Tuesday, 18 August 2020

BOOK REVIEW - Templar's Acre by Micahel Jecks



This is a long and rambling novel. While I enjoyed it, I thought that it was a bit overlong for the story line. It could have been shortened a bit without losing anything.

One thing that I did find slightly disconcerting is that this book is a prequel to a series of books that I have not read. When some characters were introduced they were clearly much more important than some others in the book. I assume that this is because they are in the later books [chronologically] in the series. People who have read the books written earlier will think "Aha, I know this chap. He is the one who goes on to do whatever it is he does". But not having read the other books this was all a bit lost on me. Never mind. I guess most people reading this book will have read the other Templar books by Michael Jecks and will be fully on board with it.

The book successfully conjures up the lost world of the crusades and of the military orders. It manages to convey the contemporary attitudes to religion and religious warfare without being condemnatory [which must be a temptation] nor portraying the monastic killers as being overly heroic. We learn a lot about the attitudes of the men and women of the time - on both sides of the divide.

And it is a gripping story with numerous twists and turns. I really must look around for more in this series. 

BOOK REVIEW - HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean


Crikey - What a harrowing read!

I picked this book up second hand in a charity shop for 50p. I grabbed it only because it was a MacLean novel that I had not read before. It is an early edition and at the time I did not realise that it was MacLean's first novel.

The book is based on his own naval experiences on the awful Arctic Convoys to Russia in the Second World WAr. I can only hope that his own war was not as terrifying and doomed as the events of this novel.

As the title might suggest, the novel followed the course of a voyage by the cruiser HMS Ulysses [a fictional ship] as it escorts a convoy of merchant ships from Iceland to Russia. It concentrates on the ship and its men - other vessels, people and aircraft are there in supporting roles only and rarely get much mention unless they impact directly on HMS Ulysses.

The ship is very well described. The weapons and abilities of the ship's radar etc are very well documented - certainly good enough for any naval buff to feel that they are getting a clear description of what it was like on such a ship. The characters of the men - and they are all men - in the book are very well drawn. A couple of them might veer towards cardboard cut outs, but by and large the men are strong and believable figures.

Of course, we all know that the Arctic Convoys were awful. During the war my grandmother was a newly married young mum. Because her house had a spare bedroom they often had homeless waifs and strays billetted on them. I remember she once told me about a merchant ship captain that they had stay with them for a few weeks after his home in some dock city had been bombed. This captain went on an Arctic convoy once. Grandma said that he told her that the Germans were the least of his worries - it was the sea and the weather that were the real enemies. And this book backs that up with its vivid description of a terrible storm at sea. Mind you, if the convoys were as bad as this book makes them out to have been, it is a wonder that anyone survived at all.

A great war novel, by a great writer.  

BOOK REVIEW - Rome's Sacred Flame by Robert Fabbri



This was, in many ways, a great historical adventure novel. I confess that I have not read of the other novels in this series so I came to this book about halfway the overall story arc. Fortunately the main character is Vespasian - well-known Roman Emperor so it was fairly easy to place the book in the story line of his life.

What the author seems to have done is to take what is known about Vespasian's life in this period before he became emperor, and then weave in fictional characters and events to make for an exciting action book. He has done this well.

I found the book to be well written with believable characters and a great story line(s). The action scenes were well done, and trotted along at a good pace. Certainly a  cracking holiday read.

On the other hand, there were a few oddities. The book is written in four parts, with each part being a self-contained story. A couple of characters carry over from one part to another, but not the story lines. The third part seems to be the conclusion to something that happened in an earlier novel in this series. I found that unsatisfying as I could not really follow what was supposed to have happened in the earlier section.

My only real historical criticism here is that the author has included just about everything bad that was ever written about Nero. This makes him an entirely negative character. Fair enough, I suppose, but I have always wondered how Nero got to be so popular for so long if he was that bad. And the sources were all written by his enemies after his death.

But I quibble. This is a jolly good read. Enjoy it. 

Sunday, 16 August 2020

BOOK REVIEW - Patrol to the Golden Horn by Alexander Fullerton

I enjoyed this book. It must be said that I have always been a bit hazy about the war against the Turks in World War I. Other than Galipoli I have never really looked into it, so this book was as much an education as a diversion.

I read "Thunder and Flame" by this same author many years ago. So long ago that when I bought this book I did not realise it was the same chap. But this is now the second book by Alexander Fullerton that I have enjoyed, so I will have to look out for more.

