Thursday, 24 September 2020

Albanian Assignment by David Smiley (book review)

 Sapere Books are kind enough to send me free copies once in a while. This is one of those books and the review is from my Goodreads profile.

Albanian Assignment: The Memoir of an SOE Agent in World War Two (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley #1)Albanian Assignment: The Memoir of an SOE Agent in World War Two by David Smiley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was given freely for review by Sapere Books.

It's hard to imagine that lives like this are real. David Smiley was a young man who was an army regular at the outbreak of war. After service in East Africa he used his family influences (he was of noted stock) to join a commando corps and started his most extraordinary adventures. After missions in Abyssinia, Syria and Palestine he joined the Special Operations Executive and was parachuted into Albania to work with the locals against Italian and then German occupation.
What is most fascinating about these times is the underlying politics. Albania wasn't (isn't) a country of similar people. There are different ethnicities, tribes and religions with some being Muslim and some orthodox. Sadly, these differences in that region never seem to have settled and in my lifetime there have been tragic events in Kosovo against ethnic Albanians.
At this time communist forces are also trying to establish power in the region. The British government plays games behind the scenes trying to not only win the war but also influence the outcomes. Will we ever learn that arming groups with British weapons so often works against us? As we now know Albania entered Soviet influence and King Zog was exiled - it could so easily have been a similar story in Greece where civil war was also unfolding at the same time.
Back to Smiley - he is at the forefront of these events. He discusses with all parties in the field in an attempt to drive out the Italian and German forces. He moves around using false identities or disguises and at one point even has a lift in a car with a German soldier. All this despite speaking little Albanian and conducting many conversations in French. The sheer front of the man (and others alongside him) is phenomenal.
A strange and disconcerting aspect of the book, to me at least, is the cold bloodedness of war. While Smiley clearly describes with fondness certain dishes he ate, houses he stayed in and girls that served him the truly exciting events are tossed aside in the manner of "we laid a mine to disable a troop lorry and killed about 20 men as they jumped off". Simple as that, and yet the affection he had for a horse was enough that he showed real emotion at parting. I guess that's how soldiers are trained.
I really enjoyed these memoirs - the politics really drew me in, especially being of an age that remembers the Cold War of the 80s, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Balkan wars of the 90s. This is where it all started and it's not pretty reading for fans of British influence. Our soldiers are as incredible as ever, our politicians as inept. Greece avoided communism despite British aid, not because of it according to this book.
A great read for fans of politics and war history as well as those who want a true story of incredible heroism, this is a recommended read.

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Monday, 14 September 2020

The librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

 This book was a freebie from O2 rewards. You can win the copy I read at the end of the post.

The review is taken from my Goodreads profile. 

The Librarian of Auschwitz: Based on the True Story of Dita KrausThe Librarian of Auschwitz: Based on the True Story of Dita Kraus by Antonio Iturbe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It never decreases, the horror that a massacre of this scale by a civilised nation could have happened. That being born of a particular race can lead to systematic murder on a factory scale, using state of the art technology. That a nation so similar to our own could find enough willing participants to carry out the evil will of a nazi government.
Amidst the horror the camp inhabitants continued everyday life. Brave, intelligent souls worked hard to bring a routine to each day to keep up hope and spirits, especially amongst the younger children.
At Auschwitz the nazis set up a 'family camp' and the inhabitants of this camp worked. The intention was that this was the camp that the nazis would show the Red Cross if they visited in the hope of persuading them that they were behaving in accordance with international law. How they would explain the smoke and the chimneys is anyone's guess but the Red Cross didn't visit, nobody came until the end of the war.
14 year old Dita comes to the camp with her mother and father. Like many of the camp's inhabitants she is Czech. In the 'school' that is set up in the family camp she is the librarian, charged with looking after the 8 books that have been smuggled into the camp. She checks them out to the teachers, she repairs them and she hides them every night. The nazis know nothing of this as teaching is forbidden, books are forbidden and pencils are forbidden. But for all the evil in humanity there is a greater amount of ingenuity, of spirit, of determination and of love.
This is a novel based on the story of Dita. Many of the characters are real and the events are as described but worked in a storyline format. It is heartbreaking and sickening but also uplifting.

