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T. D. Welsh (Basingstoke, Hampshire UK)
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Dogfight - The Greatest Air Duels Of WWII
Dogfight - The Greatest Air Duels Of WWII
by theworks
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars In-depth account of ten leading WW2 fighter types, with sumptuous colour illustrations, 8 July 2014
The flyleaf of this impressive volume bears the following quotation from Captain William O'Brien of the USAAF's 357th Fighter Group: "It's just like being in a knife fight in a dirt-floor bar. If you want to fix a fella, the best way to do it is to get behind him and stick him in the back. It's the same in an air fight. If you want to kill that guy, the best thing to do is to get around behind him where he can't see you... and shoot him". Apart from making one wonder a bit about Captain O'Brien's background before he became a pilot, that perfectly sums up the quality of aerial dogfighting in WW2. This book tells you a huge amount about the planes that were designed, built, and flown to that end.

Tony Holmes, Osprey's aerospace editor, has put together a beautiful and extremely interesting large-format book about ten of the leading fighters of WW2. Each of the five chapters runs about 50-65 pages, and is lavishly illustrated with colour photographs and artist's impressions - some of them glorious panoramic double-page spreads. (There are also some original black-and-white photographs). Each chapter deals with two opposing fighters, and covers the machines themselves, their type history, the strategic situation, the men, combat details, an analysis, and a summary. The chapter titles are:

1. The Battle of Britain: 1940 (by Tony Holmes). Spitfire vs Bf 109E.
2. Battle for the bombers: Europe 1943-45 (by Martin Bowman). P-47 Thunderbolt vs Bf 109G/K.
3. Tooth and claw: duels over China, 1944 (by Carl Molesworth). P-40 Warhawk vs Ki-43 "Oscar".
4. Dueling for the Reich: Germany 1943-45 (by Martin Bowman). P-51 Mustang vs Fw 190.
5. Last combat over the Pacific: Japan 1945 (by Donal Nijboor). Seafire vs A6M Zero.

The downside of going into such great detail is that only a handful of the most famous aircraft types are covered. On the other hand, you do learn a huge amount about those that are! This book blends seamlessly together the strategic requirements that gave rise to each aircraft, the engineering tradeoffs and continuous development of some types, descriptions of the leading pilots, and the actual outcomes of their duels in the sky. If you are at all interested in WW2 aerial combat, there is a lot of fascinating reading here for you.


The Tank War: The British Band of Brothers - One Tank Regiment's World War II
The Tank War: The British Band of Brothers - One Tank Regiment's World War II
by Mark Urban
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Rich, colourful description of 5th RTR's war (and much else), 7 July 2014
On the plus side, this is a rattling good book which gives a tremendous amount of detailed insight into what it was like to fight in a British tank regiment during WW2. It's full of personal experiences, reminiscences and anecdotes from several different theatres, from France in 1940 to the North African desert, Italy, France again in 1944, and eventually Germany. However, the title may mislead some readers into thinking that it is a comprehensive account of all the tank action (on the British side, at least); and it isn't. That would require a far larger volume!

The author has done a great job of eliciting the experiences of many officers and men, some of which ring startlingly fresh and true even after 70 years. I particularly noticed the unabashed statement, on one or two occasions, that "no quarter was given" - in other words that the defeated enemy were killed without compunction, whether they tried to surrender or not. I had long wondered why it was that honorable (though hard-fighting) Germans such as Kurt "Panzer" Meyer and Joachim Peiper were tried (and nearly hanged, then imprisoned instead) in respect of similar incidents - yet not only was no one tried on the Allied side, we never even heard of such behaviour. On a more trivial, but still significant level, Allied soldiers were infuriated to find that their captors stole their personal belongings - yet British, Canadian and American troops did exactly the same when they got the chance. We also read about British officers and men who were unable to stand the pace - one actually blew himself up with high explosives while apparently enjoying a wade in the sea - and at least one near-mutiny that was quickly hushed up. The myth of "seasoned troops" is somewhat deflated, with the revelation that rather than becoming "battle hardened" such units as the Desert Rats felt they had done their bit, and didn't at all relish another chance to go up against German Tigers, Panthers, and 88 mm cannon.

