Book reviews - 2022

Another year, another list..





Book
Comments
Score (out of 10)
 Quite good I thought  (Dickens and "quite good" in the same sentence anyone? πŸ˜€) the story concerns one John Harmon believed lost at sea/murdered, and heir to a not inconsiderable fortune that in his absence transfers to his aged (and much loved) guardians the Boffins. The story is basically about how Harmon clears his name, and struggles with how he can reclaim his fortune given it will deny his guardians the money while along the way he enrols as their secretary (without them knowing as they haven't seen him years), falls in love and eventually marries ..  but while that is a fairly simple story, along the way there is a simply huge cast of associated and not associated characters that allow Dickens to really go to town on the social inequalities of the time...  "the satire is strong in this one, Obi Wan"... read the passages about the Veneers (what a brilliant and wholly illustrative name for a character) and you think as you (don't) watch "Made in Chelsea/Essex/Jungle", nothing's changed..  excellent  8

The story concerns one Jack Pembroke, a Royal Navy Lieutenant in WW2, suffering what we would now call PTSD as a result of events/wounds at Dunkirk, but after physical recovery given command of a small group of converted trawlers equipped for mine sweeping in South Africa. 

The story concerns his coming to terms with the psychological effects on him of his experience at Dunkirk, but also at the same time learning the in's and out's of command over a disparate bunch of sailors (regulars and volunteers, British and South African), while at the same time doing the hideously dangerous job of clearing mines, but also dealing with the risk of German surface raiders, and increasingly, U Boats.

Bodes well for the next book which I will definitely be reading.. 

8

Maigret is going about his work in rainy Paris, shadowed by Inspector Pyke who is on secondment from Scotland Yard to study the famous French detective's methods. The routine is disturbed when Maigret receives a telephone call from the island of Porquerolles, and island off the Mediterranean coast of France, just east of Toulon. 

A small-time crook has been murdered, the night after he had fervently declared his friendship with Maigret in front of a large group of the island's inhabitants... 

Maigret and Pyke head to Porquerolles to investigate further and in doing so get to meet an extensive cast of locals, rich (and not so rich) exiles, fishermen, local policemen, waiters and waitresses (since there is always food, and the local white wine)

Stunning book, Maigret is as much about the local atmosphere and scenery, and life, and food, as it is abut the crime, and Porquerolles sounds like the kind of place I would very much like to go to..
9

Been waiting to read this one for an age - probably from the first time I saw that it had been published as I am a bit of a Hastings fan boy, and I'm not sure I've read a duff one by him..

Pedestal was the code name for the operation to send a relief convoy to Malta in 1942, and this history was a bit of an eye opener measured against what I thought I knew already..

So what did I take away from this??

First , in 1942 the Royal Navy was nowhere near as accomplished as they were to become in the sphere of anti submarine warfare..  ASDIC was coming on line, but the in depth courses that taught the escort commanders how to tackle the submarine threat were some way in the future - the book is replete with examples of how the ships were just not used in the right way, and how exposed convoys and ships were at this time of the war to submarine attack..  in perhaps the luckiest night for submarines in WW2 an Italian commander sank an oil tanker, and the German U73 sank the aircraft carrier Eagle..

Second, ground to air (or in this case sea to air) coordination was also in it's infancy - despite having successfully offloaded almost 50 Spitfires to Malta, the lack of coordination between Malta and the convoy resulted in huge gaps in air cover for the convoy..

Three, British carrier born aircraft of the period were woefully under powered and under spec when compared with the enemies they were expected to take on in the air - the carriers had Hurricanes and Fairey Fulmars/Albacores, when what they needed was Spitfires.. the carriers themselves were wooden decked (little or no armour plating) and lacked the ability to get lots of planes into the air at the same time

Forth, convoy coordination/communication was also in it's infancy, the Royal Navy put together a convoy comprising fast modern merchant ships (all of them were capable of 16 knots) but once the attacks started going in (by submarine, aircraft, and gunboats) most communication appears to have been by Aldiss light as it was quicker and safer than transmitting in plain English..

Fifth, as in the Napoleonic wars, the British navy needed destroyers (frigates) by the score - they were the maids of all work; fast, well armed for their size..  the Navy sent a number of cruisers as convoy escort, but they were almost a liability, requiring more protection themselves than the support they provided, ditto the aircraft carriers -  there almost seemed a palpable relief when the point was reached on the convoy when the capital ships could be sent back to Gibraltar

All in all then a HUGE undertaking, and Hastings does touch on the multitude of views as to whether the action, and the casualties , were justified, but I tend towards his view, and also Churchill's that it was absolutely the right thing to do, and the right time to do it... 

