My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It is, was, an extraordinary story, no matter how you look at it. The author is related to someone, who, when young in the 1930’s, was effectively forced to flee Germany and settle in England. Because he was, as you’ve guessed, a Jew. The story comes to light, to the author’s attention, after his relative, Hanns Alexander, has died, as Hanns himself, seems not to have liked talking about the story all that much.
What is the story? Well, the other ‘half’ of it, relates to Rudolf Höss, who was, for the main part of its existence, Commandant at the Aushwitz concentration camp(s) complex. They are born in Germany at roughly the same time, grow up, go to school and, well, for all intents and purposes, at this point, in the days before and even just after, the Nazi Party’s rise to power, have the same possibilities in their lives ahead. However, for obvious reasons, their lives take very different paths.
The two men’s lives are re-told in some detail and the book alternates between the life threads, based on periods. The story is presented in a clear, matter of fact, this was how it was, style, but not commented on by the author. No ‘ooh, look this is horrible’ or ‘this is normal.’ It is unavoidable, of course, for the reader. As it should be, if you’re getting what he intends you to get from it, I guess.
What did I get from it? Well, you’ll probably be as interested as I was in reading this, to form your own opinion(s). If you’re looking for historical perspective, warnings to now, ‘must never happen again’ passages, you won’t find them. Of course, a fair bit of everyone’s focus is, always has been, how could they do this? But that’s looking at the German people now and wondering if they have it in them. Rudolf Höss is pretty normal, for Nazi Germany. The way I see it, all he was doing, in his view, was solving a problem, being presented with another problem, solving that, moving on. As I got from his own comments, he really didn’t see anything abnormal about it, but you have to consider that ‘normal’ was in a different place back then, back there, in those circumstances. And once you’ve been doing something, getting away with it if you like, for a while, that becomes ‘normal.’
The story is of course, that Hanns, joins the British army and is instrumental in tracking down and capturing Rudolf. Their lives are intertwined from start to Rudolf’s finish. It is a really interesting, well-put, engrossing book. Important in the way of being totally aware of what went on back then, and how. The why, is up to you. Thoroughly recommended.
Buy Hanns and Rudolf at The Book Depository
Me, on Goodreads
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am going back in time by reading this one. I was lucky enough to be sent (the latest as it was at the time) The Black Stone, which was actually number four in the series. I’d seen the name and some of the covers before that, but not got onto reading any. But having been solidly impressed by TBS, I’m making up for lost time by starting (again) at the beginning with The Siege.
And maybe time-travel is perhaps not at all a bad metaphor for me to use for this review. As Nick Brown certainly has a knack for bringing the period, the landscape and the characters to convincingly vivid life. We’re back in 270 AD, on the eastern edges of the Roman Empire and as with all the best books, the story is a deceptively simple one. The main character – and of the subsequent novels of course – is Cassius Corbulo. He is just 19 as the book begins, straight from officer training, he is sent to command the Roman forces who find themselves in the path of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra’s rapidly advancing forces. And they’re not happy. Not with the Romans anyway. The Roman forces Cassius is sent to command have been lacking a Centurion and discipline and the usual Roman efficiency has suffered accordingly. Problem is, Cassius isn’t a Centurian yet. But he thinks it best not to let his forces in on the secret just yet. He faces an uphill struggle to convince the Legionary veterans that they should take orders from a beardless ‘boy,’ ‘Centurian’ or not and a lot of the story is about Cassius trying to win them over and prepare them to face the Palmyrians – or at least hold on until the Roman reinforcements can arrive to save the day. Though, Cassius isn’t sure they’re coming. Another little secret he has to keep from his men. What Cassius is, if not an actual Centurion, is a ‘Grain Officer.’ An ‘agent of the Imperial Security Service. An independent wing of the military, the Service had been established during the time of the Emperor Domitian. Originally concerned with the supply and distribution of grain to the legions, it’s officers were spread far and wide across the Empire.’ They seem to be a mixture of spy and Internal Affairs. And ‘the Service’ are disliked by the ordinary soldiers. So understandably, Cassius would rather the men under him did not find out too much about that little secret either.
