Adventures in Bookland: The Knights Hospitaller by John Carr

The Knights Hospitaller by John Carr

This military history of the Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem is solid and generally dependable, apart from its tendency to adopt the outworn tropes of earlier scholarship about the Crusades that saw the Crusaders as ignorant barbarians out for plunder and conquest and with a strong inclination to massacre populations for sport as opposed to the civilised and humane Muslims who always gave quarter and were definitely better mannered. While this view has been shown to be wrong, the awareness of that does not seem to have quite sunk in to John Carr’s treatment of the Crusades and Outremer.

Apart from that, the book does a good job of tracing the history of the Hospitallers, with the part on its latter history after the Siege of Malta possibly the best section of the book. Recommended so long as the reader knows enough to correct the issues about Outremer.

Adventures in Bookland: Sea People by Christina Thompson

Sea People by Christina Thompson

There’s a problem with being a laggardly book reviewer: even the most vivid and fascinating books fade. One of the main reasons for me writing book reviews is to cement the book into memory and generally it works very well. Unfortunately, for various reasons, it’s been quite a while since I fnished reading Sea People and most of its specific content has disappared from my memory as completely as if I, like its protagonists, found myself in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But, unlike me, the Polynesians who explored and settled that vast ocean had ways of finding their way around and Thompson does a brilliant job of recounting how they did it as well as the long and roundabout story of how the rest of the world slowly came to appreciate the Polynesian achievement.

There, I’m already beginning to remember more. Something else that comes back to me is that Captain James Cook deserved all the approbation heaped upon him: superlative navigator, exceptional leader and a 19th-century Englishman willing to engage with the natives and learn from them. There was a great section in the book about a Tahitian (I think) who embarked with James Cook and sailed with him, the two becoming collaborators and friends within the possibilities of their respective worlds. It was a meeting of very different approaches to the task of navigating the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean.

Sea People opens a window onto a very different world of water and sun and currents and winds. It’s left more of an imprint on my mind than a book about what is, quite literally, trackless has any right to do so. In fact, it is one of the small percentage of books that would be worth returning to.

Adventures in Bookland: Sharpe’s Trafalgar

Sharpe’s Trafalgar by Bernard Cornwell

Although Sharpe’s Trafalgar comes fourth in the chronology of the Sharpe novels, it was actually the 19th to be written and it does suffer from being a bit Sharpe by the numbers.

So, high-status damsel in distress who falls for the bit of rough, Richard Sharpe: check. Arrogant upper-class type who hates Sharpe but gets his comeuppance: check. Accommodating upper-class type who admires Sharpe: check.

But on the positive side: brilliantly written battle scenes with a new twist – these are naval battles: check. Indeed, Cornwell’s ability to write convincing and engrossing battle scenes, and to always keep them interesting is one of his greatest abilities as a writer. Very few people can manage that as well as he does.

So, a Sharpe novel that ticks all the boxes but perhaps doesn’t have the vim and vigour of the earlier novels.

Adventures in Bookland: Nine Lives by Aimen Dean

Nine Lives by Aimen Dean

There’s not many testimonies from high up in Al-Qaeda and even fewer from someone who turned against the organisation and became a spy for MI6, so Aimen Dean’s Nine Lives will probably always rank number one in a field of one. Thankfully, it deserves its place for its intrinsic value as well as for its extrinsic interest.

Dean was a more than usually pious boy growing up in Saudi Arabia, the youngest of a family of brothers whose father was killed in a traffic accident and whose mother died when he was in his early teens (if I remember correctly). As such, he began to gravitate towards Islamist groups, enlisting at the tender age of 16 in the Bosnian jihad. Having survived that war – more by luck than skill – Dean’s appetite was only whetted to fight further for the cause of Islam and, after an abortive attempt to join the Chechen war, he ended up becoming part of Al-Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks. A bright young man with a scientific bent, Dean was seconded to the weapons experimental division of Al-Qaeda, taking part in all sorts of experiments – many of which involved the death of various unfortunate animal test subjects.

What’s most interesting about the book is how Dean gradually became convinced that the jihadist ideology was wrong, being based on a partial and biased reading of Islamic law and tradition. Having made his decision to leave the organisation, Dean was arrested by Qatari intelligence and given a choice: cooperate with MI6, the CIA or French intelligence. He chose MI6 on the basis of a complete lack of knowledge of France and a general suspicion that the Americans did not protect their intelligence assets. It proved a wise choice. For the next most interesting part of the book is his account of his time as an MI6 agent and the delicate dance of necessity, choice and danger between Dean and his MI6 handlers.

In the end, it was the Americans who gave Dean away, in the memoirs of an official of the outgoing Bush administration, and Dean had to make a hasty getaway. It’s a fascinating story that answers both how someone can become a jihadi and how he might leave the ideology behind. Highly recommened.

Adventures in Bookland: The Drink and Dream Teahouse by Justin Hill

The Drink and Dream Teahouse by Justin Hill

There’s precious few authors who don’t have a pile of failed novels sitting at the bottom of the cupboard or hidden on a hard drive. There’s even fewer whose first completed novel was written when still young. Justin Hill manages both of these and he adds a third: writing convincingly and moving about the old while still a young man himself. To really make this debut novel stand out, Hill does all this in the context of turn of the millennium China: but not the China of newly minted millionaires and communist capitalism but one of the semi-forgotten towns of the northern hinterlands where the winter blows in from over the Mongolian plain, bitter and long. It’s an extraordinary window into a China that very few people outside China know, a hard-scrabble land that, despite its atrocities, communist rule probably improved, leaving the people there caught in the middle of the pivot to consumer communist capitalism made by the Party bigwigs in far away Beijing.