A warts and all history treating each side to an equal review of their good and bad, tactics, personal performance of the offensive forces..  my overwhelming opinion at the end of it was huge respect for the merchant seamen who got those ships to Malta, and the clear indication that the Navy were ready to learn from the mistakes. Good read..  

9

David Gilman is probably better known as the author of the 100 Years War series of books featuring the archer turned knight Sir Thomas Blackstone, and very good they are as well - now to my knowledge that author hasn't completed that series but clearly fancied a change as a couple of books ago he started this series, set in modern times, and featuring the ex French Foreign Legionnaire, Raglan..

Raglan served a long and eventful career in the Legion in their special ops regiment, where he cultivated a number of very useful friends and contacts, one of whom, in this book has disappeared in mysterious circumstances leaving only a message that if he does so, Raglan is to be contacted..

Raglan follows the clues, meets a number of people who do and don't help him, kills a fair number of them (πŸ˜€), hunts and is hunted, but in the end tracks down his man (or rather woman) and Armageddon then ensues in the middle of a jungle..

I have never read any Jack Reacher books, but am enjoying the Amazon Prime series, and I can't help thinking Raglan and Reacher would enjoy each others company - wouldn't want to be in the pub with them at the same time though!

If you like special ops, Frederick Forsyth level weaponry and procedural detail, and a very easy reading thriller style, this is the one for you..  I do, so it's recommended...

9
The seventh book in this beyond compare series. O'Brian fans call reading the entire series a 'circumnavigation', so this is my second - but whereas for the first one I raced through them all, practically one after another as I wanted to know what happened to lucky Jack Aubrey in the next book, for this circumnavigation I'm taking my time and enjoying them..

At the end of the previous book (which was set during the Anglo American, War of 1812), Aubrey and Maturin (along with Maturin's intended Diana Villiers) had escaped from the American's to a British frigate which had then engaged one of the American heavy frigates in combat and won the day - safe in British held territory, Jack awaits news from home and a ship to return. 

When they finally get a ship home they are chased by two American privateers, Maturin has managed to snatch some very valuable intelligence papers and it is clear that either he, or Diana who has absconded with a large diamond, is the target..

Back in England at last, but without a ship, and penniless again due to a poor business investment Jack is saved (in more ways than one!) by a mission Maturin is asked to undertake, and in which he asks for Jack as captain of the ship needed to take him to the site of the mission in the Baltic.

After a successful conclusion to the mission, their ship is wrecked on the way home, and they are captured, and imprisoned by the French - Maturin is then identified as a spy by one of the American intelligence officers and all is not looking good, but there is then a final and surprising turn...  brilliant!!
9

Maigret is on a fact finding and sharing trip to the US where he is being handed off by one police force to another on a cross continent trip - each force seemingly being relieved to hand him on so they can get back to work, when he stops over in a small southern town where a coroners court is in seating to come up with  finding on the death of a young girl under mysterious circumstances..

Five soldiers are under suspicion, and surprisingly (even to himself) Maigret is sucked into the ongoing investigation, and finds himself asking questions that he thinks need to be asked and aren't..

Simenon is quit e interesting in this book as Maigret thinks on his view of America and American's, and how very different they are from European's - the book was published in 1949, so at this time both Europe and America would have had a closer relationship and knowledge of each other than before the war..

Good book - prefer it when Maigret is in France - he seems slightly like a fish out of water when he is away from France and Madam Maigret..  😊
8

A very readable history of the Battle of France from the start of 'Fall Gelb' ('Case Yellow' - the first part of the assault - ie. "hold in place on the Belgian flank while the Panzers swung through the Ardennes and round the other flank" or as Captain Mainwaring called it, "a typical shabby Nazi trick" 😁) to the end of 'Fall Rot' ('Case Red' - the breakthrough, defeat, and occupation of France)

There are no surprises here - the author covers it all (very well), but the editors, book designers and whatever have done him no favours by promising all the snake oil on the cover.. so what we DO have is a clear and concise account of the failings of the French army (operationally, tactically, mentally welded to their fortresses, and the concept of the positional battle, completely unable to react as quickly as they needed to), and we have the Germans, flushed from success in Poland where they have learned hard lessons on the actual field of battle, and with leaders like Guderian, Manstein and Rommel, absolutely overflowing with confidence in the new Panzer arm, trying desperately to persuade the more conservative elements to let them do what was planned, and eventually succeeding.

