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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The Kelly Gang Unmasked

The Kelly Gang Unmasked, by Ian MacFarlane

Oxford University Press (2014), Paperback, 248 pages

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While there has been plenty of Kelly revisionism in the past few years, with authors lining up to poke holes in the Kelly mythos, this is far and away the most overtly anti-Kelly book I have ever come across. The author has literally not one good thing to say about Ned Kelly, neither in a historical or a personal sense. Less a re-telling of the Kelly story than a selection of particular aspects freshly re-examined in the light of new evidence discovered in Victoria’s archives, MacFarlane uses his admirably exhaustive research to paint Kelly in the blackest light possible, and conversely to rehabilitate the reputation of the Victorian police, usually depicted as the villains of the piece. After reading a few pages, I became convinced that MacFarlane had to be connected in some way with the Victoria police. Apparently he is not, but as you can imagine, the Victoria Police, Kelly’s unyielding foes in life, and not budging an inch in their condemnation of him in the 130 years since, are delighted with this book, as you can judge from this fawning review in the Victorian Police Association journal (http://www.tpav.org.au/_documents/Communications/Book%20Reviews/24e22c04-1dcd-4b1f-ba44-f09af67408ab/The_Kelly_Gang_Unmasked_Review_Nov_2012.pdf ) From my own perspective, I found MacFarlane’s rhetoric over the top for an otherwise worthwhile and fascinating book which does expose new facts about the case. I have never disputed that Kelly was in fact a career criminal and a multiple murderer, and that the Kelly legend has been overblown. On the other hand, I also recognise that Kelly was an articulate individual with tremendous charisma and powers of leadership, and that given a different start in life, could have been an outstanding individual in any one of a number of theatres of life, including politics, the worker’s movement, or the military to name a few. MacFarlane, on the other hand, concedes nothing to Kelly whatsoever, and I find that an unconscionable failure in a work of history. For all that, I do recommend this book to anyone interested in Australian history, and the Kelly story in particular, as it does present a  fresh perspective on certain parts, and the discovery of new evidence in such a familiar story is always welcome. You can take or leave MacFarlane’s partisan rhetoric as you wish, difficult as it is to ignore. But a worthwhile read, certainly.

7.5/10

 

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The Feud

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Back Bay (2014), Paperback, 464 pages

Genuinely exciting, fast-moving, but also sad and tragic story of two rival clans who battled each other across the Tug Fork River between Kentucky and West Virginia for 3 decades of the late 19th century. If you can make sense of the torrent of names, many of them very similar, that will be hurled at you as you wade through the family history of the much intermarried clans, you will find this an enthralling read. The feud, which began with the murder of a Union sympathiser after the Civil War, but was really precipitated a decade later by, of all things, the disputed ownership of a pig, ostensibly involved the Hatfield family, based in West Virginia and led by Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, and the McCoys, based in Kentucky and led by Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy, was much more complex than a simple dispute between families. It involved concepts of loyalty, honour and betrayal, that led people to forgo family ties in order to take one side or the other, or indeed, try to stop the feud altogether. King has taken a complicated story and made a fast-paced, exciting read. Despite the tangled family trees and webs of intrigue and mistrust, the story moves at a breakneck pace, covering three decades of violence without mssing a beat. King does not, however, gloss over the genuine tragedy of this private civil war. At least 20 people, many of them innocent, died in the course of the feud, and King captures the loss and the grief of the bereaved families. He also captures the wider implications of this private war for the US at large, with two states, Kentucky and West Virginia, being drawn almost to the point of war themselves over the dispute, and the interest of the world outside piqued, with journalists from the big cities risking their lives in order to penetrate the clan strongholds in search of a scoop. This is an enthralling piece of writing, sad, but gripping which will reward the reader very richly indeed.

9/10

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Innocence Lost

Innocence Lost: The Last Man Hanged in Queensland, by Jacqueline Craigie

Jack Sim (2013), Paperback, 121 pages

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On September 22, 1913, Ernest Austin was hanged at Boggo Road Gaol in Brisbane for the rape and murder of 11 year old Ivy Mitchell at Samford, north of Brisbane. It was a brutal crime and Austin, like so many others before him, paid the ultimate penalty. What makes Austin significant is that he became the last man ever executed in the state of Queensland. In 1922, after years of trying, the reformist Labor government succeeded in abolishing capital punishment, making Queensland the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to do so. As a born and bred Queenslander and lifelong resident of Brisbane, this has always fascinated me, and I’ve always wondered why Austin’s repellent crime and ultimate punishment was the final tipping point that brought an end to the use of the gallows here. In fact, it wasn’t, really, the pressure to abolish the noose had been growing among the more progressive  schools of thought for years and Austin was simply the last to draw the short straw before the end came. However, I’ve never really known the full story of the case that sent Austin to his fate, and Craigie has provided an excellent summary of the whole story, including Austin’s troubled childhood in Victoria, contrasted to Ivy’s sunny growing up in rural Queensland, and the events that fatefully brought them together. Craigie is not without sympathy for Austin, whose childhood and youth were simply appalling, but she does not let this come between the reader and the full horror of the crime. Ivy, described as a typically Australian blue-eyed and blond-haired girl, was savagely raped by Austin and then her throat slashed from ear to ear, and the terror of her final moments is graphically captured by Craigie, as is the grief of her family. Nor does the author spare the reader from the equal grimness of Austin’s final hours, describing in graphic detail the solemn process of judicial death. In fact, Craigie shows that this was a double tragedy, with two young lives lost. It’s by no means an entertaining read, it is graphic and harrowing, but it captures the feel of the period exceptionally well. If one can ignore the jarring fact of abysmal proof-reading and editing, which has has left a plethora of spelling errors and misplaced apostrophes, this is a worthwhile book. Not fun to read, but enthralling.

8.5/10

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Noose

Noose: True Stories of Australians Who Died at the Gallows, by Xavier Duff

Five Mile Press (2014), Paperback, 279 pages.

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In February 1788, the first person hanged in Australia went to the gallows at Sydney Cove for stealing food. In February 1967, the last person hanged in Australia went to the gallows in Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison for murder. This book deals with those alpha and omega cases and 10 others from the 179 years between. Most of the cases are fairly obscure, although some, the horrific Myall Creek massacre for example, marked major turning points in Australian law. Duff presents no grand polemic against capital punishment, although he is careful to point out how easy it is for an innocent person to wrongfully executed, and accordingly several of the cases he has chosen here have disputed verdicts. Its not exactly an entertaining book, being largely a catalogue of suffering and misery and the basest instincts of humanity, but it is enthralling and a valuable addition to Australia’s lore of capital jurisprudence. True crime buffs and Australian history enthusiasts will both find something to sink their teeth into here.

9/10

 

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America, Empire of Liberty

America, Empire of Liberty: A New History, by David Reynolds

Penguin (2010), Paperback, 704 pages

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Excellent piece of writing. I wouldn’t have thought you could effectively cover the scope of American history from the Pilgrims to Obama in a single volume, but Reynolds does it with skill, style and elan. Perhaps a few areas get short shrift, the Indian Wars for example, some areas get particular attention, Roosevelt and the New Deal for example, but generally he gives an excellent and interesting coverage of all the major events, plus many more obscure happenings, all the while moving with skill & pace to keep the reader’s interest. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to extend their knowledge of American history without sacrificing reading enjoyment.

