Category Archives: World War Two

An Island at War by Deborah Carr

One More Chapter | 2021 (16 September) | 383p | Review copy | Buy the book

An Island at War by Deborah CarrIt is June 1940 and the people of Jersey are under no illusion – the British government has announced that the island has been demilitarised, effectively leaving Jersey open to conquest. Rosie Le Maistre is one of the lucky ones. The little girl is sent away on one of the last evacuation ships, heading to her Aunt Muriel in London. Estelle, her much older sister, is left behind to work on the farm with her father and grandmother. It’s not long before the German army arrives in force, a catastrophe for the men in Estelle’s life, her father and boyfriend. Life on the island changes entirely, everything from a conversion to German currency and time to the arrival of slaves who will turn Jersey into a fortress island. But it’s not just the island that’s occupied. Soon Estelle and her grandmother have a German office, Hans Bauer, billeted on their farm. Life becomes a struggle for survival.

I’ve always been fascinated by the German occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War and have read several novels on the subject over the years. I was therefore drawn to An Island at War. There is definitely something of The Guernsey Literary Pie Society about An Island At War, albeit on a different island, and that’s no bad thing. This is another very human story, focusing on the impact of war and occupation on the lives of otherwise ordinary people who happened to live in the only part of Britain that was occupied.

Most of the novel tells Estelle’s story on Jersey but there are a few extracts from Rosie’s journal, written in London. I found these tantalising and would have liked much more of Rosie’s life during the Blitz. It’s clear that tumultuous things are happening to her but it’s all in the shadows and all too brief.

I liked Estelle very much and enjoyed reading about her relationships with her grand mother, their friends and with the Germans on the island. It’s mostly black and white but there is some interesting grey as Estelle and Hans struggle to reach a compromise. But it is very difficult to have sympathy for Hans when the horror of the German occupation and what is happening on the continent to Jews and people from the east is such a big part of the book. In a way, there is a conflict between the fascinating historical detail of the novel and its emotional element. The author lives on Jersey and knows its history well and that adds so much to the book. I’m not quite sure that other parts of it – Estelle’s relationships, Rosie’s experiences in London – live up to that. My main issue with the novel, though, is its ending, which is far too abrupt and unsatisfactory.

An Island at War is an enjoyable light read, which shines with the author’s knowledge about her island and its history. I learned a great deal about the little details of life under occupation. I had no idea about much of it, and that is what I’ll take away from the novel.

Three Words for Goodbye by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

HarperCollins | 2021 (27 July) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Three Words for Goodbye by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbClara and Madeleine Sommers were once the closest of sisters but their differences have driven them apart. But now they must come together to fulfil the final wishes of their much loved and dying grandmother, Violet, who has asked them to travel to Europe from their home in America to deliver letters to three people who changed Violet’s life in her own travels across Europe 40 years before, a journey inspired by the great explorer, journalist and close friend Nellie Bly. But the year is now 1937 and Europe is a very different place. As Clara and Madeleine embark on the Queen Mary for Paris, Venice and Vienna, they will find a Europe slipping into the darkness of fascism. There is much for the two sisters to experience before they can return back to New York City aboard the Hindenburg.

I am such a huge fan of historical romance set during the earlier decades of the 20th century and, after reading the authors’ fantastic Meet Me in Monaco, I couldn’t wait to read Three Words for Goodbye. I am fascinated by the 1930s and this novel does such a good job of exploring the culture of the time in the three great cities of Paris, Venice and Vienna, while subtly portraying the sinister menace and threat of Nazism, which increases as the sisters move from France to Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Austria. The sisters travel in luxury and style, heightening the contrast between their experiences and those of the local people, whose freedoms are being threatened. They are shocked by the violence they witness and the rumours they hear. But the focus, though, is on relationships, both old and new.

The novel is effectively divided into three as the sisters progress across Europe and deliver each of the three letters, discovering more and more about their grandmother’s life when she was a young woman, while also learning about each other and what they both want from life. Clara, in particular, has some significant decisions to make. The chapters alternate between the two women and it works so well.

