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John Brain (Cardiff)

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A Year Of Songs
A Year Of Songs
Price: £5.00

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Almost excellent, 22 Nov. 2015
This review is from: A Year Of Songs (Audio CD)
I very much enjoyed this first album from a very talented man. But am I alone in thinking that despite its excellence, on occasions, Alexander does not quite hit the note? I have listened to each track several times, and continue to think this. Nevertheless - very enjoyable.

Forgotten Footprints: Lost Stories in the Discovery of Antarctica
Forgotten Footprints: Lost Stories in the Discovery of Antarctica
Price: £0.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent., 28 Oct. 2015
For those who have a fascination for the emerging story of the discovery of Antarctica, John Harrison's book 'Forgotten Footprints' is a 'must-read'. The exploits of the heroic age, chiefly those of Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton are relatively well known but this book tells the stories of many of the lesser known adventurers - the early sealers and whalers - Bellinghausen, Weddell, de Gerlache, d'Urville, Borchgrevinck etc.

I found the book to be an excellent read. The author is himself a well-seasoned visitor to Antarctica and he manages to imbue his writing with his personal experiences, making it come alive. At times I wondered where Mr Harrison had sourced the immense detail of some of the stories - he does not provide notes, so the reader has to trust their veracity, but true or otherwise, they make compelling reading. I also particularly liked the way that successive chapters were punctuated by relevant 'vignettes', or as the author terms them 'interludes'; subjects include scurvy, pemmican, Cape Horn etc. and these provide really interesting insights into aspects of polar life.

I would have given the book 5 stars, but for a number of issues. Firstly I could understand, given the 'forgotten' theme of the book, why Scott's Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, Shackleton's Nimrod expedition and Amundsen's polar expedition were omitted from the book - for there is extensive literature on them elsewhere. But on that basis, why I wonder was Shackleton's Endurance expedition included, given that it is also extensively written of elsewhere? And why were the relatively little-known exploits of explorers such as Mawson and Byrd not included instead?

Secondly, books such as this benefit enormously from good maps which complement and enhance the text. This book has a number of maps, but they are small, poorly reproduced and virtually impossible to read. And the few photographs are also of very poor quality.

Thirdly, the book seems to peter out towards the end. Fascinating as subjects such as the 'ownership of the Falklands' and the 'International Geophysical Year' may well be, they do not sit comfortably with the excellent content of the rest of the book.

But such is the superb quality of the main body of the book, that I cast these issues aside as minor matters.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 10, 2016 9:39 PM BST

Douglas Haig: Defeat Into Victory (Kindle Single)
Douglas Haig: Defeat Into Victory (Kindle Single)
Price: £1.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A very poor book, 17 Oct. 2015
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This is a short book of just 59 pages. It cost 99p on Kindle, and for that money, perhaps you should not expect much. I certainly found it a very poor book.

Its central theme is that Field Marshall Douglas Haig, the leader of the British Expeditionary Force for much of the First World War, is a much maligned man; that his portrayal as an out-of-touch buffoon in plays such as 'O What a Lovely War' and TV programmes such as 'Blackadder' - a man who was prepared to sacrifice millions of soldiers needlessly, is a travesty of the truth. I do not necessarily quarrel with that argument. But I do quarrel with the way the book is written.

I make a number of points.

Douglas Haig was a complex character and arguments about his motivation, his ability as a soldier and leader of men and his place in history are not black and white. This book is so short that it is forced to present its arguments simplistically, doing little justice to their relative merits.

I found the style of writing of the book to be rambling, wandering from one argument to another and often into areas completely away from the main point. So much so that at times it is more more like a rant, than a well-argued critique.

For me, a few crude attempts at 'humour' in the book, were totally out of place. For example. The first sentence of the first chapter reads "There was clearly little to occupy the attention of the inhabitants of Edinburgh in the 1860s, for Douglas Haig was born the eleventh and youngest child of his parents in 1861". Is this meant to infer something salacious? Many families in the nineteenth century were large, for reasons which are more than obvious. There again in chapter 5 - "... the sending of half a million troops to Salonika, who sat around doing little other than increasing the rate of venereal disease ...". What on earth do such smutty jibes have to do with a supposedly serious argument about the merits of Haig?

In addition, the book is bereft of references or explanatory notes. So the reader has little means of judging the validity of points being made. They are simply presented as the views of the author.

