Book reviews - 2023

Another year, another list..

Score (out of 10)
I've always wanted to know a little more about Eugene than the bare basics that you tend to pick up as part of the accounts dealing with the better known Marlborough. I was aware that Marlborough had a huge amount of respect and trust for him, I was aware of his involvement at Blenheim, I was aware that he was widely accepted to be one of the great generals of his age, but know little more than that really.. So when James Falkner comes along with a book on the man, I bought it as soon as it was published (from memory I think I pre-ordered).. Falkner is a good read, I particularly recommend his other books "Marlborough's War Machine" and "Great and Glorious Days: Marlborough's Battles, 1704-09" plus the two smaller Battleground books on Blenheim and Ramillies. So how was it? Well, I have to say I was a little disappointed but I'll start with the good I know a lot more about the man now than I did before, and in particular about his campaigns in the East against the Ottoman Turks. I understand a whole lot more about how big the Austrian Empire was at this point (they included huge tracts of the Balkans and Italy as part of the Empire) but also how fragile they were, there was never enough money to fully fund the campaigns Eugene undertook in Italy and the Balkans. His armies seemed to trust and like him - despite almost always being in arrears of pay, poorly clothed and fed, he managed to keep his polyglot armies of Austrian and German troops in the field far longer than you would normally expect. He was undoubtedly a military genius, having that ability to move troops quickly to the enemies weak point before the enemy even knows they have moved. What you don't get in the book though is a flavour of the actual man, and what he was like, he's almost an enigma and there are few first person accounts of what kind of a man he actually was, but in Falkners favour I think a lot of that is down to the man himself.. from what you read, he was not the outgoing socialite that Marlborough was - I get the distinct impression that this was a man dedicated to his trade, a bit of a loner socially(?), capable but not comfortable at court, happier with his army on campaign, never married (though there were rumours that he had a long term relationship) and died a bachelor with a large library at a good age. Recommended though.. 8
My favourite cynical German detective is persuaded that he really does need to investigate various claims from a German unit based in Poland of decomposed bodies being discovered in quantities in some woods named Katyn. Bernie hosts the international team of forensic scientists (well international in as much as the members of it are sympathetic to Nazi Germany) bought in by the Germans to investigate so they can couch the discoveries in propaganda terms against the Russians. Unfortunately, someone else is also trying to cover the events up, and Bernie also has to investigate a series of current murders. Very good.. 8
Third in the Englishman series by the excellent David Gilman (he of the utterly awesome "Master of War" series set in the Hundred Years War) and featuring his modern day hero Dan Raglan, a former (French) Foreign Legion soldier, known as the "The Englishman" who acts on occasion as a freelance contractor for MI6. In this instance he has been called on to use his particular set of skills to recover a document, long thought to have disappeared for good, that contains information that may reveal a deep cover Soviet mole. Brilliant stuff ranging from the depths of the Sudan to the slums of Moscow..  very good...  9
Awesome, a new Robert Harris! The imagined narrative documents one of the greatest manhunts in history, specifically the search for two Puritan army officers who were signatories to the death warrant of Charles I. Following the Restoration (of Charles II) Parliament passed the Act of Oblivion (more properly The Indemnity and Oblivion Act) which was intended to draw the line under the Civil War/Cromwellian Commonwealth, and pardoned all parties who had acted against the Crown, with the exception of the Regicides who had signed the warrant or contributed to the death of Charles. Most of these regicides were already dead, but a significant number remained who were arrested and executed (hung drawn and quartered)  - they even dug up the corpse of Cromwell and beheaded him. The book though is about two of the regicides who escaped capture and fled to seventeeth-century New England. Fantastic - my first 10 of the year... 10
