Whispers Across the Atlantick by David Smith

Whispers Across the Atlantick by David SmithWhispers Across the Atlantick: General William Howe and the American Revolution by David Smith
Published by A&C Black on July 13th 2017
Genres: History, War
Pages: 256
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
two-stars

General William Howe was the commander-in-chief of the British forces during the early campaigns of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). He was an enigma, who appeared on multiple occasions to be on the verge of winning the war for Britain, only to repeatedly fail to deliver the final blow.

Howe evoked passionate reactions in the people he worked with; his men loved him, his second-in-command detested him, his enemies feared him, and his political masters despaired of him. There was even a plot to murder him, in which British officers as well as Americans were implicated.

This book will be the first major work on this inscrutable British general for more than 40 years. Previously largely ignored by historians due to a lack of primary source documents upon which to draw, the author's recent archival discoveries, and ground-breaking research means that there are fascinating new insights to be told about Howe's performance during the American Revolution.

Howe's story includes intrigue, romance, and betrayal, played out on the battlefields of North America and concluding in a courtroom at the House of Commons, where Howe defended his decisions with his reputation and possibly his life on the line. The inquiry, complete with witness testimonies and savage debate between the bitterly divided factions of the British Parliament, forms the framework for the book, giving it the flavor of a courtroom drama rather than a standard military narrative history. As Howe struggles to clear his name, the titanic forces at work during the birth of the United States of America rage around him.

Whispers Across the Atlantick is the story of the American Revolutionary War, told through the eyes of the British commander Lord Howe. It interweaves the story of the military campaign against Howe having to explain himself before parliament after the fact. While the author does a steady job of tracking the various players on both sides of the war I really felt that the personal aspect of the war was lost.

Maybe it is my preference for a more narrative style of nonfiction storytelling but I really found it hard to make headway with this book. There just wasn’t enough to keep me interested, and in the end I decided to stop reading about 2/3rds of the way through.

I guess this is one for those with more of an interest in the British side of the revolutionary war, or those who enjoy a more steady pace in their history books, but it wasn’t for me.

I received a review copy through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

two-stars
Rating Report
Writing
two-stars
Pacing
one-star
Cover
three-stars
Overall: two-stars

The Forever Spy by Jeffrey Layton

The Forever Spy by Jeffrey LaytonThe Forever Spy (Yuri Kirov #2) by Jeffrey Layton
Published by Pinnacle Books on April 25th 2017
Genres: Thriller
Pages: 320
Format: Ebook
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
two-stars

A shocking disaster threatens to trigger a new Cold War . . . Deep beneath the ice-covered Arctic Ocean, a massive oil spill threatens destruction on an untold scale. Yuri Kirov, a former operative for the Russian Navy and an expert in state-of-the-art underwater vessels, is pressed into duty--America's only hope at limiting the damage. When Yuri's past is exposed by a turncoat spy, he is blackmailed into taking on a risky subsea espionage mission. With the future of his newly adopted country at risk--and his loved ones in the line of fire--Yuri must lead his crew into the iciest depths before tensions boil over--while an unseen enemy pushes both superpowers one step closer to the brink . . .

This book had me unequal parts interested and confused throughout, and while I like a good spy thriller, I like it to at least make sense in the end. The Forever Spy reminded me of one of those Celtic knots where the patterns go around and around and interweave with each other, and you’re never quite sure where one starts and ends. There are so many disparate and discordant characters and nation state players in the mix of this book that meant I struggled to follow who was who, what the ultimate stakes were, and I didn’t care for any of it.

I will admit that I had not read the first book in this series, and had not heard of this author before. But I decided to give it a go anyway – there is always room for new players and new ideas in fiction. It is sad for me to say that there was just too much going on here – a secret submarine plot, something-with-Russians, something-with-Chinese, and all of these moving parts just didn’t make sense as an overall picture.

