Category Archives: Earlier 20th C

Liberation by Imogen Kealey

Sphere | 2020 (26 March) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Liberation by Imogen KealeyIt is 1943 and Australian Nancy Wake is ready to celebrate her marriage, in Marseilles, to Henri Fiocca, a wonderful, cultured and successful businessman. But Henri and some other guests know that Nancy is not all that she seems, that, after years of living in countries occupied by the Nazis, she is determined to kill as many of them as she can. For Nancy Wake is known by the Germans as the White Mouse, for her ability to sneak in and out where she shouldn’t, causing the maximum amount of disruption and chaos she can. There is a high price on her head.

With the marriage ceremony barely over, Nancy is again at work, delivering allied airmen to safety in the most dangerous of circumstances. But the Gestapo are becoming suspicious, particularly Major Böhm, who hauls in Henri for questioning. Nancy must flee but she is determined to return to France to continue the fight as a leader of the Maquis, which she does as a captain in the SOE. But Major Böhm will not rest in his hunt for the mouse.

If ever there was a life lived that is suitable for novelisation, it’s the life of Nancy Wake. Knowing that she really existed and that she endured all that she did, that she achieved what she did, very much in a man’s world, makes Liberation all the more irresistible. It also helps that one of the co-authors is Imogen Robertson, who is such a fine writer of historical fiction. And so I couldn’t wait to read this. Like many of us, I’m sure, I’m finding it hard to settle with a book but I found this story particularly appealing. It was good to read about a woman who overcame everything in her fight for her cause, so that life could be restored.

Nancy Wake is an extraordinary character, in fiction most certainly and one can imagine that the real Nancy might see herself here in this portrayal. She dominates the novel as we see events almost entirely from her point of view. We are always in the room with her, or in the camp in the mountains, or hiding in plain sight in a cafe, or in a town square witnessing an atrocity, or drinking with her friends, the men who would kill and die for her, and often do. Nancy is a charismatic figure but she’s also damaged, tormented by her fears for her husband and enraged by the existence of Major Böhm. She is driven by vengeance and fury, but there is self-knowledge, too. But throughout it all we know that she is a force for good. There are glimpses of kindness and warmth, and at times we feel we must weep for the sheer effort that Nancy Wake puts into every day of her life as a leader of the Resistance.

There are other characters to enjoy here, too, especially Nancy’s radioman Denden. I loved the depiction of the community of fighters camped out in the forests and mountains, ruthless but also increasingly in awe of their woman captain. They’re mostly a tight band, each with a distinct voice. But one other character who stands out is Major Böhm, the very opposite of goodness. Major Böhm is a monster. Some of the scenes with him are utterly chilling, reinforcing our solidarity with Nancy Wake, showing us brutally why she is ready to risk absolutely everything to stop him and all of the other monsters. There is so much tension, so much fear. This is not a book to put down easily.

The authors certainly know how to write intense action scenes. There are pages here that had me on the edge of my seat. It’s all very visual, very real, and we see the action unfold moment by moment. I’m not going to describe any of this. You must read it for yourself!

Liberation is a truly excellent novel, succeeding both as a wartime thriller and as a portrayal of a most astonishing and admirable woman whose life would have been so different if she had been allowed to live with the man she loved in peace. The novel also reminds us that bad times do pass, a message that I hang on to. Liberation has proved a fine companion to me over recent days and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Other review
The Paris Winter

The Deep by Alma Katsu

Bantam Press | 2020 (5 March) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Deep by Alma KatsuIt is 1916 and Annie Hebbley has just joined the ship Britannic as a nurse. This enormous ship, a sister ship to Titanic, has been drafted into war service, ferrying the injured and dying from the battlefields of southern Europe back home to Britain. This marks the start of a new life for Annie and it’s one she’s lucky to have, for Annie was a maid aboard Titanic. It was a miracle that she survived but she’s spent the time since in an asylum. But now she has hope of recovery even if it means she must return to the sea and the sea is something that both calls to Annie and terrifies her.

