This is a sequel to The Assassins and you really ought to read that book first.
There is quite a lot happens in The Dardanelles Conspiracy, all of it based on the historical facts that led up to the horror of the Gallipoli landings. If, like me, you are vaguely aware of that campaign but have never been quite sure how it came about, then this book will give you a lot of context. It falls into two parts, the first about the doomed attempts to bribe Turkey to allow the passage of the Dardanelles without the British having to take military action, and the second a description of the opening of the campaign when the negotiations fail. The failure, according to this book, was pretty well inevitable as the British did not negotiate in good faith.
The details of opaque diplomatic negotiations are, inevitably, on the dry side. What kept me reading (and, I imagine, anyone else who loved The Assassins) was following the continuing escapades of Johnny Swift, the anti-hero of Bardos’s previous book. Johnny continues to duck and dive, a cad and a bounder but someone we somehow want to win through, whether he is collaborating with the enemy, faking illness to extend his sick leave or seducing his superior’s wives. Several of the people from the first book also make welcome returns alongside some wonderful new fictional characters – in particular a couple of German officers whose almost constant drunkenness conceals a strong commitment to their military duty.
There is a good cast of non-fictional figures too. A young Churchill reminds us that Winston was a terrible military leader in World War I, though fortunately rather better a quarter of a century later. I never knew he had a brother in the Dardanelles and Jack Churchill was just one of the interesting historical figures to pass through the story.
Once we move to the actual assault on the Turkish positions, there is nothing dry at all about the story-telling. Bardos gives a good outline of how the battle started. It’s clear how much of British strategy was based on straightforwardly racist contempt for the Turks. A few snowflakes reading Guardian articles on the commitment of Turkish soldiery to defend their homeland could have saved an awful lot of British lives. ANZAC lives too, though Bardos makes little mention of them. He would be well advised not to agree to any book tours in Australia where the sacrifice of “colonial” troops at Gallipoli remains a source of bitterness to this day.
Bardos catches the horror and the chaos of this sort of warfare really well: the chaos, perhaps, rather too well. The initial plan of attack was insanely complicated (the sort of thing that a junior officer nowadays would be taught could never survive contact with the enemy). Without a map the reader will struggle to keep track of the relative positions of the troops on Beaches V, X and Z, let alone the strategic importance of Hill 138 or Hill 114. Mind you, the reader’s confusion will reflect that of the men on the ground. The commanders, safe offshore in their battleships, did have maps but, with no efficient means of communication, they lost direction of their forces. The result was a bloodbath and Bardos captures that very well.
The book takes a very Reithian approach to combining fact and fiction. (Like Reith’s BBC, it entertains, educates and informs.) If The Dardanelles Conspiracy doesn’t combine fact and fiction as seamlessly as The Assassins, that reflects just how good The Assassins was. If you enjoyed The Assassins, you will enjoy the further adventures of Johnny Swift and Bardos’s insights into a campaign which is too easily forgotten about in Britain.
Readership of my blog fluctuates wildly at the moment and I can’t see any particular pattern to it. Some things obviously interest more people than others: do let me know what interests you and I’m then much more likely to write about it.
I was cutting back on book reviews, partly because fewer people tended to read them, but lately they’ve been proving more popular when I do carry them, so I’ve decided to offer a book review for my Good Friday blog.
Loren Estleman’s latest, The Eagle and the Viper, is the story of an attempt to assassinate Napoleon. In fact, it’s the story of two attempts to assassinate Napoleon: the first the real-life attempt in 1800 which is often cited as the first-ever use of a vehicular IED, the second a fictional effort the following year. Spoiler: Napoleon survives.
I’m currently working on the next a Janes Burke book, which is set in Paris in 1809, not that long after the events of The Eagle and the Viper, so I was fascinated to see how another author tackles the problem of writing about spies and assassins in that world. And, given that Loren Estleman is a massively more successful author than me, I hoped I might pick up some clues.
There’s a lot of research gone into this book, especially the account of the 1800 attempt which is more dramatised documentary than fiction. And Estleman can write (sadly not a given these days). His prose flows and his pacing is good too, bursts of violent action alternating with more descriptive narrative. His characters are rounded and credible – in part because he is happy to invent details that make them more relatable, though much of the personality of people like Napoleon fits well with what we know of him. With his fictitious characters he has full scope for invention and his villain is given an interesting sexual life which means that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to the vicar.
