Category Archives: Earlier 20th C

The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory

Lake Union | 2019 (1 August) | 395p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rabbit Girls by Anna ElloryIt is 1989 and, as the Berlin Wall falls, Miriam Winter cares for her dying father Henryk. She knows so little about him. They’ve been apart for years but now she begins to learn of his past. He cries out for someone called Frieda, while Miriam discovers an Auschwitz number tattooed on his wrist, hidden by his watch strap. While searching for further clues, Miriam finds an inmate uniform from Ravensbrück concentration camp and, sewn into its seams, are letters to Henryk written by Frieda. The letters reveal something of Frieda’s past with Henryk but they also record the truth about the ‘Rabbit Girls’, women who were mercilessly experimented upon in the camp. Miriam’s own life has stalled. She needs to escape from her own past and it is Frieda, speaking though so many years, who inspires Miriam to strive to be free.

The Rabbit Girls is largely told in Miriam’s own words and it’s her we grow to know the most. Despite the momentous events happening outside the house – the fall of the Wall – Miriam is withdrawn and consumed by her past while fearful for her father. She barely knows him but she cannot let him go. She hangs on to him, barely leaving the house. Miriam is a tormented soul and the prose reflects this. At times lyrical, at other times disjointed, it epitomises Miriam’s damaged spirit.

I think that the reader’s response to the novel will depend on his or her reaction to Miriam and her voice. To me, at times, it felt rather too ‘floaty’ and self-absorbed, and I didn’t especially warm to her. However, I did warm to Frieda, whose letters are scattered throughout the novel. Her voice is distinct, focused, coping with the most terrible cruelty, holding other people’s lives together, sometimes literally holding them up. I am relieved that the Ravensbrück scenes are confined to the letters because what happens to the Rabbit Girls is too much to deal with. It’s very upsetting as indeed it should be. But through the darkness there is a light about Frieda that inspires.

Henryk’s voice is also heard through his patchy reminiscences from his sick bed. I wasn’t totally convinced by his relationships with Frieda (or with his wife). His own experiences in Auschwitz are briefly dealt with. Again, the focus of our attention and feeling is on Frieda.

The Rabbit Girls is a moving, emotional read in some ways, especially when we come across each of Frieda’s letters. I didn’t engage as much with Miriam or Henryk, and the novel’s present day seems strangely more vague than the past it recalls, despite the events taking place in Berlin in 1989. But Frieda is not a character to forget in a hurry and her story, and that of the Rabbit Girls, serves as a vital reminder of what must never be forgotten.

Advertisements

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Picador Classics | 1990 (this edition 2013) | 554p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane HowardIt is 1937 and the Cazalet households are preparing for their annual return to the family estate of Home Place in Sussex, where life is played out seemingly almost idyllically under the benevolent eyes of William Cazalet (the Brig) and his wife Kitty Barlow, known to everyone as Duchy. Their three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, bring their wives and children to stay, while Rachel (the only daughter of the Brig and Duchy) holds the household together, waiting for the time when she can be joined by her close friend Sid.

Hugh and Edward both fought in the Great War and Hugh in particular has paid a heavy price for his service. The war clouds are gathering once more and the whole family waits to hear if Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement will win peace from Hitler. As the country prepares for war – everyone is measured up for a gasmask – Some of the children have nightmares about what war will mean. Edward and Rupert would surely have to fight. But, for now, these are the light years – it’s time to spend a summer together in the countryside while keeping one eye on the future. Everyone, including the children, has their own alliances to forge and battles to fight.

Recently I reached a stage in my reading when I really needed to try something different. You can have too much of a good thing when it comes to crime and psychological thrillers. I’ve also been reading a great deal of historical fiction behind the scenes for the HWA Gold Crown, for which I’m one of the judges. So an escape was needed and Twitter friends suggested the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, which were begun in the 1990s. The family saga stretches over five substantial novels and, as I love a good saga, I gratefully dived in.

