Hey #Bookjunkies! Thrilled to have Bram Connolly, author of the military action thriller, The Fighting Season, back on CrimeBookJunkie this eve. Over to you Bram!
My Reading History – Bram Connolly, DSM
Way back in the 1980s a local newsagent in Fairview Park, South Australia, always had the latest Combat and Survival magazine in stock. I’m not sure exactly how I found the money for it every month, probably small change lying around the house or liberated during a daring raid from my mother’s purse; but either way, I would end up the proud owner of the magazine. I would subsequently spend days trolling through the pages and practicing the skills illustrated in the easy to follow drawings. I would go to school and regale my fellow classmates with the new skills I had learnt, such as how to turn urine into drinkable water or how to find your direction by identifying the Northern star, an incredible feat in the Southern Hemisphere now I think back to it. Reading that magazine every month also helped me in English class, as I gained an ability to write in short descriptive sentences at an early age.
The very first book that I can remember being given to read was Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, which surprisingly was first written in 1820. It’s about the chivalrous Knights of the 12th Century and based on the ruling Norman elite and the last of the noble Saxon families. This book sparked my interest in early British history. Thinking back, it was also the moment that I realised that an author could take a reader on a journey. The images were playing out in my head, conveyed by someone in a different place and time. This concept of time travel for the reader forms the basis of how I write now.
It would be safe to say that English was the only subject that I took seriously at school. The curriculum had some great books on the reading list; Animal Farm and 1984 (George Orwell), The Call of the Wild (Jack London), and All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque) were a few of my very favorites. The fact that I still joined the Army after reading All Quiet on the Western Front proves that its brutal lessons were lost on me. I came to understand the realities of war some twenty years later. My decision to join the Army though, back when I was 17, was in the spirit of the ANZAC tradition. I had a sense of adventure and duty that wasn’t to be nullified by a book, even one as powerful as that.
When I joined the Army there was a period of a few years where I didn’t read very much. The weekly training was intense and the sudden existence of a fortnightly wage saw me pursue other less wholesome pursuits on the weekends (drinking with my mates and chasing girls mostly). Don’t get me wrong; there were certainly lots of opportunities to read. One constant of being in the Army is that there is much sitting around and waiting involved; waiting for work to start, waiting for the next lesson, waiting for your turn at something, waiting for lunch, waiting for knock off, the list goes on. I imagine that Australian soldiers since the Boer war have used this time in much the same way. Soldiers are good at amusing each other. Dark humor and situational comedies are the main narratives of soldier’s tales; and we are colourful liars when it’s required to “sell” the story, I love this about us.
I fell into reading again by necessity. The section of nine men that I was in was sent off on a six-week exercise to Weipa in Far North Queensland. I remember that we all took books to pass the time, knowing that sitting around an airfield in Northern Australia, as static defence, was going to be a boring undertaking. I discovered Robert G. Barrett’s books about Les Norton. In later years I also found these were the easiest to wrap in a small sandwich bag, secured by rubber bands, and thrown in the bottom of a military rucksack. His books seemed to be impervious to the Tully monsoon rain that could seemingly seep into everything. I would sit under my individual shelter out in the middle of the jungle, as the rain pounded down all around, and immerse myself in Les Norton’s world of Sydney nightclubs and summer beaches. Easy reading and with strong Australian characters the books reignited my passion for storytelling. As our training shifted from platoon to company and then battalion operations, so the siting around and waiting increased. With Barrett’s books complete, I graduated myself onto Jack Higgins, The Eagle has Landed and then every other book he ever wrote.
In the late 1990s I was influenced in what I read by some of the older members of the battalion. The following is a list of books considered as required reading:
1 – Devil’s Guard, by George Robert Elford. This is the story of a German SS officer who, with the rest of his Battalion, was seconded into the Foreign Legion at the completion of WWII. The book begins on the eastern front and continues into the First Indochina War. I remember this mostly because of the detail that the author went into regarding the operations that were undertaken by the Germans. It was initially sold as non-fiction but I understand that over time it was suggested that it was a work of fiction. Either way, The Devils Guard is a riveting read and worth having on the bookshelf.
2 – As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me, written by Bavarian novelist Josef Martin Bauer. This is the survival story of a German World War II prisoner of war Clemens Forell (Cornelius Rost changed his name to avoid detection by the KGB) and his escape from a Siberian Gulag in the Soviet Union back to Germany. This book is an incredible journey; it is rich in its description of the landscapes and does a great job of making the reader anxious for Clemens the whole way through.
