Category Archives: Book Review

Earworms by Jonathan Doering – Book Review

Earworms by Jonathan DoeringPhilip Fry is a good Quaker boy, a PhD student specialising in the anthropological effect of sound on humans. He’s approached at a careers fair by someone who works with a department within the Home Office – pretty certainly some kind of spy organization, and is recruited to work on a secret project. But as we soon find out something has gone badly wrong with the project, and rather than trying to bring about positive outcomes, the sound effects have caused harm rather than good.

Earworms is similar in style to Jonathan’s Battalion 202 stories that have featured in Alt Hist. So expect shifting of timeline and inclusion of documents – e.g. secret  memos, copies of letters, emails etc to break up the normal flow of the narrative. I felt that style worked well for historical fiction – I’m less sure how necessary it is for something set in the present day/near future – although the secrecy aspect means that it does still work I think.

I felt that the story got off to a slow start, but then the intrigue given by the shifting perspectives and timelines meant that the the plot became more involved and interesting. There were a few moments though that took me out of the narrative – i-pad instead of iPad and the liking of the main protagonist couple for quite retro music – I wondered if the story was set in the present day or slightly in the past. Indeed the theme of the story did have a slightly old-fashioned techno-thriller aspect to it – especially when our real world is full of such things as Stuxnet viruses that can turn off nuclear centrifuges in enemy states and elections won by “fake news”. Despite those minor qualms, I enjoyed the story though and felt that the plot kept me interested throughout.

You can buy Earworms at the following stores:

Kindle UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01N9E92QO

Kindle US https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N9E92QO

Paperback https://www.amazon.co.uk/Earworms-Jonathan-Doering/dp/1540871517

Book Review: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

Aftermath by Chuck Wendig coverAftermath by Chuck Wendig

ebook, 418 pages
Published September 4th 2015 by Del Rey
ISBN: 080417766X
(ISBN13: 9780804177665)

 

 

 

Star Wars novelizations can be good, bad and indifferent. I recently read again the novel for Return of the Jedi and tried to read Force Awakens with my son—Return of the Jedi was acceptable, but pretty much word for word the same as the film, whereas Force Awakens was such a chore we gave up and bought the junior version instead—Alan Dean Foster seems to specialize in verbosity as an art-form, and succeeded in making an exciting, fast-paced film, dull.

Aftermath by Chuck Wendig definitely falls into the good category. I’ll preface this review by flagging that I didn’t read it, but rather listened to an audio version. This had the benefit of some great voice acting and also music and sound effects which added a lot to the atmosphere. However, the strength of the writing still shone through the slick audio production.

The book is set in the aftermath of the destruction of the second death star—so preceeds the action of Force Awakens by a number of years. What happened after Return of the Jedi and the death of Vader and the Emperor? Did the Empire just fold? You might expect so given the loss of its figurehead. But no, the Empire fought on against the Rebellion—or New Republic as its now known. Doubles of the Emperor masquerade as Palpatine and there is a denial that the Emperor is dead. Mon Mothma is the new chancellor of the Republic and seeks to bring peace to the galaxy, while Admiral Ackbar leads the mop-up of Imperial forces. That’s the general setting. Aftermath focuses on one planetary system: Akiva. This system is still under control of the Imperials and has been chosen as the location for a meeting between a number of senior Imperial figures—including Admiral Rae Sloane, who is one of the main view-point characters. The story also follows Wedge Antilles, who is on a mission to Akiva, and also a rebel pilot, Norra Wexley, who comes from that planet, and is returning to find her son now that the war is coming to a close. Also involved are a Zabrak bounty hunter and a former Imperial loyalty officer, who escaped the defeat on Endor.

There is a good balance of rebel, neutral and imperial characters—which stops it being just a good against evil conflict—and also enables the storylines to overlap in interesting ways. Although, in the classic tradition of Star Wars there is plenty of excitement too and action, as well as dose of humour to go along with it. I particularly liked the Battle Droid gone rogue—which was brilliantly voice-acted in the audio version.

I enjoyed and would recommend Aftermath to anyone who loves Star Wars. I enjoyed the characters and the story, although its perhaps lacks the epic scale of the big Star Wars films—action only on one planet for instance, the book is fast paced and what is lacking from some other star wars novelizations, is definitely fun.

