Book reviews - 2021

Another year, another list..









Book
Comments
Score (out of 10)
First book in the Dark Materials trilogy, re-reading it after some considerable time, and as a result of the (truly excellent) second series of the BBC television series having just finished. The re-read reminds me why I am in awe of Pullman's genius as a storyteller - he is right up there with Tolkien, Lewis and JK as far as I am concerned for his imaginative powers, and his ability to pull an entire alternative universe from his head...  so in this book we are first introduced to Lyra, the foundling child living with the scholars at Oxford university and we begin to discover her start in life, her parents (no spoilers for those that haven't read the books) and the alternative England that she lives in where people soul's are external to their body and in animal/bird form. This book deals almost solely with the search for "dust" a mystical substance that surrounds everyone and everything, but is not viewable under normal vision. It also introduces us to the Magisterium, a church like total authority that brings to mind the Catholic Church of the Inquisition period crossed with the 3rd Reich (!). Bring in armoured bears, witches, cliff ghasts, and an aeronaut with his own balloon facing off against gas engined airships and this is an awesome book..  my first 10+ of the year
10+
Straight into the second book - Lyra's battle against the Authority continues and she gains an ally in the form of Will, a troubled young man from our world, who discovers an opening into a city in another world - this city is haunted by spectres that feed off the souls of any adults so the sole remaining inhabitants are children. They then discover about the knife after Lyra's alethiometer is stolen while visiting Will's world. For its return they are told to steal the knife..  when they do that however they discover that the knife has phenomenal power and strength - not the least being the ability to cut windows between worlds..  no plot spoilers, but the book ends with Lyra and Will about to enter the world of the dead in search of Will's father, and Lyra's long lost friend. an ABSOLUTE page turner...
10
With Will and Lyra searching the world of the dead, at the same time Asriels war against the authority has kicked off with both sides gathering allies in all the thousands and millions of coexistent worlds. The Magisterium send an assassin after Lyra, but they survive to provide critical assistance to Asriel in the final battle. Meanwhile, a character we first met in the second book (Mary Malone - a researcher at the Oxford University of our world) also finds a window, and arrives in the world of the Mulefa (a kind of tapir/elephant cross that move around on wheels made from seed pods - and I can't wait to see how the BBC show that!) and there discovers the Amber spyglass which allows her to see dust for the first time, and an ecological disaster in the making. Stunning...
10
You know how it is when you get in to a groove with a series, be it book or box set, you just want to carry on with the thing until the end and so it was when I finished the Amber Spyglass I thought it might be time for a change and was all set to read the new Osprey Campaign on "Malpaquet" but have set it aside in favour of the next series of the Dark Materials project - albeit in this case chronologically the book deals with the difficult beginnings of Lyra the heroine of the Dark Materials series..  quite topical, as the book deals with the aftermaths of a huge flood, and how the newly born Lyra, no more than a baby, is rescued by Malcolm Polstead and his friend Alice from the floods, and from enemies who wish to see her killed or imprisoned..  we are introduced to Gerald Bonneville and his hideous three legged hyena daemon, the alethiometer, faeries, treachery, and a daring rescue..  brilliant..
9
Cut forward in time and this book deals with a Lyra in her early 20's..  but a much diminished Lyra, a quite sad Lyra though she wouldn't agree. She is now an undergraduate student at college, but slowly and surely she is losing her optimism and outlook - her imagination as her daemon Pan calls it. she is at odds with her daemon - they have been able to separate since the events of the Amber Spyglass, but now the guilt is beginning to corrode. Pan leaves her to travel and find her imagination so they can be as they were, and after moves by the Magisterium to hunt her down (the reappearance - in a way - of an old enemy from the Belle Sauvage) Lyra goes on the run, and in search of Pan.  I cannot wait for the third volume...  simply stunning...
10
Straight into the next Maigret then to banish the "end of a good book blues" and what a delight..  Maigret is asked by an old professional friend to help with the investigation into a murder affecting the friends family. They family lives in a small village in the Vendee, they are high in the local society, a squire, and the village as a whole closes down on the outsider, Maigret..  who wheedles out the truth in the end...  claustrophobic and wonderful...