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Sunday, 6 September 2020

Life cycles of British and Irish butterflies by Peter Eeles

When your usual life of rock gigs, sport and nights out is taken away how does one stay sane and interested during a hot spell when driving out is a no-no? What new interests can a man find to take the place of NWOCR, football or trips to the pub, gallery or theatre?

Butterflies, that's what. This review is taken from my Goodreads page and shows how it captured my interest and gave me something to focus on each evening on my rambles out. I took some great photos too. Butterflies are the new rock n roll. 

Life Cycles of British and Irish ButterfliesLife Cycles of British and Irish Butterflies

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Scarlette Fever - a selection of songs

Karen Barrow (better known as Scarlette Fever) offers a song a day for 5 days for people subscribing to her newsletter. Described as 'country and pop-infused rock' I thought it worth a 'pop'.

Scarlette Fever's best known hit is 'Crash and Burn', a marvellous, powerful pop song that received plenty of air play when released in 2011. It's one of the songs here, a song to push yourself forward from the opening line 'when did you last do something for the first time?' through to the point of the song : 'so what if we crash and burn?' Who cares what happens, go for it. It's the best song of the downloads and deserved to be a bigger hit.

'Let the music save me' is a country style that could easily pass into a gospel song. It was written in Nashville and there's no hiding the influence of that place on an artist from Hertfordshire. The song is written against a burdgeoning acceptance of sexuality but also hints at the relationship with music. Scarlette Fever is a strong songwriter, musician and lyricist who has also suffered the worst of the the industry side of music. You can walk away from that industry but you'll never be able to leave a love of music and creativity. This is a slightly worthy song that you can see being used as a jam for musicians to end a festival.

'6ft woman' is another great pop song that belies a darker side as a chronicle of abusive relationships. In this case the betrayal of a lover and friend and drawing strength from the aftermath. I do love a rock song and this is a popped up rock song but actually structured like a storming dance classic. There's plenty of drums behind it but I'm sure this has been mixed and messed about with loads.

'Black and white' is another storming pop-rock that does Taylor Swift before Taylor Swift was a thing. A bitter, in your face song ending a relationship. You know how Swift uses music to get the last word? That's this song. I'm not comparing Scarlette Fever to Taylor Swift, I'm comparing Taylor Swift to Scarlette Fever. Great role models, strong female musicians that I'd so much prefer my daughter to be into than screaming at a boy band (and mine was a big Swift fan too when she was younger, it's worked out well!)

My mini-collection finishes with 'Forever', an acoustic slowy that's not generally my cup of tea. It's twee, a love-you-forever song that is as good as the million other songs in that ilk. Get this on your shortlist for wedding first dance suggestions.

I'll explore more Scarlette Fever songs and I'm sure there will be other storing pop tunes in there to find. I'm not overly keen on the gentler, slowed down love stuff but that's not because they are poor - I've just heard enough by now. What is good about the downloads is the little message that comes with them. They help you connect a bit more with the music and understand the person beneath.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Silently in the Night by Clayton Graham (book review)

This review is taken from my Goodreads page.

Silently in the NightSilently in the Night by Clayton Graham
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a free download from the author.

This collection of short stories feels like something of a 'jam session' from the author. Most of the stories are ideas put down on paper rather than carefully structured short stories in the traditional sense. Graham is a fan of traditional science fiction and there are plenty of representatives of the genre here, quick snapshots of a longer story. Indeed, there are chapters of two of Graham's published novels ('Milijun' and 'Saving Paludis') which hint at a better buy for your money. I'm afraid the others just didn't grab me. A decent short story still needs a beginning, middle and end for me to engage with it and most weren't that detailed and needed more. There are some good stories in there - the title story which opens the collection is a decent tale with a twist and and the closing story - 'Trapped' - a sweet story of love that finished thne book nicely. Of the sci-fi tales my favourite was 'Vanguard', a story that hints at something that could be explored further - like the dark side of the Moon where it is set. I'd have preferred to see those tales fleshed out bit and fewer stories.

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The Suicide Battalion: 46th Canadian Infantry on the Western Front (book review)

This review is taken from my Goodreads page.

The Suicide Battalion: 46th Canadian Infantry on the Western Front, World War One (Armchair general series)The Suicide Battalion: 46th Canadian Infantry on the Western Front, World War One by James McWilliams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a free review copy from Sapere Books.