If you would like to order a copy and also support my blog, then please use one of the links below to order your copy.

Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

 

Book Review: Frostborn by Lou Anders

Frostborn CoverFrostborn (Thrones and Bones 1) by Lou Anders

Hardcover, 352 pages

Published August 5th 2014 by Crown Books for Young Readers (first published January 1st 2014)

ISBN 0385387784 (ISBN13: 9780385387781)

I don’t usually read many Middle Grade of Young Adults books, but I decided to give this one a go after hearing Lou Anders interviewed on the Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing podcast. I’d heard of him as an editor of Science Fiction and Fantasy, but didn’t realise he was an author as well. He came across really well and his book sounded cool – I really liked that he’d actually made the game that was featured in the book – Thrones and Bones – and the viking inspired fantasy world that he talked about appealed to me as well. I got lots of ideas about world building from the interview – including using Fractal Terrains map making software – which I looked at after the podcast (didn’t buy yet it but played around with the demo – it’s good!)

Anyway enough of the asides, onto the book! Frostborn is about two main characters: Karn, a human boy who is more interested in playing Thrones Bones than learning about farming, and Thianna, a half-giant girl. They both have enemies. Thianna’s is fairly obvious – some of the other giants don’t like her, but Karn’s nemesis is a bit more veiled, so I won’t spoil that part of the plot. Thianna also possesses a horn which was given to her by her dead mother, which seems to have special powers – and that brings in a good part of the thriller element of the story. Karn and Thianna both end up on the run from their respective societies. Lots of escapades result and the plot keeps moving at a good pace. There’s also some funny bits in at as well – for instance the skeletal inhabitant of a barrow and associated ghouls who chase Karn.

Needless to say everything gets resolved in the end and the villains get their comeuppance. I liked the humour of the book – the lack of too much seriousness meant that it was a much easier read than many other epic fantasies that begin as rites of passage stories. Both Karn and Thianna had a sense of humour as they struggled to assert themselves, and I found that really refreshing. The viking style fantasy setting was well done–fairly simple, not too many kingdoms etc. I thought it was a good fantasy novel for young readers – and adults alike. Just need to have a go at Thrones and Bones now – you can actually buy the game apparently!

If you’re interested in buying Frostborn (or anything else) then click on one of the Amazon links below. You’ll also be supporting this blog.

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Book Review: Sharpe’s Eagle by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpes_Eagle_PBSharpe’s Eagle by Richard Cornwell

Paperback, 288 pages
Published August 3rd 2004 by Signet (first published January 1st 1981)
Original Title
Sharpe’s Eagle
ISBN
0451212576 (ISBN13: 9780451212573)
Edition Language
English

Although this is the eighth book in the series of Sharpe book – going in chronological order, Sharpe’s Eagle has the distinction of being Bernard Cornwell’s first Sharpe book. He went back and filled in much of the history of Richard Sharpe at a later date – his time in India for instance which is referred to in this book.

This book is also of note as it’s the only place where Sharpe’s hair is described as being black – Cornwell didn’t mention his hair colour again in other books in the series, which is a good thing given Sean Bean is blond!

Well enough of the anecdotes about the book. What’s it about and is it any good? The story covers the Talavera campaign, during which the British army under Wellington entered Spain with the intention of capturing Madrid supported by the Spanish army. The story begins in Portugal with Sharpe’s company of riflemen being attached to a new regiment, the fictional South Essex commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Simmerson. The Colonel is proud and incompetent and he and one of his officers, Lieutenant Christian Gibbons are the main villains of the story. Gibbons is accompanied by a beautiful Portuguese noblewoman, Josefina Lacosta. The South Essex has the job of seizing a bridge on the line of march of the British army with the cooperation of a Spanish regiment. Due to the incompetence of both the Spanish and Simmerson the regiment is nearly destroyed by French dragoons and cannon. But Sharpe disobeys orders and manages to save most of the regiment from destruction. Not before the South Essex loses its King’s Colour. One of Sharpe’s friends – an officer of the South Essex dies, and Sharpe tells the dying man that he will capture a French regimental Eagle in order to take revenge for the loss of the King’s Colour. Thus the stage is set for the rest of the book.

