Archive | January, 2009

“Sharpe’s Battle,” by Bernard Cornwell

23 Jan

“Sharpe’s Battle,” by Bernard Cornwell
Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro, May 1811 (387p)

Sharpe’s Battle is the twelfth book in the Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. Written in 1995 at the behest of the production company behind the Sharpe television series (and thus out of order from the original series), it was ordered by them to provide added filler in the series and is dedicated to Sean Bean. It tells the story of the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro in May of 1811.

Sharpe and the rest of the South Essex had been tasked to do dull patrolling and scouting on the fringes of the Spanish-Portuguese frontier, a wild and lawless land where neither side had any control. The villages are deserted and people are scarce, but there is a reason for that – the detached French battalion of Brigade Loup, led by the ruthless Brigadier Guy Loup. Sharpe encounters Loup in a recently ravaged village, capturing two of his men caught raping teenage girls. Sharpe, without authorisation, orders them to be executed. Despite Loup’s pleas to hand the men over and allow him to discipline them, Sharpe carries out the executions by firing squad and makes an enemy of Loup off the bat, the fur skin covered Frenchmen swearing vengeance on Sharpe and his men. Back at army headquarters, Sharpe is tasked by Wellington to take temporary command of a Spanish guards regiment sent from the exiled King Ferdinand, the Real Compañía Irlandesa, and train them into proper troops. But that isn’t really the plan. Suspicion is rife that the guard is full of French spies and so Sharpe’s real task is to treat them so mercilessly and make them so miserable that the guardsmen resort to desertion rather than real army life.

The Real Companies Irlandesa is in fact a guard made up of Irish Catholic exiles (most of whom were Spanish born by several generations) and hopelessly inadequate for the task. Many desert on the first few nights while Sharpe butts heads with their insufferable commander, a womaniser drunkard who seeks glory by suicide named Lord Kiely. The fears of French spies are made true, as well, by the arrival of Doña Juanita de Elía, who is Kiely’s lover but also in the employ of the French spymaster, Pierre Ducos (Sharpe would meet him later). Sharpe’s attempts to organise the Real Companies Irlandesa prove nightmarish with desertion rife, useless weapons and inept commanders, but he opts to defy Wellington and Hogan and tries to make a unit out of them after all. Things start to improve until an American newspaper surfaces in the camp, proclaiming brutalities committed by British garrison soldiers in Dublin, which threatened to cause a mutiny among the Irish troops until Sharpe dismisses it as folly. Soon after, a Portuguese infantry battalion arrives at the fort and the following night, Loup attacks the fort. The Spanish and British hole up in the barracks, but the Portuguese infantry are butchered. Sharpe fears they are all doomed, but a massive explosion kills dozens of Loup’s attackers and he departs from the fort quickly. Sharpe and Harper discover that Tom Garrard, an old friend of Sharpe’s in Portuguese service, blew up ammunition carts, causing the explosion, and sacrificing himself in the process.

The Spanish demand an inquiry into the assault and Sharpe and Runciman are set up as a political sacrifice. To avoid this fate, Sharpe attacks Loup’s hideout, but Loup’s Battalion is missing because he has been tasked to join Marshal Andre Masséna, on the move to relieve the besieged fortress of Almeida and on a collision course with the Viscount of Wellington. Meanwhile, Lord Kiely has killed himself in disgrace and the true saboteur among the Real Compañía Irlandesa is revealed as Father Sarsfield, a close friend of Wolfe Tone. Sharpe is then set to administrative duties to guard the ammunition carts and is essentially barred from participating in the coming battle, but he still finds himself involved anyway and links up with “Black Bob” Crauford and the Light Division, finding himself at the summit of the battle where he enacts his revenge on Loup while Wellington wins narrowly his battle. With Loup dead and Masséna defeated there is to be no court of inquiry against Sharpe, leaving him exonerated and back in the good graces of Wellington’s army.

