Category Archives: Earlier 20th C

Blog Tour – Wake by Anna Hope: An interview

Wake Blog Tour PosterOne of the most anticipated and acclaimed debut novels of 2014 is Wake by Anna Hope. A moving and powerful novel, it takes place over the five days in November 1920 that brought the Unknown Warrior from his anonymous grave in France to his final resting place in Westminster Abbey, honoured by the King and his nation. Among the crowd are three women and it is through their interconnected beautifully told stories that Anna Hope presents the impact and trauma of the Great War. Following on from my review of Wake, I am honoured and thrilled to kick off the Blog Tour for the novel, marking its publication last week. Many thanks to Anna for taking the time to answer my questions and to Transworld Books.

Congratulations for Wake, which is an outstanding and deeply emotional read. It’s appropriate that Wake should be published on the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, but what inspired you to write about it?

Thank you so much! I was inspired to write about this period because I was fascinated with women’s fight for the vote. The vote was granted in 1918, and I wanted to know what had changed in those years for women. I was very aware too that the defining tropes of the Great War: the trenches, the mud, the botched battles, the barbed wire, were all from the male experience, but there wasn’t much out there that told about the war from the female perspective. The idea for the structure of the Unknown Warrior came when I saw the graveyards in France, and thought about how many families were left with no body and no grave, and how profoundly distressing that must have been.

Wake by Anna HopeYou show the impact of the Great War on men, women and families by focusing on the events of just five days leading up to the burial of the Unknown Warrior in London in November 1920. What appealed to you about this particular event?

The burial of the Unknown Warrior was an extraordinary event for all sorts of reasons. In a class-ridden Britain, it was profoundly democratic; this unknown, unidentified body to stand for the many that did not come home from France. It also gave those who had no body or known grave a chance to partake in a funeral. The response was overwhelming – when the train carrying the body arrived at Victoria Station the crowds burst through the barriers and stormed the platform. Such raw grief. Hundreds of thousands of people travelled from all over Britain to witness the body on its procession to the Abbey. I found it incredibly moving.

How difficult was it to put yourself into the minds of these three women and was it difficult to let them go afterwards?

I’d done so much research that it wasn’t too difficult to put myself in the minds of those women. Hettie was the hardest I think, because she has lost the least. It was hard to let them go, but I feel as though I am living with them still. It’s lovely to keep thinking and writing about them in this way.

Wake has a strong impact partly because it rings true for its historical details but also because of the authentic feel of the psychological damage done to these men and women by war. What kind of research did you do?

I read very widely, from accounts of women who lived through the war (Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth is widely known for good reason, it’s brilliant) to women’s fiction of the time; I loved Helen Zenna Smith’s Women of the Aftermath. Juliet Nicholson’s The Great Silence was an important touchstone for me, as was Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out. And the poet Robert Graves co-authored a wonderfully gossipy book about the social mores of the time called The Long Weekend, which had all sorts of wonderful snippets of information, from how much dinner cost in a London restaurant in 1918, to attitudes to politics, sex and the arts. It’s a great book. I think I must have read over a hundred titles while researching. I became a WW1 geek!

Which novelists influenced you and what was your favourite novel of 2013?

I’m influenced by all sorts of writers. My favourite writers of this period are without question Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot. I loved the way their work plays with the fracturing of certainties that came in the wake of the war. My favourite books of 2013 were Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which I hadn’t got round to until then. I read them one after the other and then couldn’t read any fiction for months. What a writer! What a mind! I loved them.

A review
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Wake by Anna Hope

Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 336
Year: 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Wake by Anna HopeReview
In November 1920, the Unknown Warrior is brought home from the soil of France and laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. He has become the symbol and focus of a country damaged by war. Three women are among the many who have to pick up the pieces – Ada’s son is dead but he haunts her waking and sleeping hours; Evelyn has turned her back on her wealthy family and works in a Pensions Office helping the wounded and the shellshocked to move their lives on a little. Her glamorous brother has returned in one piece but he is not the same; Hettie sells dances for a sixpence to the survivors of war, vulnerable to their cares, worried for her brother who has returned from the Front barely able to speak or move. All three make plans to watch the procession to Westminster Abbey but, as Wake continues, we learn that their stories may have more in common than they know, beyond the connection of war and loss that binds the country.

