Tag Archives: 20th century

‘Opening the Doors of Perception’ – Guest post by Gavin Scott, author of The Age of Exodus

Earlier this month, Titan Books published Age of Exodus by Gavin Scott. You can read my review of this excellent historical thriller here. I’m delighted to present here a guest post by Gavin Scott in which he discusses the books that inspired him the most, that liberated his imagination and opened the doors of perception.

In 1960, when I was ten years old a mysterious boy appeared at my primary school in Hull and gave me to a heavy, cloth-covered volume published by Ernest Benn and Co: The Short Stories of H.G. Wells. I cannot remember the boy’s name, and I sometimes ask myself who he really was, but it was a book that for me opened the Doors of Perception. I began with a story called The Stolen Bacillus, which starts out as a scientific thriller and ends as riotous comedy. Then I read A Deal in Ostriches and found the payoff was even funnier, which led to the delights of The Truth about Pyecraft and his extraordinary weight reduction formula. Then Jimmy Goggles the God, and the mysteries of The Moth, and on, and on… Collectively, Wells’ stories liberated my imagination, and it has never, I think, been entirely recaptured by mere everyday reality.

I discovered Jules Verne around the same time, inspired – no, desperate – to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea after seeing the Disney movie starring James Mason as the tragic, haunted Captain Nemo. At my urging my parents bought the book for me for Christmas 1960 and I remember coming down secretly to read it before it was officially handed over on Christmas Day. If Wells freed my imagination, Verne taught me how to send it racing along the great, streamlined canals of scientific research.

And then, of course, there was Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in John Murray’s evocative paperback edition, drew me into the foggy streets of 1890’s London through prose that made me feel as if Dr. Watson’s pipe-smoke was swirling hypnotically around me as I read. To science and the imagination were added the allure of mystery and detection, and I read and re-read the entire Holmes canon on the ship that took my family from England to New Zealand in 1961.

Not long after we arrived amid the fields and orchards of Hawkes Bay, the pleasures of detection were supplemented by the delights of pell-mell, helter-skelter action, as experienced in John Buchan’s great thriller, The Thirty Nine Steps. And not just action – but terrific nature writing which evoked, with great precision, the green glens of the Scottish lowlands where the chase took place. From then I traveled with Richard Hannay through the forests of Germany, the dangerous alleys of Istanbul, and the austere northern beauties of The Island of Sheep.

In 1962 at a church bazaar in the little village of Havelock North I discovered P.G. Wodehouse’s, Jeeves and Wooster stories, in those thick-paged volumes with their alluringly cartoon covers produced by Herbert Jenkins Ltd. As well as comic timing, Wodehouse not only taught me plotting – he is a master of narrative construction – but also the incredible richness of which the English language is capable. His prose incorporates the cadences of Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ethel M Dell and the British Foreign Office in a series of gloriously baroque word-cathedrals.

Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible are also to be found, of course, in the next great author into whose world I entered: J.R.R. Tolkien – together with the sturdy rhythms of Icelandic sagas and Anglo-Saxon chronicles. I found The Lord of the Rings during the early lonely weeks after I got a scholarship to a boarding school called Wanganui Collegiate, which gave me a good education in a somewhat demanding environment. Over the next three years whenever I needed to escape from it all I needed to do was open one of those volumes with Sauron’s eye staring out of the grey cover, and find myself in Middle Earth – and particularly among the wooded hills between Hobbiton and the Buckland Ferry – on a quest of my own.

The final early literary influence to whom I want to pay tribute has fallen from fashion these days, but is still, in my view a font of wisdom and insight into the human heart. I came across C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers novels when, graduating from my boarding school at 17, I volunteered for a New Zealand government program to teach English to Iban, Chinese and Malay kids in a jungle school in Sarawak. It was an extraordinary experience, but again, like Wanganui Collegiate, a demanding one, and there were times when the perfect antidote was not just to accompany Snow’s hero, Lewis Eliot on his rise through the English class system but to bask in the judicious humanity of Snow’s own wise, forgiving company.

