Tag Archives: World War Two

Nucleus by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2018 (25 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nucleus by Rory ClementsIt is the summer of 1939 and, although nobody leaves home without their gas mask, England is carrying on as normal. A more immediate threat comes from the IRA which has begun a bombing terror campaign. But events in Europe cannot be ignored indefinitely and world powers – especially America, Germany and Britain – are well aware that in the war that is to come the atom bomb, if such a thing can be created, will be critical for victory. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in England has been a centre for scientific discovery and innovation and it is close to a breakthrough. America knows this and so too does Germany. When one of its scientists is murdered and another one disappears, Tom Wilde (a Cambridge professor but an American citizen) becomes caught up in the investigations.

Tom has been instructed by the American government to spy on the inhabitants of a local grand house, Hawksmere Old Hall, including a scientist (and an old friend of Tom’s) Geoff Lancing and Geoff’s sister Clarissa, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and famous film actresses. Meanwhile Tom’s love Lydia has gone into the lion’s den itself – Berlin. A German Jewish scientist and his family has been smuggled out of Germany but a child has been stolen, presumably for blackmail to make the scientist return. Lydia is determined to find him. But this is a conspiracy that stretches across continents and oceans and both Lydia and Tom are soon out of their depth. As Europe hurtles ever closer to war, the stakes couldn’t be higher, the danger to Tom and Lydia more certain.

Nucleus follows on from Corpus, the first novel to feature Tom Wilde. Before this, author Rory Clements was better known for his Elizabethan spy series but Corpus and now Nucleus demonstrate that he is a master of the spy novel whatever the period in which it’s set. Pleasingly, Tom Wilde is a professor of history, especially of the Elizabethan spymaster Walsingham and I love the way in which these two periods of history 350 years apart are shown to share similarities. Tom has his own spymaster to deal with as well as serious issues of who he can trust – it’s difficult to see the truth when you can only glimpse a small part of the bigger picture.

The plotting is superb and deliciously intricate. You do need to keep your wits about you and keep alert and the rewards are enormous. I was thoroughly immersed in the plot and caught up in the tension. The scenes in Germany are especially intense and I found them terrifying. There is one moment in this novel when I actually gasped and had to put the book down. I even flicked through a few pages to find resolution, I couldn’t deal with what I’d ‘heard’.

I love the portrayal of England during 1939. The Old House is a symbol of decadence and the old way of living, one that will shortly be made irrelevant. Lydia is arguably the most appealing and interesting of all of the characters in the novel. It’s good to read a spy novel in which women play an equal role, although if you’re after glamour you’ll certainly find it in Clarissa.

Rory Clements has created two fine characters with Tom and Lydia and he deploys them with cleverness and skill. There’s an air of intellectualism about these novels – as there would be with a professor for the central character – but there are no ivory towers here. The world is waking up to a second world war and Tom will have to get his hands dirty. I loved Corpus. Published in January 2017, it opened up the year’s reading in fine fashion and Nucleus has done exactly the same in 2018. With no doubt at all, this is one of the best historical and spy series being written today. I can’t wait for more.

Other review
Holy Spy


Munich by Robert Harris

Hutchinson | 2017 (21 September) | 342p | Review book | Buy the bookMunich by Robert Harris

It is September 1938 and Europe hovers on the brink of war. Hitler is just hours from invading Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has achieved the almost impossible – a last-minute conference in Munich with Hitler and Mussolini. Behind the scenes, diplomats, politicians and spies step up their work. Germany is not as behind their leader as he might think. The stakes are high but there are conspirators high in the German ranks who need to manipulate events to suit their own dangerous agenda.

Hugh Legate is one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries. His knowledge of German makes him invaluable in these delicate negotiations. Paul Hartmann is a German diplomat and one of the anti-Hitler conspirators. These two men were close friends at Oxford University years before. They might not have seen each for years but they trust one another, a fact that will be exploited. It is imperative to many that both men are among the entourages brought together in Munich. And so, as Chamberlain labours to achieve ‘peace in our time’, he has no idea what else is going on behind the scenes. But how far are Legate and Hartmann prepared to go?

With Munich, Robert Harris proves yet again, as if more proof were needed, that he is one of the finest writers of historical and contemporary thrillers you can read, if not the very best. The ingenious Conclave was my favourite novel of last year, Dictator (completing Harris’s superb series about Cicero) was one of my top three books of 2015, and Pompeii is, I think, my favourite historical novel of all time. These are impressive credentials and yet Robert Harris never fails to amaze me with the breadth of his novels’ subjects and the sheer quality of their execution.