The Light Years is the first of the five novels and it sets the stage beautifully. The cast of adults, children and servants is vast (happily introduced with both a family tree and a list) and the author takes care to ensure that we spend time with them all. Even a character who plays a minor role is given a little scene or two, or more, which takes us into their world. I particularly enjoyed the time spent with the governess Miss Milliment, whose life couldn’t be more different from those of her pupils. The children are given as much time as their parents, if not more so, and, I’m very glad to say, their voices are realistically and sympathetically done. I’m not a big fan of children in fiction as a whole but I loved Polly, Clary and Louise in particular. The boys are harder to warm to as they’re off mostly, doing their own thing. I suspect they’ll play a bigger role in the later novels.

The novel moves along slowly, following the details of life at a very leisurely pace, interspersed with squabbles, stresses and disappointments, but it’s far from dull. I was completely engrossed. I became addicted to reading this book and always looked forward to picking it up each time. Them I would be immediately transported back to this beautifully crafted and remembered world. But it isn’t all sunshine, buckets and spades, and tea or gin on the lawn. This is real life being presented here and, as such, sometimes it’s unpredictable and utterly shocking. There are a couple of events that made my blood flow cold. Not everyone here is who they seem. There is danger in Eden and it’s not just Hitler who threatens it. And the characters are not at all stereotypes, despite the Upstairs Downstairs feel of some of the novel or the wealth of the characters on their country estate. Rachel, the sole daughter of the Brig and Duchy, challenges attitudes of the day in some significant ways, and the grief it causes her as she lives a life of compromise and duty is agonising.

There’s a lot going on in this book and I don’t want to go into it in any detail but I must say a few words about my favourite character – Zoë, the second wife of the youngest son, Rupert, and stepmother to his children, including the isolated Clary. Zoë appears on the surface to be empty-headed, cold and obsessed with her own beauty, with little time for the youngsters in her care. But she grows through the novel more than anyone else and I really can’t wait to see what becomes of her as she rises to meet and overcome serious and horrible obstacles. Her relationship with Clary is so beautifully explored. And, as with all of the relationships in the book, they’re given time to grow.

As soon as I started The Light Years I knew I needed more and so I instantly bought the whole series and I’m already well into the second novel, Marking Time, which takes us to September 1939 and the outbreak of war. I am so pleased to have been led to these novels and I’m looking forward to spending time with them all over the months to come. The Light Years is an absolute delight but, as Hilary Mantel commented, this is a novel (and series) far less cosy than first appears.

Stasi 77 by David Young

Zaffre | 2019 (18 April) | 377p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi 77 by David YoungEast German police detective Major Karin Müller is enjoying a rare holiday beside the Black Sea with her grandmother and her little twins when she is urgently called back to East Berlin. A senior official in the secret police, the Stasi, has been murdered, killed by fire. Müller and her partner Tilsner search for the reasons for the murder in the dead man’s past but it’s soon clear that the Stasi will not allow her to ask the questions she must. She is removed from the case. And then another important and influential man is killed in a fire. When Müller digs into this one, she comes up against the Stasi once more. This is a pattern that can only lead to trouble.

It doesn’t help that Tilsner seems disinterested and distracted. He’s blaming it on personal problems but Karin’s not so sure. Despite their closeness, she’s had reason to suspect his loyalty before. She’s now convinced that he’s not to be trusted. More than ever before, Karin feels alone as she strives to discover the truth but what she reveals, at great personal risk to herself, is more shocking and terrible than she could have ever imagined. And somebody wants these secrets to stay dead, whatever the cost.

Stasi 77 is the fourth novel by David Young to feature the investigations of Karin Müller, a detective in the East German People’s Police during the 1970s. I’ve loved each one of these books but Stasi 77 is, I think, nigh on perfect. It is certainly my favourite of the four and is a novel that the author should be very proud of.

The book immerses the reader in this communist East German world, with its expectations and disappointments, its pride and confidence, its cars and bad coffee, its nights illicitly spent in front of the latest West German drama on the TV, the nosiness of spies absolutely everywhere, the interference of the State. David Young knows this world inside out. This is historical fiction (as well as crime fiction) of the highest order. It might be only forty years ago but this is a foreign place for sure and all of the little details build up the novel’s strong sense of authenticity. He has also created a thoroughly believable main character in Karin Müller. She genuinely believes in this Soviet-led socialist society even though she, more than almost anyone, is exposed to its failings. Karin holds on to the ideal, where every person has their place and is looked after, with everyone working for the benefit of others. She’s even prepared to put up with the Stasi. But that might be about to change. Karin’s relationship with the Stasi is fascinating as characters emerge from the shadows with ominous regularity, only then to fade away once more. But how can she put up with this, particularly when her own children become pawns in their game? It is absolutely fascinating.

