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John Brain (Cardiff)

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OLD SOLDIERS NEVER DIE.
OLD SOLDIERS NEVER DIE.
by Frank Richards
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.69

5.0 out of 5 stars An authentic and otherwise superb piece of writing., 18 Dec 2014
What an excellent book. Unlike the many contemporary accounts of the First World War written by officers, this one was penned by an ordinary foot soldier. 'Frank Richards' was already an experienced soldier in 1914 and survived the War remarkably intact. How he did that, given the daily mayhem around him, is little short of miraculous.

The book is written in a very homespun style. Frank makes light of the misery which he witnesses every day - regarding the imminent prospect of death as an imposter. Indeed he several times mentions that a 'quick death' was much more preferable to a painful drawn-out wounding.

Frank also reveals fascinating aspects of his character. He is certainly self-effacing. What we might regard as personal bravery and courage, he seems to dismiss as 'just getting on with the job as a soldier'. He makes light of his being awarded the DCM and the MM, and is altogether dismissive of what he regards as the inequities of the honours system. One thing I found totally intriguing is that nowhere in the book does he ever express any criticism of the decision to go to war or of its consequences for individuals, including himself. The deaths, the mutilations, the misery, he just accepts as something soldiers have to bear. He reserves his criticisms however for high ranking officers who never go anywhere near the frontline and for ordinary soldiers who do anything to avoid putting themselves in harms way.

The book was written in 1933, 15 years after the conflict ended and at a time when Frank was very hard up - such was the way former soldiers were then treated. Like a few other reviewers, I too find it hard to comprehend how he retained the memory of the detail of daily events which the book exhibits, especially the order of when things happened, and especially since he kept no diary. He presumably did not have access to the regimental diary which might have served as an aide memoire. However, because of my interest I checked the death dates of soldiers mentioned (on the CWGC website) - every one was accurate. Clearly Robert Graves, who wrote the introduction to the book, had a big part in editing and promoting Frank's original script, but it nevertheless comes across as a totally authentic document. Like so many others of his generation, Frank appears to have been able to retain in his memory, remarkable detail.

This is a piece of writing, I much admire.


The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History
The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History
Price: £9.49

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Boris Factor, 25 Nov 2014
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I bought this after seeing Boris 'perform' on the One Show - and for 2 reasons. Having visited Chartwell recently and remembering the very moving funeral of Churchill 45 years ago, I was keen to renew my acquaintance. And I enjoy listening to Boris (in smallish doses).

I have not read any of the other Churchill biographies (Martin Gilbert, Roy Jenkins etc) so I have no way of telling how this one stacks up. On the other hand, this is not really a biography. It is more a heartfelt plea for us all to love all things Churchill, as Boris plainly does, and to understand how he has profoundly affected today's world.

I have to say, I enjoyed the book enormously. I have no way of telling how sound the research is, but it seems thorough at face value. I am not too bothered if there are smallish errors. For every page is dripping with Borisisms and that makes a unique writing style which is so refreshing.

And having read the book, no revisionist is ever going to convince me that we would be enjoying the freedoms we do today, had Churchill not been on hand in 1940.

Not sure that I would trust Boris as Prime Minister - but by goodness the world is a more colourful place with him around
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 13, 2014 4:09 PM GMT


A Time for Silence
A Time for Silence
Price: £3.59

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Compulsive reading, 4 Nov 2014
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This is Thorne Moore's first novel and in my view it's exceptional. It's a story which will appeal to, amongst others, all those who have a fascination for family history or may have wanted to know more of their family past. Apart from that, it is a cracking good story.

Sarah Peterson is soon to be married and also has a fascination for an old cottage at Cwmderwen where her grandfather used to live. She knows he was shot but the family story reveals nothing more, so on impulse she buys the wreck of a cottage, determined to find out more . . . . . . . and especially, who did it?

The story is told in double time, alternating chapters switching between the present and the 1940s when grandfather John and grandmother Gwen inhabited the cottage. As Sarah gradually finds out more and more - so does the story of her grandparents progress, culminating in grandfather's death which all the locals say is at the hand of a German from a local prisoner camp. The styles of life portrayed in the two emerging stories are quite different, and are very effectively reflected in contrasting styles of writing. Sarah lives in a world which is bright and modern whereas the grandparents inhabit the traditional world of the local community - chapel - poverty - endless rural grind. The one is all light, and the other dark and dour. Above all, John controls his family with an iron fist and Gwen dutifully submits to his every whim in order to protect her children and comply with the social mores of the local community.