As before, with Munich Harris doesn’t go for the obvious. Instead of focusing on 1939 and the actual outbreak of war he takes us to the previous year and into the painfully tense conference room of Munich, via Chamberlain’s flight from London and Hitler’s train journey from Berlin. This is reminiscent of the worried claustrophobia of Conclave – the idea that something is going on behind closed doors that will affect the whole world and yet, for the moment, is utterly secret and confined. There is a ritual to the drama. It’s quietly spoken. There is etiquette. And yet this is all skin deep, as we are reminded by the unwelcome presence in Munich of the despised Czechoslovakian representatives. The brutality of the Nazi regime lurks in dark corners and it oppresses the mood.

Munich is exquisitely written. The prose perfectly paints the London offices, the train, the plane, the Munich conference hotel. We watch the people move through them, men and women, in possession of secrets, weighed down by their responsibilities. This is particularly evident in Legate and Hartmann, who have to make some serious decisions about everything that matters to them, especially Hartmann, but it also shows in Neville Chamberlain. Harris provides a fascinating reinterpretation of Chamberlain’s character. It looks kindly on him. The stress is clearly shattering the man. Chamberlain remembers World War I. He has to do everything to avoid a repeat, even accept Hitler’s lies.

Munich is a relatively short novel and not a page of it is wasted. History tells us how all this was to turn out but this in no way damages the impact of the book, which is increasingly tense and dramatic as you realise how differently events could have unfolded. It also reminds us of history’s warning – and relevance – to the present day. There is a play-like feel to the novel’s structure as we move from room to room, or from vehicle to vehicle. Its dialogue is of paramount importance. Every uttered word must be studied for its hidden intention – the world’s future is at stake.

With no doubt at all, Munich will feature in my top ten list of the year and will be a contender for my favourite novel of 2017. It is a privilege and joy to read a new novel by Robert Harris. I’ve loved everything he’s written and I have no doubt that I will continue to do so. His novels are impeccable.

Other reviews
An Officer and a Spy

The Returning Tide by Liz Fenwick

Orion | 2017 | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Returning Tide by Liz FenwickIt is the summer of 2015 and a family is gathering in the beautiful Cornish village of Mawnan Smith to celebrate the marriage of young Peta. It will take place at Windward, the home of Peta’s grandmother, Elle. Windward holds many memories for Elle, especially now, because it was here, seventy years before, that another wedding took place and it changed her entire life. There is nothing she can to do to prevent the rush of memories. Ghosts walk everywhere.

Meanwhile, across the ocean in Cape Cod, Lara’s great grandfather is reaching the end of his days. As Lara holds his hand through those last moments, he utters one final word: ‘Adele’. Lara has never heard the name before and is surprised that his dying breath should be spent on a woman other than Amelia, his much mourned English wife who had died many years before. He never remarried. Only too happy to run away from problems in her own life, Lara leaves the Cape to spend time with a family friend on the Cornish coast, an area which held special meaning for her great grandfather and Amelia. Lara is determined to discover the identity of Adele and to learn more about those months when her great grandfather was stationed in Cornwall during the Second World War. The past is about to come to life.

I’m the first to admit that The Returning Tide is not my usual type of read but this was one of those occasions on which I read a synopsis of a novel and I knew instantly that I had to read it. The first reason is its movement between two periods of time – World War II and the present day, and the long-term effect of that war on the people we meet in this book. Secondly, it is largely set in my favourite place on the planet – Cornwall, particularly the bit around Helford, which I visit every year and to which, one of these days, I dream of retiring. Thirdly, I love family sagas, especially those which move through the wars of the 20th century. So, I picked up The Returning Tide and hardly put it down again until it was finished the next day. I fell in love with it instantly.

Liz Fenwick writes exquisitely. She poured me into the lives of these people, the generations of families and friends, and made me care deeply for them, even the present-day youngsters. Our main characters, Elle and Lara, are easy to like and Elle in particular is a compelling personality as she undergoes the trauma of reliving painful memories. It’s through Elle that we revisit the past and begin to understand her relationship with her twin sister. There is a real sense of carpe diem amongst these young people during the Second World War. Time is short, quite literally for some of their male friends. Elle is a Wren, deciphering telegraph messages, and she has to listen in to such things that they will colour her life. Elle is altered completely by the war, and so too is her sister.

