Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Dressmaker’s Gift by Fiona Valpy.

This book is a real hidden gem. I love fashion, so the idea of a dress that calls down through the years – the midnight blue satin, made of many pieces but with such tiny stitches it appears as if one piece of fabric – really appealed to me. Added to this, my in-laws history of escaping the Warsaw ghetto – at 8 years old in one case, and being sent to Siberia in the other – means I am interested in the threads of family history at a time of turmoil. My late husband’s  family has its own incredible story with repercussions that echo down the generation , so I understand that lives can be displaced and changed beyond recognition, with the results of that still being felt two generations later,

It is Harriet’s love for fashion and an old photograph that leads her to the door of a Paris fashion PR for a year long internship. She is loaned a room in the apartment above the office alongside another girl. Harriet knows this is the very apartment where her grandmother Clare lived in the 1940s. She has left behind a difficult situation!. Having finished university Harriet has been living with her father and stepmother, where she has never felt welcome. Her father sent Harriet to boarding school when he first lived with her stepmom, following her mums death. Her father seemed to find it difficult to cope with a grieving daughter and a burgeoning relationship. One of Harriet’s most treasured possessions is the photo she has of her grandmother Claire and her two best friends in Paris, Mirreile and Vivi. She also has a charm bracelet given by her grandmother and it’s charms show Harriet a story of who her grandmother was. When we are taken back into the past we learn more about these three women. All work in an atelier for the Paris fashion houses. We find out that Claire and Mirreille lived upstairs first, but are later joined by Vivi. All three are great seamstresses and are quick to become friends.

When the Germans arrive in Paris at first is it easy to carry on as normal. Yes, there are more German voices in the cafes and bars, more German vehicles in the streets, but people still order couture clothes. However, as the war really starts to bite things begin to change. The girls friendship survives Claire’s disastrous dalliance with a German officer, but afterwards she notices a difference in her friends. What mysterious work is Vivi doing in the atelier after hours? Who is the gentleman Mirreille is seen with and why is she often missing after curfew? The girls are about to be involved in the war in ways they didn’t imagined; ways that’s could mean paying the ultimate price.

Just like the stitches in a beautiful garments the threads of history are so beautifully intertwined with the fictional story of the girls. I read Alice Hoffman’s new novel in the last few weeks and it is also set in 1940s Paris so it was interesting to see the same historic events from a different viewpoint. I could see how much research the author had done and her skill in mentioning actual events without them feeling tacked on to the girls story was brilliant, I slowly came to care about each of the girls and although Vivi seems less accessible than the other two at first, it was interesting to see how central to Harriet’s history she becomes.

The detail is often harrowing to read and the idea that trauma can be passed through generations is one I’m familiar with because I’m a therapist and have read the same research as the author. She uses this beautifully in the novel, illustrating that the German’s horrendous acts of cruelty were on such a scale that it echoes down to the next generation. It is only when someone identifies the trauma in their family and gets professional help to let go of it’s effects, that someone can start to heal. I think I expected this book to be lighter and more focused on fashion from the blurb, but what I got was far superior: an incredible story of friendship and survival.

Meet The Author

Fiona is an acclaimed number 1 bestselling author, whose books have been translated into more than twenty different languages worldwide. She draws inspiration from the stories of strong women, especially during the years of World War II. Her meticulous historical research enriches her writing with an evocative sense of time and place.

She spent seven years living in France, having moved there from the UK in 2007, before returning to live in Scotland. Her love for both of these countries, their people and their histories, has found its way into the books she’s written.

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Beyond A Broken Sky by Suzanne Fortin.

Ever since I had the good fortune to fall upon a blog tour for The Secret Life of Arthur Pettigrew I have looked out for other works by Suzanne Fortin. It was such a well researched and emotional piece of historical fiction, it became one of my books of that year. Since then she has published two more novels, All That We Have Lost and now this novel, another piece of history from WW2 with an emotive dual-timeline story woven throughout. In 2022 we meet Rhoda Sullivan who works as a stained glass expert, called in by museums to value, then oversee and conserve important works in glass. She”s tasked to go to Telton Hall and assess a stained glass window that dates to WW2 and was designed by an Italian POW. There she end up at an impasse when the gates are blocked by an elderly man in a tractor, Jack is the hall’s last inhabitant and he’s lived there all his life. He’s making a final protest about the development at the hall, but his son Nate arrives to help Rhoda gain access. With Nate, Rhoda makes a terrible discovery – a body under the chapel’s flagstones. It has a huge effect on Rhoda who imagines someone missing this person, just as she still misses her twin brother who disappeared before their 18th birthday. A decade on she still looks for him everywhere,

In 1945 we are taken to Somerset and a young woman called Alice Renshaw. Alice is alone and pregnant. Shes been sent to a farm in Somerset where Louise Hartwell is running things with the help of POW’s. As well as the farm work, Louise helps young pregnant women. Alice soon starts to make friends, but not everyone at the hall is happy about this. As peace is declared, the war at Telton Hall is just beginning.

