BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Spanish Flu Epidemic And Its Influence on History: Stories from the 1918-1920 global flu pandemic’


Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: The Spanish Flu Epidemic And Its Influence on History: Stories from the 1918-1920 global flu pandemic

Author: Jaime Breitnauer

Total Number of Printed Pages: 136

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 6


When writing in the volume’s Author’s preface, the author states that what follows is ‘A creative re-telling of the experiences of real people, giving an authentic face to the many tragedies that unfolded’. While an admirable concept, the end result may not be as the author intended.

Within the book itself, the previously mentioned Authors Preface, follows the Contents page and is in turn followed by a section titled Prologue: the month before war. Within this the author attempts to detail the political situation which led to the advent of World War 1, and the appearance of what subsequently became known as The Spanish Flu’. She does largely through the use of the Stream of Consciousness narrative technique (a method used more commonly used in works of fiction). This technique takes the reader into the mind of a specific individual and attempts to explain their actions by means of an imagined narrative of their thoughts. The individual chosen in this instance is Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian anarcho-nationalist who’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (of which Serbia was then a region) ultimately started World War I, the reader being privy to that individual’s thoughts immediately prior to the assassination. That what is related is fictional is not mentioned.   The 11 Chapters and Epilogue which form the bulk of the volume now follow. These are divided into four sections (termed Parts) and cover the origins, effects and decline of the Spanish Influenza pandemic from 1914 to 1920. Within each Part, individual Chapters cover specific aspects of the disease and its effects on local populations, regions and economies. Each Chapter follows a similar format and starts with a ‘Retelling of the experiences of real people’ (as indicated by the author in her Author’s preface). Again the Stream of Consciousness technique is used for the purpose. Where necessary,(and to fit the prevailing narrative), additional and similar Stream of Consciousness-embroidered ‘Tales’ may also appear within the individual Chapter. These ‘Retellings’ are intertwined with detailed  (and presumably ‘true’ and ‘accurate’; in many instances there is no way to know) accounts of what is known about the origins of the disease within the specific geographical specific area, the medical and political individuals involved and the preventative measures (or the lack of) taken in response to its onset. Where additional information is required, End-note–type citations are used. These are Chapter-specific and numeric in sequence, with the relevant citations appearing in a dedicated Notes section placed towards the back of the book. Unlike its companions, Part 4 (Secrets in the Snow: What Have we Learned in 100 years) and its subsections (Chapter 11 Peace In the Time of Influenza…) and the volume’s Epilogue (Northern Exposure…) deal with the post-pandemic world and subsequent scientific research into the causes of the original outbreak, the chances of a recurrence, and the medical and social options available should the disease reappear. A section titled About the Author follows the Epilogue. Its’ title is self-explanatory, and is in turn followed by the books’ Notes section, this being the repository for the previously-mentioned End-note-type Citations which appear throughout the volume.  A seven-page-long Bibliography follows.  This section lists the Books, Periodicals/ Articles and Websites used in the volume’s preparation. The Volume’s Index now appears. It is its final section. The book contains 16 pages of Images. These are monochrome in format, and cover a variety of subjects from viruses to advertisements. While they are informatively captioned, it was noted that several carried no supporting citations. The existence of the images is not mentioned in either Index or on the Contents page. The volume contains no Maps.