Particularly effective is the telling of the old Welsh life and particularly that of John and Gwen and their family. John is proud and self obsessed (and much more). Gwen is loyal and dutiful. In fact, so relentless is the bleakness of life at Cwmderwen, that you almost want to scream for it to come to an end.

One of my tests for a good novel is that it makes you really believe in the characters. This novel excels in that respect. Another is that the story is believable. There were one or two slightly incredible parts to this story, but nothing that I felt detracted from its overall compulsiveness. It was certainly a page-turner.

I'll say nothing about the end. But it's fitting. And the novel as a whole is riveting. I look forward to Thorne Moore's next offering.


One Woman's War
One Woman's War
Price: £2.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Talent in spades, 2 Nov 2014
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This review is from: One Woman's War (Kindle Edition)
Eileen Younghusband has led a remarkable life. But more than that. In her eighties and nineties she has nurtured her innate ability to recall events as though they happened yesterday and to write of them in a way which is both illuminating and inspiring.

Illuminating, in that she tells of her wartime experiences in the WAAF involved in the development of the vital radar operation which helped to win the war, though she was not allowed to speak of it for many years. And inspiring because she reveals in a matter of fact way the unheralded contribution that otherwise ordinary women made when our backs were to the wall.

Eileen is of a generation whose life was, in turn, interrupted and moulded by war - a generation who then had to pick up the pieces and create a world fit for my generation and that of my children and grandchildren. Eileen did, and continues to do, a splendid job but she is also blessed with a talent to write about it in a way which communicates further truths of the wartime years with clarity and aplomb.

We are so lucky, we have such women. Read this book.


Make Mine a Kilowatt!
Make Mine a Kilowatt!
by Barry Cornell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cracking read, 22 Oct 2014
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This review is from: Make Mine a Kilowatt! (Paperback)
Thinking of chucking the towel in and emigrating to France?

Don't.

At least - don't until you've read 'Make Mine Kilowatt'. It's a cautionary tale.

For example: When in France have you ever finally got to that elusive roundabout on the outskirts of Calais, only to be confronted by that awful choice - 'Toutes Directions' or 'Autres Directions'?

Alternatively, have you ever tried to thread your way through Nantes, guided by your partner's directional skills only to find she (or he) is consulting a map of the New Forest (upside down!) ?

And the language: Have you ever gone into a French supermarket and asked whether there are any preservatives (condoms) in their confiture (jam) ?

Well Barry Cornell has. And much more besides. Aided by his luckless wife Kath, he's hit every obstacle the French (and she) have ever contrived to thwart the English in France. And not only that, he has been able to tell of it with a freshness and wit which leaves you aching for more.

Go buy this book. It's a real hoot. You'll even find out why the French put fairies on top of their Christmas trees !!!


The Hundred-Foot Journey (Film tie-in edition)
The Hundred-Foot Journey (Film tie-in edition)
by Richard C. Morais
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

3.0 out of 5 stars A book of two-thirds and a third!, 21 Oct 2014
I saw the film - enjoyed it, with reservations - and this made me download the book. And at first, I loved the book.

It told the story of an Indian family of restauranteurs who came to Europe to escape the violence which followed partition and set up an Indian restaurant with the outrageous name of 'Maison Mumbai' in the Jura region of France and opposite a well-established and very traditional 2 Michelin star French Restaurant. The subsequent clash of cultures provides a rich seam and a special delight is the mutual hate/grudging respect relationship which develops between Papa Haji (of Maison Mumbai) and Madame Mallory (La Saule Pleurer). All this is seen through the eyes of Papa Haji's son, Hassan, whose love of all things cooking gives him a foot in both camps.

The endless descriptions of food, food and more food which permeate the book should delight all gastronomes. Unfortunately I am not one but I could put up with it all, because the developing story, together with many examples of beautiful descriptive text, trumped everything. This, I thought is a 5 star novel.

But then, about two-thirds of the way through, that all came to an end. True, the food saga continued to the end, but the two principle characters disappeared (we are told in passing that they had both died). The rest of the book simply recounts Hassan's subsequent career - 'umpteen unmemorable new characters are introduced - a boring and tedious read which for me led nowhere.

So this was a book of two parts - marvellous beginning but a desultory end. Why an author who is so capable of writing so well, then throws the rest of the book away, is beyond my understanding. For me, a great disappointment.


