S.J.A.Turney's Books & More

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The Madagaskar Plan

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A few days ago Guy Saville pointed out on Facebook that the paperback of The Madagaskar Plan was coming out today. I’ve had both this and The Afrika Reich sitting in my ‘to-be-read’ pile for some time. I ummed and ahhed over whether it would be wise to start book 2 before I’ve read book 1, but heck with it… I did.

Interestingly, there is enough background, and there are enough illuminating flashbacks in this book that it does not seem to rely entirely upon the first to be readable. Not that I’d heartily recommend starting with book 2, because now that I’ve done it, I have to go back and read book 1 to see what I missed.

Firstly, what is The Afrika Reich trilogy and this book in particular? Well, it’s almost Historical Fiction. It’s a ‘what if’ scenario. The premise behind the series is that the Dunkirk evacuations failed, Churchill resigned over the failure and consequently the succeeding British government came to peaceful terms with the Nazis. By the early 50s, when the book is set, Britain still has its Imperial holdings, Germany has overrun Russia and controls roughly half of all African territory, and the United States is out of it as a neutral nation. Africa is divided between Britain and Germany, with a few smaller states belonging to Italy, Portugal etc, and a neutral South Africa.

Madagaskar is the greatest imaginable prison camp for deported Jews. Europe having been largely emptied of them, there are 5 million living on the island under SS rule, being gradually worked to death.

Burton Cole, a survivor or earlier clashes in Africa and clearly the hero of the first book, returns to Britain to find his lover – a former Austrian Jew – has been found out by her cuckold husband and deported to Madagaskar. He thence rushes off to find her. Meanwhile, his former nemesis, Hochberg, the governor of German Kongo, has his own reasons building to head to the island in the hope of achieving German domination of the continent. And his deputy, now in exile. And a Jewish partisan. And others.

Incredibly skillfully, Saville weaves a web that brings so many seemingly disconnected elements, many with totally different motives, to the island and into the crucible of destruction. For Madagaskar is an island on the very brink of revolt, and the world is watching tensely, for any shake might bring America into the matter. There is no forced or over-woven aspect to the drawing together of the strands of plot.

A word needs to be said on the characters. Despite this being Britain and Nazi Germany, do not expect to read with a ‘black and white’ moral attitude. You will find every shade of grey on both sides. Some of the Germans are almost sympathetic. Some of the British are downright loathsome. And they are all believable, which is perhaps the most critical thing.

Despite the ‘alternate reality’ setting of the novel, it is so realistic and clearly feasible that it doesn’t jar the reader at all. In fact, it is all too easy to accept this version of history as the truth. It so nearly could have happened.

The feel of the plot is something of a mix. It is part war story, part espionage, part drama, part prison movie. At times it felt a little like The Wild Geese, at others Where Eagles Dare, and others again Papillon. It is all of those things but not them alone. It is a masterful example of the craft of fiction and kept me riveted from beginning to end.

It’s out in paperback today. Go get these books folks, and make sure you have them read before the final part of the trilogy is published.

Written by SJAT

January 28, 2016 at 1:51 pm

Sacred Mountains of China

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Sacred Mountains of China

You might remember that over the past year or so I’ve reviewed two motorcycle travelogues, on DVD and in book form, that were made by Ryan Pyle and his brother Colin. In addition to those great bike treks around China and India, Ryan Pyle has branched out and taken us on a trek on foot around some of the most incredible locations on Earth. Extreme Treks: Sacred Mountains of China is available on Blu-Ray and with an accompanying book. Let me tell you about them.

It’s hard not to draw a comparison with the brothers’ motorcycle journeys, especially given that the first one took in part of the region where these walks take place. I shall try and avoid comparisons as much as possible, but two things leap out and will recur at some point: One is the superior feel of this DVD, and the other is the increased depth of immersion in the landscape.

The DVD/Blu-Ray takes us on four treks, each of which is a pilgrimage in the Tibetan culture, circumperambulating four great mountains on the Tibetan plateau. I won’t go into the details of each one, but for reference, the four mountains are Minya Konka, Mount Kailash, Amne Machin & Kawa Karpo. No, I’d not heard of them before either. Perhaps I should have since I lean heavily towards Buddhism and am fascinated by the beliefs. In each case, Ryan Pyle dons his impressive walking kit and braves altitude sickness, exhaustion, illness, dangers in numerous forms, endless discomfort and the most extreme and sudden changes of weather to hike around one mountain, the journey varying from perhaps five days to twelve (if memory serves me). We are treated to such sights as yak herding, bathing in ice cold water, trying to put up a tent in a full-force mountain gale, other pilgrims on the routes kneeling in devotion on stony mountain paths and often Yak Butter Tea.

