Book Reviews September 2016

Book Reviews September 2016

Reviewed by Steve Earles

The Private Lives of the Tudors’

Published by Hodder and Stoughton

Reviewed by Steve Earles

I remember reviewing a previous book of Tracey’s, the excellent ‘The Witches’, and realising that here was a lady who brings a unique empathy and humanity to her writing. Her research is flawless and her enthusiasm is infectious.

As with ‘The Witches’; one of the great strengths of this book is it is a human story, both of its time and yet timeless.

The Tudor monarchs had little or no privacy, as Elizabeth I memorably said; ‘I do not live in a corner. A thousand eyes see all I do.’ They were constantly surrounded by attendants and servants.

Yet it is these attendants and servants saw the truth behind the public façade of the monarchs they served. From Bloody Mary’s phantom pregnancies to Elizabeth I’s time-ravaged visage, they saw it all. (Indeed, the Earl of Essex once into her bedroom and saw the true time-ravaged Elizabeth, earning her eternal rancour. By the way, I was very impressed with Anita Dobson’s courage and lack of vanity in her recent portrayal of Elizabeth). The painful and often toxic means used to keep up Elizabeth’s public image has more in common with modern SFX make-up than a healthy beauty regimen. It was a world within a world, seen, and yet unseen.

Theirs is one of the unique viewpoints that Tracey uses for this book, the most important one in my view. The Devil is always in the details! And there are many fine details here, all making for a great cohesive whole. Whether it is hygiene, food, hobbies, medication, education, clothes, and more…all Tudor life is here! Indeed, some of what passes for medicine appears more like a cross between magic and quackery and hope against common sense

Other sources include pictorial evidence, household accounts, and the reports of ambassadors.

Also, Tracey’s work as joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces also allows her to see actual locations that events described in this book took place, a useful tool for a talented writer

The Tudors were indeed much more vulnerable and human that we ever imagined, they were just like us in this respect, and putting across their humanity is a great achievement.

One of the best books on the Tudors, and just crying out to be made into one of Tracey’s unique and empathic documentaries.

The Ashes of London’ by Andrew Taylor

Published by Harper Collins

Reviewed by Steve Earles

‘The Ashes of London’ is the first in a new series of historical novels, and their can be few more exciting period of history than the Restoration London of 1666. The year of the comet, the year of the plague, and of course, the year of the Great Fire of London

Watching the inferno is a certain James Marwood, the son of printer imprisoned for his support of Cromwell on the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne. He now finds himself a reluctant informer for the government.

After the fire, a semi-mummified body is found in the devastated St. Paul’s Cathedral, in tomb thought to be empty. The man’s body had been mutilated, with his thumbs tied behind his back.

The government orders Marwood to find the killer which leads him into a dangerous series of adventures in the fire-ravaged city.

As someone with a great interest in the history of the Restoration, I have to say Andrew has really captured the world his characters move in extremely well.

The plot is well-paced and thought out, and I see this book really appealing to all fans of historical fiction, it would make a very good film too.

Marwood is an engaging character and I for one, look forward to reading more of his adventures.

The Seven: The Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic’ by Ruth Dudley Edwards

Published by Oneworld

Reviewed by Steve Earles.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin. On Easter Sunday, 23rd April, of that year, the members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which declared that they were the provisional government of an Ireland free from British rule.

This was as good as signing their own death warrants.

In the last hundred years those Seven have been eulogised and they formed an important part of Irish political forces, even to this very day.

There have been a great many books on the 1916 Rising and it’s consequences published, particularly in the last year. Where Ruth Dudley Edwards’ book differs is that it questions the commonly held opinions on the Seven and their actions, and most importantly, their legacy.

Dudley Edwards has put a lot of work into this book and some will find it demystifying. Yet the best way to form an opinion on a subject is to read as many different sources on it as possible, and ‘The Seven’ is most important in that respect.

She is a very good writer and her book is well researched, yet accessible, which is vital, as not every reader will be a student of the 1916 Rising!

Not every reader will agree with her findings in this book, but it is intelligent and thought-provoking, as a good book should be.

Well worth reading.

Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster’ by Karen Lee Street

Published by Oneworld

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This is an idea of genius for a novel; in ‘Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster’, Poe’s creation, C. Auguste Dupin, is a real person, Poe’s friend.

Set in the summer of 1940, Poe travels to London to meet Dupin, to ask the detective to help him solve a personal mystery.

Poe has inherited a wooden box containing letters that implicate his ancestors in some of London’s most scandalous crimes, those committed by the London Monster who stalked and attacked young women.

