Category Archives: Books

Books I have been reading recently

If we forget history…

I am about to set out on an adventure across Russia on the Trans Siberian Railway. As a result I have been reading books and novels that get me into the mood. One of them is the astoundingly detailed and forensically researched history of the Soviet Gulags. Gulag by Anne Applebaum.

It always surprises me that while many people know the names of at least one, and probably more than one, of the Nazi concentration camps, they cannot name a single one of the equivalent camps in Russia. In spite of copious literature, both fiction and non-fiction, that has been published (notably only since the death of Josef Stalin) about the camps: Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Varlam Shalamov and Evgeniya Ginzburg to name but a few, still the nature, extent and organisation of the camps has been largely ignored.

This is the first comprehensive study to appear, apart from The Gulag Archipelago which was a must read (and mostly never finished) book of the 1970s and Solzhenitsyn’s first book published in 1962, with the permission of Nikita Khrushchev, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which was more widely read.

Praised by historians and writers alike, this is an astonishing book. Divided into three parts, it details the early development of the camps: their nature and purpose and the grandiose schemes that were undertaken by the slave labourers; the progress from freedom to arrest, transport and arrival, and daily life and work in the different types of camp, the rations, the punishments, survival and death; and finally the end of the gulag.

I, and my fellow travellers, will be passing through Perm one of the most populated areas of industrial gulag factories, we will travel on a railway parts of which were laid by slave labourers and we will end up in Vladivostock, the dreaded embarkation point for the terrible hardships of the Kolyma gold mines.

I have a feeling that not much of this, if any, will feature in the literature or talks which will be delivered during our journey. But I will be remembering the millions and millions of often innocent people who passed through the gulags, the unnumbered deaths, unmarked graves and wasted lives.


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Fake Lives

We live in an age when truth, fact and certainty seem to be under a real threat. The internet bubble of social media can destroy scientific knowledge with a burst of counter-factual nonsense which then escalates into widely accepted belief – the vaccination crisis and the climate change crisis are only two examples.

Novels therefore, which are by their very definition not fact, should in my view be wary of creating a fake existence for a very real person. I am not saying that there is no room in fiction for the appearance of a real person: how could John le CarrĂ©, Sam Eastland or William Ryan write a spy novel if some of the characters – Stalin, Laurenty Beria, members of the KGB – were not named in the story and their conversations, thoughts and opinions made into fictional dialogue.

No, my dilemma lies in the writing exemplified by Annalies, a new novel by David Gillham. Although I found this a well written, interesting and even perceptive novel about the life of a young girl who survives Ravensbruck and returns home, what I found morally repugnant was that the young girl in question was Anne Frank, who, everybody knows, died shortly before the camp was liberated.

There were, and still are, a few young people who did indeed survive the horrors of Ravensbruck who are still alive now, though very old. I am positive that the stories of their lives in the camp, their survival and their return home mirror very much the trajectory of this novel, Annalies. I am equally sure that they too suffered survivors’ guilt, suspicion and emotional trauma, difficulties with adjusting to life again, the pain of loss and also the pain of re-establishing relationships sundered by the effects of the war. However, they were not made famous by the publication of a secret diary, they were not Anne Frank.

Herein lies the dilemma. The novel does no favours, in my view, to the real Anne Frank. In the novel she survives, her sister does not and Annalies (Anne Frank’s real name) returns to Holland, finds her father and continues to live in Amsterdam. The fictional returnee suffers from all the traumas that I listed above, and does not come across in the end as a very nice person. Which is only natural in the circumstances, this is why this is also such a compelling and perceptive novel. But it is not fundamentally wrong to cash in on a famous name in order to sell a book? When, had the identical book been written about another but unknown Ravensbruck survivor, it might not have attracted even the publisher’s attention.

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If you are wedded to cookery programmes, then the phrase “three ways” may be a death knell to this post. This is three books which show three ways, and in two instances people, who outwitted the Nazi Reich.

The Cut-Out Girl, worthy winner of the Costa Prize 2019, is the extraordinary story of a young Jewish girl who survived in Amsterdam, hiding in plain sight, from the German Occupiers and how after the end of the war, she was lost, and nearly forgotten, by the family who saved her.