It’s a quite brilliant portrayal of a group of characters struggling to come to terms with a China that has pretty comprehensively demolished its past – Mao ranks as one of the worse cultural vandals in history – but is also busy overturning the few certainties bequeathed by the communist era. For the elderly, it’s a time for some to attempt to come to grips with the past and in particular their parts in the Cultural Revolution. For the young, it’s an attempt to find a road between the new Party goal of getting rich and dealing with the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. It’s a portrayal of the oldest continuously civilised society on earth trying to understand how it could have systematically destroyed that heritage and picking up the pieces of what is left.

All of this is done in the context of the most human of stories: of Da Shan, returning to his old home after getting rich in the big city but still carrying the burden of his part in the great betrayal following Tiananmen Square; of Liu Bei, his one-time lover, eking out her living in the Drink and Dream Teahouse of the title – a brothel frequented by members of the local Party hierarchy. It’s the story of their parents and the other old stagers, still scarred by memories of famine and want and political destruction. It’s a story of a society still deeply scarred by the brutality visited upon it, a brutality that plays out in the story in a couple of harsh scenes of sexual violence that, while integral to the story, might make the book unpalatable for certain readers.

It’s not a story with happy endings but then, the story of China is no fairytale: they do not all live happily ever after, as recent events in Hong Kong and Wuhan show. Read it for an insight into what China was becoming twenty years ago and set it against what the Party lets us see of China now: the true story is very different from what is portrayed in the media. Read it also for a prose style that makes an extraordinary attempt to convey, in English, something of the rhythms and cadences of Chinese.

The Drink and Dream Teahouse would be an outstanding novel for any writer: it’s a truly extraordinary novel for a first-time author.

Adventures in Bookland: Carrier Pilot by Norman Hanson

Carrier Pilot by Norman Hanson

There’s a strange new fashion in publishing to make a book’s subtitle into an advertising blurb. Browse Amazon – particularly its Kindle pages – and you will see books with, right there on their title lines, advertising bumph such as ‘the most uplifting and romantic novel’, ‘the gripping, bestselling Richard & Judy book club thriller’, and in the case of Carrier Pilot, ‘one of the greatest pilot’s memoirs of WWII – a true aviation classic’.

Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not. That’s not to say Carrier Pilot isn’t a good book: it’s a fine read. But it’s not in the category of books that transcend the limitations of being a memoir and thus being limited to a particular man’s experiences and memories. However, what it does do is tell Norman Hanson’s story very well, of how he ended up training to be a pilot with the Royal Fleet Air Arm and sailing over to America in 1942 to be trained as a pilot in Florida. Indeed, the vast majority of the book is concerned with training: flying a plane is difficult enough. Taking it off and landing it again on the truncated runway of an aircraft carrier pitching on the ocean makes it all an order of magnitude more difficult and dangerous.

In fact, that’s what comes across most clearly in Hanson’s memoir: just how dangerous the training was. Although I did not tally the deaths up exactly, my impression was that as many pilots died in training as died in combat – perhaps even more. Hanson and his colleagues were not helped by having to fly the F4 Corsair, a plane of which Hanson says, in the book’s most memorable phrase, “of all the aircraft I had ever seen, these were the most wicked-looking bastards. The Corsair looked truly vicious.” These first Corsairs were vicious, and utterly unforgiving of pilot error. This is where the book is strongest, showing the cost and courage required even to learn to fly these planes.

So while not a true classic, Carrier Pilot brings new light to a discipline (fleet air flying) and a theatre (the British in the Far East) that have received relatively little attention and thus makes a worthy addition to any WWII library.

Adventures in Bookland: Voodoo Tales by Henry S. Whitehead

Voodoo Tales by Henry S. Whitehead

Supernatural stories of Voodoo written by an Episcopalian priest who served as the Archdeacon for the Virgin Islands in the West Indies from 1921 to 1929, particularly a man who was a close fried to H.P. Lovecraft a great writer but an inveterate racist, would seem like an open invitation to all sorts of paternalist, colonialist tropes calculated to make the woke reader reach for the matches of cancellation. And, yes, if you look for it, there is stuff here to take offense at – just as future ages will look back at us and shake their heads in disbelief and horror at some of our most unquestioned notions. But Whitehead reveals himself a sympathetic recorder of Voodoo beliefs and customs, as well as the general folkways and culture of the West Indian black population, all descended from slaves. While the culture of the time was segregated, as a clergyman Whitehead had better access to and, all credit to him, greater sympathy with the black population than the vast majority of other white West Indians. The stories also provide something of a snapshot into a culture passing into twilight as the old planter aristocracies decline. The stories themselves are more of the weird tale strain of supernatural writing than out and out horror, although one or two are early precursors of later body horror tropes, with Whitehead proving to be a skilled and restrained writer, rather different from the other pulp fiction writers of his time. All in all, a pleasant and engaging collection of stories.

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.