Review: Rise of the Wolf – Steven A McKay

5 of 5 stars

Series: The Forest Lord 3

My version: Paperback
Historical Fiction Robin Hood
Self published
2015
Bought

Sir Guy of Gisbourne is back!

Bent on vengeance against Robin Hood and with a turncoat new lieutenant in tow, an unlikely new hero must stand up for herself…

Yorkshire, England, 1323 AD

The greenwood has been quiet and the outlaws have become complacent, but the harsh reality of life is about to hit the companions with brutal, deadly force thanks to their old foe, Prior John de Monte Martini.

From a meeting with King Edward II himself, to the sheriff’s tournament with its glittering prize, the final, fatal, showdown fast approaches for the legendary Wolf’s Head.

New friends, shattered loyalties, and a hate-filled hunter that threatens to wipe out not only Robin’s companions but his entire family will all play their part in the Rise of the Wolf.

I think that in these days of writers being ‘brave’ and taking Robin Hood and changing him, it’s actually brave(r) to have a writer incorporating so many of the traditional legends into their story. Angus Donald took his Robin Hood very much away from the traditional, and thereby created his own legend. Steven, at least on the face of it, sticks more to the well-trodden forest paths of Robin and Sherwood (though, Yorkshire?). Which, as I said above, as we all ‘know’ what Robin Hood did and why, it’s surely easier to pick holes in a story that doesn’t quite serve up what we know, rather than one that goes a whole different way? Which is why, I think anyway, Steve’s choice is perhaps the braver. But he’s far from just up-dating the traditional tales for a 21st Century market. He’s having a good look at what made Robin into Robin Hood. If you remember the recent version of Casino Royale, James Bond spends the film going through the process of becoming James Bond. Only at the very end, when he says to Mr White ‘Bond, James Bondis he Bond. So it is here.

Robin is a young lad, from a strong family background, maturing into the role of outlaw leader, and father figure. For the family he’s come from, for the family of his own he is creating and for the family of outlaws he has assumed leadership of. Family, that’s the word. He’s maybe not trying to re-create what he had as a boy, or didn’t have, but to forge his own, with Matilda, with the other outlaws. With family of course come responsibilities. Which Robin has learned over time to shoulder. The bonds between family members also need work, need to be unbreakable – and that’s where his relationship with the outlaws is heading. It was started last time out with The Wolf and the Raven, here he warms to the task, challenged by old enemies and new problems.

As with the family theme, this isn’t just about Robin Hood and no one else. The rest of the characters defy their ‘minor’ role. They’re not just here to make up the numbers, or be beamed down with red shirts on… Especially the women. Those who were expected to stay home and mind the house, the farm, the cattle, the sheep, the harvest the food, while the men ran off into Sherwood and played outlaw. There needed to be very strong women characters in the Fourteenth Century, and Steven gives them to us. Giving Rise of the Wolf a whole new special edge for me.

It’s a very open and accessible Robin Hood. No, I’m not entirely sure what that means either. Maybe that the story telling style makes it easy to get involved in the story and get close to the characters. Understand them, their problems, their reasoning, their situation and their motives All in all, very easy to get all caught up in, caring way too much and fist-pumping at the ‘right’ result. Great stuff!

You can buy Rise of the Wolf in assorted formats, mainly at Amazon

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

Review: The Death of Robin Hood – Angus Donald

the-death-of-robin-hood-angus-donald5 of 5 stars

Series:
The Outlaw Chronicles 8

My version:
Hardback
Historical Fiction Robin Hood
Sphere
2016
Bought, signed

England rebels

War rages across the land. In the wake of Magna Carta, King John’s treachery is revealed and the barons rise against him once more. Fighting with them is the Earl of Locksley – the former outlaw Robin Hood – and his right-hand man Sir Alan Dale.

France invades

When the French enter the fray, with the cruel White Count leading the charge, Robin and Alan must decide where their loyalties lie: with those who would destroy the king and seize his realm or with the beloved land of their birth.

A hero lives forever

Fate is inexorable and death waits for us all. Or does it? Can Robin Hood pull off his greatest ever trick and cheat the Grim Reaper one last time just as England needs him most?

Well, if you can get to the other end of this book and still see to read the historical note, without blinking away the moisture that suddenly seems to be in your eyes, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

That feeling when what you’re reading transcends a genre to speak directly to your heart, some how managing to sum up exactly what you feel. I’ll never read anything better than those last few pages.

It’s perfection. It’s the only way it could have been. It’s fictional, yet it’s so, so real. I don’t want to read another book. I don’t want to be brought down to earth. I want to be where Alan is, with Robin and Little John, and Goody and Tilda and all of them. Forever.

I’ve been put through the wringer. Emotions welling up and unashamedly bursting out. Isn’t it strange what black ink squiggles on a white page can do to you? How just one of the infinite ways of arranging the words can strike you so perfectly. How one line can sum up all that has gone before in eight volumes and be so perfectly, fittingly final. How much you the reader bring to a work. How much an author unknowing of you and your life or current circumstances, can see in to your head and heart and write it for you to read.

I’m not ashamed to say I had to stare out the window, lost in the real and imaginary world and shed a tear for all those friends, real and fictional, now departed.

I thought that this review would pretty much be a review of the series as a whole, without too much specific about The Death of Robin Hood. I thought Angus had perhaps peaked with The King’s Assassin and the final, ‘old Alan’ passages of King’s Man (I think it was). Boy, am I wrong. Nothing can have prepared me for the absolute flawless final chapter of the series. Yes, I knew it was actually going to contain the death of Robin Hood (!) in one form or other and I had wondered how Angus would do it. I had a kind of scenario working away as I read. However, I’m a useless sod. I had no inkling it would be this way. This right.

It’s a lot of responsibility this book has, to round off a series as ambitious as The Outlaw Chronicles. It does it, it pulls it off and then some. I suddenly got more of an idea of how much Robin had really meant to Alan. And of course, how much losing him meant. And how much Alan meant to Robin. By saying “I will never leave you,” Robin neatly reverses what Alan has always promised his lord. Robin, behind the scenes, always, sometimes unknowingly, valued Alan much more than we ever realised and always had Alan’s back. Alan needed someone, some thing, to believe in all the way through. Of course, given the period, there was God, but he also always had his lord, Robin Hood. Robin also always believed in Alan. The two became one. And so, if Angus has done nothing else with his superb series, he has surely, for future generations – when they think Robin Hood, they also think Alan Dale.

A deeply moving book, and above all, a perfect end to the series. Heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, uplifting, hopeful, perfection. Could not be better.

You can buy The Death of Robin Hood at Booksplea.se

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

OutlawKing's Man 2The King's Assassin

The only list that mutters!

Well, it’s that time again, when everyone puts their list of best books of the year up, so I will too. They all put them up too early though, I wait until the year is actually over, if you’ve noticed.

So that makes my list that much better, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Anyway, in time-honoured tradition, here are all the books I finished last year, in the order I read them:

*You’ll note that they are books I read last year, not books that were necessarily released last year, though of course some were. Where I’ve got round to writing a review, click on the book title to go to the review page.