That, I think, is what those early literary experiences inspired me to want to create – worlds, both physical and psychological, into which readers would want to enter when reality becomes just a little too much. And to which both they – and I – can return whenever we wish. That, at any rate, is what I believe lay behind the gift of the mysterious book when I was a child, and it is certainly what the Duncan Forrester adventures aspire to now.

The Age of Exodus by Gavin ScottGavin Scott’s third historical detective thriller, The Age of Exodus, was published by Titan Books on 11 September. It features Scott’s archaeologist hero Duncan Forrester, the creation of Israel, Ernest Bevin, and a Sumerian demon. With its two predecessors, The Age of Treachery and The Age of Olympus, it is available from Amazon and other outlets in paperback, on Kindle and as an audiobook, read by the author.

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The Age of Exodus by Gavin Scott

Titan Books | 2018 (21 August) | 399p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Age of Exodus by Gavin ScottIt is 1947 and for many the Second World War is not yet over. Dr Duncan Forrester, an archaeological fellow at Oxford University, rather hopes it is for him. He was a Special Operations Executive during the war, risking his life behind enemy lines. Now he wants to put all of that behind him, as well as affairs of the heart, and focus on the archaeology and linguistics of ancient Minoan society.

But then a student calls in a favour. A friend of his, Templar, now working at the Foreign Office, bought a Sumerian seal when he was based in Cairo during the war. At the time Templar thought little of it but now he is receiving anonymous and bizarre threats, demanding the return of the seal. Forrester promises to do what he can but then one night Templar is found horribly murdered in the Near Eastern galleries of the British Museum. It is almost as if a supernatural power has wreaked its vengeance on him. And Templar’s death is just the beginning.

The Age of Exodus is the third and final novel in Gavin Scott’s Duncan Forrester trilogy, set during the aftermath of World War Two. I haven’t read The Age of Treason and The Age of Olympus but I’m now determined to put that right because I thoroughly enjoyed this excellent mix of archaeological mystery and diplomacy gone awry during these difficult months and years as the world tries to make peace work. The fact that I hadn’t read the others didn’t affect my enjoyment, other than that some people were mentioned that I think familiar readers might have encountered before. There were also hints of previous events and cases but nothing that spoiled the earlier books. This is a stand alone thriller.

It’s a great story and it’s cleverly done. The menacing gods of ancient Sumer loom over events and occultists flourish in the magic and esoteric bookshops of London and further afield. It all adds such a chilling, quite frightening yet fascinating atmosphere. And the hint of the supernatural hanging over the gruesome murders is very effective. That’s one side of the book. The other takes us into the halls of diplomacy at a time when countries squabbled over the creation of an independent State of Israel for those Jews who suffered unspeakable horror. This part of the novel is compelling as we meet some of the key figures of the debate, some historical and some fictional, as the arguments move across Britain, Europe and the United States. I really enjoyed the novel’s movement and journeys. What stays with the reader, though, may well be the Jewish refugees that Forrester encounters while they wait for a vessel to sail them on that hugely risky voyage to safety. These people will never be able to leave the war behind them.

I’m hard pressed to find a fault with The Age of Exodus but if I had to find one it would be that there are an awful lot of characters who come and go through these pages. I did find it a little difficult remembering who some of these people were and I would have welcomed a list of characters at the beginning or end.

The Age of Exodus tells a fascinating tale, combining a fun archaeological mystery complete with larger than life characters with a significant historical issue and making both compelling and gripping. Duncan Forrester is a fantastic detective. He has his own inner struggles. He is both a reluctant killer and a studious academic. At times his actions surprise himself. He’s led by his heart, even as he works things out. He’s a likeable man, searching for answers in a world that’s left him a little lost. I can’t wait to read the earlier two books.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday | 2018 (6 September) | 337p | Review copy | Buy the book

Transcription by Kate AtkinsonIn 1940 Juliet Armstrong, a young woman of just 18 years old, is recruited by the secret service to monitor a group of Fifth Columnists. They regularly meet in London and are led by Godfrey Toby, a man they believe to be a Nazi spy but who is in fact working for the British secret service. It will be Juliet’s job to transcribe their bugged and recorded conversations, a task that both bores and thrills Juliet. She also wants to impress her boss, the enigmatic and curious Peregrine Gibbons. But soon Juliet is given a more active role, undercover, becoming perilously involved with the fascists she must spy upon.