Classic, classic Maigret..   an exotic dancer at one of the small clubs in Montmartre has been killed and Maigret needs to find the murderer.. going further and further back in to the girls life in order to find the likely killer, he also talks to and associates with a huge cast of characters, good and bad...  brilliant.
I've mentioned before how much I like Nevil Shute's books - he may be considered slightly old fashioned these days, but he is what I call a "story teller" - he writes big books with compelling, page turning, addictive stories and this one is no exception, and is my first 10+ of the year. Set during and after the Second World war, the book tells the story of Janet Prentice, a 20'ish year old girl who on the outbreak of the war joins the WRNS where she trains in ordnance maintenance (Oerlikons especially) - the book is about her time in the service, what she did, what her life was like, love, death, what we would now call PTSD, tragedy, and told through the recollections of the many people she worked, lived and served with...  very much recommended.
A book of short stories by a writer I have loved since being a much much younger Steve the Wargamer; Turner was the author of the Darnley Mills books set in the 50's, with other books set in the same town in earlier and later periods. He also wrote the Septimus Treloar series under the pen name Stephen Chance - who, by way of bringing this round to a review - features in one of the eight short stories in the book. Different subjects covered in each, but with a common theme that there is a twist at the end..  good. 8
Set against the background of the British rebellion led by Boudicca and the Iceni this must be about the 345th outing (slight exaggeration.. 😁) for Macro and Cato, but they continue to soldier on in a most engaging manner, and the last few books set in the Roman Province of Britain have been really engaging, and not a little informative as to what it must have been like to live as a Roman settler in a Britain that was still not fully conquered, and who the Emperor was increasingly considering abandoning due to the costs of maintaining the province.. good.. 9
Bernie is back in Berlin after the investigation into the Katyn massacre, and also the murders that happened while he was there, when he is summoned by Goebbels's and asked by him to do a personal service. Not being safe to say no, Bernie is tasked with persuading a beautiful actress to return to Berlin from her home in Switzerland to star in a film. In order for her to do that he has to go to (modern day) Croatia to find her estranged father and pass him a letter...  of course none of it is as simple as that but as with all the best historical fiction along the way I learnt a lot about the position of Switzerland in the war, their readiness to defend the country against the expected German offensive, and also the situation in Croatia which appears to have been a hell on earth for the local Serb population.. 9
 I enjoyed this one...  set in the immediate aftermath of the war, Bernie has a job as the concierge for a n upmarket hotel in Cap d'Antibes when he is recognised and approached by an old adversary from the war..  the guy is a serial blackmailer focussing specifically on homosexuals, and has a scheme to blackmail local writer W. Somerset Maughan who has a villa in the area. It then starts to get very cloudy, as Maughan, as well as being a recognised author, worked for the secret services during the war, and was acquainted with Philby, Burgess, McLean and Blunt..  excellent..  10
Probably would have been better calling this Quatre Bras, which was a battle in it's own right, rather than Waterloo part 1, but, there's an argument either way...  this was part of the Osprey COVID free giveaway they did during the first lockdown, and I remember being very grateful for their action as I picked up a half dozen free titles, but I've only just got round to this one. So, standard Campaign format, OOB's, thumbnail portraits of the opposing commanders, battle, and maps of each of the key stages..  did I learn anything new? Not really, though the Price of Orange comes out better in this volume than he does elsewhere..  Was it clearly laid out for someone coming fresh to the battle, unequivocal "Yes". The prose is a little errr, 'dated' in places (no idea why it's a 2014 publication) but it was an interesting read on a piecemeal, feed them in as they arrive, kind of battle.. 8