As a consequence of this convolution, I found it very hard to read, and it took me over a week to finish. At the pace I usually read at, and for a book that is supposed to be a genre thriller, something just felt a little off. I really can’t recommend this book over much more polished works in this genre. It was thoroughly unsatisfying from start to finish.

I received this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

two-stars
Rating Report
Plot
one-star
Characters
two-stars
Writing
one-half-stars
Pacing
two-stars
Cover
two-stars
Overall: one-half-stars

Australia’s Most Murderous Prison by James Phelps

Australia’s Most Murderous Prison by James PhelpsAustralia's Most Murderous Prison: Behind the Walls of Goulburn Jail by James Phelps
Published by Random House Australia on July 16th 2015
Genres: True Crime
Pages: 336
Goodreads
four-stars

An unprecedented spate of murders in the 1990s - seven in just three years - earned Goulburn Jail the ominous name of 'The Killing Fields'. Inmates who were sentenced or transferred to the 130-year-old towering sandstone menace declared they had been given a death sentence.

Few of us have a particularly good idea about what goes on behind the walls of the average prison – and most of us would like to keep it that way. In Australia’s Most Murderous Prison, James Phelps takes the reader behind the walls of Goulburn Jail, through the eyes of the officers who stand guard over some of the most dangerous and notorious criminals.

To the average reader, particularly those outside New South Wales, the name Goulburn Jail might not mean much, and there is always the danger that using hyperbolic terms in book titles could backfire. Once you dig into the meat of this book however, you will discover the names – and personalities – of some of the criminals who have littered the headlines of Australian newspapers for the last 30 years. From Ivan Milat to Bilal Skaf, and Australia’s very own homegrown terrorists, many of them are locked up in the Supermax unit of Goulburn Jail.

Phelps doesn’t shy away from telling the gritty and disgusting stories of the things that go on behind prison walls. On occasion he gives warnings of extreme content ahead, but after reading everything that has gone before, one tends to get a little numb to some of the worst things inside. There are plenty of examples of nasty people meeting bloody, nasty ends inside, and while it is difficult to feel sorry for many of the inmates, there are definitely some tragic cases. The author definitely takes a sympathetic stance towards the subjects of the book, which surprisingly enough are the guards, rather than prisoners themselves. But one can hardly blame him for not wanting to glorifying the indefensible.

I think this will definitely appeal to fans of true crime, and learning more about some of the escapades, escapes and capers that go on behind the razor wire of prison. It is not for the faint of heart, however, but I think it has an honesty about it that makes it eminently readable.

four-stars
Rating Report
Writing
four-stars
Pacing
four-stars
Cover
four-stars
Overall: four-stars

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Norse Mythology by Neil GaimanNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
on February 7, 2017
Pages: 304
Goodreads
five-stars

Introducing an instant classic—master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.
Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman fashions primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds; delves into the exploits of the deities, dwarves, and giants; and culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and the rebirth of a new time and people. Gaiman stays true to the myths while vividly reincarnating Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, the son of giants, a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator. From Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerges the gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to dupe others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.

Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite fiction authors of all time, with a solid track record of amazing and engaging novels. When I saw that he had written a book about Norse mythology, I really should not have been as skeptical as I was, but that skepticism kept me from reading this book for a long time.

When you think about myths and legends, they are stories that are passed down from generation to generation, and over time they can adapt and evolve. The stories can be unique, as the story teller puts their own particular spin on the old old stories. And that is ultimately what Gaiman has done with this book, bringing his own brand of humour and craft to these stories.

I was not familiar with a lot of the stories which he was retelling, but I gained a greater understanding of them as they were built upon each other throughout the book. You really get a sense of the relationship between the people of that era and their gods, and of just how capricious and mischievous their deities could be.

There is a recent trend in publishing of retold fairytales, and I suppose to some degree this book fits into that category, since it is difficult to otherwise pigeonhole this masterful creation. Not quite fiction, not quite nonfiction, this should really be enjoyed for what it is, without being concerned with what it is and isn’t.

