AOS Book Reviews


This section contains reviews of books by David Hayes and members of the forum

Joan Druett Review: Hell Around the Horn by Rick Spilman

Hell Around the HornThose Gallant Seamen Get their Story Told at Last

Ringing with authenticity, this nail-biter is a tale of battling wind and weather to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the most dreaded landmark in the sailor's lexicon, Cape Horn.

Stories of ships in the Age of Sail are usually told from the quarterdeck, and the fight is against other ships. Rick Spilman's novel, by contrast, revisits the windjammer era when men fought the elements with just rope and canvas, using muscle and willpower to get a freight to a destination. In the tradition of old salts who once wrote hugely popular stories of life under sail -- men like "Shalimar" (F. C. Hendry), Captain F. Coffin, Jan de Hartog and Alexander Bone -- "Hell Around the Horn" tells it like it was for the ordinary people who lived unthinkably dangerous lives at sea, from the point of view of the foc'sle and the half-deck, as well as the cabin.

Based on real events, this is the story of one captain's struggle to get his ship to port, with just his seafaring knowledge and his increasingly weary crew to help, and with the added problem of a bloodyminded mate. A detail I particularly liked was that he had his wife and family with him. Spilman reveals her experiences through her letters, which are as convincingly written as the rest of the book.

Thoroughly recommended to all salt water souls, armchair sailors in particular.


Review: When Washington Burned by Arnold Blumberg

When Washington BurnedAs someone with an interest in naval history I have read both fiction and non fiction works about the various sea battles of the War of 1812 and of the naval campaigns on the Great Lakes. However whilst I was aware that there was fighting on the Canadian border, that the British invaded and burnt Washington and there was a battle for New Orleans I had not read a work that covered the whole war and put the various battles on land and sea both in a chronological order and within the political and strategic aims of both sides.

Without drowning me in too much detail, When Washington Burned by Arnold Blumberg proved to be an excellent overview of the reasons both sides had to go to war and then ultimately seek to end what was really a pointless conflict. The battle information included brief histories of the commanding officers involved, the units involved, main manoeuvres and casualties all accompanied by plenty of contemporary illustrations and some maps.


Review: The Sea-God at Sunrise by G. L. Tysk

The Sea-God at SunriseThe Sea-God at Sunrise is about two young Japanese fishermen, Shima and his younger brother Takao, and their interaction with the crew of an American whaler which rescues them after they are shipwrecked by a typhoon.

At the time in which the book is set Japan is a closed country so the book follows attempts to repatriate the boys and their subsequent voyage on the whaler. Each side has little knowledge of the others lives and customs and of course language is initially a barrier. These basic facts enable Tysk to fully explore these differences and inform the reader as the perspective alternates between Shima and one of the ships officers.

If you are looking for detailed descriptions of ship handling this is a not a book for you as it is hardly mentioned and indeed there are a couple of minor errors and typos although these did not detract. However, that the author has researched whaling is evident and this aspect of shipboard life and the small boat hunts are fully and graphically depicted.


Julian Mackrell Review: The Jamaican Affair of 1805 by John Mahon

The Jamaican Affair of 1805In over 40 years of reading nautical fiction, I can honestly say this book is the worst by a comfortable margin. The only positive observation I can make is that Mahon has made a passable attempt to integrate his plot into the Hornblower canon. However, his characterization of Hornblower and Maria are so far removed from Forester's as to be virtually unrecognisable.

I could ramble on at length about the many failings of this book, but life is too short: The Jamaican Affair Of 1805 is a poor example of the genre, poorly conceived and poorly written with no attempt to create any sense of period either in speech or actions. Mahon demonstrates little understanding of the Georgian Royal Navy, nor of the essence of Hornblower, despite claiming to be a long time fan.


Review: A Call to Arms by William C. Hammond

A Call to ArmsIn the fourth instalment of the Cutler Family Chronicles the action moves to the The First Barbary War and finds Richard Cutler now in command of his own frigate, USS Portsmouth, and his son serving as a Midshipman aboard USS Constitution under Commodore Preble.

The next generation of the family starts to come to the fore in this new book and as they marry Hammond's cast of characters continues to expand. This enables the author to explore the major events of the Barbary wars from the point of view of a Midshipman who can insert himself into the historical timeline more easily than a Captain.

This is an important aspect of Hammond's work as the research and historical accuracy of the tale shine through. Writing from this side of the Atlantic I had heard of the Barbary Wars and of Stephen Decatur's destruction of the USS Philadelphia but knew little else about the conflict. Hammond's narrative is as informative as a non-fiction work but blended with a style that really makes you almost feel part of the Cutler family.


Julian Mackrell Review: The Devil's Fire by Matt Tomerlin

The Devil's FireI am emphatically not an expert on pirate fiction, but I have read a few and like some of them. Susan Keogh's The Prodigal: A Novel is excellent as is Mark Keating's Fight for Freedom (Patrick Devlin), both of which I would recommend unreservedly to any lover of nautical fiction. I wish I could say the same for Tomerlin's The Devil's Fire ...

I can remember not a single description of ship or sail handling - movement just sort of happens without any apparent involvement from the crew. Nautical terms are sparse: 'main mast', 'capstan' and one or two others are overshadowed by 'floor', 'ceiling', 'wall', 'upstairs' etc. Characterization is poor: it takes far too long to develop any sort of individuality, and at no time could I find anyone remotely likeable, or who I felt any sympathy for, even the principal victim! I also found the plot to be weak: endless fighting and squabbling amongst themselves, but very little else. Had this book been condensed to a few chapters opening book 2 [The Devil's Tide, which I assume continues the story from where this leaves off], then it may have been more successful.