As previously-noted, the author states that what she has written is ‘A creative re-telling of the experiences of real people, giving an authentic face to the many tragedies that unfolded’. In support of that statement this reviewer expected to find such tales accompanied by authenticating citations and that the volume itself would be awash with the associated End-note type numbers. Such was not the case. Who (for example) were Messers. Clark, Da Cunha, or Lewis (page 19)? Did they actually even exist? Certainly reference is made to the ‘…Diaries of military chaplain Ed Clark’ but without any authenticating citations, how can a reader know if these documents, or even the individuals so-named are anything but mythical? The author’s use of the term ‘creative’ in her statement only serves to add to the possibility, such a term traditionally implying an ‘active’ imagination and ‘inventiveness’ on the part of whichever author uses it. The combination of ‘creative’ and lack of citations gave this reviewer no confidence in the authenticity of the narrative. The use of the Stream of Consciousness ‘imagined dialogue’ writing form further compounds the problem, as that writing-style has no verifiable basis of fact. Its use in a volume purporting to be a Serious Historical Record is immediately suspect, diluting and cheapening the narrative and its possible historical value. Statistics, where given, are equally unsupported. The statement (for example, and on page 44) that ‘In Uppsala…a record 5,000 cases were recorded in just one month…’ is meaningless in the absence of supporting, verifying and (most importantly) AUTHENTICATING documentation. In addition, the Index is best described as being ‘Patchy’; with random checking finding numerous ommissions; those of NHS (p.viii) and Pioneer Health Services (page 36) being but two of many. This reviewer was also surprised to find that countries such as New Zealand, Japan and Australia were missing from the Index; this despite having entire sections written about them. The reasons for such significant omissions are unknown.

Although this volume is well-written and intentioned, the lack of supporting citations, use of the Stream of Consciousness writing style, and poor indexing has resulted in a book best–described as ‘imagined’ history. It does not conform to historical-writing ‘best practice’ and as a result cannot and should not, be considered to be a true and accurate record. It might just as well be a novel.

Although, due to the previously-noted ‘failings’ it cannot be considered to be an ‘Authoritative Source’ this volume may be of interest to Sociologists and Historians of various persuasions. Readers with an interest in unusual ‘Medical’ events might also find it of interest, as might those with an interest in their national histories and the impact that the ‘Flu had on their countries. The information it contains however, should be taken with considerable caution.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this book a 6.

It could have been so much better.



BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Spanish Flu Epidemic And Its Influence on History: Stories from the 1918-1920 global flu pandemic’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Captain Elliot And The Founding Of Hong Kong: Pearl Of The Orient’

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Reviewer:  Michael Keith

Title: Captain Elliot And The Founding Of Hong Kong: Pearl Of The Orient

Author: Jon Bursey

No. of Pages: 274

Rating Scale (1: very poor, 10: excellent): 8 ½


In the Author’s Note at the front of this volume, the author, when alluding to the establishment of Hong Kong, notes that ‘…I have been struck…both by the critical nature of [Charles] Elliot’s role and by the comparative lack of recognition accorded him subsequently as a person and for his work. I have sought in this book to describe his life…the challenges that faced him, and to set them in historical context’. He also states that ‘It has been my intention to cover the whole of Elliot’s career as thoroughly as sources permit’. It is an effective summary.

An Acknowledgements section placed after the Contents page thanks those individuals and organisations who contributed to the volume. It is followed by the previously mentioned Author’s Note. Within that section (and in addition to the statements already noted), the author also details the efforts he made to ensure accuracy of the narrative and to provide modern-day equivalent-values for mid-Nineteenth Century currency. A Maps section follows. This contains four full-page maps relevant to the narrative. A List of Illustrations appears next. This replicates the captions for the 36 images appearing within a 16 page section placed at the centre of the volume. A Prologue section then precis’ what is to follow. The main part of the work then follows. Consisting of nineteen Chapters, these are in turn sub-divided to three Parts. These trace Charles Elliot’s life, with Chapter One (Forbears, Father and Family) providing ancestral background. The remaining Chapters detail Elliot’s career, while simultaneously providing background to the various events in which he played a part. Such is their detail, these ‘backgrounds’ are in themselves worthy of scrutiny. An Epilogue placed after Chapter 19 summarises and reviews Elliot’s life and his accomplishments. Three Appendices follow that Chapter. Where appropriate, the book uses End-notes to provide addition information. These are numeric, sequential and Chapter-specific, with the relevant citations being placed in a dedicated Notes and References section after the Appendices. A Bibliography follows and is in turn followed by an eight-page Index; the volume’s final section. As already noted, the book contains both Illustrations and Maps.

