The Desert Air War by Richard Townshend Bickers

The Desert Air War by Richard Townshend BickersThe Desert Air War by Richard Townshend Bickers
Published by Endeavour Press on January 1st 1991
Genres: History
Format: Ebook
Goodreads
four-stars

The Desert Air War is the story of the fighting men who took part in the North Africa, and to a lesser extent the Mediterranean and Italian campaigns during the Second World War. Some time ago I read another of Bickers’ books, which covered the First World War, and I was very impressed with how he managed to capture a great sense of the battlefield as a whole, and the individuals who are duelling above it.

I think when one considers the events of World War 2, the desert war is often forgotten with the focus on the great air battles over Britain, or Germany. I knew of some of the tales which have become legend, such as the valiant defence of Malta, but I really couldn’t have told you much else about the North African campaign from a air forces perspective. The Desert Air War serves as a great primer on the personalities, and competing technologies which did battle above the perhaps better known land battles.

I really enjoyed this book, and found that it was told from a very personal perspective, and was embodied with a great sense of humour which must have kept the pilots and ground crews sane throughout the war. It is somewhat lacking in terms of maps, and a sense of the bigger picture, but I don’t think that’s the author’s objective here. A thoroughly enjoyable read!

four-stars
Rating Report
Characters
five-stars
Writing
five-stars
Cover
five-stars
Overall: five-stars

SPIRE by Fiona Snyckers

SPIRE by Fiona SnyckersSpire by Fiona Snyckers
Published by Clockwork Books on March 25th 2017
Genres: Politics
Format: Ebook
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
one-star

A container of viruses - mutated and cryogenically frozen - is brought under heavy guard to SPIRE, a remote research station in Antarctica. Within days, people are dying of diseases that haven't been seen since the middle ages.

Surgeon and virologist, Dr Caroline Burchell, struggles to contain the outbreak as a vicious polar storm lashes the base. The weather prevents any help from getting through to the loneliest outpost on earth.

Soon Caroline discover that the only thing worse than being alone in this desolate place is not being alone.

This compulsive thriller with its compassionate and resourceful heroine will keep you turning pages late into the night. Spire is a sequel to Fiona Snyckers' suspense novel Now Following You, which was long-listed for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize.

SPIRE by Fiona Snyckers is without a doubt the worst book I have read this year. I hear Homer Simpson in the back of my head saying “so far” but I think this one has the legs to take on any contenders.

The main character, Dr Caroline Mary-Sue, is a surgeon/virologist/genius who goes to Antarctica to work at the ridiculously named South Pole International Research Establishment. She is separated from her know-it-all daughter and her co-habitant male companion, but fortunately they are only a quick skype call away.

Shortly after she arrives, people start falling sick, with a diverse array of infectious diseases to which our erstwhile hero is conveniently all immune. She is left, seemingly alone, in a facility filled with dead bodies, and is forced to survive because the research foundation is a bunch of uncaring arseholes who think she is the murderer and don’t want to send a rescue for her.

Naturally she insists that she is innocent, and must set about working through back channels to survive, and uncover the real culprit behind the murders of her colleagues. Everyone from the establishment to INTERPOL seems prepared to let her just starve, freeze and die in the next 8-9 months.

That’s the premise out of the way, let’s talk about the politics of this book.

In the opening pages there is a discussion of “light skin privilege”, and this trend of feminist ideology continues throughout the novel. I don’t think this book could have been any more feminist if it tried, with a brilliant, misunderstood woman fighting against an uncaring patriarchy, and its legion of incompetent predominantly male minions. This hits all the hot button topics from Islamophobia and racial profiling, to general dismissal of our heroine’s brilliance. Fortunately, there are also a few allies to help her along the way.

This book is trying way too hard to be a sort of Flashdance/Alien crossover, and its premise of one girl against the world quickly grows old. Dr Mary-Sue is an unsympathetic know it all who can basically do everything. There were times when she was called on to do some scientific mumbo-jumbo – which I didn’t really understand, but thought it would have been outside of her field of expertise – that was just sort of handwaved.

Okay, her name isn’t really Dr Mary-Sue.

Despite being stuck in Antarctica, she also seems to have extremely convenient constant access to the internet, although she mostly uses it for skyping and … WebMD (basically). I live in a major city and my internet isn’t that great, yet this seems to be no barrier to her.

