Tag Archives: World War Two

Time Was by Ian McDonald

Tor | 2018 (24 April) | 144p | Review copy | Buy the book

Time Was by Ian McDonaldEmmett Leigh is a used book dealer and one day in London he finds something that catches his imagination – a love letter from one soldier to another, written during the Second World War, hidden away in a book of poetry. Emmett is determined to find out everything he can about Tom and Ben and it takes him on a trail of bookshops and collections in England and further afield. What he finds seems impossible – photos taken during other wars and times, including World War I, and Ben and Tom look no different. Emmett has to accept that these two men are time travellers, lost in time, searching for one another, using the letters in copies of this book of poetry as a map.

Time Was is a novella and, as a result, skims the surface of a story that has the most intriguing premise – lovers cast out into time by a wartime scientific experiment that went very wrong indeed. On one level, it’s a gay love story that is both touching and tragic, and on another it’s a science fiction tale of time travel and wartime experiments. Both are equally appealing but I’m not sure that the story completely makes up its mind over which way to go. It is, though, exquisitely written. Ian McDonald writes so beautifully, filling this little book with poetic prose.

I loved the setting for much of the story which is in Shingle Street, Suffolk. I love books set in places that I’m fond of and I adore this area. The author captures it perfectly and it presents such an evocative backdrop to Ben and Tom’s story. Mostly, though, this is the story of Emmett, a man who has problems in his own relationships.

I thoroughly enjoyed the way that the story ends. I can’t say that I understood it completely but I loved how the strands came together. I am a huge fan of Ian McDonald’s Luna science fiction series. I will always seek out his writing. Time Was wasn’t quite what I was expecting but it certainly resonates and it most definitely haunts.

Other reviews
Luna: New Moon
Luna: Wolf Moon

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Bloomsbury | 2008 (edn read: 2010) | 256p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie BarrowsIt is 1946 and the war is over but for many, for most even, it’s still uppermost in the mind. Juliet Ashton is a popular writer, living in London and surrounded by bomb craters. Her own home was one of many to be obliterated. She’s trying to rebuild her life. When the Times offers her space for an article about reading, Juliet wavers about how to focus it but the answer comes in the shape of Dawsey Adams of Guernsey. Dawsey has just bought a book by Charles Lamb that once belonged to Juliet, her name and old address written within. They have a mutual appreciation for Lamb but as they swap letters to and fro, Dawsey tells her about his book club, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Peel Society, which was founded quite by accident during the German occupation of the island.

As letters from other members of the society follow, Juliet knows that she must visit Guernsey, she must attend the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for herself. This is what she must write about, how reading drew people together during the darkest of times. But it isn’t long before Juliet realises that what she knows about this Society is only the half of it. The truth is astonishing.

I was so lucky to be invited to an early screening of the new movie The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society but disappointingly circumstances prevented it. It was so lovely, then, when the book turned up in my letterbox instead and last Saturday I picked it up and read it in one glorious sitting. Then, full of the mood of it, I went to see the film. I really enjoyed the film but the book…. oh, the book!

There are so many reasons why this book stole my heart and will become one of those rare lifelong favourites. The writing is utterly beautiful. This is a novel of letters, many of which are written by Juliet but not all, and they each retain the distinct personality of their author, often humorous, moving, light or shockingly dark. They are all so exquisitely written and full of life.

They tell so many stories, reflect so many relationships, such as that between Juliet and her publisher and close friend Sidney – how I loved Sidney. And I really adored how the novel moves between the trivial and the significant, the little details and the momentous moments, the comic and the deeply tragic. And we care so much because the characters are all stunningly portrayed. They are wonderfully real, whether they’re Juliet’s friends on the mainland or the members of the Society.

The story is skilfully told. We learn through the letters the truth of the German Occupation and we see its legacy, in the broken families, the damaged people and in the parentless children. This Guernsey community is putting itself back together again. Juliet arrives as an outsider but soon she is pulled into their hearts and we are pulled in alongside her.

I can’t do justice to this stunningly gorgeous, enchanting novel. I didn’t want it to end. It gives and gives. The humour is so delicious. There are some laugh aloud moments here and then there are the other moments when I cried and cried. There is nothing here that I want to give away – read it and immerse yourself in this wonderful novel.

