US European War memoirs

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Larso
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US European War memoirs

Post by Larso » 23 Dec 2006 05:08

I've recently finished Gurley's 'Into the Mountains Dark' and it's got me interested in other memoirs from this theatre. I found a stack of new ones on Amazon and I've listed them here for your thoughts - if you've read them. Anyway, I'm looking to buy a few of them so any input would be appreciated.

Ones I have read already - starting with the best/most interesting

'Roll Me Over' by Raymond Gantter. An excellent, very well written account of combat.

'Seven Roads to Hell' by Donard R. Burgett. Real & raw. Lots of combat, including fighting with and against tanks in the Ardennes.

'Into the Mountains Dark' by Franklin L. Gurley. Some combat but much less than the above examples.

'Infantry Soldier' by George W. Neill. Lots of 'in the line' stuff but very little combat.

I've ranked these on the amount of combat and according to the quality of the writing but all of these are worthy books in a number of ways. If you've read any of these it would help if you could compare the following books to them.

'You can't get much closer than this: Combat with H Co, 313th RCT, 80th Div' by A. Adkins. Published in 2005

'Taught to Kill: An American Boy's War. Ardennes to Berlin' by John B. Babcock 2005

'Bootprints' by Hobert Winebrennar & M. McCoy (358th RCT, 90th Div) 2005

'Visions from a Foxhole: Rifleman in Patton's Ghost Corps' by William Foley (94th Div)

'If you Survive' : Normandy to The Bulge, One American officers true story. G. Wilson

Descending from the clouds: Memoir of Combat with 505 PIR, 82nd Abn. Spencer Wurst 2005

Most of the Amazon reviews were positive for all these books, so I'm still left unsure as to what to choose. Feel free to add in others if you think I've missed a goody. It was interesting to note on Amazon that family and fellow veterans contribute their reviews to the books listed. A couple of veterans actually questioned the truthfulness of one memoir by someone called Blunt. Very interesting stuff.

There was another

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Post by JonS » 23 Dec 2006 08:56

I've read "if you survive", at about the same time I read "roll me over" - I think I read them back-to-back actually. I much preferred "roll me over". It was less ... pompous? Self-important? Gantter wrote his book soon after the war, IIRC, and I particularly appreciated the way he dwelled on how he felt about things that occurred to him - eg, when he shot the German fleeing across the snow. The greatcoat imagary was especially powerful. Wilson (If you survive) is more descriptive, and much less personal. Having sad that, there are several really well written combat passage. One during the COBRA breakthrough, and another during the counter-attak phase of the Bulge fighting.

In summary, if asked to pick between Gantter and Wilson I would say Gantter without hesitation. However, since you've already read that one, I would also recomend Wilson.

I haven't read any of the others, on either of your lists.

Now, from left field, I'd reccomend "18 platoon" by Sydney Jary, and "And no birds sang" by Farley Mowat. The first is UK in 21st Army Gp, the second is Canadian in Italy, so they are outside your 'US ETO' scope, but both are very very good books.

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Post by Larso » 24 Dec 2006 03:58

Thanks JonS.

I've heard a few excellent reports about Wilson's book now. So I'll try and get it.

Also, there's no reason to keep this just to US memoirs, so I'll also add -

'By Tank into Normandy' by Stuart Hills. I've posted a review before but essentially this is a well written account of a British tankers war. There is sufficient combat and some interesting things about German armour and units. A lot of space is given to the casualties the unit suffered and the authors thoughts about this. A worthwhile read read.

'Accidental Warrior : In the front line from Normandy to Victory' by Geoffrey Picot is also a good read. The author was a mortar officer and in the later stages an infantry officer. He has some interesting thoughts on the British practice of concentrating troops into the Para's and SAS and not spreading these best troops throughout the army. He also has an interesting 'question $ answer' segment too. As a mortar man his experiences of combat aren't those of a man in a foxhole but they are pretty good nonetheless.

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Post by JonS » 28 Dec 2006 02:05

One more - mentioned in another thread which jogged my memory: "Company Commander" by McDonald. Very good read, and he was in some, uh, interesting spots.

