The Bow – Bill Sharrock

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I am afeard there are few die well that die in battle, for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? – William Shakespeare, Henry V

On  the 25th October 1415 two armies met on the field of Agincourt to decide whether King Henry V of England could continue to press his claim against the French crown. His march, from Harfleur to Calais, undoubtedly one to prove the ineffectiveness of the French to stop him may have ended in disaster. Yet when a large French army barred the road to Calais a combination of bad weather and archery stopped his exhausted men from being swept from the field. In one of the most stunning victories in English history Henry V’s outnumbered men overcame their opposition and left the flower of the French nobility upon the field. If you want a deeper insight into the Battle of Agincourt I wrote a pretty in depth series a while back (find the first here).

This book is action from the start. The reader is thrust into the midst of battle following the actions of James Fletcher and his small gang of English and Welsh longbowmen. James, a man that joined Henry’s army to earn enough coin to buy some land, is the protagonist of the story and his only wish is to return home to his young wife alive. After Agincourt he returns home but does not yet have the money to purchase his neighbours land as he received little ransom from the battle and the price of the land has been inflated by the amount of well paid soldiers returning home. So what does he do? Why, he returns to France of course in the service of his King. I assume this to coincide with the revival of the military campaign against France in 1417.

The English march out again. Another desperate battle is fought and prisoners are taken. James’ prisoner, however, is not to be ransomed for political reasons and he is instead given the job of returning the young french noble home in order to receive some payment. It is a job he resents as he wants to return to his pregnant wife but as a lowly archer he has little to no choice. To break his indenture to his Lord would be to throw himself upon his own sword. To tell you much more would ruin the story so I’ll stop.

I picked up the Kindle version of this one for £1.34 and for that price you never know what you’re going to get. I usually steer away from books at this price from authors that I have never read. In this case I was pleasantly surprised by the historically accurate and well written tail contained within its 314 pages. In fact I was so impressed I might just pick up another one of his stories.

Overall rating: 9 out of 10

Reading Age: 13 Years

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Storm of Steel – Ernst Jünger

Image result for storm of steelRound about us in the mounds of earth rested the bodies of dead comrades, every foot of ground had witnessed some sort of drama, behind every traverse lurked catastrophe, ready day and night to pluck its next chance victim. And yet we all felt a strong bond to our sector, as though we had grown together with it.

Storm of Steel is generally regarded as one of the finest German memoirs of the First World War. Not that it has a lot of competition as there are very few published German perspectives from the Great War. Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is highly anti-war and probably one of my favorite books written about the Great War. However, it was published in 1929 when Europe was already on the road to another world war. A war that Remarque’s book, as a protest to the wastefulness of war, was against.  Storm of Steel appeared much earlier, in 1920, and is without any overtly political overtures. As it came highly reviewed and recommended I was really looking forward to getting to grips with this one.

It is a shame then that this book didn’t do very much to hook me and keep me hooked. Sure I could comment on how these long periods of inactivity represent the nothingness of trench warfare. Yet Jünger had such an exciting prewar life (not to mention his post war exploits) that I feel a lot was missed in his memoir or not elaborated on. The moments I enjoyed most whilst reading Storm of Steel were when Jünger describes trenches and battles in beautifully stark descriptive sentences that read more like poetry than memory. In these moments his ability as a writer shines to its full potential and the story he tells is at its most engaging. He manages to do what so few writers can. He creates pictures with words. It is such a disappointment that these moments are fleeting as they really hammer home the devastation of war and the strength of spirit needed to survive such conditions. I am aware that Jünger wanted to get his book out as soon as possible to get his side, and much of the German side, of the story out into the public realm before history claimed the war as its own to reshape into a neat tangible narrative of cause and effect. Yet his narrative is far too easy to interpret as Jünger having a great time playing soldier despite being wounded many times. In fact, the Nazis used Storm of Steel as a part of their propaganda to recruit men into the army.

