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N. Young (London, UK)
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The Last Testament
The Last Testament
by Sam Bourne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Good on detail, Dan Brown-esque caper, 3 Jan. 2014
This review is from: The Last Testament (Paperback)
A US peace negotiator with a shady past is sent to the Middle East to help with the latest round of the peace process, which is threatening to spiral out of control. She soon ends up investigating what a prominent archaeologist (and extreme Israeli nationalist) was up to just before he was shot by Israeli security forces, and it turns out that he'd made a discovery (on a clay tablet that had been looted from Baghdad in 2003) that relates to a character in the Old Testament and which has profound implications for the future of the Holy Land. Factor in another dead archaeologist (this one a Palestinian), and the chase is on to uncover the secret before it falls into the wrong hands.

Sam Bourne is a pseudonym for Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland - a man with extensive experience of reporting in the Middle East. This shows in his novel - the political detail is very good and the author's experience shines through - but in terms of the chase to uncover the Biblical secret this comes across as a Dan Brown-like caper set largely in and around Jerusalem. We have, for example, false names that are in fact anagrams of characters' names, cliff-hanger chapter endings which turn out to have quite innocuous resolutions and certain characters who aren't quite what they seem to be. Interestingly, I found one of the minor characters to be the most interesting - in this case, a somewhat disreputable Englishman who deals with smuggled/stolen antiquities. I wonder if he appears in any of Bourne's other novels?


The Last Templar
The Last Templar
by Raymond Khoury
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Strong opening which the rest of the book doesn't live up to, 3 Jan. 2014
This review is from: The Last Templar (Paperback)
Four men dressed as medieval Knights Templar perform a spectacular heist at an exhibition of Vatican-owned treasures in New York, making off with an old artefact that looks like a typewriter but which is shown to have a hidden significance over the course of the novel. Hot on their trail are a New York archaeologist (an attractive single mother) who teams up with an FBI investigator (a man with his own inner demons to overcome).

What results is an adventure which never quite manages to live up to the opening scenes interspersed with a fairly predictable will-they-won't-they sub-plot between the two protagonists.

Be in no doubt that we are firmly in Da Vinci Code territory here - a secret connected to the origins of Christianity is waiting to be unlocked, the whole thing is tied in with the Knights Templar, the guy from the Vatican seems pretty dodgy and the antagonist will stop at nothing to find the secret and use it to discredit the Christian faith. But hey, his motive for doing this is a heck of a lot more clear-cut than that of Professor Teabing.


Hornet Flight
Hornet Flight
by Ken Follett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.83

4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable, but obvious in places, 3 Jan. 2014
This review is from: Hornet Flight (Paperback)
In late 1941, RAF bombers are being shot down in inexplicably large numbers over Germany. In occupied Denmark, a teenager stumbles across a top-secret German radar station which is being used to track the bombers. Resentful of the German occupation, he resolves to do his bit for the Allies by reporting this information to British intelligence. Unfortunately, collaborators in the Danish police are helping the Germans to close down a British-inspired resistance group, so his only option is to escape to England to deliver his intelligence in person, and the only means available to him is a dilapidated old De Havilland Hornet Moth biplane.

According to Ken Follett's website, this novel is based on a true story about enterprising Danes using a Hornet Moth (like a Tiger Moth, but has an enclosed cockpit) to escape to England. I rather enjoyed it even though bits of it were fairly obvious (the protagonist's love interest, for example). That said, there are some wonderfully detailed touches here, such as the motorbike converted to run on steam and lots of technical information - always a sign that the author has done his homework properly.

Unlike a lot of Second World War thrillers, the Germans are mainly honourable (a literary tradition that began in 1975 with the Jack Higgins novel The Eagle has Landed), and the most enthusiastic Nazi would appear to be a Danish police detective who has become a collaborator. Also of interest is a colleague (and love interest) of his, who has to balance her work (detective) and domestic life (widowed, small child) while also dealing with being a police officer in an occupied country. I felt that her story could have been expanded further, and may be worth a novel in itself.