I’ve just started the book and I’m already hooked by Alice’s story and I love how the author pulls us straight back into the 1940’s with only a few lines. I am also fascinated by Rhoda’s job and the making and restoration of stained glass. I heartily recommend this author, even though I’ve only read a few chapters I know I’m in safe hands. If you love historical fiction and haven’t already encountered her work, go grab her first novel. You won’t regret it.

Meet The Author

Suzanne writes historical fiction, predominantly dual timeline and set in France. Her books feature courageous women in extraordinary circumstances with love and family at the heart of all the stories. 

Suzanne also writes mystery and suspense as Sue Fortin where she is a USA Today bestseller and Amazon UK #1 and Amazon US #3 bestseller. She has sold over a million copies of her books and been translated into multiple languages.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Last Hours in Paris by Ruth Druart.

After Ruth Druart’s previous WW2 novel While Paris Slept I’d been so embedded in the story that I felt emotionally drained from the terror and trauma experienced by her characters. While that novel gave us WW2 from the perspective of a French police officer and a Jewish mother, her latest novel comes from a very interesting and possibly less explored voice of the conflict. Our novel centres around young French woman and a German soldier who cross each other’s paths due to a love of books. We roam from Paris to Brittany and to England, hearing the stories of our main characters from both points of view at different times in their lives. However, the novel starts several years later with Joséphine, a young woman who has just finished her baccalaureate and is looking forward to summer. She wants to visit England because it’s where the Beatles are from, but her mum Élise and the woman they lodge with, Soizcic seem very resistant. It’s the usual teenage argument, made all the more dramatic because the women are carrying a huge secret. One that will be uncovered if Joséphine keeps to her plan to find her birth certificate, so she can obtain a passport. She intends to go with or without her mother’s permission. Élise had always promised herself to tell Joséphine the truth she’s been hiding, but the time never seemed right and besides it was easier to keep the illusion. Élise has always told her daughter that her father’s name was Fredéric and he died in the war. The truth is more complex and shrouded in the secrecy and shame of another time. If Joséphine finds out, will she ever forgive her mother?

Our story moves back in time to the 1940’s when Élise is living in an apartment in occupied Paris with her Mum and younger sister Isabelle. She hates ‘the Boche’ who have taken over her beautiful city and filled it with fear and hatred. Jewish families have disappeared and just as hated as the German occupiers are people who collaborate with the enemy, whether they’re bar owners whose tills ring with German money or the women who serve as their mistresses. Élise has noticed them walking with officers in the gardens, wearing perfume and sporting real stockings rather than a painted and often wobbly line drawn down the back of the legs. Élise has a secret, she has been working at an orphanage and helping Jewish children escape across the border. I loved the bravery of this young woman and her ability to see most people as human beings, at a time when the hatred of others due to their race or religion was at it’s devastating worst. She meets a young German soldier in her friend Monsieur Le Bolzec’s bookshop and at first is horrified that the elderly bookseller is finding sympathy for him. Sébastian may sound German, but his mother was French and his fluency in the language means he’s working in an office translating letters. Élise is cool towards him at first, but then he warns her that she’s in danger. She has been helping Jewish children pass from an orphanage and over the boarder. Sébastian translates a letter denouncing the orphanage, he keeps it and warns Élise, even organising a car to remove the remaining children. This act of service and his willingness to put himself in grave danger brings them closer together, but will anyone accept their feelings for each other.

Ironically it’s the danger of war that brings these two characters together, but the liberation of Paris that will tear them apart. The author’s research is impeccable and I learned things I hadn’t realised about the war and particularly it’s aftermath. I had some idea of the treatment meted out by the French on women thought to be collaborators, but Ruth Druart’s vivid description brought out a huge sense of injustice in me. These women made choices due to their situation: if a German soldier approached me to be his mistress, I might do it if my children were starving or I’d lost my home. There was no mercy or insight into why such a choice might be made. I was also surprised at how long the British kept prisoners of war beyond the ceasing of hostilities. The Geneva Convention states that they should be released immediately, but here we see men kept for three years beyond the war ending. I think the author really captured the chaos of an occupying force retreating and how people have become displaced from their homes, their families and their lovers, especially where the relationship is controversial. People lost each other for decades – my mother-in-law was taken out of the Warsaw Ghetto when she was a child and was taken to England, separated from both parents. Her father looked for her and his wife straight after the war with no luck and eventually settled in America and moved on with his life, coming to terms with the fact they had probably been killed. They were still alive though and his wife was finally reunited with their daughter in England and her father’s other family in America. Druart shows how our links to each other can be lost, but for Élise there are particular betrayals that have kept her apart from Sébastian . Betrayals that are hard to forgive. I found this part of the book so poignant and I loved how Paris needed time to heal, both it’s buildings and it’s people. They had adjusted to occupation and now must rebuild their city, bringing back it’s joi de vive. As Élise observes the difference war has made to her beloved city I could almost hear the oppressive sound of jackboots echoing off the buildings and reminding every citizen they are no longer free.