Her remarkable survival and this book is the result of a search by the grandson of the foster family, who looked for her, found her and reconnected the broken threads.

This is neither a comfortable, nor a totally neutral story. Lien was not treated very well by her new family, and one incident alone is enough to explain why she might never have wanted to see them again; but that is not the reason for the severed relationship – that came from within the family.

This is a story of persistence, misunderstandings, courage and love and Bart van Es has written hauntingly about this strange, life changing event for his grandparents, his own father and Lien de Jong-Spiero herself.

The second book is rather different. This is a novel for a start, but it is based on the true story of one of Italy’s heroic youths. Guiseppe Lella, Pino for short, is about fifteen at the outbreak of the Second World War. He lives with his parents, a younger brother and a sister, in Milan. Other members of his family live there also and they are principally engaged in the making and designing of leather travel bags, handbags and purses.

At the beginning of the book, Pino is concerned with girls, jazz and the cinema. But the bombing of Milan changes his life and the life of the whole family. He and his brother are sent into the mountains to an Alpine school run by a priest, Father Re. Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the strange, searing and ambivalent story of a youth who encounters first hand the terrible evil that is Fascism, and subsequently the evils of Nazism.

While in the mountains, he is secretly trained to guide Jewish families and escaping pilots who have landed in Italy across the Alps into Switzerland. This is not without danger, not least from the elements. But also, obviously from German patrols, and also Italian brigands who latch on to the advantages of the situation to bully money and food, in the name of the Partisans (though not for them in fact), from the local population.

But just before he turns eighteen, Pino is summoned back to Milan by his parents and forced to enrol in the German army. This is because young Italian men that are drafted into the army are sent immediately to the Russian front, if they “volunteer” they are enrolled in less combative branches of the force, and stay behind enemy lines. That is the theory, anyway.

Reluctant, but obedient, Pino joins up. But is then slightly injured in a bombing raid and ends up, by a curious accident of fate, as the driver to a German officer, Hans Leyer, one of the shadow men and one of the most powerful Germans in Italy towards the end of the war.

Pino’s story is extraordinary and baffling, and it is not until many years after the war that it comes to light. Mark Sullivan was at an exceedingly low ebb when at a dinner party in Montana, USA he heard a modest and sketchy outline of the tale. He followed this up with visits to Italy to meet Pino, now a man in his mid to late eighties and the novel is based on his several prolonged visits and interviews with Pino.

Pino Lella had never spoken at length to anyone about the course of his war, what he did and who he did it with and until Sullivan turned up, that is probably how it would have remained, unmentioned until he died with his memories untold.

The third book is by the late Paddy Ashdown and tells the story of a group of people who did everything, except the one thing that might have made a difference, to stop Adolf Hitler and his rise to power and the inevitable consequence of the German rush to war.

Nein, Standing Up to Hitler 1935 – 1944 is the history of a massive failure. Had any of the schemes that are outlined in this well researched book come to fruition then the history of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century might have been very different.

A failure to cooperate, a failure of nerve and several missed opportunities meant that Hitler rose inexorably to power, and just as inexorably took German into war.

All three of these books are a revelation. Each showing what a slender gap there is between what happened and what might have happened. They are all incredibly lively, exciting and devastating in the ways humans deal with danger. It shows too, how depraved and ugly humans can be and how unfeeling.

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Chiller thriller

Another series, another country, another time. Luke McCallin‘s debut novels about the activities of Gregor Reinhardt are gripping. Not simply because they are suspenseful, entirely believable and tortuously convoluted but for the background.

We find ourselves, with Gregor in Sarajevo towards the end of the second world war. The city is surrounded by The Partisans who hold territory to the East, from where also the Russians will be coming. To the west there are other dangers and into this dangerous situation there is suddenly a gruesome murder.

There are two victims, a Serbo Croat woman and a German officer. Gregor Reinhardt is called in, but there are those that wish him to fail. However, in a past life, Reinhardt has been both a veteran of battle and a policeman. His current role is as a member of the armed forces, but his commanding officer has asked him to set aside those duties and to investigate this crime.

