Book Reviews December 2016

Caught In The Revolution: Petrograd 1917’ by Helen Rappaport

Published by Hutchinson

Reviewed by Steve Earles

In the coming year there will be many books published about the Russian Revolutions of 1917. I have no doubt that many of them will be worthy but they will have to be very good to equal Helen Rappaport’s ‘Caught In The Revolution: Petrograd 1917’.

And make no mistake, this is an important book, the Russian Revolutions of 1917 helped to shape the post-World War One 20th Century world, and indeed, its influence can be felt strongly today. It was both a world-maker and a world-breaker.

That Helen’s research is superb is no surprise, nevertheless, as someone well-read in the history of Russia of this period I was constantly surprised by what she has unearthed. Plus, she has a novelist’s talent for telling her tales, providing multiple viewpoints, observations and anecdotes on one of history’s turning points. If ever a book deserved a documentary series of its own, it is this one.

Helen’s genius inspiration is to tell the story of the Russian Revolutions of 1917 from the point of view of the many foreign nationals resident in Petrograd (Its name was changed from what he considered to be the German-sounding St. Petersburg during The Great War, now known by its correct name once again).

I was astounded to read of the great English suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst who had journeyed to Petrograd to inspect the astonishingly titled Women’s Death Battalion (a creation of Kerensky in the hope of improving the shattered morale of the war-ravaged and disintegrating Russian Army) led by a certain Maria Bochkareva (who would later re-emerge in Russia during the savage Russian Civil War).

We hear from the British military attaché Major-General Sir Alfred Knox (Who would also play a part in the Russian Civil War as a major supporter of the ill-fated Admiral Kolchak), who witnessed the chaos of the Revolution first-hand. Make no mistake Petrograd in 1917 was a dangerous madhouse: ‘All over the city, police stations and the homes of police and judges were attacked and sacked.’ (It was an easy tasks for rioters to locate the homes of judges and the like, all prominent people had their names and addresses in the phone book)….’During the February Revolution there were far too many incidental acts of murder of policemen for an reliable record ever to have been taken of the numbers killed.’

Overall, a superb and vital contribution to literature on the Russian Revolutions of 1917, I’d like to see Helen tackle the Russian Civil War next.

Akin To Murder’ An Inspector Faro Mystery by Alana Knight

Published by Alison and Busby

Reviewed by Steve Earles

When the author has received an MBE for services to literature and you are endorsed by less a personage than Ian Rankin, you know you are dealing with a special writer.

This novel is set in Victorian Edinburgh, having visited that city I can so that so much of it has changed so little since then it is easy to picture the vivid images this fine book conjures up.

The events in ‘Akin to Murder’ take place in 1864, a convicted murderer called John McLaw has escaped, massively complicating the life of Detective Inspector Faro. Sightings of the escaped killer lead nowhere, yet Faro has suspicions of his own. When a maid disappears, Faro realises it is a race against time to uncover the truth.

Well-plotted, well-written, with a believable detective with a strong personal motive, this is a great read.

Moreover, with so many of the locations in the story extant, it would make a truly atmospheric TV drama.

Who’s Who In Nelson’s Navy: Two Hundred Heroes’ by Nicholas Tracy

Published by

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Published by Chatham Publishing

This is a superb book. Beautifully written and presented, it tells the tale of two hundred officers of Nelson’s Navy, who fought against the French.

Under Nelson the political divisions in the Royal Navy began to change for the officer class, creating a most noteworthy body of men, the proof of this being the fact that it led to the Royal Navy taking complete command of the world’s seas, a fact due in no small part to their skills and commitment.

Each biography of approximately 1,000 words describes the achievements of the men concerned, as well as personal details like their family lives. Of course, connections, then as now, played an important part in the advancement (or failure to do so) of an officer’s career.

Tracy’s research is first class and he is a writer of rare economy that makes every word count.

Betrayed Ally: China in the Great War’ by Frances Wood and Christopher Arnander

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Pen & Sword are publishing some very valuable books in this period of the centenary of the Great War, and this book on China’s role in that war is especially valuable.

Following the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, President Yuan Shikai took power. In August 1914, he offered Britain 50,000 soldiers to recover the German colony in Shandong. The offer was turned down.

In 1916 China supplied a huge amount of labour to the Allied war effort, making a huge, if largely unknown today, contribution.

Finally in 1917, China declared war on Germany.

