Monday, 12 October 2020

BOOK REVIEW - Archangel by Robert Harris

 

 


Yet another book set in Russia, what has got into me?

As you might expect from Harris, this is a solidly researched and gripping thriller. There is plenty of local colour - almost enough to make this useful as a travel book! The places that the action covers are beautifully described with bags of detail and background. The situation in Russia at the time this was written  is well described. Even to the point of predicting the rise of a native hard man to power well before Putin came along.

The story line is good with plenty of twists and turns along the way. And the action is very much driven by the characters of the main players - which is not always the case with political thrillers. I particularly liked Mamantov, the old-style Communist hard man. A real thug, but astonishingly well drawn and his actions through the book, while apparently background, are driven by his character and as the plot unfolds turn out to be absolutely central to the final outcome. It must be said that the final few pages of the book came as a surprise to me, and I had been paying attention.

A great thriller.  

Monday, 5 October 2020

BOOK REVIEW - Raputin's Shadow by Raymond Khoury


 

I quite enjoyed this book. It is a pacey little adventure thriller with twists and turns, good characters and exciting chases and intriguing puzzles. All very good. Mind you, the plot had a number of holes in it and a few non-sequiters. In part this might be because I have not read the previous books in the series, so what seemed to me to be an odd plot dead end might actually make total sense if you've read the series.

Anyway, the writer did a good job of making me care about the main characters. Even the villain was a great creation. In fact I felt quite sorry when he got his comeuppance, as I was rather wishing that he would escape and get away with his dastardly plotting. He should have been kept available to make a come back in a later novel in the series. Oh well.

My main complaint was about the Rasputin element. Every now and then we slipped off for a chapter or two taking place in the early 20th century. These were supposed to be giving us helpful background information on the mysterious MacGuffin, but in fact is rather unnecessary as the fugitive scientist does a pretty good job of describing it towards the end of the book. I wonder if this book began as a straightforward thriller, but at some point somebody decided that it needed a mysterious historical element chucked in - and they hit upon the idea of Rasputin having used the MacGuffin a century before the current villain does so.

Never mind. Ignore the Rasputin stuff and this is a cracking adventure novel.


 

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

BOOK REVIEW - 41 Years in India by Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts of Kandahar

 


Fantastic!
This is the autobiography of "Bobs", as he was known, Frederick Roberts, the 1st Earl Roberts of Kandahar. I'd known of Bobs from other military books, but did not really know a huge amount about his life and career.
The book was written in the 1890s and clearly draws on diaries or letters written at the time. Nobody could have a good enough memory to produce this wealth of detail without such sources. The author seems also to have had access to government archives as he sometimtes quotes proclamations, letters and other official documents.
As with any book written so long ago, the author assumes that the reader knows all about things that were common knowledge in his day, but not now. So you will need to know the difference between a nabob and a nawab, a maharatta and a maharajah. Also, a map of India would come in very handy indeed. Plus a short guide to Prime Ministers and other leadering politicians of the 2nd half of the 19th century would come in useful. Plus, of course, he shares the views and opinions of men of his time - which may seem rather out of date today.
That said, this is a fascinating book. For a start it is a gripping tale of high drama, military escapades and political intrigues. Event follows event, drama follows drama with breathtaking speed. He skips often long periods of time with some quite short sentences along the lines of "I spent the next three years in garrison duty, but then was sent to command..." Great. No let up in the frenetic pace of action.
He arrived in India just before the Indian Mutiny, so a lot of the first part of the book is all about that upheaval. He covers a lot of ground that is familiar to historians - the chapattis, Mangal Pandey, Meeerut, Cawnpore etc - but most of it is composed of his personal adventures and his own observations on the causes and course of the great rebellion. All very interesting.
The book is filled with a huge variety of anecdotes and human-interest stories - albeit of a robustly male kind. The old man carrying a sword who Bobs saw by the side of the road as he was leading a column up to Afghanistan. He turned out to be a retired soldier who wanted to rejoin now his regiment was marching to war. How a mountain gun could be taken apart and carried on mules. The touchiness of officials from the independent states over official gifts, and the difficult matters of precedence about who sits where at a dinner.
The book is a real treasure trove of information about India in the later 19th century. Religion, food, social castes, industry, agriculture are all here, so are social mores and customs.
He also gives a lot of insights into how India has changed from when he was first there [the 1850s and 1860s] compared to "today" [the 1890s]. This usually revolves around transport and medicine.
If you see this book, grab it with both hands.

