The Master Executioner

The Master Executioner, by Loren D. Estleman

Crossroad Press (2015), Kindle edition, 272 pages

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A quirky, somewhat melancholy Western that will, along the way, answer just about everything you ever wanted to know (or didn’t want to know, as the case may be) about the science of putting a rope around a man’s neck and dropping him through the trap into eternity. I enjoyed it, but then I have always been an execution junkie. The science and technique of hanging has always fascinated me as an exercise in the efficient despatch of humans that society has deemed no longer worthy of life. This is a novel, but it is way up there with many non-fiction books I have read upon the subject in its grasp of the intricacies of death by the noose. The story basically concerns the life of Oscar Stone, a Civil War veteran who sets out to the West with his new young wife, but along the way almost accidentally ends up as the assistant to grizzled hangman Rudd. Stone loses his wife, who is revolted by by his new calling, but spends the next 30 years travelling the West as a visiting executioner, cold and precise, always endeavouring to be the most perfect hangman he can be. But the calling comes with a very high personal cost, which Stone must confront at the end of his career. The ending will not surprise given the subject matter, but this surprisingly wistful little Western will reward the reader who stays the course. Yes, it’s basically a manual on how to hang a man efficiently and humanely, but there’s enough of a story, and enough interesting characters to make it a worthwhile read.

8/10

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Pirate Hunters

Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship, by Robert Kurson

Random House (2015), Hardcover, 304 pages

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Who doesn’t love pirates? Or lost treasure? Or the mystery of a long-lost ship? Terrific read about all those things, and more. Joseph Bannister was a respectable merchant seaman in the 17th century who suddenly and seemingly inexplicably turned rogue and went pirate. After a short but bloody career, he was chased down by two British navy ships near a small island in the Caribbean. After a fierce battle lasting 2 days the British ships were forced to withdraw, but Bannister’s ship the Golden Fleece had been burnt to the waterline. 300 years later, two intrepid treasure hunters set out to find this rarest of wrecks, a genuine pirate ship from the Golden Age of Piracy. This makes for a fast-paced, action thriller, as the intrepid pair battle the elements, recalcitrant governments, claim-jumpers, sceptical backers and just plain bad luck. It wont be giving too much away to inform you that they do eventually find their Golden Fleece, in a place no-one suspected, but the interest is all in the finding. A great story, only marred by some macho posturing, sometimes involving guns, which I found off-putting, but given that treasure-hunting attracts largely the alpha male type, I suppose it’s not surprising. This is a minor point, though, it is an extremely interesting read. Worth your time.

8.5/10

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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

Hodder (2015), Paperback, 416 pages

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I have heard this book described as if Firefly and Red Dwarf had a baby, and this was it. After reading this, I would concur, but also add that Friends joined them for a threesome and they asked Farscape to film it. This is the only way I can think to describe this bizarre, loveable, quirky mishmash of a book. It is as conventional a piece of hard sci-fi you could imagine, and yet wholly unconventional at the same time. The story, such as it is, concerns a battered ship and motley crew of humans and aliens, whose job is to tunnel, create wormholes, for quick travel across the galaxy, who are given the job of a lifetime to tunnel through to a newly discovered warlike species. The actual getting to the place they are to start tunnelling takes all but the last 50 pages, the rest of the book consists of the various adventures and misadventures they encounter getting there. Really the meat of the book is the complex relationships between the crew members, the humans, Rosemary the central character, an accountant on the run from her past, Ashby the captain, Corbin the unpleasant one who has a secret which nearly costs him his life, and engineers the tattooed tech-nut Kizzy and her offsider Jenks, who is in love with the ship’s AI. The aliens, Sizzix, the reptilian who is very, very affectionate, Dr Chef, doctor and cook, whose race is slowly dying, the paired being Ohan, who is theirself slowly dying, and the captain’s love interest, a sexy alien soldier who pops in and out of the story. This makes for a complex mix of relationships, which impinge on romance, sex, religion, technology, health, prejudice and just about every other topic you can think of. This is a fairly nicey-nice universe, a la Trek, with the exception of a few unpleasant races, everyone gets along pretty well. Its a marvellous piece of writing, I could get irritated with the lack of a real central plot, but I really can’t, everyone is just so nice and loveable, even the arch-jerk Corbin gets to do something heroic that saves a crew member. Its just a fun read, I really hope there’s a sequel.

9/10

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Ghost Soldiers Of Gettysburg

Ghost Soldiers of Gettysburg: Searching for Spirits on America’s Most Famous Battlefield, by Patrick Burke and Jack Roth

Llewellyn Publications (2014), Paperback, 288 pages

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Do I believe in ghosts? The answer is a qualified maybe. I am somewhat inclined to accept the possibility that emotionally charged events can leave an imprint on the surrounding terrain or atmosphere, which in the right conditions, can literally play back, the so-called Stone Tape theory. Firm, incontrovertible evidence is, as always, yet to be found, but it least seems possible under our present knowledge of the universe. I am decidedly less inclined to accept the possibility of fragments of human consciousness somehow surviving death and being able to contact or be contacted by sensitives. The first theory lends itself to solid scientific investigation with a sceptical mind and suitable instrumentation, and I have been part of such investigation in the past and will be again in the future. The second idea requires the intervention of psychics and mediums, and that I have never been a party to. This division leads to an inevitable split in the types of paranormal books one can buy, those that claim a basis in scientific, technical investigation and those that rely on the testimony of psychics. I eagerly seek the former, avoid the latter. Basically I love a good ghost story. I’m also a Civil War buff of long standing. So you would think I would grab at a book like this with glee, and I did. You might also assume I would enjoy it immensely, and in that you would be half-right. Hearing this, you might guess after my long spiel about the difference between and my preferences regarding scientific investigation and the use of psychics, that the book turned out to be one of the latter kind rather than the former, and you would be again half-right. Half of this book is very good. The other half is hilarious. Basically, this book promises a detailed scientific investigation of what you would expect to be one of the most paranormally charged places in the US, if not the world, and with that reassurance, the book sets off confidently, and immediately descends into Wa-Wa Land. Firstly we have so-called scientific investigators wandering off into the battlefield, but instead of using their instruments, they settle down to have a cosy chat with soldiers dead for 150 years, to sort out some issues with the battle. Then they offer to help the said soldiers cross over, but there’s a problem. The soldiers from opposing sides refuse to cross over together. So, they are lined up in military order, and with accompanying rebel yells and Union huzzas, they cross to the other side. Trust me, you have to read this piece to believe it, I actually had to check this book was intended to be non-fiction, I was starting to believe I had somehow wandered through the Looking Glass. And it just goes on like that. Every so often the instruments and cameras and digital recorders are produced, but the authors and their friends keep talking to dead soldiers and actually believe they have changed the history of the battle because spirits told them what did not make it into the history books (That laughing you can hear in the background is my imagination of how several eminent Civil war scholars I know would react to that.) OK, history books are wrong because dead guys say so. Is there anything of value in this book to the serious ghost researcher and indeed the interested Civil War buff? Yes, there are some very good photographs, some valuable EVP and other vidence is captured and described, and there are suitable creepy and spooky unexplained happenings. And the events of the battle, the tragedy of it, are also well-captured, it is actually quite a good history of the battle (the bits provided by dead guys apart, of course). Yes, as a lover of ghost stories and a Civil War buff, I did find something to like in this book. Not as much as I’d hoped, of course, but on the whole I am sort of glad I read it. Half of it anyway.

6.5/10

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Extinction Point

Extinction Point, by Paul Antony Jones

47North (2014), Kindle edition, 308 pages

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There’s nothing startlingly original in this little book, but what it does it does exceedingly well. Emily Baxter is a journalist living and working in New York when she witnesses a strange red rain start to fall. After the rain stops falling, all life on Earth starts to die, horribly, and Emily, apparently immune, is left, alone as far as she knows, in the shell of New York. Worst of all, she soon realises that the bodies of the dead are being transformed into something else, a new alien form of life. The bulk of the book revolves around Emily’s struggle to survive and make sense of the new world order, and then the beginning of her journey by bicycle across America after she makes contact with a group of survivors in Alaska. The book has been criticized for having too much exposition, although it seems to me this is a necessary consequence of Emily being essentially alone for 95% of the story. I found it moved swiftly, deftly and confidently, with minimal wastage of words. There is humour, drama, visceral horror and pathos in fairly equal amounts. Emily herself is a likeable and feisty heroine, whose struggle to cope with almost unimaginable horror is both engaging and emotionally involving, and she develops well from a street-smart if somewhat naive reporter reporter into a committed and determined survivalist. This is the first of four books (so far) in a series, and I’m certainly keen to see how the story develops and the process of Emily’s continued discovery of what has happened to her world. Nice little read.

8/10

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Dark Run

Dark Run, by Mike Brooks

Del Rey (2015), Paperback, 432 pages

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One of an incredible run of sci-fi books being rushed out in a genre I have dubbed “Firefly porn”, based on that single season TV show that has garnered an incredible cult following, and now apparently is transferring its appeal to the written form. The familiar trope, originally borrowed from both literary and motion picture sources, of the battered smuggler/pirate/mercenary/trader ship, with a crew of misfits, all with secrets in their pasts, and their hard-bitten but ultimately decent captain, also with secrets in his past, is having a new lease of life. A few weeks ago, I reviewed Pelquin’s Comet, here is Dark Run, and I have in my to-read list Retribution Falls and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, all with a  a very similar premise. Dark Run would be somewhere in the middle of the quality scale for this genre, I have read better, but then I have read a lot worse, certainly it kept the pages turning until the end. Ichabod Drift is the skipper of the Keiko, a battered smuggler ship with a misfit crew, who accept a job from a powerful crime boss to deliver a package to Old Earth, only to discover at the last minute it’s a nuke intended to obliterate Amsterdam. The rest of the book is spent with the crew of the Keiko hunting down the man who ordered the hit, both to exact revenge and to stop him from eliminating them. There are some dull spots, but also plenty of action. Brooks’ vision of a galaxy divided up between Old Earth confederations of Europe, North America and Africa, but with plenty of room for individualists, rebels, scammers, crooks and wayward souls to plot their own, usually semi-legal, courses through existence is well-realized, and his characters are strong if not exactly original. The book’s denouement was actually somewhat of a letdown after early promise. While offering plenty of action, I found it a bit of a blah moment emotionally, after being asked to invest substantially in the lives of the characters. Still, this is by no means a bad book, it’s a fast-paced, and reasonably engaging read, not likely to linger over-long in your mind afterwards, but certainly worth a few hours of your time, particularly if you are into the Firefly porn genre.

