Tag Archives: 20th century

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

V for Victory by Lissa Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews
Crooked Heart
Old Baggage

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel Gaynor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other review
With Heather Webb – Meet Me in Monaco

Island of Secrets by Rachel Rhys

Black Swan | 2020 (25 June) | 368p | Bought copy | Buy the book

It is 1957 and Iris Bailey, a talented amateur artist, is so bored of her life in Hemel Hempstead, living with her parents, working in the typing pool (where the male bosses grade the new girls’ looks out of ten) and being courted by dependable, reasonable Peter. Escape comes from an unlikely source. An old contact, Nell, a wealthy American socialite, asks Iris to come to Havana with her to draw at the wedding of her father, a famous Hollywood director.

It all seems too good to be true and, when Iris arrives in humid, overheated Cuba, she is overwhelmed – by the glamorous people at the wedding, their passions and secrets, the sights and sounds of this beautiful, vibrant, exotic place. It is indeed a playground for the very wealthy, and the poor are kept poor, but now there are the rumblings of rebellion from the hills. It’s a heady mix and Iris is intoxicated. But, as she sits and draws these charismatic, unusual people, she discovers that more than one of them has something to hide. And then they start to look at her with suspicion. That’s when she begins to feel afraid.

Islands of Secrets has broken new ground for me – it was my first audiobook! I’ve resisted the pull of audiobooks for some years but, in these days when it’s a little harder to get hold of new treebooks in shops and I seem to spend far too much time doing jigsaw puzzles, which, I have now discovered, are even more enjoyable if done while listening to a good book, the timing seems right. I picked my first audiobook well. I adore Rachel Rhys’ writing – it’s lyrical and beautiful – and the narrator Sara Alexander does it justice. Initially, as a novice, I found it a little difficult to keep track of who was who but I soon got used to it and I was thoroughly immersed in this atmospheric and engrossing tale.

As with all Rachel Rhys novels, the historical setting is gorgeously evoked, fully capturing what Havana must have been like for the very rich in the months leading up to the revolution. The reader can completely understand why Iris is so captivated by it and is so reluctant to return to her dull life in England (I did feel a little sorry for Hemel Hempstead – it faces an uphill struggle to compete with Havana). But even more beguiling than Havana is the wedding party that Iris is tasked with drawing. She is an outsider, almost paid help, but, although the novel is told from Iris’s perspective, we soon feel as the party does – that Iris is someone who draws out secrets, who can be confided in. She listens and finds herself caught up in their complicated, tangled relationships, and in their lives, especially in those of Nell and of the bride.

Island of Secrets is deliciously mysterious but it isn’t a mystery thriller. It’s a gorgeous literary novel of people and places, all beautifully created and evoked, transporting us across the ocean to the steamy, vibrant island of Cuba, which feels so alive and alters those who are fortunate to make it their playground. But, as this novel makes clear, there is a cost to pay. Island of Secrets is a wonderful novel, whether you read it or listen to it, and I heartily recommend it as I do anything that this fine author writes.

Other reviews
A Dangerous Crossing
Fatal Inheritance

Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

William Morrow | 2019 | 358p | Gift | Buy the book

Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbIn May 1955 Grace Kelly attends her first Cannes Film Festival on the French riviera. With the paparazzi hot on her trail, she takes shelter in the parfumerie of Sophie Duval. Sophie has inherited her perfume business from her father but it is a struggle to keep it afloat, and there are some who wish to buy her land, where her flowers grow and her scents are created. And there is a wealthy male friend in her life who wishes to be much more than a friend, to take her from this life. But Sophie is determined to succeed and when Grace Kelly enters her shop and falls for her perfumes, she has hope that her business can survive and that she can create her own perfumes, which will tempt a Hollywood princess.

James Henderson is a press photographer and he is on the trail of stars. When he follows Grace Kelly through the streets of Cannes, he encounters Sophie Duval and realises his life is about to change. He is there to witness the first and arranged meeting of Grace Kelly with Prince Rainier of Monaco. It seems unspectacular, uneventful to James but history is about to show James just how wrong he can be. As the preparations for the marriage of the year get underway, Sophie and James will find themselves drawn closer and closer to each other. But will their love story have the same happy ending?

