Tag Archives: World War Two

Liberation by Imogen Kealey

Sphere | 2020 (26 March) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Liberation by Imogen KealeyIt is 1943 and Australian Nancy Wake is ready to celebrate her marriage, in Marseilles, to Henri Fiocca, a wonderful, cultured and successful businessman. But Henri and some other guests know that Nancy is not all that she seems, that, after years of living in countries occupied by the Nazis, she is determined to kill as many of them as she can. For Nancy Wake is known by the Germans as the White Mouse, for her ability to sneak in and out where she shouldn’t, causing the maximum amount of disruption and chaos she can. There is a high price on her head.

With the marriage ceremony barely over, Nancy is again at work, delivering allied airmen to safety in the most dangerous of circumstances. But the Gestapo are becoming suspicious, particularly Major Böhm, who hauls in Henri for questioning. Nancy must flee but she is determined to return to France to continue the fight as a leader of the Maquis, which she does as a captain in the SOE. But Major Böhm will not rest in his hunt for the mouse.

If ever there was a life lived that is suitable for novelisation, it’s the life of Nancy Wake. Knowing that she really existed and that she endured all that she did, that she achieved what she did, very much in a man’s world, makes Liberation all the more irresistible. It also helps that one of the co-authors is Imogen Robertson, who is such a fine writer of historical fiction. And so I couldn’t wait to read this. Like many of us, I’m sure, I’m finding it hard to settle with a book but I found this story particularly appealing. It was good to read about a woman who overcame everything in her fight for her cause, so that life could be restored.

Nancy Wake is an extraordinary character, in fiction most certainly and one can imagine that the real Nancy might see herself here in this portrayal. She dominates the novel as we see events almost entirely from her point of view. We are always in the room with her, or in the camp in the mountains, or hiding in plain sight in a cafe, or in a town square witnessing an atrocity, or drinking with her friends, the men who would kill and die for her, and often do. Nancy is a charismatic figure but she’s also damaged, tormented by her fears for her husband and enraged by the existence of Major Böhm. She is driven by vengeance and fury, but there is self-knowledge, too. But throughout it all we know that she is a force for good. There are glimpses of kindness and warmth, and at times we feel we must weep for the sheer effort that Nancy Wake puts into every day of her life as a leader of the Resistance.

There are other characters to enjoy here, too, especially Nancy’s radioman Denden. I loved the depiction of the community of fighters camped out in the forests and mountains, ruthless but also increasingly in awe of their woman captain. They’re mostly a tight band, each with a distinct voice. But one other character who stands out is Major Böhm, the very opposite of goodness. Major Böhm is a monster. Some of the scenes with him are utterly chilling, reinforcing our solidarity with Nancy Wake, showing us brutally why she is ready to risk absolutely everything to stop him and all of the other monsters. There is so much tension, so much fear. This is not a book to put down easily.

The authors certainly know how to write intense action scenes. There are pages here that had me on the edge of my seat. It’s all very visual, very real, and we see the action unfold moment by moment. I’m not going to describe any of this. You must read it for yourself!

Liberation is a truly excellent novel, succeeding both as a wartime thriller and as a portrayal of a most astonishing and admirable woman whose life would have been so different if she had been allowed to live with the man she loved in peace. The novel also reminds us that bad times do pass, a message that I hang on to. Liberation has proved a fine companion to me over recent days and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Other review
The Paris Winter

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

The Women at Hitler’s Table by Rosella Postorino

HarperCollins | 2019 (14 November) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Women at Hitler's Table by Rosella PostorinoIt is 1943 and Rosa has fled Berlin, a city of bomb raids that reminds her of loss, to live with her parents-in-law in East Prussia. Her husband Gregor is fighting on the Russian front and her parents are dead. But Rosa finds no peace in this remote and rural part of Germany. Hitler’s hidden headquarters, the Wolfsshanze or Wolf’s Lair, is nearby and Hitler spends more and more time there, increasingly paranoid as the war begins to go badly. Ten German women are picked to serve as his food tasters, to protect Hitler from poison. Rosa is selected and there’s nothing she can do about it. Three times a day she plays a Russian roulette, eating Hitler’s food and then then forced to wait for an hour each time to ensure that she isn’t about to die. The women are virtually imprisoned, only allowed home in the evening. They’re not treated well. And so a type of solidarity slowly grows between these women. But each is so different from another. They think about everything, including the war, differently. It isn’t long before Rosa finds much more to test her than her daily fear of being poisoned to death.