7.5/10

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Lasseter’s Gold

Lasseter’s Gold, by Warren Brown

Hachette Australia (2015), Paperback, 352 pages

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Rollicking re-telling of one of Australia’s most enduring legends. In 1897, Harold Bell Lasseter stumbled out of the central Australian desert with an incredible tale of a vast reef of gold, up to 10 miles long. Although a string of fortune-hunters searched diligently for his reef over the years, it could not be found. Nor could Lasseter be persuaded to tell anyone where it was. In 1930 he succeeded in persuading one of Australia’s most powerful union bosses to fund an expedition to find it, using funds secretly taken from the union’s coffers. The lavishly-funded expedition, provided with supposedly desert- proof vehicles and even a plane, proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Feuding among its members, frequent breakdowns, a plane crash, and of course, Lasseter’s refusal to let anyone know where to find his reef (to the extent many began to doubt it even existed), led to it being called off after months of fruitless searching. Lasseter himself refused to give up, and went off accompanied only a mysterious German dingo-trapper, and was never seen alive by white men again, his body found in a shallow grave months later. This is a ripping page-turner of a book, expertly told, that examines the evidence of Lasseter’s life and death, draws no firm conclusions about the existence or not of the gold reef, which has never been located despite countless searches over the years, but leaves it up to the reader to decide whether Lasseter was a fraud or a genuine visionary. Above all, it’s a great book about the Outback, the mysterious otherness which informs so much of Australia’s history and culture, brooding, brutal but hypnotically beautiful, prepared to give up wealth beyond calculation, but also to take life away from the unwary and the unprepared. Fantastic reading.

9.5/10

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Death ex Machina

Death ex Machina, by Gary Corby

SoHo Press (2015), Hardcover, 336 pages

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I intimated in my review of the previous book in the series that I had considered it to be the best book in the series so far. Well, this one hasn’t surpassed it, its not as good in some ways, but better in others. It is the product of an even more confident author, who is now willing play games on the reader, with word tricks, Easter eggs and some stunning work in the denouement. The story takes Nico and Diotima (now newlyweds) into the world of Greek theatre. The Athenians invented modern theatre in one staggering period of creative genius in the 5th and 4th century BC, and this story goes right to the heart of that period, when theatre was a still-evolving mode of cultural expression, yet to shake off its status as a serious religious ritual rather than mere entertainment. Nico & Diotima are called in on the eve of the Great Dionysia, the Greek world’s most sacred festival celebrating the god of wine and good times, to exorcise a ghost which is upsetting the cast and crew of the theatre that is due to host the tragic plays which are the centrepiece of the festival. They drive away the ghost but are then confronted by a more sinister mystery when one of the actors is found hanging from the machine which raises and lowers the gods in and out of the action (the deux ex machina, literally “instrument of the gods”). Needless to say, the stakes become higher the closer Nico and Diotima get to the truth, but with the help of Nico’s ever-resourceful kid brother Socrates, they solve the mystery and catch out the bad guy in a wonderful set-piece where Corby frames his characters’ dialogue exactly as they would have been in an Athenian tragedy. Really breath-taking, confident stuff. While I found the story not as gripping as the previous book, it is certainly a lot funnier. In-jokes abound (“The Corinthian Play” as an obvious allusion to the old acting superstition about Macbeth, actors making terrible politicians etc). To round it off, Corby includes a comprehensive and fascinating series of notes which give the background to the development of Greek theatre, some of which is astonishing (the word tragedy comes from the Greek words “tragos”, goat, and “oidios”, song, so tragedy is literally “goat-music”). This is a series which is increasing in merit with every new addition, it is entertaining, captures the flavour of the Greek world perfectly, has endearing, amusing and interesting characters and is educational to boot. High class writing in a genre that is rarely distinguished by such flair.

9/10

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There are Tittles in this Title

There are Tittles in this Title: It’s a Weird Word World, by Mitchell Symons

Michael O’Mara Books (2014), Hardcover, 192 pages

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For those who are wondering, a tittle is the dot above a lowercase “i” or “j”. If you are in fact the sort who wonders about things like tittles, then this is the book for you. A fascinating little compendium of everything interesting, bizarre, unbelievable and just plain ludicrous about words and language and everything pertaining thereof. Some of it is quite pedestrian (do we really need yet another list of palindromes or acronyms?), but most are supremely interesting and some are downright fascinating. Did you know, for example, that United Arab Emirates is the longest country name consisting of alternating vowels and consonants? Or that Hull City is the only British football club the letters of whose name cannot be filled in with pencil? “Hobson’s choice” originated from a stingy horse seller who would only sell customers the horse nearest the wall, giving them no choice in the matter, while “smart alec” refers to a 19th century criminal named Alex Hoag who would steal from mens’ clothes while they were having sex with his prostitute wife, then play the outraged husband to extort more from them. There are lists of lovely mnemonics (Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain – the colours of the rainbow), and nasty but funny teachers’ comments on report cards (“since my last report, your child has reached rock bottom and then started to dig”). There are things you would never guess in a lifetime (the Sanskrit word for war means “desire for more cows”, and “abracadabra” was originally a spell to ward off hay-fever) and things you probably would rather not know (in a hospital, “Code Brown” means an incontinence-related mishap and “Digging for Worms” refers to varicose vein surgery). In short, a great, fun read, whether or not you want to read it the whole thing right through (should take less than an hour), or just dip into for your own amusement and education.

8/10

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Maverick Mountaineer

Maverick Mountaineer, by Robert Wainwright

HarperCollins (2015), Paperback, 416 pages

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I must admit to being a climbing and mountaineering addict. Not actually climbing myself, I rush to add, since my tolerance for heights is non-existent, but reading about it and looking at suitably vertigo-inducing photos that give me a delicious thrill while I’m safely in my armchair at zero metres of altitude. In fact the one failing of this otherwise exceptional book is that there’s not quite enough mountain-climbing for my taste. George Ingle Finch was an Australian-born climber of extraordinary talent, as well as a brilliant scientist, who but for the pettiness of a group of stuffed shirts in the antique  British climbing establishment, could well have been the first man atop Everest, and done it some 30 years before Hillary and Norgay. As it was, he was for a time the record-holder for altitude on Everest. Wainwright covers Finch’s early life in detail, including his formative climbing in the Alps with his brother, with some breath-taking achievements, although as I noted, the book disappoints by not having enough climbing description. Too often, the author mentions a climb that the brothers undertook, describes the climb in a sentence or two and then moves on to the next. I’m a climbing junkie as I said, I demand creative descriptions of great climbs, and I find this brevity of description somewhat off-putting, although I’m cognisant this is a biography and not a book about climbing per se. There is substantially more climbing when the story reaches Everest during the 1922 British expedition, as Finch, one of the early exponents of bottled oxygen, tries in vain to convince his fellow climber of the merits of O2, but gets only mockery in return. Meanwhile, his abrasive style has alienated the truly Neanderthal dimwits who are currently running British climbing, and for his pains, these obnoxious stuffed shirts maliciously leave him out of the 1924 expedition, when he was a better than even chance of reaching the summit. Wainwright pulls no punches in his description of the political shenanigans, the obtuseness of the Alpine Club bosses is laid bare and it truly astounding, and rage-inducing. This is a warts and all book, and to his credit, he doesn’t spare Finch, whose personal life was troubled to say the least. Married three times, his son from his earliest marriage he believed was not his, and hence largely ignored the boy, who grew up to be the famous actor Peter Finch, who never met his father until well into adulthood. Wainwright covers these sometimes messy details of Finch’s life openly and honestly. It all makes for a thoroughly absorbing account of a well-rounded and adventurous life. Great read for climbing addicts like me, and anyone who just likes an exciting and adventurous life story.

8.5/10

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Inside Alcatraz

Inside Alcatraz: My Time on the Rock, by Jim Quillen

Random House (2015), Hardcover, 384 pages

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I do love prison books, and this one is a cracker, right up there with Papillon and Six Against The Rock, two of my favourites. The title is somewhat misleading, only about half the book is devoted to Jim Quillen’s time as a prisoner of America’s most notorious prison. This really the life story of a career criminal, from his difficult childhood with an alcoholic mother and indifferent father, to his early, minor criminal exploits, graduating to more serious crimes leading to a long sentence in San Quentin. Compulsively driven to escape, Quillen was eventually able to abscond from a work camp with two other inmates and go on a crime spree throughout the western US. Upon his recapture, Quillen learnt that he had breached Federal law during his rampage, and as a result was sentenced to 45 years in Federal prison. Because of his escape record, it was decided to send him to the most escape-proof prison in America – Alcatraz. While there, Quillen continued his attempts to escape, but his efforts were ultimately stymied by the bloodiest attempted breakout in the Rock’s history, the so-called Battle of Alcatraz in May 1946. Quillen was an unwitting eyewitness to this deadly confrontation, which left 3 prisoners and 2 guards dead, while sheltering with other prisoners as a firestorm was directed upon the prison by guards, police, the Marines and even the Navy. But this horror was be a turning point for Quillen, at his lowest point after the battle, he was found by a kindly priest who guided to God, and a realization that he wanted a new life, free, law-abiding and loved. From there on the book is an inspiring, often touching record of a man’s efforts to rehabilitate himself, reconciling with his estranged family, working towards earning parole, first from Alcatraz, then San Quentin, building a career as an X-ray technician, and eventually love, marriage and fatherhood. This is an entrancing book, fast-moving, graphic and exceptionally well-written. Quillen is very Papillonesque as he details his early life, his desperation for freedom, and his desire to rehabilitate himself if given a chance. I highly recommend this book, it’s a great and inspiring read.

8.5/10

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The Marathon Conspiracy

The Marathon Conspiracy, by Gary Corby

SoHo Crime (2015), Paperback, 368 pages

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The fourth in this series set in 5th century BC Athens, and the best by far. A really entertaining page-turner, full of drama, interesting characters, a liberal dash of humour and a genuinely intriguing plot. In this episode, Nico, the budding private eye, is distracted from preparations for his forthcoming wedding to the nubile priestess Diotima when a skull is found in a cave near Athens. No sooner has the skull been identified as that of the hated former Athenian tyrant turned traitor Hippias, thought dead in Persia for 30 years, than news is received that one of the two girls who found it has been brutally killed, and the other is missing. Nico and Diotima journey to Brauron, the temple cum girls’ school which the two girls attended, tasked by Athenian statesman Pericles with finding the missing girl and solving the mystery of Hippias’ fate. As before, at various times Nico is accompanied by his bratty, but brilliant brother Socrates (yes, that Socrates), who produces several blinding flashes of logic to assist Nico when he has reached an impasse. I must say the Socrates angle is the weakest part of the story, although the young Socrates at least is far less annoying here than in the earlier books. This is more than made up for, however, by the byplay between Nico and Diotima, which has developed well over course of the books and continues to impress here. They work well together as a pair of gumshoes, this is developing into a fine, nuanced partnership, and it will be interesting to see whether married life changes the dynamic between them. The supporting characters are also very good, particularly noteworthy is the playwright Aeschylus playing the tough old veteran of the Persian Wars. The scene where Aeschylus and an equally ancient Persian soldier fight back to back to ward off a swarm of mercenaries is one of the most moving in the book. This is a great read, a book that’s genuinely hard to put down. The story, based on genuine historical events, is thoroughly absorbing.  I enjoyed the earlier books, but this one has really vaulted to another level entirely. I can hardly wait to see where it goes from here.