An excellent book, the descriptions of the condition of the German tank troops and panzer grenadiers, after being awake for days at a time, was gripping. 

Very good but short on "myths".. 
8
Dick/Felix Francis (father/son) are my guilty secret - for some reason I do like their stories which almost always feature horse racing in one form or another but usually with some other main focus to provide the counter point to the story.. so in the past his books have featured horse racing along with among other things architecture, jewels, stock broking, portrait painting, and all sorts.. for this novel the hero of the story suffers from anxiety and mental issues - the story flips between past and present, and the (likeable) hero of the story eventually arrives at an understanding at his past, and why he has suffered the issues he has.. compassionate view of what it is like to suffer from an anxiety based mental issue, in a readable story, that also features the Cresta skeleton bob course.. brilliant..
8
First read this I don't know how long ago, forty plus for sure, but among a handful of authors I keep returning to, Nevil Shute* is 100% a story teller - not all authors are, or have the skill, but basically he tells tales that suck you in.. in this particular case a very ordinary man is given a task that takes him far outside of his normal sphere of life and experience.. he is a guy who writes for a model engineering magazine, and is particularly skilled as an engineer, but lives an ordinary life until his sister and her husband are killed in a shipwreck on the other side of the world, and then has to come up with a plan as to how he can afford to support their daughter.. how he does that is a superb and uplifting read.. super recommended ..  *he's also a bit of a local hero, as he lived and worked in Portsmouth for some time - in fact one of the roads I use to get to work (Norway Road - his full name was Nevil Shute Norway, but he dropped the Norway for his pen name) is named after him.. 9

Set during the early days of the last war, and in the west country (Devon/Cornwall) and on the opposite side of the Channel, Brittany (or Douarnenez to be precise) the book is about a French fishing boat re-purposed for offensive operations against the Germans.

The focus of the book though are the three men in charge of the boat, from very different backgrounds, and with very different experiences of the war to date - Shute is a master story teller, and I really enjoyed the sections where he gives the back stories of each of the men.

The ship is used as a propaganda vehicle to give the French moral and physical support - it is armed with a flamethrower (something that from my reading Shute would have had practical experience of during the war because of his research work for the MOD), and used against the German patrol boats that guarded the French fishing fleet when it was at sea, and also for delivering weapons and ammunition..  good..  not as good as "Trustee" but still well worth a read..

8

I hadn't realised what a one man Mafia machine Puzo was - his output is huge, and they all seem to be either directly "Godfather" related, or prequels, or proquels (is that even a word?) and so it is with this one, as I also hadn't realised that "The Godfather" was actually the first book in a trilogy, this being the second..

For those of you who have seen the films or read the first book, the book covers the period at the end of Michael's enforced stay in hiding in Sicily after the killing of the corrupt policeman and his father's enemy in the restaurant in New York..

He is due to return home and his father gives him one last job to do which is to help an eminent Mafiosi escape from Sicily to America, to avoid almost certain death.

The book then is about the life of this Mafiosi, Salvatore Giuliano*, and why he needs to escape, how he became an outlaw, and his relationship to the people of Sicily and the other Sicilian Mafia families. Along the way we get a lot of description of what life in Sicily at the time (shortly after the war) was like, about the effects of the war under Mussolini (he came very close to driving the Mafia out due to his fairly casual observance of the rule of law!) and about the complicated rules of conduct, respect, and behaviour in being a member of the Mafia.

It was OK - I enjoyed it, but not as much as the "Godfather" - I may get to the third volume one day, but I'm in no rush..

*By the by, I found that the "hero" of the book, and indeed most of the book, is based on a real person - more on him here [clicky]
7

I'd spotted this on Amazon a few weeks ago, as it one of those "99p specials" at the time, and I thought I'd take a punt to see what it was like given that it is set in the English Civil War which is one of my main military history interests..

The book sits in the "fast and furious" camp of writing - the characters are depicted in a similar fashion to those in a Sharpe if you know what I mean; everyone makes their mind up instantly, are friends instantly, are enemies instantly, or are black or white in their political allegiances ..  no bad thing, but books are like beer, you need to make sure you start on the right beer before moving to the next beer, so that the next beer doesn't jar...  πŸ˜€

All of which is a cumbersome way of saying I didn't gel with the book quite as much as I expect I would have done if I hadn't come direct from a couple of pints of Shute and Mafiosi, hugely different pace and character depth..