The journeys undertaken in this DVD were not done alone. In their motorcycle adventures, while the brothers had a support van with a camera, most of the actual filming was done by the two journeyers on bike cams and hand-held cameras, and the presence of the support van was barely noticable. Here, Ryan has a full support team of local guides, cooks, sherpas, and his loyal cameraman – who I felt for, as he performed the same trek but filming it at the same time. And the result of the increased team support means that the actual technical side of the travelogue in terms of filming, sound etc, is vastly superior. In fact, I would say the camerawork in particular is excellent.

What you are left with, then, is a very well filmed and well-produced journey, which is made worth filming by the enthusiastic, immersive and open attitude of Pyle himself, who is clearly in love with China and the Tibetan world, and equally clearly wants to make everyone else fall in love with it too. His enthusiasm and willingness to completely lose himself in this world is catching, and because of that, everything he introduces us to is that little bit more fascinating and attractive.

In summation, the video series is stunning, well-produced and enjoyable. The scenery is probably the biggest star. I’m not a lover of mountains, myself. I like hills and grassland and sea coves and so on. But it’s really hard not to be impressed and stunned by the beauty of these places, which have been so lovingly and clearly captured on film. I recently started watching Levison Wood‘s Himalaya walk, having thoroughly enjoyed his Nile walk. But sadly, having watched Ryan Pyle’s treks, I found Wood’s journey to feel tame and uninteresting by comparison. Perhaps because he doesn’t display the same connection to his environment?

Then there is the book that accompanies the series. This is a worthwhile purchase even if you’ve watched the series, for it’s not a text repeat of what you’ve already seen. From the start of the book (and I read it after I watched the Blu-ray) it was clear there was more to the book, as it begins by going into the whole background of Pyle’s life in China and the reason for the Treks in the first place. And throughout, the book goes into a level of detail that the series clearly could not due to constraints of time and flow. The book draws on more sources, details more than you see on screen and, of course, tells us more of what the explorer was feeling and experiencing as he trekked. It works nicely as a counterpoint to the series.

If you like your travelogues, this comes highly recommended. I will watch it more than once, that’s for sure. And reading the book has nudged me to want to be that little bit more adventurous in our own outings, even if at a rather tamer level. I am unlikely to come face to face with an angry yak in my searches for Roman ruins in deepest Romania, but the need for adventure is infectious. And if the pics in this review aren’t enough to persuade you to watch it, I don’t know what will. :-)

Buy the Blu-ray here, and the book here on Amazon UK (or look it up on any other site of your choice).

Written by SJAT

January 21, 2016 at 12:04 pm

Murder in Absentia

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For me, Murder in Absentia is a solidly 4* novel. A treat in numerous ways, a surprise in many, engrossing and unusual. I’m now applying a 5-point system for review, and given that, here’s why I rate Assaph Mehr’s work so highly.

