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Review: Conquest

Conquest by Stewart Binns
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is probably going to be seen as a guilty pleasure and I have glanced at reviews which would suggest it is quite possibly not all that cool to say (a bit like admitting to thinking The Da Vinci Code was one hell of a rattling good and enjoyable read, which is was, you know it), but … I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Yes, I can see what is wrong with it, but as a whole, it holds together nicely, and with a relatively unobtrusive style and is an all round rattling good tale.

Of course, I’ve come across Hereward several times. Several recent book series have featured the 11th Century Fenland Terror. James Aitcheson has had him in his tale. James Wilde has written three, soon to be four, excellent novels based on him and his exploits, real or imagined. The brilliant Marc Morris, in his The Norman Conquest non-fiction look at the people who brought you 1066 and all that, mentions Hereward several times and provides a good look at all the facts, the few there are, about him, as well as mentioning some of the more speculative stories. Whether you come from other books to Marc’s book, or go from there to other Herward stories, you can see that (amongst others) the two James’ do at least touch base with what is ‘known.’ As does Stewart Binns here. However, and perhaps even more than James Wilde (at least until I’ve slapped some peepers on #4 ‘The Wolves of New Rome’), he picks up the Hereward ball and runs more than a little further with it. Wilde and Binns both seem to agree on Hereward’s struggle with his anger issues, but they solve them in different ways. I don’t think James Wilde has his Hereward at Senlac Hill, nor does James Aitcheson. Their Herewards only really come front of stage in the period after Hastings. I think both Binns and Wilde are also implying that Hereward, real person or not, is possibly the source for the later development of the Robin Hood myth. Something that possibly Robert Holdstock might like to comment on (if he hasn’t already done so and quite honestly, after struggling through the stream of consciousness nonsense that was most of Gate of Horn, Gate of Ivory, I finally let him go his own way) in a ‘Mythago Wood’ novel. I don’t know.

The story begins, perhaps surprisingly, in the mountains of Greece. To where the heir to the Eastern Roman Empire, travels in search of enlightenment from a legendary old warrior, now turned hermit. Turns out, the old warrior knew the Prince’s father, fought for him in the Varangian Guard. The warrior is now 82, but instead of giving the Prince the One to Ten of what to do, tells him a story, from which he can draw his own lessons from. It is the warrior’s life story.

You’ve guessed by this point, that the old hermit, is Hereward, though he does seem to have the name Godwin for some reason. He begins telling his story from his wild childhood days, through his rebellious youth, to adulthood and maturity, through many of the period’s historic milestones his lifespan has encompassed. He was, of course, at Hastings and tried to rally the English forces thereafter, but had to, in the end, leave and travel abroad.

There are several nice touches. Here, Hereward has to persuade a reluctant Harold to take the throne. Where Harold actually sympathises with Edward’s position and therefore, William’s claims. You can see, with some of the incidents that go on in Harold and Hereward’s time in Normandy, where some of the tactics they would later use against William, come from, for instance. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence for any of the above, though if I remember rightly, James Wilde does have Hereward on the continent before Hastings. Here, Edward, on his deathbed, makes Harold his successor. Again found in other books and history. After the rebellion dies out, Hereward agrees to go abroad (James Wilde has his Hereward meeting William, but only after the battle, Morris says there is a legend that they met), to save England from further turmoil and anguish at William’s hands, but that could be blamed on Hereward.

As a whirlwind tour of the period’s hotspots and big names, in Britain and (the rest of) Europe, it is undoubtably a great read. Some of the people he meets, may be stretching it a little, but then I don’t know enough about (for instance) Spanish folk-law to comment with any certainty. In that respect, it read a little like Tim Severin’s Viking trilogy, just crammed into one book. Severin has one Viking journeying to all the places associated with the Vikings’ history, meeting most of the big players and generally living the fullest life imaginable (another excellent read/guilty pleasure if you’re one of the costumes and corset Ancient and Medieval Historical Fiction lilly-livers elsewhere on Goodreads). Maybe this is like that but on steroids, having to pack it all into one book and all. And it can feel a bit mechanical for that. Like he had to check all the names and places of his list and he was damned if he wasn’t going to get them all in! The stuff about a mystical talisman too, I could have done without. Never liked fantasy elements creeping in to what essentially wants to be read like a true story. Takes it all on a bit of a seers and sages trip. It’s better when it has even its tenuous grip on reality. But, people of the time believed in all that and the One God to rule them all hadn’t replaced the touching of wood to ask for the help of the spirit who lived in that wood … still hasn’t really, has it?

