BOOK REVIEW: ‘Atomic Thunder: British Nuclear Testing in Australia’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title:  Atomic Thunder: British Nuclear Testing in Australia

Author: Elizabeth Tynan

Total Number of Pages: 373

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 7 ½


In the book’s Acknowledgements section, the author writes that, in her opinion ‘The Maralinga story is a vast sprawling saga. This book is an attempt to provide a concise overview that will be of interest to the general reader, as well as offering a fresh perspective based upon years of analysis of the many diverse forms of evidence available…I have…sought to…show marlinga in its historical and scientific context’. As a ‘Statement of intent’, it is admirable. She also notes (in the volume’s Prologue) that ‘The word Maralinga means ‘thunder’ in Garik…It was exactly the right name. The thunder that rolled across the plains was an ominous sound that heralded a new leading player in a nuclear-armed and infinitely dangerous world’. The volume ends with the following sentence: ‘If there is a word that speaks not only of thunder but also of government secrecy, nuclear colonialism, reckless national pride, bigotry towards indigenous peoples, nuclear scientific arrogance, human folly and the resilience of victims, surely that word is maralinga’.

Regrettably (and despite the noble intentions expressed above), what has eventually resulted is a subjective volume written to meet a pre-determined outcome. To the author, the Maralinga saga has no redeeming features.

Within the volume itself, the Contents page is followed by a four page Acknowledgments section within-which the individuals and organisations (and even animals) which contributed to this book are thanked.  It also reveals the volume’s origins, these being that a visit to an organisation in Melbourne in 2004 ‘…Planted the seed of an idea that later became my PhD thesis and still later became this book’. An Abbreviations section is next, giving interpretation to the numerous acronyms and abbreviations which appear throughout the book. A single page Measurements section follows. This gives the equivalents necessary to convert British Imperial measurements into their metric equivalents, while also noting the differences between Australia’s ‘Imperial’ currency (comprising Pounds Shillings and Pence) and the metric-based one that replaced it in 1966.Two pages of Maps follow. This section contains four maps. One is a general outline of Australia indicating the location of the nuclear test sites in relation to the rest of the continent. Its companions show the individual test sites in greater detail. Curiously (and although noted only as Map on the Contents page), the section itself carries the additional title British nuclear tests in Australia – test sites within its pages. Which one is correct is not known.  A Prologue follows.  This provides a summary of what is to follow; the 12 Chapters which comprise the main part of the volume.  These largely record the decisions and events that were associated with the various nuclear tests which comprised the ‘Maralinga’ series. However (and for unknown reasons), throughout the volume the author also uses the ‘Stream of consciousness’ narrative-form to describe events. Chapter One (Maralinga buried, uncovered) is one such example.  This writing style is more commonly associated with works of fiction. Where used within the volume, and with no supporting citations to provide verification, the result is, at best, a work of ‘Faction’ (that is ‘Facts combined with imagination to produce an end result that is a combination of both’). The appropriateness of such narrative-forms within a volume purporting to be an authoritative work is debatable. An Appendix is placed after the final chapter. Its title (British Atomic tests in Australia) is self-explanatory. A Glossary follows, and is in turn followed by a section titled References. This is somewhat analogous to a Notes section in a volume in which Footnote or Endnote citations appear. As such devices are not used within this book, its presence is unexplained.  A Bibliography placed after the References section records both the electronic and printed material used in creating this work and is followed in turn by the Index; the volume’s final section.  The book contains no photographs.

This reviewer found several areas of concern when viewing this volume. In addition to the ‘stream of consciousness’ writing style previously-noted, the lack of citations for the numerous Quotes reduces the latter’s authority (and consequent research value) to almost zero; they might just as well be imagined.  The authority of the Index is also questionable, as random checking found several omissions; New Zealand (for example) although mentioned twice on page 23, is absent from the Index.  As the absence of other entries was also noted, the true extent of such ‘omissions’ cannot be known. The lack of photographic images is also unfortunate as their presence would have provided visual reinforcement to the narrative.