The “bad guy” is basically an autistic guy who sits in a closet and watches her on closed circuit television. I say “bad guy” for lack of a better term, since everyone in the entire world besides her immediate family, and a few close internet friends, are basically servants of the patriarchy and are therefore “bad guys”. At one point Dr Mary-Sue says that at least her academic colleagues recognise the brilliance of her research while the establishment are just prepared to let her die in a freezing hell. Very eye roll worthy.

This is what happens when authors try to write techno-thrillers full of empowering feminist messages. It’s tedious, it feels incredibly inauthentic, and a lot of the action and events feel entirely cartoonish.

The only reason I stuck with the book – apart from my own masochism – was to see how badly it would all end, and needless to say the author didn’t let me down. This was an awful read from the first page to the last, and lacks any kind of momentum. Whatever pitfalls the main character encounters you already know are going to be overcome through some deus ex machina, or klutzy awesomeness.

The blurb of the book sounded interesting enough, which is why I picked it up in the first place. And if the author had taken that promise and run with it, developed proper freaking tension, and given the main character some legitimate challenges to overcome, and not just insta-win buttons for everything, this might have been a readable book.

At least it was short.

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

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

Hunted by Philip McCutchan

Hunted by Philip McCutchanHunted by Philip McCutchan
Published by Endeavour Press on March 17, 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction, War
Pages: 176
Format: Ebook
Goodreads

Hunted is a fictional story set in World War 2, pitting the hero of the story and his tiny destroyer against the might of the German navy in the form of its brand new battleship which is threatening to disrupt the convoys that form the lifeline of the allied powers.

I came across this book not knowing that it was the 11th in the series, but at no stage did I feel like I was missing out on anything for not having read the previous books. Cameron is your stereotypical action hero standing at the wheel of his ship as it fights against impossible odds, etc etc etc.

If you look at the setup of this book, it is fairly easy to see that the author drew from historical references – the big bad battleship is obviously a reference to the Tirpitz, and its companions are analogs for the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Although the tale itself is more akin to the story of the hunt for the Bismark, which was my initial impression until the author references the sinking of that vessel part way through the novel.

As with a lot of military thrillers, particularly those set during World War 2 it seems, obvious liberties are taken with logic, military protocol, and general practicalities. But let’s face it, that’s not the sort of thing you are looking for when you read a book like Hunted.

This is a short read, and if dashing tales of derringdo on rinky dink destroyers is your sort of thing, then this might be worth a look.

Black Phoenix by George Bernau

Black Phoenix by George BernauBlack Phoenix by George Bernau
Published by Warner Books (NY) on April 26, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 291
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
three-half-stars

In the end, final victory will rise from the ashes... These words found in Hitler's bombed-out shelter were a deadly code. From the bestselling author of Candle in the Wind and Promises to Keep comes a classic WWII thriller of villainous acts, heroic risks, and a deadly Third Reich promise.

Black Phoenix is an alternate history novel, set during the closing stages of the second world war. It follows a couple of operatives who must track down the secrets of a mysterious program named Phoenix, which seeks to carry on the Third Reich through deception.

Although this book is primarily told from the point of view of Allied operatives, the author does an interesting job of taking the reader into the underground bunker, and the crazy world of a dying Nazi Germany. I really got the sense of the desperation and panic of people who were under attack and – from their point of view – just trying to survive. I am not saying that the Germans were sympathetic by any means, far from it, but it was a point of view I had not come across before.

I thought the author did a good job of building (mostly) believable characters, and building on his interesting premise by interweaving real historical events, such as the South American connections to the Nazi regime. It is, however, just a little bit silly, in the way that gungho ra-ra military thrillers always are, but one doesn’t read this sort of book looking for historical accuracy.

My other problem with this book was the amount of teleportation that goes on, with events seeming to skip around the world at a whim. I would have liked to have had a better idea of just where things were taking place. But I quibble.

Black Phoenix was an entertaining read, and is a step up from the kind of boys’ own adventure tales. Originally published in 1994, I feel like this is a throwback to an earlier era of publishing. If a reader is looking for something more serious, perhaps Len Deighton’s books, or The Man in the High Castle might suit, but this was a good time.

I received a review copy through NetGalley from the publisher.