So, it gets a solid three stars from me. However, it gets a fourth star solely for mentioning, on several occasions (starting on page 385) the Bishop of Aarhus. Why? Well, that’s the town in Denmark where I now live! Cool, eh? It is Scandinavian’s oldest town, I read today, though in Viking times, was called ‘Aros.’ However, I haven’t checked when the name changed, so I can’t call young Stewart B. on it. Not that anyone would know where a town called ‘Aros’ was…hmm…not that namy people know where Aarhus is, so much of a muchness.

Leave your ego at the front cover and enjoy a good romping read. I for one will certainly be getting hold of the next in what I think is a trilogy. These sort of things usually are.

Oh yeah, read the dedication at the start. A very interesting, quite possibly unique, sentiment. I’ve not come across its like before. Proves his heart’s in the right place, whatever you think of the rest of the book.

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Review: Out Of Exile

Out Of Exile
Out Of Exile by Luke Preston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Luke Preston’s first Tom Bishop book, Dark City Blue, was excellent. Out of Exile is (in my view) better, much better. Dark City Blue was like reading the Quick Start Guide to a killing machine. Lots of bullet point passages. Often literally. The bullets, that is. Out Of Exile is more like the Tom Bishop Owners Manual. Dark City Blue was full-out, full-on, no stopping for passengers, no prisoners taken-style novel writing. Make no mistake, this is still a book that shoots first and says ‘oh, shit!’ later, but it’s more. More nuanced, more developed, more subtle (!) and more exciting and satisfying for it.

We know now that we’re in Australia. I could figure that in DCB, but here it’s named. Melbourne, Australia and we’re in the company of the Victoria Police Department. Or some of it anyway. When the book starts, Tom Bishop is in prison. He has been for a while. Not surprising – from the authorities’ point of view, that is – after the trail of death and chaos he left behind at the end of ‘Dark City Blue.’ However, even at this early stage, warning lights should go off for the reader who has read Dark City Blue. We were with Bishop on his ‘rampage,’ remember? From our point of view, what he was doing, wasn’t a ‘killing spree’ for the sake of going on a ‘killing spree’. It was Bishop trying to protect his family and himself and sorting out some people before they sorted him out. Getting his revenge in first. So, that he is in prison for it, still in prison for what happened, should tell you a little of what and who he is obviously up against here.

Then, in the dead – again quite literally – of night, someone, somewhere, wants him out of jail and back on the right side of THEIR law. Except, the right side of the law isn’t easy to tell from the wrong side. In Out of Exile, the lines are, as ever, more than a little ‘blurred’ – especially when Tom Bishop is around. Someone wants Bishop back on the street, right or wrong side of the law, but would rather not have too many other people know about it. Rogue Cops want ‘justice’, want to be left in peace to continue their corrupt ways and not have to be bothered by trifling matters like Internal Affairs investigations. So it all goes just that little bit wrong and both the ramifications and body counts, mount up. To the top. Of the Police force. But the Police’s top brass are, unfortunately for Bishop, more concerned with their image than his justice. Too bad. But then, Bishop isn’t the only one making the wrong assumptions here. He, like us, thought ‘Justice’ the criminal mastermind, who was actually a Police mastermind from Dark City Blue was no more. Mainly because Bishop had killed him. Boy, was he wrong. ‘Justice’ seems to be sill at large. ‘Large’ being an appropriate description for the amount of money that is being skimmed off the top (bottom and sides) of the Victoria Police budget.

It is an ingenious plot, it must be said. Our Luke does like dumping his Tom Bishop character in the soft and smelly. From a great height and up to his ear-balls. Then saying “OK, get out of that!” I’m sure he sets up situations for, the long-suffering (and I do mean ’suffering’ and ‘long’), Tom Bishop, where he doesn’t know how he’s going to get Bishop off the hook. In fact, I’m surprised Bishop hasn’t turned round to Luke and said “Enough is ENOUGH!” and stuck one on him. Maybe he has. Maybe the rest of the book is Luke’s revenge. But it’s what makes Bishop such an interesting character. He is put upon, but he doesn’t ask for or want our sympathy. He wants to get on with his life. He wouldn’t bother anyone, if they didn’t bother him. I’d have to hold back from calling Bishop a ‘hero’, or even an ‘anti-hero’, he’d probably beat me to a pulp – if I was lucky. Bishop is actually a pragmatic realist. He sees things how they are, says what needs to be said then does – what he can – that needs to be done. Often, it’s the right thing, but occasionally…

So, that’s clear, then: Bishop is dead, but he isn’t. Justice was dead, but isn’t. The Police are on our side, but maybe they aren’t. And then…just when you know where the plot is – it disappears. With a turn you probably won’t see coming, but one that fits and works and elevates the book further above its predecessor and the majority of others in its class.

