Tag Archives: 20th century

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

The River Between Us by Liz Fenwick

HQ | 2021 (10 June) | c.500p | Review copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

The River Between Us by Liz FenwickOn the rebound from her divorce, Theo buys a cottage, sight unseen, on the banks of the Tamar, the river that divides Cornwall from Devon. The cottage is in a poor state of repair – fortunately the villagers prove to be a useful and practical sort – and Theo soon falls in love with it. Her ties are strengthened when she discovers some letters hidden away, which tell of a love affair between a servant, Zach, and Lady Alice who lived at the nearby manor house of Abbotswood. Their love is divided by the river but also by class and ultimately by war as Zach becomes a soldier in the First World War. In the present day, the remains of soldiers have been uncovered in a field in France. The indications are that they were Tamar men. The village waits to learn their identities.

Liz Fenwick writes the most beautiful romantic stories, each deeply embedded in the place that she loves – Cornwall. I share that love and so I am especially drawn to her novels. There is such a strong sense of place and The River Between Us is no different.

I was immediately drawn to Theo, a middle-aged woman who is starting from scratch all over again, having lost the home she loved. We get to know and like her as she rebuilds her new home and gets to know the people of the village. I do like a novel that features an older woman! Theo is an interesting woman.

The novel moves between the present and the past as Theo investigates the mysterious and unopened letters that she discovers. This is a device but I like it and the letters are soon joined by portraits and the manor itself as a picture is drawn up of society in this remote and beautiful area in the early 1900s before war took away so many of its men. The river symbolises the divide between classes as Zach must deal with his impossible love. I loved Theo’s story but I was also really attracted to Lady Alice.

I listened to the audiobook, which was beautifully narrated by Lucy Scott. This is just the sort of novel that I love to listen to. It carried me away to a place I love and the prose is beautiful and so evocative. I highly recommend it.

Other reviews
The Returning Tide
The Path to the Sea

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

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

The Stasi Game by David Young

Zaffre | 2020 (31 December) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Stasi Game by David YoungThe Stasi Game is the sixth and very possibly final novel in David Young’s superb series featuring DDR detective Karin Müller and her assistant Werner Tilsner. While you could certainly enjoy this novel as a stand alone read, I heartily recommend that you read the others first. Karin’s story, and Werner’s, is a compelling one and this is in many ways its conclusion, making it all the more powerful if, like me, you have become so fond of Karin over the years.

East Germany, 1982. Three years have passed since the events of Stasi Winter. Karin Müller and Werner Tilner are in disgrace, demoted and re-housed. Karin might work for the People’s Police but she’s been left in no doubt that it’s the Stasi who are controlling her career and her life. And now they choose to send her and Werner to Dresden where the body of a man has been found encased in concrete. The Stasi are taking a keen interest in the case and Karin becomes increasingly suspicious about why that might be so.

In a parallel story beginning in the 1930s, an English boy Arnold Southwick meets Lotti Rolf in Dresden while on holiday. The two become pen pals as both experience the horrors of war in the bombed cities of Hull and Dresden. Through Lottie’s eyes, we’re taken back to the fire storm that was Dresden in February 1945.

I am a huge fan of this series. Its setting in Communist East Germany is fascinating and brilliantly evoked by David Young, who clearly knows his stuff and puts it across so well. In The Stasi Game, as with others in the series, we’re also reminded of the legacy of World War Two on the DDR. I enjoyed the movement between the two eras and the surprising and engrossing development of the story. The scenes depicting the bombing of Dresden are truly powerful and shocking. With chapters set before, during and after the bombing, Dresden becomes a significant character in the novel in its own right.

The plot of The Stasi Game is fantastic, possibly my favourite of the series, and there are some changes in the relationships between Karin, Werner and with Jäger of the Stasi. I have always enjoyed the character of Jäger, the way that he hovers between good and evil, and he’s particularly good in this one. There is a strong sense that each has reached their limit, that something has to give, and that gives an irresistible tension to the book. We know how strongly Karin believed in the DDR and its values. Karin’s faith is challenged here stronger than ever. She knows now better than anyone what the Stasi are capable of. And we’ve reached the early 80s so time is running out for the regime.

All good things must come to an end but it’s always a shame when they do. I will miss my annual immersion in this world and with these characters but, if this is the end, it ends perfectly, it really does. If you haven’t yet read these books then now is the time.

