S.J.A.Turney's Books & more Blog

Interesting and informative rambling

Facts about Fritz

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An unusual review of a little gem for you today. As you know I occasionally like to review the odd non-fiction work among the novels I read. Well the other day I came into possession of a copy of Facts about Fritz by Robin Schafer and Tim Hardy. Rob is a German military historian and consultant (and without doubt the most knowledgeable such I have ever come across) and Tim is a talented graphic designer. Together they have combined their skills to release this wonderful item.

If, like me, you have a passing knowledge of the First World War, mostly gained through school, holidays in northern Europe… and Blackadder, of course… then this book might prove as fascinating and informative to you as it does to me. If you are already an expert, it is pitched a little below your level to be honest, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having. Far from it.

Essentially, this book is 50 pages, with every two pages being an individual fact sheet on one aspect of the German army in 1914-1918. The production is superb. Glossy and beautiful, it’s a thing of beauty. But beyond that, it is chock full of period photographs, fascinating images of artefacts surviving to the present day, anecdotes and accounts from witnesses as well as the facts themselves as provided by the informed mind of Rob. The content varies from short factoids – such as

“Approximately 40,000 Messenger dogs operated with German units during the war.”

to letters written by the men at the front, to lengthy paragraphs detailing for instance the Reich’s Postal Service, to extracts from contemporary tales. All interspersed with appropriate imagery.


Subjects covered include such wide-ranging matters as the Iron Cross, Flags, Trench Newspapers and the Flying Circus.

The book is an objective and factual work on the army of the Kaiser’s Germany and should be fascinating to anyone who has even a passing interest in the era. The book costs £7.99 and is currently only available through Tim Hardy’s website HERE. I would also urge you to keep an eye on Rob’s site -  as well as being fascinating in general, he has another book on Fritz and Tommy coming out next year through the History Press and that will be worth grabbing.

Back with some more choice fiction for you in the next week. :-)

Written by SJAT

October 22, 2014 at 10:55 am

Pasha – Julian Stockwin

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I cannot tell you what a pleasure it is to be back at sea once again with Captain Thomas Kydd. Though the majority of my reading is of novels set in the ancient world or at most in the high medieval era, every now and then I like to dip into another era for a change, and Stockwin is fast becoming one of my absolute favourites.

If you’ve not read any of the Kydd series, I’d best warn you that you might not want to start with this volume, Pasha being the fifteenth book in the series. Of course, the bright side of that is that if you haven’t read any of them, I’m switching you onto not just one book, but 15.

Set in the late 18th to early 19th century, the series follows the nautical adventures of one Thomas Kydd, a low born southern Englishman who rises through the ranks of the British Navy, as well as those of his confidential secretary Nicholas Renzi. The first volume begins in 1793, meaning – those of you familiar with the era will probably already have thought of this – the reader has some of the most amazing and world-changing events to come.

So on to Pasha – Volume 15 – which takes place in 1807. After the disastrous debacle in South America from book 13 and the brief sojourn in the Caribbean in book 14, Kydd is called back to England. Fearing for his career and even legal repercussions after South America, our hero returns with his ship l’Aurore to face his doom. What he is returning to is far from what he expected.

More than any other book in the Kydd series I am fearful of giving anything away with Pasha. It is a book far too easy to spoil for the prospective reader, and so I shall attempt to tempt you without detailing too much plot.

As you might guess from the title, this book takes place in the Eastern Mediterranean – the domain of the Ottoman Empire. Sent east from the coast of Spain with orders to put himself at the disposal of the British ambassador in Constantinople, Captain Kydd finds himself at a critical moment in Ottoman history. Allied with both Britain and Russia, the Ottoman sultan is in the unenviable situation of being attacked by their Russian ‘friends’ while being wooed by their enemy the French. The British ambassador is desperate and nervous and on the verge of something precipitous, and Kydd is unable to do much more than do as he is told.

Throw into the mix a British nobleman acting as a spy and intriguer in the court of the Sultan, and things can only become more complex. At stake in this mess is the potential for Napoleon Bonaparte to secure an alliance with the Ottoman Empire and with it, a route for his forces into the wide world without having to break out past the British Navy. So no pressure, then?

Cue intrigue, races under fire, sea battles, imprisonment, escape, trickery, panic, land assaults and so much more in a switchback tale that is easily the best in the series and stands to be one of my top books of the year.