I loved Three Words for Goodbye. It’s romantic but not sentimental and tells a wonderful story about families, growing up, finding and losing love, being an independent woman at a time when this was not easy, especially if from the kind of background that Clara and Madeleine are from. It also has a fascinating historical setting and the descriptions of 1930s’ Paris, Venice and Vienna, as well as the voyage aboard the Queen Mary, are fabulous. As for the section aboard the Hindenburg…. Hazel Gaynor (one of my very favourite authors) and Heather Webb are a collaborative tour de force and I can’t wait, and hope, for more.

Other reviews
Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb – Meet Me in Monaco
Hazel Gaynor – The Bird in the Bamboo Cage

Blackout by Simon Scarrow

Headline | 2021 (18 March) | 432p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

Blackout by Simon ScarrowBerlin in December 1939 is beginning to feel the effects of war. Shortages are becoming noticeable in the city’s most celebrated restaurants, much to the irritation of powerful men, but, far more menacingly, the newly-imposed nightly blackout has brought monsters out to play. When Gerda Korzeny, a former actress and celebrated beauty, is raped and murdered, the establishment takes note. Gerda was married to a top Nazi lawyer, a friend of Goebbels. The Gestapo call in Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke to investigate. There’s a reason Schenke has been selected – he’s not a member of the Nazi Party and is only tolerated for his glamorous past racing cars, an illustrious career that ended in a crash. If this case should uncover demons, then Schenke will make the perfect scapegoat. Then, as the nights draw even darker, another woman is murdered and the pressure on Schenke mounts.

Berlin is one of my favourite cities and I’ve always been fascinated by its past, especially during the 1930s when its reputation as a city of culture and hedonism comes up against the brick wall of the Nazis and fascism. Blackout is set at a particularly interesting time, during the first weeks of the Second World War when society seems bemused that Britain should have declared war on it. At this time war is mostly an inconvenience with the parties and dining out continuing, with the acceptance that eventually Britain and France will succumb to German military might, just like Poland. It’s intriguing to see how these men and women view the Nazis among them. Most have joined the Nazi Party and there is an acceptance and compliance, albeit one tinged with fear and regret. That’s for some, others positively thrive.

Crime fiction set in Nazi Berlin is not straightforward. The crimes of the regime are off the scale, so the author is faced with the challenge of making the reader feel that these murders matter. There also needs to be an empathy with Schenke. That issue is partly solved by giving him his glamorous past and also his angst with his Nazi controllers. He’s getting on with life as best as he can, loyal to Germany but uneasy with its fascism. There is some success. The murders are cruel – I actually couldn’t read some of this – and we do care for the women, especially Gerda. There is a whole social side to this, which goes beyond politics, with the lot of some women as trophy wives or mistresses. But I’m not sure I have the same empathy towards Schenke but that’s not so much to do with his issues towards the Nazis as with his attitude towards women, an attitude that seems prevalent through the novel.

The serial killer investigation part of the novel is bleak (admittedly I’m not much of a reader of serial killer crime fiction, whatever the setting) and I rather think that women have a hard time of it generally. Nobody seems to like them very much, including Horst Schenke, who, like other men in the novel, is very critical of the woman he professes to love. The women here are judged by their lovers. Gerda was and so, too, is Karin, Schenke’s girlfriend. He seems more interested in her important admiral uncle than her and he regularly reflects on her faults. Gerda is hit by her lover. I found this casual dislike of women quite difficult, quite apart from the violence done to them by the killer. It does, though, help build an atmosphere that this is a place doing great wrongs, an evil place and time. It is most definitely atmospheric and immersive – there is a fog of evil hanging over Berlin in December 1939, compounded by the blackout.

So, despite my issues with the novel, it is a powerful read and, if you enjoy serial killer thrillers, then this may well be for you. Its historical setting is vividly real and is undoubtedly one of the most evocative portrayals of Nazi Berlin that I’ve read. You can feel the cold horror of it as Nazism permeates itself into society and people’s lives. The killings don’t seem out of place and that makes them even more harrowing.