There is no doubt that this is an excellent and well-researched volume. For this reviewer however it was let down by inconsistencies in its Index. Random Index searching during the reviewing process for items such as Pax Britannica (page xvii) and Royal Botanic Gardens and Kew (both on page 213), found entries for neither. What else may also have been omitted is not known. In addition, the English East India Company (page xviii)  appears within the Index as East India Company. Which title is correct?  There is no way of knowing. Numerous quotes appear within the volume. Some are referenced, some are not (the quotes on page 165 being but two examples of such practices). In the absence of relevant citations to prove their authenticity, unreferenced quotes have little research value, a detail which may reduce the volume’s value as a research tool. Curiously, many quotes do not commence with a capital letter. In apparent defence of this practice the author states that ‘For the sake of authenticity I have reproduced spelling punctuation and syntax…as they appear in the original odd though they may sometimes seem including the apparently random use of capital letters’.  Whether this statement applies to the aforementioned quotes is unclear, but the presence of capitalised and non-capitalised quotes within the volume, does the narrative no favours.

This volume is well written and researched. Being biographical in nature it may appeal to readers seeking a straight ‘adventure’ story. It may also be useful to historians interested in the Nineteenth Century Royal Navy.  Historians researching British Imperial Policies and actions during the same century may well find it worthy of their attentions, while those seeking in-depth historical data on locations such as China, the ‘British’ Caribbean and the Republic of Texas may also find it of interest.

On a Rating Scale where 1: very poor, 10: excellent, I have given this volume an 8 ½.



BOOK REVIEW: ‘Captain Elliot And The Founding Of Hong Kong: Pearl Of The Orient’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Malayan Emergency and Indonesian Confrontation: The Commonwealth’s Wars 1948-1966’


Reviewer:  NZ Crown Mines

Title: The Malayan Emergency and Indonesian Confrontation: The Commonwealth’s Wars 1948-1966

Author: Robert Jackson

No. of Pages: 156

Rating Scale (1: very poor, 10: excellent): 9


Ask the average person what they know about Britain’s ‘Small Wars’ and they will invariably mention India and Africa, perhaps even the Falklands. Ask them if they know anything about the Malayan Emergency and they may say that they had heard of it (perhaps from a relative serving there) but beyond that, they know little.  Ask about ‘Confrontation’ and the response will usually be; ’Never heard of it’.  This book goes a long way to remedying that oversight.

The Preface of this volume summarises its contents succinctly: ‘Between 1948 and 1966, British Commonwealth forces fought two campaigns in South-East Asia; the first against Communist terrorists in Malaya, the second against Indonesian forces in Borneo’. As they both occurred within the same geographical area and within 18 months of each other, it has suited this author to group these two conflicts together  They were however two separate and largely-unrelated entities, with what became known as the Malayan Emergency occupying the larger part of the narrative. it is on that basis that this volume will be reviewed. Despite that minor detail, the volume is an excellent narration of the ‘Malayan’ wars. It could become a standard reference work on its subject.

When describing the Malayan Emergency, the author introduces the reader to the various causes of the conflict, the protagonists and the military actions that were taken. These are presented clearly and in a well-written and readable style. The ‘Emergency was the first time after World War II in which the British military machine made serious use of aircraft in its military operations. Due to its uniqueness, several chapters have been devoted to both describing and analysing this aspect of the operation. A chapter on Psychological warfare as it was applied to the ‘Emergency is also provided, Conversely the British Commonwealth-Indonesian military conflict now known as the Confrontation is the subject of only a single chapter.

A Preface at the beginning of the volume summarises its subject. This is followed by 15 Chapters. To provide an all-important background, Chapter One introduces the reader to ‘Malaya: The land and the people’. This is followed in turn by seven Chapters (No.’s 2-8) which outline the causes of the conflict, its development, the various military operations which occurred and  the circumstances which contributed to its final outcome. Chapters 9-12 provide details of how air power was used in the conflict, while Chapter 13 is devoted specifically to Psychological Warfare as it was applied to the ‘Emergency. Chapter 14 presents the author’s conclusions about that conflict and its place in history, while Chapter 15 is devoted entirely to the Indonesian Confrontation of 1962-1966. Two Appendices follow. The first records naval operations that occurred during both the ‘Emergency and Confrontation.  The second, the various Commonwealth military and aviation units deployed during the ‘Emergency. A Bibliography follows the Appendices, while an Index concludes the volume.  Two Maps are provided. These show the relevant ‘combat areas’ discussed within the book. The volume contains no photographs.