Anyway, the hero Captain Maxwell Walker, is a Royalist serving in Langdale's Northern horse, the book opens at Naseby, and we learn only briefly that Maxwell is a widower before also discovering the cause of his widow hood, is serving opposite (and to take the Sharpe analogy a little further, this guy is a right Obadiah Hakeswill, whose character name funnily enough is Harper 😊) - cue special mission following the battle to recover the Kings confidential and very important possessions from the manor he had stayed at before the battle now in danger of falling into Parliamentary hands, capture, accusations of spying, mining at the siege of Hereford, before a triumphant return in time for the opening of the battle of Rowton Moor...

Now if I had any sense, I'd read the second one now...  worth reading..
8
Love these Bernie Gunther books - the way that the author manages to switch backwards and forwards in the life line of the protagonist, so in this one we move on from post-War Nazi refuge Argentina which Gunther has left in some haste, to pre-Castro Cuba where he has taken up residence, and is living quietly, that is until two significant people from his past turn up..  excellent. What I found most fascinating (and the flashbacks to a pre-WWII Berlin under increasing Nazi domination are brilliant in themselves) was the description of Cuba under Batista..  the increasing threat of the Castro lead revolutionaries, and the sheer amount of money and the associated corruption that flowed..  very good..
9
Bit of a change after the previous book, but it was a Kindle bargain that arrived at the right time! a long time ago this series of books by Arthur Ransome featuring the Swallows and the Amazons kick started a sailing hobby that has lasted the better part of 50 years for me - I would say Ransome has been as influential on me as Featherstone! So in this, the fourth in the series we are introduced for the first time to Dick and Dorothea Callum who will provide an ongoing story line through the books. It is winter in the lake district, snow and ice all over, the lake is freezing, and Dick and Dorothea have been sent to spend the holidays with their mothers old nurse. While there they make friends with the Walker's (the Swallows) and the Blackett's (the Amazons) and despite the lack of boats embark on an "arctic" adventure featuring skates, sledges, storms, feasts...  just brilliant.. 
10
Calcutta, 1923 When a Hindu theologian is found murdered in his home, the city is on the brink of all-out religious war. Can the officers of the Imperial Police Force—Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee—track down those responsible in time to stop a bloodbath? Seventh in the series, and for the first time the two protagonists travel away from Calcutta, this time to Bombay in search of the culprits..hugely atmospheric, an excellent read..
9

Seventh in the Bernie Gunther series, and a real watershed in the story as this is the one where Bernie's past as the member of a police unit on the Eastern Front in WW2, so often alluded to in previous books, finally catches up with him..

Following the events of the previous book where Bernie had holed up and dropped out of sight in post-war, pre-Castro, Cuba looking for a quiet life and trying to get by un-recognised he is arrested by the American's and investigated for war crimes, before being handed over to the French to do the same..  

The key to his eventual outcome is a Communist he helped once in in pre-war Berlin, and it would seem everyone is after him.. more than any other writer, Kerr has the ability to describe and picture how monstrous crimes can be explained in terms of people responding that they were "only following orders" or were"only doing what they were told to do" or were "helpless to make a difference..  if I hadn't done it I would have been killed/imprisoned"...  as an imagined snap shot of a tie in history he writes cracking books!
9
A Pan 70th Anniversary edition..  and I reckon I must have first read this about 50 years ago..  probably because I had just read his other well known book "Escape or Die" which I had enjoyed enormously and as a result was looking for more of his books..

Unlike "Chastise" which I read last year, this book is more an operational history of the squadron than an exhaustive look at the Dams raid..  in fact the raid only takes up about a third of the book, as the rest of it covers events after the raid, and how 617 Squadron became a special operations squadron known for their fantastic ability to drop bombs from considerable heights into very small area's (one of the bomb-aimers in 617 had an average of dropping a bomb within 70 yards of a target, which given this was pre-laser is astonishing!)

The squadron had a very close relationship with Barnes Wallis who is best known as the inventor of the bouncing bomb, but who also designed and invented the Grand Slam and Tall Boy bombs (and also the Wellington bomber, by the by)..  known as 'earthquake bombs' they were massive (10 and 6 tons respectively) designed to bury themselves deep underground, and explode on a delayed fuse causing shock tremors to destroy the target..  