But there’s another world that rears its monstrous head in Stasi 77 and that’s the country’s Nazi past. A wartime tale threads its way through the narrative. Atrocities are committed and suffered. They must not be forgotten. There are some harrowing scenes in Stasi 77 but they are very sensitively portrayed. They're all the more shocking because much of it is based on real events. The author will be writing about this in a guest post on For Winter Nights in a day or two. I urge you to read the novel to learn more.

I've become very fond of Karin Müller through these novels and in Stasi 77 she demands genuine respect and admiration for her dogged pursuit of the truth. The way that she has to combine career with motherhood is a key theme. Fortunately, she has an incredible, long-suffering grandmother to help out. We see how much of what Karin has is dependent on her job, including her apartment. She could lose everything at any time. Karin’s used to looking over her shoulder, searching for her Stasi shadow. They’re there more than ever in Stasi 77 and it’s time for us to learn much more about those in their pay. Müller will have to re-examine many of the relationships in her life.

Stasi 77 is undoubtedly the darkest of the four novels but it is, in my opinion, the best so far. I could not put it down. You might get more from it if you’ve read the previous novels – and I’d certainly suggest that you do – but this novel stands alone very well. It’s striking, powerful and embedded in its historical setting and place. It will be very interesting indeed to see where Karin Müller can go from here.

Other reviews
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf
A Darker State

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Head of Zeus | 2019 (4 April) | 359p | Review copy | Buy the book

Wakenhyrst by Michelle PaverIt is 1966 and Maud Stearne has lived a reclusive life for over fifty years, living alone but for her cook in Wake’s End, her large house in the tiny hamlet of Wakenhyrst in the Suffolk fens. The outside world has left Maud in peace for many of those years but now that might be about to change, thanks to the recent discovery of her father’s remarkable paintings. These portray a tortured mind, reminding the world what happened sixty years before during the Edwardian period. Maud’s father murdered somebody in a terrible fashion and Maud was the only witness. She’s never talked about it, or indeed talked about much, to anybody since. But now, in need of funds to restore this dilapidated, rotting house, Maud is prepared to reveal the horrible truth, to disclose the contents of her father’s journals, to wake up the demons.

Michelle Paver is a master of historical horror. Both Dark Matter and Thin Air, ghostly tales set in the 1930s, are must-reads and I couldn’t wait to read Wakenhyrst. This time, we travel back to the Edwardian period and, whereas before we were taken to the Arctic Winter and then into the Himalayas, we now find ourselves in the Suffolk fens, a remote swampland, disconnected from the rest of England. It is another of those places in which anything can happen, hidden from the outside world, and where superstition and fear of the dark can conquer reason.

The novel is book-ended by the 1960s but otherwise events take place in the first years of the 20th century and is divided between Maud’s own story and extracts from her father Edmund’s journal. It’s a structure that works so well as the personality of Edmund, and of Maud, develops before us. The contrast between Edmund’s words and his view of himself with the way in which Maud sees him and history judges him is striking. Wakenhyrst is, in fact, not so much of a horror tale, although it describes horrible things, but a psychological thriller set in a time and place when the unexpected or the unusual could be blamed on demons, witches and spirits that lurk in the fens. Edmund Stearne, an intellectual (in his eyes) with a fascination for medieval superstition, is an easy victim. There’s also another voice in the novel which adds to its mood, that of a medieval mystic, with whom Edmund becomes obsessed.

But alongside the horror of what Edmund perceives in the fens around him, that fills his house with a smell he hates as well as creatures that wriggle and scurry, there is Maud’s own nightmare and that has resulted from the reality of life in a remote house with a father such as Edmund Stearne. The themes resonate. The fate of unhappy wives doomed to bear child upon child, never given a rest by their lecherous, foul husbands, the disrespect and lack of care given to girl-children who are left uneducated and little more than servants. Then there are the servants themselves, especially the young women who become prey. Maud lives in a house of monsters very different from those that haunt Edmund and it’s to Maud’s story that we’re drawn. And we’re aware that so much of it would be typical through so much of history. Michelle Paver tells a compelling story and Maud is its worthy heroine.