I was drawn to Sébastian and truly understood his feelings of oppression. He was no more free than Élise, forced to join the Hitler Youth, he was trained as a soldier so had no choice but to serve. It was so moving to see him post-war in an English cinema watching film of what the Allies found when they liberated Auschwitz. He his horrified and is filled with guilt for serving a leader who could do this to others. He knows he is different, but to a Frenchman or an Englishman there is no difference between him and the SS; they are all Nazis and are all responsible. He carries that shame with him into all he does. I also felt for Élise and her loneliness, because despite having Joséphine and their friend Soizcic she has a solitary existence. I hoped for a happy ending for her, but I won’t spoil your reading pleasure by revealing what does happen in Joséphine’s timeline. I urge you to read it, because it has real impact. Hearing the voice of the enemy is unusual and impresses upon us that no matter what side we’re compelled to be on we’re all human. We don’t choose who we fall in love with and that love never dies, no matter how much time has passed or how far apart we are.

Published by Headline 7th June 2022.

Meet the Author

Living in Paris for the last thirty years inspired me to write, and my debut novel, While Paris Slept, came out in 2021, followed by The Last Hours in Paris, to be released in July 2022. Both books are set during the occupation of World War II, a time which intrigued me as I imagined the French having to live and work alongside the occupiers.

I love the power of story, and believe that sharing stories from different perspectives and different backgrounds can help us understand the world better. Having studied psychology at Leicester University, I have always been interested in the workings of the mind, and especially in what motivates people. I find people fascinating and love creating my own characters, each one flawed and touching in their own way. 

I don’t believe in the single story, and in my books I like to present different perspectives, leaving the reader to make up their own mind as the characters face moral dilemmas and difficult choices. I hope you enjoy reading them.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

She’s the war’s most lethal sniper. And the one they least expect…

In the snowbound city of Kiev, aspiring historian Mila Pavlichenko’s life revolves around her young son – until Hitler’s invasion of Russia changes everything. Suddenly, she and her friends must take up arms to save their country from the Fuhrer’s destruction.

Handed a rifle, Mila discovers a gift – and months of blood, sweat and tears turn the young woman into a deadly sniper: the most lethal hunter of Nazis.

Yet success is bittersweet. Mila is torn from the battlefields of the eastern front and sent to America while the war still rages. There, she finds an unexpected ally in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and an unexpected promise of a different future.

But when an old enemy from Mila’s past joins forces with a terrifying new foe, she finds herself in the deadliest duel of her life.

The Diamond Eye is a haunting novel of heroism born of desperation, of a mother who became a soldier, of a woman who found her place in the world and changed the course of history forever.

I found this novel a compulsive and totally immersive read. So much so that if I was interrupted I would often look up in surprise to find that I wasn’t in a freezing cold trench, aching and covered with mud. Kate Quinn really gives us a vivid picture of WW2 in Russia, a front of the war I knew little about. In Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Quinn has a complex heroine, but she creates a nuanced, three dimensional woman, who is so much more than her nickname of Lady Death. I’d imagined a rather joyless, dour individual who was strong and almost masculine. However, instead I was shown a rather diminutive figure, with dark eyes and her long hair hacked off for practicality. This is the soldier. A woman with so much self-discipline she put me to shame, not only working on her university dissertation and looking after her son, while taking a year long marksmanship course so she could be the one to teach her son to shoot. However, when war breaks out Milla feels she must leave her beloved Ukraine and sign up for frontline duty. I loved the way the novel brought up the issues of womanhood in Russia, both Mila and her friend Lena are shocked by how few women were signed up. It never occurred to Mila to let men fight for her, she had the ability and as she mentions on her visit to Washington – Russian women are equal as human beings. I loved how Quinn focused on her vulnerability as much as her strength and the fact she’s only fighting out of necessity; she doesn’t revel in her 309 kills. She is a cultured woman, often enjoying the ballet and opera in Odessa before the war and very proud of her student status – her half written dissertation being the only personal thing she takes with her to the front.

I felt that the book wore it’s extensive research lightly. The story was grounded within the history, but doesn’t lecture or give huge amounts of exposition. This is a personal story about one woman’s war, within that larger history. Battles are mentioned and ground is won or lost, but it’s the character we focus one and those around her. I loved her relationship with Kostia, her shadow and fellow sniper, who keeps her warm on night long stake-outs by letting her lie along his back for body heat. He is of Siberian/Irish heritage, taciturn and serious, but when he finds his childhood friend Lyonya they are soon laughing and wrestling like a pair of ten year olds. Mila relationship with Lyonya was beautiful and probably the only mutual and equal romantic relationship she’d had to that point. Their story broke my heart, but it also broke for Kostia too. The detail is brutal, shrapnel injuries are described in raw, bloody ways because it’s necessary to show the dangers our characters are in. These terrible injuries also provide a contrast to the swift, clinical and clean kills carried out by Mila and Kostia. There are times where I thought their victims were the lucky ones. Mila’s ex-husband is written so well, because he infuriated me. Always with an eye on the main chance, Alexei is a brilliant surgeon and a shitty husband. Having seduced Mila at 15 years old, he then womanised his way to the divorce courts and has no intention of building a proper relationship with his son. His teasing and little digs at Mila felt like the tip of the iceberg to me and I wondered how manipulative and emotionally abusive he had been within the marriage.

