Book Review: The Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander.

The Bitter Trade “A scurrilous tale, one which warns rather than elevates, of title without value and no noblesse”




Paperback: 432 pages

Publisher: Tenderfoot (12 Jun 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 099286450X
ISBN-13: 978-0992864507

Calumny Spinks. A crass, grimy unholy no-good, who by all rights should have ended up in a red coat or at the end of a noose, but by stint of his unfortunate luck, unfortunate breeding and unfortunate parentage ends up saddled as the hero of Piers Alexander’s debut novel Bitter Trade.

To say the hero is an anti-hero is to achieve high levels of understatement, if his life had not so far been a succession of cruel disappointments and calamities, so much so that he must be pitied, he would be the sort of guttersnipe true villains are made of. However I was pleased to see that the hero is accurately portrayed with some religious belief and prejudice common to the time, he’s not going to please many Catholic readers but I doubt Protestants are overjoyed with Perez Reverte’s brilliant Alatriste novels.

But as it is, his predicament is not his own doing, and it is because of this that one identifies with, him by commiserating with him. He inherits the sins of his father, whose secrets trap him as a nobody with no future, and so, angry at the world and eager to use anyone he can to become someone, he uses his smart mouth and striking looks (yes he’s irresistible to women) to cheat debt, death and ignominy. Alexander paints this likeable and unlikeable boy well, at war with the world and a mass of contradictions, he is a character well created.

The story is set against the “Glorious Revolution of 1688” and anyone who decides to set a novel in these usually overlooked times deserves a clap. Calumny and his associates are entangled in a mysterious web of intrigue and treason, the heart of which is artfully concealed, allowing for many twists and turns to keep you wondering what will happen next.

The book is a pseudo memoir, giving it immediacy, thus the language is deliberately archaic, but it is un-honeyed, threatening and hard in tone, and you shouldn’t get lost, and there are also modern plot devices to act as direction markers if you do. Coffee as you’d expect plays a central role, but its more the people who sell the bean rather than the drink itself that the book centres on.

It’s very well paced, flowing with the smoothness of java, even when things get complicated. It’s slow at first, then picks up speed and clarity, its chapter structure made it able for me to slice through chapters at a fast rate. It’s got a solid niche story, mostly rooted in history with bags of plot,  (enough to fill a coffee warehouse), lots of intrigue, grime and general sordid doings, vivid characters, and minute detail.

I think I could give a very precise guess at where one would look to find Calumny in 15 years, but I shall follow the example of so many of the shadowy characters in this book and keep it to myself. I shall look at you over my shoulder with a knowing smile and tap my nose secretively, then disappear into the shadows.

Happy reading.


Book Review: Toward the Setting Sun by David Boyle

There need to be more narrative histories of the 15th century. In my opinion Europe had not seen so much change and upheaval since the fall of Rome as it did in this turbulent time.
This was a period defined by immense change and progress, a time of cataclysmic warfare, of the Renaissance and of world changing discoveries. Few eras have such a resonating echo down to modern times, and few events such an impact as the European discovery of America.

Format: Kindle Edition618yrPfUGhL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_
File Size: 2145 KB
Print Length: 494 pages
Publisher: Endeavour Press (12 Aug 2014)
Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
Language: English

In David Boyle’s “Towards the Setting Sun” you get a good narrative history that intertwines the lives and achievements of the great European explorers, Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci, with the backdrop of the rich tapestry of 15th century Europe.
Boyle tells the story well, no easy task given the state of Europe in this time, refining it down to the spheres that his three main subjects lived in. The early chapters deal with their rise and struggle for funds and patrons to finance their costly and honestly insane voyages. While reading about Columbus I was reminded of some inventor or young entrepreneur building a business plan and attempting to convince multi millionaires to back them. Not quite the Apprentice or Dragons Den, but that’s essentially what he was doing.
His vignettes of people and places are evocative and entertaining and quite witty in some places, though I would never describe Ferdinand II of Aragon as a “striking figure, tall and good looking” to me he looks more like my image of Sancho Pança, but in general I liked his style. Of the three, Vespucci comes out the best, Columbus is more glamorous and controversial and Cabot the most mysterious.
The book is separated into long chapters, each subdivided handily into 3 smaller parts, in turn separated into smaller sections. It’s unlikely to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the age of discovery or these three remarkable men, but it does put the age of discovery squarely in the context of the time, and these men’s stories in the context of each other, and it’s packed with information.
In that sense, this is a book is also about the “Scramble for America” or what some people thought was the Indies, with Portugal, Spain and England all racing west to find a shorter route to Asia, and then accurately identify the unknown west. Readers will find much more than tales of discovery, adventure and seamanship, it seems to sway backwards and forwards from the tales of the three discoverers to the courts of Europe, and I must say I actually found myself preferring the parts about the scheming plotting princes, something I didn’t expect. Doubtless others with more knowledge would challenge some of his assertions but I very much . All in all this is a good, lively account of how Europe looked west to find the east, and unexpectedly found out there was more to the world than had been hitherto thought.

