Book review roundup – Summer 2015

All by Steve Earles:

Towards The Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia’ by Dominic Lieven

Published by Allen Lane

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Make no mistake, Russia’s decision to mobilise its armed forces in July 1914 was one of the most disastrous decisions in the history of the 20th century.

Russia’s army, though vast, was inefficiently run and technologically backward by comparison to the German Army. Yet in Russia, the hawks’ clamour for war drowned out that of the doves who cautioned peace. The hawks in their own short-sighted way meant well. They were convinced that a great victory would bring glory to Russia and secure the Tsar’s reign.

Alas, what it brought was a massive death toll to the Russian Army in the Great War, carnage on a scale unprecedented. Two revolutions followed, one of which, the October Revolution led to Communists gaining controlled of a weakened and lawless Russia. Their reign would last for decades, and Communism would spread to many other parts of the world, such as China and Cuba. It led to the destruction of the ruling Romanov dynasty, and the brutal murder of the Tsar, his wife, children, and many other members of his family. From this chaos grew the Russian Civil War, one of the bloodiest and costliest wars in human history, and one that truly should be more well known. Russia’s ruling classes found themselves in exile, imprisoned, or dead. The country they loved and had tried by the wrong means to save, found itself in the clutches of tyrants like Lenin and Stalin, who were far worse than any of their Tsarist predecessors (save perhaps Ivan the Terrible, a hero of Stalin’s). Millions would die in purges, persecutions, Gulags, and man-made famines as the Bolsheviks consolidated their rule with the only means they understood: Permanent Terror.

That decision of Russia to mobilise in July 1914 had world-shaking consequences that we are still leaving with today. Look at the situation in Ukraine, for instance.

Dominic Lieven is a Senior Researcher of Trinity College, Cambridge University and a fellow of the British Academy. His book ‘Nicholas II: Emperor of all the Russias’, is superb, and one of my favourite books on Russian history. He won the prize of the Foundation Napoleon for the best foreign work on the Napoleonic era and Wolfson Prize for his book ’Russia Against Napoleon’, so he is more than qualified to tell the story of the terrible results of that decision.

Indeed, even the title of his book is apt. Russia was very much driven like a moth towards a candle flame and her own destruction.

One of the great things that differentiates this fine work from many other books on the same events in Russian history is that Lieven tells the story mostly from a Russian point-of-view, which is a very important contribution to make to the canon of literature on this subject. He shows us the results of bad decisions made by men who should have known better. Their attempts to keep the lid on a boiling pot, only made it explode all the more violently. His showing of Russia, before, during, and afterwards is superb. And as I said, we are living in a world forged in part by those bad decisions.

Like Sean McMeekin, another fine historian of this period, he sees the significance of Russia and Eastern Europe in World War One.

Finally, Lieven is not just a brilliant historian, but a very fine and accessible writer. I cannot recommend this book enough, if you want to learn what helped shaped the world we know live in, this is the ideal book.

Gin Glorious Gin: How Mother’s Ruin Became The Spirit of London’ by Olivia Williams

Published by Headline

Reviewed by Steve Earles

What a splendid idea, a cultural history of London seen through the drink most associated with it: gin!

Olivia covers such gin-related matters as the Georgian Gin Craze, the popularity of the Gin & Tonic, and the emergence of the cocktail bars in the West End, to present day resurgence of gin- The Ginnaissance (now that is a very witty name!).

Gin is a classless drink, rich and poor alike have embrace it. If gin could talk it would have some stories to tell. In this book, through Olivia William’s fine prose, it does so with class (in a glass!).

Apart from the amazing history of gin in London, the true revelation of ‘Gin Glorious Gin’ is it’s fabulous author, a future literary star in the making. Olivia rights with such skill and enthusiasm on her chosen subject (and tipple!) that’s impossible not get swept along.

Olivia brings history to life in the most entertaining fashion. This book is a fine frisk through the social history of London in the company of Dickens, Churchill, and Hogarth.

Well done Olivia, and Bottoms Up! Highly recommended.