  1. The Templar Cross (Templar 2) : Paul Christopher
  2. Masters of Rome (Vespasian 5) : Robert Fabbri
  3. Crusade (The Making of England 2) : Stewart Binns
  4. American Assassin (Mitch Rapp 1) : Vince Flynn
  5. Good As Dead (Tom Thorne 10) : Mark Billingham
  6. Blood Tracks (Tess Grey and Po Villere 1) : Matt Hilton
  7. The Pale Criminal (Bernard Gunther 2) : Philip Kerr
  8. The Thunder God : Paul Watkins
  9. Hereward The Immortals (Hereward 5) : James Wilde
  10. Fire & Steel (King’s Bane 1) : C.R. May
  11. Kill Shot (Mitch Rapp 2) : Vince Flynn
  12. The Virgin of The Wind Rose : Glenn Craney
  13. Savage Continent. Europe in the Aftermath of World War II) : Keith Lowe
  14. Enemy of Rome (Gaius Valerius Verrens 5) : Douglas Jackson
  15. Cut and Run (Joe Hunter 4) : Matt Hilton
  16. A German Requiem (Bernard Gunther 3) : Philip Kerr
  17. The Templar Throne (Templar 3) : Paul Christopher
  18. The Double Game : Dan Fesperman
  19. Brother’s Fury (Bleeding Land Trilogy 2) : Giles Kristian
  20. Tripwire (Jack Reacher 3) : Lee Child
  21. Transfer of Power (Mitch Rapp 3) : Vince Flynn
  22. Hannibal. Fields of Blood (Hannibal 2) : Ben Kane
  23. Knight of The Cross : Steven A. McKay
  24. Blood and Ashes (Joe Hunter 5) : Matt Hilton
  25. Anarchy (The Making of England 3) : Stewart Binns
  26. Scourge of Rome (Gaius Valerius Verrens 6) : Douglas Jackson
  27. The Templar Conspiracy (Templar 4) : Paul Christopher
  28. The Maharaja’s General (Jack Lark 2) : Paul Fraser Collard
  29. Imperial Fire : Robert Lyndon
  30. Lionheart (The Making of England 4) : Stewart Binns
  31. The Third Option (Mitch Rapp 4) : Vince Flynn
  32. Rome’s Lost Son (Vespasian 6) : Robert Fabbri
  33. The Visitor (Jack Reacher 4) : Lee Child
  34. The Harrowing : James Aitcheson
  35. Keane’s Company (Keane 1) : Iain Gale
  36. The Far Shore (Agent of Rome 3) : Nick Brown
  37. Separation of Power (Mitch Rapp 5) : Vince Flynn
  38. Gods of War (King’s Bane 2) : C.R. May
  39. Executive Power (Mitch Rapp 6) : Vince Flynn
  40. The Secret Speech (Leo Demidov 2) : Tom Rob Smith
  41. Nemesis (Harry Hole 4) : Jo Nesbø
  42. The Count of Monte Christo : Alexandre Dumas
  43. Dead Men’s Harvest (Joe Hunter 6) : Matt Hilton
  44. Echo Burning (Jack Reacher 5) : Lee Child
  45. The Twelfth Department (Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev 3) : William Ryan
  46. The Wolf and the Raven (The Forest Lord 2) : Steven A. McKay
  47. Hannibal. Clouds of War (Hannibal 3) : Ben Kane
  48. Without Fail (Jack Reacher 6) : Lee Child
  49. The Furies of Rome (Vespasian 7) : Robert Fabbri
  50. The Templar Legion (Templar 5) : Paul Christopher
  51. Blood and Blade (The Bernicia Chronicles 3) : Matthew Harffy
  52. Memorial Day (Mitch Rapp 7) : Vince Flynn
  53. The Death of Robin Hood (The Outlaw Chronicles 8) : Angus Donald
  54. Consent to Kill (Mitch Rapp 8) : Vince Flynn
  55. God of Vengeance (The Rise of Sigurd 1) : Giles Kristian
  56. Terror Gallicus (Brennus. Conqueror of Rome 1) : C.R. May
  57. Red Templar (Templar 6) : Paul Christopher
  58. Dead Letter Drop (Max Flynn 1) : Peter James
  59. The Devil’s Assassin (Jack Lark 3) : Paul Fraser Collard
  60. Act of Treason (Mitch Rapp 9) : Vince Flynn
  61. Persuader (Jack Reacher 7) : Lee Child
  62. Iron & Rust (Throne of The Caesars 1) : Harry Sidebottom
  63. Agent 6 (Leo Demidov 3) : Tom Rob Smith
  64. Protect and Defend (Mitch Rapp 10) : Vince Flynn

Well, looking at that list, you can maybe see that my aim for reading in 2016, was to read as many of the series as I’ve got (the books laid in for, Mitch Rapp for example), or already begun, as possible.

I had intended on not starting any new series in ’16, but didn’t quite manage it. I’m going to continue to read up the series I have started, then get on to the one-offs in 2017. I want to be able to still read series, but read the latest book, as it is released. Not be behind the curve. Also, there are some really quite interesting one-offs out there, and in my collection, that I’d really like to get on to. I’m not against reading series or authors writing them, but I’d like to see an author or publisher take more of a chance on a one-off. It seems a given that any new author is signed if he/she has one book finished and two more sketched out. We need to get away from that, I feel. Get away from the feeling that book one is merely setting the scene for two and three and is stretched out further than it really should have been, the otherwise really just fine Harry Sidebottom’s Iron and Rust springs to mind in that category.

I also have a few Non Fiction books lined up that I’d really like to get on with as well.

My Goodreads aim will again be to read 52 books in the course of the year. I made it up to 64 partially thanks to

  1. Two doses of Influenza, one after the other
  2. Some enforced ‘use it or lose it’ holiday home alone while the wife slaved
  3. Listening to audiobook versions of some of the books I actually have physical versions of (I’ve recently moved from Audible to Storytel. Nothing against Audible as a service, just that Storytel gives me unlimited listening a month, for one flat fee, whereas Audible gives you one credit for your fee, after that you have to buy, or wait for the next month’s credit). I can listen to and from work in the bus, and while walking from the bus to work and back and…well, you get the picture

52 – 64 books read in a year is really about the limit for reading, appreciating, ruminating on and writing an honest appreciation I think. Anyone saying they’re reading more, isn’t really doing any one of those properly. And you can quote me on that.

And speaking of categories…

consent-to-kill-vince-flynnblood-and-blade-matthew-harffyThe Award for the ‘Most Improved’ Series Award
Sharing this award is:
Vince Flynn for The Mitch Rapp Series
The still unexplained ten year gap between three and four (or was it two and three?) apart, this series gets better and better. I noted that he seemed to be aiming to write the perfect thriller, he’s there for the last two I’ve read. The UK publishers clearly want you to think ‘Jack Reacher’ when you see the covers, but these are so much better.
Matthew Harffy for The Bernicia Chronicles
Well, if you read book one and then book three, you’d wonder if they were written by the same person. So either he’s got a ghost-writer, or he’s improved a hundred-fold in the space of three books. Personally, I’m leaning towards the former.

the-wolf-and-the-ravenAward for the ‘Best Series Based on the lyrics for Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like The Wolf” Award
Steven A. McKay for Wolf’s Head, The Wolf and the Raven, Wolf’s Bottom, Rise of the Wolf, I’m On The Ground I’m After You and many more.

 

the-death-of-robin-hood-angus-donaldThe Award for ‘Sad To See It End’ Series Award
Angus Donald for The Outlaw Chronicles
I’ve maybe had my doubts about this series a couple of times – too much of it set in France – but…Angus got his revenge in the best possible way with an absolutely magnificent final book. He’s gone on to new writing pastures and I’m still misting over thinking about the final scene in this book. Really, do yourselves a serious favour and read the series (in order) if you haven’t done so yet. Robin Hood lives!

the-furies-of-rome-robert-fabbriThe Award for the Most Consistent Series Award
Robert Fabbri for Vespasian
When I’m blown away by book seven in an on-going series and champing at the bit for the next one, you know the series has something good going for it. The Furies of Rome was nothing short of a masterclass in Historical Fiction, one more authors in that field could well do with reading.