I did not mind the television version – which differs in its conclusion after the first attack by Loup – and I did not mind the novel version of Sharpe’s Battle either. However, it is far from the best in the series and I immediately got the impression Cornwell was writing within parameters. I am sure the production company, who made the request for it to be written, had some set ideas of what they wanted Cornwell to write and thus provide them with a basis of the story. Much of the dialogue from the film is taken straight from the novel. It is little wonder it is dedicated to Sean Bean because the dialogue in the novel was written for Sean Bean’s Richard Sharpe, not Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe that appears in the first series. That is often the main criticism levelled at the second series of Sharpe novels, that it is Sean Bean’s Sharpe in written form, and I can see where the character has changed, particularly because this was only written to be made into a movie. Mostly the change is in the dialogue because Sharpe never says “bloody this!” and “bloody that” every few sentences in, for instance, Sharpe’s Eagle, he doesn’t give inspirational speeches, and he is never that cocksure about himself around superiors and blue bloods out of the field. One of Sharpe’s most defining characteristics is his self criticism and immediate demur response to those above him, yet in the novel Sharpe brazenly talks in a way that would probably see him lose his commission in Sharpe’s Eagle. Simply because Sean Bean is allowed to do as such in the films.

As it is, the novel is fine, but it does have a bit of a “well okay” feeling to it at times. In the first half of the novel, before the producers changed the ending, I knew what would happen as I had already seen the film. No matter, I still enjoyed it enough. The action is what one can expect from Cornwell and the bloody and gritty battle of Fuentes de Oñoro makes for a captivating read in its own right, particularly since it is almost wholly told without Sharpe present. However, much of the business with the Real Compañía Irlandesa was often annoying and unnecessary, not to mention implausible – Sharpe even says as much. Just how on earth can an American newspaper be able to report on goings on in Ireland scarcely a month after they had happened and have a printed copy floating among the ranks in Spain? I didn’t get it, and even the most uneducated soldier would have realised it was a forgery. I would be willing to bet money, however, that that was a request from the production team and not something of Bernard Cornwell’s creation as he is far more inventive than that.

I doubt I would ever read Sharpe’s Battle again unless it takes me on a whim. Like I said, it is not a bad novel by any means. It is just a tad on the ho hum side. There were parts I really did enjoy and there were parts that I could have skipped. So should you read it? Well, it depends. If you are working your way through the series, like I am, then I guess it is probably the thing to do. But if you are a casual reader with no interest in reading the lot then don’t bother, Cornwell has written far better books than this one and it would be a shame to spoil your opinion of him.

6.5/10.

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“Flash for Freedom!,” by George MacDonald Fraser

10 Jan

“Flash for Freedom!” by George MacDonald Fraser (332p)
1848-1849: The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Underground Railroad

The third instalment in the late George MacDonald Fraser’s popular Flashman series is Flash for Freedom!. Written in 1971, this third book, continuing the false-memoir of a Victorian hero who is a really a down right bastard, sees Flashman tell of his first visit to the United States in 1848. There, he deals with the slave trade and the difficulties in beating it with the Underground Railroad, meeting a number of interesting people along the way, like a young Abraham Lincoln.

Beginning almost immediately where Royal Flash finished, Flashman is back in England after his nightmare in Germany with Otto von Bismarck. All he wants to do is do what Flashman does best – drink, gamble, whore and enjoy himself and his wife’s pregnancy. But his malevolent father-in-law has other plans and wishes to have Flashman elected as a member of parliament to push his own agenda. So he arranges for Flashman to be taken to a party of political types, including Benjamin Disraeli, to meet and greet and make an impression. He does this as he always does and bluffs his way through, putting on a show for members of the Tory party that he could be a possible MP. But as is often the case for Flashman things go wrong, and so one night during a game of cards an old nemesis returns to get some revenge on him. Outraged, Flashman strikes out and almost kills the man, thus creating a scandal that would need him to be out of England for awhile again. So Morrison, his father-in-law, sees him placed on a supposed merchant ship as a worker and is whisked out of England within a matter of days of the scandal.

However, Flashman is in for a rude surprise when he settles into life aboard the merchant ship, captained by the eccentric Latin-sprouting John Charity Spring. The ship, the Balliol College, is no ordinary ship – it is a slave-runner. Flashman is thrown into the world of the still thriving Atlantic slave trade and becomes complicit in all those crimes. He is forced to accompany them to the Dahomey coast (modern Benin) where Captain Spring has arranged with the local tribal king, Gezo, a purchase of a few hundred slaves in exchange for a number of European goods, namely weapons. But during the meeting Spring tests the patience of the king’s famed Amazon warriors too much and they react violently when he tries to buy six of them, and a bloody chase sees Flashman and the rest of the crew of the Balliol College run for their lives to the ship. They escape, just, and head for the Mosquito Coast (modern Nicaragua) to unload the slaves and receive payment. Along the way Flashman details the horrors of life aboard for those slaves and creates an image of the dirty, cramped and stinking hell those people endured before more of the same on land. Flashman finds himself hating it more than he has ever hated anything else and is beyond relieved when the slaves are unloaded. The journey is almost over and only requires the transport of less than ten slaves-turned-prostitutes to the United States, which is illegal, when they are spotted and captured by the United States Navy.

