Tag Archives: 20th century

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Doubleday | 2018 (14 June) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

It is 1928 and Matilda Simpkin finds a small wooden club in a cupboard and with it comes a stream of memories that carry her back to the early years of the century when Mattie fought alongside her comrades for the suffrage of women. Matilda’s past is extraordinary – her deep-rooted unease around the police is easily explained by the abuse she witnessed and suffered at their hands as a suffragette. She keeps the medals which commemorate each protest, each imprisonment, each force feeding. But the fight was in the past. Mattie is lost and she is without purpose. But when she meets by chance a fellow suffragette she discovers that her old friend has been caught up in the flame of the growing movement of fascism. Suddenly Mattie discovers a new battle to fight – the need to educate girls and women of all ages and classes so that they can vote with awareness and knowledge. So that fascism will be defeated.

We first met Mattie in Crooked Heart, an exquisitely warm novel that took us to the last days of Mattie’s life during the Second World War, a life that helped to shape that novel’s young hero Noel. In that novel, Mattie played a relatively minor role but it was an unforgettable one. How good it is that now, several years later, we can enjoy Mattie’s company again, this time during her middle years when yet again her theories about education, the establishment and individual responsibility will have such an impact on the young people around her.

As Mattie sets up her band of Amazons (young women from all walks of life) on Hampstead Heath, in direct opposition to a fascist organisation of marching uniformed boys and girls, we become caught up in the hopes and aspirations of another generation of women. Women who, thanks to Mattie and others like her, will be able to have the vote, will be able to have dreams and possibly even fulfil them. We are introduced to a number of such memorable girls and women who are all inspired by Mattie. We pop into their lives and they are all so different and so utterly enchanting.

I fell in love with so many people in Old Baggage, not least of whom is Mattie herself. Lissa Evans writes so beautifully and takes us deep into Mattie’s thoughts and worries, her passions and her love, her self-doubt, and, most poignantly of all, the great losses she suffered during the First World War. The war ended ten years before but its legacy scars those who survived it. None of this is laboured – Lissa Evans presents it all with such skill and empathy, everything blended perfectly into the whole. The result is Matilda Simpkin, a woman who deserves and wins our love, for her heroism and her flaws. She is remarkable.

There are others I fell for here as well. Mattie’s companion Florrie (known as The Flea) is so beautifully and delicately drawn – she continues to carry out work for the poor, selflessly and at great personal cost. There are others we meet just briefly but their impressions last much longer. I loved poor Aileen especially. But the tragedy and sadness works so effectively because it is often masked by wit and humour, warmth and care.

Old Baggage is one of those fabulous books that reaches the heart, that makes the reader laugh and cry, sometimes on the same page. Writing this beautiful doesn’t come along every day and I cherished it. I can only hope that we meet Mattie once again, perhaps going even further back in time to those Suffragette years. There’s so much I want Mattie to tell us about her life! But if this is goodbye, I’ll not forget Matilda Simpkin.

Old Baggage is a timely commemoration of the bravery and sacrifice of suffragettes and suffragists but it also takes a look at what happened next, once these extraordinary women were reabsorbed into society during the aftermath of the First World War. It presents a beautiful portrait of Mattie, Florrie and their comrades while also celebrating the role of women as a whole, for whom there was and still is so much to do.

Other review
Crooked Heart

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Nightfall Berlin by Jack Grimwood

Michael Joseph | 2018 (17 May) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nightfall Berlin by Jack GrimwoodIt is 1986 and at last there are hopes that the Cold War might finally be about to thaw. Gorbachev has initiated talks to reduce the number of nuclear weapons – if he had his way he’d ban them all – and the world is watching. But it’s business as usual for British Intelligence Officer Major Tom Fox, who has been ordered to East Berlin to organise the return to the west of Sir Cecil Blackburn, a notorious spy who defected to the east many years before. It seems he wants to die at home. But to many in Britain Sir Cecil remains a traitor who still hasn’t paid the full price for his sins. This will be a delicate mission. But the most carefully arranged plans have a habit of falling apart and it’s not long before Fox is on the run, wanted by both east and west for murder.