8
A man with a wooden leg is found murdered, living in his brand new house on a new estate.. it is the dream retirement location, each house with it's own small garden, neatly laid out - but this one has Felicie as his housekeeper, and she is not talking, and when she does you never know whether it is the truth or not...  Maigret is alternatively enraged, puzzled, and enamoured of her, as he again wheedles out the truth of how peg leg was killed, and why, and who by..  reeks of French tobacco, wine, and coffee..  lovely
8
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A recent publication that caught my eye the moment it was announced.. I was hoping for something a little more than this book actually delivered...  it's not a bad book, far from it, as a campaign resource it is beyond compare good, but it is also exceedingly dull comprising as it does mostly just a long list of numbers and dates - casualty returns, muster returns, dates and transports...  bit disappointed really, some of it was good, but I had hoped to find a little bit more about the human side... even the uniform illustrations were a little "meh"..
6
After the Osprey on the Hessians, this was an order of magnitude different and better - brilliant book describing the background to the (re) formation of the light troops in the British army of the American War of Independence (after their successful use in the SYW and eventual decline/disbanding after the war completed) - their ideology, tactics, skills, weaponry, organisation and uniforms...  brilliant, and has made me reconsider a few elements of my AWI rules!
9
A valiant effort to try and explain what is a HUGELY complex subject, and no I'm still not clear! So from what I can tell - every region of the Ottoman Empire had it's own unique troop types, the functions of which were specific to the area in which they were located (would have been fairly useless to have a largely cavalry force in the mountains for example), and the names of which are very complicated and difficult to remember... the Janissaries (coming to the end of their period of control) and Mamelukes appear, along with a host of peasant militia types, and a much smaller number of regulars trained in both traditional and modern methods... you'd need a book five or ten times the size to get a clear idea.. so a good attempt..  9 (for effort)
I was late getting to this - stupidly. Bought it on the recommendation of one of the bloggerati (apologies, forget who) but it is fantastic and unashamedly recommended for people with an interest in the English Civil War(s) or indeed early black powder warfare...  aimed specifically at the Royalist army the book is in the form of a number of self contained chapters, almost essays, about various aspects of the army, so after a brief introduction to the background of the war there are chapters on infantry/cavalry/artillery/dragoons and logistics - in the second part he deals with some specific organisations and campaigns - I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the Cornish foot (for me almost as stirring as the Wild Geese in French service), the Northern horse (I'd like to have gone out for a beer with them), the Irish army, sieges, even Royalist women...  I need to do some research to see if he did a similar book on Parliament as it would be a must have...  very good..
10
. Sir Thomas Blackstone returns - still serving as Henry's (the Black Prince) "master of war" and in this episode trying to navigate the intricacies of Hundred Years War politics, the shifting allegiances, and the demands of his Prince. Blackstone is given the job of protecting King Pedro of Castille - a thoroughly unpleasant character - who is facing attacks from the Moors to his south in conjunction with a French financed mercenary force from the east...  tense stuff...
8
First in a new series by the author of the (excellent) Robin Hood series, and I was left feeling a little "meh" as the young people say. The basis is good, it's the story of a young guy who happens to be what the Norse would call a berserker - an honest to goodness shield biter..  the story is OK, but the characters are a little one dimensional, as are the historical and emotional events (mostly). I just felt it was all a bit "shallow"...  I finished it, but it wasn't one of those books you really look forward to picking up at the end of each day...
7
The same author as the Thomas Blackstone series but set in the modern period...   as expected the action is gritty and compelling and I was reminded more than once (in a good way) how this compares with Forsythe at his best..  The Englishman is the nom de guerre of Raglan, ex-Foreign Legion, special forces, and a freelance sometimes used by British security when they need to do something where there is no come back. When an old friend is kidnapped and then murdered, he is pulled back into an old operation that had seen him invalided out of the Legion - suffice to say that to get revenge he ends up breaking into a Russian gulag.. cracking stuff, real old style thriller, loved it..