Happy Reading


Book Review: French Guardsman versus Russian Jaeger 1812-1814 Laurence Spring.

Paperback: 80 pages

Publisher: Osprey (20 Nov 2013)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1782003622

ISBN-13: 978-1782003625


Last year I read War and Peace. When I was finished I was overcome with a very strong desire to learn more about the Russian “Patriotic” war against Napoleon. So I did what any self respecting military history enthusiast would do, I went to my nearest Osprey Publishing carousel and began spinning.


Each Osprey series offers different things. Campaign gives you Battle’s and commanders, Men at Arms uniform and organisation, Warrior and Elite, penetrating insights into specific unit types. It is in fact possible to build up highly detailed pictures of particular campaigns by taking from all the series, as by now most compliment the other.

Osprey’s newest series; Combat, offers a front line view of battle from a boots on the ground point of view, giving a real picture of what happens after the General says “Take that hill”. The Osprey series’ have become much more detailed since their founding and these slim, highly illustrated 80 page volumes prove that.

Russian Army expert Laurence Spring has in my opinion written the finest of the series’ first wave. Examining the experiences of French Young Guardsmen from the 1st 2nd and 14th Voltiguers and their counterparts from two Lifeguard Jaeger units (Including the superb Finland regiment) and the 19th Jaegers through three battles. Krasnyi 1812, Leipzig 1813 & Craonne in 1814.

The book is broken down in traditional Osprey fashion into 10 sections:


Opposing Sides




Analysis and Conclusion

Unit Organisations

Orders of Battle

Select Bibliography


Notes are inserted into the text, which is well spiced with first hand accounts and really takes you to those deadly fields. One of the best parts apart from the excellent battle descriptions is the insights into the Russian & French army, especially the former. People like me who more often than not end up digging deeper into the Peninsular War and Waterloo, don’t get as many chances to see what was going on in other army’s and the level of detail crammed into this book was a delight.

Another reason this is the best of the first wave is the superb illustrations by Mark Stacey. Two double page spreads put the reader right in the front line, the specially commissioned artwork, creating the impression of literally being in the picture. One is in double perspective, first the reader is a Russian Skirmisher ready to cover his parter once he has fired, the other they are in the  congested French ranks, handing a newly loaded musket to a wild eyed Voltiguer. The second spread you are a French Guardsman rushing, bayonet fixed into a deadly melee to wipe put a small pocket of stranded Russians. Stacey’s composition and attention to detail is unreal, almost as if you were in a 1st Person Napoleonic Shootemup game.

The accompanying period images that illustrate the rest of the book, at an average of 2-3 a page are brilliantly chosen, and some are in colour, the best being the portrayals of Russian infantry uniforms towards the front. Maps are clear and are accompanied with detailed subtext.

In summary this is an excellent book and well worth the money if you are a Napoleon Wars enthusiast.


Book Review: The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones.

Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Faber & Faber (4 Sep 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0571288073
ISBN-13: 978-0571288076

The name Hollow Crown is not an uncommon one, but then Shakespeare has a knack of repeating himself in modern life and Historians like to help him along.
I am coming to find that Faber & Faber can be relied upon to produce a good quality book, everything is here to make a reader feel satisfied long before he reads the first sentence. Yet again I happily report that there is none of the awful gold embossed lettering that rubs off as you read, the somber brooding cover is another typical theme found in medieval books. The harsh steel of the lettering and the sharp edge of the all evocative rose tells of hard violent times within.

There are 372 reading pages which gives a manageable chunk of reading, while still offering notes, index etc, and at the front there are 3 black and white maps and an introduction. The midway oasis of images take up 8 pages, with an average of 2-4 pictures per page, they include portraits and manuscripts that reinforce key characters and points found in the book.

The wars of the Roses are perhaps more easily understood by a secular society than some others. These were not like the later Religious wars that convulsed Europe as its head broke into the light of the renaissance from the Medieval Sea. These wars were motivated by emotions familiar to any regular soap opera watcher, power, greed and revenge playing principle parts, though they didn’t initially start that way.