I can’t finish this review without saying how much I adore Simon Scarrow’s Cato and Macro novels!

Other reviews
The Blood Crows
Brothers in Blood
Britannia
Invictus
Day of the Caesars

The Blood of Rome
Traitors of Rome
The Emperor’s Exile
With T.J. Andrews – Invader

The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline Winspear

Allison & Busby | 2021 (23 March) | 350p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline WinspearThe Consequences of Fear is the 16th novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s much loved and wonderful series featuring Maisie Dobbs, a well-to-do investigator and secret agent in London before and during World War Two. You don’t need to have read all or any of the series to enjoy this latest addition to it (it would even serve as a good introduction) but, if you have, you’ll be as emotionally invested in Maisie as I am and that will add a certain special something to your appreciation of it. I haven’t read them all yet. I’ve read the last few and a couple of the earlier ones and I can thoroughly recommend them and I’m looking forward to catching up with the others. Maisie is definitely a person worth knowing, as is her very dependable and invaluable assistant Billy.

It is October 1941 and bombs continue to fall on London. It is a scarred and pitted city, full of deserted or destroyed buildings. The war effort is everything with many trying to do their bit, while others try and hold things together, still remembering the horrors of the Great War. When young Freddie Hackett, a runner who carries government messages across London, witnesses a murder in a doorway, nobody believes him. But Maisie Dobbs does.

Maisie does everything she can to help Freddie and his family, in tandem with the overstretched police, while continuing in her other job working with a secret government department to train men and women to go undercover in occupied France to work with the Resistance. The burden of this role is almost overpowering for Maisie and is due to become even more so. Maisie is soon to learn that the secrets of the last war remain as dangerous as ever while the current war is reaching a critical stage.

This is a fantastic series and I read The Consequences of Fear as soon as I could. I’m so glad I did as I think this novel could well be my favourite. It feels like a significant book in the series. Maisie’s family life seems to be settling down, causing her to re-evaluate her life and the significance of her friendships. Maisie’s friends play an important role in the novel, as do women in general. She might work for and with men but Maisie is well aware of how special these women are – women who parachute into France to work for the Resistance as radio operators (a role with an average life span of only six weeks), women spies, army drivers, mothers, daughters, friends. I love this circle that surrounds Maisie.

But we can’t forget Billy, Maisie’s assistant, who is completely wonderful. Maisie is, not to put too fine a point on it, posh. She has money to spare and there’s a philanthropic side to her. There’s a formality to her dealings with those who work for her, even if she is very happy to get her hands dirty. Billy can’t really be called a friend but I think Maisie would certainly regard him as family. The two of them together follow their case across London and I love the detail of this – the pubs they visit to question landlords, the deserted houses, the trains, the dark streets, the river. There is a deeply poignant scene near the beginning with the river. This is a city under attack, people are suffering. While it brings out the best in some, it certainly doesn’t in others. Freddie, just a child, bears the weight of this.

I loved spending time with Maisie again. I hoped for the best for her throughout and I worried with her when she felt responsible for the women being sent into France. I enjoy how she mixes with hard-drinking government men and stressed detectives. She straddles male and female wartime experiences. Above all else, Maisie and Billy are immensely likeable, as are Maisie’s friends and family. I can’t wait to see them all again.

Other review
The American Agent

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

HarperCollins | 2021 (18 March) | 656p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rose Code by Kate QuinnWhen war is declared in September 1939, glamorous debutante Osla Kendall can’t get back to England from Montreal fast enough to help with the war effort. After a few exhausting weeks building Hurricanes, Osla is headhunted for her language skills and finds herself in Bletchley Park alongside Mab Churt, a working class girl who can type better than anyone. The two of them lodge with Mrs Finch, a ghastly woman whose daughter, the quiet and withdrawn Beth, has an extraordinary gift for solving puzzles. The three of them are soon at home in Bletchley Park, a place where genius and madness co-exist and whose inhabitants will go to astonishing lengths to break life-saving codes. But there is still time for Osla to dance the night away with her beau, Prince Philip of Greece, when he’s home on leave from the navy.

