This week I thought it was time for some book reviews, so here are two that are completely chalk and cheese yet despite this, I find they go together surprisingly well.
First Light by Geoffrey Wellum
First up, I’m a sucker for history books and I’m a total sucker for biographies or autobiographies, especially when you get a good writer/ghost writer or someone who knows how to write up a transcript.
However, this is neither of those.
This is the most wonderful, evocative book about one of the key moments in my nation’s history, written first-hand by someone who could clearly turn a phrase every bit as well as he could fly a Spitfire. It’s fabulous.
The story is of a young man, Geoffrey Wellum, who leaves school at 17 in 1939 to become a pilot. In the book, he takes you through his training, and then, later, some of his best/worst/scariest missions. He is utterly honest, documenting his thoughts and feelings with a frankness that only someone who has been through the mill, and come out at peace with their own humanity, can. He describes his emotions, his fear and his distress as his colleagues and friends are lost, one by one. He describes how the threat of loss deepens the relationships between those who are left and how he, and they, deal with the omnipresent threat of death, themselves. When the heat of combat is finally over, after eighteen long months, and he is taken out of combat and sent home on sick leave, he briefly outlines how he reacted. For those few pages, alone, it’s worth a read, if only for the honesty they contain. The whole book is unfailingly frank about the daily business of being human under stress, and also about the personal and emotional cost.
The style of writing is quiet, understated, yet deep thinking and powerful. Geoffrey Wellum describes flying so vividly you feel you are right beside him, and the writing is compelling. This may be an autobiography, but it’s also a page turner. I read late into the night when I really should have been asleep. I found myself looking for a sequel, it was that good. But over and above that, I came out of it with a great deal of affection for Geoffrey Wellum. Because what comes across in this book is the story of an absolutely lovely chap; a complex and thoughtful young lad trying to do the right thing, but enduring horrors to do it. A man looking for answers which ultimately, perhaps, he finds and accepts, but which may not always be the ones he might expect. A man of great wisdom, so much so that I thought about writing to him to say how much I loved his book, but unfortunately he died in April this year (2018), aged 96.
As people who remember the horrors of the second world war, people like Geoffrey Wellum, die off, we seem to be forgetting. The modern world appears to be more and more profit-driven, our politics polarised and compassion, tolerance or kindness towards people who are weaker than/or different from us fading from daily life. This book is definitely worth a read, if only to face up to the reality of what lies at the end of the path some of the world’s major politicians appear to be embarked upon.
One of the best books I’ve ever read. Recommended.
Scout Pilot of the Free Union (Space Scout Book 1)
This is a comedy but run with me on this, there are similarities, I promise. Our hero, Frank Eric Russell is captain/pilot of a Valhalla Class Star Destroyer in the Free Union’s Star Fleet. We meet him as the Free Union and the Imperium are in an uneasy truce after years of war. Unfortunately Frank makes an embarrassing cock up during a diplomatic mission which leaves the Free Union looking … well … a bit rubbish, to be … Frank (badoom tish). He is punished by way of being transferred to the Free Union Star Fleet’s Reconnaissance Unit. There, he is assigned an ancient and outdated ship and sent on missions which are less prestigious, less carefully overseen and far more dangerous than the crappy obsolete vessel he is assigned to fly them in would suggest.
What I like about this is that Frank is very flawed and human. He can be a bit of an idiot, but he is well meaning and for all his averred cowardice he Does The Right Thing. There’s not a lot of descriptive world building, yet the world in question is very much alive and everything you need a handle on to imagine it properly is in place. Frank describes his missions in the first person which means he clearly understates the case most of the time. Things go wrong on most of them and he is forced to change the plan, or take radical action to fulfil his tasks and escape with his life. Indeed, most of his efforts are about survival and he just does as much of whatever it is he is supposed to be doing as he can while lurching from one crisis or ship’s mechanical failure to the next. But as the book continues, you begin to realise that, though he makes light of it, he is clearly an excellent pilot with a capacity for lateral thought that gets him out of situations that would certainly prove fatal to others. There are also the first hints that his exploits are beginning to get out and that he is beginning to be thought of by his peers as a hero.
Because this is all seen through the prism of his view, he is very understated and matter of fact in the way he describes his exploits – except when he is talking about lack of coffee at which point a hint of drama might creep in. It’s that style of delivery that reminded me of some of the sections in First Light. But also, I believe there was a lot of gallows humour in the RAF in WW2 as a way of dealing with the high casualty rate. This gallows approach is similarly abundant in the world of the Free Union’s Reconnaissance Unit. Likewise, the way Frank questions the ethics of the conflict but at the same time, steps up to do his duty, anyway, also echoed some of the moments of thought Wellum outlines in First Light.
Scout isn’t a deep book, by any means, or at least not like First Light; the humour is slapstick in places and very Milliganesque, so you have to like that sort of thing. It’s all very light and as such is chalk to First Light’s cheese. But, while it’s a quick entertaining read, at the same time, it’s way more complex than it appears when you start in. Macmillan Jones is smart enough to know the important truth that few heroes ever see themselves as such and that’s a facet of Wellum’s personality that is noticeable in First Light. I found the parallels between the two books interesting. Indeed, I found it very intriguing that I even noticed parallels. I’ll leave you to decide if I’m bonkers or onto something.
Light fun but fluff with more than one level! Recommended.
So there we are. If you want to read either book, just click on the picture and it will take you to a page with links to buy it in all the major stores. Although Scout is only available from Amazon both books are available in paperback and ebook – there’s also an audiobook of First Light.