Tag Archives: 20th century

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

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Washington Square Press | 2017 (this edn 2018) | 389p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins ReidMonique Grant is a struggling magazine reporter in search of the Big Break. One day it comes to her in the most unlikely of forms. Reclusive Hollywood legend Evelyn Hugo is approaching the end of her life and now, aged almost 80, wants her story to be told for the first time and, for reasons Monique can’t fathom, she wants Monique to write it. And so, for day after day, Monique listens to this extraordinary woman tell the story of her life, a life known most of all for her seven husbands. But, as Evelyn reveals the truth about each of her marriages in turn, she also reveals the truth about her greatest love, a forbidden love, and her ambition that threatened to destroy it. Secret after secret are revealed until at last Monique knows everything.

I have heard so much recently about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo that it felt serendipitous when I shortly afterwards came across a copy by accident in a local bookshop. I’m so glad I did. Taylor Jenkins Reid has created a woman in Evelyn Hugo that I suspect will be very difficult to forget. Evelyn dominates this book, from her difficult youth and early flowering as a beauty (best known for her impressive chest!) to her emergence as a starlet, a siren and, finally, a successful, admired Hollywood icon, albeit one who is always looked down upon for her divorce rate. It’s an incredible story and we’re told it in sections which cover each of her seven husbands by turn. And what a bunch they are. This novel overflows with larger than life personalities and it all builds up to an addictive portrayal of Hollywood between the 1950s and 1980s.

I really enjoyed Taylor Jenkins Reid’s style. The novel includes snippets from gossip columns and it all builds up to demonstrate so effectively how difficult and unfair life was for a woman wanting to become a successful actress, what she must compromise to achieve it. Evelyn is ruthlessly ambitious and yet she remains likeable, especially as she becomes more self-aware, but some of the decisions she makes might make you want to hold your head in your hands and groan. I hung on to every word.

This is also a love story, beautiful at times, and love doesn’t prove easy for Evelyn Hugo and I did pity her while also wanting to shout at her. There are some gorgeously tender scenes in this book and I laughed and cried several times. Evelyn is most definitely the star which does mean that Monique’s story is underwhelming by comparison but the majority of our time is spent enjoying Evelyn’s company, being shocked by her at times while at other times loving her as so many people did through her life. Evelyn’s struggle, though, is to determine which of them love Evelyn Hugo, the screen goddess, and which love Evelyn for herself. The two do not always go together. It’s a wonderful character portrayal. And that glamour! How I loved the glamour. This wonderful book drips in jewels, gorgeous gowns, lipsticks, red carpets and kisses. Fabulous.

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2020 (23 January) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Hitler's Secret by Rory ClementsHitler’s Secret is the fourth novel in Rory Clements’ Tom Wilde historical spy thriller series. I think that this novel stands alone perhaps better than the others but I would still suggest that you read the others first. It’s certainly worth it as this is one of my most favourite series of recent years. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

It is Autumn 1941 and the war is not going well for the allies. The position of America is critical as it wavers between war and no war, with those sympathetic to fascism in powerful posts. Britain must use all means at its disposal to influence the outcome and that means spies and subterfuge. Tom Wilde, an American in England, a Professor of Elizabethan history at Cambridge University, is a man that Britain’s secret service regularly calls on and he is perfect for their latest mission. They want to send him into Berlin as an American-German industrialist with Nazi sympathies and there he must obtain a ‘package’ that must be smuggled out of Germany at all cost. There are powerful men who will do everything in their power to stop it leaving Germany and Wilde must overcome them. It’s obviously a deadly mission and life has moved on for Wilde. He’s now living with Lydia and they have a child. But he is driven to do it.

Germany is every bit as challenging as he would expect and there he meets people both charismatic and dangerous, including Anton Offerbach, Sunny Somerfeld, the widow of a German hero, Martin Boorman, Hitler’s henchman, and many others. Wilde can trust none of them although he’ll need the help of some to discover the package. And when he does everything changes. There may well be no way back for Tom Wilde.