The book really comes in two parts. The first two thirds is all about the submarine warfare in the eastern Med and Sea of Marmara in 1918 - as the war for Turkey was drawing to a close. I had no idea the fighting was as savage and widespread as it was. This section is well written and fast paced. The chracters are well drawn and believable. There is also a fair amount of techinical detail about submarines of this date which I found interesting. There was no asdic and no radar, nor any bomber aircraft operating, apparently, so much of what we are accustomed to read about submarine warfare in WW2 is not present.

The second and shorter section is all about the espionage war in Turkey, the internal politics of the Ottoman Empire and the peace negotiations. All jolly enjoyable and a cracing little adventure story in its own right. But, in my view, it was weaker than the naval part of the book. The plot line was a bit far-fetched in places while teh supposed cliffhanger was no such thing as we know that the main character survives to star in the next book in the series. Nevertheless, quite a serviceable ending  to the book.

If you have never read any Alexander Fullerton, but enjoy war novels, then buy this book. It is a good read.

BOOK REVIEW - Wetherley Parade by Richmal Crompton


I bought this book second hand as I have read other books by this author and enjoyed them. But I'm afraid that I just could not get on with this book. I gave up about half way through.

I found the writing style to be rather prissy, for want of a better word. It was all very proper and reserved. I struggled with the characters. I suppose partly because the author told us what they were like rather than allowing us to work it out for ourselves. And some of it seemed rather formulaic. The teenage boy at public school and his friend who styed in the village. The loyal, dutiful wife and the errant, wayward sister. The returning hero. And not much seemed to happen.

I guess it is more about style and setting than story. You might like it, but I did not. A shame really, as I loved Just William.

Saturday, 15 August 2020

My VJ Day Story

I was not alive on the first VJ Day, but I used to know a man who was. His name was Arthur and I knew him back in the 1980s when he was an elderly man. 

Arthur was the caretaker, security guard and odd job man at the little business estate in Surrey where I was working for a publishing company - one of my first jobs. Arthur was well past retirement age, but he had taken the post to keep himself busy. He was often pottering about touching up paintwork, caring for the bedding plants or helping with some task or other. When he wasn't busy, he was always to be found in his "Tool Room" reading a newspaper while drinking tea or smoking some foul smelling cigarette. He was always friendly in a reserved sort of a way, happy to gossip about people he knew. I remember that rain or shine he always wore a flat cap. 

Anyway, one lunchtime I set off to walk into Guildford to get a sandwich - it was only about a ten minute stroll. Arthur came with me. We chatted about this and that - I can't really recall what but perhaps a recent football match, Arthur loved football. 

A car pulled up alongside us and the passenger window was rolled down. A man with obviously Far Eastern features poked his head out asked in strongly accented English "Excuse me. Could you tell us the way to Guildford?"

Now, as it happens the road on which the car was driving led straight to Guildford High Street, it was about 400 yards away round a corner. I was about to say so, when Arthur bent down to peer in through the open car window at the three men inside. 

"Are you Japanese?" he asked. 

"Yes," replied the man. "We are from Japan. We go to Guildford for business."

"Right," said Arthur standing and glaring at the man. "Well, you found your f***ing way to Singapore. So you can find your f***ing way to Guildford. Now p*** off." He stared at the man until the car drove off. Then Arthur spat into the road. "Bastards!" he said with great savagery, turned and stalked off back the way he had come. When I got back he was not in his Tool Room, nor did he show up until the following day. 

I learned from speaking to some of the older hands at the little estate about Arthur's history. He had been in the Royal Navy and had been captured by the Japanese at the Fall of Singapore in 1942. After being held in a prison in Singapore for a while, Arthur and others were put on a ship and taken to an island somewhere to work as slave labour. The savage treatment handed out by the Japanese led to numerous deaths from hunger, disease and casual violence. Summary executions were common. Month after month passed, with no word from the outside world. Suffering and death were constant companions for Arthur and his dwindling group of comrades. One by one they died in agony. 

Then the tempo of violence suddenly increased. Food rations fell, brutality increased and executions became more common. The work ceased, and the survivors were locked into the prison camp for days on end. Arthur and his comrades were convinced that the Japanese guards were going  to kill them all. 

But one bright morning a truck load of men arrived at the prison gates. They were American soldiers who had come to announce that Japan had surrendered. 

It took Arthur months to recover from the mistreatment handed out to him by the Japanese. When it was recovered, he rejoined the navy. He later got married, took a job ashore and ended up in Guildford so that he could live close to his son and his family. But he never forgot his wartime experiences. 

As I found out that summer's day on a walk into Guildford to buy a sandwich.