9
Maigret has retired (I am not sure if Penguin published the books chronologically, or whether this is a feature of the way Simenon wrote) but is dragged back in to harness by the visit if a formidable old lady who wishes him to investigate the supposed suicide of her grand daughter..  Maigret returns to his Parisian haunts, and is assisted by his old detective team to uncover the secret of what was actually behind the death.. there are a couple of descriptive sections in the book where Simenon describes Maigret entering his favourite bar for beer and sandwiches, and you can almost smell it..  superb.. 8
Fantastic book - I have his book on Normandy in the "to read" pile and based on this one it has moved up a few places towards the top ..  so a concise (well I say concise, but it's actually 600 or 700 odd pages... I can honestly say it didn't seem that long!) but easily read book on what was the first Allied powers invasion into mainland Europe..   very much a learning exercise, that in planning teams was a success beyond all expectations..  good coverage on the naval cover, air cover (an absolute game changer and a significant input to the overall success of the campaign), the politic'ing and infighting between Patton (who I am sorry, and who despite his obvious skills as a battlefield commander, still comes across as a bit of a kn*b) and Montgomery (who could be prickly), and most of all the soldiers on the ground, that despite the Allied doctrine of "steel not flesh" were called on time and time again to attack well dug in, veteran and elite German forces simply because the terrain did not allow them to deploy their significant advantage in tanks and artillery..  fascinating book..  he touches on the Mafia angle (and who knows how significant that was??) but my overwhelming impression was of how quick the campaign was, how important the air cover was, how hard the infantry had to fight, and how well Alexander managed the campaign.
9
Good escapist nonsense about Russian criminals attempting to steal two container loads of single malt whiskey..  guns, boats. storms..  not as good as his earlier books, got the impression this one was going through the motions...
7
A curious story better known for the film adaptation I think..  but either way, a jobbing writer, a ghost writer on various biographies, is selected to write the biography of a noted ex British prime minister who has committed to write his memoirs for a substantial advance..  then the writer starts to discover that all is not quite as it appears...  no spoilers..  good yarn... 8
Written by the same chap who wrote those so, so good WW2 stories featuring the protagonist Harry Gilmour, a Royal Navy submarine skipper in WW2. This then is a new series following the end of the Gilmour books and is set in 18th Century Europe in a Jacobite setting. The hero is likeable, and in this first book (I'm assuming a series?) grows from young age where he was present at the battle of Glenshiel in 1719 (at the age if 13) and subsequently exiled, where over the years he is in a number of scrapes and escapades ending the book during the War of the Polish Succession. Quite good..  good enough to want to read the next ... 8
The book that started it all - the meeting between Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey could have so easily gone the other way! Without a doubt the finest Napoleonic naval fiction writer there ever was...  if you don't believe me, try it and immerse yourself in the Royal Navy and society of the 18th Century ... Jane Austen with cannons and sails..
10+
Jack goes from rags to riches in his usual round about way - it is the Peace of Amiens and having lost all his money in a financial fraud he is declared bankrupt and escapes to London to avoid the bailiffs - escaping again to the continent he discovers from friends in France that war is about to break out again and with Stephen disguised as a bear (superb!) they escape to Spain...  captured..  freed..  given command of an experimental ship...   before finally meeting triumph on the high sea's against a Spanish bullion ship
10
Missing out on the Spanish bullion prize money on a technicality Aubrey remains in debt..  Maturin goes on a spying mission in Spain and is captured, tortured, but rescued..back in England Aubrey is taken by the bailiffs and out in a sponging house (debtors prison) before Maturin manages to free him with an advance on some of the money he is owed for the Spanish bullion capture. Back in command of the Surprise the ship is destined for India and the Far East..  excellent..   the descriptions of the battle with the French squadron and the East India ships is second to none..  and Aubrey is inching ever closer to marrying his beloved Sophie.
10
If only temporarily (the now married and with children) Aubrey gets to raise his broad pennant as Commodore of a (small) task force tasked with opposing a much stronger French force of crack heavy frigates operating in the Indian Ocean. Cue operations around Mauritius and Reunion, opposed landing by the British army, but eventual triumph. Aubrey is tasked with taking the dispatches home - a sure guarantee of promotion and favour.