A Matter of Honor
A Matter of Honor
by Jeffrey Archer
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars He's done better..., 3 Jan. 2014
Cold War adventure set in the 1960s in which the KGB and the CIA are after a religious icon, once the property of the Tsar, which contains a secret treaty concerning the Alaska Purchase which, it turns out, was actually a 99-year lease (hence the time setting) - meaning that if the Russians can get their hands on it, they get Alaska back. At the same time, a former British Army officer has been bequeathed an item that's deposited in a Swiss bank under a false name. There are no prizes for guessing what the item is, and it's not long before said officer becomes embroiled in a game of cat-and-mouse with the CIA and the KGB, both of whom are desperate to get hold of the icon for the reasons outlined above.

Personally, I think Jeffrey Archer does better at short stories, and of his various books this isn't, in my view, one of his best. It's all rather predictable (the exact nature of the officer's flatmate's job, for example, was not a great surprise when finally revealed) although it does at times it takes a turn for the macabre (if you have ever wondered how a KGB agent would go about disposing of a body in Zurich, the answer can be found here).

Archer's take on the Alaska Purchase bears a resemblance to the British 99-year lease on the New Territories, which formed the basis for the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that guaranteed that all of Hong Kong would be handed over to China in 1997. Given that this novel was published two years later, it's hard not to think that he had this in mind while he was writing this novel.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 13, 2016 7:54 PM BST


Triple
Triple
by Ken Follett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 1960s-set spy romp, 3 Jan. 2014
This review is from: Triple (Paperback)
A nuclear arms race kicks off in the Middle East in the late 1960s, as Israeli intelligence finds out that the Soviet Union is secretly funding atomic development in Egypt. To counterbalance this, Israel would need to make its own bomb, and with this in mind a top Israeli agent is detailed to come up with a plan to steal uranium.

Over the course of this, he encounters a couple of old acquaintances from his time at Oxford University in the 1940s - one of whom is now a top KGB agent, the other a Palestinian whose family lost everything when Israel was created, and who works for the Egyptian secret service (as you do). Both have vested interests in making sure that Israel doesn't get the uranium.

This is apparently based loosely on a true story. There are a few rather unlikely coincidences that keep the plot ticking along - the fact that the Israeli just happens to run into the Palestinian while carrying out part of his mission in Luxemburg, for example.

Read today, it does seem dated but it does convey a kind of period charm with its use of phoneboxes to aid the tailing of spies and the notion that stealing data from an international agency dedicated to the tracking of uranium involves blackmailing an employee to steal a paper file. Still, not a bad read.


One on One
One on One
Price: £5.84

4.0 out of 5 stars Good summer reading!, 3 Jun. 2013
This review is from: One on One (Kindle Edition)
According to the puff-pieces on the cover, a lot of people have some very nice things to say about Craig Brown's latest book. Whether or not this is because these reviewers fear that if they're mean to him in print he might choose to send them up in Private Eye, for which he writes the spoof `diary' column, is not for me to speculate.

Brown may be best known as a satirist but he's playing this one with a straight bat. The premise is startlingly simple: Take two people who have only met in passing and write about said meeting in exactly 1001 words. Then have one of those people meet someone else, have this someone else meet up with another person, and so forth. The result is (perhaps inevitably) good in parts, and overall it works.

There are some very good vignettes here, such as the murder of Rasputin, the Queen's visit to the dying Duke of Windsor and Howard Hawks getting so confused by the plot of The Big Sleep while adapting it for the movie that he contacts Raymond Chandler for some assistance, only to find that he doesn't know who killed the chauffeur either.

Some people come across as two-faced to say the least, the best example being Noel Coward who compliments the Beatles to Paul McCartney's face while privately thinking they're a bunch of `bad-mannered little shits'.

And there are some intriguing what-ifs, the top two of those being John Scott-Ellis running over Adolf Hitler and Harry Houdini being asked (but declining) to go to Russia to unmask Rasputin as a fake.

All in all, an entertaining book that can be read either in one go or by dipping into it at any chapter of the reader's choosing.


