Brian's 2017 reading list

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002
I'm going to list and give brief comment to each of the books I read this year, as a follow up to my 2016 reading list here: 2016 Reading List | SFF Chronicles

(The info is also now available here on Goodreads: Brian’s Year in Books - and in my Goodreads reviews archive: Brian Turner's bookshelf: read (showing 1-30 of 58) (sorted by: date added))

In that blog post, I listed various books I got last Christmas, but then added more - marked with an asterisk. What I managed to achieve last year was read something from pretty much every major genre: science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, horror, YA, thriller, romance, literary, world fiction, and even a Western.

This year I intend to be more relaxed with my reading, and focus more on novels and non-fiction I might enjoy, rather than continue pushing to read so widely.

And I'll keep my reading updated in this thread, as it's easier to manage than in a blog post IMO. :)

Reading 2017

Jan 2nd - Troop Leader by Bill Bellamy

I've been reading a number of WWII autobiographies from German soldiers. When I saw this, and a string of similar ones for just 99p, I decided to take a punt. And I'm glad I did - it turns out this was a book I'd chased after before. However, previously it was only available as a very expensive paperback.

The account overall is interesting and contains some wonderful anecdotes - Lindybeige quotes a couple in one of his videos, which was why I'd originally hunted it down in the first place.

However, as a WWII campaign account it begins somewhat limited, as much of it is basically "truck driver in Normandy, after the landings". But once Bellamy starts leading a tank squadron the account becomes rich, enjoyable, and far more entertaining, especially for a WWII memoir.

Definitely a recommended read.

Jan 13th - Once a Hussar by Ray Ellis

I wasn't sure what to expect with this one - an autobiography of an artilleryman didn't seem to promise, but again, I bought it for just 99p. What I got was one of the most amazing and detailed WWII accounts I've read to date.

Over half of the book is involved in the early years of the North African campaign, first fighting just the Italians, then being pushed back when the Germans arrive. We have a long and intense chapter about the 8-month siege of Tobruk, which Ellis was caught in.

The sheer intensity of the Axis onslaught comes across as the British forces were pushed back toward Egypt. However, before Montgommery changes the tide at El Alamein, Ray Elli's unit is destroyed and he is captured.

We then spend a number of chapters with him as a POW in Italy, then escaping and ending up living with an Italian family, before escaping back to Allied lines.

What really stands out about this book is the details - little things that never get in the way of the narrative, but always enrich it. I ended up making quite a lot of notes for my own chronicles series. Later on, his account of his time in Italy was translated into Italian because it captured a way of life, now gone, that was little written about.

Overall, an outstanding book - so much so, that I'm going to chase down the sequel about his post-war life.

Jan 18th - Always a Hussar by Ray Ellis

Once a Hussar ended abruptly when Ray Ellis reached home and docked at Liverpool, but there was clearly more story to tell and I was eager to hear it.

It started off powerfully enough, with his growing sense of disillusionment, poor treatment by the British Army, and suffering from PTSD. This is something all too important but often missing from WWII military autobiographies, and Ray Ellis's honesty for his own flaws and failings in this process comes through.

Gradually, he rebuilds his life, and people who might have once been forgotten come to the fore again. It was interesting to see him develop both in and alongside post-war Britain.

I won't provide spoilers, other than to say that I found Ray Ellis's story truly fascinating, moving, and uplifting. In fact, after finishing it, I was tempted to write to him to say so, and thank him for his honesty in sharing his account.

Unfortunately, it appears he died a couple of years ago. In which case, I can only hope that his family still benefits from royalties from these books - and to kindly suggest an ebook version. :)

Jan 23rd - Guardsman and Commando by Cyril Feebery

Feebery's laconic humour and clear detail shine through. As a biography it is a decent and enjoyable read.

However, as a WWII biography some people may find its appeal limited - except from a short stint in German-occupied France after D-Day, he never really saw action.

So while he's involved in a lot of preparations and minor incursions, this is more a soldier's account of being in training and travelling around battlefields.

In that regard, this book may better appeal to WWII enthusiasts looking for more information on the early days of the SAS and SBS. For the more open-minded reader, this is a decent read of daily soldiering life through WWII, and from a somewhat more unusual and broader perspective than usual.

Jan 29th - The King Beyond the Gate by David Gemmell

It's hard to go wrong with Gemmell - his books make for smooth and easy reading. There are grim heroes with a hard - but reasonable - outlook on life, who despite their sometimes amoral arguments, usually find themselves fighting against a clear evil.

The King Beyond the Gate is little different, and there's yet-another-siege that the heroes must stand in.

What makes it a little different than normal is that there is a larger cast, and this helps create a more epic feel than normal.

Additionally, a lot of the story ties in directly with Gemmell's debut, Legend, resulting in a lot of nice hat tips and cameos.

If there's one complaint, it's simply that there's too much of the familiar Gemmell formula at work. But as mentioned above, that's part of his appeal - knowing that the story will be clear, the characters larger than life, and everything resolved at the end.