Not an Ordinary Life
Not an Ordinary Life
by Eileen Younghusband
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Not ordinary at all, 15 Oct 2014
This review is from: Not an Ordinary Life (Paperback)
Not and Ordinary Life is the autobiography of a remarkable woman. Ordinarily, I would not have come across it but one day earlier this year I found myself in Cardiff listening to a talk by Eileen Younghusband about her experiences. It was a remarkable talk, and certainly given by a remarkable woman. So I bought the book - and enjoyed every word of it.

The lead Amazon review tells you of its content - so I will not repeat it. The style of writing is not exceptional - plain and straightforward, but the content is riveting and leaves one full of admiration for a now elderly woman who has led the most exceptional life, who has had to say goodbye to her husband,a son and many dear friends, and yet has pulled herself up by the bootstraps and in her eighties obtained a university degree and written several books.

Many women have written of their remarkable lives - Vera Britain, Stella Rimington and Jean Trumpington come immediately to mind. This book may not be in the very top flight of literature but it is nonetheless a very worthy book well worth reading and its author is an exceptional woman.


His Father's Son
His Father's Son
Price: £1.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly good, 13 Oct 2014
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This review is from: His Father's Son (Kindle Edition)
I have not read any of Tony Black's books before and I wasn't really expecting much. But I have to say I enjoyed this novel enormously.

It is the story of a couple Joey and Shauna, and their young son Marti who have emigrated to Australia to escape a past in Ireland best forgotten. The couple have their problems and Shauna suffers from the 'black dog' and decides suddenly to take off with Marti back to Ireland, leaving Joey perplexed and desperate to reunite with his son. And the story unfolds .....

Chapters alternate between Joey and Marti, a particularly effective technique which allows the reader to see things from both perspectives. Shauna's view is left out of this, but then the novel is really about the relationship between father and son. I thought Marti's view of the world - his take on mum and dad, and of the contrasts as he finds himself back in Ireland, especially well drawn.

This is a sensitively written novel. Time is taken to explore the characters and their relationships but this does not inhibit the pace of the story. The end is positive, which gives those of us who have identified with the family a good feeling, but it is not without a measure of ambivalence - so like many human stories.


The Italian Chapel
The Italian Chapel
Price: £0.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A lovely book, 19 Sep 2014
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'The Italian Chapel' is the story of a group of Italian prisoners-of-war who found themselves incarcerated on the island of Lamb Holm in the Orkneys during the 2WW. The prisoners soon formed a mutually respectful relationship with their captors and were set to task building the 'Churchill Barriers' to protect British shipping in Scapa Flow. They arranged to convert two Nissan huts into a chapel and the book is a non-fictional account of their enterprise, interspersed with fictional episodes of imagined happenings based on fact.

I knew nothing of the 'Italian Chapel' before coming across this book and I have to say I found the tale of its building truly inspiring, and told in a way by Philip Paris which held ones attention throughout. The chapel still exists today, and I am resolved to visit it at the first opportunity.

The story is really an allegory for the way that human beings can make the most of things even in less than favourable circumstances, and is brought to life by the real and imagined stories of the people involved. The chapel was built with only the materials available - cement - wrought iron - timber salvaged from sunken 'block ships' etc. and each man involved used his skills to produce a truly remarkable work of art. The irony was that the chapel was little used, the prisoners being repatriated just as it was completed.

Please read this book and go on the website to see pictures of the chapel today.

I loved the book. And I hope others do too.


The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and her People
The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and her People
Price: £4.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Very enjoyable, 19 Sep 2014
I like Andrew Marr's style of writing. I previously read 'The Making of Modern Britain' and for a person who is interested in history, but who likes it presented in a less than academic form, this was just right. 'The Diamond Queen' follows in like vein and is a pleasant, less than demanding, volume. It is no hagiography - but it is certainly a warm tribute.

Marr is clearly an admirer of the system of monarchy in Britain and of the Queen - and it is unlikely that those who would wish our country to be governed in another way, will like either content or style of this book. Agree with it or not, he makes a strong case for the merits of our own form of monarchical democracy and invites us to consider the alternatives we might have endured, had our own monarchy gone the way of so many others in Europe and beyond.

It is possible that Marr has benefitted from the research of others - indeed, whilst he has interviewed members of the royal family - he claims no royal endorsement for the book, nor did he have privileged access to archives. But for the millions in this country who like our form of government and are personal admirers of the Queen, this book is an excellent read. I am one of them, and I loved it.


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