I have sitting on my bookshelf an old, tattered copy of "Tomorrow The World" by John Biggins. It tells the story of Otto Prohaska, an officer in the Austrian Navy in World War 1. I've read it a couple of times and really enjoyed it. I was aware that it was book number three or four in a series but I had never come across any of the other books in that series. Until now. When the chance came to get the first book in the series, "A Sailor Of Austria", I jumped at the chance. Here at last was the opportunity to read more about Prohaska's early life.
This is a quirky unorthodox sort of a book, more a collection of anecdotes that fit together to tell the overall story. The "story within a story" format seems like it is set up to allow for multiple books in the series but, apart from a couple of unlikely coincidences that don't actually add much to the storyline overall, it doesn't quite work. Perhaps someone told Biggins the book wouldn't sell unless there was more of a British connection?
That apart, this is a good book. Sure, it has its fair share of camels in submarines, Greek policemen and shipwrecked Japanese sailors who don't want to go home and other events that are played for their comic relief but at the heart of the book is the story of the fledging U-Boat service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War One. It tells that story well and it doesn't pull any punches. You may recall that WW1 was not a huge success for Austria, to put it mildly. That story is told here and as the war drags on and things get worse for Austria, so too things get worse for Prohaska and his crew. The tone of the novel, which starts off so light-hearted with moments of pure comedic genius, slowly becomes more serious. People die, other people suffer and the last few chapters as a now demobbed Prohaska and his crew try to make their way through a crowded Central Europe back to Vienna are quite dark although, even here, Biggins finds the absurd to point out to us.
I became quite a fan of Prohaska again; I'll be searching out the other couple of books in this series that I don't already own so expect some more reviews over the next few months.
"A Sailor Of Austria" is available from The Book Depository:
I saw this book sitting in a book shop and picked it up because the shoes and the word "Pilgrimage" suggested long distance walking. It turned out that this was in fact the case and I started reading the first few pages. Five minutes later I had accompanied Harold down to the post box at the corner of Fossebridge Rd and I was hooked.
I should point out that the book isn't actually about long distance walking even though it is about long distance walking. It is about Harold, and his wife Maureen, and people he meets along the way, and people and incidents in his past. This last aspect is the most important driver in the book as we start out with very little knowledge of Harold's history and more and more gets revealed as the book progresses. All this sounds like what I would normally dismissively refer to as a "worthy" book but it is so well written, engaging and sometimes even funny that it is easy to overlook the worthiness.
If I may be permitted to share a bit of a spoiler with you: yes, Harold does make it Berwick in the end. This is important to know because a very handy map showing the location of all the towns he walks through is included on the very last page of the book. I only discovered it when I got to the end but it would have been extremely useful to refer to as I went along. My knowledge of English geography was good enough to have a reasonable idea of where he was at any time (and in one or two cases even brought back vivid memories of specific stretches of road) but I was struggling for context at some points, particularly as he reached the less civilised northern part of the country. Of course, that might just be the way my mind works, you may not find this important at all.
It becomes obvious early in the book that there is more to Harold's back story than meets the eye and it is a delight to see the way that each new character he meets helps flesh out his story as much as their own. Nonetheless, plenty of clues are given out and by the time Harold and I were striding past Newcastle, perhaps even as early as Darlington, I had pretty much worked out what revelations were still to come. Regardless of whether you have the same experience, keep reading and enjoying. I found the last few chapters a little untidy and disjointed but it must be said that Harold found the same.
This book is profoundly sad in places and yet overall it comes across as happy and uplifting. The main characters are truly human, hurt and damaged but still capable of attracting our attention and affection. A good book, easy to read, uplifting of spirit.
The Book Depository has both hardback and paperback versions available. You can buy them by clicking on the icon below.
If you know me at all you've probably heard me mention that I have great plans for when I retire - now less than twenty years distant - and that those plans involve a fairly hefty walk the length of New Zealand. Even if you've never met me and followed a Google link here you might still have some idea of that if you'd stopped off at the home page of this website on your way through. Naturally then, I keep an eye out for books by people who have done something similar. I can't remember exactly where and when I first came across this book; it was probably early this year but the exact circumstance escapes me. I was drawn to it as it not only was about long distance walking, it was about a long distance walk around France. The combination of the two was irresistible.