In order to escape alive, Fox must first find out who is responsible for the crime and why. He must hurry. Anyone who might be able to help is being silenced at a merciless rate. The stakes are high, the consequences of failure devastating.

Nightfall Berlin is the second Cold War thriller by Jack Grimwood to feature Major Fox and, although I haven’t read Moskva (yet!), this didn’t affect my enjoyment of Nightfall Berlin at all. Grimwood introduces Fox and his world perfectly, revealing little bits about his wife and son, making it clear how central to his life they are, even though he is forced to spend most of his time away from them. As a result of that, and various other things, this is a family in crisis and Fox’s worry about this is there as a shadow in the background all the way through the novel. I thought this was done brilliantly. It’s not laboured, it’s enigmatic and mysterious, there is an absence in Fox’s life.

But then we get on to the main business of the book and that is a Cold War thriller that had me glued to the pages. This is fantastic stuff! We follow Fox as he moves through a vividly realised East Berlin, tracked by Stasi agents, and then there are the spies, both Russian and British. In this world it’s hard to trust anyone. But there is even more to this story than the fractured Berlin of the 1980s. This is a city that can’t escape the past and the end of the Second World War. There’s a legacy from those days that hangs over this world. It’s a fascinating story.

As you’d expect from an excellent Cold War thriller, this is a complex, involved and tense novel. The reader must stay alert and is rewarded for their attention. We meet so many men and women with extraordinary stories to tell. But at the heart of the novel lies Major Tom Fox whose past haunts him every bit as much as Berlin is haunted by its own past.

I loved Nightfall Berlin so much that as soon as I finished it I bought Moskva, a thriller set in Cold War Moscow. I’m now hooked on Major Tom Fox and this series. If you have any interest at all in this most fascinating period of modern history then I suspect you will be too.

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the Blog Tour. For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

The Madonna of The Mountains by Elise Valmorbida – special post

The Madonna of the MountainsTowards the end of last month Faber & Faber published The Madonna of the Mountains, a novel by Elise Valmorbida, which is set in Italy during the 1920s and onwards and the rise of fascism, telling the story of Maria Vittoria. To celebrate the publication I’m delighted to present here a special post which includes Elise’s answers to my three questions as well as a photo or two from a wonderful night in early March when I saw Elise interviewed in such a stunning room at Liberty’s in London.Faber & Faber have published the novel in partnership with Liberty London and they were responsible from drawing on their vast array of historic designs and patterns to create the gorgeous cover for the novel But first a little of what The Madonna of the Mountains is about.

Set in the Veneto in Northern Italy and spanning nearly three decades following the First World War, The Madonna of the Mountains is a fierce, sharply observed and richly detailed account of a woman’s fight to keep her family alive and thriving – at whatever the cost.

We meet Maria in 1923 as she awaits the arrival of her husband, chosen for her by her father and miraculously neither disfigured nor damaged by the previous war. Together they start a shop and build a business and a family – but the creep of fascism casts a dark shadow, and the horrors of war, political and practical, threaten their very survival.

The Madonna of the Mountains is about what unites family and community and also what destroys them. It is about love and enmity, envy and generosity, two men, one God (and his mother) and the undying bond of a mother to her children.

Thanks very much to Elise for taking the time to answer my questions!

Liberty event March 2018What was your inspiration for the character of Maria? Did her character develop as you were writing the novel or did she stay true to how you first imagined her?

When I started work on this novel, I knew I wanted to write about the life of a woman, and I wanted to write about a woman in times of war. Not one of Mussolini’s lovers, not an aristocrat, not a leader, not a political heroine. An ordinary peasant woman. Finding out about such a person’s day-to-day life was not so easy. I started writing about a birth in a remote time and place, from the point of view of a newborn baby girl. It’s a chapter that has well and truly vanished. But it got me going, and Maria Vittoria slowly emerged from her. She doesn’t have the education or worldliness to analyse ideology, nor the heroism to overcome pragmatism. And she is of her time. The character has changed from draft to draft. She started out tougher. I grew to love her more. I have cried with her.