9.5/10

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Potsdam

Potsdam: the End of World War II and the Remaking  of Europe, by Daniel Neiberg

Basic books, (2015), Hardcover, 336 pages

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A solid and earnest work, falling somewhere in the grey area between popular history and serious academic substance, neither entertaining enough for the former, nor comprehensive enough for the latter. For all that, it is very readable, a work of just the right pace. Heavily informed by the disastrous Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the victorious Big Three of Truman, Stalin and Churchill (until the latter was replaced by Atlee after losing the General Election) gathered in the wealthy and largely untouched Berlin superb of Potsdam in July 1945 determined not to repeat the mistakes of 1919. At stake was the future of Germany, the borders of eastern Europe, Poland in particular, reparations, war crimes, the United Nations and the refashioning of Europe into some sort of viable, peaceful entity. Each party came with their own agendas and more or less definite goals, and the conference came down to much horse-trading, largely between the US and the Soviet Union, as a bankrupt Britain found itself increasingly marginalized. In the end the Russians got pretty much what they wanted, the US largely happy with the outcome, and Britain embittered and fading. While not exactly an entertaining read, Neiberg throws in enough personal vignettes of the leaders’ personalities and interactions to break up the ponderous descriptions of the dealing and keep the attention. The portraits of the leaders are all arresting, Churchill morose and erratic, drinking heavily and looked down upon by both Truman and Stalin, Truman, earnest and folksy, on a steep learning curve after having been completely kept in the dark by Roosevelt, and Stalin as Stalin always was, suspicious, amoral, calculating, but very well-informed about the strengths and weaknesses of his partners. There is even humour in some of the interactions, such as Churchill edging his seat closer to Truman’s so they might appear to be bosom buddies, and Truman  in turn, irritated, moving his seat closer to Stalin, or Truman, while hosting a  dinner, ordering Chopin to be played because he knew Churchill disliked the composer. It all makes for a very worthwhile read, informative if unexciting and a very good introduction to a small piece of history which has been largely forgotten in the grand scheme of things.

8.5/10

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The Hanged Man

The Hanged Man, by P.N. Elrod

Tor Books (2015), Kindle Edition, 334 pages

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A really fun read that never takes itself too seriously. Elrod, an author mainly known for vampire stories, has invented an alternative Victorian London where women have been emancipated and given the vote by the mid 19th century, air travel is viable, and the existence of psychic powers is not only accepted but they are used to fight crime. Miss Alex Pendlebury is a Reader with the Psychic Service, tasked with visiting the sites of violent death to “read” the psychic emanations surrounding the victim. When she is called out on Christmas morning to the body of a man found hanged in his bedroom, Alex has little idea that the seemingly routine suicide will lead her into a monstrous and dark conspiracy that threatens to overturn the established order in England. Her own life will be threatened many times as she careers through London dodging faceless assassins and a “ghost” killer who leaves no psychic emanations whatsoever, but along the way she discovers a potential love interest, with which happy note the book ends in a cliffhanger, paving the way for the romance to develop further in later books. Alex is a very likeable heroine, outwardly the model of a virginal, prim and proper Victorian spinster, but revealing herself to be brave, feisty and not overly fond of being told what to do. Being set in gaslit London, there is obvious potential for Elrod to slyly work in some Holmesian references and she does (Alex lives in Baker Street, one of her key allies is a Colonel Sebastian Mourne, like Doyle’s Sebastian Moran, he is a crack shot). In fact, the relationship between Alex and her main offsider, the tall, handsome, but not overly bright Lieutenant Brooks, is very much a Holmes and Watson type partnership, excepting the fact that Alex eventually finds herself falling in love with her partner, an interesting twist on the traditional trope. I really loved this book, its a rewarding, rollicking, easy-reading adventure, not overly credible but a real page-turner. I look forward to the next installment in Alex’s saga with great anticipation.

9/10

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Day Four

Day Four, by Sarah Lotz

Little, Brown (2015), Hardcover, 352 pages

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I’ve only been on a cruise once in my life. It was enjoyable, but I can’t say it was one of my more memorable travel experiences. There’s just something about the canned entertainment nature of a cruise, the endless exhortations to have fun, the frenetic (and somehow false, you always feel they are going be laughing at you afterwards in the crew bar) bonhomie of the staff, that I find faintly disturbing and never sure whether I should enjoy it or not. These feelings are likely to be amplified after reading this chiller from Sarah Lotz. Basically she takes all the fears that anyone going on a cruise is likely to have (bad weather, sickness, mechanical faults, psychotic passengers, really bad food) and throws them all together into a grand confection of horror. The story is outwardly simple enough. A third-rate fun cruise on an ageing liner filled with some really unpleasant people goes awry on the fourth day when the ship loses power completely. As the hours tick over and the food goes bad, the toilets stop working and the crew gradually desert their stations, the ship descends into chaos. As if that is not bad enough, a girl is murdered, there are reports of strange apparitions prowling the lower deck and a popular psychic takes it upon herself to form her own cult of survivalists. To be honest, the idea of a marooned cruise ship facilitating the descent of supposedly civilized humanity to its beastly roots is not exactly new ( I had moments of amusement amid the chills when the novel unconsciously echoed a recent episode of the Simpsons dealing with a very similar situation). Where this novel stands out is its conclusion, which to say the least is ambiguous. In fact, as far as I could see, the author leaves it very much up to the reader to decide what really happened. Its quite possible, I believe, that different readers may find different answers to the mystery. After some thought I think I worked out what happened to my own satisfaction. In a way it’s good not to have a neatly wrapped solution presented to you on a platter, and in fact there are hints that this may not be the end of the story. The book functions as a kind of sequel to Lotz’s earlier work, The Three, the story of which is referenced a few times here, and I’m pretty sure that the events of Day Four will in their turn figure in Lotz’s next work, so more revelations are possible. All in all, a satisfyingly chilling read, worth the effort of finding.

8/10

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Pelquin’s Comet

Pelquin’s Comet, by Ian Whates

NewCon Press (2015), Kindle edition, 289 pages

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I believe, although I have been running this blog for nigh on two years, that this is the first genuine sf book I will be including. This is not, it must be emphasized inn the strongest possible terms, because I don’t love sf, I do, passionately, and have done since the time I could read. It is just that when I come to science fiction literature, I simply cannot commit to reading a book unless I’m reasonably assured I’m going to a. finish it, and b. enjoy it. Why I have this quirk, I have no idea. It certainly does not apply to sci-fi of the TV or movie kind, because I can quite happily sit through dreck of the worst possible kind (and have done many times). I think it comes down to reading sf, I only really like space opera of the old-fashioned kind. This is almost certainly due to my reading upbringing, as I cut my teeth on E.E. (Doc) Smith, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov, and these three luminaries remain the personal holy trinity of my sf universe. Which brings me to Pelquin’s Comet, a lovely little tale reflecting the purest elements of space opera. Some reviews have likened it to popular TV shows such as Firefly, effectively dismissing it as pop fiction akin to those endless written additions to, say, the Star Trek universe. This is unfair, as I think this book’s roots hearken back much further to the grand old days of pulp sci-fi, where so many of the great authors got their start. There are definite overtones of both Clarke and Asimov in this story, perhaps more of the former. The plot as befits genuine space opera is simple, and reflects the great tropes of the genre. Pelquin’s Comet is a tramp spaceship crewed by a motley collection of misfits, all with secrets in their pasts, who are tasked with locating a cache of artifacts left behind by a long-vanished race. The cache is defended by a guardian entity who will kill to defend it. Needless to say, getting past this guardian constitutes the most exciting and suspenseful of the story. The rest of the book is largely concerned with establishing character and setting up further developments down the line. In fact the book is decidedly slow-moving for the most part, with little action really, which would be annoying except for the fact that its is merely the first book in the series. What would be ridiculously drawn out scene setting in a sub 300 page book is perfect for what may be a 1000 page trilogy. The book is easy to read, the writing is smooth and accomplished, the characters are interesting and for the most part likeable. I finished it off inside a day and half and am eagerly looking forward to the next installments and the eventual tying up of the many loose ends. Well worth reading

9/10

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The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant who created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom, by Blaine Harden

Mantle (2015), Paperback, 256 pages.

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Parallel stories of the rise and rise of Kim Il Sung from shabby guerrilla to unchallenged despot of the most brutal and secretive regime on earth, and one of his young air force pilots, No Kum Sok, who for years concealed a deep hatred of Communism under a cloak of excessive patriotism and party loyalty while dreaming of the day he could fly his MiG15 over the South Korean border to freedom. His plans were stymied several times due to his caution and determination not to fail. At one stage he was even face to face with Kim Il Sung with a loaded pistol at his side and contemplating whether or not to kill the dictator. When the opportunity finally came, he took it and made a daring 17 minute flight to the US airbase at Kimpo, landing the wrong way on the airstrip and scaring the life out of the complacent Americans who were caught embarrassingly unprepared.  No’s flight caused a sensation in the west and considerable embarrassment for the US, who had promised $100000 for the first Red pilot to deliver a MiG to them, only to discover that No had never heard of the reward and didnt particularly want it anyway. Despite this the US government tied itself in knots trying to avoid paying it without seeming like backsliding cheapskates. How this young man planned and undertook his desperate flight and how he constructed a new life for himself in the US is a terrific tale of determination and desire for freedom, contrasted with the utterly sordid rise of Kim Il Sung through unparalleled ruthlessness and brutality, adept political skills and an uncanny ability to bounce back from near disaster, aided by copious fawning to his Chinese and Russian masters even while he was outwitting them. His brutality including executing five of No’s fellow pilots, including his best friend, as retaliation for No’s escape, the young pilot having no close relatives left in the North to take vengeance on. Really good demonstration of the best and worst of human nature, as well a great adventure story. Great stuff.