The British army makes its way under Wellington to Talavera. Most of the rest of the action is the march to the city and the battle itself. There is a good deal of conflict between Sharpe, Simmerson and Gibbon – and with Gibbon Josefina is the main subject of that conflict – the love interest for the book!

I won’t say anything more about the story in case readers of this post haven’t read it.

So what did I think of it? I really enjoyed it. I’ve read other Sharpe books before and other novels by Cornwell, so I was familiar with the style and content of his work – and it didn’t disappoint. There’s plenty of action to keep you turning the pages, but although he’s sometimes accused of being a bit lightweight on history, I found that there was plenty of historical background and content in the book to keep me interested. The characters are well defined too – although some are a bit stereotyped in a way – you can see that they fulfil a function in the story for instance – such as Major Hogan who’s there as a kindly older father figure who tries to help Sharpe. But the characters work well and Cornwell has a knack of bringing them to life and making you believe in them.

Verdict? Heartily recommended!

If you want to support my blog then please consider buying a copy of Sharpe’s Eagle (or anything else) by clicking on the Amazon links below.

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Book Review of Late Medieval France (European History in Perspective) by Graeme Small

Graeme Small
Paperback, 256 pages
Published November 15th 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN
0333642430 (ISBN13: 9780333642436)

Let me say first that I am not a full-time academic – just someone who studied Medieval history a long time ago at University and who is now interested in an amateur way in the period. I give that caveat as this is the kind of book, I think, written for the academic reader in mind – i.e. an undergraduate or postgraduate student. Whereas my brief review here will be more from the point of view of a general reader. I read this book to give me some more background for my own writing – specifically my Stonehearted series.

The book covers the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – ending its timeline in 1461 with the death of Charles VII. That in itself I found interesting as a general reader – does the Middle Ages for France end in 1461? Whereas in England we think of it ending in 1485 with the Battle of Bosworth? That distinction wasn’t explained in the book, but I guess it might be obvious to students of French history.

The structure of the book is a bit unusual – I thought as it was an academic work it would probably be more thematic – i.e. perhaps looking at different sections of society or different themes affecting the period – the rise of the bourgeoisie maybe? It did contain some of that – for instance looking at urban France and rural France, but also quite a bit of the book did also contain narrative history of the reigns of the French king. This was probably the part of the book that I found most interesting. There were some interesting insights for me in why John II was a bad king for instance – down to him not building up his noble allies in Normandy for instance. So that section was definitely very valuable. Other parts of the book were good – interesting to hear about trade networks or the lack of for instance, and also how Paris at this time wasn’t terribly significant – regional cities were quite important instead. So I would say if you are interested in the period and the Hundred Years War then this is worth a read – you get a good perspective from the French side of things.

However, what let it down for me was that academic dryness of the text – I struggled to get through it at times. I think part of this was the insistence on a specific thesis being put across – the idea of a split between East and West parts of France. The West (i.e. Normandy, Brittany, Aquitaine) being the rebellious part of the kingdom, whereas the East was the more loyal settled area. The tension of Burgundy looking to go its own way though making a big impact on the stability of the East. I though this theory was plausible and had its merits as a way of looking at the period, but sometimes I felt it got in the way too!

Late Medieval France by Graeme Small is available from most good bookshops I expect, as well as Amazon. If you want to support this blog go ahead and buy a copy from the Amazon links below.

Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

 

 

 

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman – a Brief Review

Guns of AugustI read this book recently – its a classic account of the beginning of the First World War. Here’s my brief review:

The unbelievable and bizarre story of how the First World War began – how the best laid plans of both sides failed and ended up in the attritional warfare of the Western Front. What comes across most is the influence of the character of the leaders on events – the egotism of the Kaiser, the panic of Sir John French and the stoic calm of Joffre, who would stop for a leisurely lunch on the way to brief his generals, the very model of sangfroid – and would never admit his errors.

And also the official blurb about the book:

Historian & Pulitzer Prize-winning author Barbara Tuchman has brought to life again the people & events that led up to WWI. With attention to fascinating detail, & an intense knowledge of her subject & its characters, she reveals just how the war started, why, & why it could have been stopped but wasn’t. A classic historical survey of a time & a people we all need to know more about, THE GUNS OF AUGUST will not be forgotten.

You can buy the book at the usual places including Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

1,356 thoughts on Bernard Cornwell

1356 Bernard Cornwell - book coverHerewith, some thoughts on writing techniques of Bernard Cornwell following reading 1356.