  1. The world that Mehr creates. This book is a work of fantasy, though it is so closely-knit with the history of Imperial Rome that were it not for certain elements within the plot, it would be hard to see this as anything other than straight Roman fiction. The main location in this world seems to be a mash-up of Rome, the bay of Naples and Alexandria. It is clearly a fantastical version of the ancient city and culture of Rome, with geographical elements of the others drawn in. The naming conventions, social customs, dress, military, households and even religious aspects are very clearly Roman. The flavour is Roman. And it’s flavoured very well.
  2. The plot. Despite fantasy elements, this is essentially a whodunnit. It is a proper original mystery. Starting with a body – killed apparently during some dark, magical ritual – the hero, Felix the Fox, is retained by the victim’s father to solve the mystery of his death. The plot is full of twists, turns, herrings of the ruddy kind, and avoids too many cliches as it brings us to a satisfactory conclusion.
  3. The negative point here, and the reason for a 4* review rather than a 5* one: The book could have done with a thorough copy-edit. Lines like “he eyes were”, “an administrative organisations” and “if I we needed any more” are examples of the small typos that creep in. There is also a heavy tendency to mix tenses wihtin a sentence, which can be quite jarring. Also, anachronisms like “juiced up” sit a little difficult with me, though that’s really a personal preference, I suppose.
  4. The author’s handling of magic. There’s a lot of fantasy out there, and though I tend these days to concentrate on Historical Fiction, I’ve actually read plenty of it. Magic is often very Dungeons and Dragons in fantasy, or perhaps very Lord of the Rings. “Fireball! Magic Mouth! Prismatic Spray! These are not the droids you’re looking for.” Mehr’s form of magic used in the book is much more subtle and realistic, more reminiscent of the ritual in Lovecraftian horror or suchlike. It is all rites and tattoos of power and herbs and incantations. In short it worked, reading surprisingly believably and actually, oddly, it fits in well with the Roman feel of the background. You will, within the first 20% of the book, be viewing this magic as an everyday part of the culture.
  5. The detail. They say the devil is in the detail but if so, the devil is one hell of a helper to an author. The sheer scale of the bits and pieces of research Mehr has put into his Roman history for the book is impressive. From the nature of Roman Numina to the traditions of funerals and burial to the daily routine for the seeing of clients by Roman patrons, Mehr has really put in the work in his research.

So there you have it. A fascinating fantasy world, full of impressive real details and with a realistic and interesting type of magic, hosts a twisted and complex murder plot. Only the lack of a little proofing prevents this from being a genre-founding, mould-breaking novel. No, actually, it doesn’t. The novel is still that, and minor irritations over the specific text should in no way prevent you from buying and reading this. If you’re into Rome or Fantasy, you’ll enjoy it. If you’re into both, you’ll LOVE it.


Written by SJAT

January 14, 2016 at 10:38 am

Top 10 reads of 2015

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How propitious. Thursday is blog day and this post, which is my top 10 reads of 2015 happens therefore to fall on New Year’s Eve. These are the best of my reads this year and are presented in order of Author surname, not preference. And, oddly, there are some of my fave authors not represented here, simply because I’ve not read one of their books this year. And for good measure I’ve thrown in a bonus read at the end! Enjoy the list.

Tobias – Prue Batten


The first in a trilogy of spin-offs from Prue’s Gisborne series, Tobias was a hit this year since it maintained her absolutely tip-top standards of prose, style and character, while taking a step forward in terms of plot and action. It represents Prue’s best work so far and is a perfect marriage of style and content. Read my review here.

The Emperor’s Silver – Nick Brown


One of my all-time fave series came back with a bang this year. Nick Brown took a novel character type and a little-used era and created the Agent of Rome. And his protagonist has grown and acquired friends through the series, and though this one stands out partially for the intricate plot, it mostly does so because of the impressive character growth of the supporting cast, which was long anticipated and very welcome. Read my review here.

The Great King – Christian Cameron


The Long War series is one of the most immersive and expansive series in historical fiction, and the Great King stands out from the rest of the series for me because it contains everything I seek in this kind of work. It covers one of the greatest military engagements in Greek history, explores the Olympic Games and leads us a journey into the heart of Persia. All really good stuff. Read my review here.

The Devil’s Assassin – Paul Fraser Collard


Jack Lark is one of the best literary inventions of the past decade. A truly unique character idea and one that initially I thought would have trouble managing a second book. And this one is the third! The third Lark book is also a game changer, taking us off on a tangent from what we were expecting, which is a brave move for an author and sometimes fails in execution. This one didn’t. Read my review here.

The King’s Assassin – Angus Donald


The Outlaw chronicles have been a welcome staple of my reading for years now, and consitently make my top 10. King’s Assassin is something new, though. It feels different from the other novels in the series. To some extent, it felt like what had been a proper boy’s adventure series had grown up, passing through to become something different. It is the penultimate in the series and there is a definite feel of something coming to an end. Read my review here.

America’s First Daughter – Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie


A new writer for me – two new writers, in fact. I’d encountered Stephanie’s work as part of the A Day Of Fire collection, but this was something else and a phenomenal achievement. It was a new type of read for me entirely, and one born from the most unique perspective. It opened up new avenues of interest in my life, and for that alone it deserves a top ten spot. Read me review here.

Eagles at War – Ben Kane


Again, Ben Kane moves into a new milieu, having dealt with the Caesarian era, Hannibal and Spartacus. And this time he’s moved more into my period of choice. To take on the Teutoborg disaster and try to cover the scope in a single novel is a massive undertaking and he did it justice from both sides of the conflict, which was nice to see. Read my review here.