The detail of these historical sections is marvellous. I’ve always been interested in the history of Cornwall during World War II, you can see the evidence of it everywhere, from wartime structures to gravestones that speak of great personal tragedy. The Returning Tide brings the past vividly to the fore but does it in such an evocative and moving way. Through tales of love and loss.

The novel is divided between the past and the present and, while the sections in the past were my favourite, I was also engrossed by the modern chapters, largely due to the forceful personality of Elle. Elle unites the novel in wonderful ways. She made me cry and smile.

There is great sadness in The Returning Tide, but it’s inviting. I wanted to read it with chocolate and red wine. It was hugely comforting despite the tears. Because it’s also a story about love and it is very tender, especially in its treatment of Elle’s grandson Jack.

The Returning Tide is a beautiful novel in so many ways, from its gorgeous locations and its characters, to its prose and its spirit. Liz Fenwick is a wonderful storyteller. For a few hours she transported me away to somewhere else entirely. I could almost feel the Cornish sea air brushing against my face.

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

Doubleday | 2017 | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dangerous Crossing by Rachel RhysIt is the summer of 1939 and Lily Shepherd is escaping her tedious life in London for a new beginning in Australia. The new rich of Australia are desperate for servants and no-one is more sought after than a young British woman. With her fare fully paid by the government, Lily boards the ocean liner Orontes, which sets sail from England on a month-long voyage to Sydney. Lily’s eyes are to be opened as never before. Although she travels in tourist class with other young women who are travelling for similar reasons, Lily finds herself mixing with first class passengers who are also on the look out for something – excitement, an escape. Always conscious that when they arrive in Australia, these would be the people she serves, Lily is captivated by her new rich, glamorous, hedonistic friends – Max and Eliza Campbell.

But Lily has also caught the eye of others – the quiet and flirtatious Edward and the loud and fascist George. Both men compete for Lily’s attention, while watched on by the decadent Eliza and Lily’s cabin-mate Ida, a serious and earnest young woman who appears to judge Lily for every thing that she does.

At sea, with only brief stops on land along the way, the passengers of Orontes have been separated from the world outside and it is a world in which the lights are going out – war with Germany is close, Chamberlain is conducting last minute talks with Hitler for peace, people aboard hope for the best but some fear the worst. The passengers include Jewish refugees and a large group of Italians. On board ship politics are kept at bay but most, especially George, already view these people as the enemy. And when she befriends a young Jewish woman, Lily is given a glimpse of the horrors that some have already experienced in Europe. Unfortunately, the ship cannot keep all of these horrors at bay. Not everyone who embarked in England will survive the voyage.

It might be early in the year but I already know that A Dangerous Crossing will be a key read of 2017 for me. It is sensational. I was engrossed from the very first enigmatic chapter and I stayed hooked until the end. I grabbed every spare moment to read it and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

The wonderful Hb cover!

The writing is absolutely stunning. Rachel Rhys seemingly effortlessly carries us back to 1939, a world in some ways still innocent and yet poised on the edge of blackness. Life aboard the Orontes, with its galas, dinners, parties and gossiping on deck, is brilliantly portrayed, as are the descriptions of the excursions that the passengers undertake, in such inviting places as Naples, the Pyramids and Ceylon. It’s a terrific blend of claustrophobic life aboard the ship and then the excitement of experiencing new places, the heat intensifying as the ship voyages southwards.

But the appeal of A Dangerous Crossing doesn’t just lie in its locations and historical detail but also in the passengers themselves. Lily is a wonderful companion and like so many of the other people that we meet she has a past to run from. Eliza and Max are an extraordinary couple, with a depth to them that you would never have guessed at the beginning. As the voyage continues we learn more and more about all of these people as they are forced into ever closer intimacy. At times, the revelations are beautifully touching and emotional, at times tragic. We are brought so close to it all.

It feels like these are the dying days of the old world and George in particular exhibits some shocking behaviour, especially towards local people on the excursions. But there is also a sense that the behaviour of socialites such as Eliza also belong to another time and maybe the future belongs to young women such as Lily who are escaping the past to start afresh, independent. A Dangerous Crossing does contain a mystery but it actually contains lots of mysteries, all of them engrossing and intriguing. There is so much more to this novel than you might initially think.

The story is captivating, the writing enchanting – and what a spectacular cover. A Dangerous Crossing is a triumph. Rachel Rhys is the penname of Tammy Cohen, whose unusual and original thriller When She Was Bad was such a highlight of 2016. How Tammy/Rachel can write! I have no doubt that A Dangerous Crossing will feature in my top books of 2017 post – it’s that good. I’m so excited to think where Tammy/Rachel will head next – I do know it will be wonderful.