I am sorry Mr Gaiman, I should have known better than to doubt you.

five-stars
Rating Report
Plot
five-stars
Characters
five-stars
Writing
five-stars
Pacing
five-stars
Cover
four-half-stars
Overall: five-stars

Deep Undercover by Jack Barsky

Deep Undercover by Jack BarskyDeep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America by Jack Barsky, Cindy Coloma, Joe Reilly
Published by Tyndale Momentum on March 21st 2017
Genres: Memoir
Pages: 288
Format: Ebook
Goodreads
two-half-stars

I love a good spy story, particularly the true ones. And the memoir of a KGB spy who lived in America for years without being discovered sounded like a fascinating tale, especially since I love the show The Americans. Deep Undercover is the story of the many lives of Albrecht Dittrich, better known as Jack Barsky, as he moved from the son of East German school teachers, to a chemistry professor, to international man of mystery.

What I found utterly fascinating was his life behind the Iron Curtain, growing up in East Germany which felt almost alien to me. His story is a very ordinary story, a normal family life, but it is set amidst the deprivation, and psychological control of a totalitarian communist regime.

This is a very personal story, and the author does a good job of painting colourful and interesting characters, friends and lovers he meets along the way. In fact, in retrospect, some of the people he meets along the way sound like they have much more interesting stories to tell, particularly the Russian agents who recruited, trained and handled him over the years.

In some ways I felt like this book was a bit of a let down. Dittrich is sent off to the US with high goals as obtaining valid identification documents, and some nebulous task of working his way into a position of influence in high society. Which – by the author’s own admission – seems extremely unlikely at best. I have read the stories of the likes of Robert Hanssen, Aldrich Ames, Kim Philby and other homegrown spies who were just a bit more interesting. Perhaps it is a conscious choice that the author does not speak very much of his intelligence activities, or perhaps he did not accomplish very much, but reading this book you will never know.

By the end of the book I realised that Dittrich/Barsky really isn’t a particularly likeable person, at least as presented in the book. It is difficult to deny his philandering ways, the number of failed marriages, and children left behind in his wake. And while there is a redemption at the end of the book, once his identity was revealed by the FBI, it seems like it was foisted on him by happenstance, rather than by choice

The other thing I found a little odious was the denouement where – mostly because he was trying to get into the pants of his secretary – he converts to Christianity, and everything – including his decades of agnosticism – takes on a rosy glow of revisionist belief in an interventionist god. Religion isn’t my thing, and I could have done without the hardcore proselytising he engages in towards the end. It just felt like a disingenuous end to a story which devolved from a potentially interesting spy novel to something akin to soap opera melodrama.

When I first finished the book I had somewhat different feelings to now with the benefit of hindsight. This was a promising story that I felt pulled too many punches, and lacked details of the most interesting parts of this man’s life, which is the actual spy stuff. I am interested in hearing the stories of the Russians like Sergei, and Eugen… which will probably never happen.

two-half-stars
Rating Report
Characters
three-stars
Writing
two-half-stars
Pacing
three-stars
Cover
three-stars
Overall: three-stars

Traitor’s Gait by Geoffrey Osbourne

Traitor's Gait by Geoffrey Osborne
Published by Endeavour Press Genres: Thriller
Format: Ebook
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
three-stars

The Russian space research centre just outside Moscow is surrounded by searchlight and machine-gun towers; the inner perimeter fence is electrified and the place is strongly guarded by the KGB and by the GRU (military security).

But Britain wants the secrets of the space bomb which is being developed there, and the Director of Britain’s SS(O)S has worked out a plan to get them.

It is worth bearing in mind that this book was published in 1969, and so some of the things that would probably be unforgivable in a modern spy thriller must be tolerated. Traitor’s Gait is the story of a small team of agents who must infiltrate a Russian space facility to steal the plans to a wonderful space macguffin before it becomes operational and threatens the world.