What is it about Italy during the 1920s and World War II that so appealed to you as a setting for your novel? Are there any other historical periods/places that appeal to you as a writer?

Many historical novelists are historians who have turned their hand to fiction, and some specialise in a favourite era. I’ve met writers who introduce themselves very specifically, say, as ‘a 1066 novelist’, or ‘a specialist in medical nostalgia’. I’m not a historian. And I don’t think of myself as a historical novelist. But I have developed a near-obsession with Italy and the early part of the 20th century. I’m sure this is because of my roots. I feel a strong sense of connection with this time and place, so familiar to me and yet actually so distant. But history repeats itself in lazy loops, and I look on fearfully now as populists and despots take hold in too many places…

Which novelists and books have inspired you?

Shakespeare inspires me above and beyond all other writers. I love the poetry of TS Eliot and Samuel Beckett’s prose and plays. I love Virginia Woolf’s wry intelligence, her soulful and poetic prose. Two slim novels that are standalone perfection: F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Annie Proulx and Michael Ondaatje sing to me.

For other stops on the blog tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Madonna blog tour

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Raven Books | 2018 (8 February) | 528p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart TurtonWhen Aiden Bishop comes to his senses, he is standing in a wood, wearing a dinner jacket splattered with mud and wine, and he has absolutely no idea who he is or where he is. All he knows is that he must save Anna, a girl he can hear running in panic through the trees. But this is the story of Evelyn Hardcastle. Tonight she will die and the night after that she will die again, and the one after that. Until Aiden Bishop can break the cycle. But on each of those days Aidan will inhabit the body of a different person, each a guest at a weekend party being held at the isolated and unhappy house of Blackheath. But somebody is determined that Aiden will never be successful, that he shall never leave, and Evelyn will be doomed to die every night forever more.

And that, which is what you can also learn from the book’s cover and blurb, is all I will reveal about the astonishing plot of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. In fact, it barely does it justice because this is one of the most deliciously complex, multi-layered and clever plots that I have ever read. How the author Stuart Turton managed to knot this all together is a feat beyond all comprehension. Not an end – and there are countless ends – is left loose. The author’s powers of imagination, which are substantial, are equalled by his confident and self-assured handling of a plot and structure that must at times have felt like juggling cats. I am in awe of Stuart Turton’s genius.

As befitting one of the finest novels that I have ever read, there are so many elements to it. In some ways, it is science fiction – its premise is undoubtedly mindbending, its mood at times fantastical; but it is also historical fiction. We’re trapped in the English countryside of the elite in the years immediately following the First World War. As we move above and below stairs, there is most definitely a feel of Gosford Park about it. But it is also a murder mystery and its setting and elegance, as well as the confined setting and limited cast of suspects, immediately reminds the reader (at least this one) of Agatha Christie. And it is also accompanied by wit, deceit, ugliness, horror, blood.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a substantial novel and not a page of it is wasted. Every page moves on this stunning plot in some manner and, as the novel continues, everything cross references. We move around the story in ingenious ways, we meet characters from a multitude of perspectives. And hanging over it all is a mood of dread and intensity, as well as of hope and of dashed hopes.

I was glued to this incredible, beautifully-written book, reading it all over one glorious weekend. This is a novel that expects you to keep your wits about you. You might have to flick back through the pages on occasion. It makes demands. But all of them are rewarded. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a debut novel – how extraordinary is that?! Surely there can be few better. Stuart Turton is about to make a very big name for himself. What on earth will he write next? I cannot wait to find out. In the meantime, make sure you don’t miss The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.

