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John Brain (Cardiff)

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The Letter
The Letter
Price: £1.15

3.0 out of 5 stars Could have been a very good novel., 19 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: The Letter (Kindle Edition)
'The Letter' tells the story of Tina whose marriage to an abusive husband proves disastrous. One day she finds a letter in the pocket of a coat at the charity shop where she works - a letter written in 1940, and which has never been posted. Its content intrigues her and eventually leads her to the transformation, not only of her life, but of others whom she discovers on the way.

I found the book to be very enjoyable, though I could only give it 3 stars because of what I regard as its serious flaws. The story itself is a page-turner and is the book's ultimate strength. However a number of coincidences of timing occur which bring characters together who would otherwise never have met and which therefore make the plot a little incredulous. I felt attention to these would have made the story even more enjoyable.

In addition, though I came to like the characters, they were somewhat wooden. There were 'goodies' (many) and 'baddies' (principally two men and a woman) who were either too good or too bad to be true. A few more shades of grey would have greatly improved the quality of the writing. There were also instances when characters used language inappropriate to the time setting (language of the 2000s in 1940), or to their social background, as well as characters suddenly revealing their innermost thoughts to persons they had only just met. I felt the latter occurred as a device to move the plot on, but the result was a diminution of ones belief in the character as a real person.

So overall I was very impressed by the intrigue of the storyline, but less impressed by the quality of some of the writing. This could have been a very good book, but was sadly spoilt by the absence of some judicious editing.


Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation
Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation
by Andrew Lambert
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.57

4.0 out of 5 stars Better than fiction., 12 Jan. 2015
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Andrew Lambert should know what he is talking about, his being a professor of naval history and having a track record of all things naval. I decided to read his 2009 account of Sir John Franklin, the 20th century navigator (and much more), my interest being previously awakened by Fergus Fleming's excellent 1998 book 'Barrow's Boys'.

Controversy has surrounded the story of Franklin's last expedition (ostensibly to 'discover' the North-West passage) for years. The 59 year old Franklin set out in two ships, the Erebus and the Terror in 1845 with a party of 124 naval officers and men, and apart from early sightings by whalers, was never seen again. What became of him? Numerous 'searches' were made in the middle and late 1900s - and some artefacts were found. In the middle 1850s John Rae, relying on oral evidence from the Inuit concluded that the crew participated in cannibalism. Victorian sensibilities were affronted and rejected the word of 'savages'. Later finds confirmed their stories - but the 'mystery' of what finally befell Franklin and his men has still not been fully solved.

I found Lambert's biography of Franklin not the easiest book to read, but to be nevertheless stimulating and insightful. It is almost polemic in nature, arguing that past perceptions were based on anything but an analysis of fact and were clouded by political and social glosses. It is highly opinionated, though to be fair, stated opinions are supported by what is clearly meticulous research.

Lambert's central theme is that Franklin's expedition was not primarily about geographical discovery but more about the pursuit of science, and especially the science of magnetism. A second theme is that the deaths of the expedition members were most probably caused by scurvy, despite recent evidence that lead-poisoning may have played a telling part. Overall, Lambert's view is that Franklin has been much maligned. He sees him not as an 'ageing bungler', as he has sometimes been represented but as a man of considerable integrity and competence. And I have to say, based on the evidence which Lambert offers, I find that view convincing.

Parts of the book, I particularly liked. I would cite the account of Franklin's governorship of Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania), and also his final concise summary. There were other parts which I found more difficult. His history of the development of the science of magnetism was extensive - excellent possibly for those greatly interested in the subject - but somewhat lengthy and dense for the amateur reader (like myself). And sometimes he added material which I found less relevant - again I would cite his 30 page excursion into the 'Big Art, Brazen Lies ...' which I found held up rather than illuminated, his central themes. I would also have dearly liked more extensive and detailed maps.

In his final chapter, Lambert states "There remains the possibility that further evidence will be found, that the ships might be located..." Well, now we know that in 2014, the Canadians have indeed found the Erebus - in shallow but ice-bound waters and well-preserved. This year they will make an attempt to examine it further. I wait with baited breath. And I am sure, Andrew Lambert does as well.


Sun at Midnight
Sun at Midnight
by Rosie Thomas
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Not much Sun at Midnight, 6 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Sun at Midnight (Paperback)
I was drawn to this book for two reasons. Firstly, I much enjoyed Rosie Thomas' novel 'The Kashmir Shawl'. And secondly, I noted its location in Antarctica, and I have long had an interest in fiction and non-fiction based there. (see my other reviews).

The story is of Alice Peel who decides to join an EU project at a former British base in Antarctica, propelled by an elderly mother of past Antarctic fame, plus apparent unfaithfulness of a current boyfriend (Pete). She meets there a variety of characters with relationships developing within the inevitable restrictions of a polar base. 'Love' blossoms - and the rest, I leave for you to read.

I have to say, overall, I found 'Sun at Midnight', rather disappointing, though I see many others enjoyed it a lot - maybe it's just me! Firstly, its major redeeming feature. Some of the descriptions of the Antarctic were superb and I imagine were based on first-hand knowledge. They matched the best I have found in other writings.

BUT. It is a relatively long novel - nearly 500 pages, with chapter lengths 20-30 pages. The plot I found to be a very slow burn. Nothing really happened till page 300 - then rapid happenings, only to resume the slow burn to the end with a very predictable ending. If only the characters had been developed as well as the descriptions of the setting, the novel might have achieved much more for me, but I found most of them rather one dimensional. Indeed, I found myself not really caring whether Alice succeeded in capturing the heart of her new found love in the polar setting, and even felt sorry for the unfortunate 'Pete' in the end.

The quality of the 'romance' story, if that it can be called, did not rise above the mediocre which is available in so many cheap novels - a great pity as otherwise, the novel promised so much. And the title - 'Sun at Midnight? OK we all know that for many months of the year, the sun never sets in Antarctica, but a little more imagination might have produced a title with a little more bite.

Perhaps I am just hard to please. Don't let my view deter you from seeing for yourself.


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: £8.55

46 of 49 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 (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 19, 2015 5:00 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: £3.48

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

3 of 3 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

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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.


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