I loved the sense of place that is created in Wakenhyrst. The fens are a character in their own right. Some hate them and others love them and almost become part of them. The descriptions are beautiful and the characters who live within them are brilliantly brought to life, dialect and all. Maud very much belongs to the fens and I loved the way in which her relationship to it, as well as to its animals and people, is portrayed. I visit the fens frequently myself, it’s a place I love to be, and I really enjoyed their place in this wonderful novel.

In Wakenhyrst, Michelle Paver has moved away from ghostly tales and instead placed us firmly in the Gothic. This book is steeped in atmosphere as well as the stench and slime of the fen itself, a place barely touched by the outside world, and it is beautifully written and deliciously, gorgeously creepy.

Other reviews
Dark Matter
Thin Air

With this review, I’m delighted to start off the Blog Tour to celebrate the publication of Wakenhyrst on 4 April. Please take a look at the poster below for other stops on the tour.

Wakenhyrst blog tour banner

Nemesis by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2019 (24 January) | 324p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nemesis by Rory ClementsIt’s August 1939 and the world is keeping more than one nervous eye on the aggression of Germany. Tom Wilde, an American Professor of History at Cambridge University, is on holiday in sunny France with his lover, Lydia. It’s almost as if everyone is taking a breath while they wait to see what will happen next. But the holiday comes to a sudden and difficult end when Tom is contacted by a stranger who tells him that Tom’s brilliant student Marcus Marfield, who is also a chorister with the voice of an angel, is imprisoned in a camp near the Pyrenees. Marcus had left England to join the fight against fascism in Spain but his idealism has ended in disaster. It’s a race against time for Wilde to get Marcus out of France before war is declared.

Meanwhile, the Americans are hedging their bets over whether to get involved in the conflict or not. Joe Kennedy is American ambassador to the UK. His allegiance is suspect. Spies are busier than ever, getting into position, moving their pieces, manipulating events, exposing themselves to deadly danger. The stakes have never been higher. And when a U-boat sinks a liner, full of European and American civilian passengers, in the Atlantic, the war of words explodes. The Nazis claim that Churchill blew up the ship to lure America into the war. But for those who must endure the agony of waiting to discover if their missing loved ones are drowned or saved, there is a terrible human cost to this tragedy. As for Tom Wilde, he is now in great personal danger. Keeping Marcus Mayfield safe may prove the death of him.

Nemesis completes Rory Clements’ stunning historical spy trilogy. Beginning with Corpus and continuing with Nucleus, this series is extraordinary. Although linked through the characters of Tom Wilde and Lydia, the books are each distinct and reflect on another aspect of the tense progress to war, illuminating such topics as the abdication of Edward VII and the race to achieve nuclear weapons first. Tom Wilde is a sometime reluctant spy for British and American intelligence. He knows the personal cost. Murder invariably follows. In Nemesis, Wilde once again finds himself caught up in international intrigue. Its focus this time is the devastatingly handsome, charismatic and talented Marcus Marfield – he attracts trouble. But why?

Wilde and Lydia unite all three books. If you’ve followed them from the beginning, then you’ll know how difficult their relationship has been, not to mention dangerous at times. They’re so easy to like. In these difficult days in the lead up to war, when motives exist to be distrusted, Wilde and Lydia are two people we can hang on to. We know they’re decent, caring and courageous human beings. They’re also extremely likeable as well as fascinating. Tom is an expert on the Elizabethan spymaster, Walsingham, which gives him real insight into contemporary spies. Lydia is a poet and, in many ways, at odds with the world around her. Their privileged Cambridge academic environment is a striking contrast to the rise of Nazi Germany but, as Tom Wilde knows only to well, there are many places to hide in Cambridge.

