Adventures in Bookland: The Mythology and Religion of the Inca by Jesse Harasta

The Mythology and Religion of the Inca by Dr Jesse Harasta

This short book (56 pages on my Kindle) provides quite a reasonable introduction to exactly what it says on the cover: the mythology and religion of the Inca. It’s probably possible to find all this stuff in various websites on the internet but having the information collated here makes it all more accessible and considerably less bitty. So, nothing to in depth, but a decent little introduction to a broad and deep and complex subject.

Adventures in Bookland: Memoirs of a Janissary by Konstantin Mihailovic

Memoirs of a Janissary by Konstantin Mihailovic

There are very few primary texts detailing what it was like to be a Janissary in the 15th century so this memoir by a man who was captured as a boy, trained as a Janissary, who fought for the Sultan during a number of campaigns before returning to Christian practice and Christian regions, is invaluable – but frustratingly bare. We would love to know more about the actual training of a Janissary and how the Ottomans took the levy of Christian boy slaves and turned them into the Sultan’s most effective ghazi, warriors of Islam. Sadly, Mihailovic does not go into any detail about this, although there are hints that it could be a brutal process.

The translation is clear and the accompanying scholarly material, particularly the extensive footnotes, are invaluable. A necessary read for anyone interested in the Sultan’s slave soldiers.

Beneath Flanders Fields by Peter Barton

Beneath Flanders Fields by Peter Barton

There’s an old Pogues song, from the days when Shane McGowan had most of his teeth and much of his wits, called Down in the Ground where the Dead Men Go. The chorus runs, with Spider Stacey bashing an empty beer tray on his head for percussion, “I don’t want to go down in the ground where the dead men go.”

That was exactly where these men did go during the First World War, fighting a silent battle beneath the ground that remains virtually unknown to this day yet, eerily, remains still largely untouched beneath the fields of Flanders where above ground the scars of the war have disappeared beneath the plough.

This was a silent war, a dark war, a secret war, of tunnellers digging in absolute quiet under enemy lines to lay mines there, sending up volcanoes of earth and rock and bodies when they blew. For the troops, sheltering in trenches from the shells and artillery from above, to have the earth below erupt and swallow them was particularly demoralising.

Peter Barton and his co-authors do an extraordinary job of bringing this forgotten theatre of the War back to life, mingling first-hand reports and memoirs with broader history and recent archaeology, much of it their own. It was one theatre of the war where the British gained complete mastery, outengineering the Germans, and this underground dominance played a large part in the British victories of 1917.

A superb history of a largely unknown aspect of the war.

Adventures in Bookland: H.M.S. Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

H.M.S. Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

Spoiler: they all die.

Yes, this is not a book to read if you become attached to characters fighting, mostly successfully, to maintain their humanity in the most appalling circumstances. Yes, I knew the convoys to Murmansk during World War II were grim but this – all you 40k and Warhammer fans out there – this is grimdark before people started playing with it. This is grimdark as something people actually endured, for real. And all I can say, having read it, is that I have added a new theatre of war to the list of those that I thank God I have never had to endure.

Alistair MacLean himself sailed on some of those convoys – although he evidently survived – and the reality of the cold Arctic Ocean and its strangeness is one of the most vivid parts of the book. The story itself is a tribute to the endurance of the men who crewed these ships, although it does seem to conflate all the worst convoys to create a single convoy to perdition, but as I said, fans of grimdark should love it. For myself, knowing that much of it was true, in spirit if not detail, made me enjoy it both more and less – in some ways it came close to literary torture porn, in others a diatribe against the incompetence and coldness of the admirals who sent men out to die on the cold sea.

Final spoiler: actually, one man does survive.

Adventures in Bookland: Battle of Britain by Christer Bergstrom

Battle of Britain by Christer Bergstrom

This is perhaps the most detailed and in-depth single volume history of the Battle of Britain available. It takes the reader on what is virtually a day-by-day, engagement-by-engagement history of the battle, from the first skirmishes in the Channel to the long drawing down of the Blitz. So if you are looking to know exactly what happened on, say, the 28 August 1940, this is the book to go to before referring to individual squadron histories.