9/10

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Death of a Scholar

Death of a Scholar, by Suzanna Gregory

Sphere (2014), Hardcover, 464 pages

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I think I intimated in previous reviews of this long-running series (no. 20 and counting) that it had plateaued some time ago and was coasting on past glories. Well, this edition has managed to raise at least a modest peak above the plain. Death of a Scholar is quite the best in the series for quite a few years, although its hard to put a finger on exactly why. Perhaps the plot is less convoluted than other recent examples, the characters more resonant and interesting, and even the usually vapid Bartholomew this time exhibits a bit of belly fire. The plot revolves around the establishment of a new College in Cambridge, whose foundations start to crumble (literally), the murder of several individuals tied to the College and the possibly sinister Guild of Saints, and the theft of Michaelhouse’s precious hutch containing all its money, valuables and documents. As always, Bartholomew and Brother Michael manage to tie up the loose ends in around 400 pages or so with the requisite thrilling denouement as the doomed college crumbles around them. The strength of this series remains its faultless evocation of the medieval mindset, interesting, sometimes almost comical confrontations between the characters, and the fact that Gregory uses the names of real people from the Cambridge of the times, carefully gleaned from examination of the city and university’s records, to add a touch of verisimilitude that is lacking from similar books in the genre. Despite its failings, the series continues to be a must read for me, and this particular example demonstrates even more clearly why this is so. Formulaic, yes, but if the formula is good, as it is here, then why change?

8/10

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Deadly Election

Deadly Election, by Lindsey Davies

Hodder & Stoughton (2015), Paperback, 400 pages

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I have said it before in a review of the previous book in this series, but I’ll reiterate my belief that Davies’ new protagonist in Flavia Albia is not as interesting as her venerable predecessor, her father Marcus Didius Falco. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, since Flavia Albia appears every bit as cynical and worldly-wise as her pater, perhaps it is because as a woman in Rome she simply can’t get as down and dirty in the stews of Rome as Falco did with such obvious relish, or perhaps because she has a distressing streak of morality and romanticism that her father would have scorned. However, I do admire Davies’ courage in making a woman the chief protagonist in a detective series set in Rome, I believe it’s a first. The simple fact is that it is extremely unlikely that a woman in Ancient Rome could have undertaken the job of informer (ie private dick), since there were so many places and situations in Rome barred to women. That includes politics, which plays a leading part in this story, as Flavia Albia is engaged in assisting the friend of her heart-throb Manlius Faustus in getting elected to public office, at the same time as she is endeavouring to get Faustus in the sack and solve the mysterious murder of a man found stuffed in a antique chest. As I said, this is historically unlikely, but it makes for an entertaining enough story. A worthwhile read, and Davies’ intimate knowledge of both late 1st century Rome and the peculiarties of her characters is superb. Still, I do miss Falco.

8/10

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The Royalist

The Royalist, by S.J. Deas

Headline, (2015), Paperback, 336 pages

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I have read quite a few murder mysteries set during the Restoration, and I know of some set during the Commonwealth, but I believe this is the first I have encountered set during the Civil War itself (or as it now known due to political correctness, the War of Three Kingdoms). It an unremittingly grim tale, set during the bitter winter of 1645, and the book ‘s tone perfectly matches the bleakness of the weather and England’s shattered society. The story revolves around William Falkland, a war-weary Royalist awaiting execution in a Parliamentary prison. At the last moment he is plucked from his dismal surroundings by Oliver Cromwell himself, who requires someone to get to the bottom of a spate of unexplained suicides bedeviling his prized New Model Army. Sent with a surly companion, Warbeck, to watch over him, Falkland arrives in the army’s winter camp to find nothing is as is it seems. Assisted by a young local woman, he eventually gets to the bottom of the mystery, after coming close to death on more than one occasion, but questions whether he has actually solved anything at all. While the plot is nothing to write home about, the book’s atmosphere and a society riven by hatred, suspicion and fear is well-handled. Falkland is an agreeable enough, if somewhat cliched, protagonist. His tentative blossoming of feeling for Kate Cain remains frustratingly unfulfilled, and it is hoped they are reunited in subsequent books. The other characters are suitably sinister, or downright twisted, and all have secrets to hide. It’s not quite what I would call an enjoyable read, but as a slice of England’s darker history rendered into passable fiction, it’s a worthwhile expense of your time.

7.5/10

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KL

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, by Nikolaus Wachsmann

Little, Brown (2015), Paperback, 896 pages

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A previous book I read on this topic was entitled “The Theory and Practice of Hell”, and I can think of no better way to describe Wachsmann’s amazing scholarly, yet emotional work. It is very rare to find a serious scholarly work, dauntingly massive, that manages to also capture and convey the horror of its subject matter. This is a book that simultaneously educates with fascination about every facet of the organisation of the Nazi concentration camp system, while at the same putting the reader through the emotional wringer. I can only say, as you read this book, you will learn, you will be enthralled, you will also quite possibly cry and quiver with rage. The book encompasses the full horror of this most grotesque crime from its ramshackle beginnings in 1933, through its development into a meticulously organised and supervised exercise in stripping people of all dignity and humanity, making them suffer the most intense agony and humiliating painful death, through to its catastrophic climax in the last days of the war, when even with all hope of victory gone and nemesis bearing down on them the heavily-indoctrinated SS killers could not stop themselves murdering hundreds of thousands. Wachsmann meticulously covers not only the outright horror at the coalface of the camp system, but also the bureaucracy in the background that kept it ticking over up until the end. Some of the worst war criminals never actually laid a hand on a prisoner, but contributed to the murder of millions through paperwork, organisation and resource management. The culmination of the story records that many of these criminals escaped justice, or received light sentences, although there is some satisfaction at reading of the executions of some of the worst offenders. But many who should have joined them, were able to spend the rest of their lives comfortable and safe, usually expressing no remorse whatsoever for their crimes. This is a brilliant book, but by no means an easy read. There is a substantial emotional price to be extracted by reading it, but it is certainly worth it.

9.5/10

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Last Days of the Incas

Last days of the Incas, by Kim MacQuarrie

Piatkus (2012), Paperback, 522 pages

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A popular topic of discussion in European intellectual circles over the last couple of centuries has been the so-called Black Legend. Largely formulated in northern Protestant Europe, the Black Legend holds the the golden age of the Spanish Empire was a nightmare of brutality, repression, fanaticism and exploitation, and that the Spanish, both in Europe and in their American colonies, gloried in unspeakable acts in the name of God and the Spanish king. Not surprisingly, this belief was particularly strong in Britain and the Netherlands, two countries who had plenty of history with the Spanish. Equally unsurprisingly, the Spanish strongly reject the Black Legend, to the extent that some scholars now refer to a White Legend, a Spanish-sponsored revisionism which goes to the other extreme and portrays the Spanish as, if not exactly enlightened colonizers, as certainly much more humane than they have been portrayed. I’m not versed enough in Spanish colonial history to offer an educated  opinion one way or another on the validity or otherwise of the Black Legend, however, after reading this book, I am quite comfortable saying that on the basis of Spanish activities in Peru, the Black Legend seems much more likely than the White. You will seldom find a more horrifying account of greed, brutality, venality and treachery than the history of Francisco Pizzaro’s conquest of the Inca Empire. There is really no saving grace for Spain here. In the space of four decades, a few thousand Spaniards wiped out a great and cultured civilization, murdered uncountable numbers of its inhabitants and subjected the rest to slavery, all in the name of God, Gold and Glory. The noble side of the story is the heroic resistance the Inca, using spears and swords against horses, muskets, armour and cannon, put up for those forty years. This is an extremely well-written account of horrors beyond imagining, an ugly and brutal story that is nonetheless enthralling. It is topped and tailed by an exciting account of the discovery of the lost Inca cities of Macchu Picchu and Vilcabamba and the eccentric characters who believed enough in the legends to go out and find them. I guess we wait now for Spanish revisionism of this story. I can’t see how it can be done, but it will be some job of restoration if it is achieved.

9/10

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The Anatomy Lesson

The Anatomy Lesson, by Nina Siegal

Anchor Books (2014), Paperback, 288 pages

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Somehow I enjoyed the idea of this book more than the actual reading of it. Intermingled stories of six people on a single day in Amsterdam in 1632, all intimately concerned with the public dissection of a criminal, simply doesnt gell. The six are the doctor carrying out the dissection, the condemned man whose body is to be dissected, his pregnant lover desperate to save his body from the scalpel, the flamboyant curio dealer whose job is to procure the corpse after the hangman has done his job, the great philosopher Rene Descartes, who is to be a reluctant witness to the dissection, and the young artist Rembrandt van Rijn, who is destined to immortalise the dissection for all time. Also awkwardly inserted, and seeming to play no real part in the story, are the notes of a modern conservator working on the painting.  It remains basically six different stories, none of them strong enough to carry the narrative on their own. While it is beautifully written, with an economy of prose and a real feeling for the world of 17th century bourgeois Amsterdam, unfortunately, its a plot in search of a story. I dont regret reading it, it’s certainly not a bad book, but its not one of those books destined to stick in the memory for long.

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The Fall of the Ottomans

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920

Allen Lane (2015), Hardcover, 512 pages

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Some time ago I reviewed Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I. Now here is a book looking at the fate of the third member of the Central Powers alliance. It was generally believed that when the crumbling and archaic Ottoman Empire entered the war that it was on its last legs. The British, French and Russians quickly planned how they were going to carve up the territory they would win when they administered the inevitable swift coup-de-grace to the supposedly rotting edifice. They were in for a rude shock, because the supposedly tottering empire put up more fight than anyone had planned for, a lot more. In fact, the Ottomans fought doggedly for the entire 4  years, in fact, the Turkish garrison in Medina held out until January 1919, a staggering 10 weeks after the armistice, making the Ottomans the last  power to officially lay down all its arms. Along the way, they inflicted two massive and humiliating defeats on the British, at Gallipolli and the Siege of Kut, as well as stubbornly resisting in many theatres where the Allies had assumed an easy victory. Most of the individual campaigns, such as Gallipolli, the Arab Revolt and the assault on Palestine have been well dealt with in individual books, but is this the first book I have read that covers the whole of the Middle East theatre as one  coherent narrative. Skilfully written, fast-moving, and laced with accounts from individuals who lived through it, this is entertaining history. Some of it is sobering, Rogan pulls no punches in assigning guilt for the horrendous Armenian genocide to the Turkish leadership, but overall this is an enlightening work. There are some basic historical errors, mostly relating to the ANZAC troops, which should have been caught, but it doesn’t diminish the appeal of this work. Really, in this 100th anniversary year of Gallipolli, where the world discovered the true fighting ability of the humble Ottoman soldier, this is a must-read.

