and the profiteers..  I enjoyed it, if only for the fact that I learnt a lot about the Camel that I hadn't previously known..
Dick/Felix Francis is my guilty pleasure..  very simple books structurally, but with good story lines, almost always featuring horses or horse racing, and always very readable..  this one features a volunteer racing steward who's wife is murdered, and who battles to clear his name after having first been accused of the murder, while also finding out the true murderer...  lots of complications, and look out for the twist at the end..
Fairly standard Osprey fare, and absolutely nothing wrong with that, but Tincey as an author lifts it for sure, and the phased/timed maps are outstanding..  illustrations, not my cup of tea..  bit Janet and John'ish if you know what I mean...  so, usual format..  background to the war, the opposing notable commanders and generals, brief run up to Edgehill, orbat's, run down of the battle, and then aftermath...  good stuff - recommended.
One of the best to date..  a rich man on his second wife, and with a mistress, is found dead at his desk and a significant amount of money missing from the unlocked safe he is leaning against...  stunning writing..  you can almost smell the coffee, Gauloise's and fresh baked bread..
Have to say I was a little in two minds about this one, but Harris is a consummate story teller, and given I have enjoyed all of his books so far, it seemed foolish not to at least try this one. So we have the story of a priest who has been sent to a remote west country village to officiate over the funeral of their previous priest, and then becomes enmeshed in local events...  it is difficult to review this without giving the fundamental and underlying plot away, the clue is in the book title (and that was a new theory to me) and the underlying idea is very clever if not a little freaky...  fantastic book, clever plot/premise, fantastic characters, ended WAY too abruptly..  recommended..8
For the first time I we learn something about Maigret's upbringing - a small village where his father was the gamekeeper for a large estate - as Maigret is asked to investigate a possible murder (or was it?), of the current owner of the estate..  9
This had been recommended on one of the book forums I follow (Goodreads perhaps?) so I put it on my list to get at some point in time.. then lo and behold it arrived under the tree at Christmas.. A good book, perhaps a little long in the middle, dealing with London's East End at the turn of the 18th Century and specifically the slave trade..  it's dirty, gritty, muddy and smelly.. the author paints a very descriptive picture of London in the late 1770's with all it's vices on show in the dock side area of Deptford home to the slaving fleet.. harrowing stuff indeed, and a solid detective story featuring a wounded army officer back from the American war hunting down the killers of his best friend from university who was a pro-Abolitionist in a town that owes it's living to slavery..  not long after they start dropping like flies...  a good one..8
Thomas Blackstone has been made Edward's (Edward III) Master of War responsible for keeping the Kings peace in France and ensuring the French nobles in the newly acquired French lands (see the Treaty of Bretigny) remain loyal and in line. With a small army of archers and man at arms, with his son now serving with him, and with his trusty side kick Kilbere (who I just think is the best character) life is dangerous, bloody, and never quiet..   in this episode in the series, he is drawn in to a battle to settle scores between two French baron's the outcome of which could unsettle the peace, he is hunted down by a band of Teutonic knights who wrongly believe him to be responsible for a past murder, and he uncovers a plot to kill the Black Prince..  a cracker, and as good as any in the series, and better I thought than the previous one..
8 unexpected and delightful addition to the excellent Robin Hood series... Robin and his men are on their way back from the Holy Land when their ship is wrecked in a storm.. the local Lord offers them employment clearing out some local pirates but they offer Robin a better alternative opportunity..  excellent and set largely in El Cid era Spain..
I suspect very few people know of this series, but I loved it as a very much younger Steve the Wargamer, and still love it now as it has stood the test of time well in my view. This is the first in the series and introduces the three boys who ar the main protagonists..  David, Arthur and Peter..  what can I say, they live in Yorkshire, their lives centre round the local church where they are in the choir, and in this story they investigate the secret of the mysterious case clock left by Colonel Sheperton with David's grandfather many years before and never collected...
Follow up to Colonel Sheperton's Clock and in this book the boys meet and befriend an Admiral who has moved in to a local house, whilst together they make plans to fire one of the Admiral's old cannons, they also rescue an old church from ruin and investigate the disappearance of a statue from their church. Amid all that they then get hit by the worst snow storm in generations...10
Next in the series, and the focus of the book is a punt that Peter has managed to find in the local second hand yard...   as are all his inventions it is painted yellow (from a stock of paint that his father bought years before) and named Sea Peril - the book is about their adventures in it on the river, the indomitable Lady Bridgbolton, rescues, cricket, and about the fundamental goodness of people...  a real tonic in these pandemic times... 9
Two boys are evacuated to an old mill town at the beginning of WW2, it is the story of how they adapt from a London East End life to the country town, and when one of the boys meets a girl from the local school they are sharing, about what it is like to experience first love at 17.. and all of this against a background of a growing war, Dunkirk, air raids, and their looming call ups...  (re)loved it..
Always sad when you get to the end of a series and so it was (again) with this one - the three boys are grown - Peter and David have just finished A levels and Arthur is at agricultural college...  time for one last adventure though as they are to go on a sailing trip with the Admiral and his side kick Guns..  at the last moment though, an old friend from the admirals past, who happens to be Peter's aunt, turns up, and old WW2 memories are stirred. They decide to visit the site of her wartime pilots husbands death as part of the cruise..9
Philip Turner (the author of the previous books) also wrote under the pen name Stephen Chance, and this was the first in the Septimus Treloar series..  Septimus is a retired CID (detective) inspector who has taken orders and become a vicar of a remote village in the Fens..  in this first book he has to call on his old skills to investigate a missing church heirloom, and catch the thieves trying to make off with it...  
When mysterious lights and ghostly organ music are heard in the cathedral the more gullible are quick to jump to ghostly conclusions. Septimus is asked by the Dean to investigate and get to the bottom of what's causing them before the press get involved and embarrass him and his boss, the Bishop...

