Category Archives: Earlier 20th C

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

In a Land of Paper Gods | Rebecca Mackenzie | 2016 | Tinder Press | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca MacKenzieHenrietta S. Robertson lives a childhood that is touched by magic. She spends her days in a boarding school, high on a misty, fabled mountain in China, with each part of its gardens, ravines and ponds given special names by the children, creating a remote, secret haven for the young and the imaginative, far from the world below. The children are almost all the sons and daughters of missionaries, parents who would prefer to bring the word of God to the bound feet women and their families than to care for their own children. They escort their offspring up the mountain on chairs carried by the local people and then leave them at the school, in some cases not seeing them again for years.

These are children who bridge two worlds and yet still manage to create for themselves a third. Henrietta, or Etta, has both English and Chinese names. She speaks both languages. But Etta and her friends, including Big Bum Eileen, all have something missing from their lives, not least an attachment to the world below. Led by Etta, they create a secret mystical society, a club of prophetesses, giving themselves new names and adopting mysterious powers, mixing their parents’ Christianity with the spiritualism of their home. But apart as they are, with few teachers to keep an eye on them, it isn’t long before they lose control and the resulting trauma has significant repercussions for Etta – the world she has built is about to collapse for ever. For this is 1941 and it seems that even the most remote part of China cannot escape Japan’s marching soldiers.

In a Land of Paper Gods is a compelling, captivating read. For much of it we are transported to a strange place indeed, experiencing it through the eyes and words of Etta. This is a child’s world but a child separated from her parents, living in an unusual beautiful, mystical place, surrounded by other children in a similar state, and teachers who form part of the family, despite their rules. But rules are there to be disobeyed. Visiting parents are viewed with wonder as is anybody who ventures up the mountain to the school. Mixing with Etta’s account are extracts from the diary of Muriel, one of the teachers and regarded by Etta as an aunt. It’s through Muriel that we keep our feet on the ground and realise just how far Etta and her friends have removed themselves.

This is a novel in two parts – the first two thirds take place on the mountain while, after many ominous signs, the final third throws us into the Second World War as we watch the impact of the Japanese army on the inhabitants of the school. For me, this is when In a Land of Paper Gods comes truly alive, Until then it had been a slightly remote, often humorous and charming, occasionally shocking tale of a lost children’s world. But in the final section reality hits like a hammer and I could not put it down. From that point on everything changes, reality is brutal, and now we see the past at the school in a whole new light. It is very cleverly done as well as powerful and totally gripping.

In a Land of Paper Gods is Rebecca Mackenzie’s debut novel and it’s a standout one. The author brings together two entirely separate worlds, one innocent and the other evil, and yet reveals that neither is entirely free of the other. And at its heart is the unforgettable Henrietta, a girl that we follow through it all, and she is a marvellous creation.

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

Crooked Heart | Lissa Evans | Black Swan | 2014 (Pb 2015) | 347p | Review copy | Buy the book

Crooked Heart by Lissa EvansNoel Bostock might be only ten years old but he’s lived an unusual life. An orphan, he was brought up by his strong-spirited godmother Mattie. Mattie was a suffragette and never one to obey the rules. Her disdain for authority – and education – most definitely rubbed off on her young charge as they lived their own way in Mattie’s large Hampstead house. Until Mattie began to lose her words and then her memories and finally her life. Noel was moved to the home of Uncle Geoffrey and Auntie Margery – not his relatives, but Mattie’s distant cousins – and, if war hadn’t have broken out in 1939, it’s likely that we would never have heard of Noel again. He would eventually have been squashed by this new regulated, cold life forced down on his shoulders. But war meant that Noel was evacuated to the relative safety of St Albans and it was there that he came under the care of Vee Sedge. A woman less suited to caring for a young evacuee would be difficult to imagine.

Noel continues, probably without knowing what he’s feeling, to grieve for Mattie. Vee has money problems – not to mention mother problems and son problems. When Vee decides to use Noel in her money-raising schemes she soon discovers that if anyone has the brains to make this work it’s not her, it’s Noel. And so begins the tale of an unusual partnership between two lonely people who have lost the ability to trust but aren’t going to take the world’s punches lying down.

Crooked Heart is a wonderfully fitting title for this warm, compassionate and humorous novel. In this wartime story, there is as much crookedness as there is heroism, probably much more. There is crime going on at these bombsites, the innocent are being exploited and there is no doubt that Mattie and Noel’s schemes are thoroughly dishonest, just like lots of other peoples. But there are ramifications, some good, some terrible, and it is these that shape the novel and the characters and relationship of Vee and Noel. We might not cheer on their plots and schemes but we grow to care very deeply indeed for this damaged pair of lovable rogues.