Dupin and Poe set out to investigate whether the letters are forgeries but further secrets emerge and they begin to suspect they themselves are being stalked.

Well, the grand Poe/Dupin concept would be magnificent in and of itself, but it is backed up by an intelligent and witty story, and excellent research (of course, the London Monster is a real-life case).

Fans of Poe will, of course, love this book, and spot many references to the great man’s literary creations.

Overall, a quirky, innovative and highly enjoyable book, one crying out for a sequel!

Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind over Body’ by Jo Marchant

Published by Canongate

Reviewed by Steve Earles

We live in a world that usually neglects the influence that the mind has over the body, which is absurd when you consider that the mind is the control room as it were of the human body, where decisions and actions that affect the body occur, one cannot be neglected at the expense of the other. There’s a wise old joke that no one ever caught the flu the day they fell in love, and there are people many people who’ve genuinely died from unhappiness and a negative point of view of life, we’ve all witnessed it to some degree, it’s one of those things that we intrinsically know to be true.

I once attended a very good lecture by Terry Jones at the Listowel Writers festival, wherein he spoke at length at how the medieval doctors understood the link between mind and body. Since then we’ve gone progressively backwards in some respects.

Of course some aspects of mind-body medicine are quackery but these are explored here to. Jo Marchant has done extensive research and this is a very accessible book, one that will make the readers think.

Overall, an important book and one that will be seen as such in years to come.

Striking Murder’ by A.J. Wright

Published by Alison & Busby

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Firstly, I have to say the author has chosen a great location for his mystery, the frozen Wigan of 1893, a place suffering a terrible miner’s strike with all its attendant hardships.

A wealthy colliery owner named Arthur Morris is found murdered. His refusal to budge on miner’s pay is the main cause of the strike. Detective Sergeant Brennan is given the unenviable task of solving the murder.

While the story is of course well written and well plotted, one the best things about this book is how well the author has recreated Victorian Wigan in its pages, so vividly does he do so that it becomes as important as any of the characters in his tale.

This book is outstanding and I hope we’ll see future novels in The Lancashire Detective Series.

Birthright’ by David Hingley

Published by Alison & Busby

Reviewed by Steve Earles

I love stories set in Restoration England and this is one of the finest I’ve read.

Set in 1664, Hingley’s heroine, the splendidly-named Mercia Blakewood is an excellent character, a strong woman, and one modern audiences will relate to. When she is threatened with the loss of everything she holds dear, she must unravel a mystery left to her by her father in order to recover a long-lost prize.

I found a very interesting aspect to this story is that Mercia’s quest brings her not only to London by also to Manhattan, and it’s a mark of Hingley’s excellent writing that the descriptions of Manhattan are as evocative as those of London.

An excellent story.

Signal For Vengence’ (Railway Detective Series) by Edward marston

Published by Alison and Busby

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Edward Marston is a fine writer, and Inspector Colbeck, the railway detective, is one of his finest creations.

Set in 1860, ‘Signal For Vengence’ is an engaging tale.

In Wimborne, Dorset, a certain Rebecca Tullidge escapes her loveless marriage in an affair with another man.

However, on the night of an assignation with her love, the railway officer, John Bedloe, to her horror, she trips over the dead body of her lover!

Inspector Colback and Sergeant Lemming are engaged to solve the crime, facing a great many obstacles. This causes distress to Colbeck as he understandably wishes to return to London in time for his wife to give birth to their first child.

Bedlow had many enemies and a sordid past, so with the clocking ticking the Railway Detective must find the murderer among many potential suspects.

Easily up to Edward Marston’s usual high standards.

Timetable of Death’ (Railway Detective Series) by Edward Marston

Published by Alison and Busby

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This is the 12th in the excellent Railway Detective series.

It is 1859. A young girl playing hide-and-seek hides in a freshly-dug grave, only to discover to her horror that there is a dead man already in it. And not just any man, but the body of a senior director of the Midland Railway. As always Inspector Colbeck and Sergeant Leeming are called in to investigate.

I won’t spoil the story for the readers but I think it is the best Railway Detective tale yet. The interaction between Colbeack, Lemming, and their superior (well, in rank anyway!) Tallis, is particularly good. The world of the Victorian Railway is superbly and vividly invoked as always.

I would really love to see Edward Marston’s books being adapted for television, where they would be sure to find a wide audience.

Blockade’ by Steve R Dunn

Published by Seaforth

Reviewed by Steve Earles

World War One is very prominent in people’s minds at the moment. New programs on war are constantly being shown on television. Old books on the subject are being reprinted while new books are written.