In 1950 the war is long over but any hopes that Juliet might have that the past is behind her are terrifyingly crushed. The work of the secret service continues, fighting a different kind of war with a new enemy, and Juliet, now a producer working at the BBC, is about to get entangled again. She begins to see faces from the past and she knows that they are due a reckoning.

I fell in love with Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. I knew that Transcription, a novel I’ve longed to read, would be every bit as good and I was not disappointed. This is an author who writes literary fiction that is also accessible, warm and wise, witty and clever, despairing and loving – and Transcription confirms all of this. A thrilling and compelling plot is wrapped up in a time-shifting, multi-layered narrative in which Juliet’s life, and all of the people who made it what it was, is revealed before us. It demands an emotional response from the reader while at the same time he or she will marvel at just how much there is to be found in this book. It’s an extraordinary achievement for so much to be packed in to a novel shorter than 350 pages.

I’m so pleased that Kate Atkinson returned to the Second World War for Transcription. I can’t get enough of World War Two spy thrillers at the moment and so this was perfectly timed and reminded me in such a good way of the pleasure I recently had reading Our Friends in Berlin. On the surface Transcription is a fine war thriller but it also digs deeply into the motivations of people who desperately want to retain for themselves their inner beliefs. Much here is suppressed, whether it’s a political allegiances or an affair of the heart. This is a time of secrets and a time when people were paid to hunt them out.

Juliet is a wonderful main character. Her youth initially marks her out as almost naive and there’s much pleasure to be had in the chapters in which she tries to make sense of the conversations she is transcribing. These transcriptions can be found throughout the book, reinforcing the historical context of the novel while also lifting the mood. And that is arguably what the book is about – how do you transcribe people? How do you work them out when there is so much interference between you and them? For Juliet has so much more to understand than the words of Fifth Columnists.

Juliet is surrounded by a cast of fascinating characters, some larger than life, others quietly existing in the background, others whose lives are pinched out. It’s fascinating as well as tense watching these relationships work themselves out.

Kate Atkinson’s writing is so beautiful. It’s elegant and warm. It reflects how well she understands the people she has brought to life, their aspirations and their fears. And yet wit and elegance can hide something else far darker and this is shown so well in the contrast between the politeness and manners of many of the novel’s characters with the ugliness of some of their secret thoughts and the brutal actions that they can spur. This is war after all.

The novel takes place over several years, moving backwards and forwards between them, and so it pays to stay alert. This is a book that rewards the reader – there are moments here that astounded me as well as others that profoundly moved me.

Kate Atkinson is consistently one of the very finest authors around today – very clever but also accessible – and Transcription demonstrates yet again why. Don’t miss it. I must also mention that the hardback, complete with ribbon, is a thing of beauty.

Other reviews
Life After Life
A God in Ruins

The House of Shadows by Kate Williams

Orion | 2018 (26 July) | 425p | Review copy | Buy the book

The House of Shadows by Kate WilliamsThe House of Shadows is the final novel in Kate Williams’ De Witt trilogy, which follows the fortunes of a half-German and half-English family during the early years of the 20th century, through war, loss, love and scandal. As with most trilogies, you really wouldn’t want to start at the end so do read The Storms of War and The Edge of the Fall first. The review below assumes you’ve done that.

It is January 1929 and Celia De Witt and her brother Arthur have left their family country home in England and arrived in New York, a city of riches where fortunes are there for the taking. Celia has plans that could help save her family’s business – a range of convenience foods for a new class of person: independent, busy women. But Celia has more than business on her mind. She has learned that the son she thought was dead is actually alive and well in New York and the man she once loved is also in the city. Finally, Celia has the chance to put things right but there is so much at risk. So much that can go wrong. And then the Wall Street Crash happens.

