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.

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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.

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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?

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

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

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

I loved The Rose Code by Kate Quinn – it was one of my favourite books last year. Because of that, I think my expectations for her new novel, The Diamond Eye, were slightly too high. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it will be one of my books of the year this time.

The Diamond Eye is the story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a female sniper in the Soviet Army during World War II (and a real historical figure). Lyudmila, or ‘Mila’ as she is called in the novel, was born in Ukraine but considered herself Russian. The book was written before the current war in Ukraine began earlier this year, which gives something as simple as Mila’s choice of identity new relevance.

When we first meet Mila, she is a twenty-one-year-old history student in Kiev (now known as Kyiv, of course) and is trying to get a divorce from her husband Alexei, who seduced her as a teenager then left her to raise their son, Slavka, alone. After an encounter with Alexei at a shooting range during which Mila embarrasses herself by missing a shot, she decides to join an advanced marksmanship course so that she’ll never miss again and can prove to Slavka that she’s the equal of his father. This decision changes Mila’s life because, when Hitler invades Russia a few years later, she is handed a rifle and enlisted into the Red Army as a sniper.

We then follow two alternating storylines – one which describes Mila’s time in the army and how she acquires her reputation as ‘Lady Death’, being credited with 309 kills, and another set in 1942 as Mila embarks on a US tour in an attempt to persuade the Allies to provide support for Russia against the Nazis. The chapters set in America explore Mila’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and a fictitious plot to assassinate the President. This invented storyline adds some tension and excitement to the book, but with Mila’s own life being so fascinating I’m not sure that it was really necessary!

The factual parts of the novel are based on Lyudmila Pavlichenko’s own memoir, Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper, which I haven’t read. In fact, I knew nothing at all about Mila before reading this book so everything in it was new to me. Quinn includes a very comprehensive author’s note at the end in which she explains where she tried to stick to the known facts and where she had used her imagination to fill in gaps or make the story more interesting (mainly the bits concerning Mila’s marriage to Alexei and her romantic relationships with two men she meets in the army). Some of the most surprising parts of the story, such as Mila’s friendship with the First Lady are actually true.

There’s a lot of focus on military life, weapons and tactics, which I suppose is to be expected in a novel about a sniper, but that’s never been a particular area of interest to me and reading about the Bletchley Park codebreakers in The Rose Code was much more to my taste. Still, it’s always good to learn something new and I did enjoy the parts of the book about Mila’s personal life and ambassadorial work, if not so much the parts about shooting and killing. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of Kate Quinn’s books.

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

This is book 28/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate

I loved Raymond Postgate’s Verdict of Twelve, but it has taken me a few years to get around to reading his other novel available as a British Library Crime Classic, Somebody at the Door. I wish I’d found time to read it sooner, as it’s another one I really enjoyed – with one or two reservations.

One evening in the winter of 1942, Councillor Henry Grayling travels home from London by train, bringing with him a large sum of money – the wages for the workers of the Barrow and Furness Chemistry and Drugs Company, which he is planning to distribute the next day. By the time he reaches his own front door, he has become seriously ill and dies later that night from what appears to be mustard gas poisoning. The money has disappeared, but was that the motive for his murder or could there be another reason? Suspicion falls on the other passengers who had shared his train carriage that evening and it is up to Inspector Holly to decide which of them did it and why.

This novel has a very similar structure to Verdict of Twelve. In that book, Postgate tells the stories of the twelve people who are serving on the jury for a murder trial, showing the effects of their backgrounds, experiences and prejudices on their decision-making. In Somebody at the Door, he explores the stories of the people on the train and how their paths had crossed with Grayling’s, giving them the motive and the opportunity to commit the crime. The book feels more like a collection of short stories than a conventional crime novel – although we do return briefly to Holly’s investigations now and then, the focus is much more on getting to know the personal history of each suspect rather than on watching the detective solve the mystery.

Some of the stories are very compelling in their own right, even if most of what we are told has very little relevance to the overall plot. I particularly liked the first one, about a young man who works for the Barrow and Furness Company and gets himself involved with a blackmailer, and the third one, which follows an attempt to help a refugee escape from Nazi Germany. The final story, however, about two people having an affair, didn’t interest me much at all – and unfortunately, this was one of the longest stories. This did spoil the book for me slightly, but after this final tale comes to an end we return to the Grayling murder again and things are wrapped up nicely.

I think what I liked best about this novel was the setting. Postgate writes about life in wartime Britain as only someone can who is actually living through it themselves (the book was published in 1943). Some of the characters’ stories are related directly to the war, such as the one about the refugee and another about a Corporal in the Home Guard, and the war is a constant presence in the novel as a whole, with references to bombing raids and the blackout.

I preferred Verdict of Twelve and would recommend starting with that one if you’re new to Raymond Postgate, but both books are entertaining and interesting reads as long as you don’t go into them expecting a traditional detective novel.