I am a huge fan of Hazel Gaynor. She writes beautifully, as anyone who’s read The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter will attest, and I was drawn so strongly to Meet Me in Monaco. I have become such a reader of historical romance or ‘women’s fiction’, especially when it’s set during the 20th century and features real women that I have an interest in. Here we’re given Grace Kelly and she is captivating. Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb bring this charismatic and slightly mysterious, perhaps unknowable figure to life and I loved watching her experience Cannes and the other wonderful locations of this novel. It is fascinating to see the origins of her relationship with Rainier but I also loved all of the descriptions of Grace, her clothes, her style and her manner.

There is more to this lovely novel than Grace Kelly. At its heart is the growing romance between Sophie and James. These are very different people, one a French parfumer and the other an English newspaper photographer but there is more to both than initially meets the eye and it’s wonderful getting to know them. I enjoyed learning about Sophie’s perfume business and her relationships with her mother and father but I think James, or Jim, is my favourite character. We explore his background, his family and his friendships as well as his past. I think he’s a fantastic character.

Meet Me in Monaco is a gorgeous novel. It is filled with the glamour of Cannes and Hollywood in the 1950s, it has the intrigue of Grace Kelly’s rushed and curious romance, and it tells the involving story of Sophie and James. The pages are filled with the warmth and sunshine of the Mediterranean. I read the novel in just one day. It’s a light, enchanting read and the pages flit through the fingers.

The Deep by Alma Katsu

Bantam Press | 2020 (5 March) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Deep by Alma KatsuIt is 1916 and Annie Hebbley has just joined the ship Britannic as a nurse. This enormous ship, a sister ship to Titanic, has been drafted into war service, ferrying the injured and dying from the battlefields of southern Europe back home to Britain. This marks the start of a new life for Annie and it’s one she’s lucky to have, for Annie was a maid aboard Titanic. It was a miracle that she survived but she’s spent the time since in an asylum. But now she has hope of recovery even if it means she must return to the sea and the sea is something that both calls to Annie and terrifies her.

In a story that moves between 1912 and 1916, life aboard both grand ships is brought to life, especially on the Titanic as Annie waits upon and almost befriends some of the most famous and glamorous passengers of the Titanic, including Madeleine Astor, the scandalously young and pregnant bride of one of the richest men in America, as well as Mark Fletcher, his wife and baby, whom Annie is especially drawn to. But all is not as it seems and the mood darkens, the further the ship sails across the black, cold waters of the Atlantic. Strange things are seen, voices heard. Annie is plagued by demons on a voyage that is doomed and, as she sets sail on Britannic, she knows that they follow her still.

I am such a big fan of Alma Katsu’s The Hunger and so I couldn’t wait to read The Deep, even more so when I learned it was set aboard (and overboard) two tragic ships, Titanic and Britannic. The fate of both ships is well known and it provides the perfect subject for historical horror. It’s extremely hard to resist.

Much of the novel focuses on the doomed voyage of the Titanic and I absolutely adored the sections set aboard this ship. It’s brought to life with the most exquisite descriptions of life on board, especially for those rich enough to sail in first class. We spend time with several of the passengers, learning about their lives, fears, hopes and secrets. This is a voyage to a new life in some cases. It’s a symbolic passage for several, including Annie. The future looks wide open and optimistic as they sail to the promised land. But that’s not reckoning on the malignant and horrifying entity that haunts this ship and the people on it.

The Deep is a glamorous novel, not surprisingly because it features so many glamorous people, but it is a horror novel and there are moments in it when it does frighten. I didn’t find its horror as believable or as frightening as in The Hunger, there’s something not quite right about its reveal in my opinion, but, nevertheless, it’s a wonderfully written book and it does a brilliant job of recreating the experiences of those aboard the Titanic. The sinking scenes are fantastically done. I was glued to the page.

I think Alma Katsu is such an interesting writer and I love the ways in which she combines history with horror. The descriptions are so richly evocative of place and time and the mood is so intensely charged with atmosphere, dread and tension. I just can’t get enough of books such as this and so I long for the next.

Other review
The Hunger