All in all, however, the overall impression is how brave and long-suffering the British troops were, and how willing to tackle the Germans who had, for much of the war, superior equipment and command. There are many enlightening stories, such as how British tank manufacture was crippled by the cult of "craftsmanship" - defined by one cynical officer as "the ability to fit two things together which do not fit". American factory managers insisted on precision instead, so that their tanks had much higher "build quality" and were more reliable. British industry and the War Ministry turned out tank model after tank model, all of them more or less inadequate, until finally they came up with the Comet - just in time for the final battles in Germany and the victory parades.


Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Yale Nota Bene series)
Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Yale Nota Bene series)
by Gore Vidal
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.00

5.0 out of 5 stars An idiosyncratic personal essay, not a history textbook, 7 July 2014
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If you are to appreciate and enjoy this short and opinionated book to the full, there are a few facts that you should be aware of. First, it was published in 2003, when Mr Vidal was 79 years old by my reckoning, and his life was winding down. (He returned from Italy to live in the USA that same year). I believe the author's age is reflected in the occasional uncharacteristic lapses of grammar and punctuation, and somewhat rambling style. We should not hold this against him, but rather appreciate his kindness in making the effort to put his thoughts on record for posterity. Second, Mr Vidal was a considerable expert on American history - he refers to his treasured copy of Henry Adams' nine-volume history of the USA during the Jefferson and Madison administrations, as well as several other heavyweight sources. Moreover, he had previously dealt at length with the period in his massive novel Burr: Number 1 in series (Narratives of empire). Third, as revealed in the final couple of pages, this book was written as a long-overdue reply to a question asked by John F Kennedy in 1961: namely, how such a tiny "backwoods" country as the fledgling USA could have produced three of the greatest geniuses of the 18th Century (Franklin, Jefferson and Hamilton). So you should not expect this book to be a comprehensive, objective history of the period - or even of Washington, Adams and Jefferson. Instead, it is something far more interesting and valuable: a distillation of Mr Vidal's opinions about the period.

There is no table of contents, but a short index is provided. The book's outline is somewhat obscure, as the successive chapters have no titles - merely numbers - and Mr Vidal leaps about quite a lot, following his thoughts where they take him. Together with the sometimes rambling (and rarely incoherent) sentence structure, this gives the impression of a spontaneous fireside chat or interview rather than a carefully planned thesis. But then, Mr Vidal's target audience is clearly expected to have some knowledge of the period and the personalities. His approach is more that of the university lecturer than the high school teacher, in that it assumes familiarity with the historical background. That said, one comes across some delightful and interesting new facts. For instance, Alexander Hamilton anticipated by over 75 years Abraham Lincoln's dictum that "Statesmanship is the art of exploiting individual meannesses for the general good". Hamilton's words, as quoted by Mr Vidal, were: "Men will pursue their interests... it is as easy to change human nature as to oppose the strong current of selfish passions. A wise legislator will gently divert the channel and direct it, if possible, to the public good"; and he, in turn, was paraphrasing David Hume. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.

We learn how Jefferson, when adapting George Mason's draft constitution of Virginia, removed the Lockean "means of acquiring and possessing property" from his Declaration of Independence, instead dropping in the slightly vague "pursuit of happiness". Yet this same Jefferson, in an attempt to reconcile mass suffrage with the requirement that all voters have property, suggested giving everyone who wanted it 50 acres of virgin land (taken from the Native Americans, of course) to farm! Mr Vidal also reminds us that none of the Founding Fathers had any use for "democracy", which they understood to mean (near enough) "mob rule"; and that the Constitution does not give any citizen the right to vote for a President - only for a member of the Electoral College, which may then choose whichever President it pleases.

It would be only too easy to cite many more fascinating insights from this dense, compact book. But I hope I have said enough to give you some idea of what to expect - and what not to expect - from it. If your mind is open, and you enjoy brilliant, provocative writing - with, perhaps, a drop of malicious humour - I think you'll find it worth your time.


Wheel of Fortune
Wheel of Fortune
by Roger Zelazny
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and varied stories about luck and risk, 6 July 2014
This review is from: Wheel of Fortune (Paperback)
This collection of short stories related to the theme of chance was published in 1995, the year of Roger Zelazny's death. So it must be one of the last pieces of work he contributed to. It's important to notice that little "Edited By" on the front cover, as the only story of Zelazny's you'll find inside is the 6-page "Blue Horse, Dancing Mountains" (subsequently included in Manna from Heaven). Nil desperandum, though: Zelazny also wrote the 3-page Introduction (explaining the concept of the anthology) and a short header to each of the 20 stories, introducing the author and explaining how the story came to be written. (The 21st item is a short poem by Joe Haldeman). The authors have balanced Zelazny's headers with brief notes of their own, after each story.