Oh, and "Clay Pigeons of St Lo" by Johns (Gawd, how could I forget that name? :roll:) he was a bn commander in 29th Inf Div from some time after the landings till the capture of St Lo. Really good descriptions of the mechanics of the infantry battle in the hedgerows.

Interestingly, IMO these two as well as "If you survive" - all written by officers - all show the gulf between offrs and ORs in the US Army, and the general ... not disdain, but ... almost disinterest shown by offrs towards their men.
Last edited by JonS on 03 Jan 2007 01:20, edited 2 times in total.

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Post by Tom Houlihan » 28 Dec 2006 14:05

I recommend the rest of Don Burgett's books as well. Also, I just finished Fred Salter's Recon Scout, his story of being in the 91st Cav Sqdn in WWII. He served in Africa and Italy.

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Post by Marc Rikmenspoel » 29 Dec 2006 20:21

One well known account no one's mentioned is Company Commander, by Charles B. McDonald. This was written soon after the war, and describes his experiences commanding I Company, 23rd Infantry, 2nd Infantry Division from September 1944 (just after Brest) until early January 1945 (when he was wounded). After recuperating, McDonald commanded G Company of the same regiment for the rest of the war. He won a Silver Star in the Ardennes for rallying his men to hold out longer than later seemed reasonable, under heavy pressure from the 12. SS-PD HJ on December 17, 1944. That section of the book in particular makes gripping reading, but I enjoyed it all for the humanity McDonald brought to his writing. The book is easily found in used paperback copies via a web search.

Away from the Americans, I have really enjoyed Ken Tout's books about being a British tanker in NW Europe, for example, A Fine Night for Tanks.

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Post by Larso » 11 Mar 2007 08:50

Review : 'If you Survive' (From Normandy to the Bulge to the end of WW2 - One American officers riviting true story)' by George Wilson.

A few people spoke quite favourably of this book so I got it to add to my collection and see how it rated compared to the others in my list at the start of the thread (I got two others at the same time - I'm half way through the next).

I found 'If you Survive' to be an interesting read - but not ''riveting" as the blurb would have it. The author is straight into the combat which is good and his first battle is a doozy, riding Shermans into battle and being ambushed by panzerfausts (one tank was hit and his 8 men on top of it all died). Strangly though this seemed to be almost the last time he wrote about shooting directly at enemy soldiers and I guess it's this that I want to read about. This is not to disparage what comes next. Indeed as a platoon and later company commander his job was to arrange for others to do the shooting. We do then read a lot about his planning for patrols and attacks. What was very clear was that artillary did indeed do most of the killing in this war. Several times US or German forces up to battalion size are just shreaded away, almost entirely by indirect fire. His own company is virtually wiped out at one piont. How he survived while moving about directing everything is truly a miracle. His account of this action is one of the book's highlights in my opinion. He takes time to reflect on the training he received and again I thought there was a lot of worth in these.

And the issue of survival is a key one. At the start he is keeps a sort of running tally on the casualties his platoon suffers. There are so many that he quickly realises he has to keep some sort of distance from it, if he is to do his job properly. I felt that this effort on his part perhaps comes across in his text in other ways. Therefore I would say his tone is a sober one. It tells his story but I didn't feel completely engaged. There were probably too few "Oh my God"! passages - something you've never read before that really stays with you (and no doubt horrific to recall, so I'm not blamming the author). But even if I thought the book a bit short on gore or tension, compared to the best memoirs, it was still a pretty good read. Particularly if you have an interest in how officers handle some the incredible pressures they are under. It was officers like this bloke who really won the battles for the Allies.

As for my list above, I rate "If you Survive" in the middle.