However, China was betrayed by the Allies following the Great War’s end when the Japanese, who had made virtually no contribution to the Allied war effort, were awarded the former German colony in Shandong, thus giving the green light to further rapacious Japanese expansion in Asia.

Furthermore, this emboldened the Japanese to treat the Chinese in any fashion they saw fit, culminating in much misery and suffering, including the disgraceful war crime of the Rape of Nanking.

Well-researched, well-illustrated, and very accessible, this is an important story that deserves to be known, and indeed, would make the basis for a very good documentary.

Pepys’ Navy: Ships, Men and Warfare 1649-89’ by J.D. Davies

Published by Seaforth

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This fine book covers all aspects of the English navy in the second part of the 17th century, from the period when the fleet came under parliamentary control after Charles I’s defeat, until the accession of Mary and William of Orange in 1689 when the long period of war with the Dutch ended.

This is the era that begat a permanent Royal Navy in the modern sense of the word.

The book covers shipbuilding, the types of ships used, dockyards, administration, the foreign navies and the three major wars which were fought against the Dutch in the Channel and the North Sea.

It is proper that this fine book is named after Samuel Pepys, who, in his thirty years of service, did a great deal to innovate and improve the navy, readying it for a century of struggle with the French.

This book is essential for anyone with an interest in the Royal Navy, the Civil War and Restoration period, and indeed Pepys himself. Indeed, this book truly deserves the Samuel Pepys award it has won.

Truly superb.

British Armoured Car Operations in World War One’ by Bryan Perrett

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

It is indeed good to see a new book from the great Bryan Perrett in print. Bryan is co-author (with Anthony Lord) of ‘The Czar’s British Squadron’, a book that Pen & Sword should truly consider reprinting.

The research in this book is meticulous, covering such events as the adventures of Dunsterforce (you truly couldn’t make this up! An amazing tale!), the exploits of the marvellously named Locker Lampson, and the aforementioned Czar’s British squadron of armoured cars.

While the research is first class, the book is also written in an exciting, engaging style and truly would appeal to a wide audience.

The design and illustrations are particularly good, all in all, an excellent read.

Irishmen In The Great War: Reports From The Front 1915’ by Tom Burnell

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

For many years, for a variety of reason, the subject of Ireland’s involvement in the Great War was a taboo subject in Ireland. Tom Burnell is an expert on this subject, a former soldier and Research Curator at St. Mary’s Famine and War Museum, County Tipperary, he is the ideal man for this book that he has painstakingly compiled.

It truly gives you an impression of what the public thought at the time and what the public were told, and indeed is an important book, not just for those with an interest in the subject of the Irish in the Great War but anyone with an interest in the Great War itself, for Irish involvement is an important part of the overall picture.

Deborah and the War of the Tanks 1917’ by John A. Taylor

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

When no less a personage than Dan Snow calls your book a ‘great achievement’, you know you’ve written something special.

‘Deborah’ is the name of a Great War tank literally risen from the grave following her excavation more than eighty years after the Great War ended.

Truly a remarkable event. Deborah played an important part in the Battle of Cambrai, the battle that changed the face of warfare forever, and now is a moment to that battle. Deborah was the second tank to bear that name, the first taking part in the Battle of Passcehndaele.

This a very human story, as much about the tank crews as the tanks themselves. It is as much a book of archaeology as it is of military history, and one told in a most engaging style, indeed this book would make the basis for a great documentary.

An engaging book and one that would appeal to a wide audience.

The Great War Illustrated 1916: Archive and Colour Photographs of WWI’ by William Langford and Jack Holroyd

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Every picture truly does tell a story, the impact of this finely complied book of photographs is very high. Previous volumes have been superb and this one is exception. 1916 was the year of even more brutal fighting that 1915 and 1914.

With such an eventful and tragic year to cover, the book is practically split into five chapters. The first concerns the British defeat at Kut, in Mesopotamia by the Ottoman Empire. Not the most well known aspect of the Great War, the book is worth purchasing for these photographs alone, which cover both the British and Turkish perspectives. Not the British Army’s finest hour. The next chapter concerns technological advances, including the future game-changer, the tank. Of course the Battle of Verdun is a huge part of 1916 and is covered in great detail, you can only gasp at the pointless waste of human life on both sides, and the photographs have a huge emotional impact. The Battle of Jutland is next, being the only full-scale naval battle of the Great War, again, the book is worth purchasing on the strength of this alone. Finally, of course, the book concludes with the carnage of the Somme…and the impact of this in pictures is truly powerful.