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

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Fool’s Assassin by Robin HobbFool's Assassin by Robin Hobb
Series: ,
Published by Del Rey on August 12th 2014
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 688
Format: Ebook
Goodreads
one-star

Tom Badgerlock has been living peaceably in the manor house at Withywoods with his beloved wife Molly these many years, the estate a reward to his family for loyal service to the crown.

But behind the facade of respectable middle-age lies a turbulent and violent past. For Tom Badgerlock is actually FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the Farseer line, convicted user of Beast-magic, and assassin. A man who has risked much for his king and lost more…

On a shelf in his den sits a triptych carved in memory stone of a man, a wolf and a fool. Once, these three were inseparable friends: Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool. But one is long dead, and one long-missing.

Then one Winterfest night a messenger arrives to seek out Fitz, but mysteriously disappears, leaving nothing but a blood-trail. What was the message? Who was the sender? And what has happened to the messenger?

Suddenly Fitz's violent old life erupts into the peace of his new world, and nothing and no one is safe.

I have a love-hate relationship with Robin Hobb, and I am afraid that it is mostly hate, given her track history. I was somewhat hesitant at picking up another Fitz book, especially one which is another 700 page doorstop of a book set essentially after Fitz has retired from public life. Retiree adventurers don’t seem that exciting, right?

I was willing to give Fool’s Assassin a go, and I was dragged into what I thought was a deep and emotional journey of someone dealing with a dementia-like illness, as Fitz’s partner begins to believe that she is pregnant, despite her advanced age, and lack of pregnantness. (pregnancy? – ed) This then took a turn for the best – I guess – when it turned out Molly wasn’t going crazy, and she was actually pregnant.

And that is where the author lost almost all interest for me. She spent the next 600 pages introducing us to the character of the daughter, and weaving a lot of intriguing events around the family. This has been my problem with Hobb all along, and that is that she is great at building characters, but the story goes absolutely nowhere. The cast of characters is enormous, and they all have their agendas, but there is nothing tying all of this together. This feels like what should be the first third of a book of this size, rather than 700 pages of indulgent snorefest.

There were some interesting moments – particularly the daughter’s relationships with the various animals she interacts with – but the rest of the story seems utterly inconsequential. It’s like the author spent 700 pages dropping hints and suggestions about what was going to happen in the actual story, which I can only assume occurs in the second book.

The end of the book is even more confusing, as it offers a lot of wild action (FINALLY) with no real explanation, and abandons the reader on a cliffhanger that I for one did not give a damn about. If I was not reading this for review I would have abandoned it long before I hit the bitter and lame duck ending.

I suppose I understand why people enjoy Robin Hobb, but for me this novel went absolutely nowhere, and asked me to invest in a bunch of characters without giving me any reason to do so. This should have been a prologue, not an entire novel. I like my fantasy to actually involve some sort of action, not just a bunch of mystery and no forward motion.

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

Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith

Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz SmithStalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith
Series: ,
Published by Simon & Schuster on June 12th 2007
Genres: Detective
Pages: 352
Goodreads
four-stars

Investigator Arkady Renko, the pariah of the Moscow prosecutor’s office, has been assigned the thankless job of investigating a new phenomenon: late-night subway riders report seeing the ghost of Joseph Stalin on the platform of the Chistye Prudy Metro station. The illusion seems part political hocus-pocus and also part wishful thinking, for among many Russians Stalin is again popular; the bloody dictator can boast a two-to-one approval rating. Decidedly better than that of Renko, whose lover, Eva, has left him for Detective Nikolai Isakov, a charismatic veteran of the civil war in Chechnya, a hero of the far right and, Renko suspects, a killer for hire. The cases entwine, and Renko’s quests become a personal inquiry fueled by jealousy.

The investigation leads to the fields of Tver outside of Moscow, where once a million soldiers fought. There, amidst the detritus, Renko must confront the ghost of his own father, a favorite general of Stalin’s. In these barren fields, patriots and shady entrepreneurs—the Red Diggers and Black Diggers—collect the bones, weapons and personal effects of slain World War II soldiers, and find that even among the dead there are surprises.

Stalin’s Ghost is replete with Martin Cruz Smith’s trademark wit, dark humor and action. In this tale of Arkady Renko, Smith has again fashioned an unforgettable character as cynical as Philip Marlowe, but with the heart of a Chekhovian Everyman. The reader is treated to an unparalleled thriller woven with a depth of humanity found in the finest literature.