As previously noted, this volume is subjective in its treatment of its subject. As such it will no doubt confirm well-held and entrenched viewpoints. That detail notwithstanding, it is likely to be of interest to Political Scientists with a specific interest in British nuclear policies and international Cold War politics. Australians seeking information about the Maralinga tests and their country’s relationships with the British are also likely to find it of interest. Academic librarians might also find it worthy of inclusion within their collections. The author’s lack of objectivity does however mean that is not the ‘Standard Work of Reference’ that it could have been; it should be treated accordingly.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume a 7 ½.

Note: This title was originally published in Australia in 2016, with this edition, published in 2018, being the first in Great Britain. It has not been updated in the interval.


BOOK REVIEW: ‘Atomic Thunder: British Nuclear Testing in Australia’

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: ‘Festiniog Railway: From Slate Railway to Heritage Operation 1921-2014’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Festiniog Railway: From Slate Railway to Heritage Operation 1921-2014

Author: Peter Johnson

Total Number of Printed Pages: 352

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8


In his Introduction, the author notes that ‘The Ffestiniog Railway [sic]… set the scene for the use of narrow gauge railways around the world’. However, competition (primarily in the form of the internal combustion engine and the motor vehicle), resulted in a decline and ‘…The effects of the First World War seriously weakened the company’. He also states that  ‘The events of the 1920s and 1930s started the railway on the road that led to the position in which it finds itself today, making the transition from being a common carrier [railway], to become a leading Welsh tourist attraction of international renown’. This is the story of that ‘Transition’. It complements the author’s previous volume (Festiniog Railway The Spooner Era and After 1830 – 1920), which narrates the railway’s creation and early years

An Acknowledgements ad Sources section is placed immediately behind the Contents page. In it the author details the individuals and publications which contributed to the creation of the volume. An Introduction follows. This summarises the information contained within the 14 Chapters which form the main part of this work. Although ostensibly the volume covers the period 1921-2014, a Postscript placed after Chapter 14 brings the reader up to date with events that occurred in the 2015-2016 period. Eight Appendices follow the Postscript. Of these Appendices 1-7 are in Table format and cover the commercial activities of the Festiniog Railway Company for the period 1921-2014. Appendix 8 consists of Deposited plans for 1923, 1968 and 1975 Light Railway Orders. A single-page Bibliography follows, with a 10–page Index completing the volume. In format the Index is confusing, and ‘muddled; in its arrangement. Within it, this reviewer looked in vain for references to South Africa and Beyer-Garratt’s, finding only an entry for Garratt K1, and that under the entry Locomotives, Steam. That he found even that was surprising as those subheadings themselves appear under the even broader heading Festiniog Railway. Regrettably, there is no similar entry for the Welsh Festiniog’s associated Highland Railway, despite the fact that the Garratt type of locomotive is mentioned several times in connection with that railway and is also the subject of several photographs within the volume. The volume contains numerous monochrome and colour images.  Although with one exception (that of the locomotive on page 290), these are well and informatively captioned, with the majority being from the author’s own collection, a fact noted within the Acknowledgements ad Sources section. Where they are from other sources, these are acknowledged. Where relevant, a Table format is used throughout the volume to present details relating to ticket sales etc. Although numerous local maps and plans appear within this volume, no general reference maps of either Great Britain or Wales are provided. While not problematic for those who are ’Festiniog familiar’, for ‘non-railway enthusiast’ readers living either ‘off shore’ (or even within the British Isles), this lack is regrettable, since if one does not know where the Festiniog  is located within Great Britain, how can one visit it?  For international visitors unfamiliar with even the country itself, this could be especially difficult.  The reasons for the omissions are not known.   There is no reference to images, plans or maps on either the Contents page or within the Index. No reference notes or citations are provided for the quotes appearing within the volume. There are no diagrams of Company locomotives, rolling stock or infrastructure.