Finally, Corrigan presents his 2015 'mini-book' as original revelation. But the book is far from original. It is derived. Gary Mead's biography of Haig, 'The Good Soldier', published in 2007, and Walter Reid's 'Architect of Victory' published in 2006, both rehearse all the revisionist arguments about Haig that Corrigan relates, but in a much more cogent and convincing manner. And given that Corrigan cites both volumes in his bibliography, it seems clear where he got his material from.

Given Major Corrigan's pedigree as a military author, I know he can write much better books than this. A great pity. Even at 99p, I think I wasted my money.

My Sister's Secret
My Sister's Secret
Price: £2.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Potentially, a good novel, but ....., 19 Sept. 2015
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Naming the 3 sisters who feature in the novel 'Faith, Hope and Charity' was not the most auspicious start to a novel; naming the place they lived at 'Busby-on-Sea' was, for me, an even less promising augur of things to come.

The storyline, which used the now well trodden path of alternating between past and future, wasn't bad, with as many twists and turns as a switchback. But for a reader to believe the story, it has to be credible, and there were so many instances where characters suddenly appeared in totally unexpected places (in order to move the plot on), that I just lost interest. And though the characters were well developed, I came to feel that I really didn't care what happened to any of them. This was a pity because the idea behind 'the sister's secret' was a good one - if only it had been developed a little more carefully.

Reviews are subjective affairs. I note that many others were delighted with the novel. It just wasn't for me.

Shackleton's Epic: Recreating the World's Greatest Journey of Survival
Shackleton's Epic: Recreating the World's Greatest Journey of Survival
by Tim Jarvis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Tale of an epic journey, 16 Sept. 2015
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Tim Jarvis is a seasoned polar explorer and this is his own account of his successful bid to recreate part of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 'Endurance' expedition of 100 years ago. Shackleton performed miracles after his attempt to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent floundered when his ship was caught and crushed in the ice. With his crew, he then spent months on ice flows before sailing 346 miles in the ship's 3 lifeboats to Elephant Island. Leaving 22 men there, he with five others sailed the 800 miles to South Georgia and then with two others trekked across the mountainous island to a whaling station, from which he eventually rescued all his crew.

Sponsored by Alexandra Shackleton, Sir Ernest's great grand-daughter, Tim Jarvis aimed to recreate the sea journey to South Georgia and the subsequent land crossing. Having read Shackleton's account of the original expedition, and now Tim Jarvis's account of the replication, I have to conclude that the entire re-creation was a triumph of organisation and achievement. One has to admire Tim and his colleagues for their sheer ability and spirit of adventure. Clearly it was an impossible task to replicate the original exactly - modern insurance requirements, the need to secure a film record and the fact that global warming etc. has changed the Antarctic environment over the past 100 years, are just three of many factors which make that impossible. But Tim Jarvis is quite open about that. What I found particularly fascinating was the way in both expeditions, the psychology of intrapersonal relationships between expedition members played a crucial part in the success or otherwise of the ventures.

Shackleton himself (with a little help) wrote a brilliant account of his expedition. ('South'). Was Tim Jarvis's as good? In many ways - yes. The photographs are superb. The maps too are excellent, though a few place names and features from the text are omitted, which is a little annoying. Other similar books have terrible maps, so this was a great change. The account itself, I found to be engaging and well written. I got a little confused in the early parts of the book, where a lot of name dropping went on - OK if you walk in Tim Jarvis's circles, but confusing if you don't - and the absence of an index didn't help matters. I also liked the quotes from notabl personages at the head of each chapter, though not totally appropriate in every case. (This is but a minor niggle, but Churchill's quote at the head of Ch.5 'Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end .....etc. jarred somewhat. You cannot compare the tribulations of this expedition with those which faced Churchill preceding the victory at Alamein).

But niggles aside, I found the book to be excellent. It's amongst the best written on modern polar adventures.

The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity
The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity
by Martin Gilbert
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Who can bear read this book?, 24 Aug. 2015
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'The Boys' is an exhaustive account of the collected memories of 732, mostly Jewish boys in their late teens, who came to Britain after the 2WW, having experienced the worst the German Nazi regime had inflicted on them, their families and their friends. It is a 'magnum opus' and though most readers will already know the extent of Nazi atrocities, reading these recollections brings home in stark form the depth of evil which otherwise ordinary people can visit upon their fellow human beings.