At first I thought I had made a mistake, buying a collection with only a tiny smidgen of Zelazny, and otherwise composed entirely by a bunch of strangers. Ah, but... those "strangers" are all authors of whom Zelazny thought highly, for reasons he explains in his notes. Although the contents vary between SF and fantasy, they all have a strong element of luck, fortune, or risk. And they all approach this common theme from very different directions. My personal favourites include Jeff Bredenberg's "Caution: Merge", Dean Wesley Smith's "Last Man Out", Don Webb's "A Bigger Game", Gahan Wilson's "The Casino Mirago", and "Elvis Bearpaw's Luck" by William Sanders. But all the stories are worth reading - just extremely varied in their settings and assumptions. "Elvis Bearpaw's Luck", for instance, is set in a future North America where the white man has somehow killed himself off and the Native Americans have taken back their continent. As the title suggests, their culture is a makeshift, and sometimes comical, patchwork of ancient customs and leftovers from "modern civilization". But it's not all fun and games, not by any means...

So if you like and respect Roger Zelazny, and are willing to take his word for the quality of the contributors to this sterling anthology... why not try your luck?


One on One
One on One
by Craig Brown
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.20

5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely fascinating, 6 July 2014
This review is from: One on One (Paperback)
I wondered how good this book would be, but bought it mainly on the strength of Craig Brown's excellent work in "Private Eye". It was really very hard indeed to put down, even for meals - partly because each story is so short, and partly because the next one is so tempting. I suppose Mr Brown may have hit on the idea while contemplating the wealth of material his research had turned up over the years. As other reviewers have done such a good job of describing the theme and some of the contents, I shan't focus on them. Instead, I would like to propose a theory about why some reviewers found this book so disappointing - indeed, in some cases, it appears to have made them spitting mad.

I'm not exactly a "people person": on the whole I prefer curling up with a good book (like this one) to partying or anything so strenuous. But I am very interested in history, politics, and the whole subject of what motivates human beings to behave the way they do. And I think that is why I loved this book so much. Very nearly every single anecdote touched on at least one person I find interesting, and had read about before. Let's see: Hitler, Kipling, Twain, Warhol, Queen Elizabeth, Liz Taylor, James Dean, Alec Guinness, Evelyn Waugh, Marilyn Monroe, Khrushchev... and on and on and on. I had always wondered whether (and if so, how) Kipling and Twain had met, and what they talked about. Moreover, the juxtapositions are so often amusing in themselves: Monroe and Khrushchev, Warhol and Jackie Kennedy, Allen Ginsberg trying to seduce Patti Smith in the mistaken belief that she was a pretty boy, Nixon and Elvis, Bertrand Russell and Sarah Miles, Barry Humphries and Salvador Dali... you really couldn't make it up!

So if you are interested in people like those, and the funny, charming, curious or embarrassing consequences when they rubbed up against one another, buy this book and read it as soon as possible! But if you find the whole idea rather boring, dispiriting or ignoble, don't. You have been warned.


A Nietzsche Reader (Classics)
A Nietzsche Reader (Classics)
by Friedrich Nietzsche
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.60

5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent and digestible introduction to Nietzsche, 6 July 2014
Nietzsche is generally considered a "difficult" philosopher for various reasons, and this perception is quite accurate. Indeed, he would have agreed enthusiastically, as he believed that any worthwhile new idea must be struggled with in order to be truly understood. Moreover, there is all the political fog created by the misunderstanding and misuse of his term "Uebermensch" (misleadingly translated as "superman") and his condemnation of Christian ethics. Add to these considerations his somewhat grandiose, poetic, riddling style and the fact that he wrote in 19th-century German, and it's far from easy for modern English-speakers to see what he was driving at. Yet in fact Nietzsche was a surprisingly kind, sensitive soul who felt compelled to confront the great issues of his time head on. (Of course, the opportunity to contradict and confuse his academic rivals was also welcome). Darwin's Theory of Evolution seems to have been an important stimulant, although Nietzsche's insanity, which began in 1889, must have prevented him from being aware of Freud's equally influential and controversial ideas. Hence the preoccupation with "the death of God" and related moral themes. Without God, moral absolutes vanish; and evolution tells us that everything changes - presumably including morality. It's helpful to remember that Nietzsche was a philologist (a scholar of Greek and Roman language and literature, and hence history) before he took up philosophy. That gave his thought an unusually wide historical context, and he often complained that contemporary philosophers assumed that late 19th-century German bourgeois humanity was representative of the species as a whole. Ignore the soup-strainer moustache and look carefully at the face behind it, and you may find Nietzsche more approachable.

