EASTERN APPROACHES : The Memoirs of the Original British Action Hero by Fitzroy Maclean

 How to sort the men from the boys... that's what we are sort of lead to believe going to war does to people - boys to men. It would seem that every now and again someone misses the boy stage, war turning the man into a superman. We don't have any heroes in our current society, people with extraordinary makeups, resilience, focus, optimism, leadership skill, people who dazzle us, who inspire  us, make us want to do better. This is that person - Sir Fitzroy Maclean and this is his story in his own words. 500 odd pages only covers eight years from 1937 to 1945, but this is a lifetime when you think about everything that happened in those eight years. Living at the bottom of the world I don't feel too surprised that I have never heard of this man, but looking at online reviews of this autobiography it seems most of the readers hadn't heard of him either. His life, his exploits, his composure, his achievements, his understated and humble manner completely belie the brilliance of this man's mind and intellect. Apparently he was the inspiration for Ian Fleming's character of James Bond - fearless, strong, manly, handsome, charming, a survivor!

The title makes this sound a bit like a school boy romp,  a boy's own sort of thing, with a bit of a rake telling stories. It is not. Born into Scottish landed gentry, raised in a strong military family, well-educated, an action life was on the cards from birth. He became a diplomat, determined to get a posting to Moscow so he could fulfil a long lived dream of travelling through the lesser known parts of the USSR. Through various dubious means and sheer determination he does get to travel around - for once the journey is every bit as interesting and fascinating as the destination - and finds himself in Moscow during one of the worst purges of the Stalin regime. His account is terrifying and blinding in how it unfolds. 

He then decides he wants to go to war rather than sit in an office being diplomatic. Using his endless charm he wrangles his way into the army, and after basic training, becomes part of the newly formed SAS,  setting out on his next big adventure to Cairo and the desert war. Fantastic fly on the wall stuff, so much sand, Germans around every dune. It's riveting. His exploits catch the eye of PM Sir Winston Churchill, who appoints Fitzroy his personal envoy to work with General Tito and the communist partisans in order to oust the Germans. This section is also fantastic, his writing totally understating the terror, the hand to mouth existence they lived, the fight to the death courage of the partisans.

This is a big book, very detailed and vivid in its telling. Definitely not bed time reading as a bit of concentration is required to absorb all the brilliant detail. But so worth the time taken in reading it. What a man, what a life, amazing.  





 

OUR BODIES, THEIR BATTLEFIELD by Christina Lamb

 I think this woman, Christina Lamb, is incredible. She has her own Wikipedia page! And an OBE! She is one of a rare breed - a female war correspondent who somehow seems to combine the telling of the horrors and truly awful stuff of war with intense compassion and humanity for the people she writes about. She tells it all with a remarkable sense of urgency, which make her stories compelling, almost taking your breath away. And leaving you drained if you read too much in one go! I have read a number of her books, each one is better than the previous. I was living in India at the time of President Benazir Bhutto's assassination - to me her return to Paksitan seemed like a death wish; lo and behold such a short time later she was dead. I later found out that Christina Lamb was with President Bhutto when she was killed, and reading her account of this awful day made the whole catastrophe so much more powerful. 

In this book, with its brutal title and beautiful cover, she has tackled the ghastly business of rape as weapon of war. Not only to brutalise the victims - both male and female, although she focuses almost entirely on females - but to also defeat, destroy complete populations and communities with the damage done to women and girls. I am sure I read somewhere in this book that in no time previous has rape been used as an instrument of war so extensively as it has in the 20th and 21st centuries. This is very sobering and at times painful reading, but also compelling, knowledgable, and as Christina Lamb does so well, involving herself in the communities/camps/war zones/villages/hospitals she is privileged enough to enter. 

Yet again we are horrified by the awful awful things human beings do to one another. No age or stage of life is immune from being raped in some way by men. Her geographical reach is diverse, extensive and yet the female population is the same the world over, as are the avenues of power that men have. Argentina, Bosnia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Congo, Burma, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Spain, Syria, Yazidi. You already know by these countries the types of conflicts taking place, and the terrible subjugation of the local populations. 