The ‘Siege’ of the title, develops rather like the Roman version of The Alamo, if you’ve seen the John Wayne film. I did, at times, think it read a little like a western. The new Sheriff sent to sort-out a run-down, lawless town, in a lawless area, etc. The Wild West. Except here, it’s the Wild East. If you’re a Roman, West if you’re a…, well, you get the picture. The soldiers need convincing that running away and hiding isn’t their best option, no matter how much more attractive that might seem to be when compared with taking orders from a suspiciously youthful Centurion. There are old-soaks who’ve seen it all before, there are trouble-makers, there’s a very interesting Praetorian Guard character, who is trying to obliterate his internal pains by staying drunk (we’ve all done it), but who Cassius thinks may hold the key to the fort’s forces’ survival. There are good-guys who seem like they can be relied on and there are quite probably spies lurking here and there. Then, all the time in the background, there’s the ever-nearing, unavoidable date with destruction, in the shape of the Palmyrians coming inexorably closer. Something’s got to give and Cassius is determined it isn’t going to be the Romans, not on his watch.
As the book progresses, so does the character of Cassius. He starts out, as we all would no matter how much training we had behind us, scared shitless and decidedly unsure if this was the right career choice. He develops slowly, as experience only comes with time in the job – not something he has a lot of just now. But, you can see he is already on the way to developing the instinct to do the right thing at the right time in the right situation. The real key to survival in the Roman army, I’d think.
As I say, this is the first in the Agent of Rome series. It is now five books long and was clearly imagined to be a quite lengthy series. Nick (I feel I can call him Nick now) gets straight down to the business of this book’s story – and the action – rather than spend ages giving scene-setting and/or background, that we pick up along the way. Which is as I like it.
So, if you want to be transported back to 3rd century eastern Roman Empire, then I can’t think of better place to start or finish, than Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series.
Buy The Siege at The Book Depository
Now, See how this book fits in my Historical Fiction Timeline.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I must admit to having been more than a little non-plussed by this one. I did, against my usual better judgement, quickly see a few very good reviews before I read it. So my disappointment was multiplied accordingly.
Problem is, the politics down Cairo-way, is so buggered-up, so fluid, that no one knows what on earth is going on. Not least the people actually involved. And the people not involved, are all on the way up here now. It’s not that no one on the outside can possibly understand, it’s that those on the inside don’t, or won’t, or can’t understand (or all of the above) what needs to be done. Those on the outside can see sure enough what needs to be done, but those on the inside won’t listen – because we ‘don’t understand.’ So, we’ve more or less said ‘OK then, have it your way…’ and we stop bothering listening, being interested in, or caring about them. Until they turn up at our door. Why should we bother to find a solution, when it’s plain that no one down there wants one and that there actually isn’t a solution. So, to set a book down in north African/Arab politics, you’ve really got to have a bit more to get me worked up, than some interesting observations and a plot hinging on possible CIA meddling. Which may be leaks, maybe concerning the internal politics of a post-Gadaffi Libya. It needs a lot more to it than just they might, possibly have had a game-plan that they, or someone else, might just possibly be setting in motion. That sort of rumour and half-misinformed speculation happens every day, in just about every other ‘thriller’ you look at nowadays. And anyway, anything that goes right down there, is Allah’s will, anything that goes wrong, it’s the CIA’s meddling. Or Israel. You know it.