In precis this volume is of the ‘Company history’ genre. This reviewer found it to be well-researched, well-written, eminently readable and interesting. While not ‘perfect’ it is an excellent introduction to the Festiniog.  When combined with its previously-mentioned sister volume, it forms a valuable resource on its subject.

Unsurprisingly, this volume will inevitably appeal to the ‘Festiniog enthusiast’ members of the railway fraternity. However, it is also likely to have a wider appeal, especially amongst holiday-makers seeking a souvenir of their visit to the railway. Railway historians and railway enthusiasts of a more ‘generalist’ nature may find it of interest. The volume’s photographs could also be useful to railway modellers interested in the Festiniog specifically, and Welsh narrow gauge railways in general.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume an 8.



BOOK REVIEW: ‘Festiniog Railway: From Slate Railway to Heritage Operation 1921-2014’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Bayly’s War: The Battle for the Western Approaches in the First World War’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Bayly’s War: The Battle for the Western Approaches in the First World War

Author: Steve R. Dunn

Total Number of Printed Pages: 304

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8


In A Note on the Structure and Intent of this Book, the author states that ‘First and foremost it is the intention …to tell a story; a true story of sacrifice and quotidian bravery. The method is to use individual incidents which build to a whole hopefully greater than the sum of the parts…It is not a day-to-day history but a story compounded of many parts. Neither is it a biography, although [Admiral, Sir] Lewis Bayly…provides a linking theme and his character and role are important to the telling of the narrative’. It is an accurate summation.

Within the volume, a List of Plates placed after the two-page Contents section contains the captions and sources of the images placed within a dedicated Images section placed at the book’s centre. An untitled page containing three Quotes relative to the narrative then appears. It is followed by the previously-mentioned A Note on the Structure and Intent of this Book section. The volume’s Preface then summarises the volume. A Prologue follows. Within it a fictional (although probably fact-based) narrative is used to set the scene for what is to come. The main part of the volume follows. It consists of 25 Chapters, divided into three sections (defined as Parts). These cover three specific time periods and periods of action (1914-April 1917; 1917-1918; 1919-2017). Within each Part individual Chapters cover specific time periods, and, where relevant, subheadings are used to provide additional information relevant to the larger narrative. Six Appendices have been placed behind Chapter 25 (Envoi), and these are in turn followed by a section titled Author’s Note; effectively the book’s Acknowledgments section. Within each Chapter, additional information is provided through the use of Endnotes. Numbered numerically and chapter-specific; their citations being placed in a designated Notes section placed after the Author’s Note. A Bibliography placed after the Notes section lists the sources used in the book’s preparation. It is followed by the Index; the volume’s final section. As previously-noted, end-note-type Citations provide additional information within each Chapter, However, where ‘additional’ additional information is required, the author uses Asterisks (sometimes one, frequently two, occasionally three) to provide this, these additional entries being placed at the bottom of the page as quasi-footnotes. As previously-noted the volume contains a multi-page Images section placed between pages 128 and 129. The images are monochrome and contain a mix of, ships (both Naval and Merchant Marine), personnel, structures, documents and events relevant to the narrative.  The volume contains a single map (titled Queenstown and the Western Approaches) although its existence is not noted on either the Contents page or within the Index.

Although it is undoubtedly well-written and researched, for this reviewer, the volume was badly let down by its Index. Random searching during the review process found numerous instances where items noted in the text did not appear in the Index. These omissions seemed especially prevalent with geographical locations; Fort Westmoreland (Page 22) and Bantry Bay (Page 238), being but two examples where this occurs. Curiously, Whiddy Island, while appearing in the same sentence as Bantry Bay, merits an Index entry; the former does not. The reasons for this are not known. In light of the above, the authority of the Index must inevitably suffer. Unsourced quotes appear through-out the volume (that of Sir Halford John Mackinder on page 15 being one such example). Regrettably, the absence of supporting citations severely reduces their research value. Despite the use of numerous military acronyms and terms within the volume, there is no explanatory Glossary; What (for example) is ‘Tinned dope’ (page 156)? A layman-reader cannot be expected to know. Although discussed in a Chapter of their own (No. 20 War from the Air), the volume contains no images of the relevant aircraft.