In the realm of detective novels, there are hard-bitten, heavy-drinking, trenchcoat-wearing characters… and then there is Arkady Renko, the star of novels by Martin Cruz Smith, and a staple of the genre for the last 30+ years. In Smith’s latest offering, our erstwhile detective must face down the ghosts of the past – both his own, and the nation’s – to resolve a mystery involving political scandals, World War 2 relics, and the ghosts of a more recent war in Russia’s history.

After reports of the ghost of Joseph Stalin haunting a local train station, Arkady is given the thankless job of getting to the bottom of it. And this isn’t your average mass-murdery Stalin either, it’s the lesser-known, sociable, waving Stalin. Clearly there are shenanigans afoot, and as he is the single most-disliked detective in Moscow it’s given to him.

There is one thing that is undeniable about Cruz Smith, and that is his deep understanding of the Russian psyche, and his ultra-dedication both to his craft, and depicting a rich and accurate picture of his characters and the world which they inhabit. I have probably missed a few Arkady Renko novels in recent years, but it took no time at all to fall back into his mindset.

Renko finds himself personally entangled in the whole mess, through his off-again-on-again girlfriend, his adopted son’s growing friendship with those involved, as well as his inability to find a woman for whom he isn’t prepared to drop his drawers. I don’t mean to sound unkind, but he’s not the most likeable character, but he does have a good heart.

The supporting cast of characters, particularly Zhenya and the aging chess grandmaster provide interesting elements to the story, although sometimes the entanglements seem a bit too convenient for the plot. However, the book had me hooked until the end, through a combination of mystery, the kind of atmosphere you can chew on, and a well spun tale that reached through the fog of war to explore some of the darker moments in human history.

Stalin’s Ghost is a well-crafted, very Russian detective story that will keep you entertained. I would say, however, that this is probably not for new readers to Martin Cruz Smith’s characters, as they do require some prior knowledge to understand the web of relationships that are involved.

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

Sub Rosa by Stewart Alsop, Braden Thomas

Sub Rosa by Stewart Alsop, Braden ThomasSub Rosa: The O. S. S. and American Espionage by Stewart Alsop, Thomas Braden
Published by Open Road Media on June 7th 2016
Pages: 237
Goodreads
four-stars

A thrilling history of the Office of Strategic Services, America’s precursor to the CIA, and its secret operations behind enemy lines during World War II. Born in the fires of the Second World War, the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, was the brainchild of legendary US Maj. Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, designed to provide covert aid to resistance fighters in European nations occupied by Germany’s Nazi aggressors.

Sub Rosa is a brief, action-packed history of the early years of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War 2 predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency. The authors were there on the front lines, and write with an eminently readable style that draws the reader into the world of secret missions into occupied territory.

This is no great indepth analysis of the history of the war, but rather a quick and dirty look at the quick and dirty parts of the war that few knew about at the time, and in some cases remain a mystery this day. It is worth noting that this was originally published in the wake of the second world war, but I still found new insights into the history of the organisation some 70 years down the track.

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

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

A very expensive poison by Luke Harding

A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia's War with the West by Luke Harding
Published by Guardian Faber Publishing on February 11th 2016
Genres: Politics, True Crime
Pages: 432
Format: Ebook
Goodreads

1 November 2006. Alexander Litvinenko is brazenly poisoned in central London. Twenty two days later he dies, killed from the inside. The poison? Polonium; a rare, lethal and highly radioactive substance. His crime? He had made some powerful enemies in Russia.

Based on the best part of a decade's reporting, as well as extensive interviews with those closest to the events (including the murder suspects), and access to trial evidence, Luke Harding's A Very Expensive Poison is the definitive inside story of the life and death of Alexander Litvinenko. Harding traces the journey of the nuclear poison across London, from hotel room to nightclub, assassin to victim; it is a deadly trail that seemingly leads back to the Russian state itself.

This is a shocking real-life revenge tragedy with corruption and subterfuge at every turn, and walk-on parts from Russian mafia, the KGB, MI6 agents, dedicated British coppers, Russian dissidents. At the heart of this all is an individual and his family torn apart by a ruthless crime.

