Tag Archives: 20th century

Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo

HarperCollins | 2017 (15 June) | 356p | Review copy | Buy the book

Seven Days in May by Kim IzzoDespite their enormous wealth and beauty, New York socialite sisters Brooke and Sydney Sinclair share little in common. Parentless, they are free to explore their interests. Sydney is a suffragette who wants to use her wealth for good, supporting causes she cares for, such as birth control and abortion – controversial for a rich young woman in 1915. Brooke, on the other hand, is about to have the wedding of the year (in her opinion). She is to marry Edward Thorpe-Tracey, the future Lord Northbrook and one of those impoverished English aristocrats in need of a rich American heiress. Edward has arrived in New York to escort Brooke and Sydney back to England for the wedding and, in Brooke’s case, a new life. War in Europe seems a long way away, despite Edward’s imminent departure for the trenches in France, but, as the Lusitania sets sail to Britain in May 1915 amid warnings of German U-Boats hungrily patrolling the Atlantic and Irish Sea, war suddenly seems much more real to Brooke and Sidney.

The glamour of the chapters aboard the Lusitania are contrasted by the story of Isabel Nelson, a young woman who has escaped a scandal in Oxford to redeem herself fighting the war in the mysterious Room 40 of the British Admiralty in London. It is here that Isabel finds she has a gift for codes and ciphers and soon becomes an integral part of what is largely a male team. Much that is secret passes through Isabel’s hands but most alarming of all are the messages that indicate that the U-Boats have caught the scent of the Lusitania.

Seven Days in May is a glamorous novel, full of the rich colours and romance of its day – at least for those who are rich, far from war and have the time and money to sail across the Atlantic in the most luxurious of ships and cabins for a week of dinner parties, cocktails and promenades. But thanks to Sydney’s rebellious ways, we’re also given glimpses of life below decks, in the Lusitania‘s less salubrious but nevertheless still smart quarters for third class passengers. Confined to the ship for a week or more, gossip is everything, new friends are made, lovers even, and lives can be changed. We meet people, both fictional and historical, and a vivid picture of life aboard the Lusitania is created. But it is all overshadowed because the reader knows what happened to the ship.

I am such a big fan of novels set on ships, particularly during the glorious days of the great liners. I love the manners and the etiquette, the contrast between the luxury of the upper decks and those below, between passengers and crew, between old and new worlds. However, there is an air of predictability to Seven Days in May that goes beyond the well-known event of the Lusitania‘s sinking, which is anticipated throughout the book. It isn’t difficult to work out at all how the love triangle aboard the ship will play out. Similarly, Isabel’s story has little depth. She’s purely there to build tension. Although it must be said that this is a device that works very well.

The anticipated sinking takes its time, and I must admit that by that point I was very ready for something to happen, also welcoming an escape from the Brooke, Sydney and Edward situation, even though I liked all three characters. Edward is particularly interesting and I would have liked to have spent more time with him when he was less concerned about his marriage. The sinking added the drama the novel was waiting for and I was engrossed in those chapters. I also really appreciated the historical background to the sinking and to the suggested policy of the war office towards civilian vessels risking the Atlantic. It’s for this that I read Seven Days of May – as soon as it arrived, that’s how interested I am in the subject – and it gave me much to think about and a desire to find out more about the ship, which has been overshadowed by the Titanic tragedy three years before.

Seven Days in May is a light and entertaining read, largely romance with a dramatic conclusion. That’s what I was expecting and, as a result, I enjoyed being swept away on the high yet dangerous seas for a day or two. I must also add that this is a beautiful paperback and this most definitely added to what was a very pleasant reading experience.

Stasi Wolf by David Young

Zaffre | 2017 (9 February) | 402p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi Wolf by David YoungStasi Wolf is the second novel to feature East German police detective Oberleutenant Karin Müller, taking place a few months after the events of Stasi Child. Both novels stand alone very well but, as Stasi Wolf begins, life has changed for Karin Müller. And so this review assumes you’ve read Stasi Child.

It is 1975 in East Berlin and the career of police officer Oberleutenant Karin Müller has taken quite a knock since the conclusion of her last case. It’s never a good idea to get on the wrong side of the Stasi. But someone it seems wants to give her a second chance. To the south west of Berlin lies Halle-Neustadt, a brand new model town of apartment blocks, all built to the most modern specifications to house worthy citizens. But not all is perfect in this communist paradise. Newborn twins have been stolen from the town’s hospital and one has been found dead. The Stasi are determined that the crime should be solved with the utmost tact and secrecy – nothing must be allowed to tarnish the reputation of Halle-Neustadt. Karin Müller is given the case and, with little choice in the matter, packs up her life and heads south.