And read it!

Monday, 28 September 2020

BOOK REVIEW - The Centurions by Damion Hunter

 


 A great book. This is a cracking adventure novel set in Ancient Rome and on the German frontier. There are battles, political intrigue, personal feuds, love interest and enigmas aplenty. If you like a good adventure, this is for you.

At first I worried that the central plot line would come across as artificial and silly. A pair of half-brothers - one a wealthy nobleman and the other the bastard sone of a slave woman - had the potential to be schmaltzy. In the event, the author carried it off very well. The way in which the kinship came about, the way the brother grew up and the method the father found to seek reconciliation were all perfectly credible and believable.

The secondary characters were all well drawn. The German leader is a great character with loads of potential, much of which was fulfilled in this book. The German slave woman was particularly credible with all her hang-ups and character flaws. Even the nomadic trader who was in the book for only a couple of chapters was well drawn with a good back story. In fact, I can't think of a single character who was not utterly credible and well drawn.

The story line was pretty good too. I won't give anything away, but there are twists and turns right up until the final page. And while this story is complete in itself, it sets things up nicely for the next book in the trilogy without leaving so many loose ends that it becomes annoying.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

BOOK REVIEW - "Trilby" by George du Maurier

 


I found this to be a very odd book. I enjoyed it, but in places it did rather lose me. If it were not for the fact that it was so well known, and by du Maurier the elder I'm not sure if I would have stuck with it. As it is, I'm glad that I did and would urge you to make the effort to read this book.

It is very much a book in two halves, separated by some 6 or 8 years. The first half is primarily about three young British artists living in Paris in the 1850s. One of them - Little Billee - is phenomenally talented. A second, Taffy, is competent. The third, McAllister, is hopeless and sells few paintings, but as he is rich that does not matter. They share a large studio which is the centre of the social life for themselves and an assortment of neighbours and hangers-on who gather there to lunch, dine, chat, drink and generally pass the time of day.

It must be said that in this first half of the book - around 150 pages in my edition - not much happens. We meet a wonderful array of beautifully described characters. Among these is Trilby, of the book's title. She is a Franco-Irish model who poses for the three artists, and others. Rather amusingly when we first meet her it is when she comes along to pose her feet for a painting, and the novel spends over 2 pages describing her feet before we learn anything else about her. Also among the character is Svengali, a rather sinister chap. Of course, I had heard of Svengali and his evil powers, but in this first half there is littlesign of that. He is a somewhat slinky and unsavoury character but no hints of what is to come.

There are also soldiers, cooks, laundresses, musicians, bakers, cleaners and a host of others. This section also gives some wonderful descriptions of the city of Paris and life within it during the 1850s. Though, as I say, not much happens. And everyone is happy.

The second half of the book is very different. The three artists split up to go off and do other projects, then come back to Paris a few years later on a sort of vacation. This is when things start to happen. I won't give anything away, but this is a very much darker Paris. The old city is being swept away to make way for boulevards and the bourgeoisie. The generally working class characters from the first part, successively die or fall on hard times. Trilby becomes very much more the focus of the tale, and her story becomes increasingly tragic and melancholy as her involvement with Svengali increases. By the time we get to the end of the book nearly everyone is either ruined or dead. Though one character remains happy and prosperous.

It is well worth a read and is beautifully written. Enjoy.  






The Danish Armed Forces of 1940

 

 


General Pryor commanded the Danish forces in 1940.

