The Assassins

 by BERNARD LEWIS

I have the 2003 Folio Society edition which has an interesting Preface. In it Lewis corrects various contentions that the Assassin sect were the first ‘terrorists’ – they were not. Nevertheless he notes the similarities between them and the modern terrorists – the Syrian/Iranian connection, the calculated use of terror and the willingness of the assassin himself to die in carrying out his task. There are indeed some distinct differences with the past. The followers of the Old Man only struck at the rich and powerful – never the common man – and they invariably used a dagger. Lewis concludes by pointing out the prime lesson to be learnt from this medieval sect (a lesson that modern terrorists should well note) “is their final and total failure.”
Lewis explains in clear and lucid language how the Assassins in one respect were without precedent – “in their planned, systematic and long-term use of terror as a political weapon.” This they achieved through cool planning and religious zeal. He demonstrates they were not murderers for hire. The book is a valuable source in efforts to understand some of the actions of this region even today where at times it seems there may be vestiges of the past fuelling discontent.

The Making of a Chinese City:History and Historiography in Harbin

 by SOREN CLAUSEN

Harbin is an odd city. From little more than a peasant village until the late 19th century it then became Russian under the control of the eastern railway company. It was the base for construction for the link to what was then Port Arthur(Lushun),at the bottom of the Liaoning Peninsula. Many observers in the first decade of the 20th century noted how the skyline and architecture convince it was clearly a Russian city.
The book looks at the development of Harbin in a chronological sequence, each chapter by a Chinese historian. Published in 1995 enough time had elapsed for the authors to take a cool look back, first at the history up to the incursions by the Russians, then the era of Japanese control,before China reclaimed the city after 1945. The book covers diverse topics in chapters. Foreign trade, the Chicken and Duck Company, development of labour unions, social conditions, brothels (Harbin was known as the ‘brothel of the east’ in the 1930’s), Japanese atrocities, and the assumption of control by Beijing.
For the student of Russo/Sino relations it is a useful source.

Stone’s Fall: a Novel

by  IAIN PEARS

Pears story starts at the end, and tracks back in three parts to explain why the characters end as they do. The reader is treated to flowing and detailed descriptions of the players in the mystery/drama, and of the locations – from London, to Paris, to Venice. Most of the action occurs in the time before WW I, an era when anything was possible.
Stone is an industrialist who builds a powerful arms empire, initially based on one new invention. The other, and arguably the main, character is a woman; or is it a series of women. Each of the main players meet by chance but become intertwined in the lives of the others. The final twist at the end is unexpected, but not totally unrealistic given the times.

The Victorian and Edwardian eras are rich grounds for a story-teller and Pears mines it well.
In addition to considering the foundations of the modern espionage departments, how it all began, he very effectively weaves in details of the evolving banking system and stock markets as we know them today.

My only criticism, and it is a very minor one, is that the book is a trifle long. Some of the descriptions could have been detailed. However, many will revel in the language. One word of warning – this is a complex story and it needs to be read without an extended interruption.

The Fall of Giants

 by  KEN FOLLETT

Ken Follett is a good story teller. Yet, as other reviewers have noted, in this book (as distinct from the medieval stories), the characters are a little thin. The ‘events’ to bring the threads of the plot to knit together are at times contrived. The tapestry he weaves is very broad covering the end of the Victorian era to the aftermath of WW I (the start of the socialist era). Perhaps following one main family as the core of the story may have helped, since all of the main Western countries of the period feature in the plot.

If you want to read a good yarn and have an interest in the broad relationships and trends – political and social – that occurred at this time, then you will enjoy it. A number of the characters are a bit stereotyped, but this is overcome by the author’s readable style. I’ll probably buy the next volume in the trilogy.

I read this on a Kindle – a lot easier to hold (its a heavy book!) and finished it in a week.

Nemarluk

 by ION IDRIESS

This book was first published in 1941. I read it in the 1960’s and still remember the story.

Nemarluk was one of the most successful Australian aboriginal warriors in resisting the incursion of the white man into his tribal lands. He led his people, the ‘Red Band’ as Idrioss describes them, on many sorties, spearing cattle and stealing whatever they needed. When the police gave chase they disappeared into rough, rugged and often waterless country. Idrioss writting style is very much of the ‘boys own adventure’ type, yet still enjoyable to read.

Nemarluk lived in the first third of the twentieth century in the country south and west of Darwin, near the Daly River in northern Australia. Idrioss, who travelled widely in outback Australia, met Nemarluk so had the advantage of first-hand knowledge. He also talked to the police who eventually caught their nemesis, locking him in Fanny Bay goal, where he died of a broken heart.

This is the story of a true ‘noble savage’ who in his own culture was no savage at all, but a revered leader. It is also the story of how the white men generally misunderstood the aborigine. Even though the style is a bit dated this is a story that derserves to be better known.

Bluejackets and Boxers

 by BOB NICHOLLS

This is the story of Australia’s naval expedition to the Boxer uprising in China in 1900. Not a lot is widely known about this nationalist rebellion these days (other than the Holywood versions). Even less is know about the Australian contribution to the multi-nation force that went in to China, ‘fought’ its way to Peking (Beijing) and rescued the Westerners besieged there. Some 500 Australian marines, sailors and others plus correspondents eventually landed in China.

The preparations to leave and the journey up to the Far East make fascinating (and at times amusing) reading. One of the officers, a Lt Spain, took his glass-plate camera with him. Many of the resultant photos are reproduced in the book, which is extensively illustrated. Between the photos (of a more brutal time) -150 of them – and the easy to read style of Bob Nicholls, this is an enjoyable book.

The contingent (less some casualties) arrived back in April 1901, having experienced a Peking winter. China was weak at this time in its history and sucumbed readily to a numerically inferior force. The Boxers were genuinely trying to get rid of the foreigners then effectively controlling the commerce. After several years they faded away and the Western nations (and Japan) continued their exploitation.

This book takes a very small piece of the history of this period and makes it entertaining and graphic.