Halle-Neustadt is no ordinary town. Its streets have no names, it buildings are just numbered and many of them are empty and silent, the perfect place to hide a crime. Prevented from making public searches or appeals for information, Müller is well aware of the difficulty she faces as the clock ticks away and the surviving twin remains lost. And it is only a matter of time before more children will need to be found.

Stasi Child was such a fine debut novel from David Young, introducing one of the most fascinating and original detectives in contemporary crime fiction. Incredible as it seems, Stasi Wolf is even better, taking us back into the dangerous, chilly setting of the DDR, where spies hide among neighbours and Stasi eyes keep watch. But what makes Karin Müller particularly fascinating is her relationship to the state. She believes in communism and, despite her conflict and unease with the Stasi, she still believes this society can work. Even though she has seen it at its worst.

In this new case, removed from East Berlin, we learn more of the ways in which the Stasi affect so many aspects of society but driving this excellent novel on is the mystery itself. Ultimately, this is a novel about child snatching and that is something that goes beyond politics. But while there are themes here that affect people wherever they are from, in whatever period, East Germany in the mid 1970s is not a place that can be disentangled from its government, just as it cannot forget its past and the legacy of war and defeat.

Stasi Wolf is utterly steeped in atmosphere. Even when its weather is hot, the story still chills, the menace remains sinister. David Young immerses us in its time and place but the characterisation is equally successful. Karin Müller stands out but there are others, too, that you won’t forget. Müller’s personal life is an important feature of this novel and it winds through the story, adding further mystery. Pieces of narrative move between the past and present, hinting at other troubled lives. It is totally gripping. This is not a novel that’s easy to put down, and its conclusion will have you on the edge of your seat.

Stasi Wolf is a hugely accomplished novel, scoring high as both historical fiction and crime fiction. I love both genres and so I couldn’t have been more entertained by it. This is a series with legs and we’re very lucky to have it.

You can read another review at Novel Heights.

Corpus by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2017 (26 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Corpus by Rory ClementsIt is the end of November in 1936 and the people of Britain are being kept in ignorance about the crisis facing the country’s monarchy. But all is about to be revealed, thanks to the independent America press and King Edward VIII himself who is determined to put life with the woman he loves above duty to his country. The upper reaches of society and government are in turmoil and matters aren’t helped by the conflict between fascist and communist which has spread beyond Germany to Spain and elsewhere, including Britain. It’s the time of rallies and demonstrations, calls to arms, idealism and cynicism, spies and treachery. The time is ripe for murder.

Professor Tom Wilde teaches history at Cambridge University. His specialism is Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster who was responsible for bringing about the fall of Elizabeth’s greatest rival, Mary Queen of Scots. Wilde knows better than most the potential dangers of the time in which he finds himself living. His students are divided between the left and the right. He can only urge them to consider the significance of evidence and prejudice in our understanding of the past and the present.

Wilde himself will need all his skill to help Lydia, the young poet who lives next door to him. Her schoolfriend Nancy has suddenly died, apparently of a heroin overdose, and then the parents of another friend have been found butchered in their home. When other individuals emerge with an interest in the murders, Wilde searches for connections and these take him into the dangerous and dark heart of Europe’s turmoil in these grim cold days of the winter of 1936.

Rory Clements is familiar to many for his wonderful Elizabethan mystery series featuring the spy John Shakespeare, last seen in Holy Spy. In many ways, Corpus would seem to be entirely different but it is a stroke of genius to create a new character, Tom Wilde, who is so fascinated by and knowledgeable in John Shakespeare’s world, who demonstrates the constant timeless themes of history which endlessly recur. The events of 1936 are relevant to the 1580s just as they are also relevant to today. This perspective illuminates Corpus and adds such depth to its events and attitudes. Rory Clements is a fine writer of such clever novels and in Tom Wilde he has created a character to do him proud, every bit as much as John Shakespeare.

You need to have your wits about you when you read Corpus. This is a very clever book, rich in intrigue and deceptions, with an army of characters to keep track of. I had to do a fair amount of looking backwards into the novel to remember who certain people were, particularly during the early part of the book as we move from one location to another – Cambridge University, country homes, London hotels and more. But all becomes much clearer as the novel continues and the rewards for the reader’s attention are high.