I enjoy reading a variety of styles of thriller, from the hard-bitten style of John Lecarre through to more action packed authors like Tom Clancy. Although it is only a relatively short book, the pacing felt a little off at times. There were times when events raced by without stopping for more than a cursory explanation, and there were other times when it was trying to build that core of a novel.

I think with a lot of spy thrillers, you can respect a novel for the time it was written in, but they are not always going to be relevant in today’s society. I felt like the plot was a little James Bondish, which didn’t help with the atmosphere, and to be honest… it just felt a little silly, and the twist and turns that were there wound up confusing me.

I respect the publisher for their efforts to resurrect books that were written way back when, but this book really wasn’t for me. I would have liked it to be a full length novel, to allow the author to explore some of the ideas, and to really flesh out the characters and set up the situation properly.

If throw back old school spy novels are you sort of thing, you might give this a whirl.

I received a copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

three-stars
Rating Report
Plot
three-stars
Characters
four-stars
Writing
three-stars
Pacing
two-half-stars
Cover
three-stars
Overall: three-stars

Trojan by Alan McDermott

Trojan by Alan McDermottTrojan by Alan McDermott
Published by Thomas & Mercer on January 12th 2017
Genres: Thriller
Pages: 300
Format: Ebook
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
four-stars

When MI5 learns that a horrifying new weapon is in enemy hands, agent Andrew Harvey is called in to track it down before it reaches British soil.
The clock is ticking. Andrew and his girlfriend, Sarah, also a secret service operative, have only one lead: a beautiful refugee, desperate not to lose her son. But is she desperate enough to betray everything she believes in? And will she do it in time to help them prevent a terrifying attack?
As Andrew and Sarah race to unravel a convoluted web of subterfuge and exploitation, they discover there is more at stake than even they knew. And somewhere, at the heart of it, lurks a faceless enemy, who is prepared to use everything—and everyone—at his disposal.

Trojan is a well-crafted thriller which has the underpinnings of reality, as the plotline feels like things we often hear about in the news. British intelligence is charged with tracking down a terrorist group who have used a rather ingenious method to smuggle a dangerous biological weapon into the UK.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t particularly care about the protagonists of the story, but the author did a good job of building an emotional connection with some of the women who were caught up in the middle – voluntarily or otherwise – of the terrorist plot. I thought the author did a good job of ramping up the tension throughout the novel, and all in all I felt this was a well-written, extremely competent thriller.

A solid effort in a crowded marketplace, and I will be investigating this author’s future releases with interest.

I received a review copy through NetGalley from the publisher.

four-stars
Rating Report
Plot
four-stars
Characters
three-stars
Writing
four-half-stars
Pacing
four-half-stars
Cover
four-stars
Overall: four-stars

The Conquering Tide by Ian W Toll

The Conquering Tide by Ian W TollThe Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 by Ian W. Toll
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on October 18, 2016
Genres: History
Pages: 688
Goodreads
three-stars

The devastation of Pearl Harbor and the American victory at Midway were prelude to a greater challenge: rolling back the vast Japanese Pacific empire, island by island.
This masterful history encompasses the heart of the Pacific War—the period between mid-1942 and mid-1944—when parallel Allied counteroffensives north and south of the equator washed over Japan's far-flung island empire like a "conquering tide," concluding with Japan's irreversible strategic defeat in the Marianas. It was the largest, bloodiest, most costly, most technically innovative and logistically complicated amphibious war in history, and it fostered bitter interservice rivalries, leaving wounds that even victory could not heal.
Often overlooked, these are the years and fights that decided the Pacific War. Ian W. Toll's battle scenes—in the air, at sea, and in the jungles—are simply riveting. He also takes the reader into the wartime councils in Washington and Tokyo where politics and strategy often collided, and into the struggle to mobilize wartime production, which was the secret of Allied victory. Brilliantly researched, the narrative is propelled and colored by firsthand accounts—letters, diaries, debriefings, and memoirs—that are the raw material of the telling details, shrewd judgment, and penetrating insight of this magisterial history.