Wake is Anna Hope’s debut novel and it is a wonderful read, very difficult to put down and to forget. It focuses on the five days leading up to the burial – the time taken by the Unknown Warrior to make his journey. The narrative moves between the three women’s lives, following them at work, in the home and mixing with others, showing how different the women are in social status, aspirations and age but also how closely they have been brought together by the events of the last few years and, more especially, their aftermath.

Evelyn and Hettie are directly affected by the returned soldiers, helping strangers practically as well as seeing the results on their brothers. We also learn of their own experiences in the war, most memorably working in munitions factories. Ada, on the other hand, is a portrait of someone who has to rebuild herself – and her marriage – after the loss of her son. It’s a very different story but all three characters are distinct.

The impact of war is shown through the stories of women but its devastation on the lives of the men who fought it underlies everything, including the mood, but most especially in the figure of the Unknown Warrior. Throughout the novel are brief sections which allow us to trace his journey, most movingly in his discovery among the anonymous dead. Wake is in itself, as its title suggests, an act of remembrance.

Wake is an extremely moving and beautifully written novel but it is also very satisfying. The structure works so well, moving everything forwards to the streets of London on Armistice Day. There is a movement forwards and a purpose to these stories. It is upsetting in places, especially as Anna Hope allows us to get to know these three women so well. Ada’s story in particular is tragic as is the mystery that ties all these lives together. It is an engrossing read and consuming. There is a real need to discover what it is that has happened as well as see through the return of the dead soldier. I think many people, like me, will find they are unable to put the novel down unfinished.

I am so pleased to be kicking off the Blog Tour for Wake – Anna has kindly answered my questions and the interview will be posted on 20 January. Updated to add the link to the Blog Tour Interview.

At Break of Day by Elizabeth Speller

Publisher: Virago
Pages: 400
Year: 2013
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Please note that in America, this book is called The First of July.

At Break of Day by Elizabeth SpellerReview
On 1 July 1916 indescribable horror took place in the muddy shell-holed fields and waterlogged trenches of the Somme. And yet, within these 390 pages, Elizabeth Speller brings the beauty of her prose to bear on this most infamous of war days, depicting the path that led four young men to that particular place at that particular time.

One of our young men, Jean-Baptiste Mallet, is French and his dream in 1913 is to steal a boat and let the Somme carry him to the sea and a new life beyond. The transformation over the coming year of his home on the Somme, not to mention of Jean-Baptiste himself, is profound and focuses our attention on this one small area of France. The other men are from further afield – Harry Sydenham, a young English minor aristocrat who wants nothing more than to live in New York with his new bride; Benedict Chatto, a painfully sensitive organist and musician from Gloucester who sees colours where others hear musical notes; and Frank Stanton, a London shop worker whose principal ambition is to buy a bicycle and, much further down his list, marry a respectable girl (not a suffragette).

They’re not alone, of course. We also get to know their friends and families, most particularly Harry’s relationship with his young French stepmother, Isabelle, and Benedict’s friendship with Theo, a man who knows all about making false promises, and ends up in the airforce, leaving Ben to fight on foot. For me, the most intriguing relationship is between Jean-Baptiste and Dr Vignon. This story could have filled its own novel. But although the four main stories are largely separate, there are places where they touch and pleasure comes from spotting those moments, some of which are less obvious than others.

The stories all converge on the Somme on 1 July 1916. It’s a progress that’s inevitable and you can’t help but become more and more fearful as you get to know and like these characters and know that it can only end in one place. The statistics mean that not all will survive. Maybe none at all. The last third of the novel takes place on that day, in and around the trenches as well as in no man’s land. Elizabeth Speller writes so beautifully and her descriptions of the fighting and the fallen as well as the confusion and the fear are so stunning and memorable that at times it is painfully harrowing. Her meticulous research also means there are things to discover, such as the soldiers who won’t shoot enemy messenger dogs and instead risk their lives to rescue them, or the cycling soldiers who have to carry their bicycles on their backs because the terrain is so unsuitable.