Hitler’s Secret was a very pleasant surprise to me, to put it mildly. I had falsely assumed that this was a trilogy and that last year’s Nemesis was the third and final novel. How glad I am I was wrong. Time has moved on for Professor Wilde but, now that England is in real danger of losing a war that Tom Wilde has worked so hard to try and prevent, his services are required once more. The result is another beautifully written, extremely well-plotted spy thriller, which is tense from start to finish but is also a genuine puzzler that makes you think. Everyone in it has their own agenda, their own secrets, their own limits – how far will each go to achieve their target? This shifts constantly. People are complicated in this novel as they are in real life. It can be impossible to predict how they’ll behave when faced with certain circumstances. And this is every bit as true for Wilde as it is for other characters in the novel.

The sense of danger is palpable as Tom Wilde finds himself in disguise in the lion’s den, in Berlin itself, having meetings with some of the most important figures in Hitler’s Reich. The tension is almost overpowering, as is Tom Wild’s bravery. But Wilde is also a very clever man. Unfortunately, he is up against some of the most ruthless and determined people in Nazi Germany and it’s not long before they all want him dead and a trail of blood is left across the land. It’s compelling and riveting.

But the novel also has a great deal of heart as Wilde must reflect on what’s important to him morally and he must make decisions accordingly. Although Hitler’s Secret is the most linear and possibly the most straightforward of the four novels, it is extremely well-written, as we’d expect from master storyteller Rory Clements, and very clever, with its dark and dangerous world brilliantly depicted. Tom Wilde is an exceptional character, bridging both American and British worlds, an outsider, someone who can make himself fit almost anywhere because of his deep insight into human behaviour and his expert knowledge of the lessons that history can teach us. I adore this series, it’s always one of the reading highlights of the year and, now that I know that this is not a trilogy, I really hope there’ll be more.

Other reviews
Holy Spy
Corpus
Nucleus
Nemesis

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

Simon & Schuster | 2015 | 560p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Letters to the Lost by Iona GreyOne cold February evening, a young woman runs through the London streets, fleeing an abusive boyfriend. She has nowhere to go, she doesn’t even have shoes on her feet. Jess escapes down a small and quiet street and there she finds a house that is clearly not lived in. As Jess tries to make herself as comfortable as she can, a letter arrives in the morning post, which hints at a mystery in the past, a love affair from over seventy years before. Jess finds more letters and soon finds herself caught up in the great love affair of Stella, a clergyman’s unhappy wife, and Dan, a US bomber pilot. Jess, along with Will, a young man who enters Jess’s life, becomes obsessed with finding out who these people were while playing out her own story.

I recently read The Glittering Hour, Iona Grey’s latest novel, and I was enchanted. It is such a beautiful tale of love and loss set in the 1920s and 1930s and so, not surprisingly, I immediately sought out its predecessor, Letters to the Lost. Letters to the Lost is every bit as wonderful. It’s not quite as devastatingly sad but it is such a beautiful story and, once more, features some wonderful characters.

This time the novel is split between the present day(ish) and 1942 and 1943. The blitz is over but London and its citizens are scarred by it. With many people away fighting on the frontline in Europe and North Africa, for those left at home, this is a time of worry, of terrifying telegrams, of food shortages and sometimes even boredom as so much of life is curtailed by the restrictions, hardships and blackouts of war. This is a time of hasty marriages and Stella has made one to a clergyman with whom she must settle in a small village where her business is everybody else’s. It is a disaster from the outset and for much of the novel we feel intensely for this young wife. The romance with the bomber pilot Dan is exquisitely portrayed but it is tinged with tension, guilt and fear. So few pilots survived the war. This is a time when you had to grab what moments of happiness you can, in the face of twitching net curtains and nosey neighbours. Iona Grey captures this perfectly and I was engrossed in this gorgeous love story.

Stella and Dan’s story alternates with that of Jess and Will in the present day. For much of the time, we’re so caught up in Stella and Dan that the later story of Jess and Will plays out in its shadow but by the end it is just as compelling and the parallels between the two are cleverly made. I loved Jess, perhaps even more than Stella, and Will is an unusual young man. My heart, though, belonged to Dan.