This is a case of me making some fairly random observations that are important to me as a writer of historical fiction. If you are not a writer, then you might find them a bit uninteresting. If the thoughts are relevant to you, then you might also find them a bit obvious – “Well of course he does that, doesn’t he!”

  1. He uses an historical event (Battle of Poitiers) as a plot device – not as a backdrop – it only appears late on in the book – for the main story – in this case the pursuit for the fabled sword La Malice. In effect 1356 is a secret history.
  2. He introduces interesting nuggets of historical detail to dazzle the reader – steel was made by combining bones when smelting iron apparently? The bones of virgins make for the best steel. I never knew that, I have no idea if its true, but it sounds good.
  3. Minor characters are drawn vividly, but not that deeply. Prince Edward is a gambling, jolly prince who is cocky, but in a nice way; Sculley is basically a battle crazed scott, Father Merchant is coldly evil – it’s easy for the reader to picture these people. Major characters have more depth of back story and motivation.
  4. Interesting mix of viewpoint characters – Thomas of course, the main character, but King Jean, Prince Edward and several others are used as viewpoint characters – so many in fact that it almost seems like an omniscient POV.
  5. Some viewpoint characters seem to almost drop out of the story – what’s the point of Brother Michael – he only seems to be relevant early in the book and then he’s a hanger-on. (I still have a bit left to read, so who knows, perhaps he will make a come back?)
  6. The action scenes are where the writing is at its strongest. There are some attempts at humour, which feel a bit weird to me and don’t come off.
  7. The publisher needs to think about using a copy editor more thoroughly – in the space of a few pages at one point the same information was communicated several times. And it seems to be a running joke that no-one knows how to find the city of Bourges. Poor old Bourges! Not sure if this was intentional or again the result of lack of editing. The obsession with finding Bourges seemed a bit odd to me.

So that’s it – just some of my thoughts. 1356 like all of Bernard Cornwell’s books is good fun for the reader, but also provides some good pointers for writers. There’s the whole character arc, plotting question as well – I’m sure it does that well, but I hvaen’t had a chance to study how that works, but my main takeaways were the points about historical detail and making minor characters vivid.

Book Review: Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley

Edinburgh Dead

Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley

Here’s the blurb from the author’s site:

Edinburgh 1828: it’s a city populated by mad alchemists who treat Frankenstein as textbook rather than novel and by a criminal underclass prepared to treat with the darkest of powers. And one officer, from the recently formed Edinburgh City Police, must follow the trail of undead hounds, emptied graves, brutal murders and mob violence into the deepest and darkest corners of Edinburgh’s underworld – both literal and magical – and back again to the highest reaches of elegant, intellectual Edinburgh society.

It’s 1828, an ex-soldier, Adam Quire, is investigating death of what seems like a vagrant – but leads him to house of Ruthven. The plot of the novel involves raising the dead, grave-robbing.

Edinburgh Dead is a good historical thriller, with a touch of pseudo-science and magic thrown in. Although it has some of the elements of a detective novel there’s not really a lot of detection involved. Its more about tracking down the bad guys against the odds. Quire doesn’t get a lot of help from the rest of the police.

The atmospheric setting of Edinburgh is one of the highlights. Ruckley captures the weird layout and architecture of the city particularly well, I think.

I wouldn’t say it was perfect – as mentioned the detection part of it isn’t that sophisticated. Also there’s a flashback to Quire as a soldier during the Battle of Waterloo that I thought probably wasn’t necessary.

In conclusion, this is not a trashy zombie book. The risen dead element is kept in proportion and in fact there’s not too many zombies at all, which means that when they do appear the effect is much more powerful.

Buy Edinburgh Dead at Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

Book Review: I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

I Shall Wear Midnight

Terry Pratchett is one of those authors that I grew up with as a teenager. He was publishing his first books when I was really getting into things like Fantasy fiction and role-playing games, so his parody of that whole genre really hit the button. The subject area combined a typically English sense of humour, similar in many ways to Blackadder, which was a favourite TV series for kids of my age as well, was perfect reading for me at the time.

I probably read his first 13 or so books in the Discworld series – up to Small Gods I think. After that I stopped. I was at University, had other things on my mind, and frankly I was probably a bit bored with the series by then!