The four stories are distinct in character. Three are told in the third person, while one is told in the first. None are especially outstanding individuals, none would have been prepared for what lay in store, but what they have to deal with and the heroism with which they greet it, in the face of sheer terror, is presented so wonderfully and poetically by Elisabeth Speller that it is impossible to read without feeling great sadness and tension and love. I read At Break of Day over the Remembrance weekend and day and it was even more powerful for it.

Elizabeth Speller has previously written about the impact of World War I on one character who fought in it, John Emmett, in The Return of Captain John Emmett and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, both novels I recommend enormously. At Break of Day confirms my belief that Elizabeth Speller is one of the finest writers I have ever read and I would urge you to discover the beauty of her words for yourself as well as the poetry of her vision of this painful period in our past that must not be forgotten.

Other reviews
The Return of Captain John Emmett
The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton

The Ways of the World by Robert Goddard

Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 404
Year: 2013 (4 July)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Ways of the World by Robert GoddardReview
The Great War is over. Representatives of the victors meet to negotiate the terms of peace in Paris in the spring of 1919. Among them is Sir Henry Maxted, a British diplomat pulled out of retirement to use his experience learned in the courts of St Petersburg and Tokyo. Several of the men he knew from those times and places are also gathered in Paris, each pushing forward the advantages of their nation, in the conference rooms of the city’s grandest hotels as well as in more secret places. Sir Henry slips. He falls to his death, apparently accidentally, from the roof of a building in a less desirable district of Paris. His son, James (known to most as Max) arrives with his elder brother Ashley – now Sir Ashley – to fetch their father home.

Max, though, doesn’t leave. An ace fighter pilot who survived the Western Front, his reflexes are sharp. He recognises the clues and states quite firmly that his father did not fall of his own accord and he will discover the truth. From that moment on, nothing will be the same for Max. No-one will watch him in the same way. If he lives to walk away from Paris, it will be a miracle.

The Ways of the World is a story of spies at a time (and in the place) in which countries scrambled for precedence, the fighting on the killing fields of France and Belgium now done. The hotels of Paris are filled with politicians and diplomats from Britain, America, France, Japan, Russia and more. While Germany’s debt is debated, behind the scenes spies and agents barter secrets, some manipulated, rather ironically, by the master spy of the country now vanquished. So what caused Sir Henry Maxted to fall to his death? And can his son, Max, untie the knots?

One thing is clear. The reader of The Ways of the World must keep his or her wits about them. You might want to scribble down notes in one of those little notebook diaries kept so carefully in the inner pockets of the diplomats. From almost the very beginning we follow on the heels of Max as he works his way around the network of police, diplomats and mistresses who all have something to hide but also have something to reveal. There are many games being played here, most lethal. It’s fortunate that Max is the man he is. Max is a pilot, not a spy, but he learns quickly and we follow him just a step or two behind.

Parallel with the story in international intrigue is the more human tale of Max’s need to prove that his father did not meet an accidental death. The diplomatic games are mirrored by the intrigues of the Maxted family. Sir Henry might not be all that he seemed but it’s not likely he’s alone in that. Side by side with Max is his trusty flight engineer, Sam. The war has left a legacy that ties Max and Sam together, despite their different social class. The war has also shifted the social position of many women and we see that too.

I found Max an extremely sympathetic young hero. His cause is a good one. There are other characters I enjoyed but many are only briefly glimpsed. It’s mostly Max that we get to know although his mother is fascinating and I would like to know much more about her.