A Darker State by David Young

Zaffre | 2018 (8 February) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book

East German police detective Karin Müller is given an offer that is very hard to refuse. In return for running a serious crime unit, liaising with the Stasi when appropriate, she will be promoted to Major of the East German People’s Police, a jump of two ranks, and given a luxurious apartment for herself, her mother, boyfriend and their baby twins. It comes with a price. Her maternity leave will be cut short and her mother will spend more time with her babies than she will. The reality of this hits almost immediately when Müller and her partner Tilsner, likewise promoted, are sent close to the Polish border where the body of a teenage boy has been found weighted down in a lake.

This isn’t the only crime to test Müller. Markus, the son of one of her team members, is also missing and it’s clear that the Stasi are keeping a close watch on the case. Müller soon realises that she is caught up in a conspiracy and it will take all of her skill to disentangle herself. The future of her own family is at stake.

A Darker State is the third novel in David Young’s Karin Müller series, a series that I have loved from its beginning. It is set during a most fascinating time and place in modern European history – East Germany in the 1970s, during the Cold War. The West looms beyond the Wall (or the Anti-Fascist Barrier as it was known on the eastern side), a temptation to some, the epitome of immoral decadence to others. David Young’s research into the time and place is clearly considerable and his insight and knowledge can be seen on every page. But because he’s the very fine writer that he is, he carries his learning lightly. It doesn’t interfere with the narrative or the pace of the plot, but it most certainly enriches both.

One of the things I really love about these books is that Karin Müller is depicted as being comfortable in her skin. She has considerable issues with the Stasi, who have actually endangered her at times (we feel that perhaps she is ignorant of the true extent of their influence and power), and she deplores some other aspects of her life in the East, but she is an East German to her heart. She believes in its Communist ideals, she deplores the lack of social care and responsibility for the old and poor in the West. There is no right and wrong here, no black or white. Except for one thing – the Stasi. And even they, or at least individuals, are more complex than might first appear.

A Darker State has such a strong plot. The novels in this series always do. And it’s so interesting watching their investigation with 1970s’ police techniques, quite apart from the interference of the Stasi. As usual, it is also an emotional case. Vulnerable young people are its victims. Müller is such a developed individual – she feels the suffering. She’s tough, she has to be, but she cares. Her assistant Tilsner is an enigmatic character, embodying the novel’s sense that not everybody is to be trusted. As a result his relationship with Karin is particularly rich.

This is fascinating historical fiction, just as it’s also gripping crime fiction. Its sense of place and time are second to none. When I read one of David Young’s books, I feel completely immersed in it, even more so because of the quality of the characterisation and the empathy that the author feels for these people. The fact that A Darker State is also such a pageturner doesn’t hurt in the least! If you haven’t read this series before than A Darker State can definitely be read as a stand alone, but I certainly suggest that you give yourself a treat and also read Müller’s first case, Stasi Child and its excellent successor Stasi Wolf.

Other reviews
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf

Nucleus by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2018 (25 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nucleus by Rory ClementsIt is the summer of 1939 and, although nobody leaves home without their gas mask, England is carrying on as normal. A more immediate threat comes from the IRA which has begun a bombing terror campaign. But events in Europe cannot be ignored indefinitely and world powers – especially America, Germany and Britain – are well aware that in the war that is to come the atom bomb, if such a thing can be created, will be critical for victory. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in England has been a centre for scientific discovery and innovation and it is close to a breakthrough. America knows this and so too does Germany. When one of its scientists is murdered and another one disappears, Tom Wilde (a Cambridge professor but an American citizen) becomes caught up in the investigations.

Tom has been instructed by the American government to spy on the inhabitants of a local grand house, Hawksmere Old Hall, including a scientist (and an old friend of Tom’s) Geoff Lancing and Geoff’s sister Clarissa, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and famous film actresses. Meanwhile Tom’s love Lydia has gone into the lion’s den itself – Berlin. A German Jewish scientist and his family has been smuggled out of Germany but a child has been stolen, presumably for blackmail to make the scientist return. Lydia is determined to find him. But this is a conspiracy that stretches across continents and oceans and both Lydia and Tom are soon out of their depth. As Europe hurtles ever closer to war, the stakes couldn’t be higher, the danger to Tom and Lydia more certain.