The story of one tank regiments war from D-Day to the Fall of Berlin..  utterly brilliant - a unit history full of first person accounts of the crews of the Sherman's and Firefly's of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry (being a territorial regiment as opposed to regulars) the regiment had what I think are a number of unique distinctions, they were definitely a bunch of characters the like of which you were unlikely to find in a regular regiment - but their strengths when combined into a fighting force were formidable. Throughout WW2 they fought in three roles, they started the war in Palestine as cavalry, were converted to artillery in time for the desert war (and were at Tobruk in that role) before being converted to the armoured formation they continued to the end of the war.. the book touches on these earlier roles but only in as much as it reflects on their deployment in France and Germany - the change of mind set and tactics required to switch from their methods in the wide open desert to the enclosed bocage f Normandy is fascinating..  stunning book..  also the first book I've read where we have multiple first hand accounts of what it was like to fight in a Sherman, and despite their reputation the crews were generally favourably inclined (they were fast, mechanically reliable, but the thing they liked most was the rate of fire)..  very much recommended..  whether you're a tank head or not.. 10
 Love Nevil Shute - such a story teller...  this one tells the story of an RAF pilot of coastal command who sinks a submarine while on patrol which subsequently turns out to be British. The submarine was off station and he escapes more formal censure, but in order to assuage his guilt he is first posted to the north way from his squadron and the reminders of the sinking, and then to an experimental squadron working on an extremely dangerous new form or electronic anti ship weaponry. The book tells the story of how he then meets a girl, falls in love, and how he exonerates himself, or rather how his fiancé/girlfriend does. Lovely gentle read, and written in 1940 so there is a definite flavour of what it was like to be in the war, in Portsmouth. 8
 Jack is back from his exploits on the far side of the world where he has sunk the Acheron (the subject of the film), but the voyage home is tinged with sadness, as despite the fact he has prize money, and is returning home to his wife and family, the Surprise will be paid off (taken out of commission) when he returns home - too small and old for the modern navy, and no match for the new breed of heavy frigates he has already met on the American station. When he lands he takes a carriage to London to report to admiralty, but on the way falls in with another traveller and they agree to share a coach, but not before fellow traveller is attacked and Jack saves him. By way of thanks the traveller gives Jack (who is as naïve  financially, as he is a genius on the water 😀) some inside knowledge guaranteed to make him rich - but which eventually leads to his arrest for spreading false rumours. The arrest is politically motivated, but also engineered by French agents. Jack is sentenced to pay a fine, and is sent to the Marshalsea (debtors prison) to ensure he does, but worse is also sentenced to a period in the stocks, but worst is stripped of his commission..  Maturin meanwhile uncovers the plot, and identifies the agents. He then comes in to money (a relative dies) and he buys the Surprise in order that Jack can get away to sea when he is released..  the section describing the experience of Jack in the stocks, is quite possibly the most emotional passage in the entire series..  bought a tear to my eye.. 😌 9
Jack - stripped of his commission - is universally regarded by all in the Navy as having been badly done by, but happily he has a ship to command (bought by his friend Maturin), with a handpicked crew, and a job of work to be done for the government. The end game though is to get his commission back with seniority - not easy. Against a back story of Maturin's attempts to win back Diana, the main story is about Jack's first two cruises, and the successes he meets in cutting out some captured East India ships, and nullifying the threat of a French privateer - a heavy frigate with twice the weight of broadside.. 9
Follow up to Rebellion and an enjoyable but fairly light romp..  the author knows his stuff though, but sometimes at the cost that the same depth of knowledge is used a little too much..  do we really need the detail that her corsets are made of whalebone, or that his sword is so-many inches long as he draws it? Minor irritations, and the story provides some interesting background to the later stage of the war from Naseby onwards where the focus shifts to Scotland, with the campaigns of Montrose, and the to'ing and fro'ing between Charles and the French 8
Wartime bomber pilot falls in love with a WAAF ..  very simple story of the complications and difficulties of doing something as simple as that in the claustrophobic, and dangerous world of an operational RAF squadron in WW2. Slightly dated, but a nice story.. 8