After the war, while she waits for her prince to marry another woman, Osla receives a message from her past. The three friends are no longer close, on the contrary, and one of them is in an asylum. The three must work together once more to fight another threat. The clues to it can be found in their time together at Bletchley Park, a time of secrets, friendships and war.

I knew that I wanted to read The Rose Code the moment I heard about it. I really enjoyed Lady of the Eternal City (which couldn’t be more different!) and so I knew that the story of the women who worked at Bletchley Park, alongside their more famous male counterparts, would be in safe hands. I absolutely loved it!

Our three heroines are drawn from different classes and backgrounds, with Osla hailing from the very heights of society, and yet all three have to face the very real challenges of leading independent, working lives at a time when society viewed such women with suspicion. War changes society and it undoubtedly gave women such as these a new lease of freedom. But it’s at such a cost, as can be seen by our tantalising glimpses of the secretive work going on in these mysterious huts to prevent U-boat attacks and quicken the end to war. But it’s outside those huts that the novel really comes alive as the three women get to know one another and embark on their own adventures – love affairs, marriage, fighting back, friendships with such fascinating and charismatic men. We know from the premise and the sections of the novel that are set a few years later in the days leading up to the marriage of Prince Philip and the Princess Elizabeth that there is darkness and treachery in their future and the reader never loses their desire to find out exactly what happens.

The atmosphere of puzzles and secrecy mixes here with a mood of grabbing what fun one can in a world where everything could be ended by a bomb, or where a loved one can be lost on a ship at sea, a victim of the U-boats that the de-coders are trying to stop. Osla in particular is full of life and I loved spending time with her, especially when she’s with the gallant Prince Philip. We know, of course, that this is a doomed love but it adds such a fun dash of romance to the novel, not to mention a delicious morsel of royal intrigue. The scenes set after the war in the Yorkshire asylum are distressing and disturbing and means that for much of the novel we wonder what on earth could have gone so wrong with these friends.

Kate Quinn writes so well and is wonderful at creating women who feel so real and genuine, even if they are highly unusual. The prose is compelling, the dialogue witty, and the story is fabulous. Bletchley Park isn’t an uncommon setting for a novel these days but it’s certainly viewed from a fresh perspective here – I loved the account of Churchill’s visit! The Rose Code is not a short book but it is a pleasure to read from start to finish.

Other review
Lady of the Eternal City

A Prince and A Spy by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2021 (21 January) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Prince and A Spy by Rory ClementsIt is 1942 and a secret meeting takes place in Sweden. Prince George, the Duke of Kent, and brother to George VI, meets his cousin Prince Philipp von Hesse, a committed member of the Nazi Party and friend to Adolf Hitler. Ostensibly, they are there to discuss peace between their nations but there may well have been another reason, not least because the Duke should have been in Iceland, not Sweden. Discovering what that reason was becomes a matter of urgency to the secret service agencies of the UK, Germany and America when the plane carrying the Duke back to Scotland crashes for no good reason and all but one of the crew and passengers aboard are killed, including the Duke.

Professor Tom Wilde, an American don at Cambridge University and now also working for American secret operations in the UK, is despatched to Scotland to investigate, in particular to trace the mysterious woman believed to have survived the crash. It is only when he finds her that Tom discovers the tangled web of secrets and crimes that surround the Swedish meeting and the crash. His mission becomes urgent, not least because of who is on his tail.

Rory Clements is a master of historical spy thrillers, whether set in Elizabethan England (interestingly Tom Wild’s subject) or in the 1930s and 1940s. I am a huge fan of the Tom Wilde novels and they have been the reading highlight of January over the last five years. I was so excited to read A Prince and A Spy and I couldn’t read it fast enough – it is a fine spy thriller and a great addition to one of my favourite series. It is the fifth but it does stand alone well as each of the novels does. However, I think that you’d appreciate it more fully if you’ve read the others, which follow Tom and his partner Lydia through the pre-War years up to the outbreak of War and beyond, including their harrowing missions to Germany (I can never do justice to just how tense these books can be). Now we’ve reached the stage of the war at which Hitler and his men might be beginning to consider that the War is not entirely going their way and so the author covers another critical period of the War and the Duke of York’s crash is the perfect catalyst.