Gods of War CR MayThe Award for The Most Surprisingly Good Series Award
C. R. May for King’s Bane. Well, where did this come from?! Somewhere in East Anglia, I think. And the post to Denmark … well, anyway, Cliff (I feel I can call him Cliff now) was kind enough to send me a copy of the first King’s Bane book, and i was seriously blown away with how good it was and how quickly I became completely immersed in the pre-Viking European world he created.

The Bleeding LandBrothers' FuryThe Award for Biggest Disappointment Award
No! Not in that way…it’s because there are (so far) only two in Giles Kristian’s absolutely magnificent English Civil War trilogy. It’s listed as a trilogy and is set up after book two for a number three, but for one reason and/or another, it’s just a duo as yet. But what a hum-dinger book three is/will (hopefully) be. Maybe we should crowd-fund it? Stranger things have happened. I’m in!

 

But…here is the book I was most impressed with, made the biggest impression on me in 2016

The Prestigious Solid Gold Speesh Reads Best Book of 2016 Award


The HarrowingThe Harrowing
: James Aitcheson

From the moment I started it to the moment I finished it, there was never any doubt in my mind that this was going to be the best book I would read all year. I’m still reviewing the video his words created in my mind every so often. I don’t think it will fade. It was a book set in the aftermath of 1066, that felt bang up to date. It’s the best of 2016 and probably many other years as well.

My review

You can buy The Harrowing here

Honourable mentions

The Death of Robin Hood : Angus Donald
It’ll be a classic for future generations.

The Thunder God : Paul Watkins
Unbelievably good Viking saga. How they should be wrote.

Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith
The final bittersweet book in the Leo Demidov trilogy.

Well, thanks for reading all the way down here, thanks for reading my blog in 2016, I hope you come back in 2017. I also hope the books you read last year, were at least as good as those I read. Have a happy and safe new year – and, good reading!

Review: The Wolf and the Raven by Steven A. McKay

the-wolf-and-the-raven5 of 5 stars

Series:
The Forest Lord 2

My version:
Paperback
Fiction Historical, Middle Ages, Robin Hood
Self published
2015
Bought

In the aftermath of a violent rebellion, Robin Hood and his men must fight for survival with an enemy deadlier than any they’ve faced before…

1322. England is in disarray and Sir Guy of Guisbourne, the king’s own bounty hunter, stalks the greenwood, bringing bloody justice to the outlaws and rebels who hide there.

When things begin to go horribly wrong, self-pity, grief and despair threaten to overwhelm the young wolf’s head who will need the support of his friends and family now more than ever. But Robin’s friends have troubles of their own and, this time, not all of them will escape with their lives…

First of all, this book, as the one before, screams quality, from the first moment you pick it up. Available as a self published paperback, it is one of the best looking, best feeling books you’ll ever own. It’s got a good weight to it as well. And then what’s inside will have you leaning back in your chair with a ‘yes’ playing on your lips. That sort of thing.

This is what I’m getting from Steven’s writing of the book(s) so far.

The character of Robin, is very much front and centre in The Forest Lord books, as opposed to Angus Donald’s ‘Outlaw Chronicles’ series – which are, of course, actually about Alan Dale. Steven’s Robin is not as primal a figure as I found Angus’ Robin in the first book, Outlaw. Angus’ Robin at that stage, perhaps comparable to the stage we’re at with Steven’s Robin here, was a man of the forest, a man of the old heathen ways, a Green Man. He was the result of hundreds of years of folk law and tradition, and as primeval as can be. Steven McKay’s Robin is a much more normal (for the time), Robin. A young man coming to terms with who he is, what he is, who and what he must be to survive and ensure the survival of his friends and families. He’s getting closer to finding himself in this book, as the perfectly understandable ‘rabbit in the headlights’ Robin of the first book, settles down and the magnitude of the task ahead becomes more and more obvious. It’s the story of a boy, filling out, growing into the role history has given him, slowly finding the strength and leadership needed to be the bearer of the hopes of the people around him.

The Forest Lord series, features the usual supporting cast, those who are normally the supporting cast, those you ‘know’ were Robin’s band. What is done with the characters, is interesting too. Here, I felt, they were given equal billing to Robin. They are all equally as interesting, each with their own background and reasons for being who and where they are. There are no clichés here, which it would have surely been very easy to fall into, resulting in a live action Disney feel. None of that. Steven’s Guy of Gisbourne is an excellent creation. He is truly nasty, thoroughly without scruples and absolutely perfectly written. Dark and deadly, more so than I’ve seen before and all the more interesting for that.

Speaking of writing, it’s an easy writing style to get into and very, very hard to come away from. Once we’re deep in Sherwood forest, we’re deep in ‘can’t put it down’ territory. It’s not a ‘no frills’ style, it’s an addictively objective style, that lets the story and the aims come forward, the characters shine through. One of the aims is clearly to entertain, that it does in abundance. There’s just the right amount of everything. Tension, action, pathos, excitement. The plot all holds together, there are no plot twists based on coincidences, the book delivers on all fronts, with style and content.

If you were perhaps thinking Robin Hood had been done to death, had gone everywhere it was possible to go, think again. Steven McKay’s Robin is full of vigour, youthful energy and promise for the future.

You can buy The Wolf and the Raven from Amazon

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

Wolf's HeadOutlaw

The only list that matters – Best in Show 2015!

The best book I read all year, was…

First, a list over all the books I started to read (or finished, in the case of the first on the list) in 2015.

Click on the title to go to my review for the book.

Apocalypse : Dean Crawford
The Bourne Ascendancy : Eric van Lustbader
A Traitor’s Fate : Derek Birks
Cockroaches : Jo Nesbø
The Last Viking : Berwick Coates
The Moscow Option : Jeremy Duns
The Iron Castle : Angus Donald
Avenger of Rome : Douglas Jackson
Viking America : James Robert Enterline
The Sea Road : Margaret Elphinstone
The Sword and the Throne : Henry Venmore-Rowland
Sword of Rome: Douglas Jackson
Crowbone : Robert Low
The Serpent Sword : Matthew Harffy
The Black Stone : Nick Brown
The Confessor : Daniel Silva
Potsdam Station : David Downing
Blood Will Follow : Snorri Kristjansson
The Bone Tree : Greg Iles
Killing Floor : Lee Child
Hereward. Wolves of New Rome : James Wilde
False God of Rome. Vespasian III : Robert Fabbri
The Corners of the Globe : Robert Goddard
Lehrter Station : David Downing
An Officer and a Spy : Robert Harris
Masaryk Station : David Downing
Wulfsuna : E.S. Moxon
Catastrophe : Max Hastings
The Northmen’s Fury : Philip Parker
The Cairo Affair : Olen Steinhauer
Hanns and Rudolf : Thomas Harding
The Siege : Nick Brown
The Ends of the Earth : Robert Goddard
The Bloody Meadow : William Ryan
The Long Ships : Frans G. Bengtsson
Slash and Burn : Matt Hilton
The Redbreast : Jo Nesbø
Rome’s Fallen Eagle : Robert Fabbri
The Sword of the Templars : Paul Christopher
The King’s Assassin : Angus Donald
March Violets : Philip Kerr
Hannibal. Enemy of Rome : Ben Kane
The Imperial Banner : Nick Brown
Path of Gods : Snorri Kristjansson
The Scarlet Thief : Paul Fraser Collard
Solomon Creed : Simon Toyne
Child 44 : Tom Rob Smith
Die Trying : Lee Child
The Cross and The Curse : Matthew Harffy
At The Ruin of The World : John Henry Clay
I Am Pilgrim : Terry Haynes

Well, I read a whole load of very good, enjoyable books in 2015. Several from authors I’d read before and some from authors new to me. On reflection, there were several contenders for best book, however, as I decided I really couldn’t single one out like that, here’s, by genre, my picks from last years’ crop.