British Horror Film Locations’ by Derek Pykett

Forewords by Freddie Francis and Pete Walker

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This is a terrific idea for a book, and Derek Pykett more than does justice to his grand concept, producing an extensive listing for the locations of over a hundred British horror films that were shot between 1932 and 2006, including such classic films as ‘Witchfinder General’ and ‘The Abominable Doctor Phibes’.

Each film is given cast and crew credits, plot synopsis, and details of in-studio or on-site shooting locations.

Separate chapters cover shooting locations and studios in in-depth detail, with much useful information including their present owner ship and purpose (most useful for any film fans hoping to visit the locations)).

This is an invaluable book, I’ve often wondered where a favourite Hammer film was shot, now thanks to Mr. Pykett tireless efforts, I need wonder no longer, as his five years of research has produced a valuable historical document, one that will be in important for posterity.

I must also compliment the many fine black and white photos that illustrate the book (many by the very talented Simon Flynn), they could easily be expanded into a very fine book of their own.

It was appropriate that the late and much-missed Freddie Francis provides a foreword, as the book features many of his films such as ‘The Creeping Flesh’ and ‘Dracula Has Risen From The Grave.’

Elsewhere the locations are revealed for such films as ‘The Devil Rides Out’, ‘The Tomb of Ligeia’, ’10 Rillington Place’, ‘Gothic’, ‘Crucible of Terror’, and ‘The Beast Terror’ (which starred Wanda Ventham, Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum!).

Overall, a very useful and readable book, one deserving of a wider audience.

The Very Witching Time of Night’ by Gregory William Mank

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

There are many books available on horror films, but they tend to cover the same subjects. Not ‘The Very Witching Hour of Night’, it covers roads less travelled, such as Boris Karloff’s time at Warner Brothers, the production diaries for the ‘Cat People films, and the rise and fall of John Carradine’s Shakespearean Repertory Company! (Now, I had not even heard of that.)

Mank is both an actor and a writer, which gives him an insider appreciation of his subjects.

While Mank’s research is very goo, he is also strong on story-telling, drawing the reader into the tales of films and actors he obviously has a great deal of passion and empathy for.

Superb, and McFarland have done fine job on designing this book. The cover is a spectacular reproduction of the poster for ‘Cat People’, while the inside is well illustrated with many fine black and white photos.

Beowulf on Film: Adaptations and Variations’ by Nikolas Haydock and E.L. Risden

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Beowulf is the most read work in the English literature, and yet for many years it was not adapted into a film. Then ,between 1999 and 2008, not less than five major film adaptations of the poem appeared.

‘Beowulf on Film’ investigates and explores these adaptations in depth, both authors are learned men and write well.

I would recommend this highly for any one interested in Beowulf.

Peter Cushing: The Gentle Man of Horror and His 91 Films’ by Deborah Del Vecchio and Tom Johnson

Foreword by Barry Morse with Sydney Morse

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

I recently reviewed Deborah Del Vecchio and Tom Johnson’s fine book on Hammer Films (also published by McFarland) and thoroughly enjoyed it. They wrote with a lot of love and honesty about their subject, and have done some fine research, producing one of the best books on Hammer Films I’ve read.

Their book on Peter Cushing is of the same high standard. I grew up watching Peter Cushing’s films, but I was astonished at just how much I didn’t know about his films.

Peter made his film debut with ‘The Man In The Iron Mask’ in 1939 and made his cinematic swansong in 1985 with ‘Biggles’. There was no flash-in-the-pan career for Mr. Cushing!

The authors make good use of both personal correspondence with Peter and his interviews to give his own opinions on his films. Each film is given a ploy synopsis, alternative titles if they exist, the year produced, and cast and production credits.

But this is no mere record of Peter Cushing’s work, it a fine piece of work, produced with much diligent research and affection by the authors.

Highly recommended.

Ghost Flight’ by Bear Grylls

Published by Orion

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Ha, a real-action hero tackles writing a book about an action hero, and fair dues, Bear does a splendid job!

‘Ghost Flight’ is described as ‘The Bourne Identity’ meets ‘Indiana Jones’ and that’s a fair description, but Bear brings his own unique talents and experiences to the tale.