Subtitled War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944, The Conquering Tide is a tour de force of American triumphalism covering the first three years of its involvement in the Second World War. If you didn’t pick up that vibe from the front cover, it becomes immediately apparent that this is a fairly one-eyed look at some choice pieces of American history, and the destruction of the Japanese empire.

The book covers the period from 1942-1944, although it is a little fuzzy around the edges for historical context, and broadly paints the picture of American military and industrial might on the warpath as it neatly rolls through the Pacific War with hardly as much as a How-ya-doing? The book does offer for context some insights into the Japanese mindset, through excerpts from diary entries, and interrogations after the war, but its main interest is in how much cigar chomping ass-kickery the Americans managed in this period.

This is an extremely long, extremely impressive book for what it does cover, including action-packed descriptions of naval and air battles between the opposing forces. It also captures a good feeling of both the generals and admirals doing the commanding, and the soldiers on the ground doing the dying. There are some particularly harrowing descriptions, especially of the battle of Guadalcanal, and the aftermaths of naval engagements. But if one were to read this book in isolation, you might be left with the impression that America was the only nation doing the fighting on the allies’ side. The British rate a mention only as being obstructions to American success in the Pacific, with their silly ideas of ‘Germany First’. And I know for a fact that the Australians were present in some of these places doing the fighting and the dying.

As I said at the beginning, this is a triumphant look at history through an American lens. However, I was left with the question of why the author stopped in 1944, as there was still plenty of fighting to do in 1945. We are left on the cusp of the final events of World War 2, including the bombing of Japan, the development and dropping of the atomic bombs. There were certainly enough work put into justifying the use of the atomic bomb, but the book never went there.

I would say that this book is a book of action, and is not afraid of getting down and dirty with the troops on the ground. But it should not be read, or understood, in isolation without the benefit of other points of view. I recommend the excellent book The Fleet at Flood Tide, which describes more of the naval action in 1944-1945 if that’s your thing. I ultimately found this book just a bit too on the nose.

three-stars
Rating Report
Writing
three-stars
Pacing
three-stars
Cover
four-stars
Overall: three-stars

Star Wars: Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig

Star Wars: Empire’s End by Chuck WendigAftermath: Empire's End (Star Wars: Aftermath, #3) by Chuck Wendig
Published by Del Rey Books on February 21st 2017
Genres: Sci-Fi
Pages: 423
Goodreads
four-stars

Following "Star Wars: Aftermath" and "Star Wars: Life Debt," Chuck Wendig delivers the exhilarating conclusion to the "New York Times" bestselling trilogy set in the years between "Return of the Jedi" and "The Force Awakens."

I’m not going to lie, this book left me wanting more. And not always in a good way either. Empire’s End is the third book in a sort of literary game of join the dots by Chuck Wendig which seeks to explain some of the events which took place between the end of Return of the Jedi, and the start of the new canon with The Force Awakens. The problem is that the span of time between those two movies is far too long to bridge in a single trilogy of books, but Empire’s End does a reasonable job of setting up some of the plot hooks and situations which pay off in the seventh movie.

As I think anyone who has seen the newest Star Wars movie will know, the Empire doesn’t really end, per se. It adapts and evolves into something else – the First Order – which serve as the antagonists for the next trilogy of movies. Which left me wondering about the story of how the galactic empire went from ruling most of the known galaxy – which in retrospect seems a little ludicrous when you think about it – to almost nothing in short order. (no pun intended)

This is a story about the crumbling of the last remnants of an organised empire, who are fighting over their little kingdoms, or over the ship they control. With the loss of the central power, in the form of the Emperor, there is a few left with any kind of real power, and they all want to become the new Emperor. Some are more open in their ambitions, while others work behind the scenes to bring about their plans. And I will be honest, I was intrigued to see their sides of the story as much as I was the good guys points of view. I was reminded in parts of Claudia Gray’s book Lost Stars, which was told from an imperial perspective, and while most of the characters are pretty unsympathetic, you can definitely feel the sense of loss and uncertainty in the power vacuum.

