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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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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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The best laid plans…

Two books, very different but with strong similarities.

Dark Water, the second novel by Elizabeth Lowry (and I will definitely be looking for her first) is a quasi-Gothic tale with two principal characters, a young newly qualified doctor – Hiram Carver and a national hero, William Borden.

Their first encounters are at sea, both literally and metaphorically. Hiram hates the sea, hates the ship he is on, hates the hierarchy and the endless repetition of orders from the top brass, through the ranks and down to the hand that has to “lay aft to the braces”; the repetition of swabbing, polishing, cleaning, scrubbing; the tedium, the mood of stasis and torpor.

Meanwhile, William Borden seems above all this, untouched, untarnished, bronzed and almost godlike; the reason for this comes later in the tale.

The story and the telling lie just south of Moby Dick and possibly The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but this is not to denigrate the novel which is a page-turner and turns the whole thing inside out to boot. So that once we leave the ocean, we think we may be following Hiram’s story.

The reason Hiram went to sea had to do with the society into which he had been born, demi-mondaine Bostoniana. As he found he could not impress his father, was jealous of his sister, Caro and found his mother distant, having trained as a doctor, he went to sea.

On his return, sick and sickened, he languishes for several months, until he finally gets to his feet again, only to find that his father has manoeuvered a job for him as Assistant Medical Officer in the local insane asylum.

So far, so good. Then a new patient is admitted and it is William Borden…

The second book, The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason, is set in Poland and Hungary during the First World War. A young, barely qualified doctor, Lucius enlists, only to find himself on the front line of a very mobile and disjointed theatre of war.

He ends up in a makeshift military hospital in a church in an out of the way village, Lemnowice. There, having never wielded a scalpel on a living creature in his life, he has to do amputations, stitch up shrapnel wounds, treat gonorrhea and then the shell-shocked patients begin to arrive.

His inexperience is masked by Margarete, a wimpled but beautiful woman, professing to be a nun. She has been there a long time and has seen at least three other doctors pack up and leave, for various reasons. She sees immediately that Lucius is inexperienced, but she guides him through the processes which she has watched the other doctors perform time and time again.

But shell shock is a new phenomenon, and treating it is guesswork as much as anything.

It is here that the similarity between the two novels becomes most apparent, for the well meaning treatment of the mentally unstable patients, the ones in the Boston asylum and the ones off the battlefield, by the two inexperienced and untrained doctors leads both of them, through hubris or hopefulness to make a wrong decision which leads inexorably on to some dreadful climax, and scenes of an inhumane and distressing nature.

But reader beware, for leaning back in judgement upon these two young men, you may slip into an unwarranted complacency. Psychoanalysis was in its infancy in the second novel, but existed not at all in the 1830s, and in both cases it was a step into ‘dark water’ which is what the deepest psychosis seems to be to Hiram Carver, while Lucius has not read The Interpretation of Dreams, though he has clearly heard of it and of Sigmund Freud.

Both books contain actions and language which we would not countenance now. But both novels are illuminating and exciting to read and come highly recommended.

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A log jam of books

Several new novels have been piling up in the “having read waiting to post” pile. The new Barbara Kingsolver, the new Andrew Miller and the new Philip Teir.


These are each in their own way, brilliant. I regard Barbara Kingsolver as one of the best women writers from America in the last 25 years. She is, to my mind the Rachel Carson of the fiction world. Each of her many books has behind it a message for the planet. Whether it is the changing habits of Monarch butterflies (Flight Behaviour) or changing attitudes to evolution, there is behind each novel a scintilla of historical truth. But as with the butterflies, the changes are mirrored in the lives of the characters.

In Unsheltered, the reader is drawn into the nature of houses themselves, what does an old house tell us, if anything, about the people who lived in it before? In the present day, Willa is being given the horrific news that the house she and her family live in is no longer stable and should be pulled down.  Several rooms are already no longer inhabitable.

This leads back to the same block in the same town, but to a historic period when a teacher at the town school finds himself in difficulties with the strict Creationist beliefs of the founding patriarch of the new development, Vineland – Mr Charles Landis. Thatcher Greenwood, a biologist interested in the works of Charles Darwin, also lives in a house that is crumbling and he has not the means to pay for repairs, not least because the very building design – his father-in-law’s – was flawed from the start.