Like many battalions from across the Empire, the 46th was formed from volunteers willing to leave their civilian lives and go half way across the world to fight for King and country. It is still amazing to think that people would be willing to risk their lives to fight for the protection of a country so far away. In fact, given that Great Britain only entered the war due to Germany's invasion of Belgium to get to France then these brave Canadians gave their lives to protect countries beyond Empire. When one looks back to the times though it has to be remembered that North American countries were younger, their generations of immigrants fewer and the ties to the 'old country' would be stronger. Canadians marched through French towns on the way to war wearing kilts and whisky was the drink of choice for officers.

First published in 1978 this book is meticulously researched and is able to include first hand accounts from men who were still alive at the time of publication. It is a harrowing read. Immensely so. The descriptions of the injuries, the manner of death of so many young men, the conditions under which they lived, slept, ate, fought and died are harsher than more recent accounts. There is no gloss her, fear and horror sit alongside bravery.

And what bravery. There are tales that spring from the pages of comic books, of dashing sergeants running and shooting from the hip; of men taking out a dozen Germans and capturing scores more. To me, though, the real bravery is just climbing up that ladder and walking towards the enemy and the 46th did it time after time after time. The Somme, Passchendaele, Vimy, Valenciennes, the list of battles at which they fought is incredible and yet those same boys from South Saskatchewan kept going back to the line and going again. This isn't crazed bloodlust, this isn't hardened soldiering, this is a group of farmhands and clerks following orders, overcoming fear and honestly talking of the confusion of battle.

The start of the book will be a joy for military history fans but the numbers of battalions and the administration of armies didn't do much for me but once they arrive in England and then on to France it picks up and is as honest an account of how horrific war is as I have ever read. Rum was a welcome relief on the frontline and I raised a glass to them several times during reading this book.

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Sunday, 10 May 2020

Classic Pop magazine - review

What you need in a lockdown is plenty of escapism and entertainment. For me, music and books rank equally at the top of my wellbeing needs. Telly, Netflix, YouTube and DVDs have played their part but pictures haven't featured as much as sounds and words. I'm surprised at myself that I haven't embraced my teenage self and fixated on video games, now's the perfect time.

Embracing music and nostalgia is the name of the game for Classic Pop magazine. With shops closed and people focussing on essential items they've done a decent thing and made a digital version available for free.

I love a music magazine. They bring songs and albums back into your head that you hadn't heard for ages or give you a new angle on songs you've known for years. For example - we all know Prince was a prolific writer and was always messing about with his songs but have you ever noticed that the verse structure to Manic Monday by the Bangles (wot he wrote) and 1999 is the same? I've owned both songs since the eighties and until it was pointed out I'd missed that too.

When you've got Simple Minds on the cover you're off to a good start. They were the first band I saw live on their Street Fighting Years tour (I'm not counting Tiffany at the Birmingham Bullring on her free 'mall tour') and the focus of this lead article is around that album, which I loved then and still do. Deacon Blue are on there too - another band I loved and saw and the soundtrack to my first proper relationship. I'm over it now, honest.

The articles are glossy and in depth, this is a quality magazine. The Ultravox article, for example, isn't just a trot through Ultravox's whole career but anchors on the Vienna album with song by song analysis.

Madonna, Huey Lewis, The Human League - are you spotting a connection? Whilst this is called 'Classic Pop' you have to look a bit closer for a tag line - eighties, electronic, eclectic. You won't get much from before or after the eighties unless it's part of a feature with an eighties focus such as the development of the LA scene or the great article on how the late eighties were dominated by commercials reissuing old classics - remember those jeans commercials?

It's a great read and the Pocket Mags app works well, apart from articles which flip round to go across 2 pages. When I turn my tablet round to read them the picture flips so you have to turn off auto-rotate just to read one page.

Keep Spotify handy while reading and this'll send youoff on a right old journey.

As I said at the start, I love a music magazine and this is a great read. Problem is, I stopped buying the magazines a few years ago as I couldn't keep up with the price. £5 - £6 is too much for me, although Classic Pop comes down to just over £4 if you subscribe. I get the reason, the amount of journalism and the production values probably mean that this isn't a high mark-up but  I think I'd rather the cheaper paper and fewer glossy pics of the golden days of Sounds, NME and Smash Hits. It's the words that are the strength, not the pics.

Albanian Assignment by David Smiley (book review)

  Sapere Books are kind enough to send me free copies once in a while. This is one of those books and the review is from my Goodreads profi...