10
Time for a change, and a return to Maigret..  who for once with this book is not in France. Maigret is retired, but is persuaded by a young man to return with him to New York where he is convinced that this father faces some kind of danger. Once in New York, Maigret is faced with differences on all sides, cultural, and police procedural, and has to navigate through difficult waters to get to an eventual success..  an excellent book as ever, but I prefer the one's based in France..
8
Maigret is on holiday in Sables d'Olonne when his wife is taken ill, and has to go to hospital, so is left to his own devices..  while visiting his wife he receives an anonymous letter but before he has time to take action the subject of the letter dies.. and then further deaths and disappearances start..  Maigret is sucked in to the general investigation, but only after a huge effort does he get the breakthrough. What a superb yet simple story... 
9
Someone on one of the Farcebook groups I belong to (Fans of Patrick O'Brian I think) was asking for other recommendations for Napoleonic naval fiction, and amongst a lot of stuff that I didn't think was anywhere close as being as good, someone mentioned Showell Styles... hadn't heard his name in 50 years...  so went on Amazon and found an original Green Dragon version of the book I first bought all that time ago (2/6 in case you were wondering..  😁) Enjoyed this, though it is first and foremost a children's book, and introduces us to Septimus Quinn for the first time..  format is almost short stories, but entertaining for all that, and it doesn't take long to read..  he wrote some adult orientated naval fiction as well - must try it.
8
Jack (with Stephen) is given command of the elderly 50 gunner Leopard with instructions to go to Australia to help resolve issues caused by the governorship of Bligh (yes him.. same one) that had culminated in the Rum Rebellion. He is further ordered to carry a number of prisoners, the cover for one particular prisoner that the intelligence service require Stephen to interrogate more closely on the voyage. The prisoners bring jail fever on board (typhus) and in the ensuing epidemic over half the crew die. They care chased by a heavily armed Dutch 74, and having eluded that (no spoilers) are subsequently holed and almost sunk in the ice fields before making it to Desolation Island (the Kerguelen Islands) for repairs...  stunning... 
10
Jack manages to get the repaired and barely seaworthy Leopard to the Dutch East Indies where he finds himself promoted to command of a crack frigate - the only downside being that said frigate is in the Mediterranean and he isn't! He and Stephen take passage for England in a despatch vessel but in the meanwhile the War of 1812 with America breaks out while they are on passage, and following a ship to ship action of great ferocity, they are captured, and in Jack's case also wounded badly. In America, Stephen is recognised by agents of the French Republic (American sympathisers since the Revolution) and the pair of them conspire to escape....  brilliant!!
9
This has been a stupidly good year for books and I need to be careful I don't run out of 10's but I'm afraid this will be another! I have now read 29 of the Maigret books (not including this one) and have to say that this is without a doubt the best so far.

Maigret receives a series of strange phone calls from a caller who reports he is in danger, is scared for his life, and cannot shake someone who is following him..  when the (murdered) body is found Maigret sets out to hunt down the perpetrators discovering on his way a gang implicated in a number of bloody and ruthlessly carried out country side robberies...
10
As a much younger Steve the Wargamer this and the "The Hotspur" were my favourite comics...  as a youth, the Second World War was a living memory - I was born within 20 years of the end of it so not surprisingly, there is a lot of the content that is war related...  then there was the Tough of the Track (a long distance runner who trained on fish and chips, and worked as a welder), Gorgeous Gus (a football club owner with huge wealth and a pile driver right foot) and so on and so forth..  excellent... most enjoyable...
8
Not sure where I saw this recommended, possibly David Crook's blog?? Either way, I am a huge admirer of the late Richard Holmes, I had the great good fortune to see him speak in person twice before his untimely death, and have always been a believer in the bottom up view of war that he championed..  his view is that the history of war is always best illustrated, and demonstrated, by the view of the individual...  in this book he sets out with four or five companions to actually ride the (exhausting) retreat of the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 from Mons (the furthest they advanced) to the Marne. The book is chock full of anecdotes, personal reminisces and commentary from those long lost soldiers, but at it's centre is the horse - those they rode themselves, but most importantly those the BEF used in great numbers...  an excellent and sobering history of the BEF in 1914. Recommended.