His neighbour, a botanist, is another “real-life” character in this novel. Mary Treat is a distinguished but mostly forgotten botanist who corresponded with such luminaries as Charles Darwin, Charles Riley and Asa Gray, and whose contribution to the understanding of environment to the life of plants such as the Venus fly-trap were singular and admired by these (unjustly) more famous men. Charles Landis is also a true character, as is one of the more startling events in the book. 1868 was a rather turbulent time in America, it seems.

There are many layered meanings in the title, not only the shelter of the roof over our heads but the discoveries and obfuscations that often follow any new idea, when the certainties of old belief system are uncovered by the discoveries of new science.

This is a marvellous blend of fact and fiction, a seamless combination of past and present as exemplified by the houses, slowly sinking back into their foundations. If someone famous lived there, can the house be saved? There is much to savour in this wonderful book.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is also an historical novel, set at the time of the Peninsula War.  Captain John Lacroix arrives home from the setback at Corunna. It is a love story, a murder story and a study of the human will to survive against all the odds. In modern parlance, Lacroix is suffering from PTSD, once he is back on his feet physically, he is expected to return to his regiment and the war with France. Instead, he turns North.

But all is not absolutely as it seems, grief and remorse are deeply lodged in his heart, and while he is fleeing from these emotions, there are other men who are in deadly pursuit. Merciless to himself, Lacroix is being pursued by an enemy even more desperate and implacable towards him.

Miller gets into the mind of his characters in a combined skill of both observation and description, so that the landscape and the weather are principals in the drama, as much as the human characters themselves.

The ending…it is sublime.

The Summer House is translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunally, she also translated his debut novel The Winter War.

Several families have left the city for their summer houses, near water and the sea. For Erik and Julia, it begins as a perfectly normal family holiday in her parents’ summer house, they have with them their two children, Alice and Anton. In a neighbouring house there seems to be a single woman, Kati, she does not make contact and seems to shun society.

Further away, but in a house that Julia knows well from her childhood and which she has included in her first novel, is a disparate group of neo-environmentalists. Led by Chris, they are of the view that climate change and its eventual outcomes are now inevitable, therefore peddling hope that we may find a solution in time to stem the catastrophe is pointless, so we should aim to live to the best of our abilities in the knowledge that we can change nothing, but to live with despair in a pre-industrial wilderness as hunter-gatherers with internet connection.

Among this group, is her childhood friend Marika. Summer progresses and things will never be the same again, for any of them.

This is not a plot driven novel, it is more a meditation upon the secrets and lies that every family has, little lies and big secrets – Erik has lost his job and not told Julia; she is still trying to decide whether their relationship is still worth keeping; Marika and Chris have a whole different set of problems, most of which they are trying to keep secret. It is about the barriers we put up to protect our masks, and the little things or events that happen that may eventually reveal the truth.



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Another novel for the long commute

Three Things About Elsie is the latest offering from Joanna Cannon, her previous novel was the surprising debut The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.

Elsie x3This novel is a sort of mystery, but also a reflection upon life as seen by an elderly woman, Florence who has fallen in her room shortly after 4pm. She cannot get up, nor can she reach her call button.

She slowly goes through the people who may come to find her, and so the story unfolds. Who they are and why they might come to her room, what they will say when they find her on the floor.

The hours pass, the plot thickens, and in the intersectional chapters in “now-time” Florence notices things lying under the bed or the bureau where the cleaners have missed them. Some of these items have a place in the story, some of them are just dust.

Her story, and the story of the friends and carers in the sheltered accommodation where she finds herself, unwind slowly with a hint of menace as she is constantly being threatened with removal to Greenbanks, which when we do “visit” it later seems to be the worst sort of institutional care home imaginable. And then there is the strange man, the new resident, calling himself Gabriel Price, how is it possible that he is there when he drowned?

And how did twenty five Battenburg Cakes turn up in her cupboard? The reader is left unsure whether this is indeed a calculated act on the part of the threatening stranger, or batty Florence slowly losing her faculties. We can choose between the views of the care home staff who think one way and Florence’s friends who believe her version.

In the end, it is also a case of five degrees of separation. We find, as the reader does in From a Low and Quiet Sea, that all these people also have a tenuous connection way back in the past.

Heaven help us all!

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