Paris is brought alive. We journey through the streets on foot and by car, spying and being spied upon. We are given the impression of a city closely and easily connected to London, its hotels filled with diplomats and its districts filled by newly classless individuals and refugees, especially from revolutionary Russia. However, I did find The Ways of the World to be largely an intellectual exercise. Despite the frequent mentions of Max’s war background, I didn’t feel much of a connection to the First World War in this world. There are references to lost sons throughout but they’re references, not much more than that. Max is driven to uncover the truth about his father but it is a mostly dispassionate tale. It isn’t fed by the horror of war.

The Ways of the World is an excellent intelligent historical spy story which does the brain nothing but good. It won’t be easy for Max – the book is all the better for that. Just remember to keep jotting down those notes.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 480
Year: 2013, Pb 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

Life After Life by Kate AtkinsonReview
On 11 February 1910, as the snow settles thickly, a baby is born and dies, strangled by her umbilical cord. The baby is unable to take one breath, almost aware of this waste of her own life. Instead, she falls into darkness, a bird dropping from the sky. But we turn a page and life seizes another chance, repeatedly, until finally a doctor is able to make it through the snow and free the windpipe. The baby lives and is named Ursula Todd, her mother’s little bear. So begins a series of rebirths, second, third, fourth chances, as well as repeated deaths. Some are less easy to avoid than others, more prone to recur, but Ursula determinedly, even occasionally humourously (albeit with a dark humour), tries again and again to find a way on.

Life After Life takes us through two world wars. So many people are damaged or lost. It’s as if Ursula feels driven to survive for their sake. But although Ursula does attain a level of awareness of these rebirths, the mystery of this expert and remarkable novel is how we attempt to fathom their purpose. What is it for? What is Ursula supposed to do? And if we were also conscious of more chances in life, what would we do? How far does our responsibility for others stretch?

Ursula’s lives follow a succession of journeys, even into Hitler’s inner sanctum, and the most memorable are set against a backdrop of London in the Blitz. The vividness of the prose and imagery as Ursula attempts to make sense of the horror happening around her and to her is shocking. It’s all the more powerful because we are aware that Ursula may have to repeat deaths over and over again. Our consciousness is something Ursula must learn in the hardest of ways.

In addition to Ursula herself, characters such as her parents Sylvie and Hugh stand out, as does Hugh’s sister Izzie, Ursula’s brother Teddy (another of Sylvie’s little bears), and others of the men and women that impact on Ursula’s life for good or bad, acting out vivid and memorable cameos. It’s an interesting game to look out for changes in other lives as well as slight differences in the historical backdrop. It can be like comparing two images in a puzzle book for little changes. They might be slight but they do make one wonder if it’s not just Ursula who is experiencing this deja vu made real.

Life After Life is a very clever book. Its sequence of layers, levels and clues makes for an extremely rewarding and very rich read. Its leading character Ursula is a fascinating creation. Reliving her life time after time, seeking to fix ‘mistakes’, she – as do we – questions the nature of a good life, fate, responsibility, cruelty and purpose, sometimes looking for answers in philosophy and literature. This is a book full of references to big thoughts. The fact that these lives play out against a backdrop of world wars intensifies Ursula’s determination. What is very plain, though, is that life is never easy, relationships are always difficult, someone will always get hurt, however many times you are able to live it.

The cleverness did distance me from Ursula to a degree. I found it difficult to mourn or rejoice because I could never be sure what was truth and what was fixed. But there is treasure here and the further you dig the more you’ll find and want to keep. Most deservedly, Life After Life will be one of the most talked about books of 2013.

When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones

Publisher: Picador
Pages: 341
Year: 2012, this Pb edn 31 January 2013
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

When nights were cold by Susanna JonesReview
I love a chilly tale and when better to read one than during a subzero snowdrift weekend? When Nights Were Cold makes for perfect reading as the snow falls but it’s not long before the reader finds that not all of the frost is safely outside. Reading this, some of the cold finds its way in to you as you curl up in your comfiest chair.