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Post by Larso » 22 Mar 2007 11:30

Visions From a Foxhole: A Rifleman in Patton's Ghost Corps by William A. Foley Jr

Ballantine Books/Presidio Press Book. First published 2003, P/back 2004. 303 pages

This book is an absolute CORKER!!! (excellent in every way). Foley was 18 when assigned to the 94th Infantry Division (G Co 302nd Inf Regt) and his war was from the end of 1944 to victory in the West. Foley is exceedingly literate and as an artist, also has an incredible eye for detail. Some of his descriptions are the most stunning I can recall reading. He is also the real deal - a rifleman from start to finish. He is in the thick of the advance and therefore was involved in several major actions as well as many minor incidents as his division advances into Germany. His first action is amazing. Virtually from the truck he dismounted as a replacement he went into an assault on a village that cost the attackers half their strength. His style here is reminiscient of Burgetts - everything seems to be a blur but there is a hell of a lot of explicit action before he (and the reader it seemed) manages to draw breath.

After this impressive opening, I was further impressed with the authors ability to take descriptions of the usual gripes of Winter living to another level. Dealing with the cold and damaged feet and living in a hole has never been described better. The pinacle of the authors account for me though was his involvement in the battle of Schomerich when his unit was attacked and cut of by the 6th SS Mountain. This was just carnage. The house to house fighting was exceptionally graphically conveyed. There was also one incident that left my jaw almost on the ground!! So much happened, the brutality of everything left me stunned! This was war writing of the highest order.

One of the treats in this book was Foley's sketches of the men and events he saw. They are very impressive and convey things that pictures don't seem to emphasize enough. The book was written many years after the war but Foley has recaptured the rawness of those youthful experiences. As such, it very much reveals the thoughts and emotions of an 18 year old and is therefore different in tone, compared for instance, to the more mature reflections that Gantter's (he was 30 or so) book had for me. It has a rawness and honesty about personal deeds that many other memoirs lack. The author's skill as a writer works extremely well to reveal this in a way that I found riviting.

Another much appreciated feature was Foley's efforts to name the units he fought (including 11th Pz) as well as the other US units alongside. Finally it was very revealing to read the authors thoughts on veterans associations and how attending his first one in 1994 was one of the most rewarding things he ever did.

I can't recommend this memoir highly enough. I rate it above Gantters book, as the best account of fighting in the ETO that I have read to this point.

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Post by Larso » 02 Apr 2007 12:07

'Company Commander' by Charles B. MacDonald

A couple of you spoke highly of this book and now that I've read it, I can only agree. It is a good read.

The author served as a commany commander in the 23rd Infantry Regt (2nd Inf Div) from just before the Bulge to the end of the war in Czechoslovakia. Unlike many of the other memoirs I have read, MacDonald wrote his account straight after the war, his book being first published in 1947. He was therefore able to recall a lot of the dialogue that happened around the events he experienced and as an army historian he obviously 'kept his hand in' with military life in general. We have then a fairly detailed account of his combat experiences, which include a dramatic day at the start of the Bulge and somewhat more unique, working (fighting) his way through the big flak gun batteries near the industrial areas of Germany. These are honest and graphic - to a degree. He reveals his own fears, for himself and for his men and while casualties are suffered and inflicted, the book has less of the gore that more recent memoirs seem to have. I think this reflects the time it was written. Things were more genteel then. Another trait of the times is MacDonalds practice of giving his men their full name, home town and state - something which to me is quaintly American - but reflective of the importance these men had to him and obviously, it also helps to involve the reader in their stories.

Happily for MacDonald his war was not as horrendous as some of the others - Wilson's for example. His commands are spared the truly high casualties. Sometimes by good luck, other times because experienced NCOs and platoon officers stayed alive and kept their men alive with them. This said there is still a lot of being pushed time and again at German defences, without rest and food. You truly feel for MacDonald and his soldiers. The authors own involvement in direct combat is limited but his job was to command others and he certainly shared the hardships they did.

As for my list, I rate this book on a par with Wilson's "If you Survive'. They have different feels/strengths/emphasis but I feel they compliment each other nicely. For some reason I kept on wishing I'd found this book when I was 15. I suspect I would have loved it then. As it is I like it. It is engaging and interesting. I recommend it as a 'good' read.

Once again, anyone else who has read any of these memoirs or better yet, a different one, is invited to post their thoughts here. I have another six or so to plow through yet, then I'll do a similar thing for the Pacific. At this time I'm limiting myself to books I can get in paperback. Also books that are over 200 pages (there's quite a few about of as few as 100 pages) and where the author experience a fair bit of combat (there's at least three where severe wounds were received on the writers first day. These would probably be best explored in their own list).