She records the stories of survivors, visits the sites of the atrocities, speaks to organisations and individuals involved in helping, her support of campaigns to even get the initial and vital step of rape recognised as a war crime, the success and otherwise of the war crime prosecutions. She says this is a battle that she will never stop writing about or investigating. Even recent decisions in some US states to overturn women being able to access abortions has made her fear for the health and rights of women in supposedly the most advanced economy/society in the world. 

We know, as women, that females will always be used as a pawn, as a weapon, as a second class citizen with minimal rights in many many societies. We may be enlightened in our safe Western world, but millions and millions of women and girls are not. They won't have heard of #MeToo.  It is unlikely we can do anything really to change the situation, but at the very least, by reading a book such as this,  we are informed. 




CITY OF VENGEANCE by D.N. Bishop

We love a detective with an irascible personality, an interesting and possibly dodgy back story, often a loner, burdened with a challenging underling or offsider, challenging crimes to solve, sometimes involving dangerous situations to sort it all out. And when the writer gives you a setting that is quite outside the usual scenario, we may well have a winner of a novel, and in this case, perhaps a new series  featuring this new detective. 

This novel is set in Florence, the winter of 1536, with the Medici family cementing their rule of the city. Alessandro is the first hereditary Medici ruler, and spends much of his time juggling the various threats to his rule, the court and its manipulative minions and the people of the city itself. Our hero is a former soldier, now an officer of the greatly feared criminal court, going by the marvellous name of Cesare Aldo. He lives in  rooms attached to a brothel, he has few friends and has his own juggling of threats to his existence to contend with. 

The story opens with him escorting an elderly Jewish banker on a journey back to Florence after some business in another city. An ambush immediately alerts Cesare to something sinister going on with the banker, and then when he is later found murdered, Ceasar is charged with finding out who is responsible. In the process he also unearths a plot to assassinate the Duke, which no one seems to want to know about, leaving him and his offsider to try to prevent the assassination occurring. 

So a great story line, with intriguing and well formed characters. But wait there is more. The setting of time and place is wonderfully depicted and described. Living in a Renaissance city was a horrible existence for 90% of the citizens. Poverty, squalor, disease, complete lack of hygiene, brutal. All the ghastly stuff. There is a character who is a doctor - fascinating to read how daily medical care was carried out, how an operation was done. This author has a terrific eye for putting the reader in the story, almost living and breathing the ugliness and violence of it all. I am very much looking forward to Cesare Aldo's second outing. 

THE PULL OF THE STARS by Emma Donoghue

 Emma Donoghue showed in Room how much story could be told in a tiny physical space, a truly memorable reading experience of how a life can be made in a single room. The room in this novel is not much bigger - containing 3 beds for pregnant women very closely set together, a small clearly overloaded table/sink/shelf unit for towels, cleaning, hygiene products. paper work, medicines. Plus two nurses. As if that is not bad enough, it is 1918, in Dublin, bang in the middle of the world wide influenza pandemic. Did you know the word 'influenza' is part of a longer phrase, from Italian in the 15th century,  meaning influence of the stars? No one knew where flu came from, so it had to be from the stars/heavens/God. 

Julia Power is a midwife. Because she has had the flu and recovered, she is one of a handful of nursing staff able to care for patients with flu. Flu-ridden pregnant women are in a ward of their own - this tiny 3 bed space. Medical care and supplies are pretty rudimentary in early 20th century Dublin, so Julia has to do a lot with very little. Plus being a nurse, she is not allowed to make important care decisions such as pain relief without a doctor being present. Few and far between during a pandemic. The one doctor who does do her best is a woman also - most unusual for these times. She has been involved in the revolution of a few years before, and is still a wanted woman by the authorities. Assisting Julia is a young orphan girl, Bridie, who has her own sad story that gradually emerges in the pressure cooker room. 