Nucleus follows on from Corpus, the first novel to feature Tom Wilde. Before this, author Rory Clements was better known for his Elizabethan spy series but Corpus and now Nucleus demonstrate that he is a master of the spy novel whatever the period in which it’s set. Pleasingly, Tom Wilde is a professor of history, especially of the Elizabethan spymaster Walsingham and I love the way in which these two periods of history 350 years apart are shown to share similarities. Tom has his own spymaster to deal with as well as serious issues of who he can trust – it’s difficult to see the truth when you can only glimpse a small part of the bigger picture.

The plotting is superb and deliciously intricate. You do need to keep your wits about you and keep alert and the rewards are enormous. I was thoroughly immersed in the plot and caught up in the tension. The scenes in Germany are especially intense and I found them terrifying. There is one moment in this novel when I actually gasped and had to put the book down. I even flicked through a few pages to find resolution, I couldn’t deal with what I’d ‘heard’.

I love the portrayal of England during 1939. The Old House is a symbol of decadence and the old way of living, one that will shortly be made irrelevant. Lydia is arguably the most appealing and interesting of all of the characters in the novel. It’s good to read a spy novel in which women play an equal role, although if you’re after glamour you’ll certainly find it in Clarissa.

Rory Clements has created two fine characters with Tom and Lydia and he deploys them with cleverness and skill. There’s an air of intellectualism about these novels – as there would be with a professor for the central character – but there are no ivory towers here. The world is waking up to a second world war and Tom will have to get his hands dirty. I loved Corpus. Published in January 2017, it opened up the year’s reading in fine fashion and Nucleus has done exactly the same in 2018. With no doubt at all, this is one of the best historical and spy series being written today. I can’t wait for more.

Other review
Corpus
Holy Spy

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

HarperCollins | 1934 (this edn 2017; 19 October) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

Below you’ll find first a review from my recent re-reading of Murder on the Orient Express. Beneath it, there’s my report of one of the most extraordinary days I think I’ll ever have…

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha ChristieIt is the early 1930s and there are few ways more luxurious to travel from Stamboul to London than on the glorious Orient Express. The train is full and so famous Belgian detective is fortunate to find a berth when a case he’s been working on calls him back to England in a hurry, curtailing a longed for time of rest among the wonders of the Turkish city. It is midwinter and after just a day and a night the train is stopped in its tracks by an impassable snowdrift. There is no choice but for everyone aboard to wait until help can arrive. But this can be of no concern to Mr Ratchett, the wealthy American businessman in the berth next to Poirot’s, for in the night he has been murdered, stabbed multiple times in his chest.

The passengers are trapped. And what a group they are, hailing from all over the world and from all walks of life, from an elderly Russian princess to a young English governess. Poirot has no doubt that amongst them he will find the killer, but which of them is it? And why are there so many clues? Too many clues for Hercule Poirot’s peace of mind.

I grew up on Agatha Christie’s novels and during my teenage years I read every single one of them (my young adult reading was Agatha Christie, Jean Plaidy and Arthur C. Clarke). Since then, I’ve returned to the Poirot books because these were always my favourites and, while Death on the Nile has always been the one I loved the most, Murder on the Orient Express has never been far behind.

The setting and circumstances of Murder on the Orient Express provide the perfect background for an Agatha Christie novel – the confined space, the exotic location, the limited number of suspects, the clever and seemingly unsolvable crime, the glamour, the passion. And while Agatha Christie demonstrates once more what a genius she was, the murder also gives Hercule Poirot one of his most perplexing cases as well as perhaps the biggest moral conundrum of his career.