With over 1,300 restored photographs, and a thirty-two page full colour section (and this is amazing, we are so used to seeing only black-and-white images of the Great War), this book truly is a tremendous achievement. The text is just right, putting the photographs in proper context, without overwhelming them with words.

Food for thought here, this beautifully designed, printed and presented book (a credit to Pen & Sword, even by their own high standards) will stand the test of time. A hundred years from now it will still be as accessible and important, how many of today’s trendy gadgets can you say that about.

King Arthur: The Mystery Unravelled’ by Chris Barber

Published by Pen & Sword History

Reviewed by Steve Earles

It’s fair to say that King Arthur has remained in people’s consciousness since Geoffrey of Monmouth’s highly influential ‘History of the King’s of Britain’, first published in the 12th Century! Let’s see Dan Brown achieve that kind of longevity.

But, most people assume King Arthur to be a fictional creation, but not Chris Barber however. Chris has put over thirty years of research into this finely wrought book and it is clear the man is one of the experts on the subject. I will reveal as little as possible so as not to spoil the book for its readers, but suffice to say, Chris reveals the identity of the real person who inspired the Arthurian legends, including where he was born, the background of his family, battle sites, the inscribed stones that bear his name, where he held court, and even his final resting place.

Make no mistake, this is the work of a serious writer, an MBE who is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

An accessible and important book that would form the basis for a fascinating documentary.

Keep Watching The Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, The 21st Century Edition’ by Bill Warren

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Keep Watching The Skies!’ is rightly already recognised as the definitive reference work on science-fiction films from 1950 to 1962, the new two-volume edition greatly expands Bill’s previously already very impressive work.

It provides a detail plot synopsis for each film, along with cast and credit listings, and how the film was received at the time if its release. Moreover, Bill adds a great deal of information to this in his own warm and engaging manner. With over two hundred photos, over a thousand pages, and an extensive index, this book is indispensible to anyone interested in 1950s science-fiction films.

Put simply, this book is a thing of beauty and joy forever, beautiful cover artwork too.

The Writing Dead: Talking Terror With TV’s Top Horror Writers’ by Thomas Fahy

Published by University Press of Mississipli

Reviewed by Steve Earles

‘The Writing Dead’ truly is an inspired idea, a collection of thirteen (of course!) interviews with the creators of today’s great horror shows on television.

Make no mistake, between the quality work done by the major networks and cable channels to the equally excellent programs produced exclusively for online streaming services like Netflix, a new Golden Age of horror is occurring on the small screen (Though as ‘The Girl With All The Gifts’ proves, the big screen still has much to offer, though that film would make the basis for a very good TV series).

All the interviews are excellent. Personal highlights for me were the interviews with Richard Hatum (a writer on ‘Supernatural’, one of my all-time favourite shows), Brian Mc Grevy (‘Hemlock Grove’) and Gale Anne Hurd (‘The Walking Dead’, ‘Aliens’, ‘The Terminator)

Essential for any fans of modern fantastic television.

It Came From The 80s! Interviews With 124 Cult Filmakers’ by Francesco Borseti

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

As we move further into the horrors of the 21st century, the 1980s seem a more and more attractive place to retreat to. Musically it gave us Iron Maiden, Celtic Frost, Bathory, Metallica, Slayer and many more.

Film-wise it gave us such classics as Escape From New York, Day of the Dead, The Empire Strikes Back, Clash of the Titans, the list is endless.

The 80s were also the halcyon days of the now sadly extinct video rental shops. Every day you could find a more obscure title than before, occasionally the title would live up to the promises of its amazing cover art. These b-movies got financed because the money could be made back on video.

Of course, illegal downloading has destroyed the rental market for DVD and video, with a generation preferring to steal their films rather than pay for them. This means the mid-budget film is virtually extinct, except maybe on Syfy!

Francesco has written an entertaining book. My constructive criticism is that it needs more colour reproductions of artwork and posters, for instance the cover artwork for the splendidly titled ‘Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama’ is excellent.

This is a very human book, great fun, and Quentin Tarantino would love it!

Hollywood Presents Jules Verne: The Father of Science Fiction on Screen’ by Brain Taves

Published by University Press of Kentucky

Reviewed by Steve Earles

It is fair to say that Jules Verne’s work is very cinematic and this finely written book certainly proves it. Verne’s work is full of adventure and in these dark times we need that more than ever.