This reviewer could find little to fault in this volume, although some photographs showing the terrain being fought through could perhaps have provided context for the narrative. He wonders though, if the author’s description of the Avro Lincoln as a ‘Medium Bomber’ (P.69) might raise some eyebrows amongst former Lincoln aircrew who were told that their aeroplane was in fact a ‘Heavy’.

Those with an interest in either Post-World War II British military history, Royal Air Force operations in Asia, or military operations in the (British) ‘Far East’ may find this volume of value, as could former service personnel who participated in the conflicts it describes.

On a Rating Scale where 1: very poor, 10: excellent, I have given this volume a 9.




BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Malayan Emergency and Indonesian Confrontation: The Commonwealth’s Wars 1948-1966’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Red Line: A Railway Journey Through the Cold War’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title: The Red Line: A Railway Journey Through the Cold War

Author: Christopher Knowles

Total Number of Printed Pages: 220

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 6


In the introductory voice-over text of the television series Star Trek, viewers were told that the spacecraft’s mission was ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before’. This is a reasonable summation of this volume, with the only real difference being that the author had a party of paying tourists with him when he ‘boldly went’ into what was at that time, a completely foreign world; one that lurked all-unknown, behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains.

This book is part autobiography and part travelogue, and, while narrating events that occurred enroute, inevitably contains the author’s personal views concerning those he was travelling with, the countries being travelled through and the people and systems he encountered while doing so. Ostensibly it narrates the author’s experiences while taking a party of tourists from London to Hong Kong during 1981; a time when the Cold War was at its height and Westerners were a novelty east of the Berlin Wall, In fact, however, it is not. Despite being  presented as a single event, this volume is in reality a compendium of several journeys made over an indeterminate period. It is a narrative that is held together with what is ultimately a fictional thread. Although not evident from the title, the author makes this clear in the Preface. Within that section (and when referring to the narrative that is being presented), he states that ‘What follows, combined into a single imaginary journey, is a selection of events that occurred over the years’. He also notes that ‘All the events are true and with the exception of the incarceration in Ulan Bator, which was the unfortunate fate of another, most happened to me’. The author concludes ‘…I have taken the liberty of occasionally taking them [the events] out of their original content in order to preserve the narrative flow’. The end result is what can best be described as a work of ‘faction’; a narrative that is part fact and part fiction. There is no way of knowing which is which. That this should be the case in a volume promoting itself as a ‘truthful’ narration of a single event, raises questions concerning the veracity of the information it contains.

The bulk of the book consists of 12 Chapters, which take the reader on a train journey from London to Hong Kong. Each Chapter covers a specific section of the over-all journey and relates events that occurred while travelling over it. The section is preceded by a Preface which provides a synopsis of what the book contains. An Acknowledgements section follows; within it the author thanks those who assisted him in the volume’s creation. Unsourced colour photographs appear randomly throughout the work, and are possibly from the author’s own collection. Their captions are informative, but there is no reference to their existence on the Contents Page. A single Map traces the journey that the narrative describes. There is no Index.

Because of its subject, this volume is likely to appeal to both those who made similar journeys and to ‘armchair travellers’ in search of a good story. Those who are interested in life in Eastern Europe and Communist China during the ‘Cold War’ may also find it informative. Sociologists seeking information about life in micro-communities (train passengers on long journeys) or of everyday life under Communist rule might also find it of interest. Although it is more concerned with the journey rather than the ‘technical details’, railway enthusiasts might also find the descriptions of trains interesting.

This book is well-written and engages the reader with its narrative. However, the fact that (in this reviewer’s opinion) it is a volume of ‘faction’ reduces its usefulness considerably. This is reflected in its Rating. It was potentially worthy of a much higher rating than it received.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given it a 6.



BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Red Line: A Railway Journey Through the Cold War’