I had browsed around Terry Cudbird's website
a number of times in the past (oh, look at that: a prominent link to this book on the home page; perhaps I saw it there first?) but I didn't make the connection until I was half way through the book.
Cudbird is a fairly good observer and writes down his observations well. He speaks French which, as he himself notes in the acknowledgements, probably made the difference between having a large number of encounters to recount and not having enough material for an entire book. He has also studied French history in the past so a number of anecdotes of a historical nature find their way into the book.
Despite all this, I found it a very frustrating book to read and never really got into it. I think that this has much to do with his writing style. The book is divided into regional sections - Pyrenees, Languedoc etc - but within each section his comments are not geographically sequential. Rather he will start talking about the food and relay a number of stories and experiences about that and then somehow segue into geology and back he goes 500km and forward a month. This sort of thing would probably work fairly well as a series of blog posts read over several months but somehow grated with me as I read the whole thing over the course of a week. It was, I reflected after finishing it, the sort of book that I would be likely to write after my long walk so I took the precaution of telling my wife so that she could remind me if delusions of grandeur ever came over me.
I'm glad I read it and I learnt quite a bit from it but it was the first book ever to get only two stars from me on Goodreads and I really can't recommend it to anyone else unless you are, like me, obsessed with long distance walking and a fan of France.
If, despite my review above, you think that this might be a book you would enjoy, The Book Depository will deliver it to you in New Zealand for less than $20:
I mentioned in an earlier blog that I had started using Goodreads
to catalogue and record my books. I'm not going at any earth-shattering pace, just a few books scanned every now and then as I pass the shelves. I started on the Nautical Fiction shelf and this book by Roger Bax was near the start. It is one of the many Nautical Fiction books I inherited from my Grandfather and, like many of them, I had never actually read it. When I added it to my Goodreads library I noticed that I wasn't the first to add this book and that it even had a rating: 5 stars. Now one rating is a pretty small sample size but obviously someone had read it and liked it enough to rate it 5 out of 5 even if they didn't like it enough to actually review it. I pulled the book off the shelf and stuck it in the "to read" pile.
By the way, yes, that really is a scan of the dust cover of the book. I couldn't find this image anywhere on the internet - the image Goodreads uses and that pops up all over the show when you Google it is a rather boring text only image that is clearly not from my edition of the book. However, "Came The Dawn" was published as "Two If By Sea" in the US and the Dell paperback cover - which is ubiquitous on Google Images - has an image not dissimilar to this one but with a yellow sail for some reason. In the book the sails are clearly described as burnt umber and a fairly important plot device relies on this. To confuse matters even more, it appears that this book was republished in the US still as "Two If By Sea" but under the name of Andrew Garve. And if that wasn't enough, it is worth noting that both Roger Bax and Andrew Garve are pseudonyms, the author's real name is Paul Winterton.
I see also that this book was made into a movie starring none other than Clark Gable and Gene Tierney. Wow. That is a pretty impressive credential.
"Came The Dawn" was published by Hutchinson in 1949 and looks like my copy could well be a first edition. It was written with the events of World War Two fresh in the memory of the author and he draws on his experiences as a Foreign Correspondent in Moscow during the war. The plot concerns two Englishmen, one a Foreign Correspondent, the other a Military Engineer, who meet and marry local girls in Moscow in the early 1940s. After the war, they attempt to get exit visas for their wives but with the deteriorating relationship between Britain and the Soviet Union find that these are denied. The obvious solution? Buy a small boat and sail to Estonia to pick them up. It is a simple plot but it is well told. On the way they meet a Soviet patrol craft and the interactions between the two ships are well told and add humanity to what might otherwise have descended into something of a travelogue.
I found the book extremely readable. It benefited from the author's personal experience and came across as believable and not contrived. All the characters are well developed and Bax provides good back stories allowing even the more villainous sorts to appear human and not one dimensional. He does better with the male characters than the female ones but this may just be a function of the amount of time each spend in focus in the book. I didn't quite read it in one session but it didn't take much more than 24 hours to devour the lot. The story has certainly stood the test of time and I would recommend it to anyone who manages to get a hold of a copy.