Yet so vast was the Great War in its scope that there are always aspects of it that remain unknown and neglected.

One such neglected aspect is the Royal Navy’s blockade of trade to Germany. The Northern Blockade, in the waters between Scotland and Iceland, played a major part in destroying Germany’s economy. While it helped the Allies to win the Great War, it caused a great deal of suffering to Germany’s civilian population, particularly as Churchill allowed the blockade to continue after the Armistice was signed.

The author has a great understanding of the Royal Navy in World War 1 and is very good an imparting this information to the readers. The book focuses more on surface warfare than fighting U-boats, which is wise as such a subject would require an entire book.

It’s interesting to note that the 10th Cruiser Squadron intercepted nearly 9000 ships and over four hundred thousand trawlers.

The blockade had a terrible effect on the German population. By 1917, the average German civilian was living, if it can be called ‘living’, on less than half the calories needed to sustain a working life. In turn, this suffering gave an impetus to accelerating the U-boat warfare against Britain.

Another interest feature of this book is it’s coverage of German merchant raiders.

Overall, a well-written and necessary book, one of import for casual readers and World War One historians alike. This is a story far more people should know about, and indeed, this fine book would make the basis for a good documentary on the subject.

Rome Seizes The Trident’ by Marc G. Desantis

Published by Pen and Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

When we think of ancient empire building, we usually think of huge land battles, but battles at sea played a part too.

The Punic Wars featured great sea battles. When Rome began is long fight with Carthage in Sicily in 264 BC, they did not even have their own navy, instead having to use the ships of other Allies such as the South Italian Greek cities.

Rome, logically, determined that it would be much better for her to have her own navy. Using a captured galley as their template, they reverse engineered it and would go on to build hundreds of copies.

Eventually they were able to wrest naval superiority from the Carthagians.

A well-researched and illuminating look at an aspect of the Punic Wars that rightly deserves more attention.

The Grand Old Duke of York: A Life of Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany 1763-1827’ by Derek Winterbottom

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Oh, the grand old Duke of York,

He had ten thousand men;

He marched them up to the top of the hill,

And he marched them down again.”

And when they were up, they were up,

And when they were down, they were down,

And when they were only half-way up,

They were neither up nor down.’

I remember this poem from my childhood but the story behind it is very interesting indeed.

The nursery rhyme appears to ridicule Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany as a commander. But Derek Winterbottom’s fine biography shows that he was a much better military leader than the rhyme implies.

While York’s private life was scandalous (though very entertaining!), he was a great army reformer, increasing soldiers’ pay and reducing their punishments. He improved tactics and training. He organised the militia and recruitment. He reformed military hospitals and punished incompetent officers.

The Duke of Wellington himself said that without York’s reforms he would not have had such a good army to command in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo.

York was a habitual gambler and lived and died in debt.

It has been over sixty years since a biography on the Duke of York has been published so credit is due to both Derek Winterbottom and Pen & Sword.

An informative and entertaining book which deserves a wide audience and would make a very entertaining documentary.

The Battle For The Crimea 1941-1944. Images of War. Rare Photographs From the Wartime Archives’ by Anthony Tucker-Jones

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

The ‘Images of War’ series is one of the best ideas that Pen & Sword have ever had. While, of course, word are important, as this fine series shows, an image really is worth a thousand words, and this book has over 150 images.

Crimea has seen much blood spilt over the years, the Crimean War springs to mind, and our course, General Baron Wrangel made his final brave stand against the red Army during the closing acts of the Russian Civil War (now, that would be a good subject for an Images of War book).

The years of hard fighting from 1941-44 is shown from both the Russian and German point of view and the photography and reproduction is of the highest standard.

Anthony Tucker-Jones’ text is spot on, it tells you what you need to know, but allows the photos to speak for themselves.

Highly recommended.

French Tanks of the Great War: Development, Tactics and Operations’

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

While the British tanks of the Great War have been given a lot of exposure over the years (witness the excellent ‘War Machine’ episode of the BBC’s ‘Our World War’ series), French tanks have very much been neglected.

Yet, as this well-written and well-researched book show, they were an important part of the French army from 1917 onwards, so for that reason alone, this is a timely and important book.

Tim Gale has worked very hard on ‘French Tanks of the Great War’, accessing French military archives and much of the information contained herein has never been published in English before.

All the major battles French tanks took part in are related in great detail and in vivid fashion, giving the reader a strong sense of the action that has taken place and its consequences.

An important book on a hitherto neglected aspect of the Great War.