9/10

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Sacred Games

Sacred Games by Gary Corby

Soho Press (2013), Paperback, 350 pages

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The third in a series set in early 5th century Greece dealing with the adventures of Nicolaos, a rather put-upon youth with a talent for crime-solving and an eye for attractive priestesses, who is once again called on by Athens’ supreme politician-statesman Pericles to solve a mystery that has Athens and arch-rivals Sparta on the brink of a catastrophic war. While attending the Olympics of 460 BC, Nicolaos is caught right in the middle when Sparta’s pankration (the brutal no-holds-barred boxing cum wrestling event that was the ancient world’s answer to UFC) champion is murdered and the suspect is an Athenian – and Nicolaos’ best friend to boot. Given that Nicolaos is wrestling with his own problems, namely getting bis father to agree to his wedding to the nubile priestess Diotima, he soon becomes very busy indeed.  The hook of the series is that Nicolaos is the older brother of Socrates (yes, that Socrates), not yet an outstanding philosopher but a bratty kid who nevertheless is already making leaps of logic that sometimes assist Nicolaos in his crime-solving endeavours. The use of actual historical characters like this is one reason for the series’ appeal. The story is quick-moving, deftly-handled, and with a correct mixture of action, humour and pathos. It’s probably not the most oustanding mystery novel you will ever read, but it’s entertaining and worth a few hours of your time, especially if you hanker after the delights of Classical Greece at the dawn of its Golden Age.

8/10

 

 

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The President and the Assassin

The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century, by Scott Miller

Random House (2013), Paperback, 448 pages

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Ostensibly a book dealing with the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, that event is almost an afterthought, occurring in the last 50 pages of the book. Prior to this were almost 400 pages dealing jointly with the United States’ fumbling efforts towards overseas empire and its troubled labour record at home in the closing years of the 19th century. There is a logic to this, as McKinley is intimately involved in the former, and his assassin, Leon Czolgosz, is a product of the radical politics inspired by the latter. It’s a sedate but absorbing trip through a very different America, confident and growing in power, but split by fractious politics at home and still possessed of an inferiority complex towards the Great Powers of the day. This is suddenly changed by an almost accidental war with Spain, precipitated by the possibly accidental destruction of the USS Maine in Havana harbour. In short order, the US overruns Spanish possessions not only in Cuba but in the Philippines as well and finds itself saddled with restless native populations and ruthless  American corporation greedy for colonial profits. Meanwhile, at home, the brutal tactics used by the same corporations to break strikes and destroy America’s nascent labour movement inspire the growth of radical political groups, especially the anarchists, for whom violence is an acceptable political tool. An otherwise aimless immigrant youth, Czolgosz is suddenly inspired by the most tenuous contact with the anarchist groups to commit an act for reasons he himself is barely sure of.  The nation’s reaction, and Czolgosz’ tragic dawning awareness of the predicament he has placed himself in, form a dramatic,  and pathetic, conclusion. An interesting and well-researched journey into a crucial turning point of American history which has been largely forgotten, this is an absorbing book well worth the committment to its funereal pace and frequent digressions.

8/10

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The Devil in the Marshalsea

The Devil in the Marshalsea, by Antonia Hodgson

Hodder & Stoughton (2014), Paperback, 400 pages

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Not only a great murder mystery, but a wonderful insight into the terrifying world of prison life in early 18th century England. Marshalsea was the notorious prison in south London where people who were unable to pay their debts were thrown until they, or someone else, came up with the required funds. Failure to pay meant that the prisoner stayed inside until they died, which could be a very short wait indeed. The prison was divided in two sections. The Master’s Side was where those who had some means could pay for food and lodging, and if they had enough, some luxury as well, as it boasted a bar, a restaurant and a coffeehouse. Those unfortunates who had no means whatsoever were thrown onto the Common Side, to be crammed into cells with 40 or 50 others, to be fed only through charity or through gaining work as a servant on the Masters Side. Life expectancy on the Common Side was very short indeed.  The story revolves around Thomas Hawkins, a ne’er-do-well who has squandered a possible comfortable lifestyle in the church for a life of gaming, whoring and other debauchery, with the inevitable result that his limited means runs out and he is thrown into the Marshalsea with a hefty debt and the knowledge that he will not get out unless he solves the murder of another prisoner. It has to be said at this point that Hawkins is a not a particularly appealing protagonist. He is whiny and ineffectual and his hand-wringing about his fate, for which he himself is largely responsible, quickly becomes tiresome. However, for reasons which largely escaped me, he has devoted friends both on the inside and outside, and it it is with the help of these that he is able to solve the mystery, not without a few twists in the tale and one really big sting at the end. Really the appeal of this book is the evocation of life in 18th century London and particularly its prisons, the feel of the book and the language and attitudes of the characters strikes the reader as very authentic. It is an interesting, sometimes spellbinding read, about a world, which thankfully for us, has long passed. Well worth a try.

8/10

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Enemies at Home

Enemies at Home, by Lindsey Davies

Hodder (2014), Paperback, 400 pages

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Lindsey Davies is the doyen of the enthusiastic clique of mystery and detective writers mining the Roman Empire for literary gold. She has 20 books to her credit featuring the redoubtable Marcus Didius Falco, private informer, sometime employee of the Flavian emperors and amateur poet, established a Roman underworld teeming with vice, fishy, often dangerous characters and violent crime, often reaching beyond Rome itself to the farthest reaches of Empire. Davies established her very believeable world by borrowing heavily from 20th century hard-boiled private eye fiction and film noir tropes, utilising the familiar short, punchy sentences, a cynical, streetwise protagonist and an underworld that constitutes an entire civilization in its own right, with its own laws, customs and ways of meting out justice. However, she also took care to authentically recreate, in exacting historical detail, the world of 1st century Rome and its Empire. However, after 20 titles, Davies has decided that Falco was ready for retirement, and has passed the torch to his adoptive daughter Flavia Albia. This is the second in the new series, and features Albia investigating the brutal murder of a wealthy couple, whose houseful of slaves stand to be executed for the crime, regardless of their innocence or otherwise, if the real killers are not found. I have to say that this series so far lacks the verve and punch of the Falco books. Albia is just not as interesting a protagonist as her father, seemingly unable to make as many interesting enemies as Falco was wont to do. Curiously enough, this probably reflects the real situation in ancient Rome, where women were not considered important enough to gain access to the circles of power that existed at all levels of society, and hence could never really be seen as a threat by men. Whether or not this is intentional by Davies is unclear, however, although the book is well-written and interesting, it never inspires much in the way of excitement or thrills. While I’m happy to persist with the series, it is high quality writing after all, I do find myself wishing for Falco’s return. People who have never read the series may well enjoy it, but for diehard Falco fans, it will probably be somewhat disappointing.

7.5/10

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The White War

The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919, by Mark Thompson

Perseus Books (2012), Paperback, 454 pages

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In that great exercise in criminal futility that history knows as World War I or simply the Great War, perhaps the most futile campaign of all is one that has gained surprisingly little attention in the years since. Between 1915 and 1918, Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire fought bitterly and bloodily for control of a miniscule triangle of territory between the Alps and the Adriatic. For all the immense suffering on the Western Front, the horror stretched over a vast area between the Swiss border and the English Channel. On the Italian Front, all this horror was compressed into an area measuring only a few hundred square kilometres. Yet, proportionately, the losses in this campaign were far worse than those on the Western Front. Some 600000 Italians and almost 1.2 million Austro-Hungarians became casualties in this terrible bloodletting, for so little gain that 3 1/2 years of futile Italian offensives failed to recover more than a few alpine peaks and a few square miles of plateau of the territory that the nation went to war to reclaim. In fact, virtually all of Italy’s territorial gains were made after the Armistice, rendering all the loss of life even more futile. Thompson captures this extraordinary exercise in self-delusion and absolute futility in a searing no-holds barred account of the failure of Italy’s newly formed democracy to avert, and then to end this ghastly mistake. Ultimately, the war damaged Italy’s liberal institutions so badly that the country became easy prey for Mussolini and the fascists, thus setting the secene for Italy’s devastation in the next war. Thompson skilfully melds the political shenanigans and the gross incompetence of the generals on both sides with moving, first-hand testimony from those who paid the price, the soldiers on the front-lines. It’s a shocking, but fascinating story, that has recieved too little attention in the years since. Hopefully this terrific book will go some way to remedying that.