In a story that moves between 1912 and 1916, life aboard both grand ships is brought to life, especially on the Titanic as Annie waits upon and almost befriends some of the most famous and glamorous passengers of the Titanic, including Madeleine Astor, the scandalously young and pregnant bride of one of the richest men in America, as well as Mark Fletcher, his wife and baby, whom Annie is especially drawn to. But all is not as it seems and the mood darkens, the further the ship sails across the black, cold waters of the Atlantic. Strange things are seen, voices heard. Annie is plagued by demons on a voyage that is doomed and, as she sets sail on Britannic, she knows that they follow her still.

I am such a big fan of Alma Katsu’s The Hunger and so I couldn’t wait to read The Deep, even more so when I learned it was set aboard (and overboard) two tragic ships, Titanic and Britannic. The fate of both ships is well known and it provides the perfect subject for historical horror. It’s extremely hard to resist.

Much of the novel focuses on the doomed voyage of the Titanic and I absolutely adored the sections set aboard this ship. It’s brought to life with the most exquisite descriptions of life on board, especially for those rich enough to sail in first class. We spend time with several of the passengers, learning about their lives, fears, hopes and secrets. This is a voyage to a new life in some cases. It’s a symbolic passage for several, including Annie. The future looks wide open and optimistic as they sail to the promised land. But that’s not reckoning on the malignant and horrifying entity that haunts this ship and the people on it.

The Deep is a glamorous novel, not surprisingly because it features so many glamorous people, but it is a horror novel and there are moments in it when it does frighten. I didn’t find its horror as believable or as frightening as in The Hunger, there’s something not quite right about its reveal in my opinion, but, nevertheless, it’s a wonderfully written book and it does a brilliant job of recreating the experiences of those aboard the Titanic. The sinking scenes are fantastically done. I was glued to the page.

I think Alma Katsu is such an interesting writer and I love the ways in which she combines history with horror. The descriptions are so richly evocative of place and time and the mood is so intensely charged with atmosphere, dread and tension. I just can’t get enough of books such as this and so I long for the next.

Other review
The Hunger

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Washington Square Press | 2017 (this edn 2018) | 389p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins ReidMonique Grant is a struggling magazine reporter in search of the Big Break. One day it comes to her in the most unlikely of forms. Reclusive Hollywood legend Evelyn Hugo is approaching the end of her life and now, aged almost 80, wants her story to be told for the first time and, for reasons Monique can’t fathom, she wants Monique to write it. And so, for day after day, Monique listens to this extraordinary woman tell the story of her life, a life known most of all for her seven husbands. But, as Evelyn reveals the truth about each of her marriages in turn, she also reveals the truth about her greatest love, a forbidden love, and her ambition that threatened to destroy it. Secret after secret are revealed until at last Monique knows everything.

I have heard so much recently about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo that it felt serendipitous when I shortly afterwards came across a copy by accident in a local bookshop. I’m so glad I did. Taylor Jenkins Reid has created a woman in Evelyn Hugo that I suspect will be very difficult to forget. Evelyn dominates this book, from her difficult youth and early flowering as a beauty (best known for her impressive chest!) to her emergence as a starlet, a siren and, finally, a successful, admired Hollywood icon, albeit one who is always looked down upon for her divorce rate. It’s an incredible story and we’re told it in sections which cover each of her seven husbands by turn. And what a bunch they are. This novel overflows with larger than life personalities and it all builds up to an addictive portrayal of Hollywood between the 1950s and 1980s.

I really enjoyed Taylor Jenkins Reid’s style. The novel includes snippets from gossip columns and it all builds up to demonstrate so effectively how difficult and unfair life was for a woman wanting to become a successful actress, what she must compromise to achieve it. Evelyn is ruthlessly ambitious and yet she remains likeable, especially as she becomes more self-aware, but some of the decisions she makes might make you want to hold your head in your hands and groan. I hung on to every word.