Voices From the Part: The Zeebrugge Raid 1918’ by Paul Kendall

Published by Frontline Books

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Along with the excellent ‘Images of War’ series, ‘Voices From The Past’ is another very good idea from Pen & Sword. For those that haven’t read a book in this series before; these books tell a particular story through a combination of first-hand accounts, official documents and newspaper reports.

A great success story for the German in the Great War were its U-boats, which sank a staggering third of all the Allied merchant vessels lost in the Great War.

Pressure was mounting on the Royal Navy to do something about this.

So, on the 23rd of April 1918, St. George’s Day, the Royal Navy began an operation to scuttle three obsolete cruisers to the Bruges Canal at Zeebrugge in an attempt to prevent U-boats accessing their base. The three ships were accompanied by two submarines, filled with explosives to blow up a mole, and 200 royal Marines were to be embarked to try and destroy the German gun positions at the mouth of the Bruges Canal.

Easily the most daring amphibious raid of World War One, the British took 500 casualties out of the 1,700 men who took part (eight Victoria Crosses were awarded). The mole was destroyed by blowing up a submarine and the three blockships were scuttled. The survivors managed to escape back across the English Channel.

This ia very effective way of telling the story, using the actual words of the men who were there to bring it to life.

Pen and Sword have done a fine job with the photographs in this book. This is a fine achievement on the part of Paul Kendall and is highly recommended.

Verdun 1916: The Renaissance of the Fortress’ by J.E. Kaufmann and H.W. Kaufmann

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

I first came across the Battle of Verdun in the great Charley’s War stories by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhon (easily the fairest and best World War One graphic novel series)

In those stories, a French soldier called Blue tells the story of the Battle of Verdun, with an excellent script from Pat Mills (who memorably refers to the Battle of Verdun at one point as ‘France’s Alamo’) and beautifully illustrated by Joe Colquhon, one of the all time great artists in any field.

So, I particularly enjoyed learning more about the Battle of Verdun, and in this value-for-money book, there is most certainly a lot to learn.

It was, and is, one of the most controversial battles of the Great War. Prior to the battle, the Germans assumed that they had picked one of the strongest sections of the French defences to attack, and that if they broke though there, the French army would collapse.

But the reality was that most of the forts at Verdun were disarmed and the trench lines were in complete.

But the German army were not able to take Verdun. The Kaufmann’s thoroughly researched book thoroughly researched book attempts to explain why.

The Kaufmann’s consider all aspects of the battle, the employment of relatively new technology like aircraft, the use of artillery, and most important of all, the effect the battle would have on future French military planning, for instance their faith in the Maginot Line.

The book is superbly presented and illustrated, with many fine diagrams and maps, absolutely essential for such a detailed study.

Superbly written, and just the right time to publish it, for the Battle of Verdun’s centenary year.

Disaster at D-Day’ by Peter Tsouras

Published by Frontline Books

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Peter Tsouras, both as a writer and as an editor, is an expert on alternative outcomes for history’s great events. He never speculates wildly and always uses meticulous research.

Here, he turns his attention to D-Day, and as the reader will quickly gather, it only takes a few factors to change to greatly influence the outcome of events. We see it wouldn’t have taken a lot of changes for D-Day to turn out differently.

For instance, had the German defenders had greater latitude in deploying their panzer divisions, or if the Germans had used the divisions they kept back to defend Pas de Calais.

Overall, this is up to Peter Tsouras’ consistently high standards and an engaging read.

The Holy Grail On Film: Essay on the Cinematic Quest’ by Kevin J. Harty

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Whatever a person’s religious beliefs, it is inconceivable that they haven’t heard of the Holy Grail, the cup from the last supper, that legend would have it can cure all the world’s ills.

I remember watching a very good Tony Robinson documentary on the Holy Grail. One of its conclusion that philosophers had seen the world, or to be more accurate, the human part of the world, to be broken, and the Grail is seen to represent the cure for this.

But whether as a metaphor or an actual physical object, the Grail has inspired many films discussed in this engaging book, including The Davinci Code, The Road Warrior, The Fisher King, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and of course, one of my all-time favourites, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Kevin J. Harty is professor and chair of English at La Salle University in Philadelphia, and is associate editor of Arthurian, the official journal of the North American branch of the International Arthurian Society, of which he is president. He is also author of an impressive fourteen book, seven of which are on film and medieval studies.