Lady of the Eternal City – Kate Quinn


Again, a contributor to A Day Of Fire, Kate Quinn proved herself to me with this novel, which is languorous and exotic and yet at the same time informative and pacy, showing a side of the emperor Hadrian that I had never even imagined. A win on several levels. Read my review here.

Thunder of the Gods – Anthony Riches


The empire series is on its eighth book now and seems to be running from strength to strength. Here we have moved geographically into the Middle East to explore the Parthian world in a truly action packed and fast paced military adventure. The reason for this win: Riches has settled into the characters beautifully and has managed to change directions with the overall plot arc now. Read my review here.

The Holy Thief – William Ryan


One of the most atmospheric books I have ever read. Quite simply that. A Gorky Park for this decade, Holy Thief is a perfect marriage of intricate plot and foggy, dangerous, cloying atmosphere. The protagonist is extremely real and sympathetic and I felt totally drawn into the time. Read my review here.

Into The Fire – Manda Scott


One of the most ambitious novels I have ever encountered, Into the Fire was a duel timeline treat dealing with modern police procedure and political shenanigans and the campaigns of Joan of Arc. It was a masterpiece in both times and probably hits my top ten of all time. Read my review here.

So there we go. 11 books in a top 10, and each and every one a gem. If you didn’t get round to reading one of them this year, go get it for 2016. Happy New Year and happy reading everyone.

The Swan Diptych

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Last review before Christmas, and last review of the year: The Swan Diptych by Ian Thomson.

I’ll begin by pointing out that when I started to read the book I had absolutely no idea what to expect, since I knew nothing about it. I believed it to be a work of Historical Fiction. Beyond that: nothing.

And by the time I was a third of the way through it, I was floundering, wondering how on earth I could categorise or pigeon hole the book. It is in the main part historical fiction, but there are heavy elements of fantasy in places, especially in the first of the two stories, while there is a strong undercurrent of crime novel, especially in the second.

The first of the two stories, which takes place in 14th century Lincoln, tells the tale of a Royal visit that goes somewhat awry due to the mental derangements of the cathedral’s dean and the inadvertent pooping of a swan. The story is largely HistFic, but includes the point of view of the swans, who speak at times, lending the fantasy element to the tale. That being said, that element does not detract from the feel of the story and I finished it with a smile on my face, brought about by a gentle, clever humour and a well-written tale. This story is, however, quite short. Perhaps only 1/4 of the whole book.

The rest of the novel is taken up by the second story, though this one in truth feels more like three tales cobbled together into one. It begins as a 16th century murder mystery in a Cambridge college and sets itself up as a proper whodunnit. It was atmospheric and rich and I was just getting into it when it was resolved, less than halfway through the book! The story then shifted to telling the backstory of the murderer in more detail than the story that spawned it, which felt a little odd, and yet it was in itself an excellent story. Then, when that one was over, we leapt forward a generation to another Royal visit, in the time of Elizabeth I, when young students from the first part are now the old masters. Here we are treated to a potted history of the college in the form of a document for the Queen. In all honesty, at three quarters of the way through the book, the second tale felt so disjointed and I couldn’t see where the story was really going. At that point I was preparing to allocate three stars to the book. Then, in the final hour, that last part of the second story threw us the point and the twist that made it make sense.

Overall, while parts of the book were for me a little disjointed, the stories were good and extremely well told. Thomson is apparently an English professor at Lincoln, and his skill with the language shows in his writing. It is graceful and flowing and elegant. And for me, hw stands out in his ability to use archaic language and old-fashioned words and yet fit them seamlessly into the text so that even an uninformed reader can divine the meaning of words he might not know from the context alone. I love, for example, the word ‘flummery’. It made my day reading it.

The Swan Diptych is an engaging read and for any minor difficulties I found with the story structure, full of dark humour, gorgeous language, vivid descriptive and gripping scenes. It will make an excellent few hours’ read for anyone, especially those with an interest in the medieval through Tudor eras, those with an interest in collegiate or ecclesiastical matters, or just those who love a good tale.

Written by SJAT

December 24, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Praetorian: The Price of Treason

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An empire controlled by an evil powermonger. An elite fighting force clad in white. A small band of rebel heroes racing to bring freedom and truth to the empire… sound familiar?