Susanna Jones takes us back to Dulwich in London during the earliest years of the 20th century, in which we find the home of the middle class Farringdon family. The father, once a sailor, is crippled by a horrifying sea escape that left him frostbitten and haunted by the men who drowned around him. The mother’s life, by contrast, has always been confined by domestic walls. Neither parent wants their two daughters to escape dull safety even though both girls have enormous potential – Catherine as a concert pianist and Grace, the younger, as a well-educated and independent adventurer. It’s through Grace’s eyes that we witness the tragedy of Catherine’s lost hopes and her resigned acceptance of such a terrible fate, caring for two parents who can’t loosen their grip. Grace watches as Frank, Catherine’s hopeful suitor, walks away and listens as Catherine begins to lose her musical talent. Fired up, Grace is determined to fly free, inspired by fantasies of following in the footsteps of Shackleton and Scott.

At a ladies’ college, Grace sets up a ladies’ mountaineering club with three other young women: Hooper, Parr and Locke. They escape convention – where a young woman can’t even talk to a man alone in public without stares and gossip – by climbing in Wales and the Lake District. Led on by the more experienced Parr, who has her own stories to tell, the group decides to tackle the peaks of Switzerland. But this is a dangerous place and amid the snow and the bitterly cold nights something devastating happens.

Grace is a fascinating and intriguing narrator. She is likeable, earnest and determined – all admirable qualities in these days of corsets and chaperones. But the first world war lies just around the corner, when rigid definitions of gender roles were challenged by more practical needs, and we begin to see that Grace Farringdon may not be as reliable a witness as we might have thought.

There are moments reading When Nights Were Cold when I wanted to read back through the pages; a double take. Contributing to this sense of having unsteady ground beneath the feet is the motion of the narrative, rolling forwards and backwards in time, referring to figures as yet unintroduced. The atmosphere is thick, cold and unsteady, like rough seas or mountain peaks. This is a very hard book to put down. Grace is a difficult person to abandon.

The horror of what Grace and her friends face on the mountains is almost matched by the cold harshness of life in Dulwich. There is a real sense in When Nights Were Cold of the confinement that women of this class in particular had to face. The male characters such as Frank have far more weapons at their beck and call and women, including Grace, have to suffer the consequences. Always, reading this, we are reminded of how far men can go, men such as Shackleton, Grace’s hero, in contrast to women. This constraint and control is almost enough to drive some women mad.

Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Publisher: Macmillan
Pages: 940
Year: 2012, Pb 2013
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy

Winter of the World by Ken FollettReview
Fall of Giants, published 2010, has a power that gripped me from the very first page. Beginning in the early years of the 20th century in the dark, dirty and dangerous coal mines of Wales, radiating out through a web of interconnected families to tell the story of the Red Revolution in Russia, the First World War and the Depression in the United States, it set a standard that left me craving its follow up Winter of the World while fearing that it could not live up to its predecessor. The wait was worth it and I needn’t have worried.

I think to appreciate Winter of the World fully you would need to have read Fall of Giants. In that we were introduced to a small group of families – the Peshkovs, the Von Ulrichs, the Williamses, the Dewars and the Fitzherberts – as well as a host of real historical figures – both poor and rich, powerful and oppressed, who loved, fought and hated, while managing to stamp their mark on history despite the ferocity of events that swept across Britain, Europe, the United States and Russia during the first three decades of the 20th century. We meet some of the same familiar characters in Winter of the World but now it is mostly the turn of their offspring. Not all of them are aware of the skeletons in the closets, and there are an awful lot of those, but the history they have to face is every bit as tough as that endured by their parents – even more so. Ken Follett here turns his attention to such monsters from the 1930s and 1940s as Hitler and Stalin, Fascism and Communism, covering the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Nuclear Weapons Race and the beginnings of the Cold War. Some of the story takes place in the pompous drawing rooms and government offices of the United States (as well as Pearl Harbor) but the focus here is on Europe through its darkest days and we watch events from both sides of the curtain.

