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John Brain (Cardiff)

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Ben Retallick: Number 1 in series (Retallick Saga)
Ben Retallick: Number 1 in series (Retallick Saga)
by E. V. Thompson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars True taste of Cornwall past, 31 Mar. 2013
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I recently read my first E V Thompson novel 'The Bonds of Earth' which was the last this prolific author wrote. I liked it, but felt it had some shortcomings (see my review). So I decided to read 'Ben Retallick' the first of the author's 'Retallick saga'. It is a tale of a young man and his life in the Cornish tin mines in the early ninteenth century - his trials and tribulations - his love for a Cornish girl - and his achievements and frustrations.

I have to say that in this book, I felt that Thompson really captured the essence of Cornish life, just as the industrial revolution was having its impact on the more traditional work of farming and (especially in Cornwall), fishing. Characters were well drawn and the emerging conflict between working men and the landowners whose power was about to be challenged, was particularly well developed. The pace of the novel was brisk and the harsh realities of a hard life were well drawn.

I am encouraged, and look forward to reading the next in the saga 'Chase the Wind'.


SOUTH POLE 900 MILES ON FOOT
SOUTH POLE 900 MILES ON FOOT
by Eric Jamieson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.50

5.0 out of 5 stars Well written - fascinating account of Antarctic travel., 4 Mar. 2013
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This is the account of a journey made by 3 men in 1985-86, which sought to replicate the outward journey to the South Pole by Robert Falcon Scott some 70+ years previously. It had long been the ambition of Robert Swan, the leader of the expedition, to make this journey. Despite having the backing of patrons such as Vivian Fuchs, Peter Scott and Lord Shackleton, the 'Footsteps' enterprise was opposed by the United States who occupied large bases at the Pole and McMurdo Sound, and whose official policy was to oppose private expeditions to the Antarctic continent.

Two expedition members (Robert Swan and Roger Mear) have written their own account of the expedition ("In the Footsteps of Scott: which I have reviewed seperately) and this account is by the third member - Gareth Wood. Comparisons of the two accounts make interesting reading, though I will not repeat the detail of the expedition included in my other review.

Gareth Wood wrote this account with another writer, Eric Jamieson. It is evident from the notes that Jamieson was the principal writer and therefore much of the excellence of the prose must be attributed to him. A feature of the expedition were the difficult intrapersonal relationships between its 3 members and to a lesser extent its 2 support members, Mike Stroud and John Tolson. At times these came close to causing the expedition to fail, but they were eventually overcome. Both books address these issues face-on, and it is to the credit of all involved that they are described in detail, and their implications and consequences are addressed with honest insight.

During the course of the expedition, the support vessel, the 'Southern Quest' sank, despite the best efforts of its experienced skipper to save it from the ice. The loss of the ship created all kinds of difficulties for the expedition, and I commented in my other review that Mears did not fully address the implications of such a disastrous event. I was disappointed that this issue was not addressed more fully in Wood's account either, and a nagging suspicion remains in my mind as to the full circumstances of the sinking.

That having been said, there is very much to admire in the tenacity and enterprise of all members of this expedition, and this excellent, well-written book offers another fascinating insight into the myriad complexities of such exploits.


Eye of the Needle
Eye of the Needle
Price: £4.40

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gripping to the end, 25 Feb. 2013
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This review is from: Eye of the Needle (Kindle Edition)
I have not liked all Ken Follett's books, but this one I thought was superb. Other reviews elaborate on the subject matter - the setting is the successful British plan to dupe Germany into believing that the allied invasion of Europe was to be at the Pas de Calais and not Normandy during the 2WW. The plot is beautifully developed, each chapter moving the action forward in various theatres of operation, in a gripping and fast-moving succession. A real page-turner. My only quarrel was that some developments, especially toward the end, were more fantasy than likely reality, but that did not deter me from overall enjoyment. A very good read.


Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British
Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British
by Jeremy Paxman
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good read .... but reservations., 17 Feb. 2013
I have no great knowledge of the history of the British Empire and was looking forward to reading this Christmas present. Given Paxman's reputation as a TV interviewer, I expected a witty, entertaining read, and I was not disappointed. Overall, I enjoyed what is an informative and lively account, which is clearly based on a prodigious amount of knowledge and research. However, I have some reservations.

Paxman describes the development of the BE in roughly chronological steps. But the chapters have no titles. Quick changes from one theatre of Empire to another, interspersed with highly opinionated commentary sometimes left me a little lost in trying to follow the thread of the development.

By the time I finished the book, I was becoming a little tired of the witticisms and what appeared to me to be value judgements based more on modern interpretations of the morality of empire building, rather than the mores of the times. Sometimes, what appeared to be just one side of the story was presented and I couldn't help thinking there was another side. Paxman's skill in hounding politicians on TV, I much admire, but they can, and do, answer back. Perhaps such a style is not quite so appropriate in a book, where the protagonists of history have no opportunity to 'answer back'.