I really enjoyed the film. Lily James is perfect as Juliet and any film with Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton is one to watch. Elizabeth couldn’t have been better cast with Jessica Brown Findlay. There are changes from the book as you’d expect and I did have to hold my tongue at certain bits of it but I loved this visualisation of Guernsey (even though I recognised it as being Clovelly!) and the historical setting is so well done. The film is true to the spirit of the novel and it did make me cry and smile, just as the book did. I’m so glad that I read the book first, though, because if I had seen this lovely film first I might not have read the book and that would not have been a good thing. It’s a short book, quickly read, so do try and fit it in as well as watching the film.

The Madonna of The Mountains by Elise Valmorbida – special post

The Madonna of the MountainsTowards the end of last month Faber & Faber published The Madonna of the Mountains, a novel by Elise Valmorbida, which is set in Italy during the 1920s and onwards and the rise of fascism, telling the story of Maria Vittoria. To celebrate the publication I’m delighted to present here a special post which includes Elise’s answers to my three questions as well as a photo or two from a wonderful night in early March when I saw Elise interviewed in such a stunning room at Liberty’s in London.Faber & Faber have published the novel in partnership with Liberty London and they were responsible from drawing on their vast array of historic designs and patterns to create the gorgeous cover for the novel But first a little of what The Madonna of the Mountains is about.

Set in the Veneto in Northern Italy and spanning nearly three decades following the First World War, The Madonna of the Mountains is a fierce, sharply observed and richly detailed account of a woman’s fight to keep her family alive and thriving – at whatever the cost.

We meet Maria in 1923 as she awaits the arrival of her husband, chosen for her by her father and miraculously neither disfigured nor damaged by the previous war. Together they start a shop and build a business and a family – but the creep of fascism casts a dark shadow, and the horrors of war, political and practical, threaten their very survival.

The Madonna of the Mountains is about what unites family and community and also what destroys them. It is about love and enmity, envy and generosity, two men, one God (and his mother) and the undying bond of a mother to her children.

Thanks very much to Elise for taking the time to answer my questions!

Liberty event March 2018What was your inspiration for the character of Maria? Did her character develop as you were writing the novel or did she stay true to how you first imagined her?

When I started work on this novel, I knew I wanted to write about the life of a woman, and I wanted to write about a woman in times of war. Not one of Mussolini’s lovers, not an aristocrat, not a leader, not a political heroine. An ordinary peasant woman. Finding out about such a person’s day-to-day life was not so easy. I started writing about a birth in a remote time and place, from the point of view of a newborn baby girl. It’s a chapter that has well and truly vanished. But it got me going, and Maria Vittoria slowly emerged from her. She doesn’t have the education or worldliness to analyse ideology, nor the heroism to overcome pragmatism. And she is of her time. The character has changed from draft to draft. She started out tougher. I grew to love her more. I have cried with her.

What is it about Italy during the 1920s and World War II that so appealed to you as a setting for your novel? Are there any other historical periods/places that appeal to you as a writer?

Many historical novelists are historians who have turned their hand to fiction, and some specialise in a favourite era. I’ve met writers who introduce themselves very specifically, say, as ‘a 1066 novelist’, or ‘a specialist in medical nostalgia’. I’m not a historian. And I don’t think of myself as a historical novelist. But I have developed a near-obsession with Italy and the early part of the 20th century. I’m sure this is because of my roots. I feel a strong sense of connection with this time and place, so familiar to me and yet actually so distant. But history repeats itself in lazy loops, and I look on fearfully now as populists and despots take hold in too many places…

Which novelists and books have inspired you?

Shakespeare inspires me above and beyond all other writers. I love the poetry of TS Eliot and Samuel Beckett’s prose and plays. I love Virginia Woolf’s wry intelligence, her soulful and poetic prose. Two slim novels that are standalone perfection: F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Annie Proulx and Michael Ondaatje sing to me.

For other stops on the blog tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Madonna blog tour

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
Corpus
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
Dictator
Conclave

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