9
Second book in the Richard the Lionheart trilogy of Ben Kane - Richard departs on his Crusade, but not without considerable delay and cost. The story is fairly well known, and in this case observed largely through the eyes of his faithful companion Ferdia/Rufus, originally an Irish captive, but now long since an honoured member of his household. So we have the release of his sister held for ransom by Tancred in Italy, his subjugation of Sicily, and then Cyprus, the endless bickering and wrangling with Philip of France and Leopold of Austria.. indeed Richard doesn't even arrive in the middle east until half way through the book! It's a decent read, and kept the pages turning, the descriptions of the heat and it's effects on fighting men is superb...  the depiction of Arsuf is particularly good, but underneath it all were the huge sums of money required to go on Crusade, the huge numbers of deaths on both sides (not only due to battle but also sickness), and those weaknesses in Richard's character that were to lead to his downfall...   good'un
8
After 30'ish books, Simenon is well known to me now for jumping backwards and forwards in Maigret's personal timeline, a few of the books have been post retirement, this one deals with his first major case, and we read about how close he was to leaving the police at one point - it is also interesting to learn that he did at least one year training to be a doctor before deciding to go into the police. Either way, in this one we have the case of a shooting, or was it?? Excellent...
8
Came up as a Kindle bargain, and having read and thoroughly enjoyed the first three it was a no brainer - it is is 1949, Berlin, and the war has been over some time, but the ramifications of a Nazi past continues to affect the people living there. Bernie Guenther is a private detective specialising in finding people (of whom there are lots in post war Europe) when he is approached by a beautiful woman looking to find her husband - long since disappeared - since she needs a divorce to marry again..  cue the "Comrades" and Odessa, since her husband was a concentration camp guard with a very murky past..
8
With the ending of the previous book being what it was I couldn't not read the next one! Bernie has used the rat line and ends up in Peron'ist Argentina which at the time must have seemed almost more German than Germany given the numbers of escaped Nazi's. Offered a job by the (German) head of police to find what has happened to a disappeared daughter of one of the eminent German families, Bernie is soon caught up investing an old cold case that has disturbing similarities to a more recent case in Argentina. Fascinating - more than a little interested to now read up on some of the history of Argentina at that time..
9
A chap contacted me via Goodreads to say that he had seen my review of the book, and mentioned that he had first read it when he was 13 or 14, which would have been 50 odd years ago, and would I mind lending him it as he couldn't find a copy anywhere.. anyway, the book was posted off and came back a fortnight later (thanks!) and while it was there I couldn't resist another read. So, set in the summer of 1940 with Dunkirk as the backdrop, this is the story of three youngsters, about to leave school, and falling in love..  delightful.. 
9
When his father Dick died, from doing co-authorship Felix started writing the books as part of the "Dick Francis" franchise, and a very good job he makes of it. In this one, the first solo effort, the hero of the book is present at the races when a colleague is shot right next to him - cue dodgy European Union property deals, large amounts of Euro's, more deaths, who is behind it all?? Excellent!
8
Another author who is better known for writing a series (in this case the Macro/Cato Roman "Eagles" books) but who has tried to branch out into another area..  in this case though, and unlike the Angus Donald books, I thought it was an absolute cracker..  set in Berlin at the start of WW2, like the Bernie Guenter books this is about a German detective, and how he has to deal with the increasing Nazi'fication of the up to then, non-military police organisations..  young women all over Berlin appear to be dying in isolated accidents and it is only one particular death that leads the hero of the book to the knowledge that there is a serial killer at large - and then the SS and the Gestapo get involved...  very good I thought, I am already looking forward to the next one..
9
Been a long wait for a new Sharpe book, but with the ending of the Uhtred series, Cornwell has gone back to one of his stalwarts (though I would have preferred a Nathaniel Starbuck book 😁) and it's not bad at all... all the main hero's are there, though the book starts with the burial of Dan Hagman, killed at Waterloo..  Sharpe is still happily married, and Harper is still at his side when the going gets tough...  no spoilers, but two main story lines, the rescue of a British agent, and the uncovering of a group of pro-Bonapartist French army officers who threaten to overturn the recently won peace.. 
