Shop now Shop now Shop now Shop All Amazon Fashion Cloud Drive Photos Shop now Learn More Shop now DIYED Shop now Shop Fire Shop Kindle Oasis Listen in Prime Learn more Shop now
Profile for David Herdson > Reviews

Personal Profile

Content by David Herdson
Top Reviewer Ranking: 7,469
Helpful Votes: 188

Learn more about Your Profile.

Reviews Written by
David Herdson (Wakefield, Yorkshire, England)

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9
by Max Hastings
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent history of the Battle for Normandy, 17 May 2016
This review is from: Overlord (Paperback)
The Allied amphibious invasion of the continent via Normandy was its biggest gamble of the war. Had it failed, no other invasion would have been possible until 1945. At best, Hitler would have been defeated only with the atom bomb and British and American armies would freed France and the low countries only after Germany’s surrender; at worst, Stalin could have driven the Red Army to the Rhine if not further.

But it didn’t fail and Max Hasting’s excellent account of the landings and battle for Normandy gives the reader the reasons why. It’s a measure of how good the book is that more than thirty years after it was written, it’s still fresh. As much as anything, that’s down to Hasting’s even-handed approach; he doesn’t let the moral disequivalence of the causes that the armies fought for affect his judgement about their relative merits as combat forces. Similarly, his judgement of commanders, equipment, strategies, tactics, training and so on is consistently based on objective observation; judgements which often leave the Allies second-best.

The writing itself is generally well-paced. It would be easy to write a book twice the length or more on Overlord: it was a huge operation with millions involved. The key is in judging what to leave out as much as what to include. In fact, once the beachheads are established, Hastings only infrequently leaves the battlefield to visit the headquarters: most of the narrative is with the men fighting bloodily yard by yard and hedge by hedge.

It’s impressive stuff and bringing the reader right into the action through eye-witness accounts, letters, recollections as well as narrative is highly effective. He doesn’t need to tell every story to describe in vivid detail what it was like for the green British, American and Canadian forces to be flung against Germans battle-hardened by three years of fighting in Russia – or of Germans desperately defending against the Allies’ overwhelming advantage in equipment and air power.

He has good reason to concentrate on the front lines: it’s where the stories lie and where the evidence exists for his more controversial judgements. We tend to forget these days how slow progress was initially and consequently how little positive impact generals’ decisions had to move matters on: a month and a half after D-Day, the front was still only about 15 miles inland, an average advance of only 600 yards per day (and of course, most days it was less).

In fact, one of the few criticisms I’d have is that Hastings may have been so successful in establishing opinion on the Normandy campaign that his dismissals of what are now long-forgotten books or articles putting forward alternative views are redundant and cluttering. The only other thing I’d have preferred done differently was greater detail to the build-up: how Overlord was designed, the alternatives considered, of the deception operations that shielded it, and so on. But these are minor quibbles.

As a short, general history of the Normandy invasion, it would be hard to do better than this. More than three decades after it was written, the narrative remains compelling and the judgements valid. And that is as much as one can ask of an historian.

Coalition: The Inside Story of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government
Coalition: The Inside Story of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government
by David Laws
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

4.0 out of 5 stars The inside story of the Lib Dems in government, 4 May 2016
This is a very good book but Paddy Ashdown is wrong where he states that Coalition “deserves to be the definitive account of the 2010-15 coalition government”. There are three reasons for that.

Firstly, Laws has written a first-person history; more personal than a general account but more analytical and distanced than a diary or memoir. It’s his history of the time and it generally revolves around the things he was involved in. That is, of course, a perfectly fair way for him to write but it is partial and as such can’t be definitive: although he was a close confidante of Nick Clegg, he still really wasn’t close enough to the action to provide that comprehensive overview. To give one example, Laws was most involved in the policy around the economy and education. George Osborne receives 107 mentions in the index whereas William Hague – the Foreign Secretary, leading on an area that Laws had little contact with – receives just twelve.

Secondly, Laws had to resign after only three weeks in office and didn’t return to government until 2012 and – presumably because he wasn’t at the centre of the action – the two years when he was on the backbenches receive far less attention than the time after his comeback.

And thirdly, there’s an impression that the book’s been a little rushed. To get a work of close to 600 pages (including introduction) on the bookshelves in under a year is a significant achievement but perhaps one or two further edits would have helped. There are several occasions where Laws repeats himself paragraph for paragraph in different chapters.

