Tag Archives: World War Two

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

The Age of Exodus by Gavin Scott

Titan Books | 2018 (21 August) | 399p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Age of Exodus by Gavin ScottIt is 1947 and for many the Second World War is not yet over. Dr Duncan Forrester, an archaeological fellow at Oxford University, rather hopes it is for him. He was a Special Operations Executive during the war, risking his life behind enemy lines. Now he wants to put all of that behind him, as well as affairs of the heart, and focus on the archaeology and linguistics of ancient Minoan society.

But then a student calls in a favour. A friend of his, Templar, now working at the Foreign Office, bought a Sumerian seal when he was based in Cairo during the war. At the time Templar thought little of it but now he is receiving anonymous and bizarre threats, demanding the return of the seal. Forrester promises to do what he can but then one night Templar is found horribly murdered in the Near Eastern galleries of the British Museum. It is almost as if a supernatural power has wreaked its vengeance on him. And Templar’s death is just the beginning.

The Age of Exodus is the third and final novel in Gavin Scott’s Duncan Forrester trilogy, set during the aftermath of World War Two. I haven’t read The Age of Treason and The Age of Olympus but I’m now determined to put that right because I thoroughly enjoyed this excellent mix of archaeological mystery and diplomacy gone awry during these difficult months and years as the world tries to make peace work. The fact that I hadn’t read the others didn’t affect my enjoyment, other than that some people were mentioned that I think familiar readers might have encountered before. There were also hints of previous events and cases but nothing that spoiled the earlier books. This is a stand alone thriller.

It’s a great story and it’s cleverly done. The menacing gods of ancient Sumer loom over events and occultists flourish in the magic and esoteric bookshops of London and further afield. It all adds such a chilling, quite frightening yet fascinating atmosphere. And the hint of the supernatural hanging over the gruesome murders is very effective. That’s one side of the book. The other takes us into the halls of diplomacy at a time when countries squabbled over the creation of an independent State of Israel for those Jews who suffered unspeakable horror. This part of the novel is compelling as we meet some of the key figures of the debate, some historical and some fictional, as the arguments move across Britain, Europe and the United States. I really enjoyed the novel’s movement and journeys. What stays with the reader, though, may well be the Jewish refugees that Forrester encounters while they wait for a vessel to sail them on that hugely risky voyage to safety. These people will never be able to leave the war behind them.

I’m hard pressed to find a fault with The Age of Exodus but if I had to find one it would be that there are an awful lot of characters who come and go through these pages. I did find it a little difficult remembering who some of these people were and I would have welcomed a list of characters at the beginning or end.

The Age of Exodus tells a fascinating tale, combining a fun archaeological mystery complete with larger than life characters with a significant historical issue and making both compelling and gripping. Duncan Forrester is a fantastic detective. He has his own inner struggles. He is both a reluctant killer and a studious academic. At times his actions surprise himself. He’s led by his heart, even as he works things out. He’s a likeable man, searching for answers in a world that’s left him a little lost. I can’t wait to read the earlier two books.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday | 2018 (6 September) | 337p | Review copy | Buy the book

Transcription by Kate AtkinsonIn 1940 Juliet Armstrong, a young woman of just 18 years old, is recruited by the secret service to monitor a group of Fifth Columnists. They regularly meet in London and are led by Godfrey Toby, a man they believe to be a Nazi spy but who is in fact working for the British secret service. It will be Juliet’s job to transcribe their bugged and recorded conversations, a task that both bores and thrills Juliet. She also wants to impress her boss, the enigmatic and curious Peregrine Gibbons. But soon Juliet is given a more active role, undercover, becoming perilously involved with the fascists she must spy upon.

In 1950 the war is long over but any hopes that Juliet might have that the past is behind her are terrifyingly crushed. The work of the secret service continues, fighting a different kind of war with a new enemy, and Juliet, now a producer working at the BBC, is about to get entangled again. She begins to see faces from the past and she knows that they are due a reckoning.

I fell in love with Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. I knew that Transcription, a novel I’ve longed to read, would be every bit as good and I was not disappointed. This is an author who writes literary fiction that is also accessible, warm and wise, witty and clever, despairing and loving – and Transcription confirms all of this. A thrilling and compelling plot is wrapped up in a time-shifting, multi-layered narrative in which Juliet’s life, and all of the people who made it what it was, is revealed before us. It demands an emotional response from the reader while at the same time he or she will marvel at just how much there is to be found in this book. It’s an extraordinary achievement for so much to be packed in to a novel shorter than 350 pages.