9
A long overdue return to the world of Kydd who has been given a Commodores broad pennant, with instructions to harry the French in the Adriatic, an almost landlocked sea that they consider to be their backyard. Brilliant, most readable and enjoyable. The final sea battle is an absolute cracker..
9
I really, really, want to like these books, but at the end of them I always feel that there's something missing - and in this case it's the main protagonist, the ex-Dominican monk Giordano Bruno - he simply isn't a very likeable person, to me..  In this case he is back in England and again working for Elizabeth's spy master, Wolsingham, and yet again it is a plot to murder (or "execute") Elizabeth, and return Mary to the throne, to return England to it's rightful Catholic state. Twists, turns, plots, the background is lovely, but Bruno? I can take him or leave him...  Sansom's Shardlowe is far more likeable...
7
In my view the best of the four books in the Omnibus that I was reading (the other three follow)..  the books starts with Hornblower imprisoned after a sea battle in the previous book that resulted in his ship being sunk whilst facing overwhelming numbers.He is sentenced to be sent to Paris for trial on trumped up charges of alleged piracy but on the way manages to escape with his trusty side kicks Bush and Brown. Taking refuge with a friendly French family for the winter they are assumed dead by the authorities, and in the following spring travel down river masquerading as a fishing party, before managing to re-capture a British ship taken the previous year in battle. Despite being riven throughout the book by doubts over the loss of his ship in the battle, Hornblower arrives back in England to great popular acclaim, and an honourable aquittal in the required court martial.
10

Hornblower is promoted Commodore and ordered to the Baltic with the express intent of persuading the Russians to enter the war against Bonaparte, in which he is successful.

After Russia enters the war, Hornblower's squadron takes an important role in the defence of Riga, which is besieged by French forces. The siege is finally broken, and Hornblower negotiates the defection of Prussian troops forced to accompany Napoleon's army into Russia but not before he falls ill with typhus.

8
Hornblower is at home and on half pay when the Admiralty summons him urgently to deal with suppressing a mutiny onboard a Royal Navy ship anchored off the coast of France. The mutineers have suffered considerably under a flogging captain, but despite his secret understanding of their cause, Hornblower succeeds in retaking the ship (by subterfuge) and then subsequently, following receipt of secret information from onshore, captures Le Havre. Shortly after the capture Bonaparte is overthrown, but later, while staying with friends in France, Bonaparte is returned to the throne for the 100 Days and Hornblower has to escape for his life.Gritty this one..
9
A book (number 11 in the series) comprising five short stories that ends the chronological Hornblower series.. the stories take place between May 1821 and October 1823 so long after the Napoleonic Wars have ended. Hornblower has been promoted rear-admiral and has been named in command of the West Indies station (i.e., the Caribbean) with a squadron consisting of three frigates and fourteen brigs and schooners.The stories cover, pirates, slavers, an attempt at restoring Bonaparte to the throne, and last of all a hurricane that threatens the life of Hornblower and his wife Barbara...
9
Another one of those spin off stories about Robin Hoold that Angus Donald continues to write despite his having written about his death..  in this case we go back to events just after the Caliph's Gold story, and Robin and his men are continuing their journey to return home to Sherwood, when Robin takes it into his hands to upset the politics of Burgundy while acting for the King (Richard)..  started poorly, but picked up..
7
A very detailed account of just one afternoon aboard a light cruiser escorting a convoy to Malta in WWII..  and by detailed I mean detailed..  every aspect of every department on the ship is touched on, the background of the sailors, how they came to be where they are, what they are doing the equipment they are using how the equipment arrived on the ship etctcetc.  Bottom line, a love story of the Royal Navy, and the men and ships that served..  good, gripping even, but just a little too propagandist (it was written in '43) for modern tastes??
8
More twists and turns than a twisty turn'y thing..  the premise is that the Soviet Union is about to face a catastrophic famine due to failure of their grain harvest..  the US on the other hand has had a bumper harvest and is in a position to get serious payback from the Soviets in return, but then throw in a bunch of Ukrainian terrorists, the biggest oil tanker you've ever seen, assassination, and a mole in the heart of the Politburo..  Forsyth at his best!
9
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