It is not a comfortable read. Page after page after page, new horrors are revealed. I for one could not continue to read at several points, and had to break away from the book, and re-visit at a later time. Added poignancy is added to the text by its rather 'matter-of-fact', non judgemental tone. How many of those who contributed to the book were seemingly without acute rancour or bitterness, after what they experienced, is beyond my understanding. And the strapline of the book 'Triumph over Adversity' is so appropriate, since many of these survivors have gone on to have very successful careers and happy family lives.

Martin Gilbert has rendered humanity a huge service in undertaking the arduous task of ensuring this generation's memories are preserved in written form.

Captain Scott's Invaluable Assistant: Edgar Evans
Captain Scott's Invaluable Assistant: Edgar Evans
by Isobel Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

3.0 out of 5 stars A rather 'lacklustre' account, 19 May 2015
Edgar Evans was one of the five members of Robert Falcon Scott's expedition, to perish on their return from the South Pole, Roald Amundsen having just preceded them. For a number of reasons, which Isobel Williams is at pains to recount, Edgar Evans was blamed by some for the demise of the party. She profoundly disagrees with this conclusion and the book almost reads like a personal crusade to set the record straight. In particular, she uses her considerable medical knowledge to list the likely medical, as opposed to social or psychological factors, which likely caused Edgar to be the first of the party to perish.

This is not Isobel William's first foray into writing a book on the Scott expedition, her previous offering being 'With Scott in the Antarctic' - the story of Edward Wilson who also perished with Scott. In this book too, she used her medical expertise to evaluate Wilson's significant contribution to the polar expedition. I found that book to be an excellent read. But I fear her book on Edgar Evans did not create the same spark in me, that her previous writing certainly did. It's possible that writing about Edgar Evans was a much more difficult task, for though she meticulously researched the primary sources in an effort to get to the heart of 'Evans - the man', he himself wrote relatively little, and some of what he did write appears to have been lost. So she has had to second guess much about him and as a consequence, the book contains many sentences beginning 'Edgar would have thought ...', Edgar might have considered ...', etc. Furthermore, her writing style appears to be much more pedantic than her earlier offering, and certainly much less entertaining than, for instance, Sarah Wheeler's book 'Cherry', which tells the story of another expedition member, Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

In addition, all her accounts of the actual events of the various sledging expeditions that Edgar Evans took part in, have been told before in many other books, and I did not feel her own accounts added very much, except of course to emphasise, wherever she could, Evans's 'invaluable' contribution. Invaluable it certainly was - it was just that the writing of it, I did not find particularly inspiring.

And in a chapter near the end of the book, her writing style is almost in the form of a polemic on the medical issues - and I found it rather at odds with the rest of the book. So all in all, I was disappointed and I did not find the book nearly as entertaining or insightful as her previous work. But I note the very positive Amazon reviews written by others and am obviously pleased that many seem to have got more from the book than I did.

A Tent in France
A Tent in France
Price: £2.02

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not really up to the mark, 4 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: A Tent in France (Kindle Edition)
Different things appeal to different people. I note that several reviewers found this tale of moving to France, both informative and amusing. I fear I found Simon's account rather matter of fact. Some of the 'humour' appealed to me, but for the most part, it did not come across as very funny. An Englishman's take on the French can be very funny indeed, but this did not really reach the mark - at least in my estimation.

If you want a really funny take on the English in France - then read Barry Cornell's 'Make Mine a Kilowatt'. At the very least, the title is a little more intriguing than 'A Tent in France'.

Churchill: A Biography
Churchill: A Biography
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An exhausting read, but a profitable one., 19 Feb. 2015
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I recently reviewed Boris Johnson's 'The Churchill Factor' and one person who left comment gently implied I should also read a weightier appraisal of Churchill. Suitable chastened, I immediately bought 'Churchill' by Roy Jenkins and some one third of a million words later, I now review that book.

My own memory of Roy Jenkins is that of a man of many talents, and I admired him greatly as a politician. It's quite remarkable in itself, that a miner's son from Abersychan in South Wales can through education rise above the level of what most of us can achieve and become a Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer and arguably have greater success than Churchill himself did in either of those posts.