The book is structured with Mila’s time fighting in Russia, sandwiched with chapters that show the delegation of students, including Mila, visiting Washington to elicit US support to open a second front in the war. Inbetween are excerpts from Mila’s diary (official and personal), Eleanor Roosevelt’s diary and notes written for her husband Franklin. There’s a humour in these scenes I enjoyed immensely, especially when Americans underestimate Mila, in her ability to understand them and her talent for sarcasm. These parts made me smile and I also loved the section where Eleanor Roosevelt drives Mila to an event personally, and navigates the streets of Washington like a racing driver! These later chapters are also tense as Mila has to learn to cope with the media, weird marriage proposals and threatening notes posted under her bedroom door by someone travelling with the delegation. The question of who they are and what they’re up to kept me alert and wary of everyone. What Quinn does so breathtakingly well is to breathe life into this woman, who I’d never heard of two weeks ago. She made me care about her and want to investigate her story more. She takes Russia’s poster girl and makes her human, a complex woman with courage, hopes and desires. She shows us that all Mila really wanted from life was to be a history professor, but war got in the way.

Meet The Author

Kate Quinn is a native of southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance detailing the early years of the infamous Borgia clan. All have been translated into multiple languages. She and her husband now live in Maryland with two black dogs named Caesar and Calpurnia.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson.

Following on from last week, I wanted to feature this novel which is one of my favourites from the last twenty years and shows that Kate Atkinson is truly one of our best British novelists. It follows another wonderful novel about the Todd family, Life after Life, which focused on the many possible lives of Ted’s older sister Ursula. This is written as a standalone novel, rather than a sequel and has the honour of being one of the few books that genuinely made me cry towards the end. We meet Ted as he’s a pensioner, living in York, and dealing with living his life alone after the death of his wife. However, we don’t stay there, because as with Life After Life, Atkinson mixes past, present and future with great impact. The novel is also told from Teddy’s point of view, although he does seem slightly omniscient at times, knowing things he wasn’t present for. It is such a poignant history of a man who has lived through a world war, and it feels so authentic. In true Atkinson style, it cleverly manages to be a book about fiction itself.

In Life After Life when the focus was on Ursula, Teddy seemed to be set on course to marry childhood sweetheart Nancy and their life was portrayed as idyllic. Yet in this novel we see that their relationship was far from perfect. Despite this we do follow the lives of their daughter and granddaughter too, to great effect, because it opens up all the changes Ted has seen over his long life. Teddy’s mind often wanders back to his time as part of Bomber Command – something I’ve grown up with because I live in Lincolnshire which is known as Bomber County. In fact in the course of his work as a land drainage engineer, my Dad has accidentally dug up a whole Lancaster Bomber, probably trying to limp home to RAF Blyton, only a mile and a half away. Here the bomber raids were described so authentically, they were harrowing in parts and I could imagine the anxiety of waiting back at base to count the planes back in, knowing some would be missing.

Atkinson manages to combine the personal story of Teddy’s family, with societal shifts that occurred between the wartime generation and those who came of age in the second half of the 20th Century. Teddy is an old school gentleman, often showing acts of kindness and chivalry that make him very loveable. His values are challenged by his daughter Viola, the voice of her generation, who is always looking for the next cause to adopt. She campaigned for nuclear disarmament and supported the women protesting at Greenham Common. She’s a feminist and a vegan, something very unusual until fairly recently in the 21st Century. We are shown how the generation gap creates arguments in a family, where one generation fought in a war and later generations don’t appreciate or fully comprehend the sacrifices that were made for them. Viola could be seen as an unsympathetic character, especially when compared with Teddy’s service. However I wondered if her character developed as a reaction against Teddy’s courage and heroism. Such perfection is hard to live up to. In fact, when Viola tries to reconnect with friends from her travelling days she finds one of them has died and one works in finance – far from the ideals they held before. Unlike Teddy’s generation they have had a chance to regret behaviour and change outlook. Teddy’s friends will always be the same age.

I enjoyed the interesting structure of the novel where we float back and forth in time, between characters and settings. At times Atkinson lets slip a future plot, while still in the past. All of this felt very Virginia Woolf-esque and it suited the narrative. She is such a skilled writer that this never feels overtly literary or highbrow, it remains a light easy read. There is a huge twist at the end that has a bearing on everything you’ve read so far, but it’s not there just for the sake of it. Yes, it’s an excellent example of the post-modern novel, in a similar vein to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, but that’s not all. It’s impact of the twist was devastating to me and this is where tears emerged. This unexpected direction is truly a tribute to the men of Bomber Command, especially those who didn’t come home, like the men in the Lancaster my Dad dug up who were only a couple of miles from safety. This novel is simply one way Teddy’s life could have played out and it’s all the more powerful for it. This was an intelligent, well-researched and poignant novel that I think should be viewed as a modern classic.