I love Rory Clements’ Elizabethan spy novels and I really like how he continues themes and ideas into this 1930s’ series. The plot of Nemesis, and the others, is complex, compelling and genius. We’re used to enigmatic figures in this series and Marcus Marfield continues the tradition. It’s difficult to tear your eyes away from the page as Tom is led on a lethal dance during some of the most tense days of the 20th century.

There’s also a personal story here and one of the most poignant threads is that to do with the sinking of the Athenia. This story alone had me on the edge of my seat. Also, one of the spymasters continues to pay a high price for his actions following an assassination attempt. And then there are those whose deaths Tom must investigate. Were they suicide or murder? If suicide, what could have driven them to such desperation? As the tanks roll into Poland, we’re shown war’s intimate, personal cost.

Rory Clements is a superb writer. His plots are second to none while his understanding of character and motive is exemplary. Nemesis is such an exciting thriller! It grips and intrigues from the very beginning, not least because the very future of the world is at stake. I can’t praise these books enough. They’re always among my top books of the year. I cannot wait to see where Rory Clements takes us next. Whether we go back to the 16th century or 20th century, or any other period of history, it will be essential reading.

Other reviews
Corpus
Nucleus
Holy Spy

A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan

Zaffre | 2018 (4 October) | 419p | Review copy | Buy the book

A House of Ghosts by WC RyanThe winter solstice of 1917 is approaching and Lord Highmount has arranged a meeting of spiritualists and friends at his old and creaking house, Blackwater Abbey, located on a small island off the Devon coast. Lord Highmount and his wife Lady Elizabeth recently lost both of their sons in the war. The boys disappeared from their lives and they’re missed desperately. Lady Elizabeth believes that mediums Madame Feda and Count Orlov will unite her with their spirits. There are other visitors to the house, including a doctor who believes that his patient, a traumatised soldier, is in touch with the dead due to his own traumatic near-death experience. They have come to the right place.

And then there are Kate Cartwright and Robert Donovan. Kate and Donavon are at the house on a mission from Britain’s secret service. Lord Highmount is a successful industrialist contributing to the war effort. There are reasons to believe some of his plans have ended up on German desks and this ‘house party’ will provide the perfect opportunity to trap a spy. But there is far more to Kate than meets the eye.

A House of Ghosts is a stunning novel, a thoroughly absorbing read that combines a chilling ghost story – because it is indeed set within a house of ghosts – with a tale of war. The First World War overshadows everything in this novel. Almost everyone in the house has either lost someone to the war or has fought in it themselves and is recovering from its nightmare. It’s hardly surprising that the dead are restless.

Blackwater Abbey provides the perfect location, especially as it is cut off from the land by a mid winter storm. The house itself might be frightening but the outside is no less deadly. There is no escape for our small group of suspects when one of their number is found murdered. This classic murder mystery scenario, so well executed here, is reason enough to enjoy A House of Ghosts but it is enhanced by its melancholic mood, the result of war and loss, and by the very real chill of its ghosts for this is a house where the dead far outnumber the living.

Kate Cartwright and Donovan are the characters we grow closest to and they’re an enigmatic pair. I particularly enjoyed Kate’s attitude to the spiritual world around her, which contrasts so vividly to the attitude of Madame Feda. Kate is enduring her own loss. There is someone she too would like to contact. But all are distracted by the murderer stalking the house – is this person real?

As the evenings draw in, A House of Ghosts is the perfect read. It’s so easy to lose yourself in it. It’s beautifully written – as you’d expect from the author of The Constant Soldier – and richly evocative of its time and setting. It’s frightening in places but also, rather unexpectedly, I found it comforting and warm, despite the chill of its winter storm. It provides food for thought, particularly on the devastating harm of war, and is impossible to put down.

Other reviews
The Constant Soldier

‘Opening the Doors of Perception’ – Guest post by Gavin Scott, author of The Age of Exodus

Earlier this month, Titan Books published Age of Exodus by Gavin Scott. You can read my review of this excellent historical thriller here. I’m delighted to present here a guest post by Gavin Scott in which he discusses the books that inspired him the most, that liberated his imagination and opened the doors of perception.