The Women at Hitler’s Table (translated by Leah Janeczko) is a fascinating novel that examines the influence of Hitler on not just these women, but on all of Germany. This is increasingly a war he cannot win but he will not give in. The Wolf’s Lair feels like a den of paranoid madness, its grounds protected by wire as well as guards who are as temperamental as their master. These women live in a state of fear and it’s not just from the food. We also see the wider state of Germany as Rosa remembers her life in Berlin, her marriage. She now faces uncertainty about the fate of her husband. Hitler is a man who has sent his men to fight in the frozen East while he hides in his lair. Rosa suffers but there is another side to this book as it explores her relationship with the officer in charge of them.

Rosa’s an interesting character who is clearly at her wit’s end while trying to hold everything together and stay alive. She is difficult to warm to and the prose, which feels dispassionate, increases our distance. The sexual tension, which plays such a part of the novel, seems strange. But it’s difficult to judge anybody in this novel when they were living in such unnatural times. The line between love and murder, life and death could hardly be less thin. This does make for uncomfortable reading at times but I nevertheless found it mesmerising. It’s hard to look away.

The novel is filled with ideas and difficult questions as these women have to decide how far they will go to survive. Their feelings towards Hitler are ambivalent. They’re afraid of him but they’re working to keep him alive. As the novel goes on, Rosa has to make some choices that will stay with her for the rest of her life. She made these choices but how far was it due to Nazi pressure? And through it all, Rosa develops a relationship with food that is far from normal. At this stage of the war, many people are starving but Rosa and the others are full on Hitler’s food. But every mouth could kill. I found this such an interesting theme and it continues through the novel.

The historical setting is very well done as is the location. It feels cold, remote, hostile. There is a mood of paranoia that hangs over everyone, it even haunts Rosa’s dreams, and there is an atmosphere of distrust, the ever-present possibility of imminent potential death. Rosa and the other women don’t have normal relationships with one another. It would be impossible. Watching Rosa try to pick her way through each day, from meal to meal, is compelling. Despite the troubling subject matter, The Women at Hitler’s Table is a novel that lingers on the mind.

The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory

Lake Union | 2019 (1 August) | 395p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rabbit Girls by Anna ElloryIt is 1989 and, as the Berlin Wall falls, Miriam Winter cares for her dying father Henryk. She knows so little about him. They’ve been apart for years but now she begins to learn of his past. He cries out for someone called Frieda, while Miriam discovers an Auschwitz number tattooed on his wrist, hidden by his watch strap. While searching for further clues, Miriam finds an inmate uniform from Ravensbrück concentration camp and, sewn into its seams, are letters to Henryk written by Frieda. The letters reveal something of Frieda’s past with Henryk but they also record the truth about the ‘Rabbit Girls’, women who were mercilessly experimented upon in the camp. Miriam’s own life has stalled. She needs to escape from her own past and it is Frieda, speaking though so many years, who inspires Miriam to strive to be free.

The Rabbit Girls is largely told in Miriam’s own words and it’s her we grow to know the most. Despite the momentous events happening outside the house – the fall of the Wall – Miriam is withdrawn and consumed by her past while fearful for her father. She barely knows him but she cannot let him go. She hangs on to him, barely leaving the house. Miriam is a tormented soul and the prose reflects this. At times lyrical, at other times disjointed, it epitomises Miriam’s damaged spirit.

I think that the reader’s response to the novel will depend on his or her reaction to Miriam and her voice. To me, at times, it felt rather too ‘floaty’ and self-absorbed, and I didn’t especially warm to her. However, I did warm to Frieda, whose letters are scattered throughout the novel. Her voice is distinct, focused, coping with the most terrible cruelty, holding other people’s lives together, sometimes literally holding them up. I am relieved that the Ravensbrück scenes are confined to the letters because what happens to the Rabbit Girls is too much to deal with. It’s very upsetting as indeed it should be. But through the darkness there is a light about Frieda that inspires.