Forsyth in his pot boiler phase (I think I read somewhere that he lost a lot of money about this time, so started writing again to recoup losses) - either way, a US sponsored but global operation to destroy the cocaine industry almost succeeds before the politicians start to get rattled by the number of deaths on the streets, and pull the plug. A nice twist at the end, very readable, but all slightly implausible.. 8

Stunning...  72 hours from the first person perspective of a convoy escort commander, mid Atlantic, and under attack by U Boats.. this was filmed fairly recently as "Greyhound" with Tom Hanks, but as good as the film was the book is amazing. Exhaustion, grit, confidence, self questioning, determination, and the sheer physicality of fighting an unseen enemy for almost 3 days..  having to coordinate a task force of four destroyers to both attack the enemy while still defending the convoy..  and the very likelihood of attacks being pressed so hard that convoy escorts could run out of depth charges, and indeed fuel..  just excellent... 10
Much better than "The Cobra" - probably the best of that quintet of books that he started with, and which themselves are the best stuff he wrote. This was the last one, and describes the plot to smuggle a small tactical nuke into the UK at the time of the General Election in order to destabilise, and hopefully bring in a hard left/Labour government more inimical tot he Soviets. Edge of the seat stuff.. 9
I've never read this one before and was pleased I did - my regular reader will know I particularly like Shute as he's a real story teller, and this one is no disappointment. Much better I thought than Pastoral, Shute really hits his stride with this one. The story is set against the (economic) depression of the 30's in Britain, and concerns a banker who has a bit of a breakdown, but then ends up in a hospital in a depressed northern town where the only industry (shipbuilding) has ceased... the banker grows to like the town and the people and sets out to re-open the yard, and the associated businesses, and bring work and life back to the town. Excellent..  9
A German master spy is tasked with discovering the truth about the supposed army under Patton's control in South East of England prior to D-Day,  which was part of the deception to persuade the Germans we weren't going to invade via Normandy, but via Calais. Having discovered the truth it is then a race to discover and stop the spy before he can get back to Germany and deliver the evidence.  Slightly clunky prose at times, but a definite page turner.. 8
 WW2 story set in Denmark against a background of the resistance, and the the secret of a highly developed German radar installation causing huge losses in Allied bombers...  good yarn..  8
 Only one word for this one...  HUUUUUGGE...  😀 Rutherford is well known for writing stories about cities or physical features, from their earliest times to a much later and in some cases, modern period..  think this was his first one and it's the story of Salisbury (and Stonehenge), one of my favourite cities, from Palaeolithic times right through to WW2..  a number of families are traced through their many many generations, and you find out how things were built and changed, why, and who did it...  very good, but a little repetitive towards the end...  9
Start of a holiday in Greece and the Kindle was loaded!! 😀 Back to my circumnavigation with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin..  just love these books, the humour, the historical background, the stories, the characters, simply beyond compare good..  Jack has been reinstated on the navy list following the uncovering of the conspiracy that had lead to him being struck off, but also coupled with his brilliant success in command of a privateer. Along with  his old friend Dr Maturin they are given secret orders by the Admiralty for a mission to southern waters..  excellent! 10
One of the downsides of Kindle is that when you're on a plane you can't download the next book in a series, so having finished the Thirteen Gun Salute just as I was going over Switzerland (😀) I happily had a more traditional fall back - the next in the Maigret series that I am also delightfully working my way through.. a presentation revolver given to Maigret by the New York police following an earlier case, is stolen by a young man who has knocked at the door of his flat and been let in by Madam Maigret. Then the bodies start appearing, all shot.. 9
14th book in the series, and Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin begin it stranded on an uninhabited island in the Dutch East Indies, attacked by ferocious Malay pirates. They contrive their escape, but after a stay in Batavia and a change of ship (the aforementioned "Nutmeg of Consolation" or "Njutmeg" to the crew), they are caught up in a night chase in dangerous tidal waters and then embroiled in political and other conflicts in the penal settlements of New South Wales. 10
Jack finally finds himself re-united with his ship, the Surprise (which has been away on a separate mission under the command of the trustworthy, Pullings), but out of touch with his crew. Sailing away from the hated Australian prison colonies, pondering on middle age and sexual frustration he soon becomes aware to his astonishment that the Surprise has a stranger aboard, Clarissa Oakes, who has stowed away with one of the masters mates. Brilliant book, describing so well the many conflicting emotions, temptations, and difficulties of sailing with an attractive female on a sailing ship in the middle of the ocean and how even unwittingly Clarissa strikes divisions and jealousies in the officers, not the least because of her tragic upbringing ... 10
Bit of froth as a palate cleanser.. 😀 A gambler finds himself in France following one too many losses, and subsequently being thrown out by his father.. while he's there he finds himself blackmailed by British intelligence into joining the French army currently preparing to invade Russia, in order to pass information to the Russians. What follows is the story most people will know - a below par campaign by Bonaparte, poor supply, Russian strategy of retreat and burn, and a refusal to even contemplate a peace treaty results in the French in a Moscow that is being burned down round their ears by saboteurs, while winter is swiftly approaching..  then comes the retreat..  unlikeable "hero" but a good story..  8
Set in South America where Maturin has finally been able to get to in pursuit of the secret mission he was given two books before, the story opens with Surprise in pursuit of a privateer sailing under American colours through the Great South Sea. Stephen's mission is to set the revolutionary tinder in South America ablaze but given they are under the government of Spain, at the time a British ally, the mission is fraught with danger... throw in the nascent was with the United States, and the picture is far from clear. The descriptions of Stephen's travel's through Peru are stunning.. 10
Jack Aubrey's long service is at last rewarded: he is promoted to the rank of Commodore and given a squadron of ships to command. His mission is twofold -- to make a large dent in the slave trade off the coast of Africa and, on his return, to intercept a French fleet set for Bantry Bay with a cargo of weapons for the disaffected among the Irish. Taking eighteen ships in the campaign against the slavers (where Maturin catches, but survives, yellow fever) Aubrey and his small fleet then manage to catch the French off Ireland 10
We're getting near to the end so I am trying to slow down but can't help getting the next in the series! This one though s a right rambler of a book - lots and lots of plotlines and stories..