It does seem to rush a little to the resolution, and it clearly sets up the possibility of a sequel story. Alas, Gemmell doesn't do sequels - instead his Drenai books tend to be spaced at least a generation, sometimes centuries, after one another, and Quest for Lost Heroes - the following book in terms of chronology - appears to be no different.

IMO it remains a shame - and works against Gemmell's popularity - that his books are written to be sold as standalones. IMO he missed a big trick by not running his stories concurrently as a closer-fitting epic saga. The result is that characters you emotionally invest in during one book are unlikely to be seen again, albeit with rare exceptions.
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Feb 8th - Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden

The greatest achievement of this book is that is makes the young Ghengis Khan a very sympathetic character.

Drawing on historical notes, Iggulden does a great job not only of building the character up and making us care, but also fills it will those wonderful little background details that make a work of historical fiction stand out. Apparently, the author spent some time living in Mongolia, trying to get a taste of the old traditional life, and it shines through.

My one complaint is a small one - although the story is mostly written in close third, there is a little head-hopping. Iggulden may think he's fleshing out the secondary characters when he does so, but what he's actually doing is distancing the reader from the protagonist whenever he does so. Frankly, I'm surprised that head-hopping still remains tolerated in historical fiction.

But that's a very minor complaint. All told, Wolf of the Plains is a fantastic piece of fiction that does everything it can to make the world and experience of the young Genghis Khan feel very real and believable. It's full of visceral feeling and emotional highs and lows, and I can't wait to read more from this series.
Feb 13th - Lords of the Bow by Conn Iggulden

At times I was disappointed with this book.

After Iggulden spent so much time in the last one building up the character of young Genghis Kahn - and making him sympathetic - there was surprisingly little personal development here. We had a couple of scenes with him and his sons, but little more.

I also struggled to understand why we followed Temuge for so much of this story around Baotou, when he didn't actually do anything other than follow Khasar and feel scared a lot.

However, the way the writing co-ordinated simultaneous viewpoints for the attack on Badger Pass was masterful. Additionally, it's clear that we're no longer supposed to focus only on Genghis, but also his brothers, and there was enough to leave me intrigued as to what they'd do next.

Once I finally accepted that I was better able to relax and enjoy it. Iggulden writes with such an easy manner that it was hard to put down, and in the end I'm glad I continued. In the meantime, I'm still interested enough to see how this series develops, so I'll be returning to it again soon enough.

Feb 20th - Red Tobruk: Memoirs of a World War II Destroyer Commander by Gregory Smith

Another interesting WWII memoir from the British side, this time from within the Royal Navy.

Having read a few accounts already centred on the North Africa campaign, it was interesting to see details outside of what I'd already read - not least the RN's criticism of the lack of RAF, which mirrors a lot of German criticisms about the Luftwaffe.

There's a strong sense of dangerous daily routines and missions - nothing that would make for an epic film, but interesting enough for their historical aspect - not least guarding convoys, being subject to constant bombardment by Stukas, and the general fear of German U-Boats and E-boats.

What was something of a disappointment is that at times it seemed as if a third-party aspiring novelist had got hold of a memoir, and decided to try and sex things up a bit with the descriptions. There's moments of head-hopping and general conversation that is blatantly speculative, and falls outside of what a memoir should aim to do and achieve.

Still, interesting overall, but one to be somewhat cautious with.
Feb 26th - Bones of the Hills by Conn Iggulden

The 3rd book in Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series about Genghis Khan, and a fantastic novel.

Partly because Genghis is more of a character in his own books again; partly because the tensions we’ve seen built up in the previous two books reach some conclusion; and partly because the Mongols spread east into the lands of Islam, which is an area I’ve long held an interest in.

Not having really known anything about the Mongols before reading these books, it’s been fascinating to see how Conn Iggulden has built up not simply the character of Genghis Khan, but also his close family, particularly his brothers and sons.

Although there’s not a huge amount of time spent on developing inner conflicts and personal motivation, each character is painted well enough to make each stand out as very different. As the book has quite a large cast but limited room to focus on each character, the result really was an achivement.

Battle scenes are also very well choreographed, and somehow Iggulden manages to mix a sense of overview with breathless close combat experience. He also takes time to humanise the enemies of Genghis Khan and show them as fearsome opponents - Russian crusading knights, the Assassins, and the Shah of Khwarezm’s huge and seemingly unstoppable army.

All in all, a colourful depiction of the Mongols and the lives of their leaders, but also the peoples they encounter. At its heart remains the contradiction that is Genghis the man: father, and grandfather; and Genghis Khan, ruthless warlord. Masterful.
March 2nd - Empire of Silver by Conn Iggulden

March 5th - Conqueror by Conn Iggulden

Finished and enjoyed reading the last two books of the series about the Mongols. These take place after the death of Genghis Khan, and it was fascinating to read of the family struggles and the string of heirs, as well as the growing pains of the Mongol nation.

Much of the account was vivid and detailed, and gave every suggestion of an author knowing his history. It had a lot of those nice personal touches that helps to make an account more real.

The one disappointment is that I've heard of Kublai Khan in positive terms, and was really looking forward to seeing more of this man. It was a little disappointing that the series ended with him becoming Khan, rather than seeing some of his governance. Aside from that, a stirring and very enjoyable series.

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