I’m so pleased that Kate Atkinson returned to the Second World War for Transcription. I can’t get enough of World War Two spy thrillers at the moment and so this was perfectly timed and reminded me in such a good way of the pleasure I recently had reading Our Friends in Berlin. On the surface Transcription is a fine war thriller but it also digs deeply into the motivations of people who desperately want to retain for themselves their inner beliefs. Much here is suppressed, whether it’s a political allegiances or an affair of the heart. This is a time of secrets and a time when people were paid to hunt them out.

Juliet is a wonderful main character. Her youth initially marks her out as almost naive and there’s much pleasure to be had in the chapters in which she tries to make sense of the conversations she is transcribing. These transcriptions can be found throughout the book, reinforcing the historical context of the novel while also lifting the mood. And that is arguably what the book is about – how do you transcribe people? How do you work them out when there is so much interference between you and them? For Juliet has so much more to understand than the words of Fifth Columnists.

Juliet is surrounded by a cast of fascinating characters, some larger than life, others quietly existing in the background, others whose lives are pinched out. It’s fascinating as well as tense watching these relationships work themselves out.

Kate Atkinson’s writing is so beautiful. It’s elegant and warm. It reflects how well she understands the people she has brought to life, their aspirations and their fears. And yet wit and elegance can hide something else far darker and this is shown so well in the contrast between the politeness and manners of many of the novel’s characters with the ugliness of some of their secret thoughts and the brutal actions that they can spur. This is war after all.

The novel takes place over several years, moving backwards and forwards between them, and so it pays to stay alert. This is a book that rewards the reader – there are moments here that astounded me as well as others that profoundly moved me.

Kate Atkinson is consistently one of the very finest authors around today – very clever but also accessible – and Transcription demonstrates yet again why. Don’t miss it. I must also mention that the hardback, complete with ribbon, is a thing of beauty.

Other reviews
Life After Life
A God in Ruins

Night Flight to Paris by David Gilman

Head of Zeus | 2018 (9 August) | 486p | Review copy | Buy the book

Night Flight to Paris by David GilmanIt is February 1943 and the German Occupation of France has Paris in its grip. The city’s Resistance cell is on the run, the Nazis on its tail. Men and women will be captured, they will be tortured for information, there will be deaths. Allied intelligence has no choice. They must send someone to Paris to pick up the pieces, to form another cell, and to complete the vanquished cell’s unfinished business – to find a man hunted by Germans and allies alike. He has information that could change the course of the war. The man to be sent to Paris is Harry Mitchell. He’s perfect for the job. He’s a mathematician and codebreaker at Bletchley Park but he also used to live in Paris before he had to flee in 1941 leaving his wife and daughter behind. And now they’re in the hands of the Gestapo. Mitchell is determined to get them back.

Occupied Paris is a city at war with itself. The Nazis are not the only enemy. Informers, spies, collaborators, and competing Resistance factions have made Paris even more lethal. The leaders of the SS and the Gestapo, also fighting amongst themselves for dominance, are infiltrating Parisian society, enjoying the cultural perks of the French capital, Parisian mistresses on their arm and in their bed, before descending into the city’s most frightening spaces to torture members of the Resistance. Harry Mitchell has no illusions about how dangerous Paris will be. He knows he will probably be killed and nastily. But first he has to get to Paris and his night flight will test his endurance to the limit.

David Gilman is well known for his Master of War series – a series I love – set during the Hundred Years War of the 14th century. In this standalone novel, David Gilman moves forward 600 years to another conflict and the result, Night Flight to Paris, is every bit as good, if not even better, than his medieval series. This is a very clever novel, its complex, tense plot beautifully crafted and gripping throughout. It starts off running and the pace doesn’t slacken once.

Harry Mitchell is a fascinating, likeable, courageous and potentially ruthless protagonist. For much of the time he is almost literally in the dark, forming his cell of Resistance fighters out of strangers, aware that any one of them could be a traitor, and yet camaraderie draws them together. Ultimately, Mitchell is a spy, his whole life in France and Paris is built on secrets and lies and he holds it all together with his cunning and genius. And not a little luck. There are others here that we grow attached to, even though we’re not quite sure if they can be trusted, and they are wonderfully portrayed by David Gilman, each a character in their own right, men and women, young and old, especially a radio operator whose courage is extraordinary.