9/10

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The Blood of Heroes

The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo – and the Sacrifice that Forged a Nation, by James Donovan

Back Bay Books (2013), Paperback, 528 pages

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Before reading this book, I had only the vaguest knowledge about the Alamo. I knew it had been fought as part of some war between the US and Mexico, and that everyone who fought in it had been killed. Much to my surprise, I discovered I was wrong on both counts. The war in question was actually a civil war, fought between the dictatorial Mexican government of General Santa Anna, and the loyal Mexican province of Texas, which was not fighting for independence or to join the USA, but for a better deal from the Mexican government, Indeed, they proudly flew the Mexican flag during the entire battle. And far from everyone in the Alamo being killed, there were survivors, apart from women and children, who were graciously spared by Santa Anna, two slaves and a deserter from the Mexican army who had fought with the Texians were also spared. This is an entertaining, fast-moving piece of historical writing. Donovan makes excellent use of largely-ignored sources, particularly those from the Mexican side, to give a very human account of the tragedy. Not only are the famous figures like Travis, Crockett and Bowie well-covered, but the stories of more anonymous participants are also described in detail. Also given in some depth are the background to the conflict, the machinations which went on in the hopelessly ineffectual Texian government, and Santa Anna’s own troubles in getting his ragtag, poorly fed, clothed and equipped army to the frontline. The real story of this book is that there were no winners. Santa Anna gained little from his victory. Only weeks later he was resoundingly defeated and captured and forced to bargain away Texas as the price for his release. And although Texas did acquire its independence, the cost both human and financial was staggering, which was one of the reasons the new republic very quickly fell into US statehood. This is a worthwhile read, even for those not particularly interested in US or Mexican history. It is an enthralling and very human story.

9/10

 

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The Piccadilly Plot

The Piccadilly Plot: A Thomas Chaloner Adventure, by Susannah Gregory

Sphere (2012), Paperback, 496 pages

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The second series of Susannah Gregory’s historical crime mysteries, following her Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles set in 14th century Cambridge, takes the reader to London under the reign of Charles II. The hero, Thomas Chaloner, is a former Parliamentary spy now eking out a living under the Restoration as an agent for the Earl of Clarendon. Chaloner is a resourceful individual, skilled in espionage and weaponry, and he needs to be, because there are an inordinately large number of people who don’t like him, and not a few who want to kill him. He also has a wife he’s not sure about and a houseful of surly servants. From the seemingly simple task of finding out who’s been stealing bricks from his master’s new mansion, he winds up in a labyrinthine mystery involving English diplomatic manoueverings in North Africa, the slave trade and a plot to discredit the Queen, which he duly solves, with a little help from his friends, after escaping from numerous life-threatening situations in the nick of time. I had originally dipped into this series at the start, but found it somewhat disappointing after my enjoyment of the Bartholomew series, feeling that Gregory was more comfortable dealing with the 14th century, however, this 7th entry has been a pleasant surprise, a much more confident outing, with humour, pathos and high drama in equal quantities. Chaloner is a likeable character, perhaps more so than the rather vapid Bartholomew. His supporting ensemble is perhaps less engaging, however, this is only the 7th iteration of the series, whereas the Bartholomew series, topping 19 books, has had much more development time. On the strength of this book, I doubt I will be re-visiting the earlier books in the series, however, I will certainly seek out the next entries. Worth reading.

8.5/10

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Small Wars, Faraway Places

Small Wars, Faraway Places: Global Insurrection and the Making of the Modern World, 1945-1965, by Michael Burleigh

Viking (2013), Hardcover, 608 pages

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A good alternative title for this book would be “101 Ways not to De-Colonize your Empire.” A relentless narrative of bungling first by the British & French as they struggled to either hang on to their colonies or escape from them with minimal fuss in the post 1945 world, then even more massive bungling by the superpowers, particularly the Americans, as they sought to influence the said former colonies to follow their particular political path and not that of their rivals. This is a litany of failure, scathing in its condemnation of inept colonial administration and even more inept superpower meddling in the affairs of small nations. This is no dry academic text, the author injects passion and some venom into the story, describing one American ambassador as a “drunken idiot” and lashing John F. Kennedy’s philandering and his dealings with Cuba virtually in the same breath. Truman, Eisenhower and Johnson are treated more sympathetically, although the failings of their administrations are not spared. On the British side, Churchill, Eden and Macmillan are lavished with mild contempt and occassional faint praise in their struggles to first hold the Empire together, then to extract an exhausted Britain with the minimum of bother and expense. This is an enthralling read, short, punchy chapters keeping the momentum going as the author hops the globe from troublespot to benighted troublespot. Even the geographically illiterate and politically uninterested will find this an intriguing story of human greatness and weakness, hopes raised and hopes dashed. Great discussion of a turbulent couple of decades that shaped the world we live in today.

8.5/10

 

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A Spy Among Friends

A Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben McIntyre

Bloomsbury (2014), Paperback, 368 pages

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I love espionage stories, and this is a beauty of an espionage story. Kim Philby, who spent three decades embedded in MI6 passing the most sensitive of secrets to the Soviets, is arguably the most damaging traitor in the history of British intelligence, and while I’ve read a number of books in which he’s figured prominently, this is the first I’ve read dedicated primarily to his treachery. The book focuses on the friendship between Philby and fellow MI6 operative Nicholas Elliott, who were the closest of friends from their early years until Elliott, finally convinced of Philby’s guilt after decades of denial confronted him in Beirut just before the traitor defected to the Soviet Union, determined to force a confession out of him. It’s primarily the story of how Philby used his extraordinary charm and the ties of the old boy network that pervaded British intelligence to avert suspicion from himself, playing the loyal British spy while at the same time cold-bloodedly passing secrets to the Soviets that cost the lives of hundreds of agents. Its evident that McIntyre has considerable admiration for Philby’s undoubted skill at espionage, while not stinting on showing the evils that Philby’s betrayal wrought on many lives. The story also details the tension between the two halves of British intelligence and the cultural differences between the middle-class MI5, made up of ex-police and soldiers, convinced of Philby’s guilt, and the aristocratic & upper-class MI6, composed of  Oxbridge graduates and old boys of Britain’s top public schools, equally convinced of Philby’s innocence and determined to protect him from MI5’s probing. There is little analysis of Philby’s motivations, and little interest is paid to the origins of Philby’s political beliefs at Cambridge, although these have been dealt with at length in numerous other works on the Cambridge spies. Its is largely the story of  Philby’s life as a spy, and how he interacted with others around him, including friends, fellow spies and his three wives. It’s a gripping, fast-moving story, as close to a spy thriller as a true-life story can come. The last third in particular, as suspicions begin to focus on Philby, is particularly absorbing, a tense drama played in the gentrified upper levels of British intelligence. No gunplay, no James Bond derring-do, but every bit as dramatic. Wonderful stuff, a truly great read.