Lissa Evans’ writing is enchanting. It is deceptively light, the humour a joy but not overdone, contrasting with its moments of darkness and sadness. The character portraits are superb and not just Mattie and Noel’s. There are a host of people, villains and angels, who come and go through the pages and they all leave their mark, their own stories, their own worries, their dreams. I was particularly touched by the gently recurring theme of the suffragettes. The heroism and sisterhood of these women is a vital part of Noel’s growing up.

Noel is adorable. He might be a pain in the neck at times – and it did take me a little while to warm to him – but once the real Noel began to emerge I was completely captivated. During the second half of the novel in particular Noel comes into his own. Lissa Evans has created a treasure.

Crooked Heart is a fantastic portrait of London and its suburbs during the Blitz. You can really sense the fear as the sirens sound and men and women take their lives into their hands as they scramble through pitch black streets to safety or disaster. Putting a child into this lethal environment seems especially worrisome. But there is a strong feeling that everyone is out of their depth, not just the children. And alongside the little achievements are tragedies. Crooked Heart is an increasingly moving and intense novel that never loses its sense of humour. It is also incredibly difficult to put down. The pages fly through the fingers. Crooked Heart is an absolute delight.

The British Lion by Tony Schumacher

The British Lion | Tony Schumacher | 2015 | William Morrow | 450p | Review copy | Buy the book

The British Lion by Tony SchumacherIt is November 1946 and Britain is defeated, part of the German Third Reich, its government fled to the US, itself largely tolerant of Germany, and the exiled George VI replaced by Edward VIII. Life has been turned upside down and nobody exemplifies this more than the British Lion, John Rossett. Before the war Rossett was a detective, during the war he was a hero, earning the accolade of British Lion alongside his medals, but once the war was lost he became involved in rounding up Britain’s Jews, his only friend his Nazi commander, Major Ernst Koehler of the SS. Lying in a hospital bed, shot up, Rossett can no longer stomach his part in the Final Solution, wanting nothing more than to return to his life in London’s police force. That’s if the Nazis let him live. But everything stops when Koehler’s wife and daughter are snatched from a shop in London by American spies. Desperate, Koehler asks Rossett to help him, to follow the trail and demands left by the kidnappers and to find his family.

What follows is a tense cat and mouse chase across a southern England in the grip of a harsh winter. The snow and ice befits the country’s desolation; the confusion of motives and allegiances entirely representative of Britain’s fallen state. Nobody can be trusted and, even though Rossett and Koehler might call themselves friends, friendship is not necessarily something to be relied upon. Nothing is straightforward. The British Resistance is not made up of heroes and freedom fighters but is instead the refuge of the country’s most unprincipled and ruthless criminals and gangsters. The American spies are themselves fighting for a country (and American ambassador Joseph Kennedy) with dodgy politics at best. There are good guys but sometimes they’re not on the side you expect. But above it all are the Germans, whose soldiers patrol Britain’s towns and roadblock its countryside. Rossett’s mission takes him into the heart of this captured land and into its darkest places.

The British Lion is the follow up novel to The Darkest Hour. I can certainly see the benefit of having read this first although, as a reader who hadn’t, I did find it easy to catch up on what had gone before and the characters almost immediately felt familiar. I will make a point of reading The Darkest Hour, though. I don’t want to miss out. Tony Schumacher writes brilliantly but not only is the prose sharp and entralling but he has also filled the novel, its characters and plot with a multitude of layers, playing with our sympathies while still having us on the edge of our seats.

There is all the action of a wartime or cold war thriller here – it is packed full of suspense and shocks. We move between the different factions, seeing them all at their best and worst (and the worst is very bad indeed). We see the horror that faces a Britain under Nazi rule through the character of Jewish scientist Ruth Hartz, but Ruth is also such a complex character and she carries with her some huge surprises. But our sympathies are most strongly pulled towards Koehler’s young daughter, Anja, whose character is beautifully drawn by Schumacher. There are lots of memorable moments in this novel but probably the one that will stay with me the longest is its most tender. How I cried.

The relationship between Rossett and Koehler is absolutely fascinating. These are not straightforward men and both are caught in situations they would prefer to escape. Both are ruthless, products of their time but also with the power to influence their time. I could never tire of reading about these two.

The British Lion is a powerful, compelling thriller – beautifully written and populated by complex, fascinating characters, drawn from each of the factions that rule and sabotage this alternate Britain. It is superb.