Whilst I am quite critical of Storm of Steel, because there are so few published German perspectives from World War One it still worth reading. I would just take the experiences of Jünger with a dash of skepticism. After all he was an exceptional man and an avid adventurer who was probably happiest where there was danger aplenty. He is not the typical German soldier of the Great War and he mentions that his fellow soldiers towards the end of the war were not worth anything except weight of numbers.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 10

Reading Age: 16

The Lost World – Michael Crichton

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“Some dinosaur roots in the swamps around the inland sea, changes the water circulation, and destroys the plant ecology that twenty other species depend on. Bang! They’re gone. That causes still more dislocations. A predator dies off, and its prey grow unchecked. The ecosystem becomes unbalanced. More things go wrong. More species die. And suddenly it’s over.” – Ian Malcolm, The Lost World

If you haven’t realised, there has been a bit of a theme in my last couple of reviews. I may, or may not, have gone completely over the top on my appreciation for the Jurassic Park franchise. I will happily admit to anybody that watching all the films and reading Crichton’s original material is probably a little obsessive but I merely consider it “appropriate research.”

So, where do you start when you want to talk about the Lost World? Probably not with the film. Although I enjoy it, they added far too much outside of the scope of the novel. After all, who thought that taking dinosaurs back to San Diego would be a good idea? Whoever that was deserves to be fired. The novel has a much more streamlined and simple narrative arc. In short, the slightly arrogant science guy goes and gets himself stuck on Isla Sorna to prove a point and then needs rescuing. Sure there’s a decent subplot featuring the devious Dodgson making a last ditch attempt to get at those precious dinos but that fizzles to an inevitable if slightly sticky end.

Crichton didn’t go too far from his set of characters in the first novel. We still have Ian Malcolm from the original novel but he is joined by a brand new lady scientist, a rugged mechanic, his mechanical genius sidekick and a couple of kids. A good dinosaur novel needs a couple of kids. They keep us connected with the sense of wonder around dinosaurs and this breaks up the tension surrounding the activities of man eating Tyrannosaurs and Velociraptors. On the subject of Velociraptors, Isla Sorna’s bunch are a complete break away from Isla Nublar’s calm, calculating, co-operative hunters. Isla Sorna’s raptors are mean, real mean, with each animal looking out for itself. There is no hesitation before eviscerating a fellow pack mate for trying to get in on a kill. To add to that, Sorna supports far too many predators for the amount of prey available. There is a good reason but I won’t spoit it.

Thankfully, Crichton didn’t lighten up on his use of current science when he wrote the sequel. He continued to develop his novel against the current best theories surrounding dinosaur behaviour. His 360 on Tyrannosaur’s not being able to see moving objects is one slight change which disconnects the novel a little from the first but shows how committed to the science Crichton was.

Overall, the Lost World is a good read. But it struggles to overcome the first novel and it feels generally more constrained by its simple narrative arc. With only two groups of characters on the island and the fact that they tend to stay in one area we don’t really get to explore as freely as we did in the first. However, the Lost World does shine in its consideration of what an island of dinosaurs left to mature without interference would look like. Plus, the introduction of some complex systems theory and ecosystem cascades means there is quite a nice spine of scientific theory running throughout.

If you haven’t had the chance to read my reviews of the Jurassic Park book and the new Jurassic World film feel free to follow the links.

Overall Rating: 7 out of 10

Reading age: 11 years

Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton

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After watching Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom when it was released in the UK (see my review here), I decided to go back to where it all started. Isla Nublar. What is arguably Michael Crichton’s most famous and well-loved novel. After all who doesn’t love a writer that is able to merge up to date scientific theory with a gripping narrative? More importantly, who doesn’t love dinosaurs? Even if those dinosaurs are genetically modified calculating horrors which inevitably escape containment and cause chaos.

Chaos theory, although a rather stripped back and digestible version, underpins the narrative and is spouted as some form of prophetic doom by Ian Malcolm throughout. This theory basically states that any complex system, the weather for example, can be affected dramatically and unpredictably by small changes in the starting conditions. Hammond’s dream park is one such complex computer-controlled system that Malcolm claims is inherently unstable much to Hammond’s insistence to the contrary. This debate between Hammond’s belief that control is a matter of engineering and Malcolm’s belief that control is an unattainable delusion makes up one of the more interesting sub-themes in the novel and sets up a lot of the tension. Malcolm’s cliched, although necessary, “I told you so” attitude and the fact that he only seems to talk in mathematical analogies doesn’t make him an overly likeable character. So, although he successfully predicts the oncoming disaster, as a reader, we don’t really want to see him proved right. We almost want to side with the park staff and believe that they have engineered control of the system. Almost.