The storyline is marvellous! Its complexity is very satisfying to unravel and it captures so much of the sinister world of 1936 Europe. Hitler and Stalin walk in the shadows of this novel. Their reach is almost limitless and for many in this book their appeal is intoxicating and powerful. But the novel never forgets how much is at stake – there are frequent reminders of the bloody war in Spain, the King’s abdication promises chaos in Britain and the violence of the novel increases as several of the characters emerge from their disguises. There is a social divide here, too, with many types of people represented – the upper classes, politicians, immigrants, academics, miners – but some things unite them, including murder.

Rory Clements writes as brilliantly as he plots and this is a novel steeped in atmosphere, menace and history. The fact that we know what happened after 1936 adds a certain tension and also means that we know how believable and plausible the events described here are.

If I had to find fault with Corpus, I’d be out of luck. This is a standout historical novel and a gripping spy thriller. Clearly Rory Clements can turn his attention to any period of history he likes and in it he will find gold.

Other review
Holy Spy

The Last Days of Leda Grey by Essie Fox

Orion | 2016 | 279p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Days of Leda Grey by Essie FoxDuring one of those endlessly hot days of 1976, journalist Ed Peters discovers the Edwardian photograph of a beautiful young girl in a seaside town junk shop. Ed is immediately captivated by her face and learns that she lives nearby in White Cliff House. Her name is Leda Grey and she was once an actress, and the house was owned many years ago by Charles Beauvois, a director of silent films. Ed is desperate to learn more about the life of this woman, not seen for decades, and so he visits White Cliff House determined to win Leda Grey’s trust and hear her story which, he is sure, will bring a lost silver age to life.

Leda Grey and her house, decaying, unlit, perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, bewitch Ed Peters. Despite her years, Leda Grey still evokes the artistry and wonder of those days of silent movies and her house is full of reminders of those days and of the films that she made with Charles Beauvois. As Ed watches the films, winding the handle of the ancient projector, and reads Leda’s memoirs, her Mirrors, she and Ed relive those years long ago when one day Leda could be Lady Macbeth and on another she could be Cleopatra wearing a crown of snakes.

Leda Grey is the mistress of playing femme fatales roles and this air of doom and tragedy gently breathes through the pages of The Last Days of Leda Grey. The very title is laden with foreboding and the novel’s opening page declares that death should be expected. Ed Peters, one feels, is a lonely, searching individual, his yearning for something inexplicable enhanced by the summer’s sleepy heat. He is ready to be enchanted by Leda Grey and so he is and the story she tells doesn’t disappoint.

The novel moves between Ed’s experiences at White Cliff House and the retelling of the past thanks to Leda Grey’s Mirrors. The title of the memoirs is apt because mirrors, reflections and lights play an important role in the novel, all hinting at the trickery of film-making, as well as self-deception, a lack of knowledge and lies. As Ed Peters tries to understand he becomes increasingly knotted in the events of the past and the atmosphere of the novel grows more and more heavy with danger, mystery and sin.

The Last Days of Leda Grey is an intoxicating, bewitching sometimes sinister read. Essie Fox writes beautifully and immerses her reader in the story, which is often theatrical, sometimes sexual and increasingly disturbing. At times I found its atmosphere a little too heavy for comfort and I welcomed brief breaks to clear my head but I was soon ready to immerse myself once more. The Last Days of Leda Grey is a relatively short read, perfectly suited for a long winter’s evening, but the impression it leaves is much more lasting.

Thin Air by Michelle Paver

Thin Air | Michelle Paver | 2016 (6 October) | Orion | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

Thin Air by Michelle PaverIt is 1935 and Dr Stephen Pearce is medic on a five-man expedition that aims to climb and conquer the Himalayan mountain of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. He is the last-minute replacement doctor, doing his older brother Kits, also on the expedition, a favour. Shortly before they set off, the team attend a party at the home of Charles Tennant, one of only two survivors of another expedition that tried and failed, so spectacularly, to claim the mountain’s peak in 1906. Tennant, now old, his feet amputated after that awful climb, refuses to see anyone – but Pearce stumbles by mistake into his rooms and hears more than enough to fill his heart with dread at the thought of the trial to come.