All of this sounds harsh and it shouldn’t. I’d fully agree with the second part of Ashdown’s observation on the back cover: “it is also a cracking good read: fast-paced, insightful and a must for all those interested in British politics”. Laws has a wonderful eye for detail and ear for anecdote. He’s also an excellent judge of how to use that detail and example to flesh out the bigger picture.

That picture – the history of the coalition government and his role in it – is one he paints very well, including not only how it worked (or on occasion, didn’t), but also the characters within it. Governments are made of real people and Laws frequently strips away the public face to reveal the men and women trying their best to do their jobs. Sometimes it’s not that pretty a sight but more often he shines a different and more human light on those for whom the public hasn’t all that much sympathy.

Laws ends with some reflections on the successes and failures of both the coalition and Lib Dems in office, concluding positively that it was right to have done it and, broadly, to have done it how it was done. Much the same could be said of his book. He has set a high bar for whoever is next to tackle the coalition years.

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
by Tom Holland
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Absolute power corrupts absolutely, 18 April 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Gaius Octavius – or Imperator Caesar Augustus, as he was later immodestly if justifiably renamed – was not only the greatest politician of his age but perhaps the greatest of all time. After successfully fighting for his inheritance, he ended the civil wars that had wracked Rome for decades, brought peace, prosperity and stability to an empire (which he enlarged), and died in his bed an old man.

But there was a price paid, at the time and in future. Rome’s peace was bought at the cost of liberty: the precedents of political proscriptions and forfeitures early in his ascendancy could not be undone. Worse, his system worked only because it had a genius at the centre who understood the subtleties and contradictions within it and who had the skill and restraint to keep it in balance: requirements beyond his successors.

For all that Dynasty tackles one of the most Roman of subjects, it has at its heart a Greek tragedy: that Augustus’ rise to heroic status had within it the seeds of his own House’s demise.

Holland tells the epic story with verve and a very human touch. He is as at home narrating the smells and dangers of the dirt-clogged backstreets of Rome’s nightlife as he is explaining the geopolitical considerations of Rome’s struggle with the Parthians for influence in Armenia; as happy parading the sexual norms of Rome’s elite as to describe the relevance of the city’s ancient mythology to the population’s thinking and expectations. It’s an outstanding work, with the leading players brought dazzlingly to life. Nor does Holland scrimp on the supporting cast: senators, concubines, drinking companions and the rest, even if they only receive fleeting mentions, are continually made people rather than just names.

Frequently, Holland delivers his tale with his trademark biting sarcasm and irony. It’s an effective and occasionally cruel technique. Compared with another of Holland’s books that I’ve read – In the Shadow of the Sword, his masterful account of the origins of Islam – that irony’s toned down here, which is perhaps no bad thing. On the other hand, compared with that other book, I found far less to surprise or shock me here, though that’s probably not Holland’s fault: this subject is far better known.

However, despite that, he does tell the tale of hubris and nemesis, of peace and power and the rise and fall of the House of Caesar, in a way that illuminated the subject in a different way. To take one example, we often picture Augustus as he wanted us to picture him: the young man with his arm raised in gracious acknowledgement. But for half his pre-eminence, he was in his fifties or older; he died in his mid-seventies. Holland brings this elderly Augustus, aware of his mortality, back out of the shadows. Similarly, Caligula and Nero – whilst Holland parades their excesses and cruelties with enthusiasm – receive a much more balanced account than popular history would give them. Monsters they might have been and diligent they might not but their reigns were not wholly blood-soaked orgies.

Overall, Dynasty is a very readable book that packs a great deal into its 420 pages and does so with style and humour. Well worth reading.

Anna Karenina (Penguin Classics)
Anna Karenina (Penguin Classics)
by Leo Tolstoy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life, death, contentment and manic depression, 4 April 2016
Anna Karenina is a classic worthy of the name. Although set in nineteenth-century imperial Russia, it’s so character-driven that it could be reset to just about any other time and place, and perhaps might benefit from that.

Is that final comment harsh? I hope not. I came to Anna Karenina having read War and Peace and enjoyed the earlier Tolstoy epic a more. In both, Tolstoy goes off on wild tangents and sends his characters down some storylines that don’t really lead anywhere other than, perhaps, giving colour to character development and insight into their lives. But whereas War and Peace built towards the end with Napoleon’s invasion, here the story sagged in the third quarter. It is good to read the original (or a faithful translation) but the story’s one that would benefit from being well abridged or adapted.