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Post by Marc Rikmenspoel » 02 Apr 2007 19:11

I was around 11 or 12 when I first read Company Commander, and it was one of the most gripping things I have EVER read in my life. So your comment about reading it when younger is well taken! As to the Pacific, while E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa is justifiably praised (it's one of the best memoirs I have ever read), I'll repeat something I have mentioned before, it is worth seeking out used paperbacks of Russel Davis' Marine at War to see a related perspective from a man who was in those same two campaigns, only in a different regiment of the 1st Marine Div.

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Post by Marc Rikmenspoel » 02 Apr 2007 19:31

Back to Europe, I looked through my shelves and found some books no one has mentioned yet. The first two I haven't read, but their subject matter is rather obscure. Through My Eyes: 91st Infantry Division in the Italian Campaign 1942-1945 is Leon Weckstein's memoir. It IS a paperback, but it is large format, so that its 195 pages hopefully count for more than 200 in the usual small format. The second so far unread book is a small hardcover, but bought used. It has only 175 pages, so it might not make Larso's reading list, but for others reading this thread, you can search out The Forgotten Front in Northern Italy: A World War II Combat Photographer's Illustrated Memoir of the Gothic Line Campaign, by Robert H. Schmidt.

Back to small format old paperbacks, I did read years ago Ross S. Carter's Those Devils in Baggy Pants, his account written just after the war of his service in the 82nd Airborne from North Africa until part way through The Bulge. I since learned that he fictionalized certain characters, but the experiences Carter describes are authentic, and his unit was not spared casualties. Only 191 pages, but hopefully that is good enough!

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Post by Larso » 06 Apr 2007 08:26

Thanks Marc. Another of my 'rules' was to restrict myself to books that were readily available - as in, currently in publication - but that 'Marine at War' sounded so interesting, I just bought a second hand copy on Amazon.

On Amazon, I've found it an excellent resource to firstly find, and even learn about books that are available. The review section is also useful, though too many of the ones posted lack the learned military experience/tone that writers on this forum often have. This said, these have helped me choose which books to buy for my 'project'.

An interesting point on this were the reviews for Foley's book, reviewed by me above. Of the 18 reviews postedon Amazon, 4 were negative/cynical. They were basically suspicious that all that was written was true or had actually happened to just one man. One dismissed Foley as a sort of John Wayne/Audie Murphy cross. I found this unfair. Foley's experiences were dramatic but as he managed to avoid death/wounds while being constantly in the front line, it seemed reasonable to me. Frankly if you serve for 6 months, and engage in a couple of battles, as well as several months of fighting through German defence lines - you'll have a few stories to tell. And you'd have killed a few Germans in the process. Audie Murphy was credited with causing 240 plus German casualties - Foley claims nothing like this. Indeed compared to other accounts of similar combat service, he seems to have only done what would have been expected.

To further confuse the issue one of Foley's critics was a veteran of one of the 94th Div's sister Regts. He felt too much was accomplished by one man and to me, bizarely relied on statistics to discredit the number of Germans 'accounted' for by Foley (and really it's a modest number). Yet, another veteran of Foley's Regt felt the book so authentic that he writes he's bought many copies to give to friends and relatives! Perhaps most telling in terms of it's authenticity is that it is listed on the 94th Div's homepage. Surely a book with too many 'problems' wouldn't be carried/promoted by an organisation where people - other veterans - would really know.

In my firm opinion, this book is authentic and my strong recommendation stands.

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Post by Larso » 08 Apr 2007 09:38

'Arn's War' by Edward C. Arn. Edited by Jerome Mushkat. Published by The University of Akron Press 2006. Subtitled : Memoirs of a World War 2 Infantryman, 1940-46

A simplistic title and a slightly archaic font/layout had me a little concerned but 'Arn's War' turned out to be quite a worthwhile read. Arn entered the service older than most and in slightly unusual terms but he became an excellent combat officer, winning two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. He joins the 119th Regt of the 30th Infantry Division in July and enters combat in Normandy around St.-Lo. He also has a part at Mortain before further action around Aachen, the Ardennes and the drive through Germany. He is even involved in a couple of notable events, meetings and 'firsts'.