 

Although Denmark was at peace in 1940, the outbreak of war in Europe did have some effect on the military state of the nation. The professional army of some 7,000 men was supplemented by another 7,000 conscripts, and they were now put through rather more in the way of military training than was normal. The units were also dispersed to locations where they might be of use should an invasion take place.

The army was organised into two divisions. The First or Zealand Division was located on the island of Zealand, mostly in or around Copenhagen. It consisted of the Royal Life Guard Infantry Regiment, the Guards Hussar Cavalry Regiment, the 1st, 4th and 5th Infantry Regiments and the 1st and 2nd Field Artillery Regiments. The 2nd or Jutland Division was based on Jutland and comprised the Jutland Dragoon Cavalry Regiment, the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th Infantry Regiments and the 3rd Artillery Regiment. The Danes had no tanks and no heavy artillery.

 

The Danish air force consisted mostly of patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, but there were also 8 bombers, 2 torpedo bombers and 15 fighters. The entire air force was based at Vaerolose near Copenhagen. Pryor had given orders that the air force was to disperse so that the aircraft were scattered between four different airfields. Ironically the date on which the move was scheduled to take place was 9 April.

The Danish navy was under the command of Admiral Aage Vedel, born in 1894, and had nearly a hundred vessels. Most of these were small boats tasked with patrolling fishing grounds, but there were a few larger vessels such as minesweepers and torpedo boats. A handful of destroyers and cruisers of antique vintage also existed, but they were hopelessly obsolete.

 

 


 

 

A Gloster Gauntlet fighter. Most of the fighters in the Danish Air Force were Gauntlets. With a top speed of 230mph and an armament of two 0.303 machine guns these aircraft were hopelessly outclassed by those of the Luftwaffe.

Tactics at the Battle of Falkirk 1298

 


At Stirling Bridge, Wallace had deployed his men in the revolutionary tactical formation known as the shiltron. This was a circular formation of about a thousand men which could move slowly without losing order. When attacked by cavalry, the men on the outside of the shiltron knelt down and braced their spears against the ground with the sharp points projecting outward. This formed an impenetrable hedge of spikes from behind which the rear ranks could thrust at enemy cavalry. The previously unstoppable charge of heavily armoured knights could thus be halted.

At Falkirk, Wallace again deployed his main body in shiltrons, formed up on the slopes in front of Callendar Wood. The few cavalry he had were placed behind the shiltrons and the archers interspersed in pockets among and between the shiltrons. His plan was to lure the English cavalry into charging against the shiltrons where they would be halted by the spears, shot down by the archers and then tumbled into defeat by a counter charge from his own knights. With the English knights defeated, Wallace hoped, the rest of the English would retreat as they had done at Stirling Bridge. To further ensure the charge of the English knights was disrupted, Wallace placed his men behind a small burn which had marshy banks.

The tactics of the various elements of the English army would be much the same at Falkirk as at Stirling Bridge, but with one crucial difference. Up until this time it was usual to spread the archers evenly through the army and rely on their skill at aiming to shoot down enemy troops. But Edward had been listening to his commanders who had been defeated at Stirling Bridge and he knew the key to victory was to defeat the apparently impervious shiltrons.

 Edward reasoned that the shiltrons were invulnerable to a traditional charge of armoured knights, but only so long as the infantry formation held firm. Once the formation was disrupted, a cavalry charge would succeed. He knew that the archers at Stirling Bridge had tried to pick holes in the Scots ranks, but had failed. Edward decided to try a new archery tactic.

 He ordered his Welsh archers not to bother aiming at individual enemy soldiers at all. He reasoned the shiltrons were so closely packed with men that an arrow hitting roughly the right area was bound to find a target. Edward told his men to concentrate on the speed with which they could shoot, not on accuracy. Then he bunched his archers into large formations of over 2,000 men each. So many men shooting rapidly in the same direction would create an ‘arrow storm’ which would lash an area of ground like a sudden storm of rain.