These Days by Lucy Caldwell – #ReadingIrelandMonth23

I hadn’t really considered reading These Days until I saw it had been longlisted for this year’s Walter Scott Prize and as Lucy Caldwell is an author from Belfast I thought it would be a good choice for Reading Ireland Month.

I have previously read very little about the fate of Northern Ireland during World War II – Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture contains a very vivid description of the bombing of Belfast, but otherwise it has barely featured at all in any of my reading. In These Days, Lucy Caldwell gives this topic the attention it deserves, focusing on a series of attacks on Belfast that took place in April and May 1941 – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fire Raids. More than a thousand people were killed in these attacks and the Easter Raid alone caused the greatest loss of life in any night raid outside of London during the war.

This short but tragic period in Belfast’s history is explored through the stories of two sisters, Audrey and Emma Bell, the daughters of Dr Philip Bell and his wife, Florence. I have to confess, when I first started reading this book and saw that not only was it written in the present tense, the author had also chosen to omit speech marks, my heart sank. Not including speech marks seems to be an increasingly popular trend in fiction and maybe some readers like it, but it never works for me. I just find it distracting and annoying. However, I stuck with the book and settled into the story after a while.

Audrey is twenty-one and works as a junior clerk at the tax office. She is engaged to Richard, a doctor like her father, but is beginning to have doubts about the marriage. Becoming Richard’s wife will mean she’s expected to give up her job and conform to society’s expectations, and after witnessing the independence and freedom enjoyed by her unmarried friend, Miss Bates, Audrey is trying to decide what she really wants from life.

Emma is just eighteen and volunteers at a First Aid post, where she has met and fallen in love with Sylvia, a woman ten years older than herself. Emma has always been ‘awkward’ but when she’s with Sylvia she feels that she’s found her place in the world at last. Unfortunately, though, this is the 1940s so their relationship will have to remain a secret.

The Bell sisters, along with their mother Florence, are the main focus of the novel and although the writing style meant it took longer for me to connect with them than I would have liked, I did warm to all three of them and found each of their stories very moving as the bombings began and their lives were thrown into turmoil. We also get to know several other characters, from a range of backgrounds, who cross paths with the Bells at various points in the novel. I particularly loved six-year-old Maisie Gallagher, who becomes separated from her mother during a raid and has the good fortune to be discovered by Audrey.

The attacks were devastating for the people of Belfast, with so much destruction and loss of life, and as you can imagine the book is quite harrowing in places. How could it not be, particularly with images of Ukraine fresh in our minds? But it’s also a book I’m pleased to have read, especially as it has taught me so much about an aspect of the war I had known so little about.

This is book 10/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor

Joseph O’Connor’s new novel My Father’s House, published in the UK today, is based on the true story of Hugh O’Flaherty, a Catholic priest who helped thousands of Jews and Allied prisoners of war to escape from Italy during World War II. This is the third book I’ve read by O’Connor (the others are Shadowplay, about the author Bram Stoker and the actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, and Ghost Light, which explores the relationship between the playwright John Millington Synge and the actress Molly Allgood) and I think it’s the best of the three.

The main part of the novel is set in 1943. Born and raised in Ireland, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty is serving in Vatican City during the war – a neutral territory within Nazi-occupied Rome. As an official Vatican visitor to Italy’s prisoner of war camps, Hugh has been trying to improve conditions for the prisoners, but his actions mark him out as an Allied sympathiser and his superiors prevent him from carrying out any more visits in case he makes the Vatican a Nazi target. However, Hugh won’t be stopped that easily and soon he has set up an Escape Line, successfully smuggling Jews and escaped prisoners out of Rome right under the eyes of the Nazis.

The biggest escape mission yet – the ‘Rendimento’ – has been arranged for Christmas Eve, 1943. In the hope that the Gestapo will be less vigilant on this particular night, Hugh and his group of courageous volunteers have put elaborate plans in place to move a large number of people out of the city under the cover of darkness. As we count down the days and hours leading up to the mission, we also get to know each member of Hugh’s team and how they came to be involved in the Escape Line.