Perhaps this is why this tumultuous series of conflicts, the biggest until the Civil Wars of the 17th century, have remained a conscious part of Britain’s history. There can be no doubt though that they were nation shaping events, as well as nation shaking times. Thanks to Shakespeare most of us think we know the broad strokes of the Wars of the Roses, yet do we really?

Author of Plantagenets Dan Jones shows that we don’t know it all. He shows that these wars were essentially born out of the end of the 100 years war, after the death of Henry V a guiding direction was lost, and the lacklustre reign of Henry VI, whose inablitly to rule effectivly in the wake of the collapse of te English Kingdom of France, caused a power struggle between the great lords vying to prop him up.

All the while the Tudors slowly step more and more into the limelight while the Plantagenets begin tearing each other apart, then finally take the stage. The road to the 1st Battle of St Albans is well told. Making clear a tortuous path of typically complex medieval manoeuvring, between the King, his wife Margaret, and the Dukes of Suffolk, Somerset and York. The seesaw nature of these protracted conflicts makes for exciting reading and all the big battles are there, their consequences to see.

Here we see that these wars of the roses, occurred not as a direct attempt to steal the crown, but it all began to hold together a crumbling kingdom that had once seemed the most secure in all the world. The steps taken by the emerging factions of York and Lancaster grew into a self perpetuating downward spiral of increasing hostility, that created a monstrous vendetta and suddenly the entire kingdom was drawn into a titanic struggle not to save the Kingdom, but for the crown itself, which cost many countless lives. Eventually destroyed them both and made way for the Tudors.

It would be a mistake to underestimate just how much the Tudor’s have influenced our view of this time. Let it not be forgot that Shakespeare was a Tudor bard and told his stories with that prejudice in mind. This is not so here.

The course of the Wars are vividly and excitingly told, and their results are often as poignant as they are glorious, the array of battles that mark their course fall into place in the tale, some might have heard of Towton or Bosworth but there aren’t many contemporary books that put them in their place amongst the others, thus book does this and it’s great to be able to be able to put it all together. I’m a little unsure how the author has decided that a poleaxe and a bill are the same weapon, though certainly part of the same polearm family, but that was the only thing that made me raise an eyebrow.

A modern history of the Wars of the Roses is a nice thing to see appear on bookshelves. The recent interest in Richard III fairly pleads for new popular scholarship and this book will answer many questions. It is a good overview, nicely spiced with detail and you don’t need to be an expert, or someone with much previous information to enjoy it or learn from it. The Hollow Crown is a great read for anyone interested in a real “Game of Thrones”.


Book Review: San Juan 1898 by Angus Konstam.



Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (16 Nov 1998)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1855327015
ISBN-13: 978-1855327016

Osprey books are some of the most invaluable references for military history available and I have always considered their campaign books to be some of their finest products. These slim little numbers offer concise yet detailed accounts of military actions, both large and small, famous and obscure from Ancient Egypt to the present day, and should be the first port of call for people wanting to get to know the nuts and bolts of any conflict.

All Osprey books have a similar appearance, but this appearance has changed over time, I picked up a 1997 edition of San Juan 1898 second hand. Back then the Campaign books were more individualistic and mostly black. Nowadays they still have the broad frontispiece picture on the front but the differing series’ are identified by colour bands, orange for campaign and so on.

Osprey Books are divided into sections. All these are present and correct and are helpful to break down the actions described. Classic examples, familiar to fans of the Osprey range are:

Origins of Campaign
Opposing Commanders
Opposing armies
Plans of Campaign
The Campaign
Battlefields today
Orders of Battle

The author is Angus Konstam, one of the veteran Osprey writers and one of the finest in the pool. This is reflected in the lucid text, full of detail and verve, generously salted by first hand snippets. As anyone with basic knowledge will know, the San Juan Hill is more than the name suggests, and all the ancillary actions that made up the battle are included, as well as the skirmish at Las Gossimas and the Naval battle of Santiago, but the battle at Fort McCalla is only briefly mentioned. The Rough Riders feature prominently along with the 9th and 10th Cavalry and 71st US Infantry. The Spanish side, and the Cubans, also get a word in, not as big a word as the US, but that is to be expected. He makes a slight misjudgement when asserting the Spanish had not fought a regular army since the Napoleonic Wars, but on the whole slip ups like that are not to be found.