The first novel, The Man from Berlin, is a fascinating investigation which brings up several vexed issues pertaining to the status of an admired General. It gradually dawns on Reinhardt, after at least one colleague suffers a fatal accident, that this is going to be difficult. Not least because he, himself, has a growing repugnance for activities which he suspects are part and parcel of army policy. Not necessarily his unit, but his compatriots.

Quite aside from the vivid descriptions of Sarajevo and its surrounding countryside, there is the added interest of the historical background to the current situation of the novel. There are so many tribal groups, each with its own agenda and thanks to the detailed and informative outlines, this brings very much into focus the much more recent Balkan debacle.

Even someone with the most sketchy knowledge probably knows that after World War II, a Communist state under Tito was created as Yugoslavia, but that this fragmented after the death of Tito and the fall of the USSR. This novel gives the reader the added historic context for the Balkan crisis of the 21st Century.

In the second novel, The Pale House, the war is over but Reinhardt is back in Sarajevo trying to solve the displaced persons crisis. But the strange disappearance of German soldiers from the penal battalions and the discovery of a massacre in the forest, leads Reinhardt again into dangerous territory, where his investigation seems destined to aggravate several important people.

In the last available volume, The Ashes of Berlin, Reinhardt is in a fairly lowly position in the Berlin police force, in the Occupied Zone, where not only competing factions, but competing nations are endeavouring to control the destroyed city, to help survivors and to find any recalcitrant Nazis. And, on cue, there begins a spate of gruesome and curious murders…step forward Gregor Reinhardt…

There is still another volume to look out for. And in all of them, there is a wealth of historical detail which cannot help but expand one’s limited knowledge of the period. What is so crucially fascinating is the way in which Luke McCallin has got into the mind and character of a German. One is so unused to seeing the war and its aftermath from that point of view, even if in this case it is fiction.

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Oh to be in England

Possibly not right now, but in the 1920s. Before everything went bad again. The farming community in the West of England is poetically and brilliantly portrayed in Tim Pears trilogy which starts with The Horseman and finishes with The Redeemed.

This is a world of simple values, but hard work. The horse was key. In farming and in leisure, in transport and in fact. To have a good horse was one thing, but you needed good people to deal with them too. For the gentry and the farmers alike, to have someone who handled horses as if born to it was to own a living diamond, and Leo Sercombe was one such.

This trilogy is, as much as anything, a coming of age for Leo who is a young lad in the first book. He is the youngest child of a ploughman, Albert Sercombe, who is the employee of a tenant farmer, Amos Tucker; tenant to Lord Prideaux, the owner of the estate.

Prideaux has one daughter, Charlotte. Her mother died and she is mostly alone with her father and his staff, among whom is a German governess Ingrid Goettner.

It is horses that bring Leo and Lottie together, and it proves to be an innocent but devastating mistake.

By the end of the first volume, the Sercombes are out of their farm and Leo is an outcast from his family. The next two volumes follow his strange but vivid trajectory as a wanderer over the land, through the hands of good and bad men up to, and including, his strange career in the Second World War and finally his return to the West Country.

Tim Pears must be regarded as one of the finest novelists writing today about country life; a way of life that has now completely vanished. The settings are beautifully captured; the importance of the seasons and the weather; the sense of timelessness shadowing into doom is evocative. Read as a whole, it is a paean of praise in honour of the men and women of that forgotten generation, a generation who lived on and for the land.


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Crum and Cram

Twin pillars of the English Reformation, though neither of them knew it at the time. Diarmaid McCulloch has written two magisterial biographies, first Thomas Cranmer and just lately Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell, A life was published last year and I was given it for Christmas. While I did need some light relief between sections, I found the whole book an astonishing glimpse into a world so distant, and yet still affecting life today.

What everyone knows about Thomas Cromwell is that he destroyed the monasteries, this of course, is wrong. That is to say, an oversimplification of his intentions and his actions. The initial move towards reducing the monastic life in England was Cardinal Wolsey’s, and Thomas Cromwell was his agent. The movement started by closing the houses that has fewer than 12 inhabitants; this seems reasonable enough. After Wolsey’s fall from grace, the process continued with what were called “visitations”. These were undertaken all over the country to assess the religious practices in each house.