This is also a love story, beautiful at times, and love doesn’t prove easy for Evelyn Hugo and I did pity her while also wanting to shout at her. There are some gorgeously tender scenes in this book and I laughed and cried several times. Evelyn is most definitely the star which does mean that Monique’s story is underwhelming by comparison but the majority of our time is spent enjoying Evelyn’s company, being shocked by her at times while at other times loving her as so many people did through her life. Evelyn’s struggle, though, is to determine which of them love Evelyn Hugo, the screen goddess, and which love Evelyn for herself. The two do not always go together. It’s a wonderful character portrayal. And that glamour! How I loved the glamour. This wonderful book drips in jewels, gorgeous gowns, lipsticks, red carpets and kisses. Fabulous.

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2020 (23 January) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Hitler's Secret by Rory ClementsHitler’s Secret is the fourth novel in Rory Clements’ Tom Wilde historical spy thriller series. I think that this novel stands alone perhaps better than the others but I would still suggest that you read the others first. It’s certainly worth it as this is one of my most favourite series of recent years. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

It is Autumn 1941 and the war is not going well for the allies. The position of America is critical as it wavers between war and no war, with those sympathetic to fascism in powerful posts. Britain must use all means at its disposal to influence the outcome and that means spies and subterfuge. Tom Wilde, an American in England, a Professor of Elizabethan history at Cambridge University, is a man that Britain’s secret service regularly calls on and he is perfect for their latest mission. They want to send him into Berlin as an American-German industrialist with Nazi sympathies and there he must obtain a ‘package’ that must be smuggled out of Germany at all cost. There are powerful men who will do everything in their power to stop it leaving Germany and Wilde must overcome them. It’s obviously a deadly mission and life has moved on for Wilde. He’s now living with Lydia and they have a child. But he is driven to do it.

Germany is every bit as challenging as he would expect and there he meets people both charismatic and dangerous, including Anton Offerbach, Sunny Somerfeld, the widow of a German hero, Martin Boorman, Hitler’s henchman, and many others. Wilde can trust none of them although he’ll need the help of some to discover the package. And when he does everything changes. There may well be no way back for Tom Wilde.

Hitler’s Secret was a very pleasant surprise to me, to put it mildly. I had falsely assumed that this was a trilogy and that last year’s Nemesis was the third and final novel. How glad I am I was wrong. Time has moved on for Professor Wilde but, now that England is in real danger of losing a war that Tom Wilde has worked so hard to try and prevent, his services are required once more. The result is another beautifully written, extremely well-plotted spy thriller, which is tense from start to finish but is also a genuine puzzler that makes you think. Everyone in it has their own agenda, their own secrets, their own limits – how far will each go to achieve their target? This shifts constantly. People are complicated in this novel as they are in real life. It can be impossible to predict how they’ll behave when faced with certain circumstances. And this is every bit as true for Wilde as it is for other characters in the novel.

The sense of danger is palpable as Tom Wilde finds himself in disguise in the lion’s den, in Berlin itself, having meetings with some of the most important figures in Hitler’s Reich. The tension is almost overpowering, as is Tom Wild’s bravery. But Wilde is also a very clever man. Unfortunately, he is up against some of the most ruthless and determined people in Nazi Germany and it’s not long before they all want him dead and a trail of blood is left across the land. It’s compelling and riveting.

But the novel also has a great deal of heart as Wilde must reflect on what’s important to him morally and he must make decisions accordingly. Although Hitler’s Secret is the most linear and possibly the most straightforward of the four novels, it is extremely well-written, as we’d expect from master storyteller Rory Clements, and very clever, with its dark and dangerous world brilliantly depicted. Tom Wilde is an exceptional character, bridging both American and British worlds, an outsider, someone who can make himself fit almost anywhere because of his deep insight into human behaviour and his expert knowledge of the lessons that history can teach us. I adore this series, it’s always one of the reading highlights of the year and, now that I know that this is not a trilogy, I really hope there’ll be more.