And I could not but admire the sheer energy, bravery and guts of many of the explorers, entrepreneurs, missionaries etc. who helped forge the BE, - characteristics which in Paxman seeking to criticise, were perhaps underplayed.

Nevertheless, despite these reservations, I enjoyed much of the wit.


The Bonds of Earth
The Bonds of Earth
by E. V. Thompson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Rather disappointing, 13 Feb. 2013
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This review is from: The Bonds of Earth (Paperback)
The Bonds of Earth is the first novel I have read by E V Thompson, though I have since learnt that he has written many novels and that this was the last before he died last year. And looking at the other reviews on Amazon, it is clear that he is an author much admired by many.

Sadly, for me, the book was a little disappointing, so I imagine I may have the wrath of those admirers heaped upon me. I have to admit though that I quite enjoyed reading the book - it is just that I thought it could have achieved so much more. For those who have not read it, it is the simple tale of Goran, a young Cornish farmer in the early 19th Century, and his successes in life, coupled with his yearning for his teenage sweetheart.

I am aware that at this point I really ought to issue a SPOILER alert - the problem is that if you guessed the eventual outcome of the tale at the end of the first chapter, you would be right. - yes they lived 'happily ever after'. The language of the novel reminded me a lot of that of my childhood favourite Enid Blyton, my problem being that nowadays I expect something rather more challenging. I found the character development extremely shallow - sugar-coated personalities which were usually whiter than white, occasionally blacker than black and no shades of grey. Much of the dialogue attributed to the characters simply did not come across as authentic. And the plot was oh so predictable, and the end so very abrupt. 'Was that it? Or was there more to come? Clearly not.

If like me, you loved that wonderfully gritty Cornish novel Penmarric by Susan Howatch, then you will likely be hugely disappointed by this Cornish novel which has none of its intriguing twists of plot or raw human emotions. However, despite all this, I still quite enjoyed the read and I have now purchased Mr Thompson's very first novel, Ben Retallick, to see what I make of that. In the meanwhile, my apologies to all E V Thompson lovers.


Only Boys Aloud
Only Boys Aloud
Offered by Entertainment Direct
Price: £4.37

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, 31 Jan. 2013
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This review is from: Only Boys Aloud (Audio CD)
Excellent recording. Somewhat muted compared to a live performance but very good nevertheless. However consider buying the version with additional songs.


The Best of Our Spies
The Best of Our Spies
Price: £2.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gripping Tale, 31 Jan. 2013
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'The Best of our Spies' is evidently the first novel of Alex Gerlis. As such, it must be said that it is a first-rate effort and for the Kindle price of just £1.79 is a real bargain.

Gerlis bases his tale on the circumstances surrounding the brilliant deception by the wartime allies which convinced the Germans that the D Day landing was to be in the Pas de Calais and not Normandy. Arguably the success of this deception made possible the eventual Allied victory. A feature of the novel is the painstaking research and this makes the tale totally credible. The plot was well developed, a little pedestrian at times, but overall succeeded in urging the reader on to successive chapters. Unlike some other reviewers, I felt the end was very satisfactory - a fitting climax.

A minor concern was the way characters were developed. I would have liked to have seen the central character, Owen Quinn, feature more consistently - the plot sometimes seemed to wander away from him. And I was left somewhat uncertain, as to how the author wanted the reader to feel about his wife Natalie.

These things excepted, I thought the novel was excellent and I look forward to Mr Gerlis' next offering.


Into the Frozen South (Classic Reprint)
Into the Frozen South (Classic Reprint)
by Marr Marr
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.73

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars South with Shackleton, 23 Jan. 2013
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In 1921, Sir Ernest Shackleton set sail on what was to become his last expedition (the Quest Expedition). Tragically he died at South Georgia when the expedition was some 3 months in progress, and the voyage was completed under his long time compatriot, Commander Frank Wild. As part of the preparation for the voyage, Shackleton liaised with Robert Baden-Powell and a competition was organised via the Daily Mail to select 2 Boy Scouts to accompany the voyage. James William Slessor Marr, then aged 18, was one of the two selected, and 'Into the Frozen South', his account of the expedition, was written just 2 years later.

This is a straightforward book, written (or possibly co-written) in a simple, but extremely engaging style and with vivid description. Marr was clearly smitten by Shackleton as a leader and role model and his enthusiasm for the task emerges from every sentence he writes. The story is straight from 'Boys Own Paper', and provides graphic descriptions of life under sail and steam power. Marr feels that he has been given a god sent opportunity as a very young man, for otherwise undreamt of adventure.

Marr later went on to become a marine biologist and polar explorer in his own right, and died at the age of 62 in 1965. If you read the book, and find it engaging (as I certainly did), try also 'Shackleton's Last Voyage' by Frank Wild (available on Kindle). And congratulations to 'Forgotten Books', for making this otherwise difficult to acquire book, available.