Septimus is on holiday in Wales deep in the mountains, where legends and history are closer to the surface than most places. When the local water board announce plan for a new damn that will flood the valley, local feeling begin to run high, and then start turning sinister. Will re-enacting the old sacrificial rites save the valley? Septimus sets out to investigate who's behind it..8
Not as good as the previous books I thought..  this episode is set in the Far East where the Tyger has been assigned to the India squadron under the redoubtable Admiral (and ex-crack frigate captain) Pellew. While on station he is caught up in East India Company politic'ing but then meets Raffles who describes to him his plan to invade and take the Spice Islands that are under Dutch rule, now a French subject country ruled by Bonaparte. An enjoyable enough yarn, but Kydd is a canny lad and yet on two separate occasions in this I was caused to think "why didn't you see the outcome of what you've just done?"..  8
During the current pandemic Osprey were offering three or four books free a week from their entire catalogue - a fair few of them didn't appeal but I took it as an opportunity to try some books/periods I wouldn't otherwise have tried.. so it was with this one. Quite fascinating..  cataphracts, kontos, armed with the panjagan (a multiple arrow firing device that fire five arrows at once) armed head to toe in chain and lamellar armour ..  they were the descendants of the Aechmenid Persians (Darius and Xerxes) but their direct antecedents were the Parthians..  the Sassanian's were perhaps the only empire the Romans never managed to defeat..8
Recommended to me by a mate of mine as a good read..  he was right, I shall be reading the follow on book in the series..  Sam Wyndham is a detective inspector from Scotland Yard who following a traumatic war in the trenches of WW1, and the death of his new wife from the Spanish flu epidemic after the war, ends up transferring to the Imperial police in Calcutta. I think it fair to say that he has a fair share of his own demons (including an addiction that he shares with Sherlock Holmes) but his arrival in Calcutta is something of a culture shock. He is thrown immediately into the investigation of the brutal murder of  a senior white member of the local administration that looks like it was terrorist based..  or is it...  set at the time of the massacre at Amritsar, the period of time in India's history saw the twilight of Empire, and the surge of Indian home rule feeling...   fascinating book..
Another of the Osprey free "pandemic books"... an ideal opportunity to read up on the history of something you wouldn't have otherwise tried..  this one was fascinating. Jagdeschwader 52 was one of the key squadrons on the Eastern/Russian Front, and despite their earlier operational history being in the west, it was in Russia that they forged their reputation as one of the highest scoring squadrons of all time, and all nations.. some of their aces scored over 300 by the end of the war, and the book is a concise history of where they served, the planes and missions they flew, and the key personnel - this part is heavy on military decorations (Knights Cross, Swords and Diamonds got harder and harder to win as the scores racked up!) What I would have liked to have known was why they were able to rack up the scores - clearly training and planes - but why were the Russians so awful? A good read that left me with a few more questions...

Bit of a launch into the dark for me with this series, that has repaid handsomely. I had not heard of Philip Kerr before but was intrigued by the background enough that when the omnibus of the first three books came up as a Kindle deal I took the plunge. As I say - glad I did as the books, background and the hero are fascinating. Set in pre-WW2 Berlin the hero of the story (Bernie Gunther) is an ex-policeman who has set up in business as a private detective - this first book is set in 1936 and concerns the theft of some valuable family jewellery...  along the way Bernie ends up going undercover into Dachau, has dealings with a number of the Nazi hierarchy, before finally getting a conclusion... brilliant book... the corruption, and the general air of menace of life under the Nazi's is compelling...  good read!