9/10

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The Anchoress

The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader

HarperCollins (2015), Paperback, 320 pages

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A lovely story, delicately written, that tells the story of Sarah, a teenage girl in 13th century England who takes the extraordinary decision to have herself walled up in a cell for the rest of her life so she can pray and contemplate the mysteries of her faith. Almost unbelievable to modern ears, Sarah’s justification for her choice nevertheless sounds perfectly logical in the context of her era. Fleeing the pain of her sister’s death in childbirth and the unwelcome attentions of the manor lord’s son, Sarah undergoes what can only be described as a crucifixion of her body and mind, as she deals with both her bodily and spiritual needs and copes with a tragedy that befalls her young maid. That she emerges from the other end of her dark tunnel liberated at least partially in body and wholly in mind and spirit is a triumph that the reader will feel as well. I admit I have always been drawn in some way to the monastic life, not so much the religious part as the life of peace and contemplation, and books dealing with monks and nuns, both fiction and non-fiction, are always guaranteed to draw me in. Although I think becoming an anchorite goes beyond the pale a bit, it is a wonderful reflection on the lengths that people in a more spiritual age were prepared to go to to to submit themselves to their God’s will. You may not believe, even scoff at their beliefs, but you can only admire the conviction. I think you will love Sarah after reading this book, she is an amazingly strong and appealing character, and the book as a whole, as I said, is just a lovely, uncomplicated read.

9/10

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Wolf Winter

Wolf Winter, by Cecelia Ekback

Hodder & Stoughton, (2015), Paperback, 416 pages

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I have rarely read a book where the style of writing so closely mirrored the physical environment of the story. Wolf Winter is set in the bitter cold of a winter in northern Sweden in the 18th century. The spare, biting prose perfectly matches the bleakness of the surroundings. Not a word is wasted, dialogue is minimal and terse. It is the literary experience of stepping outside into a freezing wind,  a wonderful piece of writing. Ostensibly the story concerns a murder, the body of a man is found torn open as if by wolves, but it is soon determined that he been killed by human, not animal agency. Finnish immigrant Maija almost inadvertently finds herself tasked with solving the murder. Already burdened by the suspicions of the insular locals towards an outsider, as well as the absence of her wastrel husband and the problem of feeding her two daughters, Maija struggles against the unforgiving climate and the murdered man’s family, whose behaviour is distinctly odd, to solve the crime before she herself is condemned by the locals for witchcraft. In addition she has to deal with a priest who has a secret, a bishop with an even bigger secret, and an exiled noble couple with the biggest secret of all. The story is almost incidental to Maija’s struggle to survive the hostile environment and the equally hostile locals, this is primarily a story about how people placed under extreme environmental and social pressure cope and survive. It is a gripping read, following Hannah Kent’s wonderful Burial Rites, one wonders if there is a new movement in Scandinavian crime fiction brewing, not so much Nordic noir, as something like Nordic climate crime fiction, where the environment is as much as an enemy as the criminals. A great read, highly recommended.

9/10

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King John

King John: England, Magna Carta, and the Making of a Tyrant, by Stephen Church

Macmillan (2015), Hardcover, 352 pages

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A worthy, but somewhat pedestrian account of the life and reign of England’s most despised king. In this the 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta, interest in King John has been much in evidence, and there sure sure to be a swag of books about him, his reign, and the significance of the Great Charter. Its to be hoped that the next books are just a bit more lively than this one. Meticulously researched, well organised and put together, but never really fleshes out John’s character, and he remains really just a depiction of the documents that recorded his reign. I never have much time for people who say history is boring, but I can probably understand where are they coming from when I read books like this. I actually did enjoy this book and found it very interesting and informative, but then I am accustomed to reading the driest of academic texts and finding them interesting too. Content-wise, this book is excellent. Church book-ends the story with the two things most associated in the modern mind with John – one fictional, one factual. They are, of course, Robin Hood and Magna Carta. He disposes of the Robin Hood myth in one terse paragraph in the introduction, pointing out that John was not associated with the Robin Hood legend until more than two centuries after his death, the creation of a writer from the Tudor era. He then deals with the Magna Carta properly, in its chronological place at the end of the book, coming as it did towards the end of John’s life. In between, the story basically deals with John’s catastrophic dealings with France, in which he managed to lose virtually all of the territories he held across the Channel. Despite the title of the book, Church never does really nail down whether or not John was a tyrant, although the question of whether he was a disaster as a king seems quite comprehensively settled. As I said, I did find this book worth reading and interesting, but whether it would appeal to a wider audience, I’m just not sure.

7.5/10

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Glorious Misadventures

Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of  a Russian America, by Owen Matthews

Bloomsbury (2014), Paperback, 400 pages

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Hard on the heels of reading about one of the world’s best known discoverers, is a great book on one of the world’s least known. While most people would know that Russia famously owned Alaska (and equally famously sold it to the US for a pittance, 2c an acre to be precise), few would be aware that Russia’s ambition in the Americas were far more grandiose than merely owning a chunk of icy ground inhabited only by Inuit tribes. They had ambitions to also own the entire west coast of North America, right down to the sunny shores of California. Indeed, few would realise that the farthest point of Russian penetration in what is now the USA was present-day Sonoma County, just 70 miles north of San Francisco, where a small Russian settlement complete with onion domes is still preserved. The problem with Russia’s grandiose plan was that it brought them into confrontation with the Spanish, who owned California and were understandably nervous about Russian acquisitiveness. To this end, a Russian nobleman named Nikolai Rezanov commanded a grand expedition to the Pacific, with several goals, firstly to check on Russia’s ramshackle sea otter fur operation in the New World, then to try to open up trade links with the reclusive Japanese, and then to seek out the Spanish authorities in California, overtly to explore trade possibilities, covertly to spy out Spanish military capability. The fact that Rezanov failed more or less spectacularly in all of these aims does not diminish the excitement and drama in his story. Rezanov is certainly an interesting character, a man of grand ambitions, but also a petty tyrant. He shares with Columbus an astounding ability to make enemies of everyone, including his own crew, who ended up virtually sending him to Coventry for the large part of the trip, and then tore him to pieces in their various accounts of the voyage. The highlight of Rezanov’s story is undoubtedly his whirlwind romance with the daughter of the Spanish governor of California, a quite astounding story which reads like the best of romantic fiction. After sweeping the girl off her feet, and then proposing marriage,before realising he has no hope of marrying her before he has to leave for home. The two part swearing eternal love and to find each other again, (I said it sounds like  romance novel, didn’t I?). Unahppily, it was not to be. Rezanov died at a miserable outpost in the heart of Siberia during his long trip home, and Conchita spent the rest of her life pining for her lost love, eventually becoming a nun. The story has now become famous in Russia, being made into books and plays. Rezanov’s grand ambitions eventually came to nothing. The Russian fur operation in the Pacific dwindled to nothing, and ended any economic incentive to expand the empire there. Eventually Alaska was sold because it was simply uneconomic to keep. A fascinating story, which highlights a little-know aspect of Russian(and American) history. the book ends by highlighting the still impressive Russian influence lingering in Alaska, where most of the native population are still Russian Orthodox, and where Russian feast days and holidays are still celebrated. People made a huge joke of Sarah Palin’s claim that she could see Russia from her home, but in fact she was absolutely correct. Traces of Alaska’s Russian heritage  are visible everywhere in modern Alaska, and this excellent little book highlights very readably exactly how this came to pass, and also how different America’s history might have been if Rezanov’s adventure had turned out differently.

9/10

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Columbus: The Four Voyages

Columbus: The Four Voyages, by Laurence Bergreen

Viking (2011), Hardcover, 448 pages

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I had always had a belief that Christopher Columbus was perhaps over-rated in the league table of explorers, and now along comes a book that more or less confirms that belief. His status has been massively boosted by the hysterical hero-worship he receives in North America, a continent that he not only never set foot upon, but never had an inkling of its existence. When the real story is examined, while his virtues are evident, he was visionary, personally brave, a peerless sailor and navigator, his failings balloon to virtually blot them out. This is an unflinching account of a flawed individual, who accomplished great things virtually in spite of himself. The reader will be pitilessly exposed to the fog of delusion in which Columbus laboured, his stubborn belief that he had discovered the Orient and that contact with the legendary courts of India and China was always only another day’s sail away, with which he persisted with despite the mounting and massive evidence to the contrary, his insatiable lust for riches, his complete inability to get on with his fellow man (Columbus’ ability to make enemies out of just about everyone is truly staggering), his treatment of the Indians, which wavers between being humane, being patronizing and being extremely brutal. There is also his utter failure to establish any sort of working settlement in the lands he had discovered (only one of the numerous settlements he founded survives to this day). Particularly noticeable to the reader is the almost random nature of his discoveries, he just seems to wander aimlessly through the Caribbean without any plan. With regards to arguably his greatest achievement, being the first European to set foot on the continent of South America, he never realised what he had done or what he had discovered. A brutally honest, but fascinating book, for those interested in either the history of discovery or the flaws of great men.

8.5/10

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Masters of Rome, by Colleen McCullough

The First Man in Rome (Arrow, 1991, Paperback, 1032 pages)

The Grass Crown (Arrow, 1992, Paperback, 1044 pages)

Fortune’s Favourites (Arrow, 1994, Paperback, 1040 pages)

Caesar’s Women (Arrow, 1997, Paperback, 878 pages)

Caesar (Arrow, 1999, Paperback, 832 pages)

The October Horse (Arrow, 2003, Paperback, 1120 pages)

Antony and Cleopatra (HarperCollins, 2008, Paperback, 640 pages)

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I thought for a long time for the best way to honour the late, great Colleen McCullough. In the end, the answer was simple – I would simply re-read the greatest series of historical novels I have ever read and then review them here. These are the seven novels that literally changed my life , and sent me in a completely new career direction. I started reading them when I was casting about, bored with my then job, looking for something different and meaningful to do. I’d always been interested in ancient history, but my primary focus had always been Egypt. The Romans I largely dismissed as a bunch of boorish orgiasts, nice architecture, shame about the gladiators. Egypt, by contrast always seemed graceful, cultured, mysterious. But I had never really taken my interest so far as to consider a career in the classics. Then I picked up The First Man in Rome one day while browsing. The only Colleen McCullough book I had ever read was, of course, The Thorn Birds (hasn’t everyone?). But apart from being sexually titillating to an adolescent, it hadn’t had a great impact on me. But somehow the blurb on this one caught me, and persuaded me to part with my $13.95. So I read it, then promptly raced out and bought the next one, and then the next, and the next, until I had read in the space of about a month, all of the five she had written to that time (that’s around 5000 pages virtually in  one whack). I cannot begin to describe the effect these books had me. It was my first real contact with the Roman Republic, as distinct from the Empire, a completely different beast, and, my God, is the Republic ever so vastly more interesting. McCullough has perfectly captured the interplay of tremendous personalities that bestrode the Mediterranean world in the last century BC. No surprise, her research was vast and impeccable (the equivalent of 3 full doctoral theses, I’m told). She also presents a list of the most formidable authorities in the classics as consultants and proof-readers. This is fiction that reads like pure fact, yet loses none of the drama. The upshot of reading this epic was that I found my direction in life, charged out and proceeded to do a PhD in Classics. It took seven years, and in the end my dream of an academic career was unfulfilled, but I gained massively by the experience, and the great personalities and events of the Roman Republic will be with me for life. There’s no way to adequately describe these books in a short review, you have to read them. The word “epic” is thrown around too lightly these days, but that is a fitting description for this colossal achievement.