On a broader level, Bergstrom argues strongly, and convincingly, that the Me-110, far from being the flying target duck that it is usually depicted as, was in fact a very capable plane more than able to fulfill its combat ‘destroyer’ role when employed correctly. It is also clear that Goring, far from being the buffoon he is so often portrayed as being, knew how to deploy it, and the rest of his fleet, to overcome the substantial strategic advantages enjoyed by the RAF (in particular, fighting over home territory and the integrated defence system developed by Hugh Dowding). But Goring was let down by his chief lieutenants, who failed to carry out his instructions. Maybe the RAF would still have won, but what was an already close run thing might then have run ever closer to the wire.

The book’s subtitle makes much of its revisting a well-known story but Bergstrom has no axes to grind: he is just trying to get to the truth – and he gets as near to it as is humanly possible. A superb book.

Adventures in Bookland: Scramble by Norman Gelb

Scramble by Norman Gelb

The subtitle to Scramble is ‘a narrative history of the Battle of Britain’ and, I must admit, I completely misunderstood what that meant. I expected a history of the Battle of Britain from its beginning with the fall of France to its end in the Blitz: the bread and butter of historical writing. What I actually got was a selection of interviews, excerpts from memoirs and reminiscences by the men and women who actually fought the battle, with a little bit of linking commentary by Norman Gelb.

So rather than straight history it was more personal, rawer and less refined than the sort of stuff professional historians prefer to write, but as a result much more immediate and visceral. I suspect only someone who has been caught in a Hurricane, on fire, with the canopy stuck can have any idea of what that is like: in this book you will find a man who does know exactly what that was like. So if you like your history unfiltered, this is the history of the Battle of Britain for you.

Adventures in Bookland: Swordfighting by Guy Windsor

Swordfighting by Guy Windsor

This was a clear example of buying a book for its title: Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists. I’m a writer. A lot of my characters wield swords. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t committing any swordfighting faux pas in my stories and seeing that Guy Windsor is one of the leading lights of the contemporary resurgence in HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) I thought he would have a lot to teach me.

He did, but not about writing sword fights. Fellow writers beware. Unless you are really, really useless, there’s nothing in Windsor’s treatment of how to write a sword fight that you won’t already know. However, if you want to peer into the mind and practice of one of the most brilliant pedagogues I have ever encountered, then go for it!

What’s clear from reading Swordfighting is that Windsor is a committed, thoughtful and imaginative teacher who has considered long, hard and deeply how to teach swordfighting while remaining committed to the historical principles that guide his vision of swordmanship. As such, the book offers a valuable insight into the sort of pedagogical thinking that should inform any physical teaching (my wife, who is a voice teacher, found it hugely valuable) as well as speaking much about Windsor’s own journey as a man extracting an ancient skill from manuscripts and fleshing them in his own practice. Far more fascinating than it has any right to be!

Adventures in Bookland: Suleiman the Magnificent by Andre Clot

Suleiman the Magnificent by Andre Clot

There must surely be a pun to be made on the author’s name – something like a clot upon Suleiman’s magnificent reputation – but given that the book is very good, it’s proved beyond my wit to make it. Suffice to say that the book spends its first half on Suleiman’s life and reign in an engaging manner, making a reasonable effort to understand the man behind the appellation – Clot’s point that Suleiman really did see himself as a ghazi, a warrior for Islam, is perhaps key to understanding much of his reign – and the second half in a wider description of the Ottoman world over which Suleiman reigned and which, during his reign, seemed poised to remake the world in his image and the image of his religion.

Adventures in Bookland: Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian

Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander was a wonderful beginning to the Aubrey/Maturin novels but reading it in the light of this, the second book in the series, it becomes clear that Patrick O’Brian wasn’t necessarily thinking of writing a twenty book series of oceangoing adventures when he wrote it. Master and Commander would have worked perfectly well as a standalone novel, with O’Brian going off to mine different literary seams, but with Post Captain it’s clear that he as a writer, as well as we readers, realise that it’s right here that he’s found the rich seam or, to employ a more nautical metaphor, found clear water and a following wind. With Post Captain, the series really takes off, in particular revealing both the sly humour that peppers the rest of the series (Jack Aubrey’s escape from France disguised as Stephen Maturin’s dancing bear balances on the edge of ludicrous before falling into the fields of delight) and the author’s ability to employ the language of the period to telling effect, making of it almost a seagoing, masculine companion to Jane Austen’s novels. Yes, it is that good.