617 were the specialists in dropping these with pin point accuracy, and focused on the U Boat pens, the rocket sites, and enemy concentration sites (marshaling yards, bridges, viaducts, etc). Brilliant!
10
Not feeling the love for this one..  good series up to now, and I will come back to it, but this time round I found the story dull, the characters unlikable, and the fact that they dropped "by certes" into every second sentence began to grate...
.
Another one of those Kindle bargains they like to delight with occasionally - this is part of Clavell's Asian cycle that everyone probably knows "Shogun" from, this is part of the China cycle and is set in Hong Kong in modern times (early 80's if I had to make a guess in real time). Clavell doesn't do "short" and this one is no exception - mucking huge - but he is also one of those born story tellers I like so much so what we get is roughly a week in Hong Kong through the eyes of a simply huge cast of characters, primarily Dirk Struan, tai pan (boss) of the Noble House (the leading trading house in Hong Kong). It's about big business, trading, finance, bank runs, the very very delicate relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China, takeovers, and throughout, the realities of life in Hong Kong...  brilliant..
8
My fruitful and hugely enjoyable meander through the written works of Simenon is now up to book #33 and I'm not even half way!!

Maigret is asked by his chief to investigate the death of a servant girl, poisoned, possibly by accident possibly not.. the investigation is in a small coastal town at the tail end of summer, everyone knows each other, and then money, and a twisted family relationship comes into force..  superb!
9
I liked this one very much, as in it we find out a lot more about Madame Maigret than we have found out at any time in the books up to now..  Maigret gets an anonymous tip off that someone has been burning a dead body in the central heating stove of a bookbinders in central Paris... teeth are found, the bookbinder is arrested, and then by mere chance Madame Maigret meets one of the suspects and tracks down some vital evidence herself.. cracking!
9
The one that started it all off - a methodical, incisive, practical, checklist on how to (almost) assassinate a world leader. I have read this book a dozen times and it never fails to suck you in, even when you know he is not going to succeed, he really is not the nicest of people (probably a clinically defined psychopath), and his mission is in support of some unpleasant people. It is stunning, what a story...  really must watch the film again soon (the Zinnemann/Fox one, not that pile of sh*te with Bruce Willis in it)
10
There are three benchmark authors as far as I'm concerned in the sphere of Napoleonic naval fiction and Stockwin is one of them. The books read well, he has a good writing style and carries the story along at a cracking pace while never making it seem like the hero is a super hero...  in this one, through no fault of his own, and despite other peoples opinions, Kydd gets his step up and is given command of a 2 decker, the Thunderer, but against this has to chafe against the restraints on freedom when he is more used to be a free ranging crack frigate commander. Sent to the Baltic on convoy duty he has an old ship, a poor crew, and Bonaparte has launched his attack on Russia..  good read!
9
Aubrey fans call reading the entire series a circumnavigation, and this is my second circumnavigation and the books continue to be just shy of genius..  seriously if you've never read any, you must - they are unique, the stories gripping, the atmosphere, life, doings of the regency Royal Navy described with pin sharp detail. I love them... deep in legal issues, Aubrey asks for any command until his promised new frigate is ready, and is given command of an old 74, the Worcester, a poor and shoddy example of the British builders art she is falling to pieces..  working her up to readiness she joins the blockade off Toulon but is soon detached for independent service in support of diplomatic overtures to the Turks. Following a brisk engagement Worcester is largely condemned and Aubrey is given command of Surprise with a picked crew as her captain was killed in the same engagement..  there follows a momentous and bloody battle against large Turkish frigate as only O'Brien can describe - stunning...
10
O'Brien is like crack cocaine - once started it's difficult to drop the habit, so fresh after the event sin the Eastern Mediterranean of the previous book, still in command of Surprise, and with news that his promised new frigate has been given to another man, a man with more connections than he ever could have..  disappointed, he still has command of a ship but she is waiting on repairs in Malta, and Maturin has discovered that the island is home to a network of French spies. An unwilling French informer asks help from Maturin, who discovers her predicament and helps her. Meanwhile, a new Admiral arrives at Malta and sends Aubrey on three missions across the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, one on borrowed ships, and two of the missions are traps. Aubrey escapes the predicaments, but his old enemy, Admiral Harte , who was on another ship in company dies when his ship of the line is destroyed in an ambush. 9
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