Click on the cover to buy the book from The Book Depository, click on the title, to read what passes for my review.

Thriller
The Bone TreeThe Bone Tree by Greg Iles
If you’ve read this, you’ll know what I’m on about. It’s an 800-page monster. but grips like a vice from the get go and does not let go. I read it over a long weekend and, as the cliche goes, could not put it down.
You do need to have read Natchez Burning (the first in this trilogy and also an 800-page monster), to get the full impact from the book, as that sets up a lot of the revelations and general fuck ME!”s you get from what goes on and what is revealed in The Bone Tree. If you’ve read Natchez Burning, but not got onto this yet, you’re in for a treat. If you’ve not read either, do so now! Steven King cannot be wrong! (He’s quoted on the front cover, if you’re wondering).
Book three is out in the spring, I think.

I Am PilgrimI Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
What can I say? I’m finding I am still speechless at how good this one was. Another beast of a long one, but it doesn’t read like it – you won’t notice how long it is once you get well and truly glued too it – you’ll think only that it’s too short when it’s over. Bang up to date in story, treatment and all that, it doesn’t have an agenda and you’re not supposed to either have your prejudices confirmed or destroyed. A refreshingly ‘this is how it is’ sort of thing. A one-off, which is a rarity, though it would stand being a series, but it’s probably best it isn’t. The Guardian’s quote obviously ignores The Bone Tree, but otherwise, for once, they’re not too far off the pace. Incredible enjoyment. And that’s why we read, isn’t it?

Historical Fiction

Probably my most read genre, so there was always going to be a few to choose from here. I had a particularly good year and it came down to three I couldn’t get a cigarette paper in between.

Hannibal Enemy of RomeHannibal Enemy of Rome by Ben Kane
For me, a glorious return to the Ben Kane fold. It’s not that he went away or anything daft like that, just it had been quite a while since I’d read one of his books. He is very active, as they say, on the old social media, so I feel like I’ve also been along for the ride, even without actually reading one of his books for a couple of years. I decided to skip Spartacus and get straight into Hannibal. Wow! I was captivated the whole way through. It’s a good long book, but it’s also lean, mean and effective storytelling. An even-handed presentation of wars between Carthage and Rome, that takes neither sides, nor prisoners. A real pleasure to read and learn and a super set-up for the other two in the trilogy, not to mention the next series.

Rome's Fallen EagleRome’s Fallen Eagle by Robert Fabbri
This was an absolute joy to read. Really excellent descriptive work and a captivating story, with no signs of Robert having to straight-jacket the/his Vespasian character in order to fit things into what is the accepted historical timeline and facts and all that. After a stomach-churning time in Rome with the previous book (False God of Rome), this one is – especially as he’s out in the open of Germania and Britannia (albeit in the forests most of the time) – a real breath of fresh historical air. There’s a freedom, a sense of adventure and a clarity of purpose that is just perfect. And, that it’s number four in a series, when most series are showing signs of the well having run dry, is even more remarkable. Well, I think so anyway.

The Sea RoadThe Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
Speaking of remarkable…I can’t remember who and when this was recommended but I’m really, really glad I read it. She is a Scottish writer as far as I can see and if, like me, you have any sort of interest in the Vikings voyages to North America, you’ll love this book. Poignant, wistful, yearning, tear-jerking…all kinds of wonderful stuff. Keep your wits about you to get the most from the ending section. Real saga storytelling i the 21st Century that knocks nonsense like the last few Robert Low Viking parodies into place. Also proof, if Robert Low and Giles Kristian need it, that it didn’t always rain from leaden skies, every day, ‘back then.’

Non Fiction

I also occasionally venture out and sample the real world, so here goes:

Hanns and RudolfHanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding
A thoroughly intriguing and surprisingly even-handed look at the lives of two Germans leading to, during the and after, the Second World War. That, by a quirk of fate, one was born Jewish and one to German parents, starts the comparison. Their fates obviously diverge somewhat, after that seemingly even start. Whilst the main thrust, is the author’s trying to figure out what his grandfather (?) did during the war, that he didn’t feel the need to talk about, it’s most rewarding for, through not actually writing the comparing and the contrasting, looking at why, how someone became the Commandant of Auschwitz. People who know more than me are never going to agree, and it’s wrong to look for a one line answer, however…this comes closest of all the books I’ve read – and I’ve read a few.

An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris
Not strictly non-fiction, but a dramatising of fact, in fiction in a A Day of The Jackal-type way. If that guy who wrote Schindler’s Ark can get away with it, Rober Harris can, the other way, in my list.
I was familiar with the name Dreyfus and also with Affair and that it was a big deal to French people, both back then, and now. So, I thought, let’s find out. After reading a few barnstormers by the formidable M. Harris, I got into this. Phew! Incredible…such bravery, such fortitude, such stupidity, bare-faced lying and moral courage. If right was done, it was done too late to save face, lives were ruined and very few came out smelling of roses. As a way of understanding the utterly stupid – though probably not thought stupid at the time – mind-set that led to World War I, it’s indispensable.

And finally Esther…

Independent

Well, it should be a genre, or maybe not a genre, as they write in genres, but…erm, well, many plucky authors – and you make up your own reason why here – clearly send their manuscripts to the boss of Decca, or the umpteen people the Hairy Potter woman did. And, as a blind blogger, I don’t see Self-Published as a different genre to be avoided like a plague, not touched with a barge-pole, I’m way too good to waste my time on that stuff, don’t you know, now what does this publisher want me to say, oh yes : It’s BRILLIANT! Yes, I see them as books and stories and really, really good.

The two I know are Independent sort of things I read this year, both – fortunately – turned out to be excellent. So, purely in order of ace-ness of cover, here they are:

The Serpent SwordThe Cross and The CurseThe Serpent Sword and The Cross and The Curse by Matthew Harffy
Despite having a face that says ‘read my books or I send the boys round’ Matthew seems a really nice guy. Goes without saying, he knows his Anglo-Saxon onions too. The loner, outsider, proving his worth against the odds, isn’t new. However, it is new when set in Anglo-Saxon invasion times. That’s after the Romans and before the Vikings, to you and me. The real beauty here, is The Cross and the Curse. Fan-Saxon-Tastic! I almost wanted to hug him, but then thought of the publicity shot and thought better of it – it’s so good. Go buy it (it’s out NOW!) as they say) and get in on the ground floor, then it won’t just be me saying ‘of course, I’ve been reading Harffy for years, don’t you know?’

Wulfsuna by E.S. Moxon
Despite having the same surname as one of my neighbours (also English) near here at Speesh Towers in deepest Harlev, Denmark, this is a superb first effort from the lovely Ms.M. She of course got an extra star for either being from Birmingham, or now living there, I forget which. Anyway, this is in the same sort of ball-park as Matthew, in the Anglo Saxon ball-park, that is. However, in a way, the Wulfsuna stories are the other side of the fence (in that ball-park?), I thought. As they start, with the main characters coming over to Britain, rather than Matthew’s already having been here a good while. I thought a lot of Snorri Kristjansson’s books, in that there were some fantasy elements woven into what is obviously a very clever interpretation of the historical records. As in, she knows what we know and uses that as a launch pad for the stories.
I think I’m right in putting this in the Independent pile, though it is published by Silverwood Books. Anyway, who needs a tin-pot genre like Indie, when the story and writing is as good as this? Not me, no sir.