As previously-noted this book is well-written and researched, and may well become a standard reference work on its subject. The ‘difficulties’ noted-above notwithstanding, it is likely to be of considerable use to military historians. American and British naval historians with a specific interest in activities off the Irish coast during World War I will probably find it especially informative. Layman readers interested in submarines (specifically U-boats), warships or British, American and German naval operations during World War I may also find this volume worthy of their attention. Irish Historians, and readers seeking a different perspective on ‘The Troubles’, may also find it enlightening. The photographs of ships within the Images section may also be of use to warship modellers.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume an 8.


BOOK REVIEW: ‘Bayly’s War: The Battle for the Western Approaches in the First World War’


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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Horses in the British Army 1750-1950

Author: Janet Macdonald

Total Number of Printed Pages: 208

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 5


One thing must be made very clear from the start. Despite its title, this volume is largely-concerned with the acquisition, training, care and general maintenance of the horse (as well other creatures when they occurred), within the British army. It does not cover actual military operations in any depth, with those that are mentioned, being adjuncts to the greater ‘care’ narrative.

To quote the dustcover ‘…This book encompasses the whole spectrum of horses in the British army over a 200 year period, from their acquisition and training, through their care and feeding and their transportation to theatres of war overseas. It also covers the selection and training of their riders and has a brief chapter on other animals used by the British army’.

Within the volume itself, a List of Plates is placed after the Contents page. This repeats the captions of images appearing in an eight-page section placed at the centre of the volume. Of these images, only one contains an indication of its source. That list is in turn followed by a short three-entry explanatory section titled Author’s Note, together with an Acknowledgments section. The latter thanks those who assisted the author in creating the volume. A Glossary is next. This is three pages in length and clarifies many of the terms used throughout the book. An Introduction follows. In it, the author sets the scene for the 15 Chapters which form the largest part of the volume. Each Chapter is devoted to one aspect of the military use of horses as practiced by the British army, with particular emphasis on their care and maintenance.  Where necessary, subsections within the Chapter provide additional information relevant to the matter under discussion within the larger Chapter. A 12-page Appendix follows. Within it, subsections are again used to provide additional information not covered within the previously-mentioned Chapters. The volume uses Endnotes to provide additional information within the chapters. These are sequentially-numbered within each Chapter, their citations appearing in a designated Notes section placed behind the Appendix. A four-page Bibliography placed after the Notes section, records the resources used during the preparation of the volume. An Index completes the work.

This reviewer was interested in learning why the title’s very specific 1950 cut-off date was chosen, this volume being requested on that basis. In that expectation he was disappointed!   Despite repeated perusals of the volume, he still has no idea why 1950 was chosen; or why it couldn’t equally have been 1955, 1975; or 2017!  The absence of such information suggests that the date was a convenient number of the author’s own choosing. There is nothing to indicate otherwise. That this reviewer found only one section within the volume that was even remotely near the title’s 1950 date would seem to confirm that hypothesis. Titled After the Second World War, and appearing as a sub-section within Chapter 3 (Getting the Horses), this single-page subsection was concerned with the disposal of surplus animals. It had no relevance to the title.  As previously noted, within the individual Chapters, Endnote-type citations are used to provide additional information. Their use is not however widespread, and the volume contains many instances where this reviewer believes they should have been used but were not. These include both quotes (those on pages 11 and 12 being but two examples) and sentences. On page 181, an uncited example of the latter (and when referring to the use of porters to carry military equipment, states  ‘…Numerous humans…in some countries including …New Zealand [were used]…to carry supplies and munitions’  With no citations to establish / prove the accuracy of such statements, they might just as well be imagined. Difficulties also arose with ‘terminology’. What (for example) is a Mallein test (pages 23 and 110)? No explanation is given, and the reader is none-the-wiser. Military rank and unit abbreviations are similarly treated, and a list of commonly used military abbreviations and ranks would have been beneficial. A peculiar use of tenses was also evident, with the subsection Yaks in Chapter 14 being but one such example, The Index is also problematic. While reviewing this volume, this writer had occasion to randomly search the Index for several words. Amongst these were Shabraque (used on pages 133, 144 and xiii), with a search finding only a single Index entry (that for page.133), the other two entries being evidently overlooked or ignored by the Indexer. Similarly, the words Otago and Otago Saddle, despite being mentioned on page 142, were also not found within the Index. New Zealand itself (mentioned twice on page 142 and again on page181), garnered no mention. As these are the results of random searches, there is no way of knowing what else might be missing.