Just to pick a highlight from a very good book; the essay on John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ entitled ‘John Boorman’s Excalibur and the Irrigating Light of the Grail’ is particularly illuminating. Part of the film ‘Excalibur’ was shot not far from here in Ireland where I write this, so it particularly resonates and is beautifully written; “The aesthetic narrative of Boorman’s film depicts the Grail quest as a search of the light which irrigates the world of Excalibur, offers a new way of illuminating the quest. The metallic gleam of the all-encompassing dragon, which informs the king’s sword and the Grail as well, has its parallel in the artistic creation surrounding the Arthurian tradition in the Middle Ages. Metal was widely used in art, under the influence of the theology of light during the long Gothic age that extended from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, a period corresponding to the flowering of the Matter of Britain. The abundant use of gold backgrounds in illuminated medieval manuscripts, including those that contain Arthurian texts, reminds us that metal-working is an art that enhances and surpasses narrative descriptions of arms and armour, brilliance and radiance. The metaphysical paradigm of light that terms vermeil conveys in Grail Literature has its analogue in pictorial metal in the form of the gold backgrounds and highlight in Gothic works of art.”

Overall, a beautifully written work that would appeal to anyone interested in the Holy Grail, Arthurian legend and indeed, the medieval period.

How Zombies Conquered Popular Culture: The Multifarious Walking Dead in the 21st Century’ by Kyle William Bishop

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Its fair to say that while zombies were part of the culture of the 20th century, post World War One, with such films as Hammer’s superb ‘Plague of the Zombies’, and George A. Romero’s original trilogy of zombie films, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘Dawn of the Dead’, and ‘Day of the Dead, all three incorporating a dark reflection of times they were made, it is the 21st century that really has seen zombies come into their own, from computer games to massively popular YV shows like The Walking Dead; it truly seems like zombies are everywhere.

In this biting book, Kyle William Bishop explains just how and why this has happened.

In doing so, he reveals some surprising insights into we ourselves, the zombies are a reflection of our own culture.

To sum up, this book works on both an entertainment and cultural level, and is certainly of interest to anyone interested in zombies.

My Old Man: Tales of Our Fathers’ Edited by Ted Kessler

Published by Canongate

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This is an interesting and diverse collection of tales told by people about their fathers. Some of the stories are sad, some are funny, but all have been written from the heart.

While each tale is different, over the course of the book, the reader will no doubt note traits they recognise either from their own, or someone else’s father.

Some of the interest in this book will be the fact that some of the writers are famous such as Julie Birchill and Florence Welch, or the children of famous people such as Johnny Ball and Ian Dury, but most of the appeal will be its sincerity and humanity.

I’d like to see Canongate do a follow-up book to this and make a series out of it, it’s the kind of thing that Canongate do so well.

World War 1 On Film: English Language Releases Through 2014’ by Paul M. Edwards

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Anyone with an interest in the Great War will find this a unique and indispensible book. Paul M. Edwards is a Korean War veteran, and his actual military experience gives the book a unique clarity and sincerity.

Covering films from 1914 to 2014 (in fact so thorough is this book that it mentions a film with Bradley Cooper called Dark Invasion due to go into production at the times of the release of ‘World War 1’ on film), it really is a great achievement on the past of Edwards and McFarland, and deserves a wide audience as it would appeal to World War 1 history enthusiasts and film buffs alike.

With Winston Churchill At The Front: Winston in the Trenches 1916’ by Major Andrew Dewar Gibb

Foreword by Randolph Churchill

Introduced by Nigel Dewar Gibb

Published by Frontline

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Following the Gallipoli disaster, Winston Churchill’s political career seemed over.

Undaunted, Winston went off to fight on the Western Front, think about, how many modern politicians would do something like that?

On the 5th of January 1916, Churchill took up a post as Lieutenant Colonel with the 6th (service) Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers.

The adjutant of the battalion was a certain Captain Andrew Dewar Gibb. He and Churchill became close friends. Dewar Gibb went on to write this account of their time together in the trenches.

For anyone interested in the history of the Great War and Churchill in particular, this shows an entirely different side to the man than might hitherto be expected. He had great self belief on reaching the Western Front and he needed it! For his men loathed him on arrival ,yet loved him by the time he left, as he proved himself to them, and indeed, showed great empathy to them.

This is an important book, and great credit is due to Pen & Sword for publishing this well-presented, up-dated version of the book. It would also make for a great tv-docudrama.

With The German Guns: Four Years on the Western Front’ by Herbery Sulzbach

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Originally published in 1935, Herbert Sulzbach’s account of his experiences on the Western Front in World War One are valuable indeed, as they are one of the few accounts of an ordinary soldier in that war.

It is also a very well-written account, giving a very alternative perspective, and one crying out to be dramatised.

It’s also interesting to note just how similar the soldiers on either side of the conflict were. We are all one race, and this just brings the tragedy of war home.