From our reviewers: Non-fiction

Last updated 15:00 13/08/2014

Without Warning
By Damien Thomlinson with Michael Cowley (Harper Collins, RRP $37)

Reviewed by Mark Hotton

It would take a special type of person to criticise this book. The front cover sums it up - a surfie-looking guy smiling into the camera, fit and tanned, standing on two prosthetic legs.

Damien Thomlinson was an Australian Special Forces soldier whose life changed irretrievably while on patrol in Afghanistan. One minute he's your typical Aussie lad fulfilling his dream and family legacy of being a soldier - the next missing two legs and has a shattered body.

Most people would probably give up at this point, but then you wouldn't get the book out of it.

Thomlinson's tale is impressive. And compelling because of his honesty. There's no holding back. It's clear that putting his story down on paper was cathartic. He's been able to tell his story in a raw and uncut way, and to vent on things that have vexed him - particularly his treatment at times by the Australian army.

He has decided not to be defined or restricted by his injuries and you have to salute that approach to life. That determination helped him to walk on his new legs just six weeks after the accident - and then to be able to welcome home his unit from Afghanistan (a moment filmed by 60 Minutes and one likely to bring even the hardest bloke close to tears).

To be honest, at times he comes across as a bit of a prick but after what he's been through, it's hard to begrudge him a little bit of attitude.

It's an impressive story worth reading, and made better with the inclusions of the thoughts and observations from family and friends, and the medical staff who helped make him the athlete he is today.

After all he is adamant he is not handicapped in any way - he just doesn't have any legs.

One Hundred and Four Horses; A Memoir of Farm and Family, Africa and Exile
By Mandy Retzlaff (HarperCollins, RRP $30)

Reviewed by Naida Mulligan

After the last, very bad, African saga I read, I decided that I would read no more about that troubled continent, first met through Wilbur Smith and followed up with Bryce Courtney.

The fact that this story is about real life was not an extra draw card; you can distance yourself from the experiences of made up characters, but it's a bit more difficult when they're real. And the Retzlaffs' is a story that I would not have liked to live through myself. However, I can admire their fortitude and perseverance.

The Retzlaffs were more or less living the dream in Zimbabwe when a dreadful change in government led to the loss of so much. They were moved off their beloved land by Mugabe's forces. Determined not to leave the country they loved, and hoping that justice would prevail, they moved from farm to farm before being run off each one.

This story isn't just about one couple though. As the title suggests, it's also about the horses that they save along the way. They went to great lengths to smuggle their horses to safety each time they were moved on. They found it difficult to ignore any horse in plight and soon became known as 'the horse people', tracked down by those forced to flee and needing care for their beloved horses.

Mandy's account of life under Mugabe is an important historical record. Recommended.

The Crossroad - A story of life, death and the SAS
By Mark Donaldson, VC (Pan Macmillan Australia, RRP $40)

Reviewed by Mark Hotton

Winning the Victoria Cross requires actions beyond what most normal men or women would ever consider undertaking.

There was nothing in the young Mark Donaldson's life to suggest he would become anything other than an Aussie larrikin. There was the drinking, surfing, snowboarding and a bit of trouble-making, along with a significant attitude, but nothing to suggest he would do something heroic.

In fact, reading his early story, it's hard to imagine him becoming a soldier. Yet he did, and an honoured one at that.

Donaldson is Australia's version of Willie Apiata (the first Kiwi to receive the Victoria Cross for New Zealand, which replaced the Commonwealth honours system).

Also Australia's highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross for Australia was presented to Donaldson after he saved a colleague's life while under heavy enemy fire in Afghanistan in September 2008.

But his journey to that point was as interesting as the battle tales were.

A rebellious teenager, he was the son of a Vietnam vet who would die while he was a teenager, and his mother would later disappear, presumed murdered. The impact of those deaths is clear.

He recounts his early years, his struggle with his mother's death, his decision to join the army and then the challenge on joining the SAS, as well as his tours in Afghanistan.

It's in his words and you are left with no doubt about his feelings on various aspects of his life.

It's a fascinating tale of the underdog coming good and it rips along at a great pace. Not only does it provide an interesting insight into him but you also get a window into the secretive world of the SAS.

On the Trail of Genghis Khan
By Tim Cope (Allen & Unwin, RRP $37)

Reviewed by Mark Hotton

I'm done some travelling over the years but it's fair to say that Mongolia wasn't high on the list of destinations.

Not for any particular reason, it's more that it's hard to imagine there being too much to see and do outside the cities. It seems as though it's a country of epic landscapes.

Tim Cope decided to follow in the footsteps of the 13th-century Mongols, a small tribe, which, under the command of Genghis Khan, created the largest land empire in history. Their impact on European history is widely known so Cope decided to follow the ancient way of nomadic life and head west . . . on horseback.

The 10,000 kilometres took more than three years, following the Eurasian steppe from Mongolia, through Kazakhstan, Russian, Crimea and Ukraine to the Danube River in Hungary.

It's an incredible journey to undertake. He has to tackle wolves, potential bandits, crazy Russians, massive changes in temperatures and the local cuisine (airag - fermented mare's milk anyone?), as well as the challenges of caring for himself and his horses in some unforgiving terrain.

Interspersed with his fascinating tale he intertwines the Mongols history as he follows in their footsteps some 900 years later.

At only 450 pages, it should be a simple read, but it took much longer than it should have. That's more due to the complex nature of the history and Cope's trip rather than it being poorly written. But it did feel as though I took every step with him.

But it's a fascinating read. Even if you are left with the recurring question of why bother? It's an epic journey though.

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