PS. a "march violet" is the nickname for a late comer to the Nazi party - someone who has joined late but then overcompensates to get ahead..
Two years later (1938) and Bernie has been persuaded to rejoin the police force in order to hunt down a serial killer of young teenage girls...  a particularly nasty piece of work, being hunted down in company with a particularly nasty bunch of colleagues, and a particularly nasty suspect - Julian Streicher. Touches on the growing strength of the SS in German socienty at that time, and Himmler's "obsession" with the occult...8
Massive leap in time for book number 3as as this one is set in 1947, and in it we find only the briefest mentions of where Bernie had been in the war, and what his war service was. We do learn however that he was a Russian POW long enough to learn Russian, so when an old colleague pays a significant retainer to prove his innocence, Bernie is off to post-war Vienna - "3rd Man" territory (which funnily enough is alluded to). Cue a hunt across Vienna, played by the intelligence services of what seems like all the major powers (except France), before running foul of an organisation of ex-SS senior officers, purportedly working for the Americans, in opposition to the Russians...  confusing stuff!8

A welcome return to Maigret, and in this book he is asked by a cousin of his wife to help out a friend who's brother has been accused of murdering a girl he was found to be having an affair with, and who was the mother of his child. The accused family are Flemish and live in a village bisected by the Meuse, where half is Flemish and half French, with all the tensions that brings, especially when the murdered girl is French, and he is already engaged to a Flemish girl. A right page turner, atmospheric, fantastic...9
Very enjoyable - and the first time I've read/heard of an investigation being conducted completely from a bed. Maigret is shot and wounded while pursuing a man he has grown suspicious of while on a sleeper train - he ends up in a hotel room in Bergerac while convalescing/recovering and recruits the inestimable Madam Maigret and an old retired friend from the police to investigate who is behind the horrific attacks on young girls locally..    another page turner!8
One of the best yet I think..  Maigret investigates a mysterious death of a man who has been previously shot, in a small coastal town (I suspect it is the same port that the modern day Caen ferries use!). Atmospheric (as ever) and a gripping read right to the end..
I guess I must read Herriot every 3 or 4 years, I just find it very uplifting, funny, and inherently optimistic. For those of you living in a parallel universe who have never heard of James Herriot, these are the fictionalised memoirs of his time as a vet working in the Yorkshire dales from a period just before the second world war, up until his return to practice after the war..  this omnibus comprises the first two books, and deals with his arrival in the small market town up until the point he gets married...  just lovely..
Without a doubt my best book of the year so far so this one warrants a 10+. I've been a fan of this series since book 1, to the point that (unusually for me) I would pre-order books to get them on release date (and I haven't done that since Harry Potter!). The books feature the protagonist Harry Gilmour, a Royal Navy submarine skipper in WW2. The atmosphere and background is second to none, very realistic (it seems to me) depictions of what it was like to live and make war in a submarine of the era. No spoilers, but in this book - which is the final one in the series - Harry is skipper of a boat that has been transferred to the Far East Theatre..  brilliant - and I genuinely felt down when I finished the book...
I very much enjoyed the first one in this series ("Lancelot" [clicky]) so when I saw this had been published I had to get it...  even more so as it was a stupidly cheap price in Tesco, even more so than the equivalent Kindle version..  picking up 10 or so years after where Lancelot ended the book centres around Lancelot's son (Galahad) - England is in turmoil, Arthur has long since exiled himself to a small island in the middle of the fens and waterways near present day Glastonbury, but the Saxon's continue to arrive in large numbers, taking more and more land from the indigenous people as move further and further west. collected from the monastery where he was sent a child for his safety, Galahad is joined with the remnants of Arthur's heavy cavalry, and an attempt to ally the remaining English kings against the Saxons..  Merlin re-appears, there are battles, there is that unique spin Giles Kristian has on what must have been the very narrow gap between real life, and the Gods and magic, and superstition..  excellent..
Follow up to the "Rising Man" that I read earlier in the year, and another view of life in the post WW1 India that was on the cusp of the break from Empire - in this case the protagonist and his sidekick "Surrender Not" are on the trail of a murderer, or rather the murderer's controller since the murderer has killed himself during imminent capture. The follow the trail to the small Indian state, where the murderer's victim was a Prince first in line to the throne, and where the state funeral of said prince is bound to attract the culprit. Very good..
Refreshing to have Ben Kane write about  period that isn't swords and sandals..  the first of what I hope are a number of books about Richard the Lionheart. This one set in his early life (pre Crusade) and depicts the period where his father Henry was desperately trying to mange four sons (everyone has heard of John, but I wasn't aware there were two other sons as well - both of whom died). The book portrays Richard the future Plantagenet king, tall, fierce, mercurial, a  gifted battle commander, through the eyes of  one of his squires, an Irishman recently a hostage following campaigns and battles in Ireland. Very good..9

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