Meet The Author

Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Her four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became the BBC television series Case Histories, starring Jason Isaacs.Her 2013 novel Life After Life won the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Prize, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and voted Book of the Year for the independent booksellers associations on both sides of the Atlantic. It also won the Costa Novel Award, as did her subsequent novel A God in Ruins (2015).

Posted in Netgalley

The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea.

The sky is clear, star-stamped and silvered by the waxing gibbous moon.

No planes have flown over the islands tonight; no bombs have fallen for over a year.

___________

Orkney, 1940.

Five hundred Italian prisoners-of-war arrive to fortify these remote and windswept islands. Resentful islanders are fearful of the enemy in their midst, but not orphaned twin sisters Dorothy and Constance. Already outcasts, they volunteer to nurse all prisoners who are injured or fall sick. Soon Dorothy befriends Cesare, an artist swept up by the machine of war and almost broken by the horrors he has witnessed. She is entranced by his plan to build an Italian chapel from war scrap and sea debris, and something beautiful begins to blossom. But Con, scarred from a betrayal in her past, is afraid for her sister; she knows that people are not always what they seem.

Soon, trust frays between the islanders and outsiders, and between the sisters – their hearts torn by rival claims of duty and desire.

A storm is coming . . .

In the tradition of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Metal Heart is a hauntingly rich Second World War love story about courage, freedom and the essence of what makes us human during the darkest of times.

This book is stunningly beautiful, so much so that I had to sit and think in the quiet when I’d finished it. It’s so rich in folklore, historical detail, the trauma of war and bereavement that I know I could pick it up to read again and still find something new. I immediately ordered a signed copy for my forever shelf, because it is so special. What did I love about it? The Scottish folklore, the incredible landscape, the community, the dignity of people facing the hardest times of their lives. Then amidst the chaos, violence and confinement, beauty emerges in the shape of a deep, immediate, connection and growing love between two people who can’t even speak the same language. The counterpart to this human story is the Italian Chapel, built out of the scraps of metal huts and concrete the prisoners are allowed. Yet from these humble materials a building of true beauty emerges, that still stands today. It made me emotional to think about the lovers, but also the patience and faith of these incredible men who needed a place to worship, a piece of home.

Dorothy and Constance live on Selkie Holm, a small island close to Orkney. They are isolated outcasts, strange simply because of their doubling, but also because they’re thought to have bad luck. There are myths about the island and the selkie women that might lure a man into the water. People go missing there and the old fishermen who gather in the tavern love to swap old stories about the strange shapes seen in the water. It’s said that if you live there you might go mad. Besides, the girls have had bad luck enough with the drowning of their parents as they tried to row to Kirkwall hospital in a storm. People mutter that it isn’t right for two young girls to live there alone. Surely they must need other people? Yet, that’s exactly what Con doesn’t need. They live in the bothy because of a traumatic event that happened in Kirkwall and now she’s frightened of people, particularly men. So when it’s announced at a town meeting that Italian prisoners will be housed on Selkie Holm, Con is terrified. Their protests fall on deaf ears, since the sinking of the Royal Elm, Churchill has decided barriers must be built to prevent invasion. The prisoners will build the barricades and soon there are huts and barbed wire and men with boots all in Con’s place of safety. Worst of all, Angus McLeod has been given a job as a guard on the island and the girls want to avoid him most of all.

This is a story about freedom for all three main characters. Of course Cesare is the one literally behind a wire fence, but Dot and Con’s bothy is a prison of their own making. Watching each of them try to inch towards freedom in their own ways is moving and upholds my belief as a therapist that everyone is capable of change and even in the most straitened circumstances we still have choices. Cesare finds freedom in the infirmary where he is cared for, in the Major’s office helping with correspondence, in the building of the beautiful chapel and the first time he sets eyes on Dorothy or Dorotea in Italian. His utter joy at finding something so precious amongst the dirt, the heavy labour, the biting wind and the regular beatings, is hopeful and bittersweet. Just like the unexpectedly beautiful chapel, treasures are often found in the dirt.

‘Up on the hill, the chapel gleams in the sun. I imagine the light pouring in through the window. The pictures on the walls will gleam with life. And, on the ceiling above the altar, a white dove soars through a bright blue sky. How does something so beautiful come from such darkness? The tears are flowing freely now, as I turn back to the people watching me and I force myself to say, ‘Thank you.’

‘‘Up on the hill, the chapel gleams in the sun. I imagine the light pouring in through the window. The pictures on the walls will gleam with life. And, on the ceiling above the altar, a white dove soars through a bright blue sky. How does something so beautiful come from such darkness? The tears are flowing freely now, as I turn back to the people watching me and I force myself to say, ‘Thank you.’Up on the hill, the chapel gleams in the sun. I imagine the light pouring in through the window. The pictures on the walls will gleam with life. And, on the ceiling above the altar, a white dove soars through a bright blue sky. How does something so beautiful come from such darkness? The tears are flowing freely now, as I turn back to the people watching me and I force myself to say, ‘Thank you.’