I think really he should have concentrated on any internal strife or conflict caused by back-stabbing within the USA and/or CIA, rather than trying to whip up interest from Eastern Europeans and Americans meddling in places they really shouldn’t. Actually, I can’t think what he was hoping I’d come away from it all with. There is some interesting stuff about the old Yugoslavia, the tensions that bubbled under the surface there, that were only kept in check by a ruthless dictator. And comparisons with what young Olen seems to (my interpretation) be suggesting is a similar situation developing out of the ‘Arab Spring’ (I’m pretty sure this was written before the fall of Gaddafi) and after the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, where volatile, pressure-cooker countries are/were only kept in check by ruthless dictators…
The book’s stylistic concept, of back-tracking over events and time, to see that event from another perspective and hear other views, is interesting enough. However, if you took all the double vision and backtracking out but one – even the one with the most page-time – you’d be left with a very short book, with a very slight story. What, with all the various views left in, we have got, is a decent-length book, trying to cover up a rather slight story.
I suppose you could argue it’s about trying to build your own future, but finding it difficult to impossible to free your feet from the clinging quicksand of your country’s past. But even that isn’t exactly a first, is it?
It promised much, the whole way through, but in the end, delivered very little. It’s an ok concept, but one that makes a book more concerned about getting the concept to work on paper, than making sure it’s a good story under the style.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Another history of the Vikings? Do we really need another one? Well, yes, if they’re as good as this one.
This is an easily digested, engrossing, reads like a novel, time-line history. No darting about, not too long on one area, no frills history. I thought it was pretty good. I thought it read like it had been written to try and bring the Vikings to a new, younger generation, though without dumbing down any. If you’ve read other Viking histories (as I have – and plenty), you’ll already know a lot of this. But there is a fair bit of new information. However – and maybe for the paperback – I would say that we now know that sunstones are a thing.
The real value of non-fiction books, I often feel, is found in the back. The appendix which lists all the references contained in the book proper. At least in general non-fiction books, like those on Vikings. Because you’re not really expected to plough through from start to finish. Well, maybe so, but they do seem written with the expectation that you’ll return to them time and time again, when something sparks your interest elsewhere and you think “I wonder if that book on the Vikings has anything on that…”
Unless, that is, you’ve found a book dealing with a specific part of the Viking story. Vikings in America, for instance.
Also it was strange, not to mention irritating, to see where I now live written as ‘Jutland.’ In case you were wondering, it’s Jylland. Home of the Vikings.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If not the most pointless of all wars, certainly the most pointless that killed the most people. Can’t argue with that. What you can argue with, what I thought emerges from Max Hasting’s look at the first few months in the lead up to and the first few months after the start of the First World War – is what caused it. But then, I thought, the ‘what caused it’ angle is something we’ve all become too accustomed with, living in the 2000’s, maybe. We’re all looking for the smoking gun the whole time, for someone to point at and blame. There are no accidents anymore, someone must be guilty/responsible! It couldn’t have ‘just happened.’ Well, from this book, I’d say the First World War did just happen. Everything was in place for something to happen, and equally as many people wanted and looked forward to something happening, as didn’t.
Problem was, they were the wrong people, looking forward to the wrong war, the wrong reasons at the wrong time. A 19th – even 18th in some cases – Century war, fought in the 20th Century. With the wrong tactics, the wrong weapons and the wrong ideas of how to put it right. Everything that could go wrong, did. However, the people for whom it was a ‘Catastrophe’ weren’t those who wanted the war, they were those who it was decided, should fight it. Certainly there are here tales of silly officers committing ‘glorious’ suicide by charging 20th Century machine-gun posts on horse-back with sword drawn…but, the world is better off without fools like that, than with them in charge. They were doing later generations a Darwinian favour.
Before the war, it seems alliances changed and shifted the whole time. It’s hard to keep track of sometimes – me reading and them at the time. Stepping back, he seems to say that Germany’s ambitions for dominance and empire were already being achieved through their growing industrial and economic dominance. They didn’t need a war. But the under-employed, old-fashioned ruling class, certainly did. To ‘clear the air.’ Britain seems almost reluctantly drawn in, and countries went to war because it was either expected of them, or their allies were going to war. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, well…there was really no saving them. So many years of in-breeding has never bred a bigger bunch of arrogant, out of touch idiots masquerading as buffoons ever. It doesn’t feel right though, to even try and make light, or fun, of those in charge (as ‘Blackadder’ did, to my annoyance and contempt at the time, I’d like to point out). Because their arrogance and ineptitude and failure to realise that the world had turned and left them behind, on both sides, resulted in people, the enemy and their own, hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands of people, dying.