Osprey books are heavily illustrated, catering to the little kid still playing toy soldiers inside most of us, we like to see the pictures. Amongst the text and on 99.99 percent of all pages are scattered many images that accentuate the flow of the descriptions and help carry it along. This one has some very fine images, one of my favourites, besides the classic image of Teddy Roosevelt and his men on top of San Juan Hill, is the image of the 1st Marine Battalion raising the Stars and Stripes over Fort McCall at Guantanamo Bay just after landing, a pre Iwo Jima moment if you will.

The best part about Osprey books, and the Campaign series in general, is the large specially commissioned two page art and high detailed 3D maps that form the centrepieces of the books. The 2D and 3D maps contradict each other once, but as usual are very well done, if old fashioned, in this book. David Rickman illustrated this one with a colourful and energetic series of eye catching paintings that show the old Osprey habit of packing books full of commissioned images, the best are the Advance up the Camino Reale and the Defence of El Caney. They are not exceptional, not the level you get with Graham Turner, the late Angus McBride or Steeve Noon for example but their quantity is very refreshing.

This is a very good overview of the campaign and it has all that I require in an Osprey book, detailing how the campaign that set America on course to become a world power unfolded.

Happy Reading!


Book Review: Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang.




Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: Vintage (3 July 2014)
ISBN-10: 0099532395
ISBN-13: 978-0099532392

If I hadn’t suddenly taken an interest in the Last Emperor of China I would probably have never read this book. I had seen it as an imposing hardback as I passed stacked book of the month tables, and had even picked it up, but I didn’t feel curious about late Imperial China at that moment & I had never heard of Empress Dowager Cixi, let alone Jung Chang.
Suffice to say things changed, and a combination of finishing Julia Lovell’s Opium War and stumbling onto the story of Puyi, I saw Chang’s book for half price and quickly decided that if I was to read about the Last Emperor, the story of Cixi would be invaluable to me. How right I was.

The biography is of Empress Dowager Cixi, a concubine who became a regent, who ruled the largest population in the world for much of her life, and also the oldest empire in the world, needless to say, change came hard to China. By a quirk of fate Cixi would take responsibility for setting this ancient kingdom onto the road to becoming a modern state.

If Cixi had been a western monarch she would probably have been remembered as one of the greatest that ever lived. But being Chinese, a woman and being part of the imperial hegemony that ruled China for almost 300 years, she became a victim of communist revisionist historians, who painted her as either a tyrant or hopelessly inept.

Chang seeks to redress the balance. Convincingly showing how Cixi brought Medieval China out of the past and into the future. She herself was a medieval mind trying to find a way in a 19th century world. The author is clearly sympathetic to her subject, fearlessly defending Cixi to critics, yet boldly detailing her flaws, forcing you to look at the Empress Dowager as she was, liking her at first, recoiling from her near the end and finally finishing with a newfound respect for her, this book has an eloquent balance of light and shade and is a beguiling read.

The book offers a complete picture of her. A very detailed look into a lost wold, uneven chapters weave strong images in your mind, sometimes focusing on a small facet of her personality, then diving into one of the sweeping periods of her life, the little details bring her to life. The faint fragrance of greenwood and apples, fresh flowers in a Manchu coiffure and many other little treats make this a literary feast.

In the end I found it very easy to be impressed by Cixi. Despite her detractors she comes off no worse than some Roman Emperor’s or Elizabeth I for that matter, right now, revisionist historians are taking second looks at people like Caligula & Nero, so a fresh look at Cixi is more than overdue. I think she fascinated people when she was alive, and I think that by the end of this book, you will be fascinated by her too.

Happy Reading.


Book Review: The Opium War by Julia Lovell.

Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Picador (2 Sep 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0330457470
ISBN-13: 978-0330457477 cover

Appearance and handling:
The rich red dust-jacket fairly jumps from any shelf it is placed on. A delicate, significance laden, Poppy graces the front over a scene from the first war. The hardback is heavy and definitely a showy number but be careful how you hold it, because the publishers unwisely went with embossed guilt lettering, not only on the front but on the spine as well, which rubs off removing all but subtle traces of the writing. I’ve tried different hand postures but the only ones that work are very uncomfortable. Inside it’s got some nice illustrations in two sections, with the usual ratio of pictures to page, relatively generic maps of course, and a few black and white images scattered in between.

A more accurate name for this book would have been: “The Opium War, Causes & Consequences.” In that the main focus is not so much on the conduct of the wars, but the trigger mechanisms, socio-political ramifications and cultural significance of the conflicts.