Other reviews
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf
A Darker State

Stasi 77
Guest post on the historical background of Stasi 77
Stasi Winter

The Mitford Trial by Jessica Fellowes

Sphere | 2020 (5 November) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Mitford Trial by Jessica FellowesIt is 1933 and, with the rise of Hitler in Germany, fascism is beginning to become fashionable among British high society. Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists is on the ascendancy and his most ardent admirer is Diana Guinness, formerly Diana Mitford, who is not going to let her marriage, or his own dalliances, get in the way of attaching herself to him permanently. Diana’s younger sister, Unity, on the other hand, has a schoolgirl’s obsession with Adolf Hitler.

As if to clear their heads, their despairing mother plans to take her daughters on a luxury cruise to Italy. She needs somebody reliable to keep an eye on them. Louisa Cannon, the Mitfords’ former maid and companion is the obvious choice. Even though she has just married DI Guy Sullivan, Louisa feels she has no choice, especially when a strange man approaches her and suggests it would be in the interests of her country if she should spy on the Mitfords and any Germans that they might have contact with onboard. It all sounds deeply mysterious and intriguing but, when one of the passengers is found dead in his cabin, it also becomes extremely dangerous.

I am a huge fan of this series, of Louisa, of the mysteries that she solves, and of the intrigue, glamour and danger that surrounds the Mitford sisters, all brought to life in these novels. I live very close to where the sisters grew up and have been to events in their home, eaten in their local pub and visited their graves. They are fascinating, not necessarily always in a good way, and they reveal so much about the nature of the times in which they lived – in society but also on its fringes, where scandal can be found. Louisa is a bridge between normality and these unusual women. She is the one who can get to the heart of the matter, with or without the help of her rather bumbling detective friend and now husband, Guy Sullivan.

The Mitford Trial is the fourth in the series and you can certainly read it without having read the others. I read the first novel, The Mitford Murders, not that long ago and, as a result, immediately devoured the following two books. The stories stand alone with each of the books generally focusing on a sister. In The Mitford Trial it’s now the time to learn more about Unity, possibly the most notorious of them all (which is saying something when you consider the story of Diana). And so, if you’ve read them all, you’ll have more of a feel for their relationships and also for that between Louisa and Guy. I must admit, though, that this is possibly of less interest to me. I have still to be convinced that Guy actually knows what he’s doing.

This latest novel is different in that it is mostly set away from London and Oxfordshire. Most of the drama is set aboard the Princess Alice, a ship that carries such a strange bunch of crew and passengers to Italy. There is intrigue of every kind just as there is also the shadow of something sinister – there are spies at work, on every side. And while Diana and Unity see only glamour and excitement in the appearance of Nazis on the ship, many others don’t.

The Mitford Trial is an entertaining tale of glamour, spies and murder. It has that Agatha Christie type feel to it as our murder suspects are few in number and confined within the ship. The historical detail is marvellous and so too is its mood as we enter that dark period of 20th century history. I can’t wait to see where Jessica Fellowes takes us next as Diana and Unity become even more deeply involved with fascism, Germany and with Hitler himself.

Other reviews
The Mitford Murders catch up (The Mitford Murders and Bright Young Dead, now renamed The Mitford Affair)
The Mitford Scandal

Before the Crown by Flora Harding

One More Chapter | 2020 (ebook and audiobook: 17 September, Pb: 10 December) | c.300p | Review copy and Bought audiobook | Listen to the book | Buy the book

Before the Crown by Flora HardingIt is 1943 in Windsor Castle when the young Princess Elizabeth meets dashing Royal Navy officer Philip, a near penniless prince of the exiled Greek royal family. Elizabeth falls in love at first sight and, as the years and the war pass, Elizabeth and Philip must prove to her parents, the King and Queen, that they will make a suitable match despite the obstacles. And there are plenty of those, not least of which are Philip’s sisters with their Nazi husbands. Philip himself faces other hurdles. As a man about town, does he really want to tie himself down at such a young age and to a woman who would always be his superior and who, to be honest to himself, he hardly knows? And how far is Elizabeth prepared to go against her beloved father’s wishes and against her overriding motivation – her sense of duty?