Another book on the first world war I’ve seen, but not read as yet, has it about right for me, after reading Catastrophe, called it’s called Sleepwalkers. They didn’t really seem to know where they were going, and were completely un-able to stop. Seems silly to say that? Can’t believe it? Read the book, you’ll agree with me.
The marshalling of facts and evidence here, is again (after reading All Hell Let Lose), is astounding. He has some team of researchers out there, does Max (as there’s surely no way he has the time to go finding every little nugget presented in his books). But the final pulling together, the links made, the ease of reading and understanding, is – even in my limited experience of his works – all Max and always to be admired. I bet even his shopping lists are a wonder to behold. He is looking at, presenting, the situation that lead up to war and then the process of the first few months. The book stops as the trench-warfare that would come to dominate and stagnate the majority of the war, is beginning. Max always seems to let you draw your own conclusions, his style, to me, never seems to present his version, though it must, as he is determining what to include or leave out. But I never, ever get the feeling he is saying ‘look, this is why.’ I feel like I have come to my conclusions. I did, however, enjoy his taking the ‘War Poets’ down several pegs. That was good.
There was, as I say, no ‘magic bullet’ so there’s no point in looking for one. If you know what happened at the end of WWI and/or have read any about the start of WWII, you’ll know that the war to end all wars, was the fuck-up to end all fuck-ups, that started the next one. The lesson there for the learning, was how to stop the thing happening again. But they didn’t and it did.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A superb end to a simply wonderful series. A marvellous end to the book. Happiness tinged with sadness. Tragedy and hope. It didn’t really feel like a goodbye.’ An au revoir, hopefully. Though that’s probably me wishing it, rather than it actually being so. And yes, he saved the best for (the) last (two).
As the book begins, it is three years since the second war to end all wars ended. But the world feels for many just as unsafe as it was. Perhaps more so. The series’ ‘hero’ John Russell and his old espionage ‘friend’ and part-time Soviet controller, Shchepkin find themselves sinking deeper and deeper into the new world of spies and mistrust, as the two new world powers let paranoia about each other override any thoughts of justice and retribution for the people who suffered most. The ordinary man and woman in the street, wherever that street might once have been in Europe, are just as expendable in the new Cold War as they ever were in the ‘old’ war. Russell and Shchepkin reach the conclusion that there is probably no escape for them, or those they care for, not alive anyway. Unless, that is, they can find a secret about one side or the other, to use as blackmail. They know plenty of secrets, of course, but the people they know secrets about, also know secrets about them. It needs to be a big one, a huge one, a secret so potentially devastating, that it would be worth leaving them alone to pay for. If they survive long enough after disclosing it, to use it, that is.
I don’t think there’s been a deep message to be got from the Station series. David Downing hasn’t been on a cliched anti-war, anti-Nazi, anti-conflict, mission. That’s for us to read in maybe. The things I take from the series are maybe the triumph of spirit and that people, no matter where they come from, are fundamentally decent at heart. That war affects every side differently, but in the end the same. There are no winners, the human race loses. Masaryk Station, in summing up the series that has gone before it, is about betrayal. Of people, each other, of ideas. It’s about starting to build your own future, because no one else is going to do it for you. Certainly not the Big Powers, as here. They say they are, but they can’t be trusted with the future and certainly not with yours’. Universally relevant wherever you find yourself today, it’s about all sides being let down by their leaders, elected and unelected.