10/10

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R.I.P Colleen Margaretta McCullough

1937-2015

 

 

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Desert God

Desert God, by Wilbur Smith

HarperCollins, (2014), Hardcover, 432 pages

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Basically, Wilbur Smith is an an author I can take or leave as I see fit. I have read a few of his books over the years, but have never really followed his long-running series, just dipping in now and then to read a particular title that for some reason has caught my fancy. The sole exception to this is his River God series, set in a semi-fantastical Egypt. I have read every one of the four books in the series, and found them all enjoyable, even if he plays fast and loose with the history of Ancient Egypt, which is neither or there really, since he makes no pretense of writing a historically accurate story. The main problem is that the books have come out so far apart it is difficult to remember what has happened in the previous stories. Although the books are all self-contained, it would help to have a refresher of the previous tales at the beginning, just to remind one of where the principal characters have come from. In this particular story, the Hyksos invaders, portrayed here as sub-human brutes (reminiscent of Tolkienesque orcs) rather than the simple nomadic Semitic people they really were, have been driven out of Upper Egypt but still occupy the Nile Delta, cutting off the true Egyptian regime from access to the Mediterranean. Taita, the ageless adviser to the young Pharoah, conceives a plan to enlist the help of the other superpowers of the day, Babylon and Minoan Crete, in driving the Hyksos from their ill-gotten conquests, but of course the story is never as simple as that, since to do so, Taita will have sacrifice the two virgin princesses he dotes on to marriage with the Minoan ruler. An entertaining enough story, if not intellectually challenging, fast-moving, with stirring battle scenes, wonderful descriptions of the ancient world and a truly epic denouement. I am not going to say this is great literature, it is not, but if you are not picky about historical accuracy, and are really craving a light read that also satisfies your itch to immerse yourself in the ancient world, this is well worth your time.

7.5/10

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Rome’s Last Citizen

Rome’s Last Citizen: the Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar, by Rob Goodman & Jimmy Soni

St Martin’s Griffin (2014), Paperback, 384 pages

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One of the best things to come out of HBO’s sex & violence epic series Rome, was the re-introduction to a general audience of the character of Marcus Porcius Cato. A lot of people, informed by basic history lessons at school and popular fiction afterwards, have come to assume that the backlash against Julius Caesar by Rome’s elite was directed by the arch-assassins Brutus & Cassius, because most people have only heard of the culmination of the anti-Caesar  campaign, namely the fatal events of the Ides of March. In fact, the anti-Caesar campaign had been ongoing for more than a decade, and its spiritual leader and stoutest, most unyielding opponent of Caesar was Cato the Younger. As was faithfully depicted in the Rome TV series, Cato alone remins staunch in his hatred of Caesar, when all the other Republicans wavered at some time, and some broke. This unyielding quality is celebrated in this interesting book, as the authors examine Cato’s eventful life, his defiant death by his own hand, and the impact this Stoic philosopher has had up until the present day. The book begins with George Washington trying to rally his starving troops at Valley Forge by putting on a popular play about Cato, playing up his defiance of Caesar’s tyranny and refusal to bow down, as an analogy of the Continentals’ struggle against the British. As the book shows, this unyielding resistance of Cato’s has been purloined by various individuals & groups throughout history since to support their own particular causes. I must admit that I found this theme less interesting than the excellent biography of Cato himself, which places him firmly back in the context of his times, depicts him warts and all, including his intransigence, his rudeness and occasional hypocrisy, and gives a good a explanation as you will ever get as to why Cato was Cato. As a lover of Republican Rome (and yes, I did actually enjoy the HBO series despite it playing fast & loose with history at times, any depiction of the Roman Republic on the big or small screen is to be savoured), I found this book fascinating. I predict history buffs and anyone who appreciates a good story about an intriguing individual who has sadly slipped from the public consciousness in recent years will likewise enjoy it immensely.

9/10

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Empire of Secrets

Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire, by Calder Walton

William Collins (2014), Paperback, 448 pages

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A new twist on the seemingly endless litany of British intelligence failures in the Cold War era. Actually,  there are two twists. The first is that the book deals primarily not with the colossal damage caused by superspies like Philby, Burgess and Maclean, but rather, with British intelligence involvement in Britain’s sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, sometimes comical departure from its various colonies after WWII. The second twist, perhaps more surprising, is that Britain actually had some intelligence victories in these colonial and post-colonial manouevres. The book is based largely upon a huge cache of documents dealing with these events recently discovered hidden away in one of the British government’s secret facilities. The documents showed that not only were MI5, MI6 and GCHQ occasionally successful in predicting the course of events in decolonization of particular countries, they also sometimes managed to pick the right man to run the country after independence, though more often than not, they tagged many prospective leaders as Communists, even when evidence clearly showed they were not. Perhaps the most surprising revelation is that many newly independent colonies allowed British intelligence officers to stay on in their nations after independence. This includes Kenya, who arguably had the most painful transition to independence after the horrific British reaction to the Mau-Mau movement, which included concentration camps , brutal torture and a complete misjudgement of what Mau-Mau stood for.  Walton pulls no punches here in describing British atrocities, nor does he sugar-coat his depiction of the Jewish terror gangs that endeavoured to hasten Britain’s departure from Palestine by bringing terror to British streets, showing there was little difference between the ideology and activities of these groups and modern-day Muslim terrorist groups such as Al-Quaeda. This is an interesting book which covers a previously little-known aspect of British intelligence and does it well. Highly recommended for spy buffs and those interested in Britain’s colonial disengagement.

9/10

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Declaring His Genius

Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America, by Roy Morris

Harvard University Press (2013), Hardcover, 240 pages.

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Delightfully gossipy, name-dropping account of Oscar Wilde’s epic year-long odyssey through the USA and Canada in 1882,  covering over 15000 miles and giving 140 lectures on the principles of the Aesthetic movement and the “English Renaissance”  to alternately bemused, scornful or adoring American audiences. Name-dropping is the order of the game, as Wilde manged to meet or interact with a staggering number of prominent Americans of the Gilded Age, including Walt Whitman, Henry James, PT Barnum, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Jefferson David and Ulysses S. Grant, to name just a few. The pace of the book is unrelenting, as Morris presents the story as a series of brief vignettes, recording the reactions of the Americans to Wilde’s persona and dress as well as to his lectures. Less a work of history than a long-running historical gossip column with multiple digressions and tangents, it’s a delightful light read, although Morris has a serious point to prove claiming that Wilde’s journey helped him to grow as a writer and as a person. You can argue or not with that thesis, as you will, however, it hard to deny the sheer entertainment value of this book, with humour a-plenty, both intentional and unintentional. Not serious history, by any means, but fun history, as it were.

9/10

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Hundred Days

Hundred Days: The End of the Great War, by Nick Lloyd

Penguin (2014), Paperback, 348 pages

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A fascinating book giving a detailed insight into one of the least-known periods of WWI, the last few weeks before the Armistice. many people seem to think, due to the lack of coverage of the battlefield during this period, that the war somehow petered out to its inevitable ending, with little action as war-weary soldiers on both sides waited and prayed for the end. In fact, as Lloyd describes, it was one of the most frenetic periods of the war, as the trench stalemate was finally broken and the Allies launched a series of frantic offensives to drive the Germans back to their own borders, gaining more territory in the process than they had gained in the previous 4 years. The undermanned, starving and disillusioned German army did not give up easily though, inflicting massive casualties on the Allies as they fought to defend every inch of the way. Lloyd does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the times on both sides, the bravery, the desperation, the absolute war-weariness coupled with the determination to finish the job. It’s a quick-moving, enthralling book, concentrating heavily on the Americans, who made their major contribution to the war in this period, but not forgetting the British, French, Canadians and Australians, whose efforts were no less brave and rewarding. This is one of the better WWI campaign books I have read in recent years, it is actually quite refreshing to get away from the flurry of recent books celebrating the 100th anniversary of the war’s beginning, to start at the other end of the process, as it were. An excellent read for war and history buffs.

9.5/10

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Ring of Steel

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918, by Alexander Watson

Allen Lane (2014), Hardcover, 816 pages

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Not exactly an exciting book, but an absorbing one. Readers be warned: This book is heavy on tonnages, production figures and the like, very light on descriptions of military action. Much less a book about the military campaigns of the two main Central Powers, than a book about how their governments and their societies coped with being encircled by enemies, the so-called Ring of Steel, and especially denied vital supplies because of the crippling British naval blockade. The book is a litany of declining resources, the desperate struggle to feed their populations and still conduct an effective war, and the increasing misery of the home front with literally everything running short. As a sidelight, the book also deals with the fracturing of the venerable Austro-Hungarian Empire, a disparate collection of totally different peoples held together only by belief in the Emperor. As this belief began to wane in the face of military catastrophe and crippling shortage, the individual peoples of the Empire began to move away from each other towards their particular national goals. Germany, being much more ethnically homogenous, did not have this problem, but suffered instead from political rupture between Right and Left, at first over the best way to prosecute the war, then later, on how best to end it. Watson’s research is meticulous, the book precise to the nth degree, but still effectively captures much of the feel of the times, with carefully placed excerpts from letters and diaries of people living through these days. In short, it is one of the best marriages of raw, dry figures and engaging social history I have ever read. This is by no means an exciting read, but nor is it ever boring. Highly recommended for those interested in the Great War who would like to read for once something other than endless tales of trenches and mud.

9.5/10

 

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The War Below

The War Below: The Story of Three Submarines that Battled Japan, by Chris Scott

Simon & Schuster (2013), Hardcover, 448 pages

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One of the least remembered but most effective campaigns of World War II was the American submarine campaign against Japan. In fact, it was arguably more successful than the much more-heralded German U-boat campaign against Allied shipping because it did actually succeed in bringing Japan to its knees and shortening the war considerably. Scott makes the point that while US submarines sank few Japanese warships, they wreaked havoc on Japan’s merchant shipping, taking advantage of the fact that Japan’s lack of resources in its homeland forced it to rely almost entirely on imports shipped from its conquests in Asia and the Pacific, playing right in the US submariners’ hands. Scott recounts the stories of three of the most successful US submarines, USS Drum, Silversides and Tang, in intimate detail, going into the nuts & bolts of every attack the subs carried out, as well as anecdotes about the submariners’ lives aboard their cramped vessels. He concentrates in particular on the skippers, their background, their differing command styles and the decisions they had to take, frequently putting themselves and their crews in great danger, in order to sheet home the attack to Japanese ships. He carries on the narrative to the very end of the war, where Drum and Silversides completed their missions safely, however, Tang was not so fortunate. Unbelievably sunk by one of her own misfiring torpedoes, only nine of her crew survived, to be captured by the Japanese and spending the last months of the war being subjected to the misery and brutality of captivity in Japan. This emotional tailpiece forms an effective swansong to the book, once again reminding the reader how these brave men put their lives on the line to bring peace to the world. This is an exceptional piece of nautical and warfare reading, full of interesting technical details about submarine life and warfare, but amply balanced with the human side of the story. Great stuff.