I’m such a massive fan of The Crown, especially the first series, and so I couldn’t resist Before the Crown by Flora Harding. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a very familiar story but, even so, it’s well worth the re-telling and I like the way that the author does it. The narrative moves between Philip and Elizabeth’s perspective and so we see both sides of the story throughout the courtship, which does not run smoothly.

Elizabeth is not an easy person to know and through this structure we can see how Philip struggles to understand her. Is this a marriage of convenience or one for love? Philip really has no idea. The same is true of Elizabeth. She doesn’t know what Philip feels about her and she can barely understand her own feelings. This is an age of innocence, despite the bombs falling, in which people like Elizabeth and Philip can barely talk about these things, let alone share a kiss. It’s a dance, watched over by a very judgmental King and Queen, and it’s very entertaining to read about.

There are some moments that really made me laugh, especially a very long-suffering Philip’s time at Balmoral, being dragged up and down mountains by the King’s gillie. It all sounds absolutely horrendous. I must admit to preferring Philip’s sections of the book. The scenes with his sisters in Germany are wonderful as are the times he spends with his mother. Philip’s family history is fascinating and that is captured very well in the novel.

I listed to the audiobook of Before the Crown. It’s very good, not least because there are two excellent narrators for Philip and Elizabeth: Edward Killingback and Imogen Wilde. They do a brilliant job.

I think my only issue with Before the Crown is its sudden ending. I wish it had taken us right up to the altar. Nevertheless, it is a very entertaining romantic tale and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Second Marriage by Gill Paul

Avon | 2020 (17 September) | 464p | Review copy and bought copy | Listen to the book | Buy the book

The Second Marriage by Gill PaulIt is the late 1950s and Maria Callas is the most adored and magnificent diva of the century when she captures the eye of Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Both Maria and Ari are married when they embark on their glamorous affair, mostly aboard the stunning yacht Christina and also around Europe where Maria performs on the greatest stages. This is a life of riches and champagne and Maria successfully hides behind it. Her reputation of being demanding is a mask for the reality of insecurity, a commitment to training and maintaining her peerless voice, a deep desire to have a child. Across the Atlantic, Jackie Kennedy would also seem to have it all. Married to the charismatic Jack Kennedy, a member of America’s most glamorous political family, elegant and beautiful, and on the path to the White House. But Jackie, too, is insecure, not loved as she should be, and destined for tragedies. When she needs support, it is Aristotle Onassis, a man drawn to beautiful and influential women, who provides it.

I love Gill Paul’s writing and I love the way that she invests so much feeling in her characters, bringing to life people that we may know well from history but bringing so much more to their portrayal. I knew a little of the love triangle of Maria, Ari and Jackie but I hadn’t thought about the real people behind it, just suspecting the motives of Jackie for marrying one of the richest men in the world. But in The Second Marriage, Maria, Ari and Jackie are vividly real and complex, displaying the author’s incredible insight into their natures and motivations.

Jackie is just as I imagine her but more intensely so, while Ari is charismatic, powerful and attentive. He is seen through the eyes of Maria and Jackie. We see how duplicitous he is, how much he hides from each but also how protective he is, how much he gives, emotionally as well as materially. We also wonder about his actions behind the scenes, what he might be doing that Maria and Jackie might not be aware of.

But the triumph of this outstanding novel is Maria Callas who, appropriately enough, dominates its stage. She is a tour de force of a character and personality, extremely complicated, full of intense feeling, dramatic, capable of such love. I absolutely adored her. Her relationship with Ari is intense and fiery. Her devotion to her craft is staggering and so fascinating to learn about. Maria’s relationship with her voice is a central theme of the novel. She is a glorious star, and we witness that side of her, but we also see her off stage and she is fabulous.

The novel moves between Maria and Jackie over a period of many years. We witness the big events of their lives, some well-known, others less so, and it is mesmerising as well as dramatic. It is also at times extremely sad and I cried and cried over bits of this novel. When I finished it, I felt bereft, that I’d been part of a great story with astonishing people and I was so loath to leave them behind.

I listened to the audiobook. I am in awe of its narrator Lisa Flanagan. The voices of Maria and Jackie are incredible and made me feel even closer to these women.

The Second Marriage is most definitely a contender for my top book of 2020.

Other reviews and features
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
The Secret Wife
Another Woman’s Husband
Guest post: ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband
The Lost Daughter

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