9.5/10

 

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Capital Crimes

Capital Crimes: Seven Centuries of London Life and Murder, by Max Decharne

Random House (2012), Hardcover, 416 pages

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I have read at least a dozen books on the history of crime and punishment in London. Some were seriously academic, some were wildy populist.  It seems that the memory of Jack the Ripper and Tyburn  exerts a lasting fascination for writers and readers alike. In such a crowded genre, it would be easy to end up repeating what has been covered so many times before. However, Decharne has done a great job of searching  out obscure stories, some of which are likely never to have been published before. He avoids the temptation to include the obvious, there is no mention of the Ripper, or Crippen, or Christie or any of those staples. Beginning in the 14th century and continuing up until the 1950s, he presents a variety of cases, all of which have only one thing in common, they were capital crimes and someone ended up taking the short final walk to the stake, the block or the gallows at Smithfield, Tower Hill, Tyburn or Newgate. There are revolutionaries, heretics, highwaymen, cold-blooded killers and those who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He captures the flavour of the times by making heavy use of contemporary broadsheet and newspaper accounts, and also is at pains to locate the scenes of the crimes in the context of London’s modern geography. This is an excellent read, well thought-out, extremely well-researched and exceptionally well-written. For those true crime buffs who might be jaded by reading the same old  stories over and over again, or anyone just interested in yet another thread in London’s enormous history, I thoroughly recommend this book.

9/10

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The Lost Abbot

The Lost Abbot: The 19th Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, by Susanna Gregory

Sphere (2013), Hardcover, 416 pages

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I am a huge fan of this historical mystery series, set in Cambridge and surrounding areas during the 14th century. This is the 19th in the series, an incredibly long run, and although the quality is not quite what it was at its peak, it is still absorbing reading. The series revolves around the monks and teachers at Michaelhouse, one of the constituent colleges of Cambridge University, and in particular the doctor and medical lecturer Matthew Bartholomew. The plots usually revolve around intricately planned murders, which Bartholomew, in his capacity as the university’s Corpse Examiner (did they really such a thing in the 1300s?), and his corpulent friend the University Proctor, Brother Michael, have to solve. The murders always lead to deeper and darker conspiracies, which usually land the pair in great physical danger as they attempt to discover the culprits. This particular entry is set in Peterborough, as the Fellows  from Michaelhouse have been delegated to attempt to solve the disappearance of the Abbot (the series has ventured away from Cambridge on a number of occasions now, to Oxford, Lincoln and London among other locales). They find as usual that the Abbot’s disappearance and a number of unexplained murders conceal a web of conspiracy that threatens many lives. One of the best features of Gregory’s books is that she painstakingly peruses the records of the locales she uses to find real events that happened and the names of real inhabitants of the place and time, which she incorporates in the stories. This lends a great touch of verismilitude to the books, and the customary appendix where she details the real story of the place and the names of the real locals she has used are always fascinating. After 19 entries, she has built believable and realistic characters, who become very familiar to the reader over the course of the series. For mine, although Bartholomew is nominally the hero of the series, I find his overweight companion Michael to be far more interesting. Initially just a food-loving, rather loud foil to Bartholomew, his character has now been carefully developed as a politically savvy secret agent whose goal is to manipulate events from behind the scenes before taking power at the University for himself. Personally I find him a far more intriguing character than the rather vapid Bartholomew, who in his thinking is the obligatory modern intrusion among a sea of otherwise authentic medieval mindsets. This particular book is a good solid read for the historical mystery lover. The plot is intricate, as always, the secondary characters are well-realised, and the settings are fascinating. While I feel the series has plateaued somewhat after so many books, it remains absolutely required reading and I look forward to every new entry. May there be many more adventures for Bartholomew, Michael and the Michaelhouse crew.

8.5/10

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A Jew among Romans

A Jew among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus, by Frederic Raphael

Anchor Books, (2013), Paperback, 336 pages

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Less a biography of Josephus than a rambling, disjointed series of musings on the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-73 and what it meant to be a Jew in the centuries following the Diaspora. The reader never really gets a coherent picture of Josephus’ life, which is not entirely the author’s fault, since our only sources are Josephus himself, who had personal reasons for censoring his own story, and his fiercely critical contemporary Justus. Nevertheless, the book meanders so much that the chunks of Josephus’ life story never really coalesce.  In fact for large sections of the narrative Josephus is not mentioned at all, as the author wanders through post-Diaspora Jewry, up to the present day.  For all that, the book is an entertaining read, as the author darts off on interesting tangents, frequently through the copious footnotes. He also does an excellent job of conveying the fractious, tortured milieu of 1st century Palestine, where Joseph Ben Matthias, reluctant Jewish general, leads a brilliant defense of the city of Jotapata, but when the inevitable Roman breakthrough comes, throws himself on the mercy of Vespasian and prophesies that the Roman general will become Emperor, which saves his life. When his patron takes the imperial throne, Joseph ben Matthias becomes Flavius Josephus, Roman citizen, and pet historian of the Flavian dynasty, and gains eternal condemnation from his fellow Jews as their greatest turncoat, their own equivalent of Judas. Raphael muses on what this must havc cost the writer personally, trapped in Rome, fitting into neither Roman society nor that of the Diaspora Jews, although Josephus himself gives few hints of inner turmoil. Its just unfortunate that the author’s attempts to cover too many bases at once means this otherwise informative book never really comes together as a coherent work. Still, those interested in the workings of Roman imperialism, Jewish nationalism or the travails of post Diaspora Jewry will find much in this book to interest them. And as a contribution to the literature on one of the more enigmatic writers of the ancient world, it is a valuable, if flawed, piece of work.

7/10

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St Peter’s Bones

St Peter’s Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope were Lost and Found…and Then Lost and Found Again, by Thomas J Craughwell

Image (2013), Paperback, 126 pages

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This is a story I’ve been fascinated by for many years. I first read about the excavation under the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome when I was teenager with a  passion for archaeology. It seemed to me incredible then that they may actually have found the bones of the chief apostle, Jesus’ right-hand man, and the first pope. But everything seemed to fit, the bones they discovered were of a elderly, powerfully built man, (Peter was a fisherman after all, accustomed to manual labour, and if he died during the Neronian persecution as tradition holds, he would have been about 65-70 years old) right under the High Altar of St Peter’s, exactly where tradition said they would be.  So I became convinced that they had indeed discovered the bones of the second-most important man in the history of Christianity. The addition of years and experience had made me somewhat more sceptical, and I became equally convinced that the whole thing was too good to be true, traditions just don’t get proved that easily and completely. But then, last year, my perspective was changed. I heard about the discovery of the remains of Richard III, exactly where they were supposed to be, and conforming to every respect with history and tradition. We have been told that Richard was a hunchback, and that he died violently in battle, and his skeleton showed exactly that. He had a pronounced spinal deformity, and his bones showed signs of terrible battle injuries, as well as post-mortem wounds gratuitously performed on his body by the victorious Lancastrians. To have these traditions confirmed so completely has made me re-think  the possible authenticity of the bones of St Peter, and I am now prepared to concede, after reading this little book with the latest research on the remains, that, yes, these may well be the actual bones of St Peter. The story will enthrall both those with a Christian perspective, and those of a secular bent who are fascinated by archaeology and the resolution of ancient mysteries. The story itself has been well-detailed before, with excavations under St Peter’s beginning in the 1940’s, discovering first a magnificent late Roman necropolis, the most complete ever found, with family tombs  complete with lovely structures, art and inscriptions. The excavators then sought permission from the Pope to dig right under the High Altar itself, where tradition said Peter was buried. They discovered a complex set of early Christian structures, with graffiti which seemed to attest that Peter lay nearby, finally discovering bones which were initially identified as Peter’s, it later being confirmed they were not. However, another set of bones which had earlier been removed in secret, were rediscovered forgotten in a storeroom. These are the bones which match the description off Peter so closely, and which in due course, the Vatican has officially pronounced as his remains.  Whether or not you believe this, the whole complicated story is thoroughly absorbing, and Craughwell has done an excellent job of translating the science of the discoveries into a fast-paced book accessible to the lay reader. The lack of pictures and diagrams is perhaps a disappointment, and would have made following the progress off the excavation easier to understand, but there is a comprehensive bibliography where the interested reader can locate more detailed material. An excellent little book, recommended for the both the faithful and the scientifically-minded.