Of course, the idea of an old evil being resurrected, a mystery from the past, will go down very well indeed with a modern thriller reader.

I won’t reveal any more of the plot, but suffice to say, bear has drawn a lot from his own real-life adventures, which gives ‘Ghost Flight’ an authenticity that a book by an ‘armchair-internet warrior’ never could have.

‘Ghost Flight’ should be the first in a excellent series of novels by Bear, indeed, it would make a fine film.

Well done, Bear, is there anything you cannot turn your hand to? You are truly an inspiration!

How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth’ by Dr David Clark

Published by Aurum Press

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Not a book for those who want to believe in UFOs at all costs. It is not a brutal demolition of Ufologists’ beliefs, rather it is a well put together book that should make the said believers question their beliefs of their own accord.

Clark breaks his book up into ten parts, each dealing with a specific aspect of Ufology: hoaxes, abductions, government cover-ups, and so forth. His writing has a good personal aspect to it which I like.

The best aspect of this book is the writer is never gullible or cynical, rather he presents his opinions and research, and allows the readers to make up their own minds.

Finally, his writing on the mythological aspect of UFOs is superb, and well worth reading the book for this alone.

Marked For Death: The First War In The Air’ by James Hamilton-Patterson

Published by Head of Zeus

Reviewed by Steve Earles

‘Marked For Death’ is a well researched book, but a most accessible one. It covers the airforces of many of countries involved in the Great War, not just Britain. It is a resolutely fair-minded book, and the reader really has to marvel at the almost insane levels of bravery displayed by all the aircrews involved in the conflict.

I was particularly impressed that the author included a chapter on the air war on the Eastern Front as so many historians seem to forget this Front, so this is a very welcome part of the book. I would like to see the author write a book on the use of aircraft in the Russian Civil War as on the strength of this chapter, he would do a fine job, so there is a free suggestion for a fine book for Head of Zeus to commission.

James Hamilton-Patterson is a remarkable author, you find yourself learning a lot without realising it.

Some of the aspects of the book are incredible, pilots using anchors to crash enemy planes, pilots not having parachutes because the powers-that-be thought they might abandon their planes if they did [!].

At the same time, we are made aware that behind the daring-do lay a grim reality of almost certain death for the aircrew of any plane involved in a crash.

You have to remember at the start of the Great War, mankind had only had powered flight for a few short years, and the plane was given no importance at the start of the war. By 1918 however, no country could engage in war without a dependable airforce. They were now regarded rightly as absolutely essential.

Entertaining, educational and thought provoking.

Ardennes 1944’ by Antony Beevor

Published by Viking/Penguin

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Antony Beevor’s abilities as a military historian are rarely surpassed as proven with previous fine books such as ‘Berlin’ and ‘Stalingrad’.

Here, Beevor turns his attention to the Ardennes Offensive of December 1944 (you might also know of it as The Battle of the Bulge). This offensive, in truth, was the last throw of the dice for the German Army. Involving more than a million men, this became the biggest battle of World War 2 in Western Europe.

While Hitler’s generals were not optimistic for the offensive’s success, younger officers and soldiers were hopeful for some positive outcome, for they knew the merciless Red Army was bulldozing its way to Germany from the East. In a sense the Wehrmacht were between the hammer of the Russians and the anvil of the Western Allies, never a good place to be, and it was on this anvil that they would be shattered, and in no shape to face the huge armies ranged against them.

Beevor manages to bind a great deal of viewpoints, of battle large and small, into a coherent narrative whole. Logistics, weather and terrain all played a big part, with conditions always making or breaking a battle plan.

The U.S Army, in particular, had huge resources to bring to bear in the conflict. In a sense, it is this battle that America became a superpower, taking the place of the likes of Britain, Germany and France. So ‘Ardennes 1944’ has a further significance.

Another of Beevor’s great strengths is that while he never loses sight of the bigger picture, he forgets the smaller details that make up the greater part of the whole. It’s attention to detail like this that resonates in the readers’ minds long after the book has been read. For instance, he gives a fair amount of space to the role of the German paratrooper operations in the Ardennes, something other authors have quickly run through.