So there you have it. It could well be, if you’ve read any of the above, that you think differently. That’s great. All I hope, is that you enjoyed whichever books you read last year and you enjoy all the books you read this year. That’s, as I say, what it’s all about. Reading books for enjoyment. And I finish and review all the books I start. Oh, thanks for reading this blog, btw.

Review: Wolf’s Head by Steven A. McKay

Wolf's Head
An earthy: 5
 out of 5 stars

My version:
Paperback
Historical Fiction, Medieval England.
Self published
2013
Bought from The Book Depository

England 1321 AD

After viciously assaulting a corrupt but powerful clergyman, Robin Hood flees the only home he has ever known in Wakefield, Yorkshire. Becoming a member of a notorious band of outlaws, Hood and his new companions – including John Little and Will Scaflock – hide out in the great forests of Barnsdale, fighting for their very existence as the law hunts them down like animals.

When they are betrayed and their harsh lives become even more unbearable, the band of friends seeks bloody vengeance.

Meanwhile, the country is in turmoil, as many of the powerful lords strive to undermine King Edward II’s rule until, inevitably, rebellion becomes a reality and the increasingly deadly yeoman outlaw from Wakefield finds his fate bound up with that of a Hospitaller Knight…

Well, just when I was thinking I was all Robin Hooded-up, this comes along, grabs me by the Sherwoods and refuses to let go.

From the start, it’s clear that this will be a much more traditional Robin Hood the Angus Donald’s re-imagining. While the superb first volume of The Outlaw Chronicles was (partly) of necessity based in and around Sherwood and England in general, Alan Dale and the increasingly peripheral as the series progressed Robin, soon returned to their French/Norman roots and embarked on a series of day trips, long weekends and several volumes of adventures, in the Holy Land, in France, France and lost in France…anywhere but England, it seemed.

We meet this Robin in his home town in England before he becomes an outlaw and immediately it is clear he is much more down to earth and, I feel, closer to the legend and therefore closer to our sympathies. I identified with ‘Wolf’ Robin immediately – despite the 700-odd years between us. He’s a worried, frightened, unsure – he is very young at the start – character, just been run out of town after his temper and sense of justice ran away with him. Never a good idea when your life is not your own in medieval England. Never a good idea at any point in history, if you live in Yorkshire (as I did for 26 years, for anyone picking up their pen right now). Robin begins as a typically well-balanced Yorkshireman, with a chip on both shoulders and joins an already existing outlaw group. Almost without trying, his natural skills with all things heavy and sharp, coupled with uncanny leadership qualities for someone so young, begin to cause problems and jealousy with the existing management and he finds himself thrust into the leadership of the band almost without wanting to.

The story is excellently presented, there’s a good solid flow to the whole, not so neatly tied up that you think it’s too polished for its own good and not so rough, that you dismiss it. I’m still thinking about it and the possibilities now, long after I’ve finished it. The character of Robin is full of grit, interesting potential and the other characters are in no way second fiddles, well-written and clearly going to be contributing much in future stories. The whole is, as I think I’m trying to say, really pleasantly down to earth and believable. It didn’t happen like this (it’s unlikely Robin existed, if you ask me), but reading this, you will feel like it could have. If it did, it’d have been like this. There’s a reality to the story and the writing. Horrible word, but ‘organic,’ maybe Steven had the mulch of Sherwood on his fingers when he wrote the story? He’s not going to like me for this…but…this sums it up quite nicely “In touch with the ground, I’m on the hunt I’m after you, Smell like I sound, I’m lost in a crowd…And I’m hungry like the wolf” as the great Duran Duran once put it.

There are a few rough edges. There on (for example) P65 (which should be a right-hand page) Matilda may well have “kneed him playfully in the bollocks” were I describing the incident to a mate in the pub. But not in a book. When it isn’t part of a character’s conversation or thoughts. Stuff like that needs looking at, but not much else.

Did we need another interpretation of the Robin Hood legend? Well, if it’s this one we’re talking about, the answer is a massive ‘yes!’ For me, this was just what I needed, after Angus Donald’s stories went off the Sherwood rails. He took his stories ‘up-market’ I felt, away from Sherwood, away from England for the most part and, as they primarily concern Alan Dale, away from the Robin Hood we know and loved. Fortunately – for me – the ‘Wolf’ series, looks likely to continue having Robin Hood front and centre. Long may they continue.

 

Buy Wolf’s Head at The Book Depository

Related Review:
Outlaw by Angus Donald

Me, on Goodreads 

Review: The Cross and the Curse by Matthew Harffy

The Cross and the Curse

out of 5 stars

My version:
eBook
Historical Fiction
Dark Ages Britain
Self Published
2015
Pre-publication copy, don’t you know

The Cross and the Curse, is the second volume of The Bernicia Chronicles

BRITAIN 634 A.D.
Before The Battle of Hastings.
Before Alfred fought the Danes.
Even before England.

Warlords battled across Britain to become the first King of the English.

When Beobrand’s valour brings about a stunning victory against the native Waelisc, the King of Northumbria rewards him with riches and land. Beobrand wishes for nothing more than to settle on his new estate with his bride. But he soon finds himself beset with enemies old and new. He even fears that the power of a curse has him in its grip, as he begins to lose all he holds dear.

With treachery and death surrounding him, Beobrand confronts his foes with cold iron and bitter fury. On his quest for revenge and redemption, he grudgingly accepts the mantle of lord, leading his men into the darkest of nights and the bloodiest of battles.

The Cross and the Curse is the second novel of the Bernicia Chronicles.

Where the Dark Ages come to glorious light and life.

Beobrand has returned to Bernicia and Bebbanburg from the first book, The Serpent Sword. As has Oswald, from exile, though he is now calling himself King. Cadwallon King of Gwynedd and the Welsh are soon dealt with and Beobrand’s star is on the rise. As a warrior, he is awesome, as a man, he is head over heels in love. Sunniva has got through his defences in a way no enemy ever could. Beobrand is made a Lord, with land and a retinue and everything should be set fair for a nice quiet existence up north of the great wall (interestingly, Matthew has them knowing nothing of the Romans who built the wall, the roads or the buildings they see around them), in the harshly beautiful Northumbrian countryside. However…call it Wyrd, call it fate, call it bad luck, call it just being called Beobrand – his life doesn’t turn out this way. Bad luck doesn’t so much follow him around, as get there a couple of days before him. However, bad news for Beobrand, is good news for us readers.

If you liked the first one, The Serpent Sword, you’re going to love this one. This is so much better, it hurts. It couldn’t exist without having already gone through the first one, but this is where the real stuff starts. In my humble opinion anyway.

I can’t hide that I did have a couple of misgivings about the first one. However, I seem to have been alone in that, as the people who matter – other people – certainly liked it well enough. The reviews I’ve seen, have ranged from positive, to ecstatic. And they’re from people who don’t even know Matthew! Or are his Mum and Dad! The first was good. This is better. It doesn’t bear thinking about the third one…

How can I put it? Right from the opening paragraphs, it felt immediately that there were more layers to the characters’… erm, characters. Minor characters are better drawn. More colour. More everything you want there to be more of in your Historical Fiction. I’d put money on large sections of this being written in a rush of enthusiasm and adrenalin. I read it, especially from half way on, that way anyway. I won’t say I had my jaw on the floor at the whole way through like I did for Greg Iles’ epic The Bone Tree, but, you better have something soft on your floor just in case, a couple of times, that’s for sure.

