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Tom Williams (London, UK)

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Ypres Memories
Ypres Memories
by Philippe Glogowski
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars An opportunity missed, 16 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Ypres Memories (Hardcover)
This is a graphic novel about the First World War. Although presented as fiction, it’s more in the nature of a drama-documentary. The artwork is competent, but nothing more. To show the horror of war, wounds need to be more than painted-on blood. The image of a running man decapitated by a shell is particularly unconvincing. Where there is interesting detail, a lack of references makes it a lot weaker. For example, it shows the shift of helmet design from the Pickelhaube to the Stahlelm steel helmet and even shows steel helmets with a camouflage pattern, but there is no information on when these changes were introduced, and they seem to occur rather sooner in the story than they really did.

There’s a randomness to the detail. There is an incident involving a tank, but no indication that this was an exciting new weapon or of how it was used. There’s reference to the use of aircraft as artillery spotters but nothing about the building of the trenches. Where close-ups of the trenches are shown, it misses out fire steps and duckboards.

The book does serve as a child’s introduction to World War I, but a well-informed adult is unlikely to gain any insights. It’s an opportunity missed.


Under the Tripoli Sky (Coming of Age)
Under the Tripoli Sky (Coming of Age)
by Kamal Ben Hameda
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.39

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not one for me, 16 Feb. 2015
'Under the Tripoli Sky' is translated from French. The translation reads well, but the style can seem rather pretentious in English. Not many English writers would describe opening the windows onto a sunlit day by saying that multi-coloured phosphines were skittering around them. Elegant writing is a pleasure, of course, but sometimes this book seems to favour style over substance. And what is the substance? We are in Tripoli, and references to a recent war with Italy suggest that this is historical, in the sense that it is not happening today. I had to turn to the back cover to learn that it is the 1960s. The book addresses the ill-treatment of women in Libyan society, and there are a series of vignettes in which we see women beaten, raped, trapped in loveless marriages or committing suicide to avoid such entrapment. I’m uncomfortable with these accounts by a male author who left Libya almost forty years ago. If you want to read about the mistreatment of women in Muslim societies, you will probably do better with a non-fiction book like 'The Bookseller of Kabul'.

The observations on the lives of women are interspersed with hints of the author’s sexual awakening and confusion, and the book ends with his own small existentialist crisis. “[The moon’s] despairing eyes stared at me in distress; my presence reminded it, yet again, of its deep wound, the wound of being separated from its nurturing mother, the sun.”

If this is the sort of thing you like, you’ll like it. If not, it has the virtue of being very short.


The Swan-Daughter (Daughters of Hastings 2) (The Daughters of Hastings Trilogy)
The Swan-Daughter (Daughters of Hastings 2) (The Daughters of Hastings Trilogy)
by Carol McGrath
Edition: Paperback

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A lively view of 11th century life and love, 13 Feb. 2015
It's 1075. Eighteen-year-old Gunnhild, King Harold's daughter, is living in a nunnery and being pressured to take her vows. She has no wish to be a nun: she is a princess and would wed a knight and have the life a princess should have. So when Count Alan offers to elope with her, she accepts. But does he love her, or does he just want the lands that she will inherit from her mother?

Carol McGrath follows the story of Gunnhild's marriage with a convincing depiction of courtly life in the eleventh century. Alan, it seems, does not really love Gunnhild, but he does have a grudging respect for her as his chatelaine. Both Alan and Gunnhild seek romantic love elsewhere, Alan with the wife of one of servants, Gunnhild with Alan's brother. In an interesting reversal of the double standard, the sympathies of the story are entirely with Gunnhild.

It is when we come to the sympathies of the story that we face the biggest problem with novels about the 11th century, for we see this through not one, but two, filters. Reader and writer are from the 21st century and the control exercised by Alan over his wife seems unreasonable and sometimes cruel. In fairness, it may well have been seen as such by Gunnhild, as Saxon women had more legal rights than they had once they came under Norman rule. But would a courtly wife really have objected to her husband taking a mistress? Wasn't that normal in court circles in those days? While the mechanical detail of life convinces, the feelings of the protagonists are not always as persuasive.

We also see the 11th century through a separate filter: the Romantic Age of Chivalry. This is not a modern invention: it dates to the 13th century. The chivalric age was always in the past and the knights of this fiction would probably have, in reality, been very like Count Alan. But the chivalric knights wore the plate armour of the 13th century and lived a highly romanticised existence. While McGrath is generally careful about the reality of 11th century life, Gunnhild's girlish dreams seem rather more what a 13th century author might have attributed to her. So, as she picks out beautiful clothes, she tells her friend, "I am a princess. When my knight comes to claim me I shall be waiting for him in that dress." Perhaps the real Gunnhild thought like that, but I am uncomfortable with it. The repeated references to glistening armour and the odd "prancing" horse worry me too. There's even an occasional, almost certainly anachronistic, breastplate that slips through too.