Overall, The Eagle and the Viper is an exciting book with a convincing historical background. It has an awful lot in common with Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal although Forsyth’s murder attempt is covered up so that the story does not contradict the historical record. The Viper’s attempt is very public and definitely parts company with the historical record, which always seems to me to be an issue with historical fiction, though it doesn’t worry some readers. Many writers of historical fiction are happy to ignore the facts if they get in the way of a good story. Even Bernard Cornwell has Sharpe winning a crucial battle by exploiting a weakness in an enemy fortress where this weakness simply didn’t exist in real life. Personally, I like to try to fudge historical anomalies, for example by explaining that some events were covered up at the time, but that’s not always possible if you want to keep your plot moving. Every writer (and reader) has to draw their own boundaries. I am probably more worried by the fact that after all the cunning and the meticulous planning that carries the Viper to Paris, the attempt itself is crude and the escape plan relies heavily on luck and a following wind. Plotting the mechanics of villainy is surely part of the fun of writing a thriller of this sort.
Despite the untidy ending, I did enjoy the read and I’m happy to recommend it to Burke fans.
Other Napoleonic fiction is also available
Clearly there is a fair amount of overlap between the Viper’s fictional world and that of James Burke and I’m obviously going to be biased in favour of my creation. Burke doesn’t take himself quite as seriously as the Viper but his cunning plans are maybe rather better thought through. Burke has no desire to be a dead hero and will often plan his escape route before he plans anything else. He’s also an incomparably more considerate lover than the Viper, which I think makes him just a better hero.
Burke’s adventures have seen him spying in Argentina, Egypt, Paris, Brussels, Spain and Ireland. For more about any of the books, click on the images below.
Email has led to something of a revival in the epistemological novel and Jennie Ensor’s latest, Not Having It All, combines email, snail mail, psychological case notes and diaries to tell the story of Beatrice Hudson, self-styled “stranded scientist, make-do mother and weary wife”.
As you might suspect from the number of (fictional) sources it draws on, this story sprawls a bit. While Bea is definitely the central character, we get almost as involved in the life of her best friend, Madeleine. Madeleine is an artist and free spirit who excites suspicion in Bea’s husband, Kurt, lust in Colin (we’ll get to him) and fascination in her psychoanalyst.
Madeleine is around a lot during this story as Kurt is off on business in Istanbul, leaving Bea to cope with four year old Fran, with only the part time help of au pair Katie. Madeleine is often by to help out with Fran, who alternates between being an angelic infant and a truly awful child, often referred to by Katie (understandably) as ‘Little Fiend’.
There is not only a huge cast of characters (I haven’t even mentioned Bea’s sister, Allie) but their lives are all filled with incident. Bea is a neuroscientist leading a small team on the fringe of a breakthrough in understanding the neuroscience of phobia. I was fascinated by the details of the experimental technique and the possible underlying neural pathways behind arachnophobia, but then I did actually study neuroscience at university. I suspect many casual readers may be surprised to get a lecture on the anatomy of the brainstem in the middle of a comic novel, but it’s more readable than my undergraduate texts and you will at least come away, as they say on the BBC, educated and informed as well as entertained.
My university course also touched on Jungian psychology and while Bea is a convincing neuroscientist, Madeleine’s analyst, Nigel Rowley, appears to have discarded Jungian theory almost entirely. Perhaps that’s why he is having doubts about his chosen career. Madeleine seems to bring that out in people – or maybe she is just drawn to troubled men. She meets Colin just as he is (from the noblest of motives) about to embark on a substantial insurance fraud.
It says a lot for Jennie Ensor’s writing (and the joyous gusto with which she attacks her plot) that we have no trouble in keeping track of these character and even the more incidental figures, like Colin’s brother, Gary, whose seduction of Colin’s wife ended the marriage. Would that all my friends had such interesting lives. On second thoughts, perhaps it’s best they don’t.
I couldn’t possibly start to describe the plot because I keep putting spoilers in my reviews and by now I get hate mail. Plus it is so gloriously over-the-top as to defy summary. I can tell you that Allie (the sister, remember her?) gets bitten by an emu, leaves her husband and runs off with a singer ten years younger than her. Other characters exploring their sexual boundaries join a swingers club or experiment with lesbianism. It’s an alternative, I suppose, to the alcoholism that some of them teeter on the edge of.
This book should be a desperately trying-too-hard mess, but it’s actually very readable and bits are utterly hilarious. I started off annoying my wife by reading her some paragraphs as she was trying to get on with her own book and she was impressed enough to add this her TBR list – a massive honour as books I recommend are generally rejected out of hand.