Because of its emphasis on ‘horse care’ this volume will probably appeal to readers who are primarily ‘horse-enthusiasts’. Readers seeking information about the care of horses within a very specific military environment may also find it worthy of their attention. Readers interested in combat use of the horse within the British army are certainly likely to find some information relating to that use. However, as already noted, this is as an adjunct to the larger narrative. The 1945-1950 period in particular is not covered with any degree of adequacy.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume a 5.






Book Review: ‘Cathedrals of Britain: North of England & Scotland’

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Reviewer:  Michael Keith

Title: Cathedrals of Britain: North of England & Scotland

Editor: Bernadette Fallon

No. of Pages: 122

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


In her introduction to this volume, the author observes that ‘Cathedrals provide a continuous link to the living past…They are places of worship and prayer…but also…they are places to stand and stare and marvel’. It is a fair assessment of the book’s content.

An Acknowledgments section is placed after the Contents page. In it the author thanks ‘…Everybody who generously gave their time, experience and support to this book’, before listing the individuals and organisations who contributed to the volume. An eight-page Introduction follows. This provides historical and ecclesiastical background to the material contained within the eight Chapters which form the majority of the volume. Each Chapter focuses on one specific cathedral. Within the specific Chapter, subheadings are used to provide details about the specific structure and to highlight various little ‘oddities’ which are unique to the edifice. Although the volume is nominally about a specific structure, at the end of each chapter a ‘…Where to go and what to do’ section appears. This provides additional information about the surrounding district and of any attractions which might be of interest to a visitor. A Glossary placed after the last Chapter (Number Eight: Aberdeen) clarifies the various ecclesiastical, architectural and historical terms which appear within the volume. It is in turn followed by a section titled Further Reading. In the absence of a designated Bibliography, this appears to function in that role. An Index completes the volume. Black and White photographs from a variety of sources are used to illustrate salient points within each Chapter. The Contents page and the Index carry no acknowledgement of their existence. The volume contains no Maps, a detail which could reduce its value to intending ‘Day Trippers’ and to international visitors unfamiliar with both British geography and public transport systems. Although the volume contains numerous Quotes (that by George Cavendish on page 65 being but one example), these are not referenced, reducing the volume’s value as an  historical source.

The author concludes her Introduction to this work with the words ‘Let us take you on a marvellous journey…’ As an invitation it has no peer and (the previously-noted ‘faults’ notwithstanding), for this reviewer the ‘journey’ was indeed ‘marvellous’. This is a delightful, well-written and easily-readable volume. It is definitely ‘Enjoyable’. For that the author is to be commended.

Due to its subject and the accessibility of the structures discussed within it, this volume should have wide appeal. Despite the lack of maps, the previously-mentioned ‘Day Tripping’ fraternity and international visitors could no doubt find it to be a useful souvenir of a visit or visits that they may have made to any of the Cathedrals that the volume mentions. Some might even care to use it as a ‘guide’ and attempt to ‘collect’ them all. Readers with an interest in ‘British’ architecture in general, and religious structures in particular, may also find it of interest. Readers interested in the more unusual aspects of British architecture and even folk-lore may also find it of interest. Due to the unusual items appearing within its pages, the volume may also be a useful reference book for pub-trivia quizzes. Those seeking a ‘fun’ read on a wet afternoon could also do worse than give this volume their attention.

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





Book Review: ‘Cathedrals of Britain: North of England & Scotland’