All in all, fantastically addictive. I read it so quickly, I was more or less held spellbound. I forgot to take notes and had to read it again, just to make sure. I’ve not done that before.

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Review: The Rule Of Four

The Rule Of Four The Rule Of Four by Ian Caldwell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is gonna be easy: Bollocks.

Long-winded, convoluted, meandering, unnecessary, “me-too” bollocks at that. I can only surmise that the people quoted at length on the back cover, who really ought to know better, have been blinded by the dazzling array of ancient scholars poets and painters mentioned inside. As usual, they seem to be describing a book they may well have read, but that, with the best will in the world, isn’t this one. It certainly isn’t “one part The Da Vinci Code’, one part ’The Name of the Rose.” That’s up the top on the back there to say “you’ve heard of Da Vinci Code’, but are too intellectual to read it? Well it’s ok to read this, cause we’ve put ‘The Name of the Rose’ at the top as well!” !t isn’t. It wants to be, but isn’t in the same ball-park, however your opinion of the two other books is.

It is a very dull book about another very dull book. A ‘real’ book it seems, with a very nearly unpronounceable title. One I can’t be bothered going all the way over there to find. One that some Princeton students have decided they can decipher. Not that I could find any reference to anyone ever deciding it actually needed deciphering. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough. It’s perfectly possible. But what’s Wikipedia for, if not to save you the trouble of deciding if anyone has ever felt it needed deciphering and wasn’t actually just a load of dull old crepe?

Can I be bothered reciting the plot? Well, if there is one, it tries to maybe be about obsession. But I really got beyond caring. It really doesn’t connect. Tries to, obsessively, but misses. The obsession caused by at least two of them going them very nearly going doo-lally trying to decipher the book, sliding around Princeton in the snow, missing deadlines, fumbling relationships, setting fire to the college library and all that student-type jazz. As with all American novels, of what ever genre, involving four students, each is a unique, borderline genius in his own way (of course). Though (of course) with troubled backgrounds. But they’re, navel-staring, indecisive characters that really aren’t all that interesting, no matter how many scarves they wear.

(And why can’t there be a normal, struggling through, only ever understanding their college years, years later, average intelligence, bloke, in any of these things? US authors always seem to think it’s more convincing if they have characters who are absolutely, exceptionally, brilliantly talented at something – or many things – and then try to suggest they are also ordinary, because they stay up all night researching, wear tatty clothes and forget to eat for days. I wore tatty clothes because I hadn’t two brass farthings (Hey, I remember Farthings!) to rub together. Mainly because I’d spent the rest on BEER, but that’s another story).

Back to the name of the book inside the book. What a mistake that was! There can’t be anyone who has read the Da Vinci Code bit on the back and then The Rule of Four who hasn’t tried to pronounce the ancient book’s title a couple of times, given up, then skipped over every mention thereafter. It means you at no time connect with their obsession. You should be able to understand their obsession, by connecting with it. But if you glaze over at the mention of the book’s name, how can you come past that to connect with their problems? Can’t be done. Nope.

In its early stages, it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Where it wants to go. Actually, I never felt it came to a proper decision there. A quest to decipher a code becomes an in-depth look at rich kids’ student life at Princeton. Clearly, their editor nudged one of them and points to the supposed premise of the story and yells “get on with it!” No surprise it’s written by two of them. One must have gone on holiday at points during the writing, then couldn’t be bothered reading what the other had written when he got back and just carried on with his section where the other left off. And no, the Princeton stuff isn’t good background setting, it’s padding. It’s there to say to US readers: “Hey! We’ve got somewhere equally as snooty as Oxford and Cambridge!” That’s all. Then, towards the end, realising one of them has written too much about staying up late at Princeton, the other decides to finish it (and you) off with page after page (after page) of explanation of what the unpronounceable book supposedly leads to. And where. Always a bad sign, as I’ve noted elsewhere. Shows they haven’t done their job well enough earlier on. And it does go on and on. A couple of pages would have been more than enough. Once it’s clear what it is the book leads to, whilst hiding it from ‘the unworthy’, I’ve lost interest. As, I suspect, the ending shows the authors had too.