So there you are: it shouldn’t work, but it does. Enjoy!
I seem to have built up a backlog of book reviews, so, having told you I’m cutting back, I’ve been forced bring back my Tuesday reviews, at least for this week, and maybe next, depending on how quickly I read. I have a cover reveal scheduled for Friday (look out for it!) and then a new book to talk about, so Deborah Swift’s latest gets its place today.
I’ve read a few of Ms Swift’s stories before, mainly set in the 17th century. She usually likes to spend quite a long time setting the scene before there is an lot of action on the page.
This story could hardly be more different. It’s set in German-occupied Norway in 1942 – practically contemporary compared with most of the other books of hers I’ve read, though this is her third book set around the Second World War. And we are thrown into the action practically from the first page when Astrid discovers her boyfriend sending radio messages to England.
Jorgen Nystrom is a radio operator for Milorg, the Norwegian Resistance. He has survived longer than most but now the Germans have tumbled him and they are waiting to arrest him on his return home, so Chapter 2 starts with his desperate escape with Germans firing at him as he flees.
We never find out how his cover was blown. (Perhaps the fact that Astrid stumbled in on him transmitting suggests he was getting a bit careless?) It doesn’t matter. Deborah Swift has done a lot of historical research on the Norwegian occupation, but no time is being wasted in scene-setting here. We are on the run with Jorgen, whose only chance of escape is to get the Shetland Bus: one of the fishing boats that run the unbelievably dangerous passage from the Shetlands to Norway, carrying arms and agents in one direction and refugees in the other.
We are now into a traditional war story, replete with the tropes of heroic escapes from villainous Nazis. Jorgen doesn’t have an easy time of it and if his desperate flight on cross-country skis touches on the edge of James Bondish implausibility, Swift does allow us to see him as vulnerable and even, worn down by hunger, cold and exhaustion, sometimes frail.
We have two main villains: an evil Nazi-sympathising policeman, Falk, and his agent, Brevik, a star skier who is sent to catch up with Jorgen, befriend him and penetrate the Shetland Bus network. Falk is a Nazi villain from central casting, “too short, too tubby and without the good looks that made men like Nystrom’s life so easy”. Brevik, though, is a much more interesting character. Lacking any political commitment or moral compass, he manages to fool everybody that he is a Resistance hero. I’d have liked the story to have made more of him. He is an excellent villain and I can’t help feeling that a lot of his potential is wasted.
Meanwhile, back in Oslo, Astrid is resisting the Nazis in a less dramatic but, for my money, much more heroic way. She is a teacher and when the occupying Germans insist on the Nazification of the educational system, she is one of the organisers of a school strike.
We see a lot of the casual violence of the Nazis, with hostages rounded up and shot in the street, teachers sent to labour camps in the far north of the country and the persecution of Jews. Astrid’s position is as dangerous as Jorgen’s and she doesn’t have the comradeship of Milorg to fall back on. In fact, her one contact in the Resistance makes it quite clear that when push comes to shove, she is on her own.
Eventually, with the Nazis trying to arrest her, and a Jewish father and daughter she has taken in to save them from deportation, Astrid, too feels she has no choice but to make a run for the Shetland Bus.
Will Jorgen make it to the Shetlands? Will Astrid escape too and meet him there? Wil their love triumph against the horror of the times they live in? I’d love to talk about this (there are some interesting twists and turns) but I’ve been accused of spoilers in the past, even when commenting on stuff that seemed blindingly obvious to me early in a story. So I’m not going to make any detailed comments on the plot. I will say that you are unlikely to be shocked by any of the twists, but they do keep things lively.
This book reminds me of the sort of war story I read as a child in the 1960s. It’s not the kind of thing I would usually read now, but I think it will appeal to people who like this traditional approach to WW2. It is a lot better than most because Swift has brought her historical writer’s approach, so the background in Norway is convincing with a wealth of detail that most people will be unfamiliar with. The Norwegian occupation is not something we are very aware of in the UK. We prefer our Resistance fighters French.