My usual suggestion pointing you to The Book Depository won't work here as the book as been out of print for decades. You can get second hand copies from AbeBooks
, as long as you don't mind getting the "Two If By Sea" American versions rather than the British "Came The Dawn" title. The title and cover image are the only differences.
It seems a little strange to be writing a review of a book that is the sixth in a series without any previous acknowledgement on this blog of the previous five books. This is thanks to my recent hiatus in reviewing books due to work commitments cutting down the amount of time I could spend blogging. My orienteering blog
got priority, I'm afraid, and only now have I had the time to return to reviewing.
This doesn't mean I haven't been reading - far from it. In the last few months I have discovered and devoured this entire series of six books by Peter Smalley. All six books, beginning with "HMS Expedient", feature the same two main characters, Captain William Rennie and Lieutenant James Hayer. The publisher humbly suggests that "HMS Expedient" is "a masterful sea story and a brilliant debut in the tradition of "Patrick O'Brian"" (yes, they gave O'Brian his own quotation marks). That is a remarkably powerful claim, especially for an author who hails from Melbourne.
So what did this Patrick O'Brian fan think? Well, I really enjoyed "HMS Expedient" and did harbour hopes that Smalley would develop into a nautical fiction writer capable of standing comparison with the master himself. Sadly, however, I have to say that it hasn't happened yet. Whereas the concept of "HMS Expedient" was good, the storyline strong and the characters well developed, I question whether Smalley has written his second novel yet as the five sequels all appear to be "HMS Expedient" rewritten in different geographical settings. This makes each book enjoyable and well written as a standalone story but does grate a bit when you read all six within six months as I did.
The biggest disappointment for me in "The Pursuit" was in the development of the two main characters. Smalley is to be commended for not leaving them static and one dimensional throughout the series but I felt that the development of Rennie, in particular, was not consistent with what we had learned of him in the previous five books and often seemed inconsistent within the book itself. Hayter seemed to have changed less in character while the plot device of his marital problems, left tantalisingly unresolved at the end of the book, hinted that greater changes may be afoot.
The plot of "The Pursuit" was more believable than several of the preceding volumes and had all the hallmarks of a good old rousing nautical fiction tale but it relied too often on unlikely events and characters "knowing" what their adversary would do (on the basis that that is what they would do themselves).
I look forward to Peter Smalley writing more nautical fiction novels but suggest that he would be better off coming up with an entirely new set of characters and circumstances in the future rather than trying to push this series further. If you haven't read him, do buy "HMS Expedient" - but get the remaining books out of the library.
"HMS Expedient", "The Pursuit" and Peter Smalley's other four novels are all available from The Book Depository:
In my considered opinion, and I speak as one who as considered this opinion for nearly 20 years, the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian really begins with the second book in the series, Post Captain, and not the first, Master and Commander. By the time O'Brian got around to Post Captain he had found his feet as a writer, he had developed the style that would be the hallmark of the series and the writing flows and delights in a manner that would continue for another 18 or so books. Not that there is anything wrong with Master and Commander - see my review here for a positive account - but somehow that first book seems different, almost staid compared to this and the books that will follow.
The book begins, and most of the action takes place, on land and follows the financial and romantic dealings of the two main characters Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. It introduces the two main female protagonists of the series, Sophie Williams and Diana Villiers, and we get to see O'Brian develop them into familiar, believable characters. He achieves some success with this in Post Captain, the character of Diana in particular being well developed with all facets of her personality, both admirable and not so much, leaping off the page at us. It must be said that in later novels O'Brian will struggle to portray his female characters as well as he does here - although his treatment of the many, many male characters will remain outstanding - and, although Diana will continue to develop right up to her untimely death in a later novel (and I will have much, much more to say on that when I get that far into the series), Sophie seems to become more and more one dimensional as time goes on.