Aubrey, is now captain of HMS Bellona in the Brest blockade after his squadron in the previous book was dispersed, but money is short (due to three lawsuits from owners of slave ships captured on his previous mission) and Maturin's vast wealth is tied up in Spain so is in the same state. Aubrey (an MP) then angers his new admiral by opposing the enclosing of the common, a proposal the Admiral and his nephew had backed. As a result Bellona is given the worst duties.

While dropping off  Maturin for a covert mission in France, two French ships slip through the blockading squadron in the sector that HMS Bellona patrols and the Admiral rebukes Aubrey stopping short of a court martial. As if that isn't enough,  Aubrey then receives a letter from Sophie, in which she accuses him of adultery and announces her intention of leaving him.

Maturin returns from his mission safe and goes to London with urgent dispatches for the spy master Sir Joseph Blaine on the readiness of Chile for independence. They devise a scheme for an expedition led by Aubrey on the Surprise but the negative reports from Jack's Admiral along with the war winding down put Aubrey in the position of being promoted to rear admiral without a squadron, known informally as being admiral of the yellow; the worst possible career fate.

Maturin learns his fortune is again available to him and returns home for a flying visit, where Diana tells him of the issue between Sophie and Jack and that she and Clarissa (Oakes) have taken her aside and told her 'the realities' - Sophie writes a letter of reconciliation to her husband, which Maturin carries aboard. The letter leaves Aubrey joyous.

When the peace is announced; the crew of the Bellona are paid off and the ship goes into ordinary storage. On advice, and to avoid promotion to the Yellow, Aubrey requests suspension from the Navy List, and is put on loan to the hydrographic office. Maturin finances the fitting-out of the Surprise for the mission to Chile, which takes until February 1815 when they then sail to Madeira with their families aboard. They are there when Bonaparte escapes from Elba and Jack is summarily reinstated to the Navy list and ordered to take command of the Royal Navy ships in the harbour of Madeira to blockade the Straits of Gibraltar.
The book starts with news that Diana, Maturins wife, has been killed in a carriage accident. He re-joins the squadron at Madeira after burying her.

Aubrey's squadron meets at Gibraltar with Admiral Lord Keith, who orders him first to defend a convoy of merchant ship, and then to proceed to the Adriatic Sea to destroy any new ships being built to support Napoleon. Maturin, learns of a plot to send sufficient gold through Algiers to fund Muslim mercenaries who would block the Russian forces from joining those of the other allies

Aubrey's squadron is successful in defending the convoy and  proceeds toward the Adriatic, stopping at various ports to learn of the French situation. Near Porte di Spalato they meet a French frigate, whose captain, like so many, does not want to declare for Napoleon but fears he will win. A plan to bribe disgruntled dockworkers with gold to burn new French ships along the coast, is hugely effective and completes the second mission he has been given.

In Algiers, Maturin meets the Consul and the Dey's Vizier at Kasbah, the Dey's palace. While hunting, Maturin saves the Dey's life from an attacking lion but that doesn't stop the Dey from acting to order the gold for the mercenaries to be shipped as soon as possible. Maturin discovers his duplicity and re-joins Aubrey in Port Mahon, with Admiral Fanshawe, they agree Aubrey needs to pursue the xebec.

The Surprise lies in wait in the Straits of Gibraltar based on information received and in the subsequent battle, Bonden is killed (I quite literally had to put the book down when I saw it - so sudden, with no notice, and a giant of a character is gone). After a long pursuit, the xebec hides at Cranc (Crab) island, where Surprise unable to follow the galley into the shallow lagoon, blocks the exit. A gun from the Surprise is hoisted up a cliff, where it can fire unopposed on the galley. The galley's crew, seeing the situation is hopeless, surrender.