Given the solid research, it’s unfortunate that the publishers, Sapere, have, for some reason, hidden the historical note away behind the back matter. The true story of the teacher’s strike, in particular, deserves to be better known. Sadly, Swift’s story illustrates a painful truth: it is much more exciting to fight with guns and dodge enemies in the forest than it is to commit yourself to civil disobedience. In something that Swift has written to promote the book she quotes someone saying that the teachers who faced possible death in the labour camps reminded themselves that soldiers fighting the Nazis faced death every day in the same cause and, if the soldiers could take it, so could the civilians. I wish she had put these words in the mouth of one of her characters. As it is, skimming through the book as I wrote this review, I was struck by how many pages there are of derring-do and excitement compared to the pages about teaching the old curriculum in defiance of the ever-present danger of arrest by the Nazis. It’s understandable – writing extended passages about being cold and hungry and frightened but plugging along with teaching times tables to small children would be an enormous creative challenge. It’s sad, though, that as in real life it’s the men who get to be heroes while the women who plod away doing the right thing without support or recognition are just the ones who get left behind. That’s not Deborah Swift’s fault, but when we ask why so many people let Nazism happen, that’s a good part of the answer. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to play with their boy toys and leave the real resistance to the women.
So, how do I feel about The Lifeline? I feel it is good – though it could have been so much more. If you like war stories, you’ll enjoy it. If you want to know more about the occupation in a country the British were going to invade until the Germans got there first (a detail Swift, like most Brits, avoids mentioning), this is definitely worth a look. And if you are just looking for an adventure story with a dash of romance, you could do a lot worse. Swift is a fine writer and her prose will definitely keep you turning the pages.
Thank you to Sapere for providing a copy for review.
This is not a book blog. There are lots of book bloggers out there who review lots of books. I’m not one of them. I keep trying to cut down on the number of books I review here. Despite this, in 2020 I reviewed more than twenty.
How does this keep happening?
Firstly, I know a lot of writers. And they (like me) are desperate to see their books reviewed. If people don’t review them, how will anybody know about them? Many excellent books are overlooked by reviewers and readers, especially if they are not published by big publishers with significant marketing budgets. If I can help get some of these titles even a little bit more visibility, I think that will have been worthwhile.
Secondly, I get given books. Some I ask for (mainly through NetGalley), some are offered to me by publishers. Lots of writers complain on social media that no one will review their books but can I suggest they learn from some publishers? Publishers are often criticised for not doing a lot for their authors, but they do seem better at identifying potential bloggers and contacting them than are many writers.
Although people giving you books are not supposed to ask for reviews as a quid pro quo (Amazon, in particular, prohibits this), there is an implicit social contract that demands that you write a review. That can be embarrassing if you hated the book but fortunately that doesn’t happen often.
What do I review?
Basically, I review the books I get given to review. I may come across a book I’ve bought or seen in a library that I like so much I just have to review it, but books sent to me specifically for review get to the top of the pile. This makes my reviewing choices fairly eclectic.
I do try to prioritise books about history as my blog focuses on history. History stretches a fair way, though, from Jennifer Macaire’s prehistoric shenanigans (A Remedy in Time) to Alan Bardos’ excellent story set around the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 (The Assassins). There’s some non-fiction history as well, like Robert Griffiths’ authoritative guide to the Rifles in the Peninsular Campaign (Riflemen) and Jacqueline Reiter’s superb life of the Second Earl of Chatham, The Late Lord. (Both of those books, incidentally, were my own purchases – or more accurately gifts requested for Christmas – which gives some idea how good I thought they were.)
I also include quite a few thrillers (I really do like a good thriller) and even a romance. I’m not generally a romance fan, but I’ve made an exception for Gilli Allan’s excellent Buried Treasure.
How do I review?
I do try to find things to say about the books I review which go beyond: ‘This is a plot summary. I thought it was really good.’ Most of my reviews will be between 500 and 1,000 words, which gives time to get my teeth into how I think the book works.
There are books that I have enjoyed but where I think I really don’t have anything to say about them and these may be reviewed on Amazon but not on my blog.
What if I hate a book?
I generally try to avoid negative reviews but I’m happy to make an exception if the author is well-known and my review is not going to do them any harm. Plus there are famous authors who I think are trading on their reputation to foist terrible books on the public. (Jeremy Paxman’s Empireis a good example.) Once or twice I have felt duty-bound to review something underwhelming and then I just hide the review away and never speak of it on social media. It’s just my opinion and I doubt that people will seek my views out and shun the author. All my reviews are honest but they are always subjective. I hope they encourage you to read books by authors you might otherwise not have looked at.
Here, in no particular order, is complete list of all the books I reviewed in 2020. Click on the titles for a link to the original review.
I’ve loosely categorised them as historical (H), crime/thrillers (T) and non-fiction (NF). That leaves a few over but you can work those out for yourselves.