Incidentally, there is one scene in the book that will stay with me for a long time, because it reminds me very closely of one of my favourite movie moments of all time. Remember that scene in Das Boot, where the sub has been stuck on the bottom of the sea and manages to resurface but has to make a run through the Straits of Gibraltar on diesels, with the captain in the conning tower, yelling ‘Verdammt’ as he pounds his fist on the sub while guns blast from both sides? You don’t? Well now go out and watch that movie too! But there is a comparable scene in Pasha that held me with the same power.

Finally, I will say once again that Stockwin’s writing is among the most authentic in the field. Not only has he managed to get the feel of the era in his speech and descriptive, but his own history in the Royal Navy informs everything he writes and lends it an air of authority. Moreover, in addition to that wonderful prose and conversation, in this particular volume, he manages to add in the exotic heady culture of Ottoman Istanbul. It is a win, quite simply.

Kydd is back, and volume 15 is the best yet, full of surprises and excitement.

The book is out today. Go get it.

Written by SJAT

October 9, 2014 at 8:00 am

Praetorians in Sherburn

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Never fear, I have two reviews coming up shortly. Excellent stuff, too. But in the meantime, if anyone who reads my blog and lives in the north of England would like an evening of informative entertainment, I am running a talk on the infamous Praetorian Guard at Sherburn-in-Elmet library on Thursday 16th October ay 7:30 pm.


In addition to the talk (with some fun power-point imagery, some Roman kit to check out and a freebie) I will be around for Q&A and book signing afterwards.

If you have any interest in the ancient world, this could be a fun night. Come join me.


Written by SJAT

October 3, 2014 at 8:43 pm

Enemy of Rome

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Hi folks, sorry for the extended hiatus. A few books I couldn’t yet or wouldn’t review have combined with school holidays and then a punishing month of writing madly to schedule and resulted in little time to read, review or just plain whiffle. But recently I’ve been back to the reading again, and to get me started, I was spurred on by the resurfacing of an old fave…


Valerius Verrens is back, guys, and back with a bang! Those of you who are following the series will remember that book 4 (Sword of Rome) had ended in something of a cliffhanger, as though the book hadn’t ended but rather hit an advert break. Well ‘Enemy’ picks up seamlessly where ‘Sword’ left off, continuing to tell the story of the Year of the Four Emperors from Verrens’ point of view.

In my review of book 4 I analogised the plot with a pinball machine, Verrens being twanged and shot back and forth betweem protagonists and antagonists almost against his will, necessity and honour requiring that he surrender himself to his fate.

Well I would say that book 5 follows suit, but it wouldn’t be a fair analogy. For unlike the ordered, almost Machiavellian maoeuvering of the previous book, Enemy of Rome picks up the pace and feels more like Verrens is a stick caught in the current of a fast flowing river as it plummets over a fall. He keeps hitting rocks and getting caught in eddies, and all the time moves closer and closer to the precipice.

That’s the feeling. Doug continues to tell the story of one of Rome’s most fateful years with style and vision. Indeed, I found in this book something of the same world-changing prose that created the infamous ‘temple scene’ of book 1 that remains one of my favourite pieces of writing of all time. You see Doug tackles something not many people can write convincingly: a night battle. Oh it’s easy enough to write the mechanical aspect of such an event. But few people can convey the panic, the confusion and the dread involved in it. Doug has done that in spades. The battle scenes in this are masterpieces, and none more so than the night fight.

But enemy of Rome is more than a string of battle scenes. As I noted with my stick and current analogy, Verrens does not often get to play the same role for very long: prisoner, general, negotiator, spy, protector, besieger. Verrens plays his part in the wars that we knew were coming between Vitellius and the rising star of the era: Vespasian. But he will also play his part in the intrigues in Rome, where camps are polarising and the streets are unsafe, while the woman he loves is forced to play a careful game in the house of Vespasian’s brother, for that same house plays host to the vile Domitian.

I think probably the only problem I ever have with these books is that my view of Domitian sits at odds with Doug’s. I see him as a somewhat withdrawn and antisocial character, but an able administrator and a man with sense who was handed the reins of a runaway empire and managed to bring it to a halt. But then every good novel needs antagonists, and Domitian certainly fits the bill with the Verrens series. He is certainly a loathesome character in these books. But praise due in a similar vein for changing my view of another historical figure. My picture of Aulus Vitellius has always been drawn from the views of his opponents and successors, and the picture Doug paints of him is a truly sympathetic one that tugs at the heartstrings. Bravo Doug for your Vitellius.