On top of this sub-theme of control versus chaos, we find an overarching warning against the pushing forward of the frontier of science without considering its implications. Nobody in the novel stops to think to ask whether it is right to bring back the dinosaurs into a world that has existed without them for 65 million years. Nobody thinks about the ethics of putting these newly created animals, with unknown behaviours, into a park for human entertainment. Nobody considers the consequences of what would happen should the system fail. Nobody thinks. When things begin to go wrong nobody is willing to acknowledge that in the rush to pursue the science before somebody else does that mistakes were made and corners cut. The park staff in the novel tend to refer to the animals as specimens or versions whilst the visitors see them as wonders and the park ranger as highly dangerous. The concerns of Muldoon (the park ranger), especially about the raptors, prove that Hammond and his scientists are blinded by their ambition as they ignore his concerns despite hiring him to find potential problems with the animals.

The best bits of the novel are the sections the film skipped over or modified. Most of the set up for the book, for example, is completely omitted by the film (although some of it appears at the start of the second). In the movie, there is an attack on a worker by an unseen creature and Gennaro visits an amber mine to claim that he is putting an inspection team together to assess some concerns about the park. In the book, those concerns are outlined very precisely by a series of attacks on children, the elderly and infants by an unknown lizard. A sample is found and sent off which finds its way to Dr Alan Grant who identifies it as a dinosaur before being whisked off to Isla Nublar to do some consultancy work for InGen. Genaro, the lawyer, plays a much more involved role in the book than he does in the film (but I won’t spoil it).

There is so much more to comment on but I don’t want to waffle on forever about it. Let’s just say that I really love this book since the first time that I read it. In fact, I like it so much that I found out that I own about four copies of it when I checked my book shelf.

Overall Rating: 10 out of 10

Reading Age: 14 Years

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

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“The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them.” ― Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology

There is something about the idea of people sitting around and telling each other the myths of their people that has hooked me for as long as I can remember. When this is coupled with my unhealthy obsession with the Viking age in Britain (thanks Crusader Kings 2), it is no surprise that I was excited to get my hands on a copy of Neil Gaiman’s take on Norse Mythology.

At 304 pages, or 15 short stories, this book proved to be a perfect little coffee table read. When I didn’t have time to pick up one of my ongoing reading conquests, I was able to quickly dip into this one and cover a chapter. Norse Mythology is funny, intelligent and easy to get into. I often think that reading any book with the word “mythology” in the title is enough to bring back memories of dusty books in sweaty classrooms. Thankfully that isn’t the case with this one as it weaves a fairly logical, as opposed to disparate, collection of stories.

The best part of all is that the book features a plethora of well known Norse God’s and that in the Norse Myths those God’s aren’t always the good guys. Thor’s ongoing desire to smash anything he comes across with his hammer and the fact that he isn’t too bright sets him off in a whole bunch of crazy adventures. Whether he’s dressing up as a woman and getting married or fishing with the enemy he is always  up to something entertaining. Where Thor is found Loki isn’t far behind and whilst sometimes Loki is the good guy more often than not he is just following Thor around to cause more trouble.

Whilst Thor’s path is full of amusing moments that of his father, Odin, is much more serious. Well, except for the Mead of Poetry chapter. Odin is on a path that will lead to the end of the world and the death of the Gods. The decisions he is forced to make, to chain up Fenrir for example, are difficult and only seem to prolong the inevitable. Somehow, Odin and Loki are tied together by an oath that remains unrevealed and this oath stops Odin from dealing with Loki once and for all. This tiny piece of unspoken information shapes their interactions with Loki effectively free to do what he wants, when he wants.

Is this book worth a read? Definitely. If you are new to mythology or just fancy reading something from the present that is based in the stories of the past, this one is definitely for you.

Overall Rating: 9 out of 10

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

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Whilst the first Jurassic World film took us back to the island where it all began, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom promised to take viewers (and the dinosaurs) into the wider world. But just how well did the film manage this?

This is a film that could have been a great take on a well worn franchise. The time pressure of an erupting volcano and a daring mission to rescue the surviving dinosaurs in what is most certainly a dangerous environment is enough material to construct a decent narrative. However, this story was abandoned fairly quickly at the East Dock (and quite possibly the most moving sequence in the film) in favour of an all too predictable animal trafficking monster narrative in which the bad guys are destroyed by their own creations.