3 – Chickenhawk, written by Robert Mason. The book is the story of Robert’s experiences as a “Huey” UH-1 Iroquois helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War and is full of detail required to operate the aircraft. The book chronicles his entire career from his enlistment to his experiences in Vietnam, and his experiences after returning from the war. I think that a generation of us who read this book believed that we could jump straight in and fly a helicopter. I wouldn’t like to test that theory though.
4 – Marine Sniper. With 93 confirmed enemy kills Carlos Hathcock was the most lethal sniper to emerge from the Vietnam War. This book describes his career and outlines the art of sniping in its purest form. What I like about this book is that it details some of the difficulties faced by those conducting operations in the jungles of Vietnam, difficulties I could relate to at the time because of the large amount of training that we had also undertaken in jungle operations.
5 – Bravo two Zero, written by Steven Mitchell (writing under the pseudonym Andy McNab). This was the must have book of the 1990s. It was the first time that a member of the British SAS broke ranks completely and told their story. The book was interesting in that it gave an account of what it was like for the men on the ground as well as detailing the ill-fated mission. The book inspired a generation of soldiers in the UK and Australia to attempt Special Forces selection.
6 – The Feather Men, by Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Is it real, is it not? The story is based on 4 British soldiers being the target of a hit squad known as “The Clinic” on the orders of a Sheik whose own sons were killed in Oman by British forces. This book created utter controversy in the UK media when it was released, they were not sure if it was a disguised factual account. Sir Ranulph added much fuel to the speculation at the time by branding it fictional and contesting that elements were true, a great marketing plan. He also wrote Where Soldiers Fear to Tread, a brilliant book full of romantic images of the Middle East and well worth a read.
6 – The Da Vinci Code, written by Dan Brown. This is a fantastic book. I love how Dan Brown is able to create direct correlation between historical events and link them in such a way that they support his fictitious version of history. It had so many people at the time reacting to it as if it truly offered an alternative answer to how Christianity endured in France and Italy. The lesson to be gained from reading Dan Brown’s work is most certainly in the way that he researches a topic first.
In my last few years in the military the operational tempo really increased, especially because of the Commando Regiment’s commitment in Afghanistan. There was an operational imperative for me to read books that directly supported my main goal, that being winning on the battlefield and bringing my soldiers home. The following list contains books that were crucial in my development as a Special Forces officer:
1 – The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahedeen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War, written by Lester W. Grau. This is mandatory reading because history does repeat. I found that understanding how the Mujahedeen operated and learning about what the Russians endured was crucial in knowing how the Taliban would respond to us being there too. Grau has written over a hundred papers during his academic career and his research was thorough and probing. It’s safe to say that this book gave me an advantage tactically on the battlefield.
2 – On Killing and On Combat. Written by LTCOL Dave Grossman. These two books are imperative for any leader who intends to take men in to battle. The psychology of how to kill is important to understand, but conversely the psychology of dealing with men after they have killed is crucial for their long term well being. These books served as the basis for the lessons that I developed to help inoculate my soldiers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Time will tell if it was effective. What I do know is something was better than nothing, and as a platoon we went to great lengths to ensure that we discussed the events that took place on the battlefield and contextualize the actions that we had to take in order to survive.
So there you have it, my reading history. Many of these books have influenced how I go about my business now. Combat and Survival magazine helped me in my early understanding of how to convey information and the earlier books on my list are rich in characterization and landscape description, the former I am still developing and the latter I take great pride in. The books that I read as a young adult have demonstrated to me that fiction can be written within an historical context. It’s a complex balancing act to not let one aspect over shadow the other, but if you get it right then the story really sings.
Finally, in the military thriller genre, I believe that there are two types of stories, both have their place and I am not espousing one over the other; that’s up to the reader’s taste or mood.
– There is the well-written and well-researched book that is a joy for the reader to escape into. This style of book is full of Hollywood explosions, complex combat scenes with fast paced death and destruction (where everything and anything is possible) and the characters are designed to be loved and loathed. All of the skills and experiences are created in the mind of the author or they have researched them through second hand accounts.
– Then there is authentic military fiction, immersive stories that challenge the reader’s senses and have them questioning morality. Intimate knowledge needs to be conveyed about the tactics, weapons and explosive effects. All of the scenes need an element of witnessed truth and should be raw and realistic.
Given my military background coupled with my area of academic study, I see this style of authentic military story telling as my responsibility. The books that I have read in the past, some that I still treasure, have been a major influence in how I now go about this.
Wow! Thanks Bram! I have attached the link to Bram’s debut novel, so click the link and check it out! 😊
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