The group use the cover of meeting for ‘choir practice’ and this is where they discuss their plans and receive their instructions – carefully coded, of course, as the Nazis have eyes and ears everywhere. One Nazi in particular is getting too close for comfort; he is Obersturmbannführer Paul Hauptmann, who already has his eye on Hugh due to the camp visits and is starting to close in on the Choir and the Rendimento. But although Hauptmann is our villain, O’Connor gives him a surprising amount of depth, describing his home life and his relationship with his wife and children. This reminder that Nazi officers were often also family men leading normal domestic lives just makes Hauptmann’s behaviour feel even more chilling and shocking.

As the clock ticks down on Christmas Eve, the suspense increases as we are kept wondering whether the mission will succeed. However, the chapters describing the build-up to the Rendimento are interspersed with other chapters in which each member of the Choir introduces themselves and their background and tells us how they met Hugh and joined his group. I wasn’t very keen on this structure as I felt that it broke the flow of the story and took away some of the tension, but it was still interesting to hear their different voices (some of which I found more convincingly written than others). They included Sir D’Arcy Osborne, the British envoy to the Holy See, and his butler John May, diplomat’s wife Delia Kiernan, and escaped soldier Sam Derry – all of whom were real people.

I had never read anything about Hugh O’Flaherty and his work until now, so I’m pleased to have had the chance to learn something new. I see he was the subject of a 1983 film, The Scarlet and the Black, starring Gregory Peck, which I’ve never come across either. Although My Father’s House is a complete novel in itself, it’s apparently the first in an Escape Line trilogy – I’ll be looking out for the next one and will be interested to see if it’s going to focus on a different member of the group this time.

Thanks to Harvill Secker for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 3/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Recent reads: The Drums of War; Ashes in the Snow; Ithaca

I’m falling behind with my reviews again, so here are my thoughts on three recent reads – all very different books.

The Drums of War is the third in Michael Ward’s Thomas Tallant mystery series, continuing the story begun in Rags of Time and The Wrecking Storm. It also works as a standalone novel, so don’t worry if you haven’t read the first two in the series.

This third novel opens in London in 1642. With the divisions between King and Parliament becoming greater, England is rapidly heading towards Civil War and spice merchant Thomas Tallant and his friends are being forced to choose sides. Soon Tom finds himself assisting the Puritan leader John Pym in his search for a consignment of stolen gunpowder being smuggled out of London by Royalist forces. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Seymour is carrying out investigations of her own as she sets out on the trail of a mysterious jewel thief. Although Tom and Elizabeth are separated for most of the book and I missed their interactions, I did find both storylines interesting, particularly Elizabeth’s as she suffers a personal trauma and begins to fall back into some of her former bad habits as a result!

As with the first two books in the series, real historical figures appear alongside the fictional ones and as well as John Pym and the commander of the London Trained Bands, Philip Skippon, we also meet the scientist and physician William Harvey and are reacquainted with the intriguing Lucy, Countess of Carlisle. In the second half of the novel, the focus moves away from the mystery-solving for a while to concentrate on the events of the Civil War, particularly the battles of Edgehill and Brentford. This aspect of the story was of less interest to me, but that’s just down to personal taste (I’m not really a fan of battle scenes) and I still found this an enjoyable novel overall.


Ashes in the Snow is Oriana Ramunno’s debut crime novel, written in Italian and translated into English by Katherine Gregor. The book is set in Poland during World War II and begins with a young boy, Gioele Errera, finding the body of an SS officer in the snow. The man appears to have choked on an apple, but it soon seems that there is more to his death than that and German criminologist Hugo Fischer is summoned to investigate. Finding the murderer will not be easy, particularly as the dead man’s wife seems reluctant to cooperate, but Gioele agrees to help – if, in return, Hugo will help him to find his family from whom he has become separated.

This is a beautifully written and translated novel but not an easy one to read because, as we quickly discover, Gioele has a twin brother and the two of them have become subjects of the infamous Josef Mengele’s experiments. Of course this sort of thing is not supposed to be pleasant to read about, but I wasn’t really prepared for the level of detail Ramunno goes into in describing this and other parts of Gioele and Hugo’s stories. Hugo is an interesting and likeable character, a man suffering from a degenerative illness who must keep his condition a secret to avoid becoming a target of the Nazi regime himself. He’s an unusual detective and the crime element of the novel works well, but this book wasn’t for me.