Julia Lovell does a fine job of this and convincingly show’s how China was violently thrust into the modern world, and how, later, it took control of its past to secure its destiny. Initially the British and the Chinese face off as two nations, each imbued with its own sense of moral, cultural and racial superiority, both unwilling to understand or compromise with the other.

Triggered by the hot topic of the Opium trade, the ensuing clashes of arms leaves China with its moral superiority intact, but very little else, and a bruising road of rebellion, revolution and reform begins, which, due to the ideological hijack of the historical record by the Communist party, all leads back to the Opium War, which is at the root of Chinese attitudes to the world.

The book tries to encompass quite a large subject into a short space, 361 reading pages by my count, the rest is notes, index and maps. Not only does Lovell try to tell the tale of the Opium Wars but she also includes the Taiping & Boxer Rebellions, an interesting study of how “sinophobia” gripped the west in the late 19th century, and even a skim over the tumultuous events of the 20th century too.

This book therefore is perfectly good for a reader, new to the subject as I was, and wants an overview of the causes and of how they impact the world today. Despite its name though, the book is not a military history.

Comment on the lack of the sort of detail in the battle’s and campaigns military historians would prefer I will omit, I have already said this is not actually a military history. Suffice to say that “Breech loading percussion muskets” were not used against the Chinese by the British army in the 1840’s and it was not a company of the 37th Foot that got surrounded during the Sanyuanli Incident, it was one from the 37th Madras Native Infantry.

The main bulk of the text is taken up with what I have called causes and consequences, and the 1st war, the second getting but a chapter, but this is because the 2nd War was not directly caused by Opium, not in the same way the first was, and hardly merits the name, note the name of this book is not pluralised.

I believe this book will give a reader a good comprehension of the effects of European interference in China, and of the many varying factors that affected the decisions and actions of the participants involved, it will also show you how China’s modern journey began.


My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek book review.

Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (7 May 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0374135061
ISBN-13: 978-0374135065



I have now come to the conclusion that most if not all of those Dinosaur Encyclopaedias that I got when I was a kid were outdated by the time they even got on the shelves. This is just one of the realisations I have come to after reading “My Beloved Brontosaurus” by Brian Switek.

It’s a slim volume with dazzling cover art that realises every Dino fan’s most nurtured dream, the author crouching in the benign posture, with a bouquet of lush swamp flowers in his hand, and looking up with curiosity and affection at the giant head of an appreciative Brontosaurus that is gently taking the popular palaeontologists offering with the grateful sincerity I have often seen in doting horses.

If you get the hardback edition then this touching cover folds out into a poster, that is double sided and shows the reality of the scene, as Brian looks on at a museum display in a vast grey hall, imagining the other side.
It is lightly illustrated with some quirky black and whites, and each chapter has a nice National Geographic feature piece feel to it.

You shouldn’t feel too sad about the duality of the cover though, because this is a wonderful book, and you will probably enjoy every page you turn to. The more modern history of the human race distracted me from my own Dino Mania sometime after 2005, (a subject I might well write about some time now I’ve read this), but re-caught the Mesozoic-palaeo bug (some of which you will literally encounter in these pages) sometime last year, after my latent Dinosaur interests slowly rebuilt itself.

This book therefore is excellent for those of you who lost track of our scaly (and now not so scaly) friends and want to sit down and ask “So, what’s new?”. I must say I enjoyed catching up with my old compadres and meeting some new ones, through this book. Even though I was never a fan of Brontosaurus; I am much more of an Iguanodon man, and have been before they were movie stars in Disney’s Dinosaur. My own prejudice aside this is also a great book if you want a concise overview of how our view of Dinosaurs have changed from the 80’s (and sometimes a little further back) to 2012. That’s right, buy it fast, before this book, like all those sometimes poorly illustrated discount “Big Book” of Dino’s, too becomes outdated. What else is it? It’s a real Palaeontologist talking about his job, and his own personal journey from his first encounter with the late lamented “Brontosaurus” to now, along the way, Dinosaur enthusiasts will not fail to connect with his many stories of growing up with Dino culture, and seeing how both creature and human changed and grew alongside each other as ideas and conceptions changed.

For those of us in Britain, this book, unlike the only other work of popular Palaeontology that I have ever seen in this country, (Dino Gangs), this little jaunt through time is going to have to be another dent in the mainstream book store market, as it is only available offline (that I have seen) in the US, for about $26, nevertheless I highly recommend it for those of you who now want a little bit more from your Dinos than the standard bargain, top trumps stat titles offer.

You will not regret going “On the road with old bones, new science, and our favourite Dinosaurs” (I’m just happy he mentioned Iggy a few times)