Praetorian (Eagles of the Empire 11)
Praetorian (Eagles of the Empire 11)
by Simon Scarrow
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very good., 28 Feb. 2013
One of Bernard Cornwell's more shorter works is the blurb that features on the cover of every edition of every Simon Scarrow novel, in which he is quoted as saying `I really don't need this kind of competition'. Simon Scarrow has been around for over a decade now, during the course of which he has produced the `Eagle' series of novels about Macro and Cato, a pair of Roman soldiers who, although initially mismatched (bluff veteran and younger, more thoughtful man who is mentored in the ways of soldiering by said veteran) become firm and trusted friends. Their adventures have taken them to various parts of the Roman Empire of the mid-first century AD and supporting characters have included Vespasian, Boudicca, St Peter (I kid you not) and Narcissus, the imperial secretary to the Emperor Claudius who serves as a scheming proto-spymaster who gets our heroes to do his dirty work despite the fact that they'd much rather be doing some good, honest soldiering (shades of Bernard Cornwell here).

No novel set in the past can truly escape the time at which it is written, and this applies to novels about the Romans as much as it does to those set in any other historical time-period. Here, an all-conquering empire has invaded places like Britannia and Judea but is struggling to govern these unruly provinces, with the locals engaging in guerrilla-type resistance that the highly-disciplined Roman army is unable to deal with as effectively as it can deal with its enemies in a proper battle. As such, some people are coming to the conclusion that it would be better to withdraw from such places. The plot of one of the earlier books, When the Eagle Hunts, centres around the kidnapping of a general's family by a group of religious fanatics (Druids in this case, but the modern parallel is obvious).

The eleventh and latest in this series, Praetorian, takes us to the heart of Rome itself as our heroes go undercover as ordinary soldiers to join the Praetorian Guard in order to root out a conspiracy against the Emperor. As a result, this is a little different from the other books as Macro and Cato become immersed in espionage and politics. There's less fighting than usual and more sneaking around and talking in whispers, and when there is fighting it's in the form of street brawls rather than pitched battles. There are a few points where one gets the impression of this being a thriller that just happens to be set in Ancient Rome - the novel begins with a well-planned heist, and at one stage a couple of characters need to be taken out of the city quickly and someone says he's got a horse-and-cart in a lock-up down the road that can be used. There are also a few light-hearted moments, such as when Narcissus wonders why there isn't a (Latin) word for that feeling of superiority you get when you hear of someone else's misfortune.

The Emperor at the heart of the action is Claudius. We have become accustomed to a certain idea of what he was like as a person. Thanks in no small part to Robert Graves (author of I Claudius), we think of him as a man who, thanks to a stutter and a pronounced limp, is written off by everyone as a fool, but beneath the bumbling exterior he is in fact very intelligent and he eventually becomes a surprisingly effective emperor. There's some of that in Scarrow's interpretation, although his Claudius is more reflective of the Claudius of Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars - over-reliant on advisers, manipulated by those around him and something of a dirty old man. Waiting to take over is his adopted son, Nero, shown here as a thoughtful youngster rather than the tyrant he would later become.

Macro and Cato will return, we are assured, and when they do they'll be back with the legions in Britannia so it looks as though Scarrow wants to return to the successful formula of his earlier books. In the meantime, his latest novel, due out in paperback later this year, is about an English knight at the siege of Malta. I can't wait.


Death of Kings (The Last Kingdom Series, Book 6)
Death of Kings (The Last Kingdom Series, Book 6)
by Bernard Cornwell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cornwell's still got it, 28 Feb. 2013
For around twenty years, I have listed Bernard Cornwell as one of my favourite authors. The other month I finished reading Death of Kings, the latest instalment in his `Saxon' series which is worth a read if you like novels that you can come away from with the feeling that you've actually learned something interesting as a result of having read them.

Bernard Cornwell's novels usually centre around an honest man of action who has little time for political scheming, and in this series the hero/narrator is Uhtred, a Saxon who was brought up as a Viking but who fights (somewhat reluctantly) for Alfred the Great, King of Wessex and the one man standing between the Vikings and their goal of dominating all of Britain. This has formed the basis of the series so far, but in this sixth novel the focus changes as Alfred is dying, various would-be successors are getting ready to make their bids for power and the fragile truce between Wessex and the Vikings is about to fall apart.