9.5/10

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Give Me a Fast Ship

Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea, by Tim McGrath

NAL (2014), Hardcover, 560 pages

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This is no dry history of names, dates and copious footnotes. Rather, you should expect to get a lash of seaspray when you open its pages. McGrath writes non-fiction with the inspiration of Forester, O’Brian and Pope, concentrating on the men who created the Continental navy, their ships, their derring-do and their passions both on and off the waves. John Paul Jones, Gustavus Conyngham and John Barry feature prominently, painted as larger than life characters who took on the world’s most powerful navy in a fleet of motley ships and won. However, it’s also a warts and all depiction of the Continental Navy’s troubled history both on and off the shore, with backroom shenanigans in Congress, mutinies, duelling egos, the never-ending fight to prise the crew’s hard-earned wages out of a skinflint government and the monumental clashes between the captains themselves, most of whom seem to have loathed each other. One of the more amusing moments in the book is when McGrath provides an actual list of which captains simply could not stand each other. That the infant navy, faced with these hurdles, managed to outfight the world’s most professional navy on on one many more times than not seems quite miraculous. McGrath’s contention is that the Continental Navy played a material, perhaps even a decisive role in winning the Revolutionary War. That is up for debate, as there seem to be evidence to the contrary. While the Navy certainly took a huge toll of British shipping, and by raiding the British coastline, put the fear of God into the homeland, as McGrath himself acknowledges, the mere 57 ships with which the Continental Navy fought the war could not make an appreciable dent in the Royal Navy’s vast strength of 600 or more vessels. The fact that at the end of the war, most of America’s coast was still strongly blockaded by British ships, is testimony to that.  McGrath also notes that American privateers took a far larger toll of British merchant shipping then the Navy did. That aside, their bravery, their skill and their elan cannot be denied. Much of the book concentrates on the one on one ship actions the Americans excelled in,centering on the showpiece fight between John Paul Jones’ Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis off the Yorkshire coast, one of the hardest fought single ship actions in naval history. This is an exciting a piece of reading as you’re ever likely to find in a non-fiction book, it is absolutely thrilling, and the whole book is much the same. The book’s only unpalatable aspect is the author’s palpable anti-British attitude. He plays up examples of British arrogance and poor treatment of American prisoners, while ignoring the fact that as many if not more British prisoners died under American control. Both sides had issues with the treatment of prisoners, but McGrath chooses to accentuate British culpability. It is somewhat disturbing to find a professional historian, dealing with events more than 200 years in the past, letting these type of feelings escape into his work. However, it does not detract from the book’s sheer readability. This is one of the more exciting and dramatic pieces of non-fiction you will ever read. Highly recommended.

9/10

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The Spy Who Changed the World

The Spy Who Changed the World, by Mike Rossiter

Headline (2014), Paperback, 352 pages

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The fascinating and largely untold story of Klaus Fuchs, a talented scientist and committed Communist who escaped Nazi Germany to Britain and managed to work his way into the very centre of the Allies’ efforts to develop the atom bomb, whereupon he passed the secrets of atomic warfare to Stalinist Russia. His treachery enabled the Soviets to develop the bomb years ahead of time and precipitated the arms race, yet reading this book, Fuchs comes across less as a traitor and more as a dedicated believer who chose one side in the Cold War and stuck to that belief no matter what. Having earlier reviewed a book about Kim Philby, the contrast between Fuchs and Philby is very stark. Philby was an amoral, conscienceless individual who sold out the country and the establishment he had been born into seemingly more for the thrill of betrayal than any ideological belief. Fuchs was a man dedicated to science and to his Communist belief, a man of strong moral principle, who worked exceedingly hard at both his science and his treachery, in the genuine belief what he was doing was right, refusing any payment for his services from the Soviets.  His crimes cannot be excused, but once the reader learns about how Fuchs’ research substantially advanced the Allies’ progress towards the development of atomic power, he is obviously more than just a common traitor. The book is detailed, thoroughly absorbing and filled with moments of espionage derring-do, including clandestine meetings, dead-mail drops, pursuits through the streets of London and tense encounters between Fuchs and MI5 investigators. And even then the full story of Fuchs is apparently yet to be told. Rossiter hints at more secrets about Fuchs that are still buried in Whitehall files, including the explosive possibility that Fuchs spied for the British against the Americans while working at Los Alamos, making him a effectively a triple-agent.  Wonderful, highly readable piece of work, as compelling as any fictional spy story

9.5/10

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Last Woman Hanged

Last Woman Hanged, by Carol Overington

HarperCollins (2014), Hardcover, 352 pages

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A hard-hitting piece of writing with a strong feminist vibe. Its the story of Louisa Collins, a mother of 10, who in 1889 became the last woman hanged in NSW. She had been tried an incredible 4 times for the murders of her two husbands. The evidence against her was purely circumstantial, relying mainly on the testimony of her young daughter, yet the state was so insistent on hanging her, they kept trying her until the jury came up with the “right” verdict. On the simple basis of “beyond reasonable doubt”, Collins should never have been convicted, let alone hanged. On top of this travesty of justice, was added the horror of Collins’ hanging, bungled so badly by the incompetent hangman that her head was almost ripped off. Overington lets her rage and disgust with the verdict and execution overflow into the book, pointing out repeatedly that a woman was convicted and hanged under a system where women had absolutely no say in government and the judiciary. She counterbalances this by concentrating on the activity of early womens’ rights campaigners who led the fight against Collins’ conviction and execution, and who then went on to be instrumental in getting women the vote. This is a powerful book. Whether or not you agree, after seeing the evidence presented, with the verdict (surely no-one will claim support for the grotesque horror of the hanging), there is no doubt that Overington presents a strong case. Not a light read, but a great absorbing life and death drama.

9.5/10

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Operation Paperclip

Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program to bring Nazi Scientists to America, by Annie Jacobsen

Little, Brown (2014), Paperback, 576 pages

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I expect this fascinating book to polarise its readership. The majority of readers will be, as I was, horrified that Nazi scientists, many accused of terrible war crimes, were covertly brought to the USA by the American military to work on projects designed to fight the new war, the Cold War. However, I am sure others will cite realpolitik and argue it was justifiable given that the Soviets also had their bevy of Nazi scientists working for them. Whatever your viewpoint, this is a fascinating story, wonderfully researched given that many of the relevant documents were either still classified or proved very difficult to prise out of the reluctant grip of the US government. Jacobsen pulls no punches in describing the horrific crimes for which the scientists either committed or stood by and watched. I wonder how many, for instance, were aware that Wernher Von Braun, the darling of the American space program, built his career on work that involved the death of thousands of concentration camp victims, worked into their graves building Von Braun’s treasured V2 rockets, not to mention the thousands who died in Western Europe and Britain from the use of those rockets. Lover of space exploration that I am, I certainly wasn’t aware of many of the crimes with which Von Braun was associated. I shall certainly never look at those wonderful recordings of the Apollo missions in quite the same way again. However, that said, this is an enthralling book, worth reading in its own right even if you have no interest in 70 year old war crimes, as well as a timely revelation about a part of American military history which has preferred to remain  in the dark for as long as possible.

9.5/10

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Severed

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, by Frances Larson.

Granta (2014), Hardcover, 336 pages

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A book that will cater to two distinct audiences – those who crave the morbid and gruesome, and those interested in a moderately deep philosophical discussion of our reactions to death, to disembodied body parts, and to how other cultures treat said disembodied pieces of human being. Larson has gone out of her way to make this a serious book, while keeping enough gory stuff, including plenty of photographs and drawings, to satisfy the morbidly curious. She treads a fine line between discussion and sensationalism, and in general does it very well. She covers the historical gamut of decapitated people, from the peregrinations of Oliver Cromwell’s head in its 300 year history above ground to the delights of the guillotine to South American shrunken heads, from native skulls ripped from ancient graves by anthropologists to souvenir Japanese heads collected by Allied troops during WWII. I will say I found it entertaining and interesting, others may well find the subject matter too intense for light reading. Well worth reading, if you like this sort of thing.

9/10

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Empire of the Deep

Empire of the Deep: the Rise and Fall of the British Navy, by Ben Wilson

Phoenix (2014), Paperback, 720 pages

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A comprehensive one volume history of the British navy (well, English navy, at least up until 1707, disappointingly, it gives short shrift to Scotland, which at various periods in its history had a substantial navy) from the Anglo-Saxon era up until the 21st century. Covering this much history in one volume  naturally means that detail must take second place to the swift-moving narrative. However, this is actually in the reader’s favour, as the book never gets bogged down and generally moves at a breakneck pace, sweeping the reader along with it. Only at a few key moments does Wilson slow down to examine particularly significant moments at length. It would be no surprise to anyone acquainted with British naval history to discover that those vital moments, given a couple of chapters each, are the Spanish Armada, Trafalgar and Jutland. This is a great read for anyone with the remotest interest in ships and the sea, in fact it is simply a great read, history at its most entertaining. Naval purists and serious historians will no doubt grumble about the lack of detail, they should be referred to something like N.A.M. Rodger’s epic 3 volume work, which has all the minutiae you could want. This is a book for the dilettante, the amateur historian and those who just want a rollicking non-fiction read. Great stuff.

9/10

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Gentry

Gentry: Six Hundred Years of a Peculiarly English Class, by Adam Nicolson

HarperPress (2012), Paperback, 320 pages

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Less a work of history than a series of potted vignettes detailing the lives of a series of landed families from various periods between the 15th and 21st centuries. Despite careful attention in the introduction, I don’t feel Nicolson arrives at a clear definition of “gentry” as compared to “aristocracy”, at least one suitable for readers who may not have a grasp of the subtle nuances of  the English peerage system. Nevertheless, this problem aside, Nicolson has written a lively and entertaining work, which draws the reader into the lives and travails of several generations of each family, struggles to keep the land, to add to it, scheming to achieve the advantageous marriage, dealing with war and political upheaval, and quite frequently, tragedy. Nicolson makes very good use of the retained letters and papers of each family so we hear their story largely through their own words, which really brings them to life as people rather than just words on a page. This work is all the more important, for as Nicolson details in the closing chapter, the “gentry” as he defines them, are the fastest disappearing class in English society, making the point that where they once owned more than half of England’s land, they now own less than 1%. This book, therefore, as well as its considerable enjoyment value, is a worthwhile exercise in recording a part of society that is vanishing just as much as any Indian tribe in the Amazon or pygmy tribe in the Congo. Highly recommended.