Or perhaps I should say ‘stories’ in the plural. The book is somewhat misnamed: it is really ‘Anna Karenina and Konstantin Levin’, although that’s also misleading, implying as it does that their paths cross far more often than they do. Instead, their two lives progress on something like mirror images: the flighty, impulsive, beautiful woman set against the slightly dull, rustic, landowner (both share a lack of self-confidence but in completely contrasting ways). Their stories do touch occasionally but most often at one remove. It’s quite a fragile structure on which to build a book of its weight and it only works because of how well constructed it is, for the most part.

What does mark this out as a really great work though was the strength of the characterisation, to the extent that at times the characters themselves effectively narrate their own story; an extremely effective technique. All are believable and most of the human vices and virtues are on display, in people complex enough to share both. No-one is entirely likable but all are eminently believable and act largely as you’d expect – with their dates with destiny visible well down the track but as unavoidable as a Greek tragedy.

For that alone, it gets five stars. You do suspect, however, that with judicious cutting it would be possible to produce a truly outstanding version.

Nino's Song: 1
Nino's Song: 1
by Leah Cobham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Love, loss and hope in Georgia, 30 Mar. 2016
This review is from: Nino's Song: 1 (Paperback)
The title page of Nino’s song describes it as ‘a novel’. This is wrong; it’s far harder to pigeon-hole than that and all the more interesting for it.

So if not a novel, what is it? On a purely practical level, one part of it is: the story of Nino, a teenager growing up in Tblisi during Georgia’s brief independence between 1918-21, told through her diary. That narrative, however, intertwines with Leah Cobham’s reflective-travelogue of her visit to Georgia in 2014. A third silver strand running through the book comes via her poetry, inspired by (and presumably written during), that visit.

But that’s only the practicalities. Two broader themes underlie the whole work. Firstly, how Georgia and its people – some in particular, such as a former partner, but also the nation at large – have come to form such a large part of her life, if one that she has a love-hate relationship with; and secondly, her feminism and advocacy of women’s rights.

It’s a lot to fit into a short book (under 150 pages, including several chapter-ending blanks). Does it work? Yes, in a word. Certainly it could be longer but does it need to be? Just a poetry needs to say more than simply the words on the page, so Nino’s Song succeeds in painting pictures that go beyond colour. Her travelogue sections are beautifully observed and written and her use of language is a joy to read. The insight into women struggling to make the best of a country in various states of decay was simultaneously uplifting and depressing. Perhaps the imbalance between male indifference, corruption, violence and abuse on the one hand, and female creativity, moral strength and unity was a little obvious but it was a fascinating insight all the same.

What didn’t quite hit the note for me was Nino’s diary, the parallel story of hope, love and loss in Georgia. Some aspects are again wonderfully well done (the roses!), but other comments jarred: in her first two entries – written in 1918, while World War I was still raging – the teenage girl talks seriously of visiting Vienna, for example.

Overall, this wasn’t the sort of book I’d usually read but I’m delighted that I was persuaded to. Eye-opening and thought-provoking, I hope that both the book and the people within it have a successful future.

findout Black Silk Cord Chain Necklace with Sterling Silver lobster clasp 16" 18" 20" 24"26 28. 30" (20 IN)
findout Black Silk Cord Chain Necklace with Sterling Silver lobster clasp 16" 18" 20" 24"26 28. 30" (20 IN)
Offered by findout
Price: £8.89

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good functional value cord necklace, 10 Feb. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
A good, strong, comfortable, quality cord necklace suitable for hanging pendants and the like from (as I'm doing). I might be being a bit picky giving four stars rather than five but I find the 'eye' that the catch loops on to a bit small which means that it's a little fiddly to put on and anything on the necklace can slip off easily. That said, it is as the picture shows it to be so the buyer should be aware of that.

Spooks the Unofficial History of MI5 From the First Atom Spy to 7/7 1945-2009
Spooks the Unofficial History of MI5 From the First Atom Spy to 7/7 1945-2009
by Thomas Hennessey
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Impenetrable, 3 Dec. 2015
There are three good ways to start a history book. You can fast forward to an exciting episode of the story, which not only grabs the reader’s attention but reveals a wider truth about the story ahead; or an introductory chapter can set the scene and the context before getting on with the detail; or you can plough straight in and explain the wider angle as you go along. Spooks does none of these and unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work.