If You Go Away by Adele Parks

If You Go Away | Adele Parks | 2015 | Headline | 477p | Bought copy | Buy the book

If You Go Away by Adele ParksIn the spring of 1914, Vivian Foster had little to worry about other than the cut of her dress, the fullness of her dance card and the moment at which her beau Nathaniel will choose to pop the highly anticipated and much expected question. But all that is about to change when Vivian, one of the most beautiful and charming girls of her season, makes a foolish mistake. Stricken with embarrassment and with little money in the family coffers, Vivian’s parents urgently seek out a suitable husband for their wayward daughter. Aubrey Owens is perfect. A quiet man whose family only recently made their fortune, Aubrey would never have presumed to chase such a catch but now she is caught without him having to raise a finger. Vivian and Aubrey marry on the day that the Great War breaks out. It seems fitting to Vivian that on this day of compromise the rest of Britain should be distracted, their attention focused elsewhere.

Howard Henderson is a celebrated playwright, leading a charmed, fashionable life in London when war breaks out. But then, for the first time in his life, Howard understands that he is different from everyone else, that he has principles he didn’t quite expect to find and that he will pay the ultimate price for them if he has to. Howard does not want to fight. He has no religious grounds not to, he simply doesn’t want to kill or be killed. But Howard, like most conscientious objectors, is no coward. He travels to France as a journalist to record life and death on the Front for a year. The appalling horrors that he sees, smells and feels change his life forever. He returns to England determined never to be a part of this war, no matter the cost. Until he meets Vivian, the young wife who lives alone in the grand house in his mother’s village while her officer husband makes a name for himself in the throes of war. These two young people carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Together they stand a chance. If only the war and society will allow it.

If You Go Away is, without doubt, one of the most enchanting and captivating novels that I’ve read in a long time. The wonderful author leads us in gently, almost under false pretences, as we are introduced to the vain and privileged Vivian. But it’s easy to forget how young she is when her dreams revolve around making the perfect marriage. When her plans all go awry we slowly get to know another Vivian, one with few friends, a family that has lost all interest in her, and a husband who might admire his wife’s beauty but values her little more than he does any other attractive possession. Not that he is to blame for this any more than Vivian was to blame for her self-obsession – Aubrey and Vivian are the products of their time and that time is changing.

If You Go Away alternates between the stories of Vivian and Howard, chapter by chapter, but if you were to ask me which of the two narratives I preferred, I would not be able to answer. I loved both of these people, more and more as we get to know them better, as the war closes in around them, as they mature and learn what they want, as they love the people who need them, as they face the harsh morality of society and the utterly monstrous reality of war. The novel cleverly and movingly changes as the the years of war progress until the reader is completely wrapped up in the lives of Vivian and Howard, and those closest to them, including Aubrey.

The contrast between life on Vivian’s country estate and death in the trenches of France is powerfully evoked within these pages. Adele Parks treats them both with deep empathy and care. I was moved to tears repeatedly as this novel worked its magic on me. I wanted to do nothing but read it. The writing is beautiful, deceptively light in places, harrowing and tragic in others. I devoured If You Go Away one glorious weekend and, on finishing it, I immediately went out and bought Spare Brides. Adele Parks is a stunning storyteller and I am so glad she has turned her considerable talent to historical fiction. All I can do is ask for more.

The Edge of the Fall by Kate Williams

The Edge of the Fall | Kate Williams | 2015 | Orion | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Edge of the Fall by Kate WilliamsThe Edge of the Fall follows directly on from last year’s The Storms of War. If you don’t want to know what happened in the first book then please stop here. The repercussions of The Storms of War are keenly felt in The Edge of the Fall.

The First World War is over and life will never be the same for the de Witt family. While daughter Celia volunteered as an ambulance driver in France and her brother Michael lost his life fighting for the British, the family’s German roots cast a shadow over the de Witts that will last far longer than the years of war. Michael’s father Rudolph was interred for the duration, his wife Verena, humiliated, aged beyond her years while waiting for his return. Now that the war is over, Celia cannot return to her previous life. No longer a child, she wants to move away from the family country home of Stoneythorpe and live in London, with her sister and brother-in-law if she has to, and keep alive the flame within her that was lit during the Great War.