Henryk’s voice is also heard through his patchy reminiscences from his sick bed. I wasn’t totally convinced by his relationships with Frieda (or with his wife). His own experiences in Auschwitz are briefly dealt with. Again, the focus of our attention and feeling is on Frieda.

The Rabbit Girls is a moving, emotional read in some ways, especially when we come across each of Frieda’s letters. I didn’t engage as much with Miriam or Henryk, and the novel’s present day seems strangely more vague than the past it recalls, despite the events taking place in Berlin in 1989. But Frieda is not a character to forget in a hurry and her story, and that of the Rabbit Girls, serves as a vital reminder of what must never be forgotten.

The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear

Allison and Busby | 2019 (26 March) | 365p | Review copy | Buy the book

The American Agent by Jacqueline WinspearIt is September 1940 and London, as well as towns and cities across the UK, are under attack. The Blitz keeps people from their beds, cramming them into shelters and cellars for sleepless, frightening nights, while others work in the night as ambulance drivers, fire wardens, medics and so on to save lives while houses and streets burn. In the daytime, a kind of normality takes over despite the bomb damage and the grief. Men and women continue with their daily jobs, certainly very tired but determined to carry on with their lives before the ‘murder’ of bombers return. Maisie Dobbs, like so many others, knows about loss and worry as well as personal injury, but her life is full, driving a London ambulance at night alongside her closest friend, while working as a psychologist and investigator by day. Her mind, though, is very much on the people she loves at her home in Kent.

When an American war correspondent, Catherine Saxon, is found with her throat cut, it becomes the business not only of the police but also of the American Embassy. An agent there has history with Maisie and it’s her help with the case that he wants. It won’t be an easy working relationship. How can she trust anything he says? But Maisie cares deeply about this murdered young woman who once did a shift in Maisie’s ambulance as a witness to the horror that Londoners endure every single night. Churchill is desperate to get America into the war but there are many in America who want to keep her out of it, who hate the American journalists and pilots who have come to Britain to help with the war effort. While the bombs fall, Maisie realises that this could prove a most significant case and she must do everything she can to solve it.

The American Agent is the fifteenth novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s series to feature the truly wonderful Maisie Dobbs. I’m embarrassed to say that this is the first I’ve read. This is a series that has passed me by and I’m so sorry about that because I fell instantly for Maisie. The fact that I haven’t read any of the earlier books did mean that I was unfamiliar with some of the scrapes that are alluded to here, such as in wartorn Spain and in Nazi Germany, as well as some of the people who have influenced her life, one of whom plays a significant role here. But, despite that, I had no trouble immersing myself in Maisie’s world, with her close circle of family and friends, and it didn’t spoil past events for me. It made me want to go back and read them. But The American Agent stands alone very well indeed.

The Blitz setting is superbly drawn. We’re spared the blood and gore but none of the drama and the relentless fear. War has come to London. Nobody is safe. There’s a strong feeling in the novel that loved ones should be held close and protected. But how can you protect them against bombs? Some choose to send their children away to strangers in distant countries. What kind of answer is that? People are having to make difficult decisions all of the time but alongside all of that and the danger, they also have to deal with the discomfort. People have to try and sleep wherever they end up when the siren sounds. As Maisie continues her investigations, she ends up sleeping in all sorts of places, and that’s when she’s not driving her ambulance. The memory of the Great War isn’t far away and soldiers are returning from the front missing limbs, horribly scarred, just as they did in that first war. All of this is evoked with such skill and feeling by Jacqueline Winspear. There is, though, an appealing lightness to the novel, even a whimsical playfulness on occasion, but there is a darkness and sadness too and these moods complement each other perfectly.

The mystery is such an enjoyable one and I love the way in which the investigation develops. It’s all carried out politely, without great drama (the drama comes from the setting), and is revealed through Maisie’s skill at getting people to talk. We meet such fascinating people, each with their stories to tell, as the murdered woman is brought alive through their memories. I loved it. And there were tears.