9/10

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Behemoth

Behemoth: The History of the Elephant in America, by Ronald B. Tobias

Harper Perennial (2013), Paperback, 512 pages

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I’m a sucker for quirky titles like this, I simply can’t resist a book that promises to shed light on some obscure portion of human knowledge or history. Micro-history is one term that has become popular to describe this type of literature, and I suppose it is as good a way as any to describe this fascinating work, concentrating as it does on the long and peculiar relationship between an animal and a country to which it is not even native. As Tobias reveals, the USA has had a 200 year association with the elephant, beginning with the first specimens to be exhibited in the colonial days, causing such a sensation that the term “seeing the elephant” became ingrained in the language as a term for going out to see the world. Pioneers who ventured out west and soldiers who served in war boasted that they had “seen the elephant”, in other words they had experienced the wonders of the world and returned to tell the tale. The elephant’s size, power, and majesty were seized upon as a symbol of the growing size and confidence of the fledgling United States, even to the extent of maps of the country being depicted in elephant form, with Florida as the trunk, New England as the head and Baja California as the tail. There was serious talk of the elephant being considered as the national symbol of the USA, and although this did not eventuate, the elephant remained an outstanding object of fascination for Americans, to the extent that buildings in the shape of elephants became a fad. However, there was a ugly side to this obsession, which Tobias reveals with unflinching and sometimes horrific detail. To satisfy the public demand for elephants, increasing numbers were brought from both Africa and Asia, and elephants being what they are, very large animals with strong opinions, likes and dislikes, and the wherewithal to impose those feelings on frail humans with crushing power, the inevitable happened. Many keepers, unthinkingly using cruel methods of control on their charges, paid with their lives as previously docile animals were goaded beyond toleration and went on killing sprees. The end result was as unfortunate for the elephant as it was for the humans, because dangerous elephants were tagged as criminals and made to pay the same price as human murderers. Tobias lists a horrific catalogue of animals executed by shooting, poisoning, hanging, electrocution (you can see the latter for yourself, it was filmed by Thomas Edison as part of his campaign to prove AC current was more dangerous than his own DC, and it’s a shocker, no pun intended, it’s ghastly to watch. Just Google “Electrocuting an Elephant” if you have a strong stomach). Attempts to breed elephants were no more successful than importing them. No elephant born in the US before 1962 lived past its first birthday, killed by their mothers who had not been properly socialized into caring for young, or through disease or malnutrition due to the ignorance of keepers in the care of infant elephants. Although this part of the book is truly depressing, there are lighter moments. Fads such as elephant baseball and trying to harness elephants to plough fields will bring a smile. The book ends on a hopeful note as concerned citizens throughout the country unite to try and give the remaining elephants in the country, many injured physically or scarred mentally, a decent life in sanctuaries where they can roam free from public attention and socialise with their own kind. This is a great read, it will alternately fascinate, amuse and horrify, but it remains compelling throughout. This is quite a unique book, I don’t think I’ve ever before read such a work on the relationship between an animal and a country to which it is not native, but it is truly absorbing. Wonderful stuff.

9.5/10

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The Spies of Warsaw

The Spies of Warsaw, by Alan Furst

Weidenfield & Nicolson (2008), Paperback, 288 pages

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I have previously reviewed this author’s Spies of the Balkans and been largely unimpressed, finding it a too-slick, formulaic spy drama with an impossibly talented protagonist, teflon-plated and instantly sending all women into swooning ecstasy. Spies of Warsaw is somewhat of an improvement, the hero is more human and more vulnerable, and his love affair is a more measured and realistic happening, but it still suffers from the same slick, unengaging feel. I never really felt any attachment to the characters, there is no real tension, and the writer once again has an annoying habit of setting up potential drama and then letting it fall flat without anything exciting happening. I suppose you could argue that this is actually a sort of realism, and that spies in real life conduct many operations without serious gunplay or violence developing, but this is supposed to be a spy thriller after all, so I am wrong to expect thrills? I’ve just concluded that this author’s style is not for me, although I presume he must have many fans, because his numerous books are displayed very prominently in a place of pride in my local mystery/sci fi bookshop, always a sure sign of a bestseller. Good luck to him, but I’ll be looking elsewhere for my spy fix from now on.

7/10

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Return of a King

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, by William Dalrymple

Bloomsbury (2013), Paperback, 567 pages

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This book is simply an excellent demonstration of the old adage, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Unbelievably, as the author notes, Britain has been involved in four wars in Afghanistan since the early 19th century. They have ranged from merely unsuccessful to completely disastrous, and none better deserves the latter term more than the first. In 1839, Britain, attempting to ward off Russian advances in the Asia, the so-called Great Game, sent an army into Afghanistan to place an unpopular monarch back on the throne. Two years later, after simply astonishing bungling by British officialdom  both on the ground and back in India, the entire country rose in revolt. The British garrisons were summarily outfought and cut to pieces, the remainder attempted to fight their way back to India through the snows of winter, but either froze, starved to death or were slaughtered by the Afghans. Only one European and a handful of Indians made it back to British-controlled territory, it was Britain’s worst military fiasco of the Victorian era. Two years later, the British sent a so-called Army of Retribution back into Afghanistan, who burned and butchered their way across the country in an orgy of retaliation and retook Kabul before burning most of it to the ground. However, the British soon realised the impossibility of holding the country and retreated back to the safety of India, leaving their puppet ruler to fend for himself. The whole futile exercise cost hundreds of thousands of lives and all but bankrupted the East India Company. Dalrymple’s account of the catastrophe is measured, graphic and extremely well-researched. Making use of Afghan sources not previously known in the West, he does an excellent job of giving both sides of the conflict an equal voice. Perhaps the most sombre part of the narrative comes at the end, when he details to the eerie parallels between that conflict and the West’s current imbroglio in Afghanistan.  The inability of the West, and Britain in particular, to learn from the mistakes of the past condemns them to the same result, a hugely costly and ultimately futile war, which he has no doubt will be the result of the current conflict.  The book is not easy reading, it is heavy going in parts, and the proliferation of khans, amirs and wazirs usually leads the reader scurrying back to the dramatis personae to work out who is who, but it is ultimately a compelling story with drastic relevance for today’s world. It is also a very human story, with the triumph and suffering of individuals given much prominence. It is not light reading by any means, but an excellent meaty book that leaves the reader with plenty to ponder. Worth persisting with.

8.5/10

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The Secret Rooms

The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery, by Catherine Bailey

Viking (2012), Hardcover, 480 pages

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A story so bizarre it reads like fiction, yet it’s completely factual. In 1940, John Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland, died at home at Belvoir Castle, the family’s massive ancestral seat. Yet, with literally hundreds of luxurious rooms to choose from, the Duke chose to live and die in a bare set of rooms within the servants’ quarters. Up to the last hours of his life he was frantically engaged in editing the family correspondence trying to remove all trace of a period during the First World War. Upon his death, his son and and successor ordered the rooms closed up, and they remained locked away for more than 60 years. Then Bailey, then a TV producer, came to the house to do research on those workers on the estate who served in WWI. She discovered the mysterious gap in the records and spent years digging up the truth as to why the Duke was so desperate to cover up that period in his family history. It emerged that the Duke , as an officer during the war, had his medical records fudged so that he could escape the slaughter on the Western front and garner an army position safely back in Britain. However the culprit was not Manners himself, but his mother, who so desperate to save her only remaining son she used her aristocratic contacts to set up fake medical examinations, and even urged her daughter to sacrifice her virginity to seduce a man who was close to a general who could offer Manners a safe position at home. The Duke, once he found about this, was apparently so ashamed he devoted the last years of his life to excising it from the records. This is a story that has to be read to be believed, literally. Those of a republican bent who believe the nobility are degenerate, inbred fossils from a bygone era, will probably have their views fully confirmed. It will also appeal to those who fancy a real-life Downton Abbey story. But those who just enjoy a real-life historical mystery will also relish this book. Bailey’s determination to root out the truth against all obstacles is truly absorbing, and although the book occasionally becomes bogged down in a welter of aristocratic names and titles, it remains spellbinding up to the end. Absolutely fascinating stuff.