There are set pieces here that are utterly compelling, such as the Blitz and the Russian liberation of Berlin, while there are other moments that are truly gut wrenching. There’s little here to choose between the evil of the Nazi and Stalinist oppressors. On top of that we have American gangsters, glamorous actresses, British lords and ladies and many individuals committed to a cause. Quite a few of them are prepared to put their lives at great risk in order to end tyranny. This is a strong theme that continues from Fall of Giants – despite the terrible horror there is much hope here due to the idealism that so many characters are prepared to die for. Unfortunately, too many of them have to do just that.

There are lots of characters here and as the chapters jump about from one to another and back again there is not one you will be tired of. I was grateful for the essential dramatis personae at the beginning. Some of the characters stand out – for me Carla von Ulrich, Lloyd Williams and Volodya Peskov were especially strong but it was also good to spend more time with Maud von Ulrich, Lev Peshkov and Gus Dewar from Fall of Giants. Ken Follett is a master of breathing life into his characters, you only have to have read The Pillars of the Earth to know that. His secret here is mixing great characterisation with compelling highlights, told in the most accessible but meaningful manner, from some of the most remarkable events from 20th-century history. It is a fantastic mix and Follett pulls it off perfectly.

My one and only complaint about Winter of the World is its depiction of some of the female characters, especially Daisy Peshkov, Jacky Jakes and Zoya Vorotsyntsez. These women to me were often only alive as seen through male eyes and their bodies sexualised to a degree I wasn’t comfortable with. I also found this clunky. A minor irritation.

This trilogy is a grand trilogy. Winter of the World is another long book but how I loved it and how sorry I was to finish it. This was not one of those long books that makes one feel relief when it ends. Far from it. It covers great themes and history, plus huge emotions and life itself. It could not be shorter and I loved the luxury of its length and the time I could spend lost within it. I wonder how the third book will manage, standing beside the previous two, when it has no more world wars to bring thrills to its pages but I do not doubt the ability of this master storyteller.

Dominion by C.J. Sansom

Publisher: Mantle
Pages: 450
Year: 2012, Pb 2013
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy

Dominion by CJ SansomReview
The year is 1952 and a fog hangs heavy, dense and toxic over Britain. In C.J. Sansom’s alternate history, Beaverbrook not Churchill became Prime Minister. Instead, Churchill is the hunted leader of the Resistance. The government is a union of Nazi sympathisers, controlling the new and unhappy Queen, welcoming the Gestapo onto the island’s shores where they make their own dark plans in the fortress that was once the University of London’s Senate House. The Second World War never happened. Instead there was a brief conflict in 1939-1940 known either as the Dunkirk Campaign or the Jews’ War. The veterans of the Great War are respected and honoured by the German and British people who are determined that no such war will occur again between the two nations – just as long as Hitler and his SS are free to continue their ‘work’ on the continent. But, as the novel begins, 12 years after the signing of the peace treaty, there are the stirrings of a more active involvement by the Nazis in British domestic and imperial affairs, especially on racial matters.

Dominion follows the story of David Fitzgerald, a young civil servant who also spies for the Resistance. When his old school friend Frank Muncaster rises to the top of the Nazi’s Most Wanted list, thanks to secrets confided in him by his brother settled in America, Fitzgerald is the natural choice to rescue Muncaster, a deeply troubled scientist who cowers in a mental hospital, and keep whatever Muncaster hides safe from the Nazis. At the same time, though, the Germans send over from Berlin one of their top officers, the fiercely intelligent and ruthless Gunther Hoth, to seek Muncaster in person.

On one level, Dominion is an adventure story, with the air of a cold war spy thriller about it, although the circumstances are far more deadly. The cat and mouse chase keeps up a pace throughout the novel. There are other threads here, though. Big themes are explored – love, friendship and courage. The relationships between brothers, between man and wife, between lovers, between colleagues, between a government and its subjects distract the characters and readers alike as each questions the limits to which one would go to do the right thing. Not just for one’s fellow countrymen, including Jews and the mentally ill or physically disabled, but also for one’s wife or husband. On the other hand, though, how far would others go to further a career? Even Hoth has his thought processes revealed. And all is concealed and obscured by this horrendous fog.