There is a sense in A Prince and A Spy that Tom Wilde may be in over his head as he realises that the truth he is chasing is critical to all countries with a vested interest in winning the War. Nobody can be trusted, even old allies. There are many welcome familiar faces in the novel but Tom is more of an outsider than ever. There are new people he must meet and rely upon, all of whom will be in as much danger as him. This is a different kind of mission for Tom. This time he must hide. He’s on the run. There’s a constant sense that he is always being watched, that he can never quite escape. Lydia, kept at home with their young son, feels increasingly isolated. This adds to the tension. Tom is almost on his own. Almost, but not quite.

There are some disturbing and harrowing scenes in A Prince and A Spy. They’re dealt with sensitively but they do linger in the mind, as they should, I think. Rory Clements is a fine historian. He has a fascinating grasp of the politics and intrigue of the time, which he conveys so well, but he’s also really good at the details. The novel is immersed in the early 1940s. It feels right. I find it amazing that the author is just as knowledgeable and insightful with the 1930s and 1940s as he is with the 1580s. I also really like the way that he finds parallels between the two periods, and their spy masters. This is clever stuff.

Tom Wilde is a fantastic character and I love that he’s a history professor. He understands the lessons of history and he knows the significance of his present day. There are some intriguing scenes when he comes up against politicians who seem to have a different perspective, tackling immediate crises rather than looking ahead to the long term. But, apart from all that, I really like Tom Wilde as a human being. He’s not a young man. He’s had a difficult past, which, one senses, he’s now been able to put behind him, and he’s strongly motivated by a need to do the right thing as well as protect those who need it. He’s also ruthless when he needs to be. Tom is a successful spy and agent for good reason. People are drawn to Tom Wilde. He’s likeable and earnest. His relationship with Lydia has altered him (Tom is different now from how he was at the beginning of the series). My only regret with A Prince and A Spy is that Lydia doesn’t play more of a part – she’s now the complaining housewife and mother when, in the past, she’s played such an active and positive role. I hope for better things for her in the future!

I thoroughly enjoyed A Prince and A Spy, reading it in just a couple of days, which is good for me in these Lockdown times. It’s engrossing and completely immersive. I’ve grown so fond of Tom over the last few years. It was good to spend time with him again – and in such a good story! The plot is excellent and I was hooked. The Duke’s death in an air crash is a true story and the prefect starting point for Rory Clements’ tale of spies and intrigue at this crucial stage of World War Two. The Nazis have Professor Tom Wilde in their sights now more than ever. I can’t wait for more.

Other reviews
Holy Spy
Corpus
Nucleus

Nemesis
Hitler’s Secret

V2 by Robert Harris

Hutchinson | 2020 (17 September) | 312p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

V2 by Robert HarrisIt is November 1944 and V2 rockets rain down on London. They arrive silently, no-one knows where they will hit but when they do the devastation is sudden, terrifying and deadly. Germany is in retreat but now every resource they have, whether slave or fuel, is being put into the production of these rockets, which are then launched from moving sites in occupied Holland on the cities of London and Antwerp. Rudi Graf is a leading German rocket engineer. His dream had been to design and propel rockets to the Moon but his research was hijacked when Hitler came to power. Now he launches rockets to kill civilians, urged on by his Nazi commanders and propagandists. In this cold, bleak seaside town, Rudi becomes increasingly disillusioned.

Kay Calton-Walsh is a young intelligence officer in the WAAF. It is her job to try and detect launch sites from aerial photographs. She’s good at her job and she has also experienced herself the horrors of a V2 strike. When she gets the chance to do even more for the war effort she leaps at it. She joins a team of WAAFs in Belgium. Their task is to observe launches and calculate their origin. The mathematics is difficult, incredibly pressured and the equations must be done quickly. It’s impossible to forget that behind the numbers, lives are at stake and that every second counts.