None of this is to take away from McGrath's substantial achievement. She brings the 11th century alive, packing in a wealth of well-researched detail. Her style is easy to read and her Gunnhild is a rounded and sympathetic character. If the story sometimes slips into a more romantic interpretation of the past, it has been in good company for eight hundred years: and if the ideas of the heroine are, perhaps, tainted by 21st century prejudices, this is probably inevitable. In the end, can we ever know how an 11th century woman thought? And would we warm to her if we did?


Just One Damned Thing After Another (The Chronicles of St Mary Book 1)
Just One Damned Thing After Another (The Chronicles of St Mary Book 1)
Price: £1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant!, 12 Dec. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Time travel. Dinosaurs. Time paradoxes. Mad professors and evil villains. Jodi Taylor’s book has it all. But it’s washed down with spectacular quantities of tea and never takes itself too seriously.

It’s science-fiction, but more Dr Who than Arthur C Clarke. Funny, exciting, sometimes accidentally intelligent, this bowls along at a breath-taking pace. I put aside things I really should have been reading just to get to the end of this.

Huge, huge fun – and the funniest sex scene in the history of the novel.

Just buy it.


Cuban Fury
Cuban Fury
Dvd
Price: £2.49

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fun, 30 Nov. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Cuban Fury (Amazon Video)
We watched it because we're dance movie fans. This is not a dance movie but it was huge fun. Brilliant cast, excellent script. If you dance Latin dances, you may well recognise some of the characters.


Drawn to Perfection
Drawn to Perfection
Price: £2.48

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Written to perfection, 10 Nov. 2014
It’s 1752 and parson’s daughter Caelica is living on the edge of Wales with her bookish father and her neurotic mother.

I could outline the plot. There’s a lot of it and it holds together very well, but it’s hardly the point of the book. This is a novel that is simply a pleasure to read. It captures the world of the mid-18th-century and the voice of its writers quite remarkably well. It is by no means a pastiche but an evocation of the time and its values. Those values included an attention to a fine prose style and this book has that in spades, as well as a wicked sense of humour that Jane Austen would have enjoyed.

I cared about the characters and completely believed in them. They are complex and contradictory, just like real people, with the possible exception of the despicable Edward, who seems to have no redeeming feature.

It's easy to criticise a book that is riddled with errors; more difficult to find things to praise in a novel so consistently well observed and well-written. The conclusion, perhaps, is a little hurried, although there are no unexpected twists except, perhaps, for a moment of delicious irony on the very last page. It was a joy to read and I cannot recommend it too highly.


Something in the Blood - a Honey Driver Mystery #1 (A Honey Driver Murder Mystery)
Something in the Blood - a Honey Driver Mystery #1 (A Honey Driver Murder Mystery)
Price: £0.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A pleasant book for a quiet evening., 3 Nov. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Something in the Blood is not Agatha Christie. The pleasure does not come from working out whodunnit (or at least it didn’t for me). There is a mystery, and there are clues. Some are subtle while some are not. (The piece of wood with a six that may be a nine and could have come from a door post does tend to batter the reader about the head as well as the victim.) I didn't really care. About a quarter of the way through the book I realised that I wasn't going to work out who had done what to whom or why. It's a traditionally convoluted tale of long-lost siblings and mysterious overseas relatives typical of Sherlock Holmes on a bad day. What keeps the whole thing going and makes this a book I'm happy to recommend is the characterisation. Honey Driver, hotelkeeper, part-time sleuth and enthusiastic collector of Victorian underwear, is a beautifully rounded character. Her efforts to avoid the dentist her mother keeps trying to foist on her as a romantic partner, whilst worrying about where her daughter is spending the night, and trying to stop her chef from running amok with a kitchen knife are all much more interesting than the question of who murdered the American found floating in the Avon. The Avon? Yes, we're in Bath and the place becomes as essential a part of the story as Honey Driver herself. Jean Goodhind clearly knows and loves the city and Something in the Blood has a strong sense of place.

With an attractive heroine in a beautiful city, what more do we need? Perhaps a detective who combines arrogance and misogyny with an unhealthy amount of sex appeal. There's a lovely set up here that I suspect will run through several more volumes. And did I mention that Ms Goodhind has a smooth writing style with lovely touches of humour? Caught out in the dark our heroine is reminded of "the days before Edison lit up and invented the electricity bill". I enjoyed that. Actually I enjoyed the whole thing. I can barely remember who did it and I don't that much care, but don't let that put you off a pleasant read on a chilly evening.