As such, his experiences are quite extensive and he saw a lot of combat. Men right beside him die and (as a result) he quickly rises to command of F Company, 2nd Battalion. He values his men and does his best to avert foolish orders that would waste lives. He doesn't spare those he considers to be responsible for these. He names and shames. He is also honest and confesses to his own darkest moments. Yet, even though he writes glowingly of his weapon of choice - he never reveals if he ever fired it. I am aware that firing on another human being would be awful to recall and worse to recount but it is netherless something one expects in a war memoir. Arn is certainly honest, sometimes searingly so, but he has left other things out of his text as well. There are things mentioned in the Editors introduction that Arn doesn't touch on in his text. There's still a lot there but in my opinion this holds this book from being a classic.

This aside, other things of note included some brutal pillbox fighting revelations, as well as his perspective on censoring mail, and it's impact and sometimes consequences on men so far from home. He has a bit to say on the points system and it's impact on him. He also has some interesting perspectives on his training (he became one for a while) and occupation duties. There is a little more detail on these than usual and it is quite interesting. (There is also very extensive notes/ index at the back, filling in context and the fate of various fellow soldiers. The Editor writes a big intro, which is a bit redundant for most of us but would be very useful to readers less familiar with the war).

Arn's writing style is solid. It is matter-of-fact, home-spun even. Certainly during his training he has an almost perpetually astonished sense about him. It is a less immediate account than some of the others I have described here. Apparently he wrote most of it during the 70s. He has combined his recollections with extracts from his letters home. Generally this device adds to the text (revealing Arn's attitudes during the war - very interesting regarding the various times he was bombed by his own airforce!), though a few times this, as well as a couple of the Editors insertions makes things momentarily confusing.

'Arn's War' is a good book. In many ways it on a par with the other two officers accounts (Wilson's and MacDonalds) but given that Arn has held back regarding his own most intimate combat moments, I'll rate it below their two books. However, given he gives us his whole story for the period, I rate this book higher than Gurley's - who gives us only his first battle. All this said, Arn was very much the sort of officer we would all have been lucky to serve under!

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Post by Larso » 11 Apr 2007 07:25

‘Taught to Kill’ by John B. Babcock.

Subtitled – ‘An American boy’s war from the Ardennes to Berlin’. Potomac Books Inc (formerly Brassey’s) 2005. Paperback 2007. Published in cooperation with the Association of the United States Army. Foreword by Rick Atkinson.

This guy can write! At times I felt he matched William Manchester (‘Goodbye Darkness’ and various Kennedy and MacArthur books) for his ability to convey the awfulness of the soldier’s experience. Babcock seems to have hit on the perfect balance of gravitas and profanity and as for detail, I don’t think the harsher realities of wounds and death have ever been revealed as confrontingly as they are here. Somewhat jarringly, this Armageddon follows some of the funniest, laugh out loud material I have ever read about training and army life. The humour is brash and in the chapter where Babcock considers the place of the ‘F’ word in the army, extremely blue! Sadly but appropriately, given what is to come, this hilarity is all too brief. I suppose my point is here, that whatever subject or mood Babcock covers, it is exceedingly well written.

Babcock goes to France with the 78th Infantry Division, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge. Throughout his account he only refers to his unit as A company, to avoid the identification of some of his fellow soldiers. To this end, he has also changed some names and as details are revealed, it is obvious why this was necessary. In addition, Babcock does not stick to the usual linear narrative. Sure, things begin with his opening battle and end with occupation duties in Berlin but between these he explores various sub-stories where it suits him. These include the usual realities of front line life (and death) but also such things as recovering bodies, sexuality and the first case of fragging that I can recall, among others – a few being quite ‘fresh’ themes indeed! Even so, this style of narrative left me a little off balance at times. Also, most of the other soldiers he writes about only appear briefly, before their demise. Yet on reflection, I found the effect of these methods was to strongly reiterate the fragmentary realities of the front line.