But it’s always nice to come back to an old favourite and recently I’ve been doing that – time to get retro I guess. So I’ve been reading some of the Pratchett books I missed. I picked up I Shall Wear Midnight not knowing anything about it really. My fault – it seem this is the fourth book (?) featuring the young witch Tiffany Aching, AND … I see from the frontmatter that the books featuring her are ‘For Younger Readers’.

I wouldn’t describe myself as young! Would this be for me? Had I stumbled across Terry’s imitation of Twilight?

Yes and No. The plot is fairly predictable – a bit disappointing I thought. There’s an ancient evil that is doing nasty things to all witches (witches in Discworld being similar to magical social workers!) Only Tiffany (I was never really clear why only her) can sort it out. Along the way there’s a bit of a love interest – love triangle – hmm I think this is where the YA comes in. This book, I would suggest is for teenage girls – not boys, who presumably would be reading the regular Discworld stuff. It has a female protagonist – who’s clever, a bit lacking in self-confident, feels a bit put upon, and is in love with one guy, but should be in love with someone else. Feels like a combination of a Jane Austen novel and Twilight to me?

That sounds like I’m being really critical. I’m not. It was a good read and I didn’t mind the character, who was interesting, or the love triangle bit – which produced some humorous moments. The humour wasn’t anything special – I’m sure I used to laugh more when I was reading the earlier books, but perhaps that’s because it was newer then – but I think what I felt let down by a bit was the rather limp plot. The ‘ancient evil’ didn’t really make much of an appearance until a quarter of the way through. The first part of the book seemed more about establishing the character – which was OK, but I didn’t need it that much even though I hadn’t read the other books in this mini-series about Tiffany Aching.

I probably won’t read any other of the books ‘for younger readers’/teenage girls, but I am going to try some of his other more recent books – i.e. stuff that was written this Millenium! Monstrous Regiment is next on my list.

 

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Book Review of Divided Houses by Jonathan Sumption

Divided Houses Jonathan SumptionThe Hundred Years War, Volume 3: Divided Houses (The Middle Ages Series) by Jonathan Sumption

  • Paperback ISBN:9780571240128
  • Published:01.03.2012
  • No of pages:700

Order from: Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

Divided Houses is the third volume in Jonathan Sumption’s epic history of the Hundred Years War – the war that everyone knows didn’t really last a hundred years – more like 117. However, one could argue that with the various truces and peace efforts that’s not quite the case. Divided Houses at first glance looks like it might cover one of the less glamorous periods of the war – there’s no headline English victory to write about – no Crecy, Poitiers, or Agincourt. Despite this, or perhaps because of this lack of a landmark battle distracting from the rest of the narrative, what is recounted is completely compelling. The period from 1369 to 1399 was a period of conflict and strife not just between the main two participants – France and England, but also internally in both countries as well. This was the period of the decline of Edward III, the Peasant’s revolt, and the deposition of Richard II in England. While in France power politics amongst the King’s relatives and generals and a bout of madness that lasted most of Charles VI’s reign add to the intrigue.

The narrative is also compelling because it really shows how unrealistic the war with France was for England – they just couldn’t afford it. But even France, who at last got their taxation together and built up some massive armies and fleets to invade England, saw those plans crumble to dust in the face of political uncertainty and bad weather.

There are also the sideshows of the war in Spain and Portugal, where the feudal ambitions of John of Gaunt failed and the Portuguese won their landmark battle of nationhood – Aljubarrota. But for me one of the most interesting sections is on the situation in Gascony, where because of the war a state of chaos reigned. Knights and nobles indulged in what can only be described as gangster-like activities – forcing towns to pay them protection money – or patis – or suffer the consequences. Local counts and dukes used the very same robber barons to form armies to fight various causes – whether in the national wars between France and England, or to supposedly put an end to the problem of outlawry.

Sumption tells his story of these years with an admirable combination of narrative skill while never skimping on interesting detail and exhaustive research. Divided Houses is an essential history of one of the more overlooked periods of the Hundred Years War.

Some of my fiction related to the Hundred Years War

This is one of my favourite periods of history. In fact I have several stories written during the the 1370s. These are:

Stand and Fight

By the Sword’s Edge

Chivalry: A Jake Savage Adventure

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