Chris Pratt’s Owen Wilson remained the standout character throughout reacting to Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire Dearing with his brand of humour. The two heroes of the story have separated between the movies with Claire becoming involved in the battle to save the dinosaurs and Owen merely shunning their existence to avoid engaging with his own unresolved feelings. In addition to this couple we pick up a pair of new heroes to add to the team, the nerdy IT specialist Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) and the feisty female paleoveterinarian Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda). Funnily enough this team of heroes gels quite well and provides for a lot of interesting situations and dialogue.

Unfortunately the focus on creating genetically enhanced monsters, an extreme take on Creighton’s original warning against the power of genetic modification, leaves this film feeling more like a monster movie with a lovable dinosaur extra. Whilst Blue is probably a family favourite I can’t help feeling that having a “good” prehistoric predator is quickly stretching the bounds of reality to breaking point. It is pure fantasy that she can battle genetically enhanced killers and survive in situations that are almost certainly fatal without deciding to eat a few of the good guys along the way.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is Jeff Goldblum because when he’s on screen he is amazing. Ian Malcolm, the only original Jurassic Park cast member in the movie, just isn’t on screen long enough to warrant much more praise than that. He is the voice of reason that summarises the message of the film throughout: that mankind is not able to cope with godlike power. His lines comparing the power of genetic modification to the atomic arms race in the cold war are particularly poignant. I just wish he was given a little more screen time.

The best summary of this movie was delivered by one viewer as he left the all too warm summer screening “the only thing Jurassic about that film was the climate.”

Overall Rating: 5 out of 10

USS Seawolf: Sumarine Reader of the Pacific – Gerold Frank, James D. Horan, J. M. Eckberg

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I recently finished reading Serenade to the Big Bird by Bert Stiles and whilst writing the review I read that there were a collection of books produced under the heading Uncommon Valor. Upon finding this out, I jumped on to the internet for a quick Google search of the complete list of books and found that USS Seawolf was on it. Having heard nothing of the Seawolf, her crew and its mission in the first half of America’s war I decided to take a gamble and purchase it. Let me tell you, I am very glad that I did because USS Seawolf was very much worth the 99p I paid for it on the Kindle store.

The story of the Wolf is told by Chief Radioman Joseph Melvin Eckberg who served at the sound station throughout the Seawolf’s first tour of duty. As an irreplaceable member of the crew, in one of its most important roles, he is an instrumental figure in the success or failure the Wolf experienced. His story, on the map, takes us all over the Pacific but it also takes us from fore to aft within the boat. This book is not a definitive overview of the Submarine as a weapon in the Pacific, in fact, it contains very little technical information about the boat. This book, like all of those within the Uncommon Valor series, keeps its focus very much on the men on board and the day to day happenings of life under the waves.

As omens go, the beginning of USS Seawolf is as effective as they get. Eckberg sets the tone immediately bringing our attention to the recovery of USS Squalus, lost with all hands, on a test dive the day Eckberg first sees the Seawolf. He comments that the Squalus has become “a floating tomb” and this idea is a source of so much tension throughout the story. There is a constant reminder that if anything goes wrong, if anyone acts incorrectly, then the Wolf and every man on her would be lost. What makes this so much more impactful, although it is not mentioned, is that the Seawolf was actually lost with all hands to a friendly fire incident later on in the war under a new captain and crew. At any moment throughout Eckberg’s telling this could have happened to him. Luck, both good and bad stalks every submarine.

Luck is another key theme and luck was necessary to pull off on of the Seawolf’s most daring mission. The worsening situation for the United States army in the Pacific led to a situation where a large portion of the men stationed in the Philippines were besieged in the fortress the Corregidor. The loss of a large portion of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the constant air attacks on the Island meant that any conventional ship to shore resupply attempt was impossible. Instead, this mission fell to the Submarines which were packed with ammunition and supplies and sent on what was essentially a suicide mission. USS Seawolf was the first submarine to successfully carry out the task and proved that Submarines were capable of delivering quantities of supplies undetected to besieged areas. This mission, whilst my personal favourite account, is not the only incredible action Eckberg took part in. This book is packed with unbelievably brave decisions made in unimaginably dangerous situations.

I have read that USS Seawolf is America’s Das Boot, an almost unbelievable tale of war beneath the waves. The only real detractor from that statement is that Das Boot is a work of fiction and USS Seawolf is not. This book is another one that is worth a bit of time to read. If the rest of the Uncommon Valor series is this good I can’t wait to read them all.

Overall Rating 9 out of 10