The Art of Killing Well
The Art of Killing Well
by Marco Malvaldi
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hardly Cordon Bleau reading., 2 Nov. 2014
I received a review copy of this book from the Historical Novel Society.

It’s 1895. The famous cookery writer, Pellegrino Artusi, has been invited to spend the weekend with a baron and his family. At the castle, there is a murder. (At least we know the butler didn’t do it: he’s the victim.) It was carried out by one of the house party or one of the household servants. A policeman arrives. Suspects are interviewed, the policeman solves the crime. It’s a classic country house murder mystery in the English style, but set in Italy. There’s no real sense of period. I’m not sure that the concept of the weekend was even around in 1895 Italy (the phrase only became common in England in the 20th century). The style is (as the author post-modernly points out) late 19th century, except for the frequent post-modern intrusions. The historical Pellegrino Artusi is not particularly rounded, except in girth, and the other characters have the two‑dimensionality of most country-house murder suspects. The recipes, though, are convincing. All-in-all it’s a pleasant read for Agatha Christie fans, but hardcore historical novel enthusiasts should look elsewhere.


Ticket to Paradise
Ticket to Paradise
by Elizabeth Morgan
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Welsh miners in Patagonia, 2 Nov. 2014
This review is from: Ticket to Paradise (Paperback)
I received a review copy of this book from the Historical Novel Society.

In 1865, the English were giving the Welsh a hard time. (Nothing changes.) Desperate to preserve their language and way of life, some emigrated to Patagonia. This story follows those who founded the town of Rawson, on the Argentine coast. It follows their struggles as they finally make a viable settlement but, at the same time, see their identity subsumed into the wider Argentine society.

It’s a fascinating story, well told. Morgan writes well and with a great ear for the cadences of Welsh, which enlivens her dialogue. The history is riveting, and I was interested enough to find Rawson on the map. The map does confirm my suspicion that the area is not surrounded by grassland, as described in the book. That was always incompatible with the problems that the settlers had in growing crops. It’s a shame that Morgan’s geography isn’t as good as her history.

The story-telling is let down by some neat moralising (the Reverend is a pious and unpleasant man, put in his place by the atheist hero), an unnecessary (and unhistorical) aside involving Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and an unconvincing battle between the Welsh and a band of bloodthirsty Indians. There is also an unfortunate epilogue set in the Falklands War, in which the language and attitudes of 2013 civilians are written unconvincingly into the dialogue of 1982 soldiers. These failures, though, are trivial when set against the gripping accounts of daily life and the relationships between the characters. The book provides a useful introduction to an important period of both Welsh and Argentine history. Strongly recommended.


The Tsar's Dragons
The Tsar's Dragons
by Catrin Collier
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Family saga set in 19th century Russia - with Welsh., 2 Nov. 2014
This review is from: The Tsar's Dragons (Paperback)
I received a copy of this from the Historical Novel Society for review.

In 1869 Tsar Nicholas invited a Welshman to develop mining and ironworks in Ukraine. John Hughes brought with him Welsh miners and iron-workers. They built a new city on the Ukrainian steppe: Hughesovka (now Donetsk).

It was a huge project, and Collier's account is on a similarly mammoth scale. The Tsar's Dragons has 552 pages and is the first volume of a trilogy. It is more family saga than history, although there is a lot of historical detail, which certainly reads convincingly. There were some points where I stumbled (could a photographer then have taken a candid "snap" without the subjects being aware?), but I was more worried about social attitudes. Whilst anti-Semitism and the abuse of women are realistically (and sometimes graphically) portrayed, almost all the characters are noble and liberal, with just a couple of `baddies' for contrast. Theirs seem 21st-century attitudes transplanted to 19th-century Russia. The repressive nature of the regime is not mentioned, although we are reminded that the serfs had recently been emancipated. Whilst Nicholas did start to liberalise Russia, things here are progressing so well that the Russian Revolution seems unnecessary.

The modern attitudes of the characters make the primitive conditions of life in the Welsh mining villages and the cruel realities of living and mining in Ukraine both even more horrifying by contrast. Collier is unsparing in her descriptions of beatings and rapes, and her account of a mine collapse is gripping. Like all family sagas, this has its share of passionate love and illicit liaisons, much of it setting up a situation which should make the second volume satisfyingly dramatic.

If you like family sagas and want to learn more about an unexplored bit of 19th-century history, this is for you.


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