8.5/10

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One American Too Many

One American Too Many: Boss Badger and the Brisbane Trams, by David Burke

Queensland Museum, (2012), Paperback, 126 pages

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One of my interests that I rarely get a chance to indulge in these days is historic trams and trains. I have had a long-term interest in the history and fate of the tramway system in my own home city of Brisbane. Between 1897 and 1969, Brisbane had one of the best-run, most efficient and most popular electric tram systems in Australia. Then it was casually thrown away, for no particularly good reason other than to allow more cars on the roads, and its loss has been regretted ever since, even by those who were responsible for its demise in the first place. However, this book doesn’t deal with the unhappy end of Brisbane’s trams, but rather the triumphant beginning and somewhat turbulent early years. The central figure in this tale is Joseph Stillman Badger, a no-nonsense American technocrat who presided over the electrification of Brisbane’s horse-drawn network, and then ran the system with an iron fist for the next 25 years. Badger was an autocrat in the finest sense of the word. A non-drinker himself, he made his tram crews into teetotalers by enforcing a strict liquor ban. Not surprisingly he had a particular aversion to trade unionism, and fought vigorously and sometimes nastily to keep the trams de-unionized. This led to a major confrontation in 1912, when he banned tram drivers from wearing union badges to work and then stood down those who defied the edict. This galvanized the union movement and led to a crippling general strike, which paralyzed Brisbane for weeks. The strike eventually petered out and a court decision forced Badger to allow his workers to wear the badges, but Badger’s iron grip remained on Brisbane’s trams until 1922, when the Labor government effectively nationalised the trams, buying out Badger’s company for what he considered a thoroughly inadequate price. This is a fascinating work of history, with excellent pictorial accompaniment, and provides a great glimpse of Brisbane’s early years as it struggled from dirt-streeted settlement to modern capital city. Thoroughly recommended for all those interested, not just in Brisbane’s history, but of the development of public transport in the 20th century.

9/10

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Moriarty

Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz

Orion (2014), Paperback, 320 pages

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Question: How do you write a Sherlock Holmes story that does not feature Sherlock Holmes at all? Answer: You write a story about Professor Moriarty after he and Holmes have allegedly disappeared over the Reichenbach Falls. Well, that’s not entirely true, because Moriarty only figures in this story initially as a corpse. However, as the novel is entitled Moriarty, the reader gets a fair idea that the criminal mastermind will turn up alive and well at some stage. But for the most part, the novel is the story of Scotland Yard detective Athelney Jones and Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase, who team up to bring down a vicious gang of American criminals intent on taking over the London underworld. Holmes and Watson do not figure in the action at all, only mentioned in passing, although the shadow of the great detective inevitably hangs heavily over the story. To my mind, this is not quite as good a story as Horowitz’s immaculate The House of Silk, which took Holmes fan fiction to whole new levels. The lack of Holmes and Watson’s presence, despite the author’s best efforts, makes the story seem a trifle mundane and forced, although its still a good, solid read, and, in particular, the massive, gobsmacking sting in the tail is handled very well. As always, I look forward to Horowitz’s next outing in the series. Let’s hope he brings back Holmes and Watson from their enforced holiday this time.

8/10

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Fatal Rivalry

Fatal Rivalry: Henry VIII, James IV and the battle for Renaissance Britain – Flodden, 1513, by George Goodwin

Phoenix (2014), 288 pages

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It would be is no secret to anyone who has perused my little blog that I have a passionate interest in Scottish history. It is, after all, the land of my ancestors, and its particular history has always been chockful of the sort of real-life drama I adore. As it happens, the last two years have been particularly memorable in terms of Scottish history. Not only the historic independence vote, but the twin anniversaries, within months of each other, of two of the most significant battles in Scotland’s bloody history of warfare against its larger neighbour to the south. This year, of course, marks the 700th anniversary of Scotland’s greatest ever victory against the old foe, at Bannockburn, which has been well celebrated. However, receiving much less attention, for probably obvious reasons, is that last year marked the 500th anniversary of Scotland’s worst ever defeat at the hands of the English. The old saying, victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan, was never more appropriate. Whereas there have been at least a dozen books published to commemorate Bannockburn and/or the Bruce ascendancy, this is the only one I have been able to discover dealing with the tragedy of another promising Scottish king, who led Scotland’s largest ever army confidently over the border into the northern moors of England, and never returned, dying along with thousands of his soldiers in the mud of a nondescript piece of wasteland known as Flodden. Goodwin’s book lays out in detail the events leading up to this tragedy, from the both the English and Scottish points of view, starting with the ascent of the Tudor dynasty at Bosworth Field, the accession of the young. energetic and charismatic James IV to the throne of Scotland, and the ensuing rivalry between the youthful upstart Henry VIII and his Scottish counterpart for the title of premier monarch of Britain. Early on it seemed as if permanent peace might be at hand between the old rivals. James had married Henry’s sister, promising a future possible union of the crowns, and a Treaty of Perpetual Peace had been signed, However, it was not to be. Incidents, insults, misunderstandings, and the activities of the lawless elements who controlled the border between the two nations led to repeated threats of invasion and war, which finally came to a head in 1513, when James, taking advantage of the fact that Henry was fighting in France and had left his Queen Katharine in charge, decided to avenge a decade of slights by invading England with a massive army and a huge train of artillery. Outnumbering the English both numerically and in terms of firepower, James had a huge advantage, and by all rights should have won a comprehensive victory. However, he was brought low by, of all things, the wet and slippery ground of Flodden field, which meant his formidable army of pikemen could not gain the footing necessary to push the English off the field. The battle became a rout, James was felled by an arrow to the jaw, and the Scots were slaughtered, with hardly any of their senior nobles escaping. It was a devastating defeat that condemned Scotland to nearly a century of near-anarchy, but established Henry VIII, although he took no part in the battle, as one of the premier monarchs of Europe. This is a tragic story, excellently told by Goodwin in an economical but entertaining style that never gets bogged down in minutiae. Highly recommended for all history buffs, even those with no particular interest in Scottish history.

9/10

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Command and Control

Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser

Penguin, 2014, 656 pages

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This is a seriously scary book. If you slept comfortably at night thinking that America’s nuclear arsenal was safely protected by layer upon layer of foolproof safeguards, you will abandon that delusion after reading this book. A sorry chronicle of America’s progress through the nuclear age, backgrounded against the development of a potentially horrific incident in a Titan II silo in Arkansas, where a fuel leak caused by a dropped spanner escalated into a terrible explosion that killed one and injured many others. Had the warhead detonated, a large part of rural Arkansas would have been obliterated. Many other chilling incidents and accidents are recounted in less detail, building up a picture of a broken system where bureaucrats, politicians and the military fight for control of the weapons, where it’s not even certain that anyone in command will be left alive to launch the missiles in the event of a Russian nuclear strike,  where America’s nuclear policy has swung wildly between mutual obliteration and postulating a limited, survivable nuclear exchange, and where Dr Strangelove is not an idea from a screenwriter’s imagination, but a frighteningly real possibility. This is not an entertaining book, but it is enthralling and is backed up with meticulously researched facts. You will not feel better for having read it, but you will be much better-informed about the dangers of nuclear madness. Highly recommended.

8.5/10

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Cross Stitch

Cross Stitch, by Diana Gabaldon

Arrow (1992), Paperback, 864 pages

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Now the subject of a huge international cult following, which has just inspired a first TV adaptation, I first read this  book back when hardly anyone had heard of it, and there were just a few hardback copies scattered around in libraries. With each successive title in the series, the hype just grew, but to me it remains the same powerful, lyrical history cum romance I fell in love with back in the early 90’s. Now reading it again for the first time in about 15 years, it has lost none of its appeal for me. The story is now well enough known, Claire Randall, an English nurse holidaying with her husband in the Highlands of Scotland in 1945, inadvertently stumbles through a time warp located in an ancient ring of standing stones and finds herself back in 1743, as the Second Jacobite Rebellion is brewing. Struggling with the usual fish out of water syndrome common to all time travellers in fiction, and desperately trying to return to the stones and back to her own  time, Claire has the added complication of being forcibly married too, and then falling in love with, a young Highlander named Jamie Fraser. Their developing romance is set against the tension of the British army’s occupation of the Highlands, which leads to much of the book’s plot and drama. The book is simply a gorgeous read. I must admit my pride and interest in my Scottish heritage makes me very susceptible to anything with a whiff of heather, ( and led me, when i was first in Scotland, to visit Culloden and make a point of visiting the Fraser memorial),  but this is a confident, well-written, often poetic story, with strong and believable characters who inspire empathy. Unfortunately the series lost a lot of interest for me after the first 3 books, when the story left Scotland and moved to America, but this book and its two immediate successors remain among my favourite reads of all time.

9.5/10

 

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

MacLehose Press (2008), Paperback, 532 pages

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Yes, this book has been out for years, it has had tremendous impact and been reviewed thousands of times, literally. It kick-started a whole new genre of Scandinavian crime fiction, and I am coming to the party very late. I make no apologies for that. I read books in my own time, and not at the behest of the market. In fact I may not have read this at all but for the fact that laid up recovering from surgery I was desperate to find things to watch on TV and happened to come across the movie (the Swedish original, of course, not the American atrocity). having watched the movie, and enjoyed it, I was of course compelled to discover and read the book. It is different from what I expected. From previous experience I had a particular sense of Scandinavian crime fiction as being complex, dark, and layered in corruption. In essence what I got was fairly standard serial killer mystery, interesting, certainly and well-written, but to be honest I had expected more from a book that garnered such attention. However, the book does have a hook, a point of difference that makes it worthwhile, and makes the rest of the series worth anticipating. That hook is not protagonist Mikael Blomkvist, whom I found rather irritating. To be honest, he’s a rather wussy character, prone to wallow in his own troubles, and his casual acceptance that all women should fall into bed with him, and they usually do, as a matter of course, was really, really tacky, IMHO. No, the hook is co-protagonist Lisbeth Salander, who is one of the most amazing heroines I have ever encountered in literature. To be honest, her part in this book is basically unnecessary to the plot, and it is really an audition and and an introduction for her before her much more substantial roles in the subsequent books of the trilogy. But what an introduction! Fierce, unsociable, determined, hateful, vengeful, vulnerable, endearing, all at once, she is simply a mesmerizing character, and the outstanding feature of this book. She makes it, and the subsequent books, worth reading. For that reason, and that reason alone, I recommend this book. You may enjoy the story, you may even like Blomkvist, but I’m telling you, you will love Lisbeth, and its she that will keep you coming back for more.

8/10

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