And so we venture onto the mountain in the last few days before the monsoon season closes it to all climbers. The men, along with their small army of porters, follow the trail of that earlier Lyell expedition up the mountain, pitching camps where they had also pitched, Kangchenjunga looming above them, the ice closing in. At first all goes well, spirits kept high not least because of the dog that adopted Pearce in the foothills and has now become a member of the team in his own right. But the discovery of cairns, the final resting places for the Lyell’s expedition dead, changes the mood, especially when Pearce realises that not all of the dead were given a grave in which to rest in peace.

Michelle Paver’s earlier novel Dark Matter continues to be one of my favourite horror novels, a ghost story set in the frozen Arctic which terrified me. It takes quite a lot for a novel to frighten me, generally only ghost stories succeed and then not all of the time, but Michelle Paver knows just which way to do it. There are similarities between the two novels. Thin Air also takes place in a frozen, perilous environment and is set in the 1930s. Only a few characters are involved, adding to the mood of isolation, lonely dread, even the fear of madness. But Thin Air is no imitation. It is every bit as good as Dark Matter, every bit as frightening. I read the second half late at night by lamplight. Perfect.

The story is told to us by Stephen Pearce himself, a man of science but filled with curiosity about the doomed Lyell expedition – although not as much as his brother Kits who is almost obsessed by it. In a way, Stephen is the last man on the expedition that you’d expect to become so haunted during those days and long nights on the avalanche-swept mountain but this is an environment that promises the unexpected.

There is another side to the novel that is also fascinating – the relationship between the British climbers and the sherpas and porters that do their bidding. Barefooted, the Sherpas are only offered boots when they are too far up the mountain to disappear. There is ingrained racism, suspicion and utter dependence. But there is a religious side to it as well. Pearce hates the mythology and superstition with which the locals have surrounded this mountain but Pearce is a man about to change.

The relationships between the five-man team, plus the dog, are beautifully treated by Michelle Paver. The brotherly relationship between Stephen and Kits is just one part of this.

Thin Air is a short novel – I read it in two sittings over one day – but it is long enough for the reader to wallow in its chilly darkness. It is rich in atmosphere, the environment stunningly described. Kangchenjunga is a formidable character in its own right and it is a deadly one. But it is also such a satisfying ghost story, so perfect for these darker evenings, and it is wrapped within a beautifully told and sad tale. Thin Air succeeds as an excellent ghost story and horror novel but it is also a wonderful piece of historical fiction and I thoroughly recommend it.

Other review
Dark Matter

The Secret Wife by Gill Paul

The Secret Wife | Gill Paul | 2016 (25 August) | Avon | 404p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Secret Wife by Gill PaulIn 1914, not long after the start of World War I, cavalry officer Dimitri Malama is injured on the Russian-German front. He is sent to a hospital close to St Petersburg to recover, but this is no ordinary hospital. The rooms of the summer palace of the Tsars, the Catherine Palace, have been converted into wards for officers and one of Dimitri’s nurses is Nurse Romanov Three, otherwise known as Her Imperial Highness, Grand Duchess Tatiana, the second daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. Tatiana is no stranger to Dimitri. He is of aristocratic birth and before the war he had been one of the royal family’s imperial guard, keeping a respectful distance. But these new circumstances change everything and Tatiana and Dimtri fall in love.

From that moment on, everything changes for Dimitri. Through war and revolution, Dimitri will do all he can to love and protect Tatiana as her status is reduced radically from princess to prisoner, the threat against the imperial family increasing almost daily as they are moved around this immense nation, the chains tightening little by little.

In the present day, Kitty Fisher escapes a personal crisis in London by fleeing to a remote cabin in the Lake Akanabee, New York State, which had been left to her by a great grandfather she had never known. His only surviving relation, she becomes absorbed by his story, especially after she finds a valuable and tantalising piece of jewellery lost beneath the cabin’s front steps.

The Secret Wife moves between the stories of Dimitri and Kitty, both of which illuminate this great love of Dimitri’s life, a love that haunted his entire existence. It’s not difficult to understand why Kitty should become so consumed by it because this novel absolutely enthralled this reader at least with its emotional and powerful story of love and loss.

The tragic story of the Tsar and his family is well-known but its power to shock, as well as fascinate, continues and Gill Paul makes excellent use of her sources to present the full horror of events, while still reminding us, albeit gently, of the appalling conditions faced by ordinary Russians (and Russian soldiers) under Romanov rule. But the emphasis throughout is on the love affair between Dimitri and Tatiana, mostly focusing on Dimitri as he is forced to make choices that he knows he may live to regret. At times Dimitri is ruthless, knowingly so, in direct contrast to the purity of his love, and there are a few moments that demonstrate that there is nothing he won’t do for Tatiana.