There are sufficient passages set at sea to remind us that this is, in fact, nautical fiction and O'Brian's skill in this genre comes to the fore. Particularly impressive is his dealing with the sailing qualities (or lack thereof) of the Polychrest. His idiosyncratic but wonderful turns of phrase are also present in numbers - "Omnibus routs me" - as he develops the humour that will shine throughout the series.
I recommend Post Captain as an ideal introduction to Patrick O'Brian's writings.
Post Captain can be bought from The Book Depository for around $11 delivered:
As an aside before I start this review, someone shared a great photo on Facebook the other day. It was of the two sides of a water bottle. On the front it said "I love running" and this was acompanied on the back by the wonderful phrase "Because I really, really, really, really love dessert". I need a T Shirt with that on it.I bought this book almost by accident. I was in the Titirangi Public Library and stopped to peruse their table of old books that they were flogging off for a dollar. This book was in the pile. Only, it doesn't have any stamps or barcodes, it looks almost new and it clearly was never a library book. I'm guessing someone dropped it through the returns slot by mistake as one of a dozen or so library books they had finished with. Anyway, their loss was my gain but if that was you and you'd like the book back let me know.At first I couldn't decide whether I was reading a novel or non-fiction. The writer is a journalist and he writes in a typical tabloid over the top style. He also writes about ultra marathon runners, a particularly wierd tribe of individuals that I had not previously encountered. It appears that he is writing non-fiction - all the reviewers I found online seemed to think so and several of the wierd things I googled seemed to pan out - but you can read it as a novel if that works better for you. He takes a long time to make his points and takes every excuse to wander off on some tangent and digress further from that before eventually meandering back to where he started. I'm not sure I particularly like it as a writing style but it never seemed annoying enough to want to give up.By the way, if you will forgive my a digression of my own, I googled "Mensen Ernst", an ultra runner from the 19th century who sounded so bizarre that he must have been made up and discovered that he did in fact have his own Wikipedia page that confirmed everything McDougall said about him. But if you follow up all the references you find they refer back to this book. So that is no help. But dig a little deeper and you finally get a link to the New York Times in 1879 that confirms roughly what McDougall claims. This guy is my new hero, I mean running from Paris to Moscow in 13 days?As the book progresses it is clear that McDougall has a message to preach. However, it isn't always clear what the message is. Sure, he is promoting running and most of time he is promoting running as it used to be before the sports shoe companies were invented
but it isn't clear if he is in favour of running barefoot all the time, most of the time, some of time or never. Does he want you to become a vegan, vegetarian, exclusive meat eater, high protein or high carbohydrates? Should you do fartleks, long slow runs, hill work, speed work, on their own, together, sometimes, always, what? All of these seem to be advocated at some point in the book and then conveniently forgotten about when the next craze comes along.I guess the overarching message is we can and should enjoy running and that some people enjoy running very long distances indeed. That is true but I'm not sure that I would recommend this book as the one to convince you of that. What I would recommend is that you enjoy the book for the story and the race because, in the end, it is a rip roaring one.UPDATE 02 April 2012:I don't mention him in my review above but probably my favourite character in the book was Micah True. Sadly, Micah passed away last weekend while running in Gila National Forest in New Mexico. You can read about it in a local newspaper here.
Born To Run is available from The Book Depository for as little as $16.60 delivered.
A month or so back I found an old copy of "That Last Mountain" by Terence Strong tucked away in the outer reaches of my bookshelves, re-read it and was agreeably surprised. You can read my review of it here
. This prompted me to look out for other Strong novels and eventually White Viper made it onto my reading list.The setting is somewhat different to That Last Mountain in that most of the action takes place in Colombia, Ireland and Spain rather than Sweden but the same elements are present. The hero of the tale - based on a real life character, according to Strong - is an ex-military type who happens to knock off drug barons for a living (well, something like that; read it and see). The characters are fairly well drawn for an action novel, the plot is complex enough to keep you intrigued but not so complex that you can't follow it and, unusually, the good guys don't always win. Sometimes they even die mid-novel.I found it a hard book to put down. If I had a complaint it would be that there seemed to be three endings to the book as all loose ends seemed to be tied up at the end of the Colombian scene and I wondered what on earth the last 100 pages were going to be, then the same seemed true after Spain but actually we needed to get to the end of the Irish bit before the end arrived and all the plot lines were, in fact, brought together and resolved - including several that I had completely missed or forgotten about.I'll be including more Terence Strong novels in my reading list over the next year or so. I see he has a back catalogue of about 20 books with a new one due out mid year.
