BookPick: Summer Selection 2020
After sending in the manuscript for Balkan Glory to my editor – and before diving into the research and planning for the next Kydd title I decided to catch up on some of the books in my ‘to read’ pile. I’ve chosen six of these (two of which are reprints that I revisited having come across them some time ago) that I particularly commend. They cover a wide range of topics: from amazing revelations about espionage to an engrossing history of the Tower of London to a fascinating reconstruction of the most powerful warship of her day. I hope there’s something here to whet your reading appetite.
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A Hidden History of the Tower of London by John Paul Davis
The Tower of London is an iconic building having imprisoned no less than 8000 unfortunate souls since it was built in the reign of William the Conqueror. Inspired by new research, Davis offers a fascinating account of the plotters, rebels, pretenders, murderers, escapees and others who found themselves incarcerated within its walls. But, as Davis also points out, the Tower has played host to diverse royal functions and served as an observatory, menagerie, place of capital punishment and a museum. To this day the Crown Jewels can be viewed there. And according to legend, should the famous ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall. A compelling history of one of London’s most famous landmarks.
Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation Postmaster by Brian Lett
An extraordinary account of a force of licensed-to-kill secret agents, commanded by a war-time secret service chief code name ‘M’, with whom Ian Fleming worked, and upon whom his James Bond stories were based. Operation POSTMASTER was a daring operation played out at the height of the Second World War. A Q ship sailed to West Africa and successfully cut out three enemy ships from a neutral Spanish port on the volcanic island of Fernando Po. Ian Fleming was deeply involved in this operation, and went on to prepare the cover story, in which the British Government lied in order to conceal responsibility for the raid.
The Titanic and the City of Widows it Left Behind by Julie Cook
When Titanic foundered in April 1912, the world’s focus was on the tragedy of those who lost their lives. Julie Cook’s great grandfather was a crew member who perished in the disaster, leaving a wife Emily and five children. This book focuses on Emily and the widows like her, many of whom lived in Southampton, who had to fight for survival through great hardship, whilst still grieving for the men they loved who’d died in the ship. Using original archive sources and with accounts from descendants of crew who also lost their lives, the author asks how did these women survive through abject poverty and grief – and why have their voices been silent for so long? A moving read.
Sovereign of the Seas by John McKay
Sovereign of the Seas was the most spectacular, extravagant and controversial warship of the early seventeenth century. The ultimate royal prestige project, whose armament was increased by the King’s decree to the unheard-of figure of 100 guns, the ship cost the equivalent of ten more conventional warships. A significant proportion of this was spent on her gilded decoration, which gave the ship a unique combination of firepower and visual impact that led the Dutch to dub her ‘the Golden Devil’. John McKay reconstructs the design and appearance of the ship with an amazing degree of detail. The results are presented as a folio of superbly draughted plans, isometric drawings and coloured renderings, covering every aspect of the design from the hull form to the minutiae of sails and rigging. A fitting tribute to an iconic ship.
The Secret Capture by Stephen Roskill
For fifteen years after the end of the war all official Admiralty records showed the German submarine U-110 as sunk on 9 May 1941 by convoy escorts. As this book was the first to reveal, this was a deliberate deception, as the U-boat was actually captured and its contents – including an undamaged Enigma machine and its code books – taken before being sunk a day later. As the official historian of the naval war, Roskill followed the party line when writing his authorised account, but provoked by exaggerated claims concerning a US Navy capture of a U-boat in 1944, Roskill decided to set the record straight. At the time of the book’s first publication, the operation was still secret, so Roskill had to be discreet about the exact details of what was taken from the submarine while insisting on its crucial value to the war effort. A new introduction by Barry Gough puts the capture into context, making clear its vital importance in the history of allied codebreaking in World War Two.
Balloons and Airships by Anthony Burton
As it’s on my Bucket List – a flight in a hot air balloon – this book was an appealing read. Burton tells the dramatic and fascinating story of flight in lighter-than-air machines. For centuries man had dreamed of flying, but all attempts failed, until in 1782 the Montgolfier brothers constructed the world’s first hot air balloon. The following year saw the first ascent with aeronauts – not human beings but a sheep, a duck and a cockerel. But soon men and women took to the air and became ever more adventurous. With the arrival of the internal combustion engine the balloon was transformed into the airship. The most famous developer of airships was of course Graf von Zeppelin and his airships were used in both peacetime and at war. There were epic adventures including flights over the poles and for a time, commercial airships flourished – then came the disaster of the Hindenburg.