25 June 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Bluebirds: A Battle of Britain Novel by Melvyn Fickling

My rating: 4.7 out of 5
DISCLAIMER: I received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I’ll cut straight to the chase and say that this is an excellent novel, no doubt about it. While not a new idea it’s a solid World War Two yarn full of the things that make fact-based war stories so fascinating to someone like me who has not had the misfortune of being involved in such events. It’s got superb action sequences which fully support the “meticulously researched” claim and it’s an excellent portrayal of the human aspects of war, the highs and lows and the sobering realities of how it affects people and their society.

As a kid, I remember being inspired by words from one of Winston Churchill’s stirring speeches:

We shall fight on the seas and oceans.
We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air.
We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches.
We shall fight on the landing grounds.
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets.
We shall fight in the hills.
We shall never surrender!

The backdrop to these famous words and this story is England in 1940 when the British people are facing the prospect of Nazi invasion from across the English Channel. I’ve long had an interest in these events and is the main reason that I felt compelled to read it. I’m glad I did.

Central to the story are a group of young men and their families who answer the call and step up to face the Nazi menace. They come together as fighter pilots in the Royal Air Force during the hectic and dramatic days of the Battle of Britain. One of these chaps has made his way into RAF service from rural America and in the process becomes a poster boy for the British government as part of their efforts in trying to gain US government help in repelling the advancing Germans. To be fair, he is less than enthusiastic about his propaganda role and wishes to simply do his part in helping the people of Britain to defend themselves. Elsewhere, a pair of friends who are already serving pilots in an RAF fighter squadron watch as everything they have trained for suddenly becomes a reality. They witness early on over the beaches of Dunkirk the might of the Nazi war machine. They are like chalk and cheese in many ways yet share a bond that is forged in battle. Another key character, an unfortunate yet likeable lad raised in an abusive environment and who carries his demons with him right into the cockpit of a Spitfire. The characterization is one of the book’s stand out facets and overall there is a good mix of personalities which are all very real and believable. The author say in his notes that some of the characters are loosely based on real people which obviously lends itself to their authenticity.

The first third or so of the book is a real delight, introducing the main players as youngsters and giving the reader a nice look into how life was during the era, whether it be in rural America during the amazing barnstorming days of the 20’s & 30’s or in a quaint seaside village in England. As time progresses ominously toward World War Two, each of the main characters’ motivations for wanting to serve are well explored and I found myself relating to each one of them in one way or another. The depictions of the pre-war world are excellent, the descriptions of the locations and events are superb and it all combines to really put you right there in the time and place.

The remainder of the book is taken up with parallel wartime stories of the characters and eventually, they come together in the latter stages. Their battles are against more than just the Luftwaffe in the skies over England, for each has their own sideline life concerns or issues to contend with and, again, these are real-world and easy to relate to. The air combat sequences are excellent, being energetic and concise and there are lots of them. Actually, these are some of the best air combat scenes that I’ve read in a fictional work. The technical accuracy appears to be spot on too, the author obviously has done quite an amount of research or has some sort of first-hand knowledge. I can say this with a level of confidence due to my own reading of factual memoirs from people on both sides of the conflict such as Douglas Bader, Adolf Galland and Pierre Clostermann. The author must have drawn on similar first-hand accounts while compiling this tale. Top marks for that.

The text flows very well and the character dialogue is excellent. There is a modest amount of jargon but there is a glossary at the back of the book which explains the terminology. This was a nice help at times although the text is quite informative and there didn’t seem to be much necessity to refer to it. A tad confusingly, each chapter has a Latin singular word title and I had a little trouble in grasping their significance to the story because had to look up their meanings. I think that an English word would be of more use here, presenting the chapter’s point of emphasis more effectively. This is my only negative thought of the whole book which made it stand out to me all the more.

In summary, the story easily took me back the 70 or so years and is probably one of the best novels of this genre that I’ve read. Sure, it’s a story concept that is well-worn territory, yet it’s executed so well that it seemed somehow fresh. The promotional blurb says that this is the first in a series of historical novels, a thought which excites me if they’re going to be anything like this one. It would be cool to see a continuation story from this one, following key characters during their ongoing combat journeys. This is a great book to relax with and be reminded of how much was given and sacrificed, and that “never was so much owed by so many to so few”. A highly recommended read.

Concept: 4/5
Delivery: 5/5
Entertainment: 5/5
= 4.7 out of 5

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