Ithaca by Claire North is the latest of many Greek mythology retellings based on the events surrounding the Trojan War. What makes this one different from the others I’ve read is that it focuses on the story of Penelope as seen through the eyes of the goddess Hera.

It has been seventeen years since Penelope’s husband Odysseus, King of Ithaca, sailed away to war with Troy and although the war is now over, she and her son, Telemachus, are still awaiting his return. Penelope is kept busy running the kingdom with the help of her women, while also trying to defend the island of Ithaca from raiders and fend off the attentions of the crowd of suitors who have descended upon her home in the hope of marrying her if Odysseus never comes back. Meanwhile, Penelope’s cousin Clytemnestra has fled to Ithaca looking for somewhere to hide after murdering her husband, Agamemnon.

Ithaca is quite a long novel and moves at a slow pace; it’s the first in a planned trilogy and Claire North takes her time setting the scene and introducing the characters. I liked the choice of Hera as narrator; she provides a different perspective on a well-known story and I enjoyed her observations of the mortal world and her interactions with other goddesses such as Athena. However, it does mean we are kept at a distance from Penelope herself, which could explain why I found it difficult to form any kind of connection with her – or with any of the other characters. For that reason, I don’t think I’ll be continuing with the second book. Claire North writes beautifully but I needed more than that to sustain my interest and I preferred Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad – I didn’t love that one either, but it was a shorter and more memorable read.

The Hidden Palace by Dinah Jefferies

This is the second book in Dinah Jefferies’ new World War II trilogy which began last year with Daughters of War. Although I think it’s always best to read a series in order if you can, I don’t think it would be a problem if you wanted to start with this book. People and events from the first book are alluded to, but are not essential to understanding the plot of this second novel.

Of the three Baudin sisters we met in Daughters of War, The Hidden Palace only focuses on one of them – the youngest sister, Florence, who has left occupied France for the safety of the English countryside. In England, Florence is reunited with her estranged mother, Claudette, who asks for her help in finding her sister Rosalie – Florence’s aunt – who ran away from home as a teenager and hasn’t been seen or heard from for years. Claudette believes that Rosalie may be in Malta, but with war still raging across Europe, no one is able to go there to look for her.

In an alternating storyline, we go back to the 1920s and follow Rosalie’s adventures when, after an argument with her father, she leaves home and finds work as a dancer in a nightclub in Malta. As the years go by, she builds a new life and identity for herself on the island, which makes Florence’s task much more difficult when, once the war is over, she is able to travel to Malta to begin her search. Accompanied by Jack, the Baudin sisters’ friend who worked for the British Special Operations Executive during the war, Florence is determined to find her aunt – but will her aunt want to be found?

I enjoyed The Hidden Palace overall, although I missed the other two sisters from the first book, Hélène and Élise, who stay behind in France and appear only briefly. Florence was not initially my favourite of the sisters so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this book focusing mainly on her, but I did warm to her after a while – although I had mixed feelings about the development of her romance with Jack, knowing that he had originally been Hélène’s love interest. I also found the sections of the book set in England slightly lacking in atmosphere; you would hardly think the war was still taking place, as the lives of the characters seem largely unaffected and there’s no sense of any real hardship.

The chapters set in Malta were of much more interest to me, particularly as I have been to Malta and enjoyed revisiting, through Rosalie’s eyes, the vibrant streets of the capital Valletta and the peaceful stillness of Mdina, the ‘Silent City’. Malta was very badly hit during the war, due to its strategic importance as a base in the Mediterranean between Europe and North Africa, and it was the target of thousands of German and Italian air raids, making it one of the most heavily bombed places in the world. This is where Rosalie spends the war years, so as you can imagine, her story is a lot more dramatic than Florence’s in the Devon countryside! However, Rosalie also becomes caught up in a scandal involving human trafficking and I couldn’t see the point in this storyline as it didn’t seem to lead anywhere.

