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Neil Jopson

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Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914
Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914
by Max Hastings
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.19

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant history writing, 19 April 2014
He writes well. Really well. Max Hastings has narrated the origins of the First World War in his superb Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War in 1914, covering the events that led to war, and the immediate beginning of the conflict.

He has had plenty of practice writing military history. Books such as Bomber Command, Victory in Europe, The Korean War, All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-45 amongst the titles he has penned. There was also plenty of experience as a journalist reporting on various conflicts in second half of the twentieth century; from the Arab-Israeli War and Vietnam, to the Falklands War. His pedigree in journalism is capped by his role as the editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph and finally the editor of the Evening Standard. So it is no surprise that he writes clearly, engagingly, and with good insight.

In Catastrophe Max Hastings argues that the First World War was largely the fault of Germany. This is no great revelation in scholarly circles, as it has been the mainstream academic view since the 1960s. Although there has been different emphasis and counter arguments in the decades since. Whether you agree with him or not (and he is persuasive), Hasting's real strength is in the way he draws you into the events as they happened. The individuals are described in such a manner that you almost read their thoughts and feel their emotions, from diplomats to soldiers. In as sense, it seems like a personal history of an impersonal conflict. It is interesting who comes across in a sympathetic or not so sympathetic light (Churchill seems to spend a lot of the time acting like an over excited school boy).

The focus of the book is Europe, as the title suggests. It was the European powers that went to war, dragging the rest of the world in as they jumped from the precipice, so Hastings focuses on the events there. This allows for a tight stage for the 'action' to play out, although he does not ignore world wide events to help set the scene.

There was one overriding feeling I had when I finally put the book down: that the war truly was a catastrophe, both for Europe, and for the people who lived (and still live) there.

As we approach the one hundredth anniversary of the events described in this book, I would recommend this as the book to read if you want to gain some sense of the immense nature of what really happened in that fateful year.

Master and Commander
Master and Commander
by Patrick O'Brian
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Storytelling at its best, 19 April 2014
This review is from: Master and Commander (Paperback)
Master and Commander, the novel by Patrick O'Brian, which gave its name to the first part of the title of the Russell Crowe movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. To be fair, the movie was based upon a later book in O'Brian's series of nautical novels, unsurprisingly entitled The Far Side of the World. The combination of titles was more to do with Hollywood advertising than anything else. The movie was one of those superbly crafted celluloid joys I could watch again and again, but this review is about the book it took the first part of its title from.

One of the greatest delights I have is in reading historical novels that are packed with action and adventure yet which can also claim to be literary. Patrick O'Brian does this in his novels set in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s. Master and Commander is the first in a series that eventually ran to twenty completed novels plus one left unfinished at his death in 2000. His two main characters are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Jack is an officer of the Royal Navy, and is made 'master and commander' of the Sophie in 1800 amidst terrible rumours of peace. His mix of genuine patriotism, loyalty to the 'service', and desire for prize money are wonderfully human, and allow O'Brian to draw a complex and empathetic character. Stephen is a man of science. A 'modern' man, who after an initially unfriendly meeting with Jack becomes the surgeon on board the Sophie. It is part if O'Brian's technique as an author to use Stephen to ask the questions that we want to ask about nautical life. Stephen is almost an anachronism, yet he is vital to the plot. A United Irishman, yet not a republican nor a monarchist. A Catholic, but not a man of faith. A philosopher with keen insights into human psychology.

There are parts of the novel that make you want to stop reading and think deeply about human nature, while at other moments you are reading rapidly to find out what happened next in some sea battle with the French or Spanish.

I will definately be taking the other novels with me on holiday.

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