The novel covers  a period of maybe 2 days. During this time, these women work frenetically to keep their patients alive, to deal with births of babies, the inevitable deaths, the complications of pregnancy and birth while suffering from a deadly flu. It is edge of the seat stuff. The author has thoroughly researched the period and place, her writing so vivid and clear you can almost smell the disinfectant, sweat, pain and fatigue of the make shift delivery room. The lives of these women is also carefully told - the appalling living conditions most families had to contend with, the insane number of babies these women gave birth to under the ridiculous pretext that you haven't made it as a mother/woman/wife until you have given birth 12 times. There are also some interesting male characters, all of whom have returned from the war damaged in some way.

Such a beautifully told story of finding meaning in life, and finding love in the most dreadful circumstances. My favourite Emma book so far. 


THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB by Richard Osman


 There I was thinking this was going to be another feel good novel about elderly isolated people - widowed, living away from families, newly arrived in a retirement home, who through friendship and kindness find themselves and a life with meaning. A gentle, well-meaning aww sort of story. Well yes, there is some of all this, but it is so much more, putting the novel in quite a different category from those others. 

The elderly characters are elderly in age alone in this novel. Together, Elizabeth who probably worked for MI5 or 6 or similar,  ex-psychologist Ibrahim, ex-nurse Joyce, and ex-trade union leader/political agitator Ron, are super sleuths who spend their time solving cold cases that their leader - ex high ranking detective Penny - now in a coma in the hospital part of the retirement complex - wants to see solved. These elderlies are all fantastic characters. Complex, intelligent, incisive, very different from each other, they meet weekly in the Jigsaw Room to solve crimes. 

There is also a new detective on the block at the local police station. She becomes involved in the Thursday Murder Club when a local developer is found murdered with a mysterious photo by his side featuring three men. One of the men is the owner of the retirement complex they all live in, another of the men is Ron's son. Suddenly the club is working on its first live case! 

This story walks a finely balanced line between the sweet-oldies-in-the-retirement-home and a full on murder inquiry with plenty of twists, some danger, red herrings, excellent detective work and problem solving. There is never a dull moment in the writing - lots of humour, wry chuckling, a little subversive. I loved it especially because the characters - all of them - are just so well drawn and life like, and such great back stories that make these characters so real and endearing. It's a marvellous book, I hope there is a sequel. I would love to know more about what Elizabeth did in her professional life as a spy! 

STALIN'S WINE CELLAR by John Baker

If you like books with any or all of the following - history, travel, deception, politics, lost treasure, secrecy, and of course wine but not necessarily essential, then you will love this. John Baker is a wine expert of, it would seem, some repute in his native Australia and elsewhere who also happens to be an excellent raconteur of his adventures in the underground wine world. Specialising mainly in top end, rare and antiquarian wines, when this book opens in the 1990s,  he is the owner/operator of a wine shop in the wealthy area of Double Bay in Sydney. With his trusty side kick Kevin they make a great team in finding and investigating the provenance of wines, getting themselves into possibly shady business dealings with high flyers, with nothing more really than their gut feelings and extraordinary knowledge to keep their reputations and wallets intact.

One day John and Kevin find themselves sitting at the top of a Sydney high rise being told a crazy story about a wine cellar in Tbilisi, Georgia formerly part of the USSR, that used to belong to Josef Stalin. A very large part of these thousands and thousands of bottles apparently belonged to Tsar Nicholas II and dated as far back as the 1860s. All untouched since the 1950s at the very latest when Stalin died. This is like the Holy Grail of wine. Now the owners of the winery in Tbilisi want to sell the stash, and somehow John and Kevin have become the experts to do it. Do they want the job or not.? Is this a silly question or not?