Brain Taves is a film archivist with the Library of Congress and he applies his knowledge well both of Verne and the adaptations of his work in a precise and engaging manner.

He covers not just big screen versions but also TV, direct-to-video, animation, and has many interesting facts and anecdotes to add.

I’d also like to add that ‘Jules Verne’s Scotland: In Fact and Fiction’ by Ian Thompson published by Luath Press is a great gem for Verne fans.

This is a great reference book, I read about several adaptations that I hadn’t seen but would now like to.

A truly great book that will appeal greatly to both film buff and Verne enthusiasts.

Beautifully written, beautifully illustrated, this is certainly a book for a lifetime

Kathryn Bigelow Interviews’ Edited by peter Keough

Published by University Press of Mississipi

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar in 2010 for ‘The Hurt Locker’.

Kathryn has produced an impressive body of work including one of my all-time favourite film, the vampire-western ‘Near Dark’ (1987).

She has also directed ‘Strange Days’ (1295, ‘K19:The Widowmaker’ (2002). ‘Point Break’ (1991) and ‘Blue Steel’ (1989’, that says more than any words of mine ever could, a most impressive body of work.

This is a truly great idea for a book. Kathryn is an engaging intelligent woman and her interviews give a strong insight into both her art and herself.

She is a very artistic approach to directing, as she says: ‘I never thought of it as “directing”, but as a different way of making art. I was doing painting, then I was making movies. Later I realised that what I was doing was writing and directing, being a filmmaker. But I really saw it as just switching mediums, from the world of art to mainstream movie making’

The most interesting interview is a joint 1990 interview with her then-husband James Cameron, where she more than holds her own.

Overall a book that appeals to not just fans of Kathryn Bigelow but cinema fans in general.

Ordeal by Fire’ A Bradecote and Catchpoll Mystery by Sarah Hawkswood

Published by Alison and Busby

Reviewed by Steve Earles

If you like Ellis Peter’s excellent Cadfael books, you’re sure to enjoy this. The research and writing is first class, but what I feel truly gives it an edge is the dynamic between Bradcote and Catchpole, readers will really take to them. It’s similar to the dynamic between Cadfael and Hugh Beringer.

Not wishing to reveal too much of the plot…in the September of 1143. Sergeant Catchpoll investigates two fires, the first he hopes is an accident, but the second leaves him in little doubt that foul deeds are afoot, when a burnt corpse is discovered in the charred remains. He must call in the undersheriff, Hugh Bradecote, to find this fire-starting murderer. Further fires follow as the investigation heats up.

Overall, an excellent medieval whodunit, and one I’d love to see adapted for the small screen, the more people that are exposed to Bradecote and Catchpole, the better.

A Most Novel Revenge’ by Ashley Weaver

Published by Alison and Busby

Reviewed by Steve Earles

As the times we live in get ever darker, more and more people are taking refuge in the past, though as we see in ‘A Most Novel Revenge’, the past isn’t necessarily any safer!

It’s fair to say that few modern writers do the Agatha Christie-esque 1930s mystery as well as Ashley Weaver.

This is the third in a three-book deal with Alison and Busby following ‘Murder at the Brightwell’ and ‘Death Wears A Mask’.

Set in the February of 1933, Amory Ames responds to a summons from her cousin Laurel. So, with her husband Milo in tow, she sets off to Lyonsgate Estate. Seven years before, there was a tragic accident when a party got out of hand. But there is more to this than meets the eye and the same guests reassemble and the mystery thickens…

I will say no more for fear of spoiling it for the readers, but this book captures the period it is set in perfectly, the plot is excellent, and the readers will love the characters.

I would love to see this adapted for television.

Castle Builders: Approaches to Castle Design and Construction in the Middle Ages’ by Malcolm Hislop

Published by Pen & Sword Archaeology

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Castles are always a popular subject; witness Dan Snow’s excellent ‘Battle Castle’s TV series and book as proof.

This is an excellent book on castles for both the enthusiast and the casual reader alike. A major appeal of this book is it deals with castles from the perspective of their design and constructions. So, rather than dealing with knights and sieges, ‘Castle Builders’ deals with the men behind the scenes; masons, architects, craftsmen.

As you read the book you will learn much about the evolution of castles. The book is beautifully designed and illustrated.

Overall, a fine edition to the library of anyone interested in castles.