Dot finds her instant love for Cesare overwhelming, but she never questions or doubts her feelings or his. Con often reminds her what men are capable of, that she can’t trust someone she doesn’t know. Yet, for the first time, Dot places a boundary between herself and her sister, simply saying ‘I am not you’. This isn’t a criticism of her twin, but just an assertion that she is different, separate, and so is her life. She also makes a point of going to work in the infirmary, leaving Dot at the bothy. This is the first time where Con can see Dot moving into a life beyond her, their psychic or spiritual link can never be broken, but to wake up and live without her physical presence must be terrifying.

For Dot freedom means the ability to live a life separate from her sister’s, but also beyond the shadow of Angus McLeod. Dot’s trauma affected both girls and when she couldn’t go out, neither girl did. They have spent every day and night together since. This wasn’t Dot’s trauma, but she stopped living just the same. Now she dreams of sitting in the warmth of Italy, with Cesare and his family eating wonderful food. The image is a mile away from the dark, cold and stormy reality. Con sees the changes in Dot, and recognises she’s drifting away from her. Fiercely protective of her twin, it takes her a while to realise that in Cesare, Dot has found a man who is gentle and won’t hurt her. She knows she can’t hold her back, but it’s a huge wrench, like giving away part of herself when so much has been taken from her already. Watching Con’s realisations about her trauma and the potential for healing was one of the most moving parts of the novel.

The historical detail in the novel is incredible. Caroline Lea writes in her acknowledgments:

‘I wanted the love affair between my characters to be constrained by time and intensified by the precipitous and perilous nature of war, so I took many liberties with timings and action. This was a very conscious decision: I’m painfully aware of the difficulties in fictionalizing real historical events and people and selling them as ‘fact’, especially when this involves taking on the voices of ‘real’ people: I was very certain that I didn’t want to do that.’

This explains her decision to change certain things: some of the history and geography is changed; the construction of the barriers was started by Irish workers; the sinking of a ship by German u-boat features the Royal Elm, not the Royal Oak. Yet the chapel, situated on Lamb Holm, is still standing and can be visited. Even the metal heart truly exists, created by metal worker Giuseppe Palumbi for an Orcadian woman he fell in love with. He had to return home to his wife and family in Italy and left the heart behind. By doing this she has made sure that no one’s real life experiences are encroached upon. This is definitely a work of fiction, although the amount of research and love for her subject is clear to see. The descriptions of the islands are simply stunning and the relentless sea is mercurial; one moment soothing and the next a punishing, vengeful god. The inhabitants of the islands intrigued me too, in the way they slowly integrated with these prisoners of war. Even the two girls, shrouded in grief and superstition, are gently supported by this generous community. Now the chapel is part of this community’s history, with the metal heart at its centre. It shows us that light can shine into the darkest corners and choosing to love, despite the pain and grief, can be the bravest stand we can take.

‘All across Europe, bodies are falling from the sky or into the sea, or are being blown high into the air. Every explosion is a name. Every lost life is carved on someone else’s heart. Every death takes more than a single life. It takes memories and longing and hope. But not the love. The love remains’.

Published by Penguin, 29th April 2021.

Meet The Author

Caroline Lea grew up in Jersey and gained a First in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Warwick, where she now teaches on the Creative Writing degree. Her fiction and poetry have been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, the Fish Short Story Competition and various flash fiction prizes. She currently lives in Warwick with her two young children and is writing her next novel. Her work often explores the pressure of small communities and fractured relationships, as well as the way our history shapes our beliefs and behaviour.

Posted in Netgalley

People Like Us by Louise Fein.

I was deeply affected by this novel about the rise of the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany, told from the perspective of a young girl living in Leipzig. The story opens as a young Herta is rescued from drowning by her brother Karl’s friend, Walter. It’s a powerful opener and a metaphor for the coming years, as Herta is slowly drowned by the tidal wave of nationalism, and fascism that overwhelms her country and changes her life altogether. Fein was inspired to write the novel after researching her family’s Jewish roots and eventual flight to London. During her research, she started to wonder how a country and it’s people could go from being a reasonable and tolerant society, to committing such atrocities against their fellow human beings. So, to explore that idea, she decided to write her novel from the perspective of an ordinary German child, slowly becoming brainwashed by the evil ideology. It’s the childhood innocence of Herta that makes this book work so well and allows us to have empathy, despite her allegiances.

Herta’s father has recently taken control of the city newspaper and his reward is their beautiful new family home, their servants and improved status in Leipzig society. He came from humble beginnings to marry Herta’s elegant French mother, but is now quickly rising through the SS ranks. Her elder brother Karl is in the Hitler-Jugend and she really wants to do her bit to make for Vati and Mutti proud of her too. So she pledges her life to the Fuhrer, to serve him and his purpose, totally unaware of its evil extent. Fein slowly shows us his plans, and along with some of our characters we’re like the proverbial frog in tepid water. Without our luxury of hindsight, we too wouldn’t have recognised how much danger we were in, until it was far too late and we boiled to death. There are those characters who truly embrace Hitler’s philosophy and purpose like Herta’s Vati, and below that are various levels of denial, collaboration and fear. Even Vati, has a jumbled mix of motivations: feelings of inferiority from his background and in his marriage; relishing the status and power; a certain amount of brainwashing.