I do love a good saga, particularly one set during these Downton Abbey years, and The Storms of War was a big favourite of mine in 2014. The Edge of the Fall, in my opinion, suffered because it was missing the great event that dominated the first novel, the First World War. Of course, it’s also missing here but the calamitous repercussions of that war continue to overshadow events in The House of Shadows, especially as the years pass towards World War II. The half-German heritage of the De Witts continues to mar their fortunes while also giving them a fascinating heritage. The main event of this third novel is the Wall Street Crash, which is covered really well here, but Celia is now making her way in the world, making her own choices for her future, and so she remains relatively unaffected by events. But others in her family are not so fortunate.

I have always found Celia a difficult character to warm to. Her treatment of the men who love her makes me grimace while her support for Arthur, one of the most loathsome people I can think of in fiction, is irritating, to say the least. Celia has a great deal of growing up to do but, as she tries to build bridges with her young son, it’s not clear that she’s learned her lessons. The novel’s new generation of children, Lily and Michael, are just as bad as the last one. Lily is given interludes through the novel but these can be quickly passed over.

I really enjoyed the sections set in New York City, particularly the scenes in which we meet the city’s homeless children who live in the streets and move across the city’s roofs. Celia makes a genuine connection with one of them and this relationship is my favourite of the novel. The aftermath of the Crash is also dealt with well. This is such an interesting period of history. The second half of the novel moves through the 1930s, years that present new difficulties and challenges for the De Witt family. Knowing that another war is on the way heightens the tension.

Kate Williams is a fine historian and the novel is full of historical details as we move from America to a Europe preparing for war. I love the sweep of it, the real sense that we’re witnessing history. There’s a dominating romance element to The House of Shadows which isn’t really for me (my fault and not the book’s), but Kate Williams writes delightful prose. It dances along, pausing briefly throughout to provide valued historical insight.

Other reviews
The Storms of War
The Edge of the Fall

The Love Letter by Lucinda Riley

Pan | 2018 (26 July) | 590p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Love Letter by Lucinda RileyIt is the winter of 1995 and Sir James Harrison, the most famous and respected actor of the century, dies in his London home at the age of 95. His presence was larger than life and so, in death, he leaves behind a family who miss him dreadfully, especially his granddaughter Zoe, her son Jamie, and her brother Marcus. They can hardly realise that Sir James has also left behind a secret of such a magnitude that it could strike right at the heart of the British Establishment. The powers that be will do absolutely everything in their power to prevent that happening.

Joanna Haslam is a young journalist learning the ropes at a major national newspaper. She’s given the job of covering Sir James’s funeral, an event that will bring out the rich and the famous in number, including his beautiful granddaughter Zoe, a famous actress in her own right. Joanna finds herself sitting next to an old woman, Rose, who needs her help getting back to her dishevelled flat. And it’s there that Joanna learns of a letter, the contents of which have been fought for for over seventy years. With her curiosity pricked, Joanna sets out to learn the truth about the letter, to identify the people it mentions. As far as the Establishment is concerned, this could be the last thing that Joanna ever does. And she isn’t the only innocent person who will be caught up in their urgent efforts to destroy this love letter once and for all.

I picked up The Love Letter, not only because I was intrigued by its premise, but also because I was in the mood for a grand saga of love and secrets, spies and treachery – an escapist read. At 600 pages long, The Love Letter is certainly of grand saga length and it hooked me instantly. Lucinda Riley’s lovely prose dances along. Its characters are warmly presented and developed – except for those who deserve their cold treatment – and I was soon caught up in the stories of Joanna and the hapless Marcus, in Zoe and her secret and potentially life-changing love affair, in Simon whose secrets are threatening to consume his life, and in the tale of Sir James in the past. There are so many hearts at risk of being broken in this gorgeous novel.