It appears that Terence Strong as a brand doesn't attract a premium. White Viper is available in paperback delivered from The Book Depository for a mere $10.95. At that price it is well worth a gamble even if you aren't completely persauded by my review. Click on the link below.
Believe it or not, I didn't get into Bernard Cornwell by reading his wonderful series of novels of the Napoleonic Wars featuring the character Richard Sharpe. No, my first introduction to Cornwell, way back in the 1990s, was to his standalone sailing novels of which he wrote four or five around that time. Seeing them sitting on my shelf the other day I decided it was time to pull one out and re-read it. I setttled on Stormchild as my memory told me it was the one I had enjoyed the most.
And I still enjoy it, twenty years later. It is a rip-roaring tale of a man who sails half way around the world to Chile to find his daughter who is involved with an enviromental action group there. The passage of time hasn't dulled this premise, Cornwell's description of the group and their lifestyle would still be believable today although they may be slightly more concerned with global warming and less with French nuclear testing. There are all the usual elements of a Cornwell novel with a very masculine hero and convenient love interest. There is also an interesting sidekick in the shape of the hero's brother, an Anglican priest. Cornwell doesn't normally do sympathetic priest characters particularly well, for reasons stemming from his childhood that he explained elsewhere. David Blackburn is an exception, providing a sane counterpoint to his brother's emotions and a device to introduce plot changes at several points in the novel. There is also a credible love interest in the story, another thing that Cornwell doesn't normally do well. Mind you, those of us who read Cornwell aren't usually reading it for the romantic sideline but, again, he seems to pitch it better in this novel. And, finally, it is clearly a standalone novel with a beginning, a middle and an end unlike many Cornwell novels that are part of a series and written with that in mind. So all in all, not your typical Cornwell but an enjoyable tale all the same. It will seem familiar to Cornwell fans and is worth a read even if you've never managed to get into any of his other novels.
At the time of writing, you could get "Stormchild" in paperback delivered to New Zealand for just $12.73. Just click on the link below.
A couple of days before Christmas I was perusing the Herald website
when an article caught my eye. "Oh. look", I said to Linda, "Phil the Greek is in hospital". This caused her to enquire why I called him by that nickname. I had to confess that I had been using it for many years but I was not at all sure why or even whether it was technically correct - although I had a sneaking suspicion that he was related to the old Greek royal family some way or another. It is in situations like this that Wikipedia comes into its own and a quick glance at their entry for Prince Philip
showed that, yes, he was born in Greece into the royal family and that, actually, he seemed to be a far more interesting character than I had thought. In particular, his war service (in the Royal Navy) came across as worth investigating further.All that lead to me getting this book, "Young Prince Philip" by Philip Eade. It follows Philip's early life from before his birth (he had very interesting grand[parents) through his childhood and military career and onto his courtship and marriage to Princess Elizabeth, finishing with the Coronation in 1953. It isn't an authorised biography but the author does indicate that the Palace had had a hand in correcting some of his more obvious errors. I has always considered Philip a bit of a joke figure renowned for speaking his mind at the most inappropriate junctures but this book has certainly caused me to rethink. His early family life was bizarre, to say the least, and the way that he overcame that to become a more than capable Naval officer and then re-invented himself on marriage t
o Elizabeth, carrying out a dignified and supportive role for the last 60 years speaks volumes for his strength of character. As is often the case in good biographies, interesting, insightful and often amusing anecdotes about Philip and his family abound.This book is a good introduction to a man who is one of the unsung heroes of 20th Century Britain and is written in an easy style that makes great bedtime reading.
The Book Depository has "Young Prince Philip" by Philip Eade available in hardback for $33 delivered to New Zealand or, if you are willing to wait for it to be published or are reading this after late April 2012, it has the paperback for $13. click on the link below.