9/10

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The Visitors

The Visitors, by Sally Beauman

Little, Brown (2014), Hardback, 544 pages

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A lyrical, moving, beautifully handled story. Moving back and forth between Egypt in 1922 and England in the present, it is the story of Lucy, a young girl sent to the Nile Valley to recover from the typhoid that killed her mother. Under the supervision of a doting American minder, Lucy gets to move among the elite social set swirling around Howard Carter and his colleagues as they  excavate the Valley of the Kings. She befriends the daughter of a American archaeologist, beginning a bond that will last a lifetime. In present-day England, Lucy, now a very old woman and the last surviving eyewitness to the discovery of the tomb of Tutankamun, is being pestered by a young TV producer to reveal what she saw and heard during those astounding days when the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century was being revealed to a wondering world. However, for Lucy remembering those days also brings many ghosts to the surface, from her time in Egypt and afterwards, the tragedies of her life. The story has a languid grace that needs to be experienced to fully appreciate its subtleties. Rather than grab you and drag you, it lays a gentle arm around your shoulders and leads you in the way it wants to go. I must admit, although I was initially drawn in by the Tutankamun angle of the story, it is Lucy’s story that I found the most enthralling. Beauman evokes the setting of 1920’s Egypt beautifully, you can almost see the dust and feel the hot wind. Dominating the landscape is the wonderfully-realized figure of Howard Carter, volcanic, moody, and cynical, totally oconsumed by a quest that seems more unlikely every day, to find an unrobbed tombed in a valley that has been picked over for centuries. You will love this book if,  like me, you are an obsessive Egyptophile, but also if you just appreciate a good story well-told with strong and endearing characters. It’s not quite in the same league as The Signature of All Things, which I read last year and have happily proclaimed as one of the 10 best novels I have ever read, but it is still an exceptional read. Perhaps its does tend to lose its way a bit after the tomb discovery, but that’s a minor quibble, the beauty of the story more than compensates. I can only say, simply, it’s lovely, just lovely.

9.5/10

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Russian Roulette

Russian Roulette: A Deadly Game: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin’s Global Plot, by Giles Milton

Sceptre (2013), Hardback, 400 pages

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Real boy’s own stuff, which sounds like it should be fiction but is actually fact. In 1917, the newly formed British Secret Intelligence Secret Service plotted firstly to keep Russia in the war against Germany, and then when that failed, to overthrow the Bolshevik regime and replace it with a more congenial government. At the same time, the Bolsheviks themselves were plotting to foment revolution in India and overthrow British rule as the first step in setting up a revolution in the Western democracies. The end result is a book chockful of good old-fashioned espionage, not modern technical analysis and white-collar spies crouched over computers, but the stuff where daring men go out with false identities and risk their lives. It’s genuine James Bond, 1917 style. It’s a roaring, fast-paced historical thriller, full of near-misses, close shaves, daring escapes and other acts of daring-do. The characters include the famous Sidney Reilly, so-called Ace of Spies, Robert Bruce Lockhart, who was sentenced to death in absentia for plotiing to assassinate Lenin, their boss, Mansfield Cumming, known as C, and George Hill, master of disguise. For those who abhor dry, academic, footnoted  history, this book is a tonic, a page-turner from beginning to end. Fun stuff.

9/10

 

 

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Spies of the Balkans

Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst

Phoenix (2013), Paperback, 304 pages

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By the numbers spy thriller, with the added interest of being set in the turbulent Balkans in the early years of WWII. It concerns the activities of a handsome Greek police officer who navigates the twisted loyalties and dangers of wartime Europe while saving endangered people from the clutches of the Nazis, finding time along the way to bed various women who happen to cross his path.  “Slick” is the word that springs to mind when describing this book. It is the literary equivalent of sliding on a thick coat of oil across a highly polished floor. You begin at the beginning, slide effortlessly and quickly through with minimal emotional engagement, and exit at the end, having been entertained,  certainly, but wondering if that few hours of your life invested was well-spent. There is simply a lack of drama in the story, very little sense that the characters are ever in any danger, which is essential for a spy story. The protagonist is  is simply too be good to be true, he never encounters a situation he can’t instantly think his way out of, and flits through the dangers of wartime Europe with ludicrous ease. The author has a habit of setting up situations and then resolving them without any attendant suspense or drama, which certainly moves the story along very quickly, but sort of defeats the purpose of a thriller. For instance, our heroic protagonist shoots an SS officer in the face, in the middle of Occupied Paris, which would seem to guarantee an intense manhunt and plenty of close shaves. Not a bit of it. Two pages later, he’s safely out danger and back home in Greece without turning a hair. Even James Bond had to survive being captured and tortured a few times. Not our hero, he’s literally the Teflon Man. In addition, he’s also, as required, impossibly attractive to women. Throughout the novel, a whole string of women find it impossible to resist disrobing and sampling his manly charms between the sheets. The most ludicrous example of this concerns his true love, who has barely cast a first glance his way and is straight away indicating by various subtle movements that she wants to play hide the sausage with him. I mean, I have seen lust at first sight in real life, but it usually involves copious amounts of alcohol and always at least the exchange of some words. Again, even the immortal Bond struck out once or twice, but not our hero. Really, that is the whole story of this book, it’s just too unbelievable to be taken seriously. Which is a pity, because the author’s description of the chaos of wartime Europe, the seedy underworld and labrynthine politics of the Balkans, are very good. the book just needed a bit of genuine drama and a more human protagonist to be a top class spy thriller. As it is, it is very much an airplane read, buy it at the airport, read on a long flight, leave it in the motel room for the next guest because its not worth lugging around once you’re done. Not bad, not good, mildly entertaining, but guaranteed not to stretch your intellectual capacities in any way.

6.5/10

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C.S. Lewis: A Life

C.S. Lewis: A Life - Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, by Alister McGratb

