Category Archives: Earlier 20th C

The Storms of War by Kate Williams

Publisher: Orion
Pages: 514
Year: 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Storms of War by Kate WilliamsReview
It is 1 August 1914 and war is just days away. For German immigrant and meat merchant Rudolf de Witt, his English wife Verena and their four children, tensions are greater than for most. A village party hosted by the de Witts ends in humiliation, snubbed by the villagers, a trivial event in itself but a sign of how lines have been drawn between the British and those who are now regarded as the enemy. For youngest daughter, 15-year-old Celia, this is a time to cast off her childhood clothes and to raise up a notch her flirtation with servant and groom Tom. Her sister Emmeline is about to marry Sir Hugh, sealing the respectability of this half-British family, while no one would seem to hate the Germans more than brother Michael. Of Arthur, the eldest brother and away in Paris, there is not a word.

But when war breaks out on 4 August everything changes for the de Witt family and their servants, leaving only Verena safe in her grand home of Stoneythorpe, bewildered and abandoned. Celia, Michael, Tom and Rudolf undergo years of horror, each leaving mental and physical scars, and it is their stories that come alive in this fine family saga.

The Storms of War is essentially a novel in two parts, the first preparing us – and the characters – for what is to come in the second. The point of view shifts through the novel, spending time in turns with Michael and Celia in particular. Celia’s story is initially a domestic one, continuing her lessons, dealing with her sister and mother, and coming to terms with the absence of Michael, Tom and her father. Michael’s perspective is unbearably different, surrounded as he is by the fear, dread and danger of trench warfare. Kate Williams, a historian whose love of the past shines through these pages, brings the horror to the fore through descriptions of dealing with the lice, the rats and the dirt. It’s a riveting read.

Once Celia embarks on her adulthood, her story rivals – and exceeds – that of Michael in its depiction of war. Celia’s experiences as an ambulance driver in France are enormously powerful and horrifying. The camaraderie between the girls, brought together from a range of backgrounds and motives, mirrors that between the men in the trenches, the men that these girls collect in pieces.

The descriptions of war are outstanding, all the more so because Kate Williams has made us care so much for the characters – whether major or minor. The contrast between the chapters set in London and Stoneythorpe and those set in France or in hospitals at home is dramatic and poignant. The trivial versus the fundamental. As a result, I had very little time for Emmeline and only slightly more for Verena. My feelings for Rudolf were also mixed, as they are supposed to be. But I had all the time in the world for Celia, Michael and Tom – especially poor, young Celia, brave beyond her years, with demands made on her that should never have been made and so much heart despite the efforts of some to tear it apart.

There is so much going on in The Storms of War, its pace is furious and never lets up. I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey and so I thoroughly enjoyed the saga’s great dramas, one after another, the characters that come and go, leaving devastation and turmoil in their wake, the twists and turns (pleasurable despite their predictability), and the tragedies that will endure for years. Despite the bloody war scenes, this is not a heavy read. Its purpose is to inform and to be enjoyed and it succeeds perfectly.

The Storms of War is the first in the saga. The next will take the history and story of the de Witt family through to 1927. Some characters are merely hinted at in this first novel – especially brother Arthur and the mysterious General – while others make enigmatic appearances – the American Jonathan for one. I can’t wait to see what Kate will do with them all next as the stormclouds of war disperse.

The Corners of the Globe by Robert Goddard (The Wide World 2)

Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 400
Year: 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Corners of the Globe by Robert GoddardReview
With the Great War over, the powers of the world assemble in Paris to decide on terms for victors and vanquished. While diplomats and ministers meet to discuss terms, agents and spies work to their masters’ agendas, dealing in secrets, hiding sins, removing obstacles. Circumstances, though, have made a spy of James Maxted, known to most as Max. With his father Sir Henry murdered, found in Paris at the end of a steep drop, Max is after answers and vengeance. The more Max learns, the deeper he descends into a most perilous world. The cost of peace is immense and no-one knows this better than Max, the man who survived years as a pilot and then a prisoner of war.

The Corners of the Globe is the second in Robert Goddard’s historical spy thriller series, begun so well with last year’s The Ways of the World. There is no pause from the previous novel. Max is now determined on his course of action. His father’s death might be less of a mystery now, proven to be murder and not suicide, but Max knows that Sir Henry’s killer was just one small cog in a wheel that surrounds Paris. Vengeance on the murderer is not enough. Max is after the leaders and to take them on he plays a very dangerous game indeed.

As the novel begins, Max is on a ‘mission’ for Germany’s chief spymaster, to travel to Orkney to rescue a document from the interred German fleet. It contains secrets so powerful they can draw out spies from the shadows. As British and German agents search for Max, the British secret service is in danger of collapsing from the inside out, its double agents making themselves known in the desperate scramble for the document. Meanwhile in Paris, Max’s old manservant, and now chauffeur to the British diplomats, Sam, is caught up in his own deadly game, mixed up in a power struggle amongst the Japanese delegation to Paris which strikes to the heart of what Sir Henry was up to in the city.

The result is an immense tangle of deceit and treachery. German, Japanese and British agents scramble for position, with Max pursued across Scotland and England to France and Sam fighting his own battle on the streets and rooftops of Paris. Both of them must decide who they are prepared to trust. Fortunately, they each encounter men and women prepared to help them, to stand up for what is right. But bodies fall on both sides.