Excitement comes to Stoneythorpe in the unexpected arrival from abroad of the de Witt’s eldest son, Arthur, a stranger barely there through The Storms of War. About the same time, Louisa, an orphaned niece and heiress arrives. It seems inevitable that the glamorous Arthur and the beautiful sad Louisa should turn to each other. Celia can do little else but watch, envy and feel more isolated than ever. This is a family with secrets, some revealed in The Storms of War, with more to emerge. Celia feels like her little life is in danger of losing all meaning entirely. In London she believes she can find herself. But life is about to make another leap into uncertainty and chaos – while Celia’s own future is to take an entirely unpredictable path. There is also another great scandal on the horizon, this time involving Arthur and Louisa. War changed everything for the de Witts and it seems that peace time will be no less dangerous.

The Storms of War was one of my favourite historical fiction reads of 2014 – I love a good saga set during the First World War and early decades of the 20th century (I am a Downton nut, after all). It’s one of those transitional periods that draws me in – the end of one world, the emergence of the next, and a particularly testing time for women whose roles (at least for the wealthy) were in a state of flux. Of course, life would have gone on much as usual for poor women, except minus a son or a husband. I was so pleased to read The Edge of the Fall and return to the world – and characters – that Kate Williams has recreated so invitingly.

The Edge of the Fall focuses on a great mystery involving Louisa but the main character is Celia. We spend much of the novel in her company, away from Stoneythorpe when she can manage it, visiting her relatives in a much altered Germany and creating an independent life in London, one that attracts more than its own fair share of scandal. Much of the drama, though, is preserved for Louisa and Arthur, and a considerable portion of the novel moves from Celia’s story to Louisa’s, moving back and forth through events, providing another perspective to Celia’s sometimes prejudiced or subjective version of events. As the stories in both narratives merge, they culminate in an intriguing and tense final third of the novel, that none of the characters could have imagined at its opening.

Arguably, The Edge of the Fall is missing the most significant element that made The Storms of War such a compelling and emotional read – the Great War. Although the war continues to overshadow lives, its absence is felt. Celia and Michael’s experiences on the front were vital parts of the previous novel but now Celia’s unhappiness and inability to settle seem much more childish and selfish. For the first half of the novel at least Celia is not as likeable as she was before and this, combined with missing the drama of the war, did affect my response to The Edge of the Fall. As a result, the pace is significantly slower, particular in the middle. I had no time at all for Arthur. It’s impossible not to feel something for Louisa (and Celia’s poor parents), but it’s clear from the outset that the cloud hanging over her head will never shift. I found the interlude in Germany fascinating, however, and Celia’s mix of German and English heritage is a theme I look forward to seeing develop in the next novel.

Kate Williams is obviously a successful historian but she is also, in her fiction, a fine observer of behaviour and character. While Celia might irritate on occasion there is no doubt that she feels very alive on the page, as do the novel’s locations, especially London of the early 1920s, a time that might have been roaring for some but definitely not for all – especially not for the de Witts. This is an attractive series and, although this book, for me, fell short of the first, I will be interested to see what happens in the next.

Other review
The Storms of War

The Silent Hours by Cesca Major

The Silent Hours | Cesca Major | 2015 | Corvus | 310p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Silent Hours by Cesca MajorIn 1952 Adeline is a refugee inside a nunnery in south-west France. She has been cared for there for several years and in all that time Adeline has not said a word. Left mute by a past trauma, and with memories of that trauma all but robbed from her, Adeline is nearing the end of her stay. The nuns have run out of ways to help her. But one young nun perseveres, coaxing Adeline to remember and to recover her voice and, with it, herself. Piece by piece, sparks of memories flash before her eyes and we slowly learn what happened to Adeline.

As war breaks out in Europe, Isabelle is in love. She’s fallen for Sebastien, a young banker who cannot believe his good fortune that this beautiful, happy young woman should have chosen him. Sebastien is Jewish but this is Limoges, outside occupied France. He cannot believe that the war will touch him or his family here. He and Isabelle will have a glorious future. But there is a cloud shadowing Isabelle – her brother Paul is a soldier fighting the Germans and his letters bring the reality of war terrifyingly close.

Tristan is a nine-year-old boy whose family fled from Paris to the countryside of southern France as the Germans marched in. Unable to understand entirely what war means, he witnesses an atrocity on the road south that will make him determined to do everything he can to end the war as soon as possible so that he and his family can return to Paris and everything will be as it once was.

Lots of lives, some lived close together, others just touching, but all linked by this little area of rural, quiet France that wants to believe it will never be touched by war. In The Silent Hours, Cesca Major brings the stories of these people to the fore, moving between them, incorporating letters and memories, building a portrait of a vulnerable community that is not just as risk from the Nazis but also from within. Fear of war infiltrates this society and it’s all too easy to turn that fear against the most vulnerable. Not all, though. Many stay strong and prefer to hope.