Patrick Moore: The Autobiography
Patrick Moore: The Autobiography
by Patrick Moore
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A one off, 20 Jan. 2013
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'The Sky at Night' is a programme which has fascinated me for years. It was so sad to hear in December that the many thousands who, like me, delighted in the programme, would never again see Sir Patrick Moore in his element. Since his death, many tributes have been made by those who knew him intimately. It is clear that he touched the hearts of so many, and in particular the multitudes of young people who were inspired by him to develop a love for all things astronomy. Though I did not know him, I too found him to be a truly remarkable man - a rare gem of a human being.

So rather belately, I have been prompted to read his 'autobiography', written 10 years ago when he was in his eighties. What an enjoyable read - full of energy and enthusiasm and fascinating material. What impressed me most were the chapters on astronomy, which clearly conveyed his enormous enthusiasm for the subject, and conveyed it in a way which communicated so effectively with the reader. I also very much enjoyed his accounts of the other loves of his life, principally - his mother - his friends - his young prodigies - his cats - cricket and music.

However he has clearly not told us the whole story. Though he states that it would have been of no interest to the reader, I would have loved to have heard more of his childhood and his wartime experiences. So often, those early experiences give strong clues as to what makes a person tick. Of course, Patrick was perfectly within his rights to with-hold that information - so I suppose we will have to await a biography to learn more.

What I found less impressive were the chapters which related to his pet aversions, which appear to be - foreigners, women and a great swathe of people whom he disparagingly labels 'politically correct'. I was left unsure whether he was just trying to be amusing or whether he had really thought through some of his utterances. And there are apparent contradictions. For example: a very young Dr Heather Couper can write to him to ask whether being a girl is a handicap to being an astronomer and he can write back to reassure her that it certainly is not. Yet he can later express his dislike for 'all female radio newsreaders' and claim that 'third-rate women' are 'promoted over more able men'. In expressing his general dislike for politicians, he can describe William Hague as 'a twerp of a leader', yet later refer to receiving a '... charming letter from WH, then leader of the Conservative Party'. Perhaps understandably given his wartime experience, he can repeatedly express an enduring hatred for Germans, yet when he later met von Braun, the Nazi inventor of the V2 rocket, he expresses surprise that he felt 'no sense of instant dislike'.

Other reviewers find Patrick's aversions amusing. I found them at best irritating and at worst potentially sinister, but I have to say that in other ways I found his many achievements totally impressive. He was clearly warm hearted and kind to so many people. He was modest and self-effacing. He was generous to a degree. He was a very good writer. And he brought pleasure to thousands, including myself. Overall, I liked this book. I shall read more of his books. And I eagerly await a biography - but who to write it?


Scott And Amundsen: The Last Place on Earth
Scott And Amundsen: The Last Place on Earth
by Roland Huntford
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Erudite journalese, 6 Jan. 2013
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I have been meaning to read 'Scott and Amundsen' (The Last Place on Earth) for some time, and have finally got round to it. And I have to say, that despite all its innaccuracies, omissions and one-sided appraisal, I enjoyed it as a book. I found it well written and researched.

It is however written by a journalist and its writing style is more reminiscent of a popular newspaper, than even-handed research. However it should be remembered that it was first published in 1979. At that time, Robert Falcon Scott's achievement in reaching the South Pole in 1912 was still being viewed relatively uncritically. And Amundsen's achievement was relatively unheralded. Huntford was the first to seriously challenge the received wisdom of the Scott/Amundsen expeditions to the Pole. He clearly started with a view that Scott was an inept bungler and by contrast Amundsen was a supremely competent polar explorer, and he set about to put the record straight, as he saw it. In doing so, he went to great lengths to castigate Scott's planning, his methods and his character by means of selective assertions, at every opportunity. So much so, that I as a reader became irritated at the constant repetition. I was less concerned about his views on Amundsen, who I would agree was a great man whose multiple achievements have not always received the acclaim they richly deserve. But even there, Huntford deploys the journalistic style of conveniently omitting any evidence which runs counter to his central assertion. And he virtually invents some of Scott's motivations. And though Huntford certainly went to great lengths to research his material, I was somewhat disappointed that he omitted specific references to his sources.

Having read a large number of accounts by those who accompanied Scott - Cherry-Garrard, Evans, Wilson, Debenham, Simpson etc. I am forced to conclude that Huntford's view of Scott's character is extremely skewed. Despite his faults, Scott was clearly a much admired leader by many of his team. But Huntford does do us a service by raising key questions about Scott's methods. I have read Susan Solomon's appraisal of the relative climatic conditions in 1911/12 (The Coldest March), where she challenges Huntford's assertion that Scott did not encounter unpredictable cold conditions. I found her argument convincing. I have also read Sir Ranulph Fiennes defence of Scott (Captain Scott). And I too found a number of his points very convincing. But without wishing to take away from Scott a jot of what he achieved, especially in the new science which he championed, there remain some fundamental issues about his methods - especially his means of travel and his planning, and I am grateful to Huntford for at least initiating a debate.

In conclusion, I enjoyed the book. But it should be read in context. It makes some very valid points. But it also maligns a man, who clearly achieved more than any of us will ever achieve.


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