Returning victorious to Gibraltar, the Surprise sees the town exploding fireworks, and learns that Napoleon has been beaten at Waterloo. The gold is shared out in Gibraltar as prize money, and Aubrey is ordered to Chile.
Maigret has a visit from a burglar's wife, whom he had known well many years before. She informs him that a few nights previously her husband had been in the act of burgling a house when he discovered a dead body on the floor. Horrified, he had fled the scene, and then left the country - writing to his wife by letter. Maigret is inclined to investigate a prominent dentist, who lives with his domineering mother, and has a wife who has apparently "gone away on holiday" - although Maigret knows he can prove nothing unless he can find the body. 9
When Maigret learns that his hapless colleague Inspector Lognon is being menaced by some notorious American mobsters, he decides to bring them to justice - despite threatening warnings that he is out of his depth. 9
Another series coming to an end..  always sad..

On the the French Riviera, in 1956 where Bernie is still working front desk in  a hotel, his old adversary Erich Mielke, deputy head of the East German Stasi, has turned up. Mielke calls in a debt and wants Bernie to travel to London to poison a female agent they’ve both had dealings with.

Bernie being Bernie doesn't want to do this, dodges his Stasi handler (Korsch, who he also knows from the past), and makes a run for the German border. Traveling by night and hiding by day, we are introduced to the last case he and Korsch worked together which was in 1939 where Bernie was asked to investigate the death of a man on the balcony of Hitler's supposedly secure mountaintop retreat in Bavaria.

No plot spoilers..  read it..  
1957, and following his escape in the previous book Bernie is resident in Munich working in a morgue, when he meets an old acquaintance who offers him a better job as an insurance investigator..

Sent to Athens to investigate a claim from a fellow German for a sunken ship, Bernie takes an instant dislike to the claimant. When he discovers the ship in question once belonged to a Greek Jew deported to Auschwitz, he is convinced the sinking was no accident but an act of vengeance.

Set against the (true) story of the deportation of the Jews of Salonika - now Thessaloniki, and the burgeoning EEC which Greece is looking to join Bernie needs to discover the truth bout the sinking, the missing gold, and retain his job..
Last one in this series as sadly the author died just before this book was released..

Set in Berlin in 1928, during the dying days of the Weimar Republic shortly before Hitler and the Nazis came to power, it is about Bernie's first cases for the Kripo (the criminal investigation department of the German police).

Bernie is a young detective working in Vice when he gets a summons from Bernard Weiss, Chief of Berlin's Criminal Police. He invites Bernie to join KIA - Criminal Inspection A - the supervisory body for all homicide investigation in Kripo.

Bernie's first case is to investigate the Silesian Station killings - four prostitutes murdered in as many weeks. All of them have been hit over the head with a hammer and then scalped with a sharp knife, but he hardly has time to acquaint himself with the case notes, than another prostitute is murdered. Until now, no one has shown much interest in these victims - but the girl's father runs Berlin's foremost criminal ring, and he's prepared to go to extreme lengths to find his daughter's killer.

Then a second series of murders begins - of crippled wartime veterans who beg in the city's streets. It seems that someone is determined to clean up Berlin of anyone less than perfect.
Stunning - Holland is swiftly becoming a favourite military historian as he has a very easy, readable, style. For this one he covers the events immediately before and just up to the Falaise Gap campaign. He touches on all branches of the campaign, all levels of seniority from tank drivers and privates to Eisenhower. Discusses planning, supply, and how in his opinion, despite the supreme efforts of all branches of the armies involved, it was overwhelming and crushing air superiority that in the end was the telling difference, along with the Allies logistics ability in replacing tanks and armoured vehicles..  10+
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At the time of his death, O'Brian was halfway through a novel to follow on from Blue at the Mizzen. This book comprises those chapters he completed, with copious notes/comments by those who knew him well (hence the score). The story picks up from the end of Blue at the Mizzen where Jack Aubrey has received the news, in Chile, of his elevation to flag rank, with orders to sail to the South Africa station. As far as it goes, at the point the book stops, it ends very happily, but I can honestly say I was depressed for days at the thought that I had ended this remarkable series...  I look forward to reading them all again. 7
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