The American Agent may be the first Maisie Dobbs novel I’ve read but it certainly won’t be the last. It gives us such a moving, evocative portrayal of London and Kent under attack from the Blitz in the last weeks of 1940, combined with a fascinating mystery investigated by a woman I adored. I can’t sing its praises enough.

Nemesis by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2019 (24 January) | 324p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nemesis by Rory ClementsIt’s August 1939 and the world is keeping more than one nervous eye on the aggression of Germany. Tom Wilde, an American Professor of History at Cambridge University, is on holiday in sunny France with his lover, Lydia. It’s almost as if everyone is taking a breath while they wait to see what will happen next. But the holiday comes to a sudden and difficult end when Tom is contacted by a stranger who tells him that Tom’s brilliant student Marcus Marfield, who is also a chorister with the voice of an angel, is imprisoned in a camp near the Pyrenees. Marcus had left England to join the fight against fascism in Spain but his idealism has ended in disaster. It’s a race against time for Wilde to get Marcus out of France before war is declared.

Meanwhile, the Americans are hedging their bets over whether to get involved in the conflict or not. Joe Kennedy is American ambassador to the UK. His allegiance is suspect. Spies are busier than ever, getting into position, moving their pieces, manipulating events, exposing themselves to deadly danger. The stakes have never been higher. And when a U-boat sinks a liner, full of European and American civilian passengers, in the Atlantic, the war of words explodes. The Nazis claim that Churchill blew up the ship to lure America into the war. But for those who must endure the agony of waiting to discover if their missing loved ones are drowned or saved, there is a terrible human cost to this tragedy. As for Tom Wilde, he is now in great personal danger. Keeping Marcus Mayfield safe may prove the death of him.

Nemesis completes Rory Clements’ stunning historical spy trilogy. Beginning with Corpus and continuing with Nucleus, this series is extraordinary. Although linked through the characters of Tom Wilde and Lydia, the books are each distinct and reflect on another aspect of the tense progress to war, illuminating such topics as the abdication of Edward VII and the race to achieve nuclear weapons first. Tom Wilde is a sometime reluctant spy for British and American intelligence. He knows the personal cost. Murder invariably follows. In Nemesis, Wilde once again finds himself caught up in international intrigue. Its focus this time is the devastatingly handsome, charismatic and talented Marcus Marfield – he attracts trouble. But why?

Wilde and Lydia unite all three books. If you’ve followed them from the beginning, then you’ll know how difficult their relationship has been, not to mention dangerous at times. They’re so easy to like. In these difficult days in the lead up to war, when motives exist to be distrusted, Wilde and Lydia are two people we can hang on to. We know they’re decent, caring and courageous human beings. They’re also extremely likeable as well as fascinating. Tom is an expert on the Elizabethan spymaster, Walsingham, which gives him real insight into contemporary spies. Lydia is a poet and, in many ways, at odds with the world around her. Their privileged Cambridge academic environment is a striking contrast to the rise of Nazi Germany but, as Tom Wilde knows only to well, there are many places to hide in Cambridge.

I love Rory Clements’ Elizabethan spy novels and I really like how he continues themes and ideas into this 1930s’ series. The plot of Nemesis, and the others, is complex, compelling and genius. We’re used to enigmatic figures in this series and Marcus Marfield continues the tradition. It’s difficult to tear your eyes away from the page as Tom is led on a lethal dance during some of the most tense days of the 20th century.

There’s also a personal story here and one of the most poignant threads is that to do with the sinking of the Athenia. This story alone had me on the edge of my seat. Also, one of the spymasters continues to pay a high price for his actions following an assassination attempt. And then there are those whose deaths Tom must investigate. Were they suicide or murder? If suicide, what could have driven them to such desperation? As the tanks roll into Poland, we’re shown war’s intimate, personal cost.

Rory Clements is a superb writer. His plots are second to none while his understanding of character and motive is exemplary. Nemesis is such an exciting thriller! It grips and intrigues from the very beginning, not least because the very future of the world is at stake. I can’t praise these books enough. They’re always among my top books of the year. I cannot wait to see where Rory Clements takes us next. Whether we go back to the 16th century or 20th century, or any other period of history, it will be essential reading.

Other reviews
Corpus
Nucleus
Holy Spy