Robert Harris is one of my very favourite authors. His books vary enormously – ancient Rome, the Vatican conclave, World War 2, an alternate future, 19th century France, and so on – but they are all expertly constructed, ingenious thrillers. The tension and drama can be found in strangely quiet moments, within enormously intelligent individuals who must face a significant challenge, whether that’s an engineer trying to predict the eruption of Vesuvius in Pompeii or a civil servant’s attempts to broker his own deal at Munich in 1939. These are places with secrets, where much can be underhand, and the stakes are enormous. In Rudi Graf we have another of these figures and he is a fascinating man who has an uneasy relationship with the rocket that he has created as well as with the people around him. He is very alone.

This is a novel in which one side faces off against another, where every act has a consequence. There are some fantastic, coldly horrifying sequences in which we follow a rocket through those four minutes from launch to target. The author takes us outside of the story to tell us how many people each rocket injures and kills. The facts are engrossing but they’re made real by the experiences of Kay Calton-Walsh. She is a busy young woman, liberated by war into being useful, with a role that peace would deny her. She also loves unwisely. But her focus is on stopping these rockets. I loved the chapters set in Belgium. How strange it must have been for the locals to have one army replaced by another in their town. There is tension in the novel from the rockets but it also comes from the relationship between the WAAFs and the local villagers.

V2 is a relatively short novel and we’re told it was written quickly through lockdown. It does have the feel of a novel written with urgency. It is true I would have liked it to have been longer. I would have liked more but what there is, is fantastic. The characterisation is spot on and the locations are richly evoked, especially the launch sites, which were lethal, manned by expendable, tired men, driven on by absurd targets who often became the victims of their own rockets. I’m fascinated by this subject – my grandfather went behind enemy lines to spy on V2 rocket production – and Robert Harris is the perfect writer to convey the dread and terror of these weapons while also respecting the science behind them. It’s an extremely tense thriller – rockets are launched time after time, day after day. They must be stopped.

I can’t wait for the next Robert Harris novel. It could be about anything. It might surprise me as much as The Second Sleep did. Whatever it is, I know I’ll be enthralled. His novel Pompeii remains my favourite historical novel. If you haven’t read it, read it!

Other reviews
An Officer and a Spy
Dictator
Conclave
Munich
The Second Sleep

V for Victory by Lissa Evans

Doubleday | 2020 (27 August) | 304p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It is late 1944 and the end of the war is approaching but it brings with it a terrible sting in the tail – V2 rockets. They arrive silently but with deadly violence. It all compounds the misery of families missing their loved ones, who are killed, missing, fighting for victory or imprisoned in camps. Green Shutters was suffragette Mattie’s home. It now belongs to Noel, an unusual boy of about 15, and with him lives his guardian of sorts, Vee, and a houseful of lodgers who teach Noel in return for a discount in their rent. Science, literature, languages, the arts are all taught to Noel by an array of colourful men and women. Vee is just about scraping by but, when she witnesses a car accident, the very real risk emerges that her true identity might become known and her world, and that of Noel, could come crashing down around then.

V for Victory is the third novel in a tremendous trilogy that brings to life the characters of Mattie, Noel and Vee with such warmth and wit. I really recommend that you read the previous two first because only then can you understand the ongoing influence of Mattie – who is absent from this novel – on the lives of so many people. Crooked Heart is the first, set in the early months of the Second World War, when Noel meets Vee while mourning for the wonderful, kind Mattie. The second novel, Old Baggage, takes us further back to Mattie’s suffragette days when she created an army of Amazons on Hampstead Heath, young girls who were inspired and emboldened by Mattie’s leadership. These two novels can be read in either order, although I rather liked reading them in the order in which they were written.