In 1960, when I was ten years old a mysterious boy appeared at my primary school in Hull and gave me to a heavy, cloth-covered volume published by Ernest Benn and Co: The Short Stories of H.G. Wells. I cannot remember the boy’s name, and I sometimes ask myself who he really was, but it was a book that for me opened the Doors of Perception. I began with a story called The Stolen Bacillus, which starts out as a scientific thriller and ends as riotous comedy. Then I read A Deal in Ostriches and found the payoff was even funnier, which led to the delights of The Truth about Pyecraft and his extraordinary weight reduction formula. Then Jimmy Goggles the God, and the mysteries of The Moth, and on, and on… Collectively, Wells’ stories liberated my imagination, and it has never, I think, been entirely recaptured by mere everyday reality.

I discovered Jules Verne around the same time, inspired – no, desperate – to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea after seeing the Disney movie starring James Mason as the tragic, haunted Captain Nemo. At my urging my parents bought the book for me for Christmas 1960 and I remember coming down secretly to read it before it was officially handed over on Christmas Day. If Wells freed my imagination, Verne taught me how to send it racing along the great, streamlined canals of scientific research.

And then, of course, there was Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in John Murray’s evocative paperback edition, drew me into the foggy streets of 1890’s London through prose that made me feel as if Dr. Watson’s pipe-smoke was swirling hypnotically around me as I read. To science and the imagination were added the allure of mystery and detection, and I read and re-read the entire Holmes canon on the ship that took my family from England to New Zealand in 1961.

Not long after we arrived amid the fields and orchards of Hawkes Bay, the pleasures of detection were supplemented by the delights of pell-mell, helter-skelter action, as experienced in John Buchan’s great thriller, The Thirty Nine Steps. And not just action – but terrific nature writing which evoked, with great precision, the green glens of the Scottish lowlands where the chase took place. From then I traveled with Richard Hannay through the forests of Germany, the dangerous alleys of Istanbul, and the austere northern beauties of The Island of Sheep.

In 1962 at a church bazaar in the little village of Havelock North I discovered P.G. Wodehouse’s, Jeeves and Wooster stories, in those thick-paged volumes with their alluringly cartoon covers produced by Herbert Jenkins Ltd. As well as comic timing, Wodehouse not only taught me plotting – he is a master of narrative construction – but also the incredible richness of which the English language is capable. His prose incorporates the cadences of Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ethel M Dell and the British Foreign Office in a series of gloriously baroque word-cathedrals.

Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible are also to be found, of course, in the next great author into whose world I entered: J.R.R. Tolkien – together with the sturdy rhythms of Icelandic sagas and Anglo-Saxon chronicles. I found The Lord of the Rings during the early lonely weeks after I got a scholarship to a boarding school called Wanganui Collegiate, which gave me a good education in a somewhat demanding environment. Over the next three years whenever I needed to escape from it all I needed to do was open one of those volumes with Sauron’s eye staring out of the grey cover, and find myself in Middle Earth – and particularly among the wooded hills between Hobbiton and the Buckland Ferry – on a quest of my own.

The final early literary influence to whom I want to pay tribute has fallen from fashion these days, but is still, in my view a font of wisdom and insight into the human heart. I came across C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers novels when, graduating from my boarding school at 17, I volunteered for a New Zealand government program to teach English to Iban, Chinese and Malay kids in a jungle school in Sarawak. It was an extraordinary experience, but again, like Wanganui Collegiate, a demanding one, and there were times when the perfect antidote was not just to accompany Snow’s hero, Lewis Eliot on his rise through the English class system but to bask in the judicious humanity of Snow’s own wise, forgiving company.

That, I think, is what those early literary experiences inspired me to want to create – worlds, both physical and psychological, into which readers would want to enter when reality becomes just a little too much. And to which both they – and I – can return whenever we wish. That, at any rate, is what I believe lay behind the gift of the mysterious book when I was a child, and it is certainly what the Duncan Forrester adventures aspire to now.

The Age of Exodus by Gavin ScottGavin Scott’s third historical detective thriller, The Age of Exodus, was published by Titan Books on 11 September. It features Scott’s archaeologist hero Duncan Forrester, the creation of Israel, Ernest Bevin, and a Sumerian demon. With its two predecessors, The Age of Treachery and The Age of Olympus, it is available from Amazon and other outlets in paperback, on Kindle and as an audiobook, read by the author.