Beobrand, I wasn’t sure of in the first one, or for the first third of this one. However, when I think back, I can see that Matthew actually develops his character very well indeed throughout the book. As the story progresses, Beobrand grows into being what Matthew wanted of Beobrand. He’s not the same at the end, as he is at the start. Realising that, made me even more sure I would be right about giving it five stars. There are still some unnecessary and given the leap this one has made in quality, unworthy standard Historical Fiction cliched short cuts. They “explore each other’s bodies,” she “crushes herself to his muscular form,” she “kissed him deeply.” “Perhaps it is my wyrd to see all those I care for die.” You know them. Almost like nervous Hist Fic ticks, or identity cards to the Hist Fic Novel Club. Matthew is clearly better than that. He’s developing his own style and he has made the Dark Ages his own with this book, he doesn’t need those sort of things holding him back. Not when he can do this: “But all the while the women’s eyes held a distant look. Would their men come back? Would they soon be sewing a shroud while others feasted on the food and drink they now prepared?” I’ll stick my house on that being exactly how it was. Absolutely, undeniably superb. I could sometimes wish Beobrand was sometimes a bit more decisive, a bit more ‘fuck this for a game of soldiers, let’s go!’ But then, that’s why we’ve got Acennan and his “it’s only a bird” eh? Actually, while Acennan was reasonably prominent in the later stages of TC&TC, I’d absolutely not be against him taking a larger role in future books.

The quality of the writing is also improved over book one. It’s a muscular style, no frills, though this is more mature and much less formulaic. There. Are. Still too. Many short. Sentences. Where a few ands and linking words, wouldn’t go amiss. It’s not a Ladybird book (even one of the new ones). But Matthew’s getting it to where it should be.

Whilst it and Historical Fiction set in this period – and for the next 500 years or so – in general could do with removing the constant, almost mind-numbing religious stuff, just some times, I liked the undertone of most of this book. The feet-on-the-ground, concentrating on this life not the next, or getting ready for the next, that often stilts books of this ilk. I‘ve mentioned it before, so it’s not new. He’s not anti-religion, just the characters seem more realistic about what is important to them at this time, they seem more practical. This is often voiced by (my new friend) Acennan, but this is about Beobrand; “He was not sure of the power of the Christ, but he believed in this plan.” In general, the feeling is that the people, the Anglo-Saxons, precursors of Vikings (having that in place will help you understand the similarity of a lot of things to those Viking novels you’ve read), believed in gods. Lots of them. When they don’t know what happened around them, or why – it must be the will of the gods, or magic. Or both. Even the Romans’ works are ‘magic’ here (see Arthus C Clarke on this point). Think thunder (there’s a lot of thunder here). We know it’s ‘the sound caused by lightning, the sudden increase in pressure and temperature from lightning produces rapid expansion of the air surrounding and within a bolt of lightning,’ so we’re ok with that. The person in the field, in AD634, hadn’t a clue. So, it was just as logical to them, that it was a mighty god throwing his hammer around in anger, as variants in atmospheric pressure is to us. It comes down to, I think, mastering the trick of not writing about Dark Ages Britain, thinking like a 21st Century Briton. Matthew achieves this sympathy for the characters of this era excellently. Another interesting point I thought he was making – as this story is set in the period where Christianity was still the new kid on the block – that the average Anglo-Saxon pagans in the field, had no real animosity towards the new Christianity and new god. That they would have happily allowed him/them to live alongside their gods. The Christians were the insatiable ones, those who couldn’t do unto others as they would be done unto. As now. The old gods are always more practical, more useful. From tales like this, you can see why they came about.

There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind, that The Cross and the Curse is Matthew’s step up to the big league. Soon, when you tell people you like reading Cornwell, Kristian, Donald and co, you’ll be adding Harffy and they’ll nod knowingly, either approving of your good taste, or making a note to search out a Harffy or two. I gave the first one 4 stars, this one is better – more consistently better – ergo, 5 stars. For what it is now and for what the series will become in the future.

Related review: The Serpent Sword

Buy The Cross and the Curse at Amazon

Me, on Goodreads

Review: The King’s Assassin – Angus Donald

The King's AssassinThe verdict: 6 of 5 Stars

The King’s Assassin is book 7 of The Outlaw Chronicles

AD1215. England is being bled dry, lead to rack and ruin and to the edge of full-scale civil war – by its King. Following the death of his older brother, King Richard (he of the Lion Heart), John has had a free hand to do pretty much as he pleases. Finances permitting. And when his finances don’t permit? He sends his men to take yours. As Robin and especially Alan, find out. They also find out that, despite fighting in the name of their King in countless battles on foreign soil, their King doesn’t give a hoot, it’s all about the money. And about the re-claiming of his French territories. Which, if you’re with us from the previous book, were lost due to the King’s dithering and downright treachery. So, Robin and Alan are forced to take part in another foreign campaign, hoping to restore both the Kings French possessions and their finances. When this doesn’t quite come off, they begin to look inwards, at England. They subsequently find they’re not the only ones who have had enough of their King’s profligacy with money and other people’s lives. They find themselves caught up in a plot not only to curb the King’s powers – tricky, as these are God-given – but also his life. One of those will happen.

(With all the behind the scenes work Angus has him do here, not to mention the land he owns and the troops he uses to speed the path to Runnymead, we’re all gonna have to take another look at the Magna Carta, see if historians haven missed Robin Hood’s name on there all these years).

The presentation of the story is as it has been since the first book. However, this time, as the Alan doing the remembering, is getting on a bit, the opening, ending and mid-story ‘present-day’ sections are now narrated by a monk at the monastery where old Alan lives. He’s been there some years, it seems – he is now 70, his eyesight is failing and his hands are unable to grip the writing instruments. Luckily for us and Angus, it seems his memory is not suffering too much, so he is able to dictate his memories to this young monk. How he gets to be in the monastery, isn’t clear, though the ending does hint at something. Something I would really, really – and have said so before – like to see developed. I’d like to see books about ‘Old Alan’, post-Robin Alan, as I’ve been consistently awed by the poignancy of Angus’ writing in these sections.

As for ‘Young Alan,’ he’s still an irritating, self-righteous, holier than thou, little shit. Only rescued by his ability to let his sword do the thinking and generally going against the majority of the 10 Commandments, handed down personally by the God he reveres so much. Even Robin’s legendary – in this series anyway – patience, must be sorely tested and it is, by Alan’s foolhardy, short-sighted, impatience. No sooner done, than said. No sooner said, than done. Robin doesn’t always manage to keep a lid on his irritation at pulling Alan’s arse out the fire he himself has started. Actually, it is appropriate – given the series’ premise – that it is Robin’s character has undergone perhaps the most notable change through the books so far. From a mythical-type figure in Outlaw – to national – sometimes international – statesman, state maker and now, King-saver. He’s come in from the forest, in to the palaces.

And here’s where I’ve long thought that if there were a problem with the books, it was that Robin, and the stories, spent so much – too much – time out of Sherwood, our of England and in France. The series might have been touted as a re-imagining of the Robin Hood legend, but I’ll put money on most people imagining, it would re-imagine the legend in England, in Sherwood, in particular. The first book fit the brief, to a T. The second, was set away on the Crusades – as most people have seen the Kevin Costner version, I’d think most went along with that. But when the third and fourth and so on came and went without a hint of Sherwood, Robin a nobleman and living in Yorkshire, for goodness’ sake and nary a sign of the Sheriff of Nottingham – well, even I started to get a bit restless. I had some initial reservations here too, primarily when I read “…Robin Hood and his men are dragged into the war against the French in Flanders” on the inner cover blurb, and I will admit to first thinking ‘O no, here we go again…’ However, I will also admit to being thus totally unprepared for how comprehensively blown away I would be by such a well-plotted, paced and written book. On reflection, apart from all that, I don’t think there’s any surprise in that my enjoyment of this is in direct relation to the amount of time the story spends in England – Nottingham even!