A waste of time. Mostly mine. At least they got paid for it. View all my reviews

Review: The Lion and the Lamb

The Lion and the Lamb
The Lion and the Lamb by John Henry Clay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set in a period I knew very little about, The Lion and The Lamb I found to be in the end, an excellent book, instantly engaging, really well written and a thoroughly good investment of my – and your – time and money. OK, I got it as a Christmas present, so of my friend’s money. But I digress…

It is set during what seems to be the latter days of the Roman occupation of Britain, AD363, to be exact. This is Britain in the final years before Rome finally withdrew all her soldiers. When the Roman Romans, were getting set to abandon their British project, and the British who’d become Roman, were beginning to get worried. That part doesn’t play a huge part in most of the book, but I felt it was an essential and well played undercurrent, especially as there come more and more ‘outrageous’ barbarian attacks along the coast. That the ‘barbarians’ are the enemy and invaders and are essentially the descendants of the people who were conquered by the Romans when they invaded, is an ironic delight.

The story follows Gaius Cironius Agnus Paulus and his family. They are from a British tribe, but are full-blooded British Romans now. After what could be called a ‘misunderstanding’, Paulus flees their home in (what is now) southern England, gets ‘press-ganged into the Army and is sent north to Hadrian’s Wall. A punishment sees him sent even further north, where amidst the corruption and treachery, he finally sees the light, as it were, and realises he needs to return home, whatever the consequences. Along the way, he meets an Irish slave girl, Eachna, herself with a somewhat disrupted family background, in its own way not too dissimilar to his and they journey south to confront barbarians, his family and the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ attitudes of the southern Romano-British society. Phew! If all that reminds you – minus the fighting of Barbarians – of some of Jane Austin’s work, then it did me too. There is, especially with Paulus’ sister and her attitude to what is and what isn’t important and how you do something feels more important than what you are doing, something of the Emma here. And that’s a good thing, in my book. Think Jane Austin, set in Roman times. But with more balls. And not the dancing kind.

It was a change perhaps, from the Roman epics I’ve been reading of late, in that it isn’t bristling with battles – but it was a refreshing change. In looking at the attitudes, morals and lifestyles of the rich and famous Roman Britons – trying to be more Roman than the Romans sometimes – you really do get a feel for a country about to have the certainty of how their lives have been for the previous 400-odd years, removed. Not knowing, as The Clash once so eloquently put it; Should I Stay or Should I Go?

If I had to pick holes, and I feel I have to, one thing that did irritate me, was the switching between the two areas of the story. One chapter with the son up north, the next with the family down south. I can see why he would do it, but by a little over half way, it’s became a little forced, mechanical and risked becoming a distraction. Fortunately, he managed to pull it back from the brink in the final third and that, packed with intrigue, tension and flow, made the book as a whole.

It reminded me in many ways (and not just because of its British setting) of Douglas Jackson’s Rome’ series. The first in the series, as that is set in Britain, anyway. The same instant engagement and ease of story telling. If you’ve been reading any of the first three in Anthony RichesEmpire series (as they too are set in northern Britain, but some 180-odd years earlier), this could well be seen as the antidote. A really pleasant break from the full-on, hard living, hard drinking, (and in Anthony Riches’ stories) hard-swearing, epics I’ve read a lot of just lately. I still love them, but I think I can appreciate this all the more for having come away from them, and will appreciate them all the more when I come back from this. If you follow?

It’s also well worth staying on for the Afterword and Historical stuff. Very interesting to see how delicately he’s woven his tale in and out of the available facts.

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Review: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Spy

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Spy
Twinkle, Twinkle Little Spy by Len Deighton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“There’s often a world of difference between what things mean, and what they are supposed to mean.”

This is only going to be a short one (“phew!”), as even though it was by the (otherwise) great Len Deighton, it really didn’t connect with me in any meaningful way. I don’t feel as though I’ve ever really got to know the two main characters. Nor any of the minor ones. I never really felt attached to them in any meaningful way.

A Soviet (we’re back on the Cold War period here), is defecting (rather than defective), as – he says – he wants the freedom to search for life on other planets. The intelligence officers handling the defection, have other ideas and are looking carefully at him, wondering if he might be a plant. Or is it his wife? The main man on ‘our’ side is an American, with a British intelligence officer playing the stooge, his number two. Things go all kinds of wrong, of course, and the story goes racing over from the Sahara, to the US, Paris, Dublin and then ends up back in the Sahara desert. I think you’re supposed to think the Englishman, is ‘Harry Palmer’ from ‘The Ipcress File’, etc. I didn’t realise that until I read something about it afterwards. So that didn’t make much of an impression, did it?