What follows is truly outstanding. Not just in the facts of what happens over the next few years as the saga of the cellar slowly and tediously drags on, with the surprising twists in it, but in the way John Baker tells the story. Like a wide eyed child, he and Kevin have no idea what they are in for when they board that plane in Sydney airport whisking them to the other side of the world. To describe Tbilisi as the wild west is a hilarious understatement and the reader is just as mesmerised by it all as the Australians. We meet George - mysterious and unpredictable lead negotiator, a number of gun carrying hench men, or are they really something else? John and Kevin are captivated by the landscape of the city, the beautiful rundown old buildings, the spirit of the people. And of course the wine cellar - what a totally bewildering and mystical place that turns out to be, requiring our two heroes to draw on all their knowledge, gut instinct and subterfuge skills to find out what is really there. 

This had me gripped from the first page, had me laughing and smiling at the antics of many of the players, plenty of photos to look at and enjoy. From Sydney to Russia, to London to France. It is a ride and a half, and I fully expect the highlight of the careers of these two characters. 



THE LAST REUNION by Kayte Nunn

 Lots and lots of novels set in Europe, the UK about ordinary people during and after WWII. But very few, in comparison, set in Japan, China or what was then Burma, now Myanmar. The cruelty and ruthlessness of the Japanese armed forces to prisoners and civilians is very well documented, but there hasn't been the same tsunami of fiction coming out of this history. This one is all about a group that you have probably never heard of - the Wasbies - the Women's Auxiliary Service (Burma) which ran mobile canteens for the Allied soldiers involved in the Burma campaign - British, Australian, NZers, Canadians, Americans who made up the 14th Army. The Wasbies were mainly young women  - early 20s - looking for some excitement as well as wanting to make a contribution to the war effort. Having lived parts of their lives in British colonies such as Singapore, India, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, they were well suited to the climate and living conditions. But things were still very primitive, basic, at times dangerous but almost always exciting. Much of the detail in the story comes from the diary of one of the surviving Wasbies who wrote about her experiences in India and Burma with the 14th Army. Across thousands of miles of inhospitable jungle, mosquitoes, often in difficult conditions, and from time to time within the sound of the front line, these young women ran char and wads - tea and buns - mobile and static canteens providing the troops with a constant and reliable source of food and drink- all the things they were missing from home. 

Joining the Wasbies in the 1940s are Bea, Plum, Bubbles, Joy and Lucy. Very different personalities and life stories, they are thrown together, depending on each other for companionship, a shoulder to cry on, assistance in times of danger, sharing secrets, coping together. Not only do they have to cope with their living and sanitation conditions but also the amorous attentions from the soldiers - young and pretty women being very few and far between. The story is narrated from Bea's point of view - smart, hard working, a real asset to the team and to the Wasbies. 

In later years, 1974, Bea finds herself responsible for the disappearance of a rare piece of Japanese miniature wooden sculpture a netsuke. This special item becomes a key feature in the story, and in the relationships amongst the other characters, but it remains out of sight for many years.  In 1999 Bea finds that her home is beginning to fall apart around her, forcing her to bring the netsuke out for auctioning. But first provenance - that the netsuke is hers - has to be proved. How did she come to have this rare and expensive treasure? Into the picture comes Olivia, a young Australian woman who is an expert in Asian and oriental art. She is in living in London on her OE working for a ghastly woman, who despatches her to Bea's place to check out these items Bea wants to auction off. Things happen, resulting in Olivia and Bea striking up a friendship. Bea is an elderly woman by now, but has lost none of her feistiness. 

The reunion in the title refers to a New Year's party taking place in Galway at the end of 1999 at the home of fellow Wasbie Plum. Bea doesn't want to go, but to sort the provenance of the netsuke she has to, so she asks Olivia to go with her. 

Moving seamlessly between the two time periods, this is a really good story.  Great characters - the women are fearless, brave, terrified, funny, smart, positive, defiant. Olivia is a great character too, trying to find her feet in London, living the classic OE on rubbish pay, grotty flat, struggling to make friends. The Burmese jungle is a frightening and unknown place, the Japanese soldiers a constant threat and fear to everyone, Wasbies and soldiers alike. Yet somehow in all this chaos, danger, death, primitive living, they find love, friendship, dancing, laughter. Very uplifting, the power of friendship and shared experiences surviving 50 years.