The novel has a satisfactory ending, but not everything is fully resolved, so I’m looking forward to finding out what happens in the final part of the trilogy. The third book, Night Train to Marrakech, is due next year.

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 51 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

All the Broken Places by John Boyne

I love John Boyne’s books and couldn’t wait to read his new one, All the Broken Places. It’s a sequel to his 2006 children’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but this time it’s aimed at adults. Although I haven’t read the first book, I have seen the film and that helped me understand the background of the characters and the references to things that had happened in the past. If you’re not familiar with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, though, I don’t think it would matter too much as this book does work on its own.

All the Broken Places begins in the present day, 2022, and is narrated by ninety-one-year-old Gretel Fernsby. Gretel has lived in the same luxury apartment building in London since the 1960s; most of the other residents have also been there for a long time, so when a new family move into the flat below, Gretel is curious to meet her new neighbours. However, she is alarmed to discover that the family includes a nine-year-old boy, Henry, who brings back memories of her own brother at the same age – memories Gretel has spent her whole life trying to suppress.

As she gets to know Henry and his parents, Gretel quickly becomes aware that something is not right. She wants to help, but is afraid of making the situation worse. At the same time, she is forced to confront her own past when, as the young daughter of a Nazi commandant of a Polish concentration camp, she and her mother fled to France at the end of the war and tried to build new lives for themselves under new identities. Gretel has lived with the shame and guilt ever since, but now it seems she might have an opportunity to redeem herself.

As the story of Gretel’s life unfolds, we are taken on a journey from Poland to France, Australia and then England. Chapters set in the past alternate with chapters set in the present as Gretel battles with her conscience again to try to do the right thing for Henry. There are not many books with protagonists in their nineties and I admired her for the courage, resilience and wisdom she displays in old age, despite what she may have done or not done when she was younger.

I really enjoyed this book, although at times it’s an uncomfortable read and often a moving one. John Boyne has shown previously that he’s not afraid to tackle controversial subjects in his novels and I’m sure this is another one that will divide opinion. Some readers will take the view that anyone with any connection to the atrocities of the Holocaust deserves no pity; others will have sympathy for a twelve-year-old girl who, although she was at least partly aware of what was happening, lacked the strength, will and opportunity to do anything about it and has regretted it ever since. This is a theme Boyne has explored several times before, particularly in A History of Loneliness (a novel about the child abuse scandal within the Catholic church and probably my favourite of his books) – whether by turning a blind eye to the actions of others we are as much to blame as they are and whether it’s our responsibility to speak out if we know something is wrong.

This is a fascinating novel; it’s published today and I look forward to hearing what other people think of it.

Thanks to Doubleday for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 49/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer

After making such good progress with my 20 Books of Summer list in June and July, I seem to have slowed down a lot in August. Some of the books on my list have turned out to be a lot longer than I expected, including this one, which has almost 600 pages in the new UK paperback edition published today. I really enjoyed Julie Orringer’s 2011 novel The Invisible Bridge, about a Hungarian-Jewish student who leaves Budapest to study architecture in Paris during World War II, so I was looking forward to reading The Flight Portfolio – but I have to say, it really did feel like a 600 page book and I think it could easily have been a lot shorter!

The plot is quite a fascinating one, set in the same period as The Invisible Bridge, but this time based on the true story of a real historical figure: Varian Fry, an American journalist who helped thousands of Jewish refugees to escape from Occupied France. I knew nothing about Fry before starting this book, so it was interesting to read about the rescue network he created in Marseille – part of the Emergency Rescue Committee – where he and a group of other volunteers had an intricate system in place to provide people with fake documents and then to smuggle them across the border into Spain and from there to America.

However, the people Fry and the ERC rescue are not just anyone – they are what Fry describes as ‘the intellectual treasure of Europe’, famous artists, writers and philosophers, chosen based on their talent. This bothered me from the beginning – while I can understand the desire to save the life of someone who could potentially go on to provide pleasure and inspiration for millions of others, surely the lives of people without those particular talents have just as much value – so I was pleased that the characters do eventually begin to question and discuss the moral issues their work raises. It was also nice to come across Heinrich and Golo Mann as two of the refugees being rescued (Thomas Mann’s brother and son, who appeared in another of my recent reads, The Magician by Colm Tóibín). I love finding connections like that between books I’ve read and it was interesting to see Heinrich and Golo from the perspective of the person coordinating their escape, rather than just hearing about their adventures after they’d already reached safety, as we did in The Magician.