R.J.Hollingdale, who became famous for his sensitive translations of Nietzsche's books, has packed their essential flavour and many of their most important thoughts into less than 300 pages. Most of the book comprises selected passages from Hollingdale's own translations, which make Nietzsche's famously complex prose relatively easy to understand. (Always remembering that Nietzsche himself did not want or expect anyone to read his books quickly or without considerable effort). A brief Introduction, which serves only to explain the book's approach, is followed by a Preface which explains in Nietzsche's own words how he wanted his books to be read. The rest of the book is divided into three Parts, corresponding very roughly to Nietzsche's early, intermediate, and later thought. The book ends with a Postscript made up of assorted maxims and definitions, and a short bibliography (dating to 1977, when the book was first published). There is no index. The front cover, however, shows a brooding, romantic mountain scene from a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, which surely reflects Nietzsche's love of the open and especially desolate mountain regions.


Yours, E.R.
Yours, E.R.
by Terence Blacker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful and thought-provoking, 3 July 2014
This review is from: Yours, E.R. (Hardcover)
Have you ever wondered what the Queen thinks about; how she views modern society with its fads and taboos; her attitudes to her own very unusual family; or just what kind of person she is, behind the kindly smile and the routine pleasantries? I know I have. The British monarchy really is a very peculiar institution, when you come to think of it; what kind of person can not only survive within it for nearly 90 years, but do so successfully while maintaining and even increasing the respect of her people? I have no idea what Mr Blacker's credentials are for writing such a book, or what sources he may have - but the final product certainly seems convincing. The text consists of several dozen letters, supposedly written by Queen Elizabeth to a retired confidential adviser, Sir Jeremy Scrimgeour, in reply to his weekly bulletins of news and opinion. This format allows the author to give us quite a detailed and even personal sketch of the Queen, who comes out of it very well indeed. True, she admits to rarely reading books, and even disapproves of excessive thinking - which she considers more or less incompatible with effective leadership - but this merely leads the reader to wonder if book learning may not, after all, be rather over-valued. On the other hand we see some of the benefits of such "old-fashioned" qualities as character, decency, reliability, loyalty, and plain common sense.

There are plenty of smiles to be found in this slim volume, and perhaps a few loud guffaws - the portrayal of Prince Philip (always referred to as "the Consort") is particularly amusing. However accurate the author's depiction of Her Majesty's thoughts may be, they often seemed to me both touching and inspiring. And that, of course, is exactly as it should be. It's surely a good thing to have as sovereign a person who is morally admirable, perhaps especially if she deliberately takes no part whatsoever in politics. I strongly recommend "Yours, E.R." to all royalists, anyone with an open mind on the subject, and indeed to any republicans who are not too rigidly set in their ideas. Who knows - it just might give you a new perspective.


Team Yankee
Team Yankee
by Harold Coyle
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Superbly told tank battle scenario from World War III, 24 Jun 2014
This review is from: Team Yankee (Paperback)
If you are not a lover of war stories, this is one to avoid. If, on the other hand, you are fascinated by the intricate details of tanks, guns and missiles, helicopters, combined-arms strategy and everything to do with modern armoured warfare - grab it! Like Tom Clancy's brilliant "Red Storm Rising" and Ralph Peters' equally good "Red Army", this book describes a fictional Soviet assault on Western Europe some time in the 1990s. It differs from them in focussing tightly on a single tank unit - the Team Yankee of the title. From the defensive positions in which they weather the frightful onslaught of Warsaw Pact armies, to their breakout into the fast mobile warfare for which they were designed, we follow the men of Team Yankee and their M1 Abrams main battle tanks through thick and thin.
Harold Coyle's debut novel reveals him to be fully conversant with all aspects of the US and Soviet armies, with a detailed grasp of the technology, the fog of war and the ways of men in battle. Within the rather narrow set of circumstances within which the action is played out, he keeps the tension high and makes it hard to put the book down, even for a moment. About the only criticism that comes to mind is that the US forces, while not having it all their own way, do seem to keep the upper hand rather consistently. Highly recommended.