Other review
Writing as Tammy Cohen: When She Was Bad

The Constant Soldier by William Ryan

The Constant Soldier | William Ryan | 2016, Pb 2017 | Mantle | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Constant Soldier PbIt is 1944 and soldier Paul Brandt has returned home to Germany from the Eastern Front. He is not the man he was before and not just physically. Brandt’s obvious life-changing wounds only hint at the deeper psychological damage and shame that the war in Russia has left him with. His home village isn’t what it was either. It lives under the shadow of a luxurious hut where the SS officers from the nearby concentration camp get their R&R. Waited on hand and foot, they are in need of a steward and Brandt, no longer any other use to the army, is perfect for the task. Not that Brandt wants the job but on his return to the village he glimpsed one of the hut’s female slaves, still somehow clinging on to life, and he recognised her in an instant.

Meanwhile, the Russian front is coming closer and helping to push it on is a young Russian woman, a tank driver.

The Constant Soldier is an immensely powerful, emotionally charged, beautifully written novel. In these final months of the Second World War, we’re shown the impact of five years of war, and longer of fascism, on a small community that knows only too well what will happen when the Russians finally arrive. The village itself is depleted of everyone Brandt used to know who has been judged deviant by the Reich, while in the hut we see men perhaps crazed by power, others shamed by spending their war here and not fighting elsewhere. And watching closely are the female prisoners imprisoned in the bunker, let out only to slave for their masters, the hut reminding us all of what is happening in the nearby concentration camp.

The novel moves between Brandt and the others in the hut. Brandt’s feelings are easier for us to empathise with but there are portraits of other men here that are absolutely – and horrifyingly – fascinating. The commander Neumann in particular is so well painted. It’s a portrait of a man who almost knows how evil he has become and who is consciously trying to be normal – sometimes – and yet we are reminded of the personal cost he has paid. There’s no question that we sympathise with him, that would be impossible, but his character is complex and he’s hard to forget.

There are multiple tragedies in The Constant Soldier. This war, the Reich, has done its work and now the young and the old must pay the price as the Russian tanks approach and so few are left to defend the village. The focus is on a small community but we are given glimpses of the wider war through the characters’ memories. The concentration camp, though, reproaches from the shadows, barely referred to but always there.

The female prisoners are central to the story and all men are judged by how they behave to them. We are given insights into the women’s thoughts but only comparatively rarely. This is a cold, dark place. There are moments here that might make you cry, especially one moment in particular.

The Russian woman in the tank is an interesting figure, giving us a glimpse into the Russian army that we might be unfamiliar with. These sections add to the tension of the novel as the harsh early months of 1945 freeze the ground and I really enjoyed them.

The Constant Soldier is a novel in which thoughts and fears must often be silenced, kept hidden, with character slowly explored and revealed in its true nature, but during the final third of the novel there is a strong sense of all hell being let loose and these chapters are very tense indeed. While William Ryan takes us into very dark and sometimes distressing territory, there are glimpses of hope – the war will end.

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

In a Land of Paper Gods | Rebecca Mackenzie | 2016 | Tinder Press | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca MacKenzieHenrietta S. Robertson lives a childhood that is touched by magic. She spends her days in a boarding school, high on a misty, fabled mountain in China, with each part of its gardens, ravines and ponds given special names by the children, creating a remote, secret haven for the young and the imaginative, far from the world below. The children are almost all the sons and daughters of missionaries, parents who would prefer to bring the word of God to the bound feet women and their families than to care for their own children. They escort their offspring up the mountain on chairs carried by the local people and then leave them at the school, in some cases not seeing them again for years.

These are children who bridge two worlds and yet still manage to create for themselves a third. Henrietta, or Etta, has both English and Chinese names. She speaks both languages. But Etta and her friends, including Big Bum Eileen, all have something missing from their lives, not least an attachment to the world below. Led by Etta, they create a secret mystical society, a club of prophetesses, giving themselves new names and adopting mysterious powers, mixing their parents’ Christianity with the spiritualism of their home. But apart as they are, with few teachers to keep an eye on them, it isn’t long before they lose control and the resulting trauma has significant repercussions for Etta – the world she has built is about to collapse for ever. For this is 1941 and it seems that even the most remote part of China cannot escape Japan’s marching soldiers.

