Bircorn - The ties of Blood Peninsular War Novels
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Napoleonic Day

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Peter writes the kind of novels he likes to read - adventure stories with plenty of historical fact, peopled by believable characters, with a touch of humour and maybe even a little romance! Here are some recommendations, classics and less well known works, for like-minded souls to consider.

DEATH TO THE FRENCH by CS Forester (1933)

Known in the USA as "Rifleman Dodd" this exciting story is set during the Peninsular War, as a lone British soldier fights the French with the aid of the local Portuguese peasants. Renowned for his "Hornblower" series of novels set at sea, Forester skilfully catches the drama of the land-based action which has intrigued writers for two hundred years (Bernard Cornwell has acknowledged the influence of this novel on his Sharpe series and even name-checks Dodd!). It adds to the quality of the writing that the story is also told from the point of view of the French.

TIDES OF WAR by Stella Tillyard (2011)

In part set during the Peninsular War, this intriguing novel also focuses on life back in London. The strictly military matters are well dealt with but Tillyard also investigates such aspects as finance, medicine and scientific innovation. As well as the fictional characters we meet real-life figures such as Kitty Wellington and Nathan Rothschild as the story cleverly balances the two storylines.

THE BLOODING OF JACK ABSOLUTE by CC Humphreys (2006)

From an earlier redcoat era, this is a prequel, but effectively the first of the entertaining Jack Absolute series. There is a lovely stew of espionage, swashbuckling, romance and intrigue. The settings here include London, Bath, Rome and Canada. Interestingly Humphreys involves "Genteman Johnny" Burgoyne, real-life father of Royal Engineer John Fox Burgoyne who features in the Ties of Blood novels.

THE TIME OF TERROR by Seth Hunter (2008)

This is the first of Hunter's series featuring half-American Royal Navy officer Nathan Peake. As suggested by the title we are in 1793 and our hero becomes involved in the complex and bloody goings-on in Paris and elsewhere. A plot involving forged French banknotes, the Parisian catacombs, London politics, romance and some great sea action rattles along enjoyably. Hunter has a real knack for telling a good tale while bringing to the forefront many of the real-life figures of the time.

THE SIEGE by Arturo Perez Reverte (2010)

Reverte is a really interesting writer. A former journalist he produces excellent contemporary thrillers (try "The Seville Communion") but he is also a fine hand as a historical novelist. This title is set during the Napoleonic Wars as Cadiz lies under siege by the French. Within the city a serial killer is at work. The plot involes a dashing corsair captain, a beautiful heiress, a dodgy policeman, a French gunner and, er, a taxidermist.

BIRDSONG by Sebastian Faulks (1993)

This is a wonderful book. The action takes place before and during the First World War. Hero Stephen Wraysford is put through the wringer both in his love-life and through his experiences in the trenches. The writing is both gripping and tender. Ties of Blood hero, Royal Engineer Tom Herryck, would recognise the horrors of mining so brilliantly evoked here. Highly recommended.

THE DEVIL'S OWN LUCK by David Donachie (1991)

Introducing the Ludlow brothers (one an ex-Royal Navy captain turned privateer, the other an artist) this Nelson-era tale is part seafaring adventure, part Georgian whodunnit. The novel paints a persuasive picture of life onboard ship, with plenty of wardroom politics. There are several enjoyable novels in this series and the prolific Donachie has penned other naval sagas including a sreies baed on Nelson himself.

GOSHAWK SQUADRON by Derek Robinson (1971)

Another novel set in the First World War, this story focuses on the war in the air - fought by the "knights of the sky" as the young pilots were over-romantically known. There is a rich vein of treacle-dark humour as the cynical, 23-year old CO tries to disabuse his junior charges of any notion of finding chivalry or glory in the lethal conflict in the clouds. The action is wonderfully believable and the dialogue is a joy.

FOUR DAYS IN JUNE by Iain Gale (2006)

Gale has written a number of "redcoat" novels but this is my favourite by far. He tackles the Waterloo story through the experiences of five of the more famous real-life characters who were present at the battle, offering a range of viewpoints on the course of the battles. Including the Prussian experience, it is a worthy attempt at telling something of the whole story rather than the experience of just one army or another.

THE SIEGE OF KRISHNAPUR by JG Farrell (1973)

That rare breed - a readable Booker Prize winner! Set in a fictitious town (perhaps inspired by Cawnpore and Lucknow) during the Indian Mutiny, the story shows how life changes for the British community as the siege begins to bite. The Europeans are obliged to question their certainties and the results are both amusing and moving. Full of wit, the tale has plenty of solid history and politics, action, romance, sympathetic characters and enjoyable plotting. This is part of a loosely connected imperial trilogy together with "Troubles" and "The Singapore Grip". 

FAIR STOOD THE WIND FOR FRANCE by HE Bates (1944)

Bates is probably best known for the delightful "Darling Buds of May", but this is a little different.  The story follows the fate of the crew of a Wellinton bomber forced to crash-land in France after a raid on enemy territory in Italy. Franklin, the pilot, is injured and is forced to remain, falling in love with the daughter of the farmer who is hiding him. Eventually a plan is formed to try to make the perilous journey through Vichy France to neutral Spain. Excellent detail, finely drawn characters and a nice balance between romance and adventure.

LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry (1985)

This is a big, wonderful western (made into an excellent tv mini series). Set in the 1880s, the 800 hunded-odd page novel features a cattle drive from the Rio Grande to distant Montana. Along the way we get bandits, gambling, gunfights, hangings, horse-stealing, kidnapping, romance, stampedes - all of this with a huge cast of characters. At the heart of the novel is the relationship of former Texas Rangers Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, one an incurable romantic the other a driven pragmatist.

THE RESCUE MAN by Anthony Quinn (2009)

Moving and beautifully written, this is the story of Tom Baines, working as an architectual historian in Liverpool as the German bombers target the city in 1939. Baines becomes a rescue man, trying to pull wounded and buried people out from wrecked buildings. A second strand to the story involves Baines' interest in the work of a mysterious architect in the city's Victorian heyday. The two weave together satisfyingly against a backdrop of bravery, friendship, passion and betrayal. 


© Peter Youds 2008