This may be because it’s the third in a three-part series on MI5’s history (the previous two being on the periods from its foundation until 1939, and its activities during WWII), which have been expanded from a single book. All the same, as it’s offered as a stand-alone, to be presented first with a chapter on the activities of a not particularly important WWII agent followed by another chapter on MI5’s role during the Palestine emergency of the 1940s is somewhat bewildering, particularly as there’s a lot of jargon thrown in without explanation (a glossary of terms would be a very useful addition as, for that matter, would an index).

What there should be in any history of MI5 in the post-war era are three main strands: fighting communists and their allies, its role in the N Ireland Troubles, and countering the Islamist terrorists of the 21st century. Everything else should be for interest, colour and support. But while these three topics are there, they’re not the central threads they should be. Indeed, the story of MI5’s Cold War activities isn’t a thread at all, more a potted history of the Services greatest failings: Fuchs, Philby, Burgess and so on. There’s no ongoing narrative and we never really find out what MI5’s priorities and strategies were and how they went about them. The chapter on Fuchs is also far too long at about a fifth of the book.

I don’t doubt that writing a book on such a sensitive subject is a difficult undertaking, that much of the evidence is unavailable and that interviewees are hard to come by. All the same, the episodic structure means that there are a lot of gaps, sometimes years long.

Nor is the writing of a page-turning quality. At times it’s hard to work out when the authors are quoting from official documents and when they’re writing in their own voice. This is a shame because the final two chapters (on N Ireland and the Islamist terror threat) do flow much more naturally and remind the reader what the rest could have been like.

I don’t like to criticise excessively and clearly a lot of research has gone into the production of a series which is by its nature a tough one to write on. All the same, I suspect there are better options out there.

Getting Our Way: 500 Years of Adventure and Intrigue: the Inside Story of British Diplomacy
Getting Our Way: 500 Years of Adventure and Intrigue: the Inside Story of British Diplomacy
by Sir Christopher Meyer
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Diplomacy under the microscope, 4 Nov. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Christopher Mayer is an ideal individual to write on British diplomacy and he does so here with all the skills you’d expect of an experienced and successful diplomat: his history is knowledgeable and relevant, his telling of it spiced with humour and anecdote, and the whole is well-pitched at its target audience. Above all, he knows what his main argument is and presents a powerful case for it.

That case is the extent to which a top-rate diplomatic corps is a critical asset to a country, when given a clear brief in support of a coherent overall foreign policy. As much as armies and traders, diplomats can play a profound role in furthering the national interest (or, if not up to the task or if not given adequate tools for the job, can miss crucial opportunities).

It’s an argument he makes by means of nine case studies. As such, Getting Our Way is something of a patchwork quilt and neither of the things claimed of it in its sub-title. It is not a ‘story’ in the conventional sense; there is no narrative. There are themes both explicit and implicit, and there are many examples, but ‘inside stories’ – in the plural – ‘of British Diplomacy’ would be a more accurate description. Similarly, while the examples run from the 1570s to the 1990s (nearer four centuries than five), only one is in the first half of that period. There is certainly a place for a comprehensive history of English/British diplomacy, but this isn’t that book.

That patchwork quilt, however, fits together very nicely in a three-by-three grid; one axis thematic and one linear. The book’s divided into three main themes – security, prosperity and values – and each theme contains three case studies, one from a time when Britain (or England in one case) was a small or medium power on the rise, one during the height of British power, and one during the period of decline. It’s an effective format and allows the reader to understand how much of the diplomat’s job is given in the sense of external circumstances, and how much is down to their discretion, competence and effort.

All this is buttressed by a fine running commentary from Mayer, drawing on his own experiences as ambassador, Foreign Office spokesman or more junior official, drawing out common challenges and demonstrating parallels in the behaviour and dilemmas of diplomats across the centuries and across the world. The humour is that of the wry smile than the belly laugh, as might be expected, but lightens the mood all the same. Indeed, the overall tone is conversational (as might be expected of a book that’s a companion piece to a TV series), and the better for it.

Book-ending the case studies are the introduction and conclusion where Mayer makes his case most forcefully for how Britain’s foreign policy should be constructed and conducted, namely with the focus on a well-defined national interest. I find it hard to disagree with those sentiments and Getting Our Way should be mandatory reading for those who now with their hands on the levers of power – and interesting and illuminating reading for anyone else.

by Robert Harris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.00

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Harris’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Republic, 25 Oct. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Dictator (Hardcover)
I thoroughly enjoyed the first two parts of Robert Harris’ ‘Cicero’ series and had been keenly looking forward to the final one for years and I doubt that fans will feel let down. Harris, via Tiro – Cicero’s lifelong secretary, narrates the desperate years of the transition of republic into empire with skill and understanding. The amount and quality of his research is evident throughout and really doe make Tiro’s story sound as if he could have written it two thousand years ago.