It’s fair to say there is a parallel between Ardennes 1944 and the German Spring Offensive of 1918. I’d suggest that would be a very good subject for a future Beevor book

This is a sobering book, it does not glamorise war, not does it flinch from showing all its horrors.

Finally, Beevor is not a dry historian but a master story teller, and again, you can see this in his previous books, he is a very accessible author.

I can highly recommend ‘Ardennes 1944’.

Madness in Civilisation’ by Andrew Scull

Published by Thames and Hudson

Reviewed by Steve Earles.

In a literary case of doing exactly what it says on the tin, ‘Madness in Civilisation’ explores how insanity has been regarded across the ages.

Scull’s look at the drug-orientated psychiatry of today is particularly important. Having being a historian of psychiatry for nearly 40 years, his opinions carry the weight of knowledge.

Brilliantly written, it seems that ancient and medieval societies often had a better grip on how to deal with madness than 21st century mankind. I was a very fine lecture a few years ago, from Terry Jones from his book ‘Medieval Lives’, so this doesn’t surprise me in the least.

Madness has been described as ‘the most solitary of afflictions’, a most apt description, every case is individual and unique, and every victim is trapped in his own version of hell.

Scull is a very good storyteller, and as such deserves the widest possible audience, after all, directly or indirectly, the subject matter is one that touches all humanity.

Kudos must go to Scull’s publishers Thames & Hudson, who have once again pushed the envelope to create a beautifully bound and illustrated book, with more than 80 black and white images, and nearly fifty in colour.

A fine piece of work by any standards.

The Last Bookaneer’ by Matthew Pearl

Published by Harvill Secker

Reviewed by Steve Earles

It’s worth reading this book for its excellent premise alone.

‘Bookaneers’ are a kind of literary buccaneers, pirates who steal the latest manuscripts of famous writers to sell to the public (kind of the illegal downloaders of their time!).

In ‘The Last Bookaneer’, on the island of Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson is working on a new novel. He is dying, yet the book is rumoured to be his greatest achievement, a literary ‘momento mori’, if you will.

Two rivals set out for the island, Pen Davenport and Belial. Both want the fame and fortune that stealing Stevenson’s manuscript would bring.

I won’t spoil a great read by revealing more, suffice to say, this is a terrific book, and would make an excellent film.

The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century.’ By Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Published by Granta

Reviewed by Steve Earles

I had never heard of Thomas Brown before reading this book, which is a shame as he was a great 17th century writer, whose work, as this fine book proves, deserves to be much better known.

Aldersey-Williams’ great achievement with ‘The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century’ is to prove Browne’s ideas as relevant today as they were in the 17th century.

Browne was a man who observed what was happening in the world around him and attempted to make sense of it.

Aldersey-Williams has a fine almost chatty style of writing which makes his book very accessible. A great subject, a great achievement, and a great author.

Close Call’ by Stella Rinington

Published by Bloomsbury

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This is the eight in the popular Liz Carlyle series of books by Stella Rinigton.

The author is a former head of M.I.5 which makes her better qualified than most to write about her chosen subject matter.

Dealing with the sadly ever-topical subject of terrorism, without wanting to reveal any of the plot I can say this is a taut, well-paced, well-written and highly believable (frighteningly so) story that deserves a very wide audience. The author’s insider knowledge gives the tale the extra edge of plausibility and it would make a very good TV series indeed.

Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins’ by James Runcie

Published by Bloomsbury

Reviewed by Steve Earles

‘Grantchester’ proved to be quite a hit with viewers (with a new series due in the Spring of 2016), and the series it’s based on, featuring the part-time detective Sidney Chambers is proving to be equally popular.

This book features six new stories that will certainly please existing fans of the series, and draw new ones in. It develops the characters and their lives, building on what has come before, but staying faithful to them.

Runcie’s work also has a surprising amount of depth to it, lingering on in the reader’s mind after the story is read, his use of the extraordinary in everyday situations is something that can resonate with everyone.