Alfred the Great has somewhat fallen out of favour with whoever decides what should be part of the history curriculum in schools (in which there's a big gap between the Romans and 1066), even though his story is integral to the formation of what would come to be England. But Cornwell's Alfred is no warrior king. His take on Alfred as a sickly scholar who is very much the `brains behind the operation' is an good one, and having the narrator as a pagan - in contrast to the pious Alfred - allows the author to explore more fully the struggle between Christianity and paganism that he started on in the Warlord trilogy - a reinterpretation of the Arthurian legends which I still think is Cornwell's best work. I think there's a touch of the pagan in Cornwell, as the Christians of his stories are portrayed in a rather negative light. Although it clearly inspires some of the characters to do great things, organised religion is portrayed here as a force for intolerance, pomposity and repression (over the course of Death of Kings, Uhtred manages to infuriate and poke fun at several clergymen to good comic effect). In a sense, therefore, there's something very modern about these books even though they're set in the Dark Ages.


Wine and War: The French, the Nazis and France's Greatest Treasure
Wine and War: The French, the Nazis and France's Greatest Treasure
by Donald & Petie Kladstrup
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary stories of individuals, 9 Sept. 2012
Oddly, the book starts at the end of the war, when one Sergeant de Nonencourt of the French Army found himself in Berchtesgaden alongside the Americans. There, he and his men helped to `liberate' many bottles of the finest champagne that the Nazis had been hoarding. Quite incredibly, Sergeant de Nonencourt was not only from the Champagne region, but his family was (and still is) in the champagne business and he had witnessed the Germans carrying away those same bottles back in 1940.

Thus begins Wine and War, a book which tells the wartime story of `France's greatest treasure' - her wine.It's an unusual angle, but the Kladstrups succeed in presenting an informative, poignant and highly readable account of how France, with particular emphasis on the French wine industry, coped with the German occupation. Hitler's teetotalism notwithstanding, many Germans from ordinary soldiers to high-ranking Nazi officials regarded the wine as the best of the spoils of war, and the Wehrmacht requisitioned tens of thousands of bottles to be sent back to Germany. This book is the story of how the vintners of France reacted to this.

There are tales of heroism, ingenuity, black humour, resistance and (it has to be said) a few actions which verge on collaboration - be it with either the Vichy regime or with the Germans. Some vintners, like the owners of MoŽt & Chandon, engaged in acts of outright resistance whenever they could, while others resisted in more passive ways, such as lying about yields and relabeling inferior vintages to fool the Germans into thinking they were being given the best bottles (which were hidden in walled-up parts of the cellars). Ultimately, it is the extraordinary stories of individuals that shine through, as ordinary people risked their lives and the lives of their families to save something that they believed, with considerable justification, to be worth saving. As such, the wine at times almost becomes a metaphor for France itself.

If you are interested in the war, or interested in wine, I would recommend that you read this book.


Band Of Brothers
Band Of Brothers
by Stephen E. Ambrose
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Taking the reader into the minds of a group of seemingly ordinary men who became extraordinary soldiers, 9 Sept. 2012
This review is from: Band Of Brothers (Paperback)
I'd seen the TV series, of course, so I reckoned I knew what to expect when I found a copy of this book in a local charity shop. It follows the officers and men of an American paratroop company - Easy Company, part of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division - from their training in Georgia to the capture of Berchtesgaden, via the horrors of D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge.

It turns out I did not know the whole story, because as is the case with many books that are the inspiration for a film or TV adaptation you get so much more from the book. Ambrose succeeds in taking the reader into the minds of a group of seemingly ordinary men who became extraordinary soldiers (the book is based on extensive interviews with the veterans themselves). One feels with them the fear, the pain and above all the intense cold. In addition, Ambrose does a good job of providing the context for each of the battles before taking us into said battles from the soldiers' perspective.

Being British and proud of it, I have one quibble. Obviously this is a book about the men in one (American) unit and their war experiences, but I find myself shaking my head every time they find themselves working with British troops as these are invariably portrayed as bunch of poorly-trained bunglers. In this context, I note that Ambrose has also written a book about the British capture of Pegasus Bridge in the early hours of D-Day. Having visited Pegasus Bridge myself, I'd like to give this one a go but I wonder how the men of the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry will fare at the hands of this author.


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