However, in centring the story around Cicero there’s a problem which is evident from the beginning. At the end of Lustrum, we left Cicero abandoning Rome for exile, and it’s here that we pick them up in Dictator. What that means is that for the first fifty pages the main action is taking place off the page: events in Rome and in the armies around the empire only filter through to Cicero slowly and there’s no direct interaction with any of the other main characters. It’s a great way of demonstrating his political impotency but it lacks drive.

That changes once the action returns to Rome. Unlike the first two books, where Cicero’s fortunes trace something close to a graceful arc – ascending to the peak of the consulship, then befalling disasters ending in disgrace and ruin – here, the twists and turns come thick and fast as he fights to restore or preserve the old republic and its values against the assaults against it from all quarters – though through his own compromises, misjudgements and weaknesses, and the ruthlessness of the hard ambitious men, this can only ever be a forlorn quest. This is historical fiction after all, and we know how the Republic ends.

This was always going to be a harder book to make work than the first two, simply because while Cicero was at the centre of Rome’s life for them, in this one he frequently isn’t. It’s a powerful story of a man wrestling with his conscience and the challenges sent him. If that means viewing the large canvass through a magnifying glass, then that’s surely how the majority of the population of whatever station in life would have had to view it. Appropriately enough, it’s a very democratic window on that classic saga.

Writing the story from the point of view of someone on the losing side (though one suspects that from Harris’ point of view, it’s the right and good side), is uncommon and brings a different and welcome perspective from the norm. After the slow start, the tension builds and the story rattles along, as it needs to in order to fit in the fifteen years it covers into 440 pages. One by one, the figures of the old order fall by the wayside, as violence not only becomes the norm but, tragically, the only realistic option of self-preservation, until Cicero alone remains amid a new and hungry generation, fed on the triumphs and power of Pompey and Caesar.

The history is a timeless tale of power, greed, fear, ambition and weakness, and features an equally timeless cast of characters. Harris has made good on the promise of his first two parts in his take on it.

Marlborough: His Life and Times, Volume I (Winston Churchill's Marlborough Collection Book 1)
Marlborough: His Life and Times, Volume I (Winston Churchill's Marlborough Collection Book 1)
Price: £7.22

5.0 out of 5 stars Reads like the most brilliant lecture, 25 Oct. 2015
This is as good a history book as I have read. Churchill’s genius with words displays itself expansively and gloriously across close to 500 pages of vivid, pugnacious, enthralling prose.

Not that this is a neutral history. Winston Churchill is powerfully on campaign on behalf of his illustrious ancestor throughout the biography, with Lord Macauley as his principal enemy. To that extent, the series’ sub-title is incomplete. As well as being of Marlborough’s life and times, it is also of his historical reputation: Churchill does not simply tell the story of his subject’s life but thoroughly examines the interpretation put on Marlborough’s actions by subsequent historians and is bruising in his judgement of those who he feels unjustly malign him. Some of that inevitably feels dated now (an indication perhaps of the success of Churchill’s case) but the questions and analysis are valid all the same, not least because of the clear quality of the research and of the evidence amassed to validate the case asserted.

That, however, is not the glory of the book. What I was blown away by was the exquisite language: my goodness, he could write! We’re familiar of course with his famous wartime speeches; so familiar, perhaps, that it’s dimmed their original power. But to read this is to hear the man speak. Churchill ‘wrote’ by dictating to a secretary and his method pays great dividends for the reader. The words have a life to them that surely would not have existed had they been first formed in ink. It is, quite simply and in the best sense, a brilliant lecture.

What’s even more remarkable is the unmistakable parallel in the lives of subject and author. Both enjoyed great success early in their lives; both successfully defected, Marlborough from James II to William III, Churchill from Conservative to Liberal and back again; both rose to great prominence before events cast them aside; even their domestic lives contained echoes. But even his great foresight could not have predicted in 1932, when he started writing it, that like Marlborough, he would be recalled from the political wilderness to lead Britain and her allies against an expansionist continental tyrant, with great skill and tenacity, to ultimate victory. That it happened so is uncanny.

That, however, is for the remaining volumes in the series. This one ends with Anne’s accession and Marlborough still preparing for war. It is an outstanding work of history; one that has stood the test of time not just as a great book but also as a great read.

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9