Hodder & Stoughton (2013), Paperback, 448 pages

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I can’t honestly say that the writings of C.S. Lewis have had a great impact on me, simply because I haven’t actually read too many of his works. I was introduced to Narnia in my 20’s, in the context of being a leader on a Christian children’s camp, I hadn’t previously ever heard of it, and when I started reading, it made little impression on me. Compared to Tolkien’s work, to which I remain devoted, I found it somewhat childish, shallow, and its overt Christian message (I was still struggling with finding my own faith at the time) was obvious to the point of irritation. I dismissed it as a children’s book pure and simple and have never gone back to it since. In the course of my Christian life, I also read the Screwtape Letters (wickedly funny, it remains by far my favourite Lewis work) and of course Mere Christianity, which was interesting, but I found largely irrelevant to my own experience. That’s the sum total of my knowledge of Lewis’ work. However, of late Lewis the man rather than his writings per se, has become of some interest to me. This was partly precipitated by discovering how big a part Lewis played in the creation of Lord of the Rings, which is detailed quite well in this book. McGrath describes Lewis as the “literary midwife” who assisted in the birth of LOTR. His intercession was apparently necessary because as a chronic perfectionist Tolkien was hopeless at finishing writing projects once started. I remain not entirely convinced by this, but am nevertheless intrigued by Lewis’ role in the production of a book that I hold very dear. Then there is Lewis’ equally intriguing personal life, which I saw depicted in a documentary some months ago, particularly concerning the two women in his life, Mrs Moore, the mother of his adolescent friend killed in WWI, and with whom he shared a house for most of his life, and Joy Davidman, the pushy American writer who more or less forced her way late into Lewis’ life, and was briefly married to him, before dying of cancer. McGrath deals with both of these relationships at length, although by its nature the Davidman relationship becomes somewhat of an afterthought because it was so brief and occurred so late in Lewis’ life. I found the description of Lewis’ battles with university politics and personalities fascinating, McGrath does a great a job of recreating the flavour of Oxbridge academic life in the mid 20th century. Less interesting to me personally was McGrath’s obvious fascination with Lewis’ Christianity and his role as an apologist, including in-depth analysis of Lewis’ Christian beliefs and writing, but this is understandable when you read the back-cover biography and see that McGrath himself is a Christian apologist. Thankfully, perhaps, there is no real Christian polemic in this book, McGrath lets Lewis’ story unfold at its own pace and does not seek to gloss over any of Lewis’ flaws. This is close to the perfect biography, meaty enough to feel it’s worth reading and is adding to your knowledge, yet not getting bogged down in minutiae so that you feel you will never get to the end. McGrath’s picture of Lewis is finally a wonderful portrait of an idiosyncratic genius, a man curiously at odds with the 20th century, yet whose writings remain hugely popular into the 21st. This is a great book, a wonderful, fascinating, engaging read, and I heartily recommend it.

9.5/10

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The Seven Wonders

The Seven Wonders, by Steven Saylor

C & R Crime (2013), Paperback, 432 pages

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Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series (“sub rosa”, literally “beneath the rose”, was a Latin euphemism for secret dealings or conspiracy) is, in my opinion, second only to Colleen McCullough’s First Man in Rome series in terms of recent fiction concerning the late Roman Republic. Like McCullough, Saylor’s stories are exhaustively researched, with comprehensive references and notes at the end of each. Although Saylor’s central character, the sleuth Gordianus the Finder, is fictional, he interacts with real Romans of the time, including Caesar, Cicero, Crassus, Pompey and Sulla, and each story is backgrounded against real events in the last century of the Republic, including the Catiline conspiracy, the murder of Clodius, the Civil War, and in this case, Rome’s long conflict with the Eastern tyrant Mithridates. Set as a prequel to the series, the story involves Gordianus as a teenager making his first overseas trip in the company of his tutor Antipater of Sidon (another real figure from the period) and having a number of exciting and perilous adventures in his travels. The real stars of this novel, however, are the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, each described in loving detail by Saylor and carefully situated in its particular historical context. Saylor demonstrates his erudition by including the Walls of Babylon, which were in the original list, but subsequently replaced by the Pharos of Alexandria, which features in the climax of the story. By its very nature, the plot in this book is somewhat disjointed, and doesn’t hang together as well as Saylor’s other novels, being of course very episodic, but it is a light fast read, entertaining and full of interesting characters, and ends on a very upbeat note with Gordianus being introduced to his lifelong Egyptian love Bethesda, which will please Saylor’s many fans. Less substance perhaps than Saylor’s other books, but a thoroughly enjoyable read nevertheless.

8.5/10

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That’s Anarchy

That’s Anarchy: the Story of a Revolution in the World of TV Comedy, by Chrissie McDonald

Sid Harta Publishers (2003), Paperback, 290 pages

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Delightful mish-mash of a book, written by a devoted fan with more enthusiasm than skill, but I loved it. The story of how “alternative” comedy developed in the UK, from stand-up comedy presented by university students in the main, rebelling against clean-cut family comedy, to the first tentative efforts on TV, leading up the show that is regarded as the progenitor of alternative comedy, The Young Ones, and its spiritual successors, Comic Strip Presents, Filthy Rich and Catflap, and Bottom, and the other shows which followed in the same vein, including Blackadder, Red Dwarf, French and Saunders, Ab Fab and the Vicar of Dibley. I did love the Young Ones. It exploded on me during my first stint at university in the early 80s, and its impact has never left me. I credit the Young Ones equally with Gary Larson’s Far Side for developing my particular love for twisted, dark humour. This book captures the feeling I, and many others, had on first seeing the Young Ones, it just blew our minds with its outrageousness and free-wheeling trashing of sacred cows. Nowadays, when that sort of thing is now mainstream, its hard to realise just how revolutionary the Young Ones and its successors were at the time, but McDonald captures that feeling very well. As well as being a fun book to read, it is also very useful, as it contains full synopses of each episode as well as trivia and interesting facts and the story behind the making of every episode. As I said, there’a lot more enthusiasm than skill in the writing of the book, it sprawls over each page and jumps from tangent to tangent with dizzying fervour, it’s very much a paean of devotion to the shows, but it is a fantastic read and a must for any fan of these shows. It brought many wonderful memories for me, and I am eternally grateful to the author for having put this together. It will have a special pride of place on my bookshelf.

9/10

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Empty Mansions

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, by Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell Jr.

Ballantine (2013), Paperback, 496 pages

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Absolutely enthralling story about which I had previously known nothing. Huguette Clark was a product of America’s Gilded Age, the daughter of a mining magnate whose fortune rivalled that of Rockefeller and other giants of the time. However, Huguette lived on in to the modern era, a reclusive relic of a bygone age, spending the last 20 years of her very long life sequestered in a hospital room, while even her own relatives were unsure if she was still alive. Meanwhile she maintained vast estates and grand houses around the country which she hadn’t visited for decades, but still kept staff under strict instructions to keep them cared for and ready for use. After her death, an unseemly squabble erupted over the disposal of her $300 million fortune, between the descendants of her father’s first marriage and her coterie of friends, carers and sundry hangers-on to whom she generously bequeathed vast sums. In this sense the book drags on just a little too long, it could probably have benefitted from being 100 pages shorter. While the examination of Huguette and her family’s early life is fascinating, the  later pages become  a rather tedious rehashing of her various eccentricities and  the efforts of various individuals to get their claws into large chunks of her fortune. It’s all somewhat tawdry and rather sad, and tends to dissipate the  solid image provided earlier of a woman of refined taste and profound artistic sensibility, who chose her own path through life and appears to have enjoyed it thoroughly. You can’t help but like Huguette, despite her eccentricities, she appears to have been a warm, generous person, kind to her friends and relatives, which makes the ending of the book seem even sadder. Still, it is a worthwhile read, as a portrait of America’s Gilded Age and its extravagance and excess, it is spellbinding. At a hundred pages less this would been an outstanding book, still very good and highly recommended.

8/10

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The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

HarperCollins, (2001), Paperback, 1137 pages.