Written in the present tense throughout, but moving to and fro between the war and 1952, The Silent Hours is an immediate and intensely powerful read. I’m not a big fan of present tense in historical novels but it works very well here, somehow denying the villagers knowledge about anything but the present. It also means that this is not an entirely dark novel, despite its subject matter and its relentless march towards the event that traumatised Adeline. Isabelle and Sebastien are allowed their time in love, Tristan is allowed to be a child, and village life continues with all of its daily cares, celebrations and concerns. It is beautifully done. Cesca Major writes so well. I was mesmerised.

I initially didn’t read this novel earlier in the year because I assumed it was a romance. I was mistaken. There’s a romance in it but that’s as far as it goes. This is powerful and rich storytelling. It is increasingly disturbing and troubling, and, finally, utterly harrowing. It is full of intimate portraits of people caught in a moment of history. It is impossible not to become involved and it is also very hard to put this book down. I read it in one glorious sitting, appropriately enough on Remembrance Sunday. I’ve been to the places portrayed here and know the history. Cesca Major does them justice and The silent Hours will be a novel I’ll remember for a long time.

The Ends of the Earth by Robert Goddard (The Wide World 3)

The Ends of the Earth | Robert Goddard | 2015 | Bantam Press | 379p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ends of the Earth by Robert GoddardIt is 1919 and, finally, the negotiations to settle the Great War are complete. Ambassadors and agents disperse from Paris back to their respective countries. Peace can ensue while, for some, the circumstances that will lead to a second war are underway. The balance of power has shifted; spies and double agents are rife; secrets are everything. But in the business of secrets lives count for very little indeed. Nobody knows that better than James ‘Max’ Maxted, the man who survived years as a pilot and then a prisoner of war but whose war really began when his father Sir Henry was murdered in Paris while attending the peace negotiations.

The Ends of the Earth completes Robert Goddard’s historical thriller trilogy, one of the most intricate and clever spy novels that I have read. You’d have to be bonkers to read The Ends of the Earth without having first read its predecessors, The Ways of the World and The Corners of the Globe. Although each of the novels, including this latest one, contain complete stages in Max’s hunt for the truth surrounding his father’s murder, each follows on directly from the one before. In fact, The Corners of the Globe effectively finished in mid-sentence, in the biggest cliffhanger that I’ve read (it made me grumble, I can tell you), but now, at last, my curiosity and impatience have been satisfied. If you’ve not read the earlier novels, then now is the perfect time to do so – the trilogy is complete! This will make life much easier for your memory – mine has had to struggle with remembering names and facts over the two years that I’ve read these three books – and it will mean that you can read them in one fell swoop. This by far the best way to appreciate this fantastic, incredibly clever story.

It isn’t easy to review the last book in a trilogy like this. I want to give nothing away and, as with the previous books, there are twists and turns, shocks and surprises, throughout. This is a lethal world. The stakes are enormous and so it’s not a surprise that a fair few people don’t survive to emerge on the other side. What I can say is that in this novel, as expected, the action moves from Paris to what would have indeed felt like the ends of the Earth – Japan. In the early 20th century, Japan would have seemed an exotic, almost alien, land to Max, Sam, Malory and Schools. Having brought 1919 Paris and England and Scotland to life in the first two books, Robert Goddard now achieves the same with Japan. It’s a mesmerising portrait, violent and sinister as well as beautiful and kind.

The Ends of the Earth is rather different from the previous two novels. It all feels much more personal – I won’t tell you why. There are also elements to the story which are particularly distressing and tragic. As noted in The Corners of the Globe, Max is not the man he once was. He has been totally changed during his transformation into a spy. He knows it, too.

The plot is as deliciously complicated as before but by this stage the lines are more clearly drawn, the enemy stepping out from the shadows. Action is what matters now and when it comes it is so thrilling and tense. At last, everything comes to a head and it is utterly compelling.

In an ideal world I would have preferred all three books to have been published in one volume – this would have maintained the momentum from start to finish – but there are small recaps along the way and they do help. I’ve waited for The Ends of the Earth for many months now and it is everything I wanted. I cannot praise Robert Goddard’s skill enough – this is a masterful historical spy thriller but it is more than that. It is a portrait of the world in the aftermath of a devastating war; countries emerge in new forms, constructed and deconstructed by intelligence networks that cross the planet. Human lives have paid the cost for this transformation but some of the greatest tragedies, the ones that emerge here, are the quiet ones and the results of these will last for generations. The Wide World is an outstanding trilogy, Max a remarkable hero, and I heartily recommend it.

Other reviews
The Ways of the World
The Corners of the Globe