Other reviews
Holy Spy
Corpus
Nucleus
Nemesis

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

Simon & Schuster | 2015 | 560p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Letters to the Lost by Iona GreyOne cold February evening, a young woman runs through the London streets, fleeing an abusive boyfriend. She has nowhere to go, she doesn’t even have shoes on her feet. Jess escapes down a small and quiet street and there she finds a house that is clearly not lived in. As Jess tries to make herself as comfortable as she can, a letter arrives in the morning post, which hints at a mystery in the past, a love affair from over seventy years before. Jess finds more letters and soon finds herself caught up in the great love affair of Stella, a clergyman’s unhappy wife, and Dan, a US bomber pilot. Jess, along with Will, a young man who enters Jess’s life, becomes obsessed with finding out who these people were while playing out her own story.

I recently read The Glittering Hour, Iona Grey’s latest novel, and I was enchanted. It is such a beautiful tale of love and loss set in the 1920s and 1930s and so, not surprisingly, I immediately sought out its predecessor, Letters to the Lost. Letters to the Lost is every bit as wonderful. It’s not quite as devastatingly sad but it is such a beautiful story and, once more, features some wonderful characters.

This time the novel is split between the present day(ish) and 1942 and 1943. The blitz is over but London and its citizens are scarred by it. With many people away fighting on the frontline in Europe and North Africa, for those left at home, this is a time of worry, of terrifying telegrams, of food shortages and sometimes even boredom as so much of life is curtailed by the restrictions, hardships and blackouts of war. This is a time of hasty marriages and Stella has made one to a clergyman with whom she must settle in a small village where her business is everybody else’s. It is a disaster from the outset and for much of the novel we feel intensely for this young wife. The romance with the bomber pilot Dan is exquisitely portrayed but it is tinged with tension, guilt and fear. So few pilots survived the war. This is a time when you had to grab what moments of happiness you can, in the face of twitching net curtains and nosey neighbours. Iona Grey captures this perfectly and I was engrossed in this gorgeous love story.

Stella and Dan’s story alternates with that of Jess and Will in the present day. For much of the time, we’re so caught up in Stella and Dan that the later story of Jess and Will plays out in its shadow but by the end it is just as compelling and the parallels between the two are cleverly made. I loved Jess, perhaps even more than Stella, and Will is an unusual young man. My heart, though, belonged to Dan.

Iona Grey writes beautifully. The words dance and dazzle across the page. Both past and present are depicted so vividly and I loved the way that the story moves between London with its bombed out churches and tea dances and the Cambridgeshire countryside with its fetes and squabbles and where tinned peaches can cause such excitement. Letters to the Lost is an enchanting, emotional read and I loved every page.

Other review
The Glittering Hour

The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey

Simon & Schuster | 2019 (Pb 17 October) | 471p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Glittering Hour by Iona GreyIt is 1936 and young Alice, just 9 years old, has been sent to live with her grandparents and governess at Blackwood Park while her parents sail to Burma on business. Alice is a quiet child, self-sufficient and missing her mother Selina terribly. Her grandparents keep their distance while her governess is far too interested in what is going in the outside world to fuss about a small, lonely girl. Alice’s only friend is Polly, once her mother’s maid and now returned to the house just to look after Alice. It is to the two of them that Selina writes long letters, full of love, giving Alice the clues to a treasure hunt which will lead her to objects and places so precious to Selina and so significant to Alice in ways that she has yet to learn.

And so we discover the great love affair of Selina and the struggling artist Lawrence Weston during the glorious summer and autumn of 1925, a time when Selina was the brightest of all of London’s Bright Young People, and the light that radiated from her drew Lawrence to her like a moth to a flame. The Great War casts a long shadow. Selina mourns her brother. Everyone has lost someone, while many of the men who came back have not returned whole. Love is something to be treasured, perhaps especially because it is forbidden and must be kept secret. It’s time for Alice to discover the truth.

I heard such wonderful things about The Glittering Hour on Twitter and I knew I had to read it immediately and so I did. I am drawn to novels set in the 1920s and 1930s, these years of glamour and decadence (for the rich), sandwiched between times of such terrible sadness. The premise of the novel is wonderful and Iona Grey delivers on it perfectly. This is a beautifully written novel, so evocative of the times in which it is set, and the author does such an astonishing thing in bringing both the child Alice and the adult Selina to life. As the story moves between the two and between the two different years, I was spellbound.