But what of his book 'Churchill'? The first thing to say is that very many of those one third million words were long and many were relatively obscure and owing not a little to their classical origins. And they were frequently woven into convoluted sentences of such length and complexity that if read out aloud would leave the reader gasping for air. That having been said, I nevertheless found the book to be both illuminating and insightful. For me, it offered many perspectives of Churchill as a man which I had not previously considered. I particularly warmed to the account of Churchill's early years and am prompted to read Churchill's own book 'My Early Life', as a result. I also appreciated Jenkins' account of Churchill's post-war decline and gained further understanding of how such a great man in time of war could so sadly find peace time governance so problematic. I was also greatly intrigued by the glimpses of Clementine Churchill which the book reveals, and must read more.

Jenkins himself was a through and through politician. And I therefore suppose it inevitable that he should focus so much in this book on Churchill the politician. Personally, I found his emphasis on much of the political minutiae of Churchill's life, tended to mask more important and salient aspects. And given Jenkins' propensity not just to relate events but also to offer analysis I was a little surprised that on his last page he should offer his conclusion that Churchill was the 'greatest human being to occupy 10 Downing St, greater than Gladstone,' without attempting to explain why. More analysis at this point would have been most illuminating and have provided a climatic ending rather than what is in effect, a rather disappointing fizzling out.

Not yet having read Martin Gilbert, I have no idea how Jenkins matches up, but I guess Jenkins' own considerable experience of political life and of holding two great offices of state and also his time as a soldier in the 2WW must have leant a great deal to this account.

An exhausting read, but a profitable one.

Had We Lived: After Captain Scott
Had We Lived: After Captain Scott
Price: £3.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Well worth a read, 7 Feb. 2015
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I understand this is Richard Jopling's first novel, and as such he must be congratulated. As I write this I note 8 others have reviewed the book on Amazon and all have all given it 5 stars - quite an achievement for a first novel. I fear I was not quite as enamoured with the novel as they, which I suppose goes to show that reviewing is really a very subjective exercise, but nevertheless I am pleased I read it.

'Had we Lived' (taken from Robert Falcon Scott's last diary entry as he faced death on the Ross Sea ice sheet), is a work of fiction, but is solidly based on fact. Its focus is Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who was born in 1886 into a relatively wealthy family, who as a 25 year old was an unexpected participant in Scott's last expedition and was a member of the team who found Scott and his companions' mortal remains. 'Cherry', as he was affectionately called, never seems to have recovered from his experience. Unlike many of the other survivor's of Scott's expedition, he never really achieved much more of greatness in his life, and died in 1959, a rather dispirited individual.

But they say many people have one book in them. Cherry, encouraged by his friend George Bernard Shaw, wrote one book 'The Worst Journey in the World'. It's a magnificent book and well worth reading (I and many others have reviewed it.) If Cherry did one great thing in his life it was to write that book. And Sarah Wheeler wrote Cherry's autobiography entitled 'Cherry' which is also a great read. Richard Jopling used both books, and many others, as a factual basis of his story.

'Had we Lived' seeks to tell the story of Cherry, but interweaves fictional elements. For those who are very familiar with the factual basis for the novel, the questions arise 'Does the novel hold together in its own right?' and 'Does it add further insights into what is already known?' My answer to the first is 'just about' and to the second, is 'not for me'. Let me elaborate.

The novel is written using at least four interlinked threads. First the story of Cherry and his family's early life; secondly a series of fictional letters written by Cherry to his sister whilst on Scott's expedition; thirdly an account of the last two years of his life; and lastly the story of a fictional character nine year old Pip whose family live near Cherry's former estate and who by coincidence meets up with the elderly Cherry who shares key experiences with him - despite their age difference they seem to be kindred spirits.

My main problem with the format of the book with its interwoven elements, was that it was over engineered. The overlapping time lapses were confusing. So, for instance, the first element telling Cherry's early life had not even got to the point when Cherry joined the expedition, when we were treated to Cherry's first letter written whilst on the expedition. But a major redeeming feature was passages of quality writing which successfully captured the spirit of the time.

My main problem with the overall content of the novel was that for me, it added nothing to the supreme enjoyment I got from reading Cherry's own book and also Sarah Wheeler's biography. Unlike Wheeler's account of Cherry's life, which was based on her own prodigious research of primary sources, I found parts of the narrative somewhat tedious and over long.

But, I am really pleased that so many others enjoyed the novel. Apsley Cherry-Garrard was a supremely likeable person who had aspirations of greatness but was sadly dogged by an introspective self-destructiveness which haunted him till the end. If this novel excited you, then I urge you to read both 'The Worst Journey in the World' and 'Cherry'. You will surely love them
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 22, 2015 4:21 PM GMT

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