As ever, Flashman thinks on his feet and immediately assumes the identity of a secret Royal Navy agent on board who had been spying on Captain Spring. He bluffs his way out of capture and is taken aboard the American vessel, immediately being taken to Washington. In the American capital he bluffs his way through a number of glaring eyes, save for one, belonging to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln can sense Flashman isn’t who he says he is, but lets him go anyway, and allows Flashman to be taken to New Orleans for the adjudication of the Balliol College as a witness. But that would almost certainly reveal Flashman’s true identity and so he does what Flashman does best in that situation – he runs! Holding up in New Orleans for a few days, he is soon taken in by members of the infamous Underground Railroad, for his assumed identity is plenty well known. Flashman is roped into smuggling a former slave on the run, a slave who is also highly educated and whose intelligence is valued highly. He tries, but it, as usual, goes wrong and he flees to a secluded plantation in northern Mississippi where he takes work as a slave-driver for a few months, but that also goes wrong when the owner of the plantation catches Flashman in the middle of something (or, rather, someone) and he is forced to run again. This time he has another running slave with him, a woman named Cassy, and the two flee across the southern states, creating even more trouble, to the Mason-Dixon Line and Ohio.

They almost make it to Ohio via paddle steamer until they are spotted by slave-catchers and forced to run again, fleeing across half-frozen lakes and rivers and into friendly territory. In Portsmouth, Ohio they find refuge with Lincoln, in town for a debate on abolitionism. Lincoln sees Cassy a safe passage north and out of the United States to Canada, but does Flashman a real turn and orders him to return to New Orleans and be a witness against Captain Spring, which would almost certainly reveal Flashman’s complicity in all those crimes as well. With no way out he returns to New Orleans and sits the trial, only Flashman doesn’t exactly play ball with the United States government this time and ruins their case against Captain Spring. The story is later continued in Flashman and the Redskins.

This is a truly great novel and one of the best in the Flashman series. It is full of twists and turns that leave the reader flying through the pages at a very quick rate. The supporting cast in Flash for Freedom! is excellent, though. Fraser went to great lengths to create a supporting cast with so many interesting distinct personalities that are fleshed out. Each person Flashman meets has their own voice which gives the novel a fulfilling touch. In many ways Flash for Freedom! is a social commentary on pre-Civil War America and heavily covers the slave issue and abolitionism. I don’t doubt Fraser spent an immense amount of time researching to properly construct the pro/anti-slave sentiments throughout the novel and he certainly had a very good understanding of the system and how it worked. So in that respect is an enlightening look into pre-Civil War America told within the scope of a simple yet very enjoyable plot with a wonderful cavalcade of supporting characters helping Flashman along his way. I very much loved it.

Lastly, with the novel’s subject being the Atlantic slave trade and, in effective, a social commentary of a country hurtling toward a civil war over the slave trade, it is little surprise that during Flashman’s time aboard the slave-ship and in the American south there is a hell of a lot of racist dialogue. “N****r” appears throughout, as it should. As good as Flash for Freedom! is I would not recommend any person who becomes uncomfortable with that word and the sort of racism to be expected read this, for it will most definitely put you off it. It doesn’t bother me because “n****r” doesn’t have that impact on me due to where I was born and raised, but I completely understand why some people will not like hearing it. All the same, Flashman explains the hell that those people would have endured aboard the ship and then hears it himself from the runaway slaves he meets in his travels, and it is an eye opening experience for him and the reader. When he meets slave owners, slave runners and slave catchers it gives readers an idea of what life must have been life in that part of the world then and the sort of people who happily committed such violence against fellow humans, despite them not being considered human. He sees the racism they receive and it changes his character a little, but all the same it is very much there and will probably upset people sensitive to it.

9.5/10.

“On The Edge,” by Richard Hammond

6 Jan

“On the Edge,” by Richard Hammond (309p)

On the Edge is the autobiography-come-diary of British television presenter and journalist Richard Hammond, of Top Gear fame. Co-written with wife Amanda (nicknamed Mindy), the book covers Hammond’s early life and start in television that led to his job on one of the most popular shows in the world but mainly focuses on his near fatal accident in a jet-powered dragster in September 2006 and the subsequent months after that leading to his recovery and return to television in 2007.