Sansom is best known, of course, for his famous Tudor investigator Shardlake, although he has explored more recent history before in Winter of Madrid. One can see the similarities between the Tudor and alternate history presented in Dominion. In the post-Dissolution years, England was most probably a frightened and confused place, with centuries of belief smashed around its people. I can see why a fascist Britain would interest Sansom.

Anyone who’s read the Shardlake novels, especially, in my opinion, the first two, knows how well Sansom writes. He achieves an air of authority while still exploring the weaknesses (and strengths) of men and women living in troubled times. Sansom achieves something of the same in Dominion. Arguably, though, this air of authority does have its disadvantages here. In the first couple of hundred pages in particular there is a lot of Info Dumping, so much so that I was irritated on occasion. Admittedly, I did have flu at the time and this may have been a contributing factor. But this and some of the dubious political world building is offset by the brilliance of Dominion‘s atmosphere. Looking back on it, I remember the the fog, the anger, the chill and the rumours. Knowing as we do what went on in Nazi Germany – some of which the protagonists can only suspect – adds a real sense of urgency to the story.

There is a coldness in Dominion, which isn’t surprising considering some of the people in it and its mood of secrets, but I must mention Frank Muncaster, a character I warmed to deeply.

I won’t be the first to mention it but comparisons with Robert Harris’ alternate history Fatherland are inevitable and should there be a contest between the two I’m not sure that Dominion would be the victor. Intriguingly, though, Sansom does not take the easy course here with his new history – George VI stays on the throne and there is no German invasion. This adds a much more interesting dimension to the motives and positions of the key characters.

All in all, Dominion is a very good alternate history of an extremely unpleasant Britain. A sinister and oppressive atmosphere hangs over this tale of domination and resistance and it’s that you’ll remember it for.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Publisher: Mantle
Pages: 600
Year: 2012, Pb 2013
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy

The Secret Keeper by Kate MortonReview
Kate Morton is not a novelist that I have read before. However, having been seduced by reviews of her latest, The Secret Keeper, I settled down to enjoy a long and involving story that follows a family mystery backwards and forwards through almost a century of British history. It has a sit up with a shock opening – in 1961 teenager Laurel witnesses a man approach her mother at the gate to their house. She watches as her mother sets down on the ground the baby boy she is carrying, grasping hold of the knife she is about to cut his birthday cake with, and rips it into the chest of the man, killing him. Fifty years later, with her mother now close to death, Oscar-winning actress Laurel is driven by a compulsion to discover the truth behind this act. Why did the man, dismissed by police as a criminal, greet her mother with her name?

The greater part of The Secret Keeper moves between 2011, the year of Laurel’s quest, and 1941, a critical year in the life of her mother, Dorothy. The pages take us back to London during the height of the Blitz when young women such as Dorothy have to make a living in a city that is being ripped apart by night, whole streets and boroughs wiped out by continual bombing. This state of affairs, though, does mean that the rigid class system of the pre-war years is itself taking some blows, allowing Dorothy some freedom to follow her dreams, even as the bombs fall around her. We follow her life in the city, her friends and boyfriend, and meet the people that will dictate the future course of her life, including Vivien who, like Dorothy, has trauma in her life.

In the present day, Laurel, her sisters and brother slowly start to come to terms with the loss of their wonderful and exciting mother, uncovering little clues to the life they wish to hang on to in the secret places of Dorothy’s house. It is clear that for Laurel, and for her brother, their own lives must wait until they can come to terms with what has happened. It would appear to Laurel that her mother is likewise waiting for the peace that this knowledge would bring.

The Secret Keeper gave me a fair amount of angst during the course of the week in which I read it. The writing is beautiful, the characters are elegantly allowed to grow and breathe and the settings (1941 and the Blitz, 1961, 2011 and flashbacks into earlier days) are vividly located. For the first couple of hundred pages I was gripped by it and mesmerised by the atmosphere.