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I feel somewhat embarrassed to be reviewing a book I’ve already read many times and is one of the best-known works of the modern era. However, my brief to myself on writing this blog was to review everything I read, no matter how old or well-known and no matter how many times I had read it previously. Having thus neatly trapped myself (something I realised about halfway through reading it), I am therefore committed. Not that it’s a trial to review this unsurpassed work of genius, the second best-selling novel ever written, although it is a trial to find anything to say that hasn’t been written many times before.  I was introduced to LOTR quite late, having read The Hobbit at high school, I didnt find it within me to tackle LOTR until university. However, when I did finally get around to reading it, its impact upon me was profound. Apart from awakening my love of fantasy writing which has never left me, it is just such an epic story, based upon one of the oldest literary tropes in existence, the quest, that it can’t fail to leave the reader unaffected. The book’s underlying theme, that the most insignificant of us has it within ourselves to achieve the impossible, is truly inspiring. Despite the fact that the book deals with themes of quite horriffic evil, despair, death and destruction, it remains always profoundly upbeat, something many subsequent fantasy writers have seemingly found difficult to comprehend or copy. It is also compellingly honest in dealing with its characters’ failings. For example, Frodo’s failure at the last to destroy the Ring of his own volition shocked me deeply when I first read it. It seemed so out of keeping with the nature of the quest for the hero to fail in such a  dramatic fashion at the very moment of climax, and then for there to be no conclusion whereby the hero redeems himself. Tolkien masterfully leaves this very understated, but the brutal fact is that Frodo did fail, and the Quest was only saved (albeit inadvertently) by the most despised character in the book. I have no doubt Tolkien intended this to reinforce his message that the least among us is capable of the greatest deeds. I believe that it is things like this that have given the book its appeal and grip upon the public imagination. I must also mention the other thing which grabbed me when I first read the book, which is Tolkien’s incredible massive backstory. One of the key reasons this book is so gripping is simply that it reads like this is a real world, with a rich, incredibly detailed history, a whole book’s worth in its own right. What other fantasy work comes with such incredible appendices, worthy of any academic work, that give minute details of language, origins, history and fill-in details. Its shouldn’t be any surprise, really, since Tolkien was an academic, and he knew that such attention to detail, to have accurate references to back up his arguments, was essential to having academic work accepted by his peers, and he applied that same principle to his fiction. But it still doesnt make this incredible backstory, something so comprehensive that it has been often studied in its own right, any less amazing. For me, any way, it has always been one of the outstanding features of this work, and one that separates it definitively from its many imitators. There’s not a great deal more I can say about this great work that hasnt been said many times before. Suffice it to say I found it as arresting on the 1oth reading as I did on the first. Nor can I put in a recommendation to read it, since everyone has either already read it, or otherwise has been living on Mars for the last half-century, or simply doesn’t want to read it, in which case any recommendation from me would be doubly pointless. It is simply among the best products of the human imagination ever put to paper. There is nothing more to say.

10/10

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Ancient Libraries

Ancient Libraries, edited by Jason Konig, Katerina Oikonomopoulou and Greg Woolf

Cambridge University Press (2013), Hardback, 497 pages

9781107012561

The most treasured item in my library, for the purely selfish reason that my very first published work is within its pages. Yes, on the contents page, seventh on the list, you will see “Priests, Patrons and Playwrights: Libraries in Rome before 168 BC”, which is indeed my very own effort. In September, 2008, I travelled a very long way, to St Andrews in Scotland, to attend a conference entitled “Ancient Libraries”. I was then a PhD student, working on a thesis which would eventually be entitled “Roman Libraries during the Late Republic and Early Empire: with Special Reference to the Library of Pliny the Elder”, so you can probably see why I did want to travel a long way (and spend about $2500 of my own funds, over and above the $2000 the University of Queensland generously contributed for my travel) to attend this conference. In fact, once I had heard about this conference, I was determined to get there by any means possible. Given the topic of my thesis, I simply had to be there. Not only do conferences specifically related to this topic come along about once every Ice Age, but every authority in the field, everyone whose papers I had been reading in the course of my study was going to be there. So, after about 6 months of skimping, saving, promising, wangling, arguing and cajoling, I found myself on a plane to Heathrow. Then, the Tube to King’s Cross. Then, a train to Edinburgh. Then, another train to Leuchars. Then, finally, a bus to St Andrews. Planes, trains and automobiles, literally. (I got major kudos from those at the conference for having travelled by far the farthest, by the way). But it was so worth it. The conference was fabulous, the papers were interesting in the extreme (don’t laugh, if you are interested in ancient libraries, they would be), and I got to rub shoulders and converse with all the authorities in the field. It was priceless in every sense of the word, in an academic sense, and as a life experience. Presenting my own modest contribution, I hardly remember. To my mind, it was simply dwarfed by the superb papers which I heard, and which are contained within these pages. However, for better or for worse, because I happened to present at a conference attended by so many luminaries, my modest contribution has actually been published (think of a minnow getting caught in a net with a whole school of bluefin tuna). About it, I will say nothing more, you can judge for yourself. About the book, I could say a great deal. But simply, it a priceless collection of material on the subject of libraries in the ancient world, not a truly exciting topic, I will happily grant you. But precious, bceause it is unlikely there will be such a collection of material on this topic published again, at least not in my lifetime. It’s by no means an inexpensive book, so I doubt anyone will be buying it for pleasure. However, if by some chance you happen across a copy, perhaps in a university library, I highly recommend that you at least skim its pages. You may just find something that interests you. And if you do conjure up the funds to purchase it, you be assured of having something in your possession that will only appreciate in value, in academic if not monetary terms.

9.99/10

(Come on, I can’t give it a 10, can I? No-one would believe its a valid score, given my level of self-interest, would they?)

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The General

The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved, by Jonathan Fenby

Skyhorse Publishing (2013), Paperback, 736 pages

indexdegTwo treasured books in my collection are Alan Bullock’s massive dual biography of Hitler and Stalin and Roy Jenkins’ marvelous biography of Churchill. Now I have added another biography of a war leader to my library, and while I don’t believe this one is in the same class as Bullock or Jenkins, it’s a worthwhile and informative read. I must admit prior to reading this my knowledge of De Gaulle’s life was limited to the Day of the Jackal and various stereotypical images of a very tall and very arrogant French general. I have now found that those stereotypes were true – De Gaulle was very tall, and he was very, very arrogant. I was somewhat suspicious when I first saw the title for this book – speaking about “The France He Saved” led to me to believe this might be a whitewashing hagiography of De Gaulle by an adoring Francophile. Thankfully I was quite wrong, and I now believe the title was intended to be slightly ironic. Fenby is quite unflinching in his warts and all portrayal of De Gaulle. While De Gaulle’s good qualities (strength of character, patience, determination, patriotism and devotion to his family) are all faithfully recorded, De Gaulle’s failings (monumental arrogance,extreme egotism, total lack of loyalty and gratitude to anyone other than family and long remembrance of grudges) are also pitilessly exposed. Indeed, he does such a good job of this that I found myself in the rare position of finishing a biography feeling more negatively about the subject than I had previously. I really have to say that after reading this I do not like De Gaulle. While acknowledging his heroism and determination during the war years, and his touching devotion to his family, particularly his daughter Anne, who had Downs Syndrome (this was not something of which I was previously aware, and his tenderness with her is really affecting), my overwhelming feeling was annoyance and occasionally fury. I suspect readers will pick and choose their own particular beef with De Gaulle, for myself, as an Anglophile, I was particularly incensed with De Gaulle’s contempt and disdain for Britain and the US, in fact Anglophone nations in general, despite monumental sacrifices made by them on France’s behalf in two world wars. Gratitude and loyalty (except to family) simply was not part of De Gaulle’s nature, and time and again, Fenby frankly records De Gaulle’s contemptuous discarding of people who had served him loyally, sometimes for decades, because it served his purpose at the time, Georges Pompidou, De Gaulle’s long-time Prime Minister and eventual successor, being a very notable example.However, personal feelings aside, this is a an excellent read, involving and informative. The pacing is good, the author not allowing it to become bogged down in minutiae yet not skimping on information where it is required. While I do not believe this biography has the real academic substance to be considered definitive, it is an excellent introduction for those like me. who knew little about De Gaulle or indeed modern French history as a whole beyond the stereotypes. Enjoyable.

8/10

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