The Junior Officers Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars (2009) by Patrick Hennessey
Hennessey’s description of the boredom of war, broken only by brief episodes of high-adrenaline excitement and bowel-moving fear, makes the reader believe that he is there too, face-to-face with the Taliban and the insurgents. My son is an army helicopter pilot and he is about to embark on a second tour of Afghanistan so this book has added poignancy for me. It was also an invaluable source of information for my novel Crossfire, which had an injured army officer as its main character.
Ice Station Zebra (1963) by Alistair MacLean
I could have chosen almost any of Alistair MacLean’s exciting stories. I read this one while in Bahrain with a school friend whose father was stationed there in the British army. The temperature was about 100 degrees in the shade but MacLean had me shivering and reaching for a coat. Maybe I’d be grateful of the same cooling effect on my desert island.
All too often great stories die with their author. One cannot buy an Alistair MacLean book today in most high-street bookshops; there is hardly enough room on the shelves for the new books, let alone the old ones, even those with fabulous plots and great characters. The Kindle and digital downloads may have come to the rescue for these out-of-print masterpieces, even if they are not the best thing for new book sales.
Vulcan 607 (2006) by Rowland White
The bombing of Stanley airfield by an RAF Vulcan bomber was probably one of the least decisive strategic actions of the Falklands War. However it was the fact that the RAF could actually launch a heavy-bomber attack at such range that was so important to morale. It also demonstrated to the Argentine Junta that, if the RAF was capable of carrying out such an attack on Stanley, it could also do so on Buenos Aires. This account of the raid by Rowland White is as gripping and heart-thumping as any work of fiction.
Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 (1994) by Jeffrey Kluger and James Lovell
My most vivid memory of the Easter school holiday of 1970 was not the fact that I spent it lying on my back in a hospital bed in Oxford having had a third operation on my troublesome left hip, it was the extraordinary recovery to Earth of the crew of the stricken moon-bound Apollo 13. Lost Moon is the book upon which the highly acclaimed film Apollo 13 was based. James Lovell was the commander of the flight and his first-hand account of mankind’s greatest ever rescue mission is a story of hope triumphing over expectation.
Bonecrack (1971) by Dick Francis
This has always been my favourite of my father’s books. Bonecrack demonstrates admirably that a good mystery thriller doesn’t have to be a ‘whodunnit’. In my latest novel Refusal, in honour of Bonecrack, I purposely set out to write a similar type of thriller where the reader knows the evil character almost from the start and the suspense comes from a ‘how-do-I-get-out-of-this’ reveal rather than the unmasking of the villain himself. Not that there aren’t a few surprises on the way.
We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea (1937) by Arthur Ransome
The Arthur Ransome stories were the first real books that I read as a boy and I loved them all, especially this one about an unplanned trip by the Walker children across the North Sea. I enjoyed them all over again when I read them out loud to my own children at bedtime. The excitement hadn’t diminished and the fact that the stories were set in a more innocent age did not detract from the suspense and delight from a tale well told. Ransome was a master of literature for children. Contrary to some literary thinking, I believe that reading a book should be a joyous experience, the words flowing off the page like cream rather than sticking in one’s throat like barbed wire.
Refusal by Felix Francis is published on 12 September by Michael Joseph.