This is even more subjective than the reviews, but everyone else lists their best books of 2020, so why shouldn’t I?
There are only three non-fiction books reviewed. All three are excellent and you can improve your mind by reading any of them. Money is a quick gallop through the history of finance, brilliantly entertaining and very informative. Riflemen is a wonderful historical study, though possibly a little dense for the casual reader, while The Late Lord is a model of how to write a historical biography.
This is such a broad category that it’s difficult to single out individual titles. A Remedy in Time is gloriously silly and enormously fun but (though it does have real historical content) you can’t compare it with The Assassins, which is not such an easy read but which is packed with detail on the political intrigues that triggered World War I. I was particularly taken with A Murder of No Consequence which used a murder mystery set in the run-up to the Spanish Civil War to explore not only the history of the period but the moral questions that the collapse of civil society gives rise to. It’s a book that deserves to be read.
Having said that it’s difficult to single out an individual title, the historical fiction that was just head and shoulders above anything else I read in 2020 was This Blighted Expedition. Lynn Bryant’s story of the 1809 Walcheren Expedition blends historical fact with gripping fiction in a way that should be a model for writers of historical fiction. Lynn Bryant self-publishes her books. It’s true that there is an awful lot of self-published dross out there, but books like This Blighted Expedition show why it is a huge mistake to dismiss self-published authors as somehow not ‘proper’ writers. It’s my Book of the Year.
I’ve read a couple of books by Ragnar Jonasson before, so his publisher kindly offered to send me a NetGalley review copy of his latest, The Girl Who Died.
I’m very thrown by it. Nowadays writers are continually told to “show not tell”. It’s become a mantra that can be taken to ridiculous extremes. It is relatively modern writing rule. Many 19th-century authors “tell” all the time. It can seem a little odd to modern eyes, but it doesn’t stop them spinning a perfectly good yarn. I’ve often thought that we could make a great deal more use of straightforward telling, but this book seems to be told all the time. Let’s take a random sentence (the point at which I stopped reading and started to write this):
“Although he hadn’t said so in plain words, there was no doubt in her mind that he had been coming onto her. He had put his arm round her and angled for an invitation to go up to her bedroom. There was no way she could have misunderstood him, was there?”
There is no showing at all here. We are simply told what he has done and that the girl (the main character) had no doubt about his intent. It’s a simple statement of fact and I can see (indeed in the past I would have argued) that trying to look at the whole thing from “inside her head” can be overelaborate and unnecessary. But the story is almost all told in this tone, giving it a certain flatness.
Perhaps the author is trying to reflect the barrenness of the landscape in which our protagonist finds herself. She is in an isolated village on the very edge of Iceland with a population of just ten people. It’s not only a harsh and unforgiving landscape, but it is socially barren as well. Many of the characters seem to be social misfits. (I suppose they would have to be to live in such a place.) This style could, I suppose, have been deliberately chosen with this in mind.
The trouble is, it is, frankly, just boring to read: page after page of flat prose. And nothing really happens. The rather sad attempt at seduction I’ve just mentioned comes a third of the way into the book and is almost the most exciting thing so far.
There is something more exciting: a murder. Possibly a double murder. It appears, apparently arbitrarily, some way into the book and it’s returned to later. On both occasions it’s inserted in italics presumably to titillate us with the promise that eventually something will happen. But when? Is this something that has happened in the past? Or something that will happen in the future? And who is it who has been killed? We just don’t know. It seems a clumsy attempt to inject some interest where, so far, there is none.
The story is set in the Icelandic winter. So we have a rather dull character, her life so empty that she sees a job in this tiny village as an exciting opportunity, living in an almost deserted settlement in the middle of nowhere, when most of the time it is dark.
I’ve always thought that one of the greatest challenges that an author can faces to depict a spectacularly dull life in a way that is not itself dull. I can’t help feeling that Ragnar Jonasson has set himself this task and failed.
I get a lot of books off NetGalley and I feel that there is a social obligation to review them. It’s usually a pleasure. I’ve read many new authors and been exposed to some really interesting novels – including the first two I’ve read by Jonasson. Every so often, though, I come across something which I cannot, in good conscience, give a positive review to. I’ve only read a third of this book, so it may well get massively better, but I’m just finding it such hard work that I’m going to cut my losses at this point.
There is inevitably a lot of subjectivity in assessing any book. Some people may love this. For myself, though, this is going to get one of my very, very rare one star reviews.