As for combat, Babcock is in charge of mortars, first a squad and latter the platoon. He writes a lot about these, their positioning, how they work etc but only a little about actually firing them. Most of the combat he reveals is with him and his fellow soldiers on the receiving end. As said above, this is very graphic but as he is not a rifleman his combat experiences are different to those that where. While he has left some things out, what he includes has a lot of impact. There is no time wasted on inconsequential happenings away from the front line and indeed, Babcock covers things that others generally have not. For instance, the problems with integrating new replacements with veterans and their reluctance to follow orders, especially as the war winds down. He also does the best job yet of describing the state of exhaustion the soldiers operated in.

I strongly recommend this book, particularly, for those who don’t care so much for places and tactics, who just want to know the raw truth. This is not a kid’s book! It is very adult in content, revealing the realities of war in very graphic and sometimes profane ways.

As to his ranking on my list. His prose is so good that he frankly makes some of the other writers seem very dry, so I’m putting him above Wilson and MacDonald on that score. Now that puts him up to my top bracket, however as there is something about the rifleman, who actually closes with, and kills the enemy (and then writes a book telling all the details) that deserves ongoing credit, I’m going to leave him just under Gantter’s book. This is very much a personal taste thing though, depending on which aspect of a memoir you give weight to. As a writer, Babcock is unquestionably at the top of the list. This is a modern book, with modern writing that almost definitively reveals the realities of combat in the ETO. As such it is probably also the book that would give the casual reader the most accurate picture of the times. Mature readers only though!

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Post by Larso » 28 Apr 2007 05:13

‘Other Clay : A Remembrance of the WWII Infantry’ by Charles R. Cawthorn

Bison Books 1990, P/back Uni of Nebraska Press 2004. 180 pages (6x9 inch format).

The author was with the 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regt of the 29th Division. He landed on Omaha in the third wave, fought in the hedgerows before St. Lo and in the siege of Brest before finally being wounded at Aachen. Both before and after the war the author was a journalist and it shows – this is a beautifully written book. His style is precise, lyrical, almost classical in tone. There are many references to other wars and times (the title is from a poem about Waterloo), in particular to his unit’s heritage as Stonewalls Brigade in the Civil War. None of this is done in a pretentious way, the author is very aware of history and he recognises that he has a role in part of it. These references enhance the text and reveal a lot about the authors thoughts.

As for combat, the casualties start in training, something we usually read little about. Omaha Beach is revealed, almost as a blur, with few of the graphic details we know from ‘Saving Private Ryan’. Cawthorn’s beach is a place of death but also at times, strangely calm. He was there for hours trying to sort men out and funnel them to where the breakthrough has been made. He was wounded and even became famous following Ernie Pyle’s misreading of the circumstances. His combat revelations continue in the same vein for the rest of his war. There is detail but it is more impressions rather than blow by blow action. Deaths occur near him but he has little time in the foxholes and never reveals if he had to fire his own weapon. Primarily this is because he is HQ company commander and later battalion commander so his exposure was different to that of a rifleman. He writes a little of his opponents, but given who some of these were (Ramcke’s 2nd Para for instance), I wanted to read more.

Cawthorn is at once an intimate participant in all he sees but also somewhat removed. This does not detract from the book, it is after all titled a ‘remembrance’ and is very well composed. He is reflective, sometimes amused at the ironies of war and utterly aware of his own fears. So well revealed were these and so rich was the prose, that I thought him to be more University professor than journalist. Even so, it’s probably not for those who like to read about graphic combat. It’s not that kind of book, it is more about the impressions that were left than of the blow being delivered. I didn’t get the feeling for instance that I was there beside him which some of the others listed above do manage. (I was left in no doubt though that this was a blessing!) It is however a beautiful read – it really resonates, appealing to both the English and the History teacher in me.

As for ‘Other Clay’s’ place on my list it probably has to rank just below ‘Into the Mountains Dark’ in terms of the clarity, if not the amount, of the combat revealed. However, in terms of being generally engaging it goes much higher. Indeed, when considered in terms of its level of literate skill, it’s probably in the top three.

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