All well and good, but at about halfway through I found the characters increasingly frustrating (and irritating). The exception was Laurel and I would turn the pages longing for a return to the present day and Laurel’s hunt. The issue that had the most dramatic impact on my enjoyment of the novel, though, was that quite early on I had worked out all of the mysteries. From that point on I also found the storyline increasingly frustrating. I was disappointed by the predictability and the slow, slow circle-creeping narrative. Rarely have I urged a book to ‘get on with it!’ quite as much. Beautiful prose it might be but when you have guessed how the story will unfold it does lose its shine. It’s a little thing but I also thought that the ages of Laurel and her sisters were not easy to believe. Bearing in mind that they were all in their 60s and 70s, I found the depiction of sister Daphne as the glamorous TV weather reader eyebrow raising to say the least.

As a result, my appreciation of the novel’s good points – and there are plenty – were unfortunately outweighed by relief at reaching its finish. But it’s worth mentioning that I had to finish it. The Secret Keeper is an addictive read and I can see why so many readers love it even if it failed with me.

The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay

Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Pages: 336
Year: 2012
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy and bought copy

The Map of Lost Memories by Kim FayReview
Not all is as it seems. The Map of Lost Memories is not your typical adventure story. It may feature the search for lost copper scrolls deep in the jungle of Cambodia and it may be steeped in the mysteries of a lost history but all of this serves as the grand and evocative backdrop for the tale of two young women back in the 1920s who are searching for the clues to an even greater puzzle – their own heritage and their purpose in this difficult and masculine environment.

The story begins in Shanghai in 1925. It focuses on Irene, a museum curator who has been cheated from what is her due because of her sex. She seeks vengeance in the form of making a great archaeological discovery that no-one can steal from her. When her elderly patron Mr Simms reveals that her recently deceased father has left him (not her) clues to a lost temple and its scrolls, she sets off on what becomes a trail of breadcrumbs. She is advised to seek out the well know Khmer linguist and archaeologist – or treasure hunter – Simone, a young Frenchwoman who was born in the east and has married a man that many believe will be the instigator of a socialist rebellion that will finally rid Cambodia of its western overlords. Charismatic leader he might be, but he is also a brute of a man and a monster of a husband. Simone is no longer the woman she may once have been.

The Map of Lost Memories follows Irene and Simone, and the men who love them, on a slow and winding trail through the hot, wet and insect-ridden jungle, pausing for tantalising glimpses of hidden villages, meandering cool rivers and Angkor Wat. The dangers come from local chiefs or officials who want to safeguard their resources as well as threats closer to home, some exaggerated by opium and alcohol and self-loathing.

The mystery of the scrolls might steer the course of the novel but The Map of Lost Memories investigates many large themes – the place of women in a man’s world, the future of the people of Cambodia, drug addiction, the theft of antiquities and the relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, between lovers.

If you were after a pageturning quest thriller, I doubt you’d be entirely satisfied. The pace is leisurely and the novel is very much about the journey rather than the destination. There are many little details about the history and environment of China and Cambodia and there is in depth scrutiny of Irene’s aspirations and needs. Set against that is Simone, a deeply damaged and unsympathetic individual. There are elements of melodrama – we are put in a famously enigmatic and romantic place and time after all – but often the mood is quiet and complex.

Irene and Simone are memorable characters, as is the jungle itself. It is vividly brought into colour for us. The women are the force behind The Map of Lost Memories and if there is any criticism it would be that the men are less well-rounded and real. I would also suggest that the novel is a little too burdened with over description. An upside of this is an enormously detailed picture of the jungle and other places, but the downside is the potential to stall the story and slow the read. Nevertheless, this is a fine novel, a literary adventure, that lingers in the mind, thanks to the wonderful portraits of Irene and Simone, and the atmosphere that seeps through the novel, evoking so strongly another place and time. If you can’t appreciate the passion and courage of Irene or feel the heat and damp of that jungle, so beautifully described by Kim Fay, I’ll be very surprised.