I’ve read Murder on the Orient Express three times now and obviously I know who did it. I suspect there aren’t many who don’t – aided by the television and movie dramatisations of the novel over the years, including the most recent version directed and starred in by Kenneth Branagh. But somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. I enjoyed reading it again perhaps even more than I have done before. It didn’t hurt that I was reading such a beautiful celebratory hardback edition, or indeed that I actually carried it on to the Orient Express train itself, but it was a pleasure to read it in search of the clues. Knowing how it ended, I could observe Poirot at work as he interviews the passengers one by won and follows the clues.

There are elements that have aged less well than others, particularly in the regard of some characters for some nations. Snobbery is rife, class is everything, at least to some. But Poirot manages to bridge these cultural and social divides because he is an outsider and also because he’s more elegant and refined than the lot of them.

I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with this much loved novel again. I found Agatha Christie’s style refreshing, to the point, curt in places, but more often than not eloquent and elegant. It evokes a bygone world beautifully and so now the novel is as much a historical piece as a supremely successful crime novel. I enjoyed it for both and it inspired me to go back and re-read more. Hercule Poirot is extraordinary and it’s good to be reminded of this by rediscovering him where he was born – on the page.

Premiere report

On 2 November, I had a day unlike any other, all thanks to HarperCollins, Twentieth Century Fox and Agatha Christie Ltd. I can’t thank them enough because for one day I was treated like a movie star. I think I could get used to red carpets, five star hotels, premieres, and lots and lots of champagne. All the photos below were taken by me.

The day started with something I have always wanted to do – boarding the Orient Express train at St Pancras Station in London. I’ve seen the movie and obviously read the book and now here I was sitting in one of its plush seats in the glamorous bar carriage, listening to James Pritchard discuss the legacy of his great grandmother, Agatha Christie. Across the carriage was Agatha Christie’s portable typewriter. The last time it had been on the Orient Express it had been with her.

Orient Express

It was good to hear that more adaptations may follow Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. But the overriding impression I was left with was how incredible and intrepid Agatha Christie had been – to have travelled across the world on her own in a time before television to places that she could not have fully imagined in advance. I’ve always been interested in the story of Agatha Christie’s expeditions with her archaeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan but she did so much more than that. Agatha Christie and her husband are buried in the beautiful village of Cholsey, not too far from me, and I regularly pay my respects.

James Pritchard

The premiere experience at the Royal Albert Hall was unforgettable. I’ve been to a fair few premieres due to my movie blogging years but this was the first time I’ve been to one as a guest and it was incredible. With my special pass, I was able to access the areas with the stars and so watch them all be interviewed on the red carpet stage by Lorraine Kelly. It seems a long time ago since I used to go and see Kenneth Branagh on stage with his Renaissance theatre company. Now look at him! I was particularly thrilled to see Daisy Ridley and she looked beautiful.

Daisy Ridley
Daisy Ridley
Kenneth Branagh

The film itself was thoroughly entertaining although I was a bit overcome by the atmosphere inside of the Royal Albert Hall (I collected my degree in the Hall in another century and this was my first time back), the occasion, the sound system and by the amount of champagne. I was interested in the ways in which the film veered from the novel but I thought that the addition of the viaduct and the use of the outdoors for one of the most important scenes were inspired. I thought Branagh was fantastic as Poirot – completely different from David Suchet and Albert Finney (certainly from Peter Ustinov). This Poirot is a man of action as well as a genius with his little grey cells. The practicality of the moustaches is another matter entirely.

Johnny Depp
Josh Gad
Kenneth Branagh
Judi Dench
Royal Albert Hall

An extraordinary day and one I’m so thrilled and grateful to have experienced. It means a lot to me that this was all to celebrate Agatha Christie, an author who has played such a significant part in developing me as a reader and lover of books. Many years have passed and it’s so good to think that films such as this may give new generations a nudge to read and love Agatha Christie’s mysteries, just as their parents and grandparents have done.

Agatha Christie's TypewriterPoirot choccies

Thanks again to HarperCollins (Fliss), Twentieth Century Fox (Olivia) and Agatha Christie Ltd (Lydia) x