I loved everything about this novel. I really enjoyed watching Alice explore Blackwood Park, discovering her mother’s secrets there, seeking out clues to her life in the house and gardens, helped by Polly and the gardener, ignored by her grandparents and governess. Alice is a child so in need of love, counting the days until her mother will return to her. The heart of the book, though, belongs to Selina, Alice’s mother, and a woman so full of love who has to make the most difficult decisions because she is so afraid of losing more people close to her. It’s a joy reading about her exploits, especially those involving Lawrence, including those infamous treasure hunts that frequently featured in the newspapers of the day. Selina is a gorgeous person and I loved her instantly.

The Glittering Hour is a novel about love but it’s also about loss and, when it hits you, it is heart wrenching. I cried a great deal, while loving every word that I was reading. The Glittering Hour is a gorgeous novel. It’s romantic and sentimental, it’s also deeply conscious of the legacy of war on these times and on these young people. I was riveted to it. I’m looking forward very much indeed to reading Iona Grey’s earlier novel Letters to the Lost. I have no doubt it will be just as enchanting.

Black Sun by Owen Matthews

Bantam Press | 2019 (3 October) | 336p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Black Sun by Owen MatthewsIt is 1961 and the Cold War rages between the Soviet Union and the United States, fueled not only by the space race but also by the competition to dominate the technology of nuclear war. Arzamas-16 has been established as the centre for the Soviet Union’s nuclear research and it is there in this secret, closed city that Soviet and German scientists develop weapons of mass destruction. Just days before the biggest nuclear bomb ever built is due to be tested in the atmosphere above the frozen north, one of the key scientists involved in its development is found dead, murdered by radiation poisoning. The murder shakes the Kremlin to its core and so Major Alexander Vasin of the Special Cases branch of State Security is sent to investigate. He finds a secretive, privileged community of scientists, soldiers, police and their families and not one of them wants to help Vasin’s investigation. But Vasin has no choice but to dig and to stir, uncovering secrets, upsetting people, while all the time trying to keep his own secrets safe. Meanwhile, the countdown to the detonation of the Armageddon bomb continues.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Soviet Union. I visited it a couple of times and I’ll never forget it. And so I’m drawn to novels, especially thrillers, about life, politics and crime behind the Iron Curtain. Black Sun was irresistible, not least because it’s based on a true story and that makes it absolutely terrifying. It shows so dramatically and effectively how close the world was to annihilation during those Cold War years and how the weight of this was carried on the shoulders of so few.

The novel contains a fair amount of detail about the science of nuclear technology but it isn’t daunting. Vasin is no expert and he is our witness. As he learns, so do we, and what he learns is incredible. But every bit as fascinating as the science is Arzamas-16 itself. Owen Matthews brings this real place to life with so much detail and colour. The people who live there are unusual. They live privileged lives, listen to banned music, wear banned clothes and eat, drink and smoke so much better than normal Soviet citizens. But they live secluded lives, shut away from the rest of the country by fences and guards. We see how this affects the wives perhaps more than the men. And when you have such a self-contained community, fueled by vodka and stress, passions can flare. Murder can happen.

I was particularly interested in how the legacy of the war and Stalin’s Great Purges affects these people. More than one served time on a Gulag, another survived the siege of Leningrad, another is a Nazi who experimented on people (now he has to make do with goats). It all adds up to a rich portrayal of a place in which emotions are complicated and life might be privileged, but it wasn’t always this way for many of the citizens, and then there’s the cloud of nuclear war that hangs over them all.

Vasin is an interesting character but we’re not allowed to get too close. This is in some ways quite a cold and clinical thriller. Not everything, not everyone, is black or white. It’s much more complicated than that. Vasin, like most characters in the book, isn’t entirely likeable and nor, I think would you expect him to be. He is a KGB officer, after all. But he does have a genuine desire to seek out the truth, which is no easy thing when most people have secrets, including Vasin, including the scientist who was killed. Although Black Sun is a cold thriller, set in a very cold place, it is extremely compelling and involving. More than anything, though, it is horrifying to learn about what was going on this most secret of places and how it could have had devastating consequences for us all.