Hitler’s propaganda machine was in full swing within Germany, aided by the country’s financial struggle since the Great War. The Weimar Republic, the post WWI government, signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The treaty stated that Germany would take responsibility for the war, relinquish parts of its territory and pay reparations to the Allies. These policies caused huge social and economic hardship, a situation that the Nazis blamed on Jewish people and communists. A myth was even started that blamed the Jews for the signing of the treaty. Called the ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend, this story blamed Jewish infiltrators in government for the difficulties the German people were facing, despite the fact that many German Jews had served faithfully in the war. Now, the German people were worn down by hardship and poverty and were looking for someone to blame. Hitler exploited these conditions to devastating effect and ordinary Germans were taken in by it. So, when Jewish neighbours and friends started being restricted or sent to work camps, only very rare, brave individuals stood up for them.

The scene when Herta first realises something is very wrong is at school, and her teachers call on Jewish children to stand up in assembly. The shock is seeing her brother’s childhood friend Walter, singled out for abuse and ridicule. Walter can’t be a Jew. He’s the Aryan ideal, blonde and blue-eyed. Besides which, when she was very small Walter saved her from drowning. He had been a constant presence at the house when they were younger. Now here he was being called terrible names and sneered at by their new teacher. Herta is terribly confused, she has been told that Jews look a certain way, and act in a different way to her, but she feels that she and Walter are both the same. Bravely, she runs after him when he is expelled from school and triggers a friendship of her own. A friendship that as she grows-up, develops into love. What possible future can this relationship have under Nazi rule? Then, as it becomes ever clearer that Hitler will not rest until Germany is cleared of Jews, both Herta and Walter will have to make sacrifices and the legacy of these decisions will last until they are both very old.

I don’t want to say any more for fear of ruining the story, but there were many points where I was moved to tears by the situation these childhood friends and young lovers, found themselves in. The displacement of families during WW2 was extensive and with no way of tracing each other, there would have been people who never saw each other again. I married into a Polish family, my husband died several years ago and my father and brother-in-law more recently. My mother-in-law got out of Warsaw as a little girl, escaping through the sewers. Her mother stayed. Her father ended up in America. The family never reunited fully, with Hana finding out her father had ended up in the Boston area of the USA. He had searched but never found either of them. He assumed they had died and later remarried, never knowing that his wife and child did survive and were now in England together. Luckily when Hana found her other family, she embraced them and they in turn remained close to their English family. I felt that the author had really done her background research, possibly with families like mine. I believed in her world and characters immediately.

The background of Leipzig felt homely and friendly, but then developed into this menacing place where you didn’t speak or even spat at the old couple across the street. The night where Herta looks for Walter, knowing that violent confrontations will be taking place in the Jewish quarter, is so frightening and made me feel physically sick. It’s where the threats and rhetoric become real and deadly. Herta is only ever truly free in nature, walking her dog on a Sunday morning and sometimes seeing Walter. It’s harder for someone to conceal anything themselves in open fields and usually Herta can walk freely, enjoying the air and the birdsong. This place represents normality whereas the city is madness, chaos and murder. The ending broke my heart, as we contemplate with Herta on what the world will be like to a new generation. Will it be peaceful with the effects of war far behind, or will the ripples of this hatred and violence be felt for several generations more? I was so moved by this and the epilogue. Some books stay with you for life and I think this will be one of mine.

Published by Head of Zeus 7th May 2020.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

This was a much anticipated read for me as Alice Hoffman is probably my favourite writer. Most people know her for Practical Magic, but I think her more recent novels have been remarkable. The World That We Knew stands with them. It was sad, unflinchingly honest and strangely magical.


We join Hanni Kohn and her daughter Lea in Berlin at the beginning of WWII.The verbal propaganda against German Jews is now turning into action and after Lea is attacked by a soldier on her way home, Hanni intervenes with terrible consequences. Now Hanni knows she must get Lea out of Berlin, but how can they both leave when Hanni is looking after her elderly mother. Desperately looking for some way of protecting Lea, Hanni falls on the idea of a Golem – a mythical Jewish creature animated from clay. First she approaches the rabbi, who turns her down, but the rabbi’s daughter Ettie is listening and spies a chance to escape home. She assures Hanni she has the necessary power and learning to create such a creature, programmed to protect Lea, but only on the basis that Ettie and her sister can travel with them. They gather river clay, water and blood to create Ava, a strong woman with dark eyes and hair, who will travel as Lea’s cousin. However, all Golems must be destroyed once their purpose is done, so Hanni leaves instructions in Lea’s locket to ensure she can carry this out. Hoffman’s story blends historical fact, outlining the fate of Jews in Berlin and France while the world claimed ignorance, with the fictional story of the four girls. One is lost before they leave the country leaving behind a loved one intent on getting their revenge.