Hammond’s early love of danger, performing and cars dominate the early chapters of the book. Through his childhood and family background – one of his grandfathers was in the RAF while the other one searched for unexploded German bombs – he explains how he came to love the thrill and excitement of danger and high speed, an allusion to his reasons for wanting to drive a 10,000bhp jet-powered car in the first place. As a child Hammond would have been described as the class clown and loved to entertain his school mates by jumping over things on his bicycle. He also loved to tinker and fix machines as a child. As Hammond grew up he found himself criss-crossing the countryside working for various local radio stations with little to no success financially, not helped by a love of cars that transcended into his adulthood. He recalls stories of every new car purchase with great excitement that only he understands, including the purchase of his prized 1981 930 Porsche 911 with left-hand drive. When it became obvious that the life of a local radio presenter was not the high-life he had expected, Hammond ditched for a “normal” job, which is where he met his wife Mindy.

The two forged a life together until Hammond’s true calling came back and he returned to broadcast journalism, successfully auditioning for the series return of Top Gear. A chapter is spent about Hammond’s career on Top Gear, the action packed high entertainment car show that has achieved mass global success, described simply as “what a job!” Then it moves onto why Hammond wanted to go as fast as he did in the jet-powered dragster and the day of the accident itself. He was scheduled to film a piece on the sensation of driving at speeds rarely achieved – 314m/ph (505k/ph) was his fastest – at Elvington Airfield, near York, and wrote all about the day itself, including his bond with Top Gear Dog. He describes his nervousness while giving an explanation of a typical day of shooting for a film on Top Gear, the intricacies and simplicities of the jet-powered dragster and the immense power it could generate, and then his first through fourth runs. But then on the fifth run came the accident as the front-right tyre delaminated and exploded, sending the car careening off the runway at around 281m/ph. The resultant crash, which saw him comatose for around two days, left Hammond with severe brain injuries from swelling and post-traumatic amnesia.

The bulk of the book deals with Hammond’s injury and recovery. His wife Mindy takes over for the middle part when Hammond was at his worst and so those chapters are told from her rather heartbreaking viewpoint. She really hammers home what it is like to be with someone with a severe brain injury once they have regained consciousness – in essence, they’re them but they’re not. They know some things, they can fix on to it with great fervour, but a lot of the time they draw a blank. Conversations are driven in circles as short-term memory is almost non-existent and hours can be spent answering the same question over and over. Hammond would constantly want cigarettes and a beer or he would ask where his daughters were despite Mindy telling him not a minute before. Mindy tells a stirring story as she battled through immense frustration and exhaustion dealing with Hammond when he was at his worst, but slowly ‘The Hamster’ began to make his recovery. Memories would eventually start coming back and he soon began returning to a normal life, or as normal as possible considering the circumstances. To show how difficult dealing with someone with brain injury is, Mindy explains the need for repetitive routine in almost everything they did. Sudden surprise and confusion, which included people he did not know, had the possibility of launching him into a high state of paranoia and anxiety that could have quite easily seen him have a possibly fatal seizure. Luckily, that did not happen. By book’s end, following a recuperation period in Scotland, he had more or less returned to being himself before the accident with none of the noticeable possible side-effects of a brain injury, like personality change, evident. On January 28 he returned to television for series 9 of Top Gear.

In many ways, On the Edge is quite a sad story. It was never intended to be (in the afterward Hammond says he never wanted to do that and rather calls it sort of a love story) but reading this your heart really goes out to Amanda Hammond. What this woman went through is pretty hard to imagine yourself, but you get a very good idea reading this book. To juggle two young daughters, a severely injured husband who would often get worse without her around to comfort him, an inquisitive and intrusive media as well as the rest of the family, often on very little sleep, is remarkable. In her words you get a birds-eye view on dealing with something like this and her feelings throughout is what makes it quite sad. She makes it possible to understand what it is like to go as close as you can probably get to losing your husband (or wife) without actually experiencing it yourself, so it is very moving.

It reads very quickly, however, and the diary and memoir-like approach to it makes it easy to digest. Stories and memories are woven together throughout and form the basis of the chapters before the accident and when Hammond is describing how he began to regain control of his brain in Scotland. I would recommend this as a read for anyone due to its ease of read and quick pace, but Top Gear fans looking for behind the scenes stories are better off reading one of Hammond’s other books.

8.5/10.