Russia is something of an enigma to most people in the west, and our perceptions of the country, its politicians, and history are definitely coloured by what we see in the media. Luke Harding’s book seeks to lift some of the veil which surrounds the country in his book ‘A very expensive poison’ which describes the poisoning of a man named Alexander Litvinenko, allegedly or apparently by agents working on behalf of the Russian government. I remember the events surrounding the poisoning, and while at the time there was a lot of noise made about who was responsible for it, nothing ever seemed to come of it, at least in my country.

The author takes us right into the world of intrigue and violence which is going on – often in plain sight – and tells a deeply personal story of what happened, and uncovers the actors who were behind the events, at least to a point. Harding is an experienced reporter, who writes in a clear and very readable style, and you get the sense of his presence there on the front lines. I suppose if a false flag job, or secret mission is pulled off successfully, there is always going to be some element of doubt remaining about the true puppetmasters. The author makes his views fairly clear, and also knows the limits on the information available to him.

I really enjoyed this book, although the story itself is a deeply tragic one, and it provided some satisfying answers about a political assassination which happened not in some strange country, but right in the heart of London. In the current environment, with a significant amount of interest in Russia and its influence in the world, this is a very relevant and cogent piece that should be of interest to anyone wanting to know more.

An intriguing spy thriller worthy of any fiction master… except that it is a true story.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley RobinsonNew York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published by Orbit on March 14th 2017
Genres: Sci-Fi
Pages: 613
Format: Ebook
Goodreads
three-stars

It is 2140.

The waters rose, submerging New York City.

But the residents adapted and it remained the bustling, vibrant metropolis it had always been. Though changed forever.

Every street became a canal. Every skyscraper an island.

Through the eyes of the varied inhabitants of one building, Kim Stanley Robinson shows us how one of our great cities will change with the rising tides.

And how we too will change.

I had, and still have, very mixed feelings about New York 2140. I suspected going in that I would not be dealing with a traditional narrative, and I was not disappointed from that point of view. This is the story of a group of individuals who are living in New York in the eponymous year, after two major ice cap melt events, and after the flooding of the city. The lives of the characters are intertwined and very separate, but they are brought together through a common purpose, and desire for a community amidst the chaos which has ensued.

I was struggling with how to categorise this story, and I realised that it reminded me of the show Friends. There are a group of characters who are each living their lives, with their own goals and passions, but they are all united together by friendship. The novel is a story of their lives and loves, and how they band together to solve the inevitable problems and hardships that face them in a world which is partially submerged, but not what I would categorise as a post-apocalyptic or dystopian society.

The characters are all very individual, and well fleshed out through the story. There are the financial advisors, the quants, the treasure-hunting teenagers, the police woman, the airheaded “internet star” who flies around in her airship carrying animals from place to place, and the list goes on and on. Whether it is for good or ill, they are all given their time to shine, although there is a definite hierarchy of main characters. Robinson paints an interesting picture of the kinds of people who survive and thrive in this new kind of environment, and his world-building is spectacular.

The book is not without its problems, however. There is a very definite overtone criticising the current attitude towards climate science, the financial markets, and capitalism in general. The author lays it on thick and heavyhanded with his own views of what happened to society through the 20th and early 21st Century, which ultimately lead to world being in the fucked-up position it is in the story. I am not against books having a ‘message’ I suppose, and to some degree that has always been a function of the science fiction genre, but this is not subtle and is rather odious in places. The book also is a bit too clever, or aware of itself, as the author deliberately breaks the fourth wall at times out of deep satisfaction at his own cleverness. And I was not okay with that.

While I don’t want to stray too much into spoiler territory, what the residents of the tower do at the end of the book is extremely utopian in nature, and almost drove me up the wall.

Overall I enjoyed the characters and the world which Robinson has created, and the story he has told through a more leisurely slice-of-life style. This is not plot-heavy science fiction, the plot swirls around the characters like the ever-present tides, but it is secondary to the personal relationships that they share. There were some very entertaining moments in the book – mostly involving the airship pilot, including a very memorable scene involving polar bears gaining control – and the treasure hunting teenagers always brought some levity to the story.

I can see how this book will divide readers who are looking for straight up science fiction. I enjoyed the style as a whole, and did not mind some of the philosophical elements, but this ultimately felt too much like the author was beating you over the head with a book on Marxism at times.

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

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