Iona Grey writes beautifully. The words dance and dazzle across the page. Both past and present are depicted so vividly and I loved the way that the story moves between London with its bombed out churches and tea dances and the Cambridgeshire countryside with its fetes and squabbles and where tinned peaches can cause such excitement. Letters to the Lost is an enchanting, emotional read and I loved every page.

Other review
The Glittering Hour

Stasi Winter by David Young

Zaffre | 2020 (9 January) | 354p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi Winter by David YoungStasi Winter is the fifth novel by David Young to feature Major Karin Müller of East Germany’s People’s Police. While it isn’t vital that you’ve read the others in order to enjoy this fantastic novel, I think it would be an even better reading experience if you had, especially as this novel revisits characters from the first book Stasi Child. This review assumes that you’ve read Stasi Child at least.

It is the winter of 1978/79 and East Germany, along with much of northern and eastern Europe, is in the grip of a winter that people will talk about for years to come. It is East Germany’s ‘catastrophe winter’. Not surprisingly, it is particularly bad in the north and it is to Rostock, a port on the northern coast that Müller, her deputy Werner Tilsner and forensic investigator Jonas Schmidt are sent when the body of a woman is found in the ice, frozen to death. As usual, the Stasi will be keeping a close eye on the investigation and, not for the first time, Müller finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place as the Stasi continues to try and exert control and manipulate Müller and Tilsner. Müller had wanted to give it all up, and thought she had, but she is given little choice. Then, when the identity of the dead woman is uncovered, Müller realises how close to home this case is and with it comes memories of the past. Müller must make a choice and she must risk everything.

This is a fantastic series and I’ve loved it since the beginning. The murder mysteries they depict are compelling and clever but there are two main reason why I’ll never get enough of these books. Firstly, there is the character of Karin Müller. She is a fully-rounded, believable, living and breathing woman with an absolute sense of duty and justice, who has to juggle a family life with a post that is unheard of for a woman. She is unusual and exists in a man’s world. The Stasi has cost her greatly, she has witnessed the effects of what they do, she has glimpsed the attractions of the West, but Karin still believes in a communist state and upholds its values. Her conviction is tested time and time again but through Karin we are reminded of what the ideal of communism is. Karin doesn’t hate the West, quite the opposite, she enjoys watching its television (which she can do due to her privileged position) and she is attracted to elements of it, but she also understands its failings and believes that her own state, should it ever function as it should, is the answer. If only it weren’t for the Stasi…

The other main reason why I love this series so much is its portrayal of East Germany during the 1970s. I’ve always been fascinated by East Berlin and have enjoyed touring the sites and these novels recreate it before my eyes. The descriptions are engrossing, the details are meticulous. It all feels so convincing and extremely insightful. David Young knows his subject, he’s done the research, and we reap the benefits of this in his fantastic set of books. And in Stasi Winter we travel to the far north of the country and you can almost feel the cold for yourself. It’s a frontier town – Denmark is only a short distance across the sea – and life in it is extremely tough. We read that the Republic’s conscientious objectors are sent to the city to do hard manual work, that Hitler built a huge entertainment complex here, that life is so hard for the most vulnerable, for the children of so-called traitors, and how sometimes the only way to survive is to listen to the manipulative lies of the Stasi. It is all so thoroughly engrossing.

In Stasi Winter, we meet characters from Stasi Child and Irma in particular is a scene stealer. Her story is central to the novel and it’s just as tough and upsetting as it is compelling. It’s because of her that Karin must make some difficult choices. Müller’s life is being changed. Müller’s relationship with Tilsner is a complicated one, as anyone knows who’s read the books, and it is a highlight of this novel. I’ve always liked Tilsner. He’s complicated and almost impossible to trust but his relationship with Karin, one senses, is one of the best things in his life. Stasi colonel Jäger, on the other hand, is more devious than ever.

Stasi Winter is a tense and exciting thriller (which builds to an absolutely brilliant climax), set during one of the most fascinating periods and places of recent history. Everything about it appeals and David Young does his theme and subject justice. And added to it we have the story of the young woman Irma, who, not for the first time, makes Müller question everything about her life. I can’t wait to see what happens to Karin next.

Other reviews and posts
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf
A Darker State (now called Stasi State)
Stasi 77
Guest post on the historical background of Stasi 77