There are other characters in the novel bringing their own story and perspective to the story. Despite having their own narrative Hoffman cleverly weaves their stories together so that they encounter each other at some time during the war. On Lea and Ava’s travels in France we meet Julien, his brother Victor and their parents. As a Jewish family resident in Paris their parents imagine themselves safe from the fate of Jewish refugees like Lea and Ava. At huge personal risk they let Lea and Ava join the household, because their servant Marianne has left that morning. Ava takes to kitchen work while Lea forms a friendship with Juliet. Victor has been mourning for Marianne as we follow her home to her father’s farm in the mountains bordering Switzerland. Victor decides to leave soon after, but his travels take him into the Resistance first where he meets a certain young woman hellbent on revenge. Julien is left behind, when Ava and Lea leave, and he watches as his parent’s assumptions are all proved wrong and they are lead to a stadium in burning heat. They are stripped of their jewellery and other valuables and kept without sanitation or food until they can be transported to the death camps, bewildered and broken. Julien hatches a last minute plan and manages to slip out of the stadium and into the labyrinth of streets until a special messenger gives him an idea of where Lea might be.

We follow these various characters through Germany, to Paris, to a convent where silver roses bloom, and a farm in the mountains where over three thousand Jews are walked to the mountains and freedom. In between the many horrors of war sits the beauty of nature, strangely incongruous and almost mystical in that it carries on without or even in spite of us. I love the audacity of Hoffman’s magic realism in juxtaposing the Holocaust with a mysterious heron who dances in the moonlight, at the river’s edge, with a very unusual woman.
This beautiful novel weaves together the realities of a terrible war, with an element of ancient magic. Hoffman creates a story about the lengths people will go to in order to survive, protect those they love and fight for what they believe in. We also see the amazing healing power of love and forgiveness. Most of all, against a backdrop of the most evil and inhumane act of the 20th century, Hoffman uses the character of Ava to make us truly think about what qualities make us human.

Meet The Author.

Alice Hoffman is the author of thirty works of fiction, including Practical Magic, The Dovekeepers, Magic Lessons, and, most recently, The Book of Magic. She lives in Boston. Visit her website: http://www.alicehoffman.com

The Bookstore Sisters

I usually expect a new Alice Hoffman novel in the autumn as she’s so prolific, but this year it’s a short story to keep us ticking over until her new novel arrives.

Isabel Gibson has all but perfected the art of forgetting. She’s a New Yorker now, with nothing left to tie her to Brinkley’s Island, Maine. Her parents are gone, the family bookstore is all but bankrupt, and her sister, Sophie, will probably never speak to her again. But when a mysterious letter arrives in her mailbox, Isabel feels herself drawn to the past. After years of fighting for her independence, she dreads the thought of going back to the island. What she finds there may forever alter her path—and change everything she thought she knew about her family, her home, and herself. I’m a lover of books about books, and since the words I keep hearing are ‘relationships, charm and magic’ I’m really looking forward to a long bath with this story.

Published by Amazon Original Stories on 1st Nov 2022.

Posted in Uncategorized

A Fight in Silence by Melanie Metzenthin

The subject matter of this book is very close to my heart, so despite the WW2 novel market feeling a bit saturated at the moment, I decided to give it a try. I have a disability and have studied disability and literature to post-grad level so Hitler’s treatment of disabled people and eugenics in general are subjects I’ve read about widely. I’ve encountered novels exploring the issue of eugenics in 20th Century North America. However, I have never seen it in a novel based in WW2.

The novel starts in Hamburg in 1926 when our two main characters, Richard and Paula, meet and fall in love. Soon after they marry, Paula becomes pregnant with twins. She gives birth to a boy and girl and this is the happiest time in their lives, with only one problem; their son Georg has been born deaf. They vow to protect him and have optimism that with his family’s help, all will be well. However, as I was reading, I was aware of the time period tucked in the back of my mind. I knew that the rise of Nazism was just around the corner and everything will change. This was uppermost in my mind as it had recently been depicted in the BBC series World On Fire. As the Nazis seize power, they begin to round up adults and children with disabilities for euthanising. Richard is a doctor and finds himself falsifying documents to help his patients. On a personal level he is hiding the disability of his own son. Will they be able to remain hidden, or even stay together?

What makes this book unusual is that we are reading about WW2 from the perspective of German citizens. Ordinary Germans suffered hardship through bombings and loss of both loved ones and their homes and livelihoods. In 2014 a memorial was unveiled in Berlin to commemorate the 300,000 German people killed by the Nazis. That’s without counting those in Poland, Austria and other occupied countries. The book ends Post-war and describes how the Germans were treated in the years following. I think the fact that this a German author accounts for the incredible detail and historical fact woven into the story. Where it lacked occasionally was in the emotions. This could be a realistic depiction of a culture shell shocked by war or it could just as easily be an issue with finding the right words in translation. I felt the book was well researched and characterised. It shows the other side of a war that we’re used to hearing about from the victor’s standpoint, I really enjoyed this different.

Translation Deborah Rachel Langton #NetGalley