The Corners of the Globe presents Max’s transformation into spy. His humanity lessens as his heart hardens. He directly puts other people’s lives in danger and he is prepared to live with the consequences, while they might not. There is one memorable scene where he comes across an old comrade from the war, begging on the streets, one leg missing. Max pretends he doesn’t know the man when asked and so he must then watch the light of hope fade from his old friend’s eyes. With so many lies and deaths, there is bound to be tragedy, and we encounter it in the sadness of bereaved lovers, sons, sisters and friends. It’s an intriguing mix, this contradiction between Max’s increasing hardness and the amount of suffering he meets, even causes.

Without doubt, The Corners of the Globe is a complicated novel. Fortunately, there are some recaps of what went on before in The Ways of the World and I found this vital. You could read this second novel without having read the first – enough is made clear – but a knowledge of The Ways of the World does add greatly to one’s appreciation of Goddard’s admirable plotting and the development of Max’s character. While I enjoyed the first novel greatly, I enjoyed the second even more. There is much more focus on what matters, less attention given to Max’s family in England, a greater number of puzzles, more danger and much more involvement by Max as the novel’s driving force. The secondary characters are also given additional life.

It’s all backed up by the most atmospheric and evocative worldbuilding. Paris in particular is given a life of its own, with rich descriptions of its famous streets and places, populated by a cast of characters from around the world, each of whom has his or her own agenda in the negotiations for peace and domination and revenge. The Great War itself gets little direct mention, except for the regular reminders and memories of shell-shocked, injured, dead servicemen. It is the trauma that overshadows all else.

My only complaint about this superb novel is its cliffhanger ending which is the most blatant cliffhanger that I’ve encountered and seems totally out of place in a book of such class. The novel as a whole makes me desperate to read the trilogy’s conclusion (I love the direction in which it’s heading), it doesn’t need such a cheap gimmick. Nevertheless, this is a minor niggle and it only slightly marred my appreciation for a novel that is, especially during the second half, an unputdownable thrilling race for answers.

Other review
The Ways of the World

The Spider of Sarajevo by Robert Wilton

Publisher: Corvus
Pages: 397
Year: 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Spider of Sarajevo by Robert WiltonReview
On the morning of 28 June 1914, one hundred years ago today, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie were shot dead in the streets of Sarajevo, an act that set the world alight with war. The descent into war was, though, far from straightforward – the principle powers of the day played a complicated game, in secret, using diplomats and spies rather than the soldiers that were to replace them in just weeks. Published today to mark the centenary of the assassinations, The Spider of Sarajevo, brings the shady world of the spies to the fore, focusing on the weeks which led up to the events of 28 June 1914, moving between the men (and occasional woman) who dealt in lies and secrets across Europe’s borders and yet were themselves pawns – or bait.

The oldest, most secretive and respected of all spy offices – the Comptroller-General for Scrutiny and Survey in London – has a problem. Opposing him across the Channel is a new spymaster with extraordinary reach and control, extending from Berlin and Austria to the unstable Balkans and beyond. Nameless, he is known to the Old Man in London as the Spider. The war they fight is more than personal, it will have deadly consequences.

Four young people are hired as spies to tempt out the Spider. They are each very different – anthropologist Ballentyne, businessman Cade, charmer Duval and the fiercely clever Hathaway, the sole woman amongst the four. The agent responsible for their safety is Major Knox, a man who realises before most the extent of the danger they are all in. Dispatched across the continent, from France to Constantinople and St Petersburg, the four spies chase shadows, creating their own networks and relationships from the men and women that they encounter in cafes, dinner parties, diplomatic functions, or in the mountain villages of the Balkans. With four leading figures to follow, it’s quite likely that some will become favourites and brave Ballentyne and fierce Hathaway are mine.

The Spider of Sarajevo is a deliciously complicated affair – its opening list of individuals ‘named in the dossier’ is invaluable and I frequently referred back to it. Each of our spies has an increasingly large circle around them while the influence of the Spider becomes ever more noticeable as the heat of his hunt intensifies. The reader must have his or her wits about them as they follow the trail. But the characters have more than enough warmth in their veins for the reader to engage with more than just their brain. I cared very deeply about the fate of our four spies, especially as all of the clues, from the title and the publication date onwards, remind us what lies in store.

This sense of countdown is strong and it intensifies the tension, which is also heightened by a series of action moments which are extremely thrilling and dramatic, including one in a submarine base and another during a great regatta of German and British battleships at Kiel, an event which seems almost preposterous when one thinks how close this is to war.

Robert Wilton’s prose is as superb as his plotting and there is an irony and detachment in its tone that is especially effective during the moments of greatest tension. Surprises and shocks are delivered with impeccable timing. There are also some pleasingly witty asides, especially during our chapters in the company of Hathaway. This is a skillful narrative, mixed up within it are letters, cryptic telegrams, notes and reports drawn from the archives of the Comptroller-General for Scrutiny and Survey. Some characters we meet only briefly but they make for some terrific portraits nonetheless – I particularly enjoyed the mysterious Valfierno and his verbal duel with one of our four during a memorable railway journey. The persona of the author, and his relationship to his subjects and his readers, is likewise intriguing.

Even though the outcome for Europe is never in doubt, the pace is fierce and there are surprises in store within these pages and it is necessary for the reader to pay the closest of attention in order to reap the rewards of the shocks and twists. The Spider of Sarajevo is the third novel in Robert Wilton’s Comptroller-General series, set several hundred years after the Civil War events of its predecessor, the masterpiece Traitor’s Field. Yet again, Robert Wilton proves he is not only a fine storyteller but also a master of untangling our history during its most complicated and perilous episodes, whatever the century.

Other review
Traitor’s Field

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, Pb 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy and review 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, Pb 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
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.