Having read The Iron Castle and a couple of the previous ones, will help you here as well, as characters and themes pop up to add extra spice. This too, was one of the things I enjoyed about the book, the complexity and ambition of the plot seemed to be a level above. In fact, The King’s Assassin might just be the best of the series so far. Full of vivid descriptions, some poignant commentary on the state of England at the time and, of course, Angus’ trademark set piece battle action – you are there. The words come to life, looking at the pages is like watching a film. Better than a film. You are there. You are there. Watching them, feeling their tension, tasting their food, smelling the smells…at Robin’s – and especially Alan’s – side, parrying the sword thrusts, stopping arrows with your shield and staggering away from the bloody battlefield, wondering how you survived. Exciting, tense, gripping and fun, an absolute pleasure to read and muse upon. A wonderful book, really, really wonderful. Can’t say fairer than that.

 

*You thought I was gonna put their, there, eh?

Buy The King’s Assassin at The Book Depository

Outlaw : my review
Holy Warrior : my review
King’s Man : my review
Warlord : my review
Grail Knight : my review
The Iron Castle : my review

All posts mentioning Angus Donald at Speesh Reads

Me, at Goodreads

Review: The Iron Castle – Angus Donald

The Iron CastleThe Iron Castle by Angus Donald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Angus Donald’s ‘Outlaw Chronicles’ books have all been great reads. Well-written, exciting, action-packed and exactly what I want from my Historical Fiction.

There is a problem, however. They’re NOT about Robin Hood. Not even half about Robin Hood. Robin Hood is in the books, but in the background. We don’t follow him, we follow Alan. It’s Alan’s thought’s we are party too, not Robin’s. And Robin would probably have been the more interesting character, even going by the walk-on parts he has had. It is Robin’s thoughts and (perhaps) inner turmoils that I think would have been more interesting. Not just to me, but to your ordinary book-buying reader. If you’re going to sell it as a re-imagining of the Robin Hood legend, you really should feature Robin Hood a bit more. He has got a life away from Alan, of that there is little doubt, it’s just that we learn precious little about it. Obviously that is because it enables Angus’ Robin to move, unseen behind the scenes and pop up just when he is (or isn’t, dependant on what sort of scrape Alan has got himself in to) wanted. So, I ask some people what they think of when they think of Robin Hood. As I live in Denmark, those people are Danes. Even less knowledge of Robin Hood of legend, or with an outsider’s, objective view, you take your pick. Robin Hood? “Something about a forest in England and taking from the rich, giving to the poor” (I’m translating here) was the general consensus here at work the other day. One of the nurses who had lived over in England, could remember him having lived in Nottingham. “France?” “Eh?”

Angus promised much with the first book Outlaw and Nelson DeMille was right with his quote on the cover of the paperback version I have here: “Angus Donald has made everyone’s favourite outlaw a lot more interesting…” He was, in Outlaw. He isn’t, in the majority of the books after that. He can’t be, he isn’t in them enough. What Angus created in Outlaw I thought, was a really different, reconstructed, Green Man Robin. Caustic, earthy, as in of the earth, harsh though fair (of course) and interesting. He is a hero for people who needed one. A direct descendant of the King Arthur tales, a pre-Saxon hero, a summation of hopes, and pagan folk legends made flesh. Now, six books in, he’s swearing his allegiance to the King – by his faith in God, for goodness’ sake. It was a great start. But I would venture that many a reader has rushed through Outlaw, then bought book two Holy Warrior and thought “Hang on, this is supposed to be about Robin Hood! And he isn’t in it!” Well, he is, but more in name, than deed. And Alan and Robin aren’t in Sherwood either, not even in England much after Outlaw. Maybe Angus worked on the ‘you can take the boy out of Sherwood, but you can’t take Sherwood out of the boy’ principle. On that level, it would have worked a treat, kind of. If it had have been the two (or three or four, as it was at that point) outlaws taking their Sherwood nous to fight in the Holy Land – that would have been an interesting project to have explored. But by the time they embark, they are no longer outlaws, no longer forest-dwellers, but are gentry, Knights, with lands, castles, retainers and are on first name terms with Kings. And French in all but name. And remember, Robin Hood was a hero to the Saxons, fighting the Norman French. In Angus’ version, after Outlaw he is Norman French. They both speak fluent French, Alan is French, just with a name change and their King, Richard I, Richard the Lionheart, Richard Coeur de Lion, was French. It is estimated Richard spent as little as six months, in total, in England. Book three, King’s Man is also set in Europe, or France. Book four, Warlord pretty much all France, a brief dalliance in England, but nothing to get worked up about. Five, Grail Knight France again. Six’s The Iron Castle is ‘Chateau Gaillard’ – so you tell me where that is set. The King’s Assassin, book seven, will continue in much the same vein, it seems: “As rebellion brews across the country and Robin Hood and his men are dragged into the war against the French in Flanders…” Not Sherwood, where even Danes know Robin Hood lives. But Flanders where…no one ever thinks Robin Hood has been, let alone lived. That’s the problem that has developed for me and I’ll wager for a lot of casual readers, it isn’t about Robin of Sherwood. It’s not about Robin and there’s very, very little set in Sherwood.

Then, the ’friendship’ between Alan and Robin is largely one-way a lot of the time and in the most of the books, very little is returned. On either side. Often, though Alan professes his love for his Lord and ‘old friend’, it’s hard to see why he should feel that way. Clearly, we are to feel that the love that was generated in Outlaw sees Alan through the subsequent books. To be honest, were I Alan, I’d have told Robin to piss off a long time ago. Robin takes him away from where he wants to be, puts him in danger at every turn, talks to him like he is an errant, ignorant child and generally doesn’t do anything much – apart from lending him money – to deserve Alan’s professed devotion. Alan too, isn’t the outlaw band member. He’s mostly French (though in some of the books I’ve listened to on Audible, he’s had a strong Yorkshire accent) and thanks to Robin and King Richard, he’s a land-owning Knight and Lord. So, if you read what he says and think ‘English,’ think again. It is perhaps, or would have been, historically accurate, but it’s not what one thinks when one wants to hear in tales of Robin Hood. OK, maybe Angus thought that Robin and friends, in Sherwood, fighting the Sheriff, stealing/rich, giving/poor, was too limiting and that all that could be said, had been written. But I beg to differ. And that is partly based on the fantastic Robin (and Alan) he created in Outlaw and partly based on delivering on the ‘Meet the Godfather of Sherwood Forest’ tag-line of the first book.

By taking the two friends out of England, I’m afraid Angus has ‘ordinarified’ them. Alan is just another, often down-at-heel, wannabe Knight and Robin is a pretty ordinary schemer, charlatan, liar, cheat and Lord. Not even a rogue, loveable or otherwise. He has a lot of connections that pop up here and there, but his actual dealing with those connections, we don’t see. He does want to get back to England, back to his home, with his wife Mary-Ann (you see what he’s done there?) and live happily ever after, but…that home is in Yorkshire and his wife lives with their sons in France, has done for several books now and, if it were possible, seems to have even fewer links with England, than Robin.