I urge you to read this novel and meet these fantastic characters. To feel the tension of following them through the danger of missions and just in daily life, which can be every bit as terrifying, waiting for a car to screech to a halt outside the door, for the sound of boots running up the stairs, the bang on the door, the guns in the face.

Night Flight to Paris is a magnificent war spy thriller. I couldn’t read it fast enough. Clever, complex, gripping, emotionally engaging, terrifying. And so much more. A stand out novel of the year for me and one that kept me reading late into the summer night.

I must also mention that this is another of those gorgeous Head of Zeus hadbacks, complete with a ribbon! I do love a ribbon…

Other reviews
Master of War
Defiant Unto Death (Master of War 2)
Gate of the Dead (Master of War 3) – review and interview
Guest post – War in The Last Horseman
Viper’s Blood (Master of War 4)
Extract from Vipers Blood
Scourge of Wolves (Master of War 5)

A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott

Bantam Press | 2018 (9 August) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Treachery of Spies by Manda ScottA very old woman, Sophie Destivelle, is found murdered in a car in Orléans. She’s been shot three times in what has all of the hallmarks of a professional assassination. Her tongue is cut out, a terrible reminder of the punishment dealt out to French collaborators during the German occupation of France during the Second World War. Police inspector Capitaine Inés Picaut finds on her person a card belonging to a filmmaker who, it turns out, is currently making a documentary about the local Maquis, the French Resistance. As Picaut searches for the reasons behind why such an old woman, in her 90s, met such a fate, she learns that there have been other deaths. The survivors of the war did not leave the past far enough behind. It’s caught up with them.

A Treachery of Spies is an outstanding novel that deserves all of the superlatives I can throw at it. Manda Scott is the finest of writers, her books always significant and she is able to turn her hand to any historical period, any genre. She has written some of my very favourite novels. Manda Scott manages to engage both the head and the heart of the reader, leaving one in awe of the cleverness of the book’s plotting and structure while feeling every moment of the novel’s tension and drama, often weeping tears for its men and women. These books are also so exciting! A Treachery of Spies is no different.

Into the Fire introduced us to Capitaine Inés Picaut in a superb and memorable novel that combined a murder investigation in the present with the 15th-century life of Joan of Arc. A Treachery of Spies also combines stories from the past and present but this time it’s the period of the German Occupation and its aftermath, years remembered by some of the people in the novel. The result is one of the most powerful and evocative fictional account of the French Resistance that I’ve read. The danger of these years, the absolute peril that these heroic men and women put themselves through every single day, the torture they risked and endured when caught, the psychological stress they lived with, the loss of comrades whom they grieved for – all of this and much, much more is given to us in this tense, compelling and brilliant thriller.

Picaut uncovers a web of lies and secrets that goes back decades – chapters set in the past show us how this web took shape as we follow the members of the local Maquis in their daily fight against the Germans, most notably Kramme, the most despicable of them all. It is absolutely engrossing and even more so because we grow so close to these characters, watching their relationships form and intensify over many, many years. It is astonishing some of the sacrifices that are made for the cause. There are so many details that capture the imagination and add to the novel’s authenticity. I don’t want to give you any details about the story itself and the people you’ll love and hate within these pages – you must discover them for yourselves. But Sophie Destivelle is a character that you really need to meet.

Manda Scott’s skill in bringing to life such complicated relationships and emotions is staggering. It’s a complex book but that’s part of its joy. I ached for these people and I hated the evil. Good and evil battle it out here, the fight that never ends. We witnessed it in Into the Fire and it continues here, although sometimes both can be hidden. It’s like the end of the world to see such heroism and courage slaughtered while we must praise the valour of people like Picaut and others in this novel who live to fight the enemy. A Treachery of Spies is a fantastic spy thriller, it’s also a brilliant crime novel, but there’s so much more to it than that. A contender for novel of the year for sure. How I long for Picaut to return.

Other reviews
Rome: The Emperor’s Spy
Rome: The Coming of the King
Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth
Rome: The Art of War
Into the Fire
An interview with Manda Scott, author of Into the Fire