I felt that this book was much less exciting than it could have been, though. I never really got a true sense of the danger these people were in, which was disappointing as I’d expected a thrilling, suspenseful story. Maybe this is because the book concentrates mainly on the administrative side of the rescue scheme – obtaining visas, offering bribes, dealing with the US Consul and the Marseille police – or maybe there were just too many different writers, artists and intellectuals appearing in the story, making it difficult for me to become emotionally invested in any of them. A bigger problem for me was the amount of time Orringer devotes to a fictional romance between Fry and an old friend from Harvard, Elliot Grant. There seems to be some controversy over whether or not the real Varian Fry had homosexual relationships (we do know that he was married to Eileen Hughes, editor of Atlantic Monthly); however, although I don’t mind the author inventing a love story for Varian, it did seem that it became the main focus of the story for large sections of the book and the important work he was doing with the ERC was pushed into the background.

The Flight Portfolio wasn’t quite what I’d hoped it would be, but it was good to learn a little bit about Varian Fry and as I did love The Invisible Bridge, I would be happy to read more Julie Orringer books in the future.

Thanks to Little, Brown Group UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 11/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 41/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute is an author I’ve been intending to try for a long time. His 1942 novel, Pied Piper, is on my Classics Club list and I decided to also put it on my 20 Books of Summer list to give me some extra motivation to pick it up and read it sooner rather than later! I have no idea whether this was the best Shute novel to begin with – A Town Like Alice and On the Beach are probably better known; however, it turned out to be a good choice for me.

The ‘pied piper’ of the title is John Sidney Howard, an elderly Englishman who goes to France in the spring of 1940 to spend some time fishing, relaxing and trying to come to terms with the death of his son whose plane came down in the Battle of the Heligoland Bight. It may seem a strange time to be taking a holiday in Europe, but Howard believes the situation in France is stable and that he won’t be in any danger. However, when the Nazis begin to advance much more quickly than he expected, Howard decides to return home immediately. His departure is delayed when an English couple staying in the same hotel ask him to take their two young children with him to the safety of England, but soon Howard, accompanied by little Sheila and Ronnie, is boarding the train to Paris for the first stage of his journey.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan and Howard and the children find themselves facing one obstacle after another, including sickness, cancelled trains and German bombing raids. Along the way, Howard collects more lost or orphaned children and together they try to avoid the rapidly advancing German army and make their way to safety.

I usually enjoy novels with World War II settings, but I find it particularly interesting when they were actually written during the war itself. It makes a book feel very different when you know that at the time of writing, the author had no idea what would happen next or how the war would eventually end. It’s intriguing to think of how a 1942 reader may have viewed a book like this compared to those of us who are reading it today with the benefit of hindsight and a knowledge of history.

Another thing which makes Pied Piper different from a lot of other wartime novels is that Shute’s protagonist is so ordinary – not a soldier or a spy or a romantic young lover, but a quiet, unassuming old man who becomes a hero unintentionally through a mixture of circumstance and his own basic decency and humanity. The only link between Howard and the sinister ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’ (apart from the obvious connection with children) comes when we see Howard making whistles from hazel twigs for his young companions to play with.

Although Howard and the children witness and experience some terrible things during their journey, they also encounter several people who offer kindness and generosity, so the novel shows us both the best and the worst of human nature. The book is structured using a framing narrative where Howard is relating the story of his adventures in France to a friend in a London club during an air raid several weeks into the future. This means we know almost from the first page that Howard has survived to tell the tale, yet there’s still plenty of suspense and I was genuinely afraid for him and for the children at various points throughout the novel!

Which of Nevil Shute’s books should I read next?


This is book 7/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.


This is also book 29/50 from my second Classics Club list.