However, (it’s not all bad) take the book(s) on face value, and you have a really excellent, action-packed, riveting read. Each story is superbly well-planned and executed, contains all the highs and lows you’re looking for in your fighting historical fiction and, in my humble opinion, contains some of the most poignant, thoughtful, though-provoking writing on friendship, longing, regret and hope, it has ever been my pleasure to come across. The Alan that we meet at the start and finish (and sometimes in between) of the books, is a magnificent creation and should have a book or two of his own. No doubts about it. The Iron Castle doesn’t disappoint either (unless you’re looking for Robin, in Sherwood, as above). It begins in 1203, at the end of the time of England’s possession of the territories in France that became the English King’s after The Norman Conquest (there is an absolutely superb Historical Note at the end that you really should stay on for. Angus could easily write (a) wonderful Non-Fiction history book(s) in the future). The majority of the action, takes place in and around the siege of the Iron Castle of Chateau Galliard as Alan and Robin are there to help save the castle from being captured by the French and thereby help King John save Normandy (Interestingly, only King John is the same as the character we know from the Robin Hood books and films). It is a tense struggle, full of incident and really well and effectively written for the action taking place in relatively confined spaces. It is also book looking at the concept of a man’s honour and the dependancy on it to the extent that someone hides behind their honour to cover their own shortcomings or wrong-doings. Robin might say “A man’s honour is the most important of his possessions” but Alan (standing in for us) experiences it in quite a different, more realistic way. Buy this book, enjoy it for what it is. Just don’t go thinking it’s about the Robin Hood you’re thinking of.

Me. On Goodreads.

If it’s 2015, it must be time for – Book of the Year 2014!

I thought I’d actually wait until the year was over (2014, just in case you…) before putting my heads together and seeing what I’d read that was worthy of

The Speesh Golden Bookmark*

for best book/read I read in 2014.

As usual, I don’t seem to have read any of other places’ ‘Books of the Year.’ Partly because I don’t often get on to actually reading books that were released in the year their list covers.

Anyway, I have readed** a fair few books this year. Listened to a fair few as well, after being temporarily (slightly) blind.

So, with grateful thanks to our sponsors –

RegionMidt (the people I work for and who pay, indirectly, for all the books and who really need to put a stop with the Danish Government’s attempts to starve the hospitals of money, calling it ‘savings’ when everyone at the sharp end (me) knows they’re ‘cuts.’ How can you put a price on health? Your health, my health. Can’t. Bastards).

Sydbank (our bank who turn a blind eye to a little overdraft now and then).

And a couple of authors who were kind enough to send me a copy of their books after reading this here blog and surmising, correctly as it turned out, that I might like to be sent their book(s): Here is a list of all the books I have finished in 2014. In order of finishing:

1. The Bourne Imperative : Eric Van Lustbader
2. The Ways of the World : Robert Goddard
3. Ratcatcher : Tim Stevens
4. Secret of the Seventh Son : Glenn Cooper
5. The Last Conquest : Berwick Coates
6. Stay Another Day : Mark Timlin
7. Swords of Good Men : Snorri Kristjansson
8. The Last Minute : Jeff Abbott
9. Arrows of Fury : Anthony Riches
10. Grail Knight : Angus Donald
11. Hannibal. The Patrol : Ben Kane
12. The Small Boat of Great Sorrows : Dan Fesperman
13. Stettin Station : David Downing
14. Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs : Hugh Bicheno
15. The Whitehall Mandarin : Edward Wilson
16. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Sp : Len Deighton
17. The Lion and The Lamb : John Henry Clay
18. The Rule of Four : Ian Caldwell
19. Out of Exile : Luke Preston
20. Conquest : Stewart Binns
21. Defender of Rome : Douglas Jackson
22. The Lost Symbol : Dan Brown
23. Of Merchants and Heroes : Paul Waters
24. Fortress of Spears : Anthony Riches
25. The Holy Thief : William Ryan
26. The Leopard Sword : Anthony Riches
27. Dead Men’s Dust : Matt Hilton
28. The Wolf’s Gold : Anthony Riches
29. The Dying Hours : Mark Billingham
30. A Farewell to Justice : Joan Mellen
31. The Bat : Jo Nesbø
32. Siege of Heaven : Tom Harper
33. Book of Souls : Glenn Cooper
34. Rome’s Executioner : Robert Fabbri
35. The Eagle’s Vengeance : Anthony Riches
36. A Colder War : Charles Cumming
37. The Emperor’s Knives : Anthony Riches
38. Natchez Burning : Greg Iles
39. The Wolves of the North : Harry Sidebottom
40. 1066 What Fates Impose : G.K. Holloway
41. The Fort : Bernard Cornwell
42. Judgement & Wrath : Matt Hilton
43. The Amber Road : Harry Sidebottom
44. Not In Your Lifetime : Anthony Summers
45. Mission To Paris : Alan Furst
46. The Bourne Retribution : Eric Van Lustbader

So, the best of the year?

Gonna have to be in two categories here. Historical Fiction and plain old Fiction. Maybe also Non-Fiction. Go on then, Non-Fiction as well.

“So what are they?!”

Best Historical Fiction book I read all year:

What Fates Impose1066 What Fates Impose by G.K. Holloway

No doubt about this one. And it’s not just because I finished it late in the year and can’t remember too far back…It’s because it’s a superb book, telling an interesting story in a wonderful way. I can’t remember being so impressed by a book for a good long while. I even forced it upon my neighbour (I/we live in Denmark, he’s also English, fortunately) and he loved it as well. You will believe the English are gonna win, I can assure you. Could do with the cover being a bit more dynamic, but otherwise, I cannot recommend this to you all highly enough.

The author had a look at the type of books I read/reviewed on the site and asked if I would like a copy sent. I haven’t been paid for the review other than getting the book for free.

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

Good ol’ G.K. also informs me that it’s on Amazon UK and Amazon US, should you really not want to get it from The Book Depository.

The Best Fiction book I read in 2014

…well, there were two. In order of equalness – or alphabetical, you decide –
I give you:

9780007467471A Colder War by Charles Cumming

Stunning book, absolutely. Glues itself to your hands, turns your brain inside out and has me counting the days to a sequel/follow up/his next one. Spy story par-excellence, bang up to date, harking back to the great spy novels of yore. Simple and effective and much better than a fair few others of his I’ve read. For once, the references to John le Carré are right. Go buy it.

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

 

 

The Whitehall MandarinThe Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson

OK, I read a lot of John le Carré when I was younger, so I like a good spy story and this is just that. Not in the shadow of le Carré at all, out on its own. A really interesting, intreguing journey through the’ 60’s, ’70’s, spy scandals, the diplomatic hot-spots and turning points. World-wide in scope, uniquely English in execution. I loved this one from start to finish. Get it bought. Do it now!

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

 

 

The Best Non-Fiction book I read all 2014, was:

A Farewell To JusticeA Farewell to Justice. Jim Garrison, JFK’s Assasination and the Case That Should Have Changed History by Joan Mellen

First, an absolutely incredible piece of work. Mind-boggling marshalling of facts into evidence. I really did think this was the last word on the whole affair. Joan Mellen owns the Kennedy conspiracy. Though… Anthony Summers has butted in with Not In Your Lifetime, Mellen still rules – for now.

Another pretty dreadful cover – and don’t let the Oliver Stone quote put you off, you need to read this book.

Here’s my review.

Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

Mentioned in dispatches:

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles.

Fabulous. Stunning. All that.

I posted a review. The Natchez tourist people follow me on Twitter. Excellent stuff.

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

Alan Furst - Mission to ParisMission to Paris by Alan Furst

His best…so far.

1939, Paris, Berlin, Paris. Subtle, suspense, something else good beginning with ‘s.’

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

The Small Boat of Great SorrowsThe Small Boat of Great Sorrows by Dan Fesperman

The Balkans, the Second World War, the Balkan conflict, Italy. One that gets better the more I think about it. And bought for a song in the Porthcawl RNLI shop. Result.

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

I hope you enjoyed the books you read in 2014 and that you’re looking forward to the ones you’ll read in ’15.

Remember to read real books (that’ll be ones made from paper) and make sure you only ever use Amazon for books if you really can’t avoid it, or until they start paying the right amount of tax. Like you and I do.

*There isn’t a golden bookmark. I made that up.

**Yes, I know…