Despite (obviously) being written by an English (speaking) writer, the series has been remarkably even-handed and non-judgemental. You draw your own conclusions, if you want to. Obviously, the events and atrocities will speak for themselves, however, they can be open to interpretation, however you want to interpret them, depending on which side you were or are. There were no winners, nothing was solved by 5 years of war and 40-odd million dead.
It’s impossible to pick a best book of the six Stations and would be wrong to even think about trying. Could the series be returned to? Yes. Should it? That’s a whole other question.
Masaryk Station especially and the series as a whole leaves me with sadness, hope, tragedy, happiness, possibility. Leaves me with a smile on my face and hope in my heart and glad that I travelled with David Downing, John Russell and Effi Cohen.
Click on the cover for my reviews of the previous Station books. The covers are to the paperback versions I have. Yes, I got the wrong Zoo Station. Irritating.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Corners of the Globe is the second in Robert Goddard’s The Wide World trilogy and it definitely shows all the signs of a master of the genre at work.
I think I was perhaps fortunate to read this coming off the back of another mid-series masterwork (too many ‘master’s there – Grammar Ed), The Bone Tree, by Greg Iles. I’m actually not quite sure how that works or even if it matters, but it felt like a hell of a good period to be a reader while I was on the go with those two anyway. Like (the brilliant) The Bone Tree, this is so much more than just a mid-series book, with much more going for it, and with a development of character and unfolding of plot that you don’t always find in book two of threes. Though, it has got to be said, as with TBT this is so much a part of the series as a whole (you can see that even though both are ‘only’ mid-way as yet), that you really can’t and shouldn’t take them out of the series. What I mean is – if you haven’t read the first book, go do it now. Then read this. It must not be read on its own. Or in isolation, or before number one, or after number three. You’re not doing yourself, the series or Robert Goddard any favours otherwise.
The story starts (or continues from book one – you choose) in 1919. Former WWI flying ace, James ‘Max’ Maxted, the son of Sir Henry Maxted, whose murder in Paris while attending the negotiations after the conclusion of World War One, starts the whole story rolling in book one. It was Max’s refusal to take the ‘accident’ at face value that got him into trouble with the authorities, German spy rings and his family, in the first place. Here, his troubles are largely his own work. Max seems to be working for the feared German spy-master Fritz Lemmer, a man who has his fingers in more pies than he has fingers alright. He has something on everyone, he’s everywhere and there when you least expect him. As Max finds out, almost to his cost several times. Max thinks Lemmer is the key to finding out the truth about not just his father’s death, but about his father and is sent up to Scotland to the Orkney’s to where the German High Fleet are interred. His mission is to recover a document containing secrets Lemmer is desperate should not fall into his enemy’s hands. Who, Lemmer decides, is now Max. From this point, it’s desperate and dangerous and ‘look behind you!’ stuff, which if you’ve seen or read The Thirty-Nine Steps, will have you go all misty eyed at the sheer unpredictable, nail-biting, gotta read on brilliance of the whole thing. That is, if you can tear your eyes away to wipe them.
Each new piece of information Max discovers, only seems to reveal that there are many more pieces to find. And they don’t know what the final picture should look like, but there’s something there, something in the background, something casting shadow over the whole that is just tantalisingly out of reach. Everybody seems to know more than they’re letting on. Especially the dead.
Max was a good character to start, here he is developed perfectly. Thoughtful, resourceful and – fittingly – often flies by the seat of his pants. As in book one, there is a strong supporting cast. Sometimes, Max seemed more of a link, the catalyst, than the main character, even if it all in the end, revolves around him and his father. He sometimes feels like he should know the whole, if he can just see the link asometimes while being the centre, seems to know less than those around him.
Ends that were loose from the first book, are tied up here and other ends are loosened in preparation for book three. Perhaps it is not as complicated or viscerally shocking as The Bone Tree. Perhaps more subtle and understated, though absolutely no less exciting and gripping.
An indecently good book. I can’t wait for the final instalment, neither should you.