No, not Star Wars. But while you’re standing in the queue today, eager to see Kylo Ren, you can order Praetorian: The Price of Treason online  for £2.49 on Kindle or £8.99 in paperback.

396 pages of intrigue and danger in the Rome of the emperor Commodus. Good Praetorians, bad Praetorians, weird prefects, vengeful sailors, ambitious legates, defiant senators, wicked politicians, Rufinus, and a dog…

Yes, Rufinus is back.

Two years have passed since the emperor’s loyal Praetorian guardsman Gnaeus Marcius Rustius Rufinus foiled Lucilla’s great assassination plot. Plagued by the ghosts of his past, Rufinus has enacted his own form of justice upon the praetorian cavalrymen who murdered the imperial agent Dis two years earlier.

But the Fates will not let Rufinus rest. Rome is beginning to seethe with rumour and conspiracy as Perennis, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, and Cleander, the imperial chamberlain, continue to play their ‘great game.’

With the tide of opinion turning against their commander, Rufinus and his friends embark upon a mission to save the Prefect’s family, only to uncover a plot that runs deep… to the very heart of the empire. Armed with rare and dangerous evidence, Rufinus faces insurmountable odds in an attempt to bring the truth to light. To save his prefect. To save Rome. To save everyone he cares about.

You can buy it here

Merry Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Winter to everyone.


Written by SJAT

December 17, 2015 at 11:27 am

Feud by Derek Birks

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The Wars of the Roses are a period of British history that I (and I suspect plenty of other people) blithely think they know about, and we’re quite blase about the whole thing. And yet when I think about what I know, all I could really tell you is that it went on for decades and that it ended at Bosworth Field in 1485 with a Welshman with a big nose and a cruel hunchback searching for a horse. Well, a little more than that, obviously, but you get my drift. And I don’t buy into the evil Richard III hunchback myth either, but then I’m a son of the white rose, so that goes without saying.

Feud is the debut novel by Derek Birks and the first in a four book series. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into it. Was it going to be a bloody battles historical novel, or a family saga? Well, simply it is both.

The book follows the … well, the feud, obviously… between the Elder family and their neighbours, the Radcliffes. To some extent, the story of the families opened a little fast for me, launching straight into the moment of critical mass in the families’ struggles from the first page without much of a chance to acclimatise to the characters. In retrospect, given the size and scope of the book, I expect Derek took the deliberate decision to cut down on early chaff.

Driven from his lands and with his family dead, captive or scattered, Ned Elders sets off on a mission to put things right in the face of insurmountable odds. And as the story follows his journey, as well as those of his sisters, his friends and his enemies, the tale interweaves with the events of political and military manoeuvering and warfare leading up to the dreadful battle of Towton in 1461.

Firstly, let me say that this novel is an indie published work and is at the very top of the quality scale. It is exceptionally well written and polished. Apart from the fairly precipitous beginning and a perhaps over-complex web of events that led me to regularly think back and work out where everyone was, everything I found about the book was good. The writing is descriptive and immersive, yet driven along by the characters at a surprisingly swift pace. Those characters are well rounded and quite believable. There is nothing superman about them. They are human, with flaws and feelings, and they struggle through bad times. And Derek is not averse to killing important characters, so don’t get too attached to the supporting cast. The battle scenes are bloody and action packed, and the (many) scenes of individual derring-do are excellent.

Moreover, there is a sense that this feud that forms the backbone of the tale is rather unnecessary. The characters are not black and white on the whole, but grey. The Radcliffes actually contain good people in the end, and the actions of the Elders at times can be a little questionable. Although there can be no doubt that Edmund Radcliffe is definitely a slimeball! Nicely done, I’d say.

The landscapes here – and the book stretches from North Yorkshire to Wales, to Shropshire and London, and back north again – are well painted, and some of the area is local to me, so I could visualise the places well.

The first novel deals with the feud and achieves a good, finite ending on that family squabble, yet we are still left with questions about the future of the family during these tumultuous times. And so this book took me to 1461 and left me wanting to read the other three, which I presume will gradually bring me to Bosworth field and the end of the Wars.

In short, an excellent debut with some memorable characters and a good swift pace. Give it a read and you’ll not be disappointed.

Written by SJAT

December 10, 2015 at 11:32 am


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