This Immortal (Gollancz SF collectors' editions)
This Immortal (Gollancz SF collectors' editions)
by Roger Zelazny
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of Zelazny's slighter novels - but still unmissable, 26 April 2014
Conrad Nomikos, the protagonist of "This Immortal", is Commissioner of the Earthoffice Department of Arts, Monuments, and Archives - which effectively makes him supreme on what remains of the planet after a nuclear war has wrecked it. Most of the human race has fled across space to the planets of the Vegan empire, where they risk being gradually assimilated and reduced to little more than amusing pets. Long ago, a violent movement led by the legendary Konstantin Karaghiosis fought bitterly to prevent the Vegans taking over the ruins of Earth, and to induce the exiles to return home. Of course, Conrad can't possibly be Karaghiosis himself - he died long ago - but why does the hardened Arab killer Hasan insist on calling him "Karagee"? (The novel was originally entitled "...And Call Me Conrad", Zelazny's own choice). As well as possibly being arbitrarily old, with a long trail of previous identities behind him, Conrad is very big, immensely strong, and telepathic in a limited but sometimes useful way. He has accepted the mission of keeping a key Vegan VIP, Cort Myshtigo, alive during his visit to Earth - but should he kill Myshtigo instead of protecting him? There certainly is plenty to protect him against, including but not limited to boadiles, Kouretes, the Dead Man, and the Black Beast.

The sheer imaginative power and range of "This Immortal" are amazing. It's easy to be deceived by the apparent simplicity, even the deliberately contrived naivety in places, of Roger Zelazny's prose. Under the surface, though, everything is meticulously worked out; which is why everyone remarks on how good it feels to read. Reading a Zelazny novel is somehow like spending a long evening in enjoyable conversation, in the most attractive surroundings, with a good friend. When it's over, you feel a pang of deprivation; fortunately, he left us plenty of novels and short stories.

"This Immortal" was written at the beginning of Zelazny's 30-year long career, and it shows. Mind you, it closely followed the short story "A Rose for Ecclesiastes", and only narrowly preceded "The Dream Master", "Lord of Light", and "Creatures of Light and Darkness", all of which are among Zelazny's very best accomplishments. You have to bear in mind that average Zelazny is equivalent to the top one percent (or better) of science fiction.


Flare
Flare
by Roger Zelazny
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dense, absorbing hard SF, 26 April 2014
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This review is from: Flare (Paperback)
It's the year 2081, and humanity has colonized most of the Solar System. Populations have surged repeatedly, and elaborate administrative systems have evolved to keep everything running smoothly - from catching 7.5 billion cubic metres of methane falling inwards from Titan and firing heavy loads into space with a linear accelerator to showing tourists around the Moon and maintaining retirement homes in low-earth orbit. Everywhere and always, the main drivers are financial, and the accountants are thus in control. So, when there have been no sunspot cycles, with their associated flares, for the best part of a century, the accountants decree that no precautions need be taken against that particular risk. Meanwhile inside the Sun, however, plasma physics is working in ways that science does not yet understand - one day, soon, there will be a truly immense flare. And what will happen then to the billions of human beings whose lives depend on the smooth operation of intricate electronic and telecommunication networks?

This collaborative novel appeared only three years before Roger Zelazny's death, so it is logical to assume that a lot of the writing and plot detail was done by Thomas T Thomas. The overall idea sounds like Zelazny's, as do some characteristic touches such as the periodic (and very apposite) quotations from the Pharaoh Ikhnaton's "Hymn to the Sun". It must be said that the book shows no obvious signs of having been written by two very different authors, except for what some readers may consider its somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion. That, too, shows the Zelazny touch - perhaps suffering only from a lack of detailed working out. All in all, this is hardly a masterpiece - but it is a thoroughly satisfying piece of hard science fiction. Hence the four stars.


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