The novel was originally written in 1998 and published as Seeing Double in 2000. Not much was made of it then because the time was not right for it, largely, the author explains, because of Princess Diana’s death and the public perception of the monarchy and the Establishment at that time. Reading it now, it almost has the feel of historical fiction. It is a book set in the 1990s and is also a product of that time and I really, really liked that. It has a nostalgic feel to it for me – the days before mobile phones and the internet took over completely and a time when stories like this really could have happened away from the gaze of the media. Again, as the author says in the foreword, this could not happen now. And so I was very happy to lose myself in this other time, almost an alternate historical past, as we slowly watch this enormous secret unveiled. Perhaps a secret that would have less resonance now (although maybe not) but twenty years ago may have been catastrophic for society.

I was so intrigued to know what it’s all about! Lucinda Riley certainly knows how to spin a tale and to keep the reader hanging on until the very last minute. Joanna is relentless in her hunt for the truth but the ramifications of her endeavours have devastating results for so many people and this erodes Joanna’s confidence and security. I longed for it all to work out for her. Her relationships with Simon and Marcus are so absorbing to read about. We have enough pages here to know these characters deeply. I love that. And also that we can spend an equally large amount of time with Zoe. She deserves it. In some ways elements of her story are extremely topical.

Rarely have I read 600 pages so quickly – in under two days. I lapped it up and loved it. I really enjoyed all of its different locations and its huge array of characters, so many of whom have secrets. It’s such a good story and I love how Lucinda Riley tells it. The perfect holiday read.

Fatal Inheritance by Rachel Rhys

Doubleday | 2018 (26 July) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Fatal Inheritance by Rachel RhysIt is May 1948 and Eve Forrester lives an unhappy, monotonous life, trapped in marriage to Clifford, a man who does not love, who stifles his young wife. Eve knows she should be grateful. Many women lost their men during the War while, for young single women, there might not be enough men to go around. But it’s such a dull existence. And it doesn’t help that her mother seems to prefer her son-in-law to her own daughter. Then out of the blue a letter arrives from a solicitor in Cannes on the French Riviera. Guy Lester has just died and he has left Eve a bequest. Eve has no idea who Mr Lester is but in order to solve the puzzle she is asked to journey to Cannes. Clifford is too busy to go. This suits Eve perfectly.

And so begins the story of Eve Forrester’s summer stay in the Lester coastal villa. Here she rubs shoulders, not only with Lester’s suspicious family, but also with film stars, writers and artists, even exiled royalty. It’s a world away from the one Eve has left behind and it captivates her every bit as much as Fatal Inheritance seduces the reader. Reading this wonderful book on a hot summer’s day, it’s so easy to imagine this glamorous world so beautifully evoked by Rachel Rhys, you can almost smell the suntan lotion and hear the splashes in the pool. But this is no paradise. The arrival of Eve, a rival to Guy Lester’s other heirs, stirs up jealousies, bitterness and sadness. And something else, much worse than that.

There is so much to Fatal Inheritance. It has fascinating, intriguing mysteries at its heart – but its power and beauty is in the way that it brings this beautiful place to life at such a curious time in its history. The War is only recently over and it’s left its stain. It overshadows everything here. But also beyond the South of France, we’re frequently made aware of the devastating impact of the War on everybody, wherever they are.

The setting is exquisitely portrayed but so too are the people. Eve herself is the centre of the novel and she’s a wonderful person. She’s trapped by her circumstances, by the time in which she lives, but she’s so close to grabbing her independence. By contrast, her husband and mother are truly horrible… Another outstanding portrait is that of the Hollywood star, Gloria. How my heart went out to this woman. But there are many others here who sparkle or storm through the pages, including the writer Sully and the youngest Lester child, Libby. And then there’s Guy himself, the catalyst. Most characters are not straightforward, they have hidden sides to them, sad secrets in some cases, but there are a few with such a propensity for love that they make this superb novel shine.

Rachel Rhys is the pseudonym of Tammy Cohen, the author of outstanding psychological thrillers, and it’s under the guise of Rachel Rhys that she explores deeper themes in the most evocative historical settings. A Dangerous Crossing is one of my top three novels of last year and I suspect that Fatal Inheritance will occupy a similar position in 2018. This is storytelling at its very finest, so perfectly matched to our beautiful summer.

Other reviews
A Dangerous Crossing

Writing as Tammy Cohen
When She Was Bad
They All Fall Down

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