We know Tatiana relatively little but Dimitri is not always an easy man to like. But he doesn’t want to be liked. He wants to save Tatiana and her family. Gill Paul cleverly, without filter, shows the results of this tunnel vision on the lives and feelings of the people around Dimitri.

I was completely engrossed in The Secret Wife, as a thoroughly entertaining historical novel and for its love story. There are so many emotions on display here and it’s hard not to be moved as history overtakes love. The book skilfully combines fact with fiction. I didn’t fall for Kitty Fisher’s story particularly but it played a relatively minor part in the novel’s structure and worked well as a device to bring the story up to the present day. It was the story of Tatiana and Dimitri that captivated me and ensured that I finished the novel in one glorious day’s reading.

Other post
Guest post – Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’

No Man’s Land by Simon Tolkien

No Man’s Land | Simon Tolkien | 2016 | HarperCollins | 566p | Review copy | Buy the book

No Man's Land by Simon TolkienIt’s hard to imagine a more appropriate date to post a review of No Man’s Land than today, 1 July 2016, the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, which forms the powerful, overwhelming heart of this wonderful novel.

In the first years of the 20th century, Adam Raine struggles to thrive in the face of poverty, reinforced by tragedy. He experiences London at its worst, and is even threatened by its worst as the workhouse beckons from the shadows. Adam and his politically militant father have no choice but to head for the pit village of Scarsdale in Yorkshire where they have relations among the oppressed miners. Adam is an intelligent young man and his father is determined that he should have every chance – under the sky and not in the lethal depths of the pit. But yet again the fates conspire against Adam, marking him always as an outsider. Later, when Adam finally feels hope on earning his scholarship to Oxford, it is to be short lived. It is 1914 and England is at war and nothing will ever be the same again.

It’s as if everything in Adam’s life is leading up to the Somme in July 2016. His friendships with the young miners, as well as with the son of the pit owner who lives in the big house, lead up to their dependence on each other in the trenches, resulting so many times in grief and pain. So few who go over the top will survive, or at least emerge unscathed in body and mind. But it also affects Adam’s great love. He fell in love at first sight with Miriam, the village parson’s daughter, but is that relationship able to withstand the trauma of war, especially with the pit owner’s youngest son Brice so ready to snatch the prize?

No Man’s Land is a substantial novel and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Big themes and big emotions are served best by a novel that the reader can immerse themselves in over several days and there is a lot going on here. It features several distinct sections, although these can really be abbreviated to before the war and during the war. The Adam who fights in the trenches has very little in common with his earlier self but that doesn’t mean that his life before the war was drama-free. The sections inside the pit are as powerful as anything that follows during the war sections.

The writing is beautiful, sometimes deceptively simple and, as a result, packing an emotional punch of some size. I cried several times reading this, twice even while on the bus, and not all of those tears fell during the war sections. Great grief is experienced and expressed. The support,physical as well as emotional, of comrades is life-changing. And then there’s the horror of trench warfare and how utterly diabolical that is and we’re spared none of it. We get a tiny glimpse of the unbelievable stress and fear and it brings us so close to Adam and his brothers-in-arms.

I didn’t get along so well with the chapters that deal with the love affair between Adam and Miriam, nor did I care as much for the rivalry between Adam and the odious Brice. These chapters felt conventional and out of place when compared to the rest of the book and the characters of Miriam and Brice (and the dastardly footman) seemed two-dimensional in comparison to Adam, his father, the miners and their families, and Adam’s comrades. There are so many individual stories in these pages, families and people changed by events in the mine or in the trenches. They are all so memorable and colourful, at times heartbreakingly sad, occasionally amusing, but all very real. I much preferred the time spent on these people, their stories and their role in Adam’s changing character.

I love a grand saga that immerses me in the lives of people, their families and a community. No Man’s Land brings these together perfectly against a background of pitiless war and the injustice, hardship and cruelty of mining during the early 20th century. We spend time on the front and down the pit but contrasting with it always are memories of life continuing above ground or in the relative safety of the British countryside. These memories taunt the men that suffer but how they comfort them as well. Interestingly and movingly, there are occasional references in the novel to future events, informing us that Adam will look back on this time when he’s in France.

No Man’s Land has such a power to it and despite its themes and darkness is always such a pleasure to read, the pages turning themselves. It brings the events and sacrifice of 100 years ago to the forefront of our minds and straight to our hearts and reminds us that we must never forget.