But with the dramatic events in Germany, the new thinking of Martin Luther and others, there came a slow recognition that relics, idols and images were probably deviations from true religion. The net result was a mass confiscation of such things, and destruction of statues of veneration – probably the worst act of vandalism this country has ever seen, possibly not even dwarfed by the more recent activities of the Taliban and ISIS.

Diarmaid’s book fills in all the gaps left by Hilary Mantel, Tracy Borman and Michael Everett; these three have each approached Cromwell’s life from a different angle. Mantel notoriously and brilliantly making it a novel, so filling in the inevitable gaps and silences with imagination; Tracy Borman looked at the context of his life as a faithful servant of King Henry VIII and Michael Everett looked at his life through the lens of politics and power. What Thomas Cromwell, A life does is to look forensically at each year of Cromwell’s life more or less from the moment he joins the household of Cardinal Wolsey, from near disaster to a meteoric rise to power until he was closer to the king than anyone else in the land.

The most revealing moments are the times when his grasp slips, not once but several times Thomas is on the very brink of annihilation, but manages to slip away unhurt. Until finally…

We know the ending: short, brutal and profoundly sad. Such that even the mercurial Henry, only months afterwards was railing against the decision – as if he had nothing to do with it.

The equally enthralling book Thomas Cranmer, A life, fills up the remaining gaps in the story of the Anglican Church. This too, is filled with details that come to the surface in surprising jolts. These two Thomases, both from quite humble backgrounds, between them caused a seismic alteration in the destination of England and the English way of religion.

There are so many “what ifs” in these two volumes that it is hard to pick out one or two illustrative examples. But one stand out case is the direction of travel away from the pure Lutheran austerity towards a softer, but manifestly different catholicity which came from the influence of the Swiss theologians – Huldrych Zwingli and the Swiss/French theologian John Calvin.

Both Thomases ended their lives hideously and one cannot help wondering what would have happened if either one had lived a full life to its natural end. But they lived in turbulent times, and in many ways were directly responsible for the schisms, the brutal and bloody retributions that followed from the English Reformation and which carried on killing and torturing dissenters from the regal norm, long after their deaths.

These are very serious books but utterly readable, enthralling and enlightening for anyone wanting to know more about where we are now and how we got here.

Who knew, for example, that the voting divisions on acts of Parliament into the “ayes” and “nos” lobbies, which we have just seen profoundly shake the country, were an idea of Thomas Cromwell’s to wrest from the ducal landlords the power to make decisions and towards a more equitable contribution from all members.

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New Year, new post

I suspect that Kate Morton would do better to restrict the number of topics she wishes to include in one novel and to concentrate more on rounding out the many bewildering characters she has in each. Her latest The Clockmaker’s Daughter, covers a wide range of situations, from Victorian England – poverty, thievery, infant farms, artistic brotherhoods, photography, new science and new railways – through to present day concerns.

Contrary to the impression given by its title, it is the house that is the main character, the house and its haunting occupant. There are many books about houses, from Manderley, Thornfield and Wuthering Heights through to the modern day – The Glass Room (Simon Mawer) and The House by the Lake (Thomas Harding – non-fiction) and it is obvious in a country of old houses there will have been interesting, exciting and even tragic events occurring in and around the place.

But Birchwood Manor is exceptional in the many and varied people who have lived or worked there. Many, if not all, of whom have suffered loss through sudden and accidental death of a parent or sibling. It becomes apparent that the house was built in Elizabethan times, it has two priest-holes constructed by Nicholas Owen, now canonised. A house with no less than two known priest-holes, will probably have seen death in one way or another. But this catalogue of sudden death stretches the credibility

The range of characters is also baffling: the Magenta Group who were there in the 1800s, the school, the refugees from World War II bombing, and the researchers and the public, and then there is the ghost.

It is the ghost, of course, who strings it all together. She can move around at will inside the house and grounds, but beyond that she cannot go.

There is a moment, when Lucy, the young sister, staying there in the 1800s finds the priest-holes, and from then on it is simply a matter of waiting for the inevitable.

This is most definitely a holiday read. Though, in fact, I was using it as a light relief break from a much more dense, factual and riveting book which I am currently reading and can hardly wait to tell you about. Have patience – it is long, concentrated scholarship and will take me a while. The Clockmaker’s Daughter is just that: light relief

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