One of my problems with this trilogy is that I feel there is a certain inescapable analogy to some of the politics which are happening in the real world, which I honestly could have done without. But I am really enjoying this new, grittier look at the Star Wars universe, and I really hope they are going to release more books which fill in the 20 year gap between the movies. As I said at the outset, this book helps to join the dots, in terms of the concepts, but there is still this huge gap which needs to be filled with action and excitement. The politics of Star Wars has always been a bit sketchy for me, and I don’t really want more long-winded explanations of Old Republic or trade politics, or comedies of manners.

I want action, excitement, an emotional connection with old favourite characters, and the occasional stupid catch phrase. And this book delivers on all of those things, tedious politics included. I enjoyed this book more than the previous two, and felt more of a connection to the characters I had been on an adventure with.

Fans of Star Wars will enjoy this, particularly those who were looking for answers after the seventh movie. Empire’s End is well-written, and provides an albeit tentative step into the vast distance between episode VI and episode VII.

four-stars
Rating Report
Plot
four-stars
Characters
four-half-stars
Writing
four-stars
Pacing
four-stars
Cover
four-stars
Overall: four-stars

The Fallen Gatekeepers by C R Fladmark

The Fallen Gatekeepers by C R FladmarkThe Fallen Gatekeepers by C.R. Fladmark
Published by Shokunin Publishing Company on February 15th 2017
Genres: Urban Fantasy
Format: Ebook
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
two-stars

Being a modern teenager is complicated. Family expectations. Japanese teenage-girl warriors. Shape shifting lizard-men. Alternate worlds. All a day in the life of Junya Thompson. It’s been months since sixteen-year-old Junya survived his savage battle with the Evil Ones, but now that he’s back in San Francisco he's still feeling the effects. His limp is slow to heal, his shoulder aches from the bite that should have killed him, and black poison lingers in his blood, tainting his life energy. The Gatekeepers of Izumo Oyashiro, land of the gods, fear he’s been permanently affected and are reluctant to allow him to return to their realm.

The Fallen Gatekeepers seems like a relatively standard portal fantasy, with people from Earth with special powers being able to travel between worlds as and when it’s convenient for them, and people from a very tightly controlled society in an alternate dimension which sounds suspiciously like Japan who travel to our dimension. It has magic, lizard people who can take on the appearance of human beings, with the inventive name of “the evil ones”…

And that’s what I don’t get about this book – it’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer at times, and spends way too hard on creating some sort of allegory, without taking the time to focus on telling a decent story. Part of my problem was that the book is told in first person perspective, and I never felt like I could connect with the main character. I thought the author was trying just a bit too hard to sell the message of the corrupting outside influence on an otherwise closed society of Totally-Not-Japan. And although I’m an adult, and do not consider myself prudish, I thought the fact that the Japanese Schoolgirls’ magic was powered by sex was a bit too much for me. That is before I even mention the fact that one of the teenaged protagonists is basically gifted a Porsche sportscar when they don’t even know how to drive.

I think when you’re writing in a genre that is crowded with competitors, you really have to do something to stand out from the pack. I really felt this was just… generic… with ham-fisted plotting and world-building. While this book may well be of interest to a younger audience, but there are some definite themes involved that make me wonder just what audience this is intended for. I suspect that most adult readers would find it overly simplistic, and the characters too childish.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

It might be someone’s idea of a fantasy, but I won’t be going back.

I received a review copy from the publisher through NetGalley.

two-stars
Rating Report
Plot
three-stars
Characters
one-half-stars
Writing
two-stars
Pacing
two-half-stars
Cover
three-half-stars
Overall: two-half-stars