The story rockets towards the conclusion, which is every bit as exciting and tense as a reader of Doug’s work has come to expect, all the time keeping the flavour and the plot alive, and even leaving time for the characters to grow as it progresses. And what of the end? Well obviously I won’t ruin things for you. No spoilers. But suffice it to say that unlike the cliffhanger of book 4, this book has something of a game-changing ending that might see book 6 when it arrives being something of a departure. I’m certainly looking forward to it, anyway.

In short, then, this novel is a strong component in the continual growth of the Valerius Verrens series and really will not let you down. Full of tension and fury, tortured honour, impossible love and dreadful inevitability, it will keep you riveted til the very end.

Read the book, folks.

Staymaker by Andy Millen

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Staymaker is the first book by indie author Andy Millen, and is something of a departure for my reading pile for, while it is in the strictest sense a historical novel, it is much more ‘gangland’ than ‘blitzkrieg’.

The novel revolves around the smuggling rackets of the mid 18th century – a time when the government duty on good such as rum and tea and bans on export of wool along with compulsory sales systems were making the poor poorer. Thus rose groups, gangs and families who were by the letter of the law criminals, yet considered themselves ‘free traders’ and were often hailed as something of a dark hero by local residents and the folk they supplied at vastly improved rates.

And therein lies something of what drew me to it.

This is not a straight tale of bad guys and good guys. Every man in Staymaker is a shade of grey (though some are darker than others.) The tale and the action that unfolds within will evoke memories of old movies, series and books that you have probably forgotten. Moonfleet. Poldark. Jamaica Inn. Even Treasure Island and kidnapped. That certain era of history. And it really does evoke it. It is a well-written, well-characterised and well-plotted novel that brings us the story of a gang and its leaders who bear in many ways a resemblance to the Krays of the mid 60s in East London. Yes they were dangerous and even murderous men. But to the folk who lived around them, there was a certain respect (speaking as a man who has family who lived around them) for the levels of control they kept which prevented random crimes from afflicting the common folk.

I feel certain that you will experience the time and the location through the telling of the tale, and certain scenes are so nicely put together that they are almost cinematic.

The one negative point I must raise for a fair review is that the proofing of the book is a little lacking and would benefit from a solid edit (an issue that is a common hiccup with the indie writers and of which I myself have fallen afoul before now.) Typos, incorrect words occasionally and regular misplacings of speech marks were notable and for that I dropped the book from a 5 star to a 4 star rating. But I feel sure that with the next release that extra star will not be found wanting – as with other indie writers clearing up edits and rereleasing is a simple thing and I expect Millen will release a version 1.1 in the near future. And it is nothing but a hiccup in the scheme.

So that’s my thing. Buy Staymaker and read it for a thoroughly engrossing tale of the seedy underbelly of 18th century trade and familial wrenches through the gangs of the south east. You will, I’m sure, be transported back to an era of secretive signals and hidden trade.

Nice one, Andy. I look forward to seeing what next bleeds from your quill.

Written by SJAT

August 7, 2014 at 11:39 pm

And a book is born…

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From time to time, I find myself discussing methods of research, planning and writing with other literary folk, and I thought it would be interesting to try and put the whole thing down on paper (so to speak.) And here it is in all its gory. It may interest you. It may not. But it’s interested me, so there!

There are two ways I write books, and it depends on what I’m writing. Essentially, if I’m writing a Marius’ Mules novel, it begins with reading the appropriate year of Caesar’s diary and that gives me the historical events and the bare bones of a plot to work around. Essentially, MM novels are defined closely by what I can do to play with the events in Caesar’s diary, so they do not fit so well with the rest of my works.

For anything else (the Ottoman books or Tales of the Empire, for example – or other works I’m presently keeping hush about) it works like this:

  • An idea/theme/character/event piques my interest. These vary greatly. The discovery of a wonderful, strange – and hardly historically mentioned – event sparked The Thief’s Tale. The exotic Barbary pirates sparked The Priest’s Tale. The terrible effects of revenge upon its perpetrator sparked The Assassin’s Tale. Interregnum was born from a game of chess. Ironroot from the idea of a dead man solving his own murder. Dark Empress from the the idea of how divergent and truly altered friends can become, dependant upon events. Often I will worry around the subject like a wobbly tooth for a week or so and gradually the framework of a plot will evolve around it.
  • I examine the historical and geographic framework of the story, selecting any historical characters or events or real places that will impact on the plot. I will then go and purchase appropriate research materials for them, making my bank manager shed a tear and book stores buy party favours for the fourth-quarter-upturn celebration, and I will bookmark half a million websites (badly indexed, of course, so that I will only find half of them when I need to. I am not half as organised as I like to think I am…)
  • I sit down for a week with all my info and write, re-jig, plan, and then tidy it all into a single series of events, including anything historical in the appropriate position. This is the point when a pile of papers, books, websites and dictaphone notes becomes a viable story. At this point I create an extra file that contains details of the characters, locations, themes I want to bring out, and story arcs that will thread through the tale. From this point on until the book is finished, the office gradually clogs up with piles of books which periodically get tidied away only to come out the next day and block out the light from the window as they tower threateningly above me.
  • Around here (sometimes one point earlier, sometimes one later) I plan and embark upon a research trip. It is important to me to understand not only the geography and physical layout of any locations in my books. I also like to know what they smell like. What they sound like. How they feel on a hot day (or cold, rainy, etc.) How tired it makes you walking up it. I like to check the flora and fauna. While there I take a thousand photographs and make endless dictaphone notes. Anything that happens to me there almost always makes its way into the story (tripping on tree roots, getting drenched in downpours etc.) This often ends up with me taking Tracey and the kids on a 300 mile round trip so that I can walk up a small mound and photograph it from a hundred angles while I sniff a lot!
  • Another week and I will take that long text file and break it up into chapters of appropriate length, with cliff-hangers in appropriate places, making sure that I try to spread out the action, the plot reveals and the slow, deep character stuff so that there’s a little of everything in every chapter if at all possible. This is the week my wife doesn’t like because I get grumpy when I’m interrupted. As often as not this week actually ends up, rather than everything tightening, with an increase in chaos and clutter.
  • And then… I write. I try to set  myself goals. These vary depending upon circumstances, but might be a daily wordcount of 5,000, or five pages of text in 10pt arial. It might be to complete two chapters in a week. You get the idea. I will have a schedule on a calendar on my office wall. Regularly this will be tweaked depending upon how often the kids come into my office with armfuls of toys and drive cars across my keyboard. It may also be coffee-or-beer-supply dependant!
  • Each time I complete a chapter, I go back over it with a fine-toothed comb for grammar, spelling, typos and the like, but also for anything I’ve missed out, anything that’s blithely superfluous or anything that doesn’t quite fit or sound right. Since my actual book writing happens over a short time (usually less than 3 months for the first draft including by-chapter edit) I find it easy to check whether the theme, pace and plot threads are staying in line as I do these edits. Plus, this way, when it comes to the post-draft edits, half the work is already done for me. Speeds up the editing process and takes a lot of the pain out of it.
  • Also, at the end of every chapter, I run it past two proof-reading friends, who pick me up on anything they find. So I guess you could say that every chapter has had three edits  before the draft is complete.
  • Invariably, as I write I will find the plot drifting off course. Sometimes this is unhelpful and has to be put right in the chapter edits or even a full re-write if too bad. It’s just simply that I leave room for variation in my planning so that if I am hit by inspiration and epiphany as I write, I can allow it to influence the plot. You see, sometimes the accidental drift actually improves the plot. And once, in my past, it has been so good it has actually caused me to rewrite the whole chapter plan and change the ending completely! Characters have a tendency to take on a life of their own and that makes them fight their destiny, you see?
  • Some time in the last week of my schedule (which is several weeks past the original end date as it keeps getting set back and back on account of kid-based jollity) I write the word ‘Epilogue’. That is the best moment in the world. Much better than ‘The End’. Because if you’re at ‘Epilogue’ the plot is complete and all you’re doing is wrapping it up in the nice emotional part (or the dreadful unforeseen violent end part, of course.) I thoroughly enjoy this part. When you hit ‘End’ conversely, the drawn out process of editing begins, crushing the joy a little.
  • End. Bottle of something fizzy to celebrate.
  • Edit. Plus potential hangover. Now begins the process of going over the whole book, reading it as best I can as if I were a genuine reader and not the writer. I will mark whole sections that need to be changed, removed or explained with extra text. The writing gets tidied. Extra description added as necessary. Bumf gets removed. I gather that it is common practice for writers to pare down their wordcount heavily through this process. I generally find I add 10%. Ah well. Can’t have too much of a good thing, eh? ;-)
  • After a major edit, I am left with pretty much the finished article. It’s had four edits by now, three during the writing and one after. I will then have a really quick last read through, checking for anything glaring.
  • Then, with a sigh of relief and a lip-bite of tension, I send the finished work to perhaps half a dozen test readers, who will undoubtedly find the odd typo or error, but mostly will point out anything that needs to be changed for the good of the story and its flow and arc. A couple of weeks will pass and I will get the results, which will resulty in another feverish week of editing.
  • And lo and behold: the book is ready.