In a Land of Paper Gods is a compelling, captivating read. For much of it we are transported to a strange place indeed, experiencing it through the eyes and words of Etta. This is a child’s world but a child separated from her parents, living in an unusual beautiful, mystical place, surrounded by other children in a similar state, and teachers who form part of the family, despite their rules. But rules are there to be disobeyed. Visiting parents are viewed with wonder as is anybody who ventures up the mountain to the school. Mixing with Etta’s account are extracts from the diary of Muriel, one of the teachers and regarded by Etta as an aunt. It’s through Muriel that we keep our feet on the ground and realise just how far Etta and her friends have removed themselves.

This is a novel in two parts – the first two thirds take place on the mountain while, after many ominous signs, the final third throws us into the Second World War as we watch the impact of the Japanese army on the inhabitants of the school. For me, this is when In a Land of Paper Gods comes truly alive, Until then it had been a slightly remote, often humorous and charming, occasionally shocking tale of a lost children’s world. But in the final section reality hits like a hammer and I could not put it down. From that point on everything changes, reality is brutal, and now we see the past at the school in a whole new light. It is very cleverly done as well as powerful and totally gripping.

In a Land of Paper Gods is Rebecca Mackenzie’s debut novel and it’s a standout one. The author brings together two entirely separate worlds, one innocent and the other evil, and yet reveals that neither is entirely free of the other. And at its heart is the unforgettable Henrietta, a girl that we follow through it all, and she is a marvellous creation.

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

Crooked Heart | Lissa Evans | Black Swan | 2014 (Pb 2015) | 347p | Review copy | Buy the book

Crooked Heart by Lissa EvansNoel Bostock might be only ten years old but he’s lived an unusual life. An orphan, he was brought up by his strong-spirited godmother Mattie. Mattie was a suffragette and never one to obey the rules. Her disdain for authority – and education – most definitely rubbed off on her young charge as they lived their own way in Mattie’s large Hampstead house. Until Mattie began to lose her words and then her memories and finally her life. Noel was moved to the home of Uncle Geoffrey and Auntie Margery – not his relatives, but Mattie’s distant cousins – and, if war hadn’t have broken out in 1939, it’s likely that we would never have heard of Noel again. He would eventually have been squashed by this new regulated, cold life forced down on his shoulders. But war meant that Noel was evacuated to the relative safety of St Albans and it was there that he came under the care of Vee Sedge. A woman less suited to caring for a young evacuee would be difficult to imagine.

Noel continues, probably without knowing what he’s feeling, to grieve for Mattie. Vee has money problems – not to mention mother problems and son problems. When Vee decides to use Noel in her money-raising schemes she soon discovers that if anyone has the brains to make this work it’s not her, it’s Noel. And so begins the tale of an unusual partnership between two lonely people who have lost the ability to trust but aren’t going to take the world’s punches lying down.

Crooked Heart is a wonderfully fitting title for this warm, compassionate and humorous novel. In this wartime story, there is as much crookedness as there is heroism, probably much more. There is crime going on at these bombsites, the innocent are being exploited and there is no doubt that Mattie and Noel’s schemes are thoroughly dishonest, just like lots of other peoples. But there are ramifications, some good, some terrible, and it is these that shape the novel and the characters and relationship of Vee and Noel. We might not cheer on their plots and schemes but we grow to care very deeply indeed for this damaged pair of lovable rogues.

Lissa Evans’ writing is enchanting. It is deceptively light, the humour a joy but not overdone, contrasting with its moments of darkness and sadness. The character portraits are superb and not just Mattie and Noel’s. There are a host of people, villains and angels, who come and go through the pages and they all leave their mark, their own stories, their own worries, their dreams. I was particularly touched by the gently recurring theme of the suffragettes. The heroism and sisterhood of these women is a vital part of Noel’s growing up.

Noel is adorable. He might be a pain in the neck at times – and it did take me a little while to warm to him – but once the real Noel began to emerge I was completely captivated. During the second half of the novel in particular Noel comes into his own. Lissa Evans has created a treasure.

Crooked Heart is a fantastic portrait of London and its suburbs during the Blitz. You can really sense the fear as the sirens sound and men and women take their lives into their hands as they scramble through pitch black streets to safety or disaster. Putting a child into this lethal environment seems especially worrisome. But there is a strong feeling that everyone is out of their depth, not just the children. And alongside the little achievements are tragedies. Crooked Heart is an increasingly moving and intense novel that never loses its sense of humour. It is also incredibly difficult to put down. The pages fly through the fingers. Crooked Heart is an absolute delight.