In V for Victory we also spend time with one of Mattie’s Amazons. Air raid warden Winnie Crowther has been separated from her husband, who is in a prisoner of war camp, for almost the entirety of her marriage. Now she is making her own life, part of the war effort as the V2 rockets rain down on London. Mattie might be gone now but she continues to influence Winnie as she fights for her independence. I really enjoyed Winnie’s chapters, set in a London that is being terrorised by rockets but where life goes on, people continue to meet, fight, fall in love, go hungry, go dancing, put out fires. Just like the preceding books, this is such an evocative novel. The lodgers are a joy – all so beautifully described and loved by Lissa Evans.

The relationship between Vee and Noel is central to the novel. But it isn’t a sentimental relationship. It’s tough scraping by in this world but both Vee and Noel are survivors. There are surprises in store for both of them in V for Victory. I’m not going to give anything away but, as on so many previous occasions, my heart wept for Noel.

Lissa Evans writes so beautifully. Her novels are so gorgeous but they’re also insightful, especially highlighting the challenges facing women during the early 20th century and during the war. This is a time of extreme stress and here we see people coping with it, or not, in their own ways. The characters are delightful – full of warmth, humour and sadness. But there is also a frightening menace hanging over the novel as the V2 rockets fall silently on London. I realise that this might be the end of a trilogy but I really, really hope we are able to spend more time with Noel, who has become one of my favourite characters in recent fiction.

Other reviews
Crooked Heart
Old Baggage

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel Gaynor

HarperCollins | 2020 (20 August) | 386p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel GaynorWhen the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japan’s war against China is now turned against the allies. For the children at Chefoo School, a missionary school in the Shantung Province of China, the ramifications will be devastating. Nancy Plummer is ten years old and has been left at the school for safety by her anxious missionary parents whom she hasn’t seen for years. She and her close friends, nicknamed Sprout and Mouse, have become their own family, watched over by teachers who have far more responsibility for these lonely children than they might have wanted. Teacher Elspeth Kent feels that responsibility too keenly and had been ready to leave China to remake her life in England but all her plans are forgotten when Japanese soldiers occupy the school and overturn their lives, damaging them all with negligence and brutality. Internment follows and the children and their teachers must look within themselves and to each other to find the hope and courage to survive these four years of war and imprisonment.

Hazel Gaynor is a wonderful writer and I couldn’t wait to read The Bird in the Bamboo Cage. It was everything I hoped for and more. I picked it up to read and when I put it down I was over two thirds of the way through, finishing it in one more sitting. It’s completely engrossing and compelling. It is also heartbreaking, harrowing and emotional, all the more so because it is based on a true story. And what an incredible story it is.

The characters in the novel are so beautifully portrayed, with chapters narrated by young Nancy alternating with chapters narrated by the teacher Elspeth. Each has a distinct voice and each has their own perspective on events, whether in the school or the internment camp. This structure works perfectly. Elspeth, as an adult woman, has a very different time of it, with extra fears and dangers, as well as the driving need to keep those in her care safe, her brownies and guides. Nancy and her friends use guides’ codes and rules as a way of getting through this nightmare, directing their actions, thinking of others, keeping themselves as clean as possible. But, of course, that is almost impossible as they all begin to slowly starve in the squalor and dirt of the camp. It’s a harsh awakening from childhood as these girls and boys grow into teenagers without their parents.

It’s all so powerful, particularly when we learn more about the School’s Chinese servants, who also turn up at the camp. There is brutality and cruelty, throughout, but it isn’t presented graphically. Much is left to the imagination. The focus instead is on the children and their teachers. The children dwell on their friendships and are remarkably resilient. They have hope. The teachers think back on their past, especially Elspeth who must worry for her brother who is missing in action in the European War while also recalling past loves. Elspeth’s story is particularly painful but how we grow to love her, and the children, through the author’s beautiful writing! It’s not often a book makes me cry as much as this one did.

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage is easily one of the best books I’ve read in a long time and it’s a contender for my favourite novel of 2020. I can’t praise it enough. It’s engrossing, thoroughly engaging, beautifully written, extremely hard to put down and full of life, colour and love, despite the terrible and desperate situation in which these wonderful characters are placed.

Other review
With Heather Webb – Meet Me in Monaco

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.

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