And then begins the hard bit! For a first time, or an agent manuscript, printing, promotional stuff, letters, synopses, recommendations sought etc. For those self-published works, a cover, formatting for release, dealing with the various publishing companies etc. And then: promotion, promotion, promotion. After all, book sales are competitive. Readers can only afford to buy so many books, and while I will always direct fans to those other writers whose works enthrall me, I want to try and make sure I don’t sink to the bottom of the current release pile. :-)

So that’s it. That and the fact that I always have the plans for at least the next half dozen books floating around in my head and/or laptop.

Hope that if you’re a budding writer this helps in some way. To be honest, it helps me no end!

As an old friend used to say: ‘see you in the funny pages…’

Written by SJAT

July 29, 2014 at 10:59 pm

Iron Castle

with 3 comments

The Iron Castle.indd

Now, unusually, the Iron Castle has been out a week before I’ve got my review up. Why? Simple: I have had a plethora of books and manuscripts to read all arriving in a short time and most of which will never see the light of review day, but all had deadlines. And shuffling them around, one thing was clear… Angus Donald’s Outlaw novels do not deserve to be shoe-horned into the middle of such a rush. They deserve to be savoured like a 12 year old single malt. So I have taken my time and enjoyed every nuance of the book.

Anyone who’s followed my blog or my Goodreads or Amazon reviews will know my opinion of Angus’ books. They are one of the top series of historical fiction out there. I have enjoyed each of the books, though I have always maintained that the best in the series was King’s Man (the third of six). Well, the Iron Castle might just topple that for me.

I think that anyone who’s read the first five books will agree that with the death of the Lionheart and the somewhat off-shoot nature of the plot of book five, we all wondered how the interactions and situations would work with King John on the throne, what with Robin being such a loyal follower of Richard. How could the series continue to work? Well the good news is that with this return to the intrigues and dangers of interacting with the Plantagenet dynasty, the whole feel of the book has actually taken a step up rather than down. Serving a man the protagonists dislike more than the enemy has its own special fascination and informs not only the plot of the book, but the deeds and desires of the characters.

So what’s it about? Well you know I avoid spoilers as much as possible, but there are certain things I think I can say without ruining anything for you. Through Robin’s desire for settled security for his wife and children, he finds himself taking an oath to John. Through Alan’s ongoing fealty to Robin, so does Alan. Both men therefore find themselves dragged to France to take part in John’s wars over the ownership of Normandy, with King Phillip of France looming in the east, Arthur of Brittany in the west and other troublesome characters in the south. The defence of the crown land of Normandy would look utterly daunting were it not for one thing: the route for Phillip into Normandy is guarded by Chateau Gaillard, the great Iron Castle built by King Richard a few years earlier. This imposing and unconquerable fortress is the one great bastion holding the enemy from John’s lands. I think you can probably see where this is going, particularly given the book’s title. Expect a siege. I did.

The siege of Chateau Gaillard is a familiar event to many lovers of medieval history, and was one of the most brutal of the age. It made it recently onto Dan Snow’s TV series Battle Castle. Given the fact that I was already familiar with the siege and many years ago spent a day exploring the ruins of the castle, I was particularly interested to see how Angus handled the great and horrible event. The answer is: masterfully. There are a few books out there that have portrayed a siege in a fashion that actually had me sweating and biting my nails for the heroes as I read. Nick Brown’s ‘Siege’. Douglas Jackson’s ‘Hero of Rome’ and Paul Fraser Collard’s ‘Maharajah’s General’ are three of the best. The Iron Castle has now joined that list. It has all the tension, glory, despair and horror of a Zulu or a Masada and more. The fate of the ‘Useless Mouths‘ still leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

And as the threads of the characters and plot weave about the siege, there is a hint of treachery and betrayal that informs some of the more critical events and which will leave the reader guessing until the very end.

The main characters continue to grow, which is pleasing, especially six books into a series. Robin is becoming a straighter, less despicable character, which had to happen with Royal commission and a family. Alan seems to have finally tipped past that point where the concerns of youth guide his hand – he’s been heading that way for three books – and is now a grown man in all respects.

Simply, this series is a long way from done, clearly. Book six reaches heights I had not expected and injects new strength into the Outlaw books.

The Iron Castle is now available in hardback and various e-formats. Go buy it, people, and see how a siege is written.


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