For all the blurb on the jacket (of the hardback, Book Club Associates version I have) about it revealing ‘a more mature Deighton’ and it being ‘as compelling as it is tantalising’ nothing you could tie it down to or point to in the text, it really wasn’t either. It was a strangely slight tale that was was there and then it was gone. Short, but really not so sharp. Or particularly sweet.

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Review: Stettin Station

Stettin Station
Stettin Station by David Downing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It must be hard to write any kind of book, fiction or non fiction, set in or around Germany during the Second World War and not at some point come up against the situation of whether ‘they’ knew about what was happening to the Jewish population. The ‘hero’ of David Downing’s wonderful ‘Station’ series (you really don’t have to read on any further now, do you? You can guess this is going to be (another) good review, eh?), John Russell has, as in the previous two books, both become aware of something of what is/was happening and has tried to help. That’s not to set him up as an example of being better than ordinary Germans – mainly because he’s English/American – he’s just offering his help, such as it is, to people he knows, in a time of great need. As I’m sure anyone reading these books would hope that they would, were it them in his position. In Stettin Station, it looks like he is going to find out where all those trains full of Jews leaving Berlin railway stations in the dead of night are going and why. It seems fairly certain that a lot of people, ordinary people, knew something was happening, but the ordinary person didn’t/couldn’t see the whole picture/realise the whole horror of what was being done in their name. They knew people were being taken away and didn’t come back. They perhaps didn’t believe they were being killed as the reason for them not being seen again. Indeed a lot of Jewish people thought their friends were being resettled, happily in the east. They often had postcards from them saying how happy they were as evidence.

But how does Russell report what he knows?

Stettin Station begins in November 1941 and John Russell is still clinging on to his journalism job, reporting to various American and English newspapers, on goings on – officially and unofficially – in the German capital. He can’t abide or believe the official announcements he and his fellow reporters are fed by the German propaganda ministry, but he daren’t rock the boat too much or he’d risk being kicked out of Germany (if he’s lucky) and thus losing contact with his girlfriend and his son Paul. German troops have blitzkrieged their way to the gates of Moscow (the ‘Gates of Moscow’ are mentioned so often in the books I read on WWII, I’m guessing there were actually once some gates at the start of Moscow city limits?) and look both imperious and unstoppable. As unstoppable as the United States’ entry into the war looks too – Pearl Harbour happens during the book’s timeline. This will mean Russell must leave, or stay as a ‘guest’ of the Reich. Either eventuality will take him away from those he loves most. Through his film star actress girlfriend Effi, we see how the upper strata of German society functioned. Through his son Paul, a German youth being indoctrinated as all German youth were, we see how the regime worked from the bottom, up. Russell is in an unenviable position. Though as he realises more and more, the people who would envy his position are those Jews on the trains heading east. Those who actually arrive wherever it is they’re going, anyway.

It is almost a waste of time trying to review these John Russell and Effi Koenen books, they’re all uniformly excellent it would seem. ‘Stettin Station’ is absolutely no different. It is an amazingly rich and detailed glimpse back at life in Berlin in the Second World War. Lord only knows how David Downing has amassed such knowledge. History books will tell you what happened and when, but these books tell you what it felt like and how ‘normal’ life sounded, smelled, touched and tasted. It goes far beyond ‘information’, it is the knowledge of someone who was there at the time. Or has invented time travel. It is as if he himself has only recently returned from Berlin in 1941 and is writing the stories whilst the experiences are fresh in his memory. You feel you can almost reach out and touch Nazi riddled Berlin of 1941. But you are also perhaps very glad you can’t.

It’s quite extraordinary and no mistake. Brilliant book, incredibly good series. Buy them. Read them.

(The question of whether the ordinary German in the streets knew what was going on, is looked at here, partly though John Russell’s late night meetings with his contact at the railways. The question has also cropped up in at least one of the pervious ‘Station’ books. It is pretty clear – to me at least – that the books’ position is ‘yes’, they knew more or less what was happening, but chose to look the other way, giving the Nazis prone to the worst excesses, carte blanche. For an idea of how much the Allies knew and when they knew it, you should head in the direction of Martin Gilbert’s Auschwitz and The Allies or the incredible The Holocaust also by Martin Gilbert).

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Elsebeth Egholm book signing

Went to Kristian F Møller, a bookshop down in the centre of Aarhus yesterday, where the very wonderful Elsebeth Egholm was signing her new book ‘Kød og Blod’ (flesh and blood).

Managed to have enough of my wits about me to remember to speak Danish to her and have her put the date on the book as well.
Great stuff!

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