Archives for World War Two

Book review: A Hero in France

France 1941, British bombers fly every night to Germany, many aircraft don’t make it back home. The aircrew parachuting into Occupied France must somehow find their way home in order to fight again. A Hero in France by Alan Furst is a story of that individual battle within the wider war, seen from different sides by two ordinary men. This is the beginning of the French Resistance. The man known as Mathieu – we don’t know his real name or identity until the very end of the book, this is the name by which he is known to his Resistance cell – escorts airmen along the north-south escape lines into Vichy France and onwards to Spain. Old clothes are sourced at jumble sales, innocent-looking shops serve as message drops, and a schoolgirl delivers messages by bicycle. In the beginning it was successful and relatively simple, but now the German command in Paris realizes there is a big problem. Word is getting around about the Resistance and people want to join, but how does Mathieu know who is genuine and who is a German spy? In Hamburg, Otto Broehm, senior inspector of the police department, is transferred to the Kommandantur in
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Categories: Book Love.

A poem to read in the bath… ‘Elegy of a Common Soldier’

We are all used to the ‘War Poets’ of the Great War, but perhaps not so aware of poets writing about the Second World War. Dennis B Wilson’s Elegy of a Common Soldier was written at a time between the trenches in Normandy and being in hospital in Swansea in 1944 and conjures up the horrible detail of war juxtaposed with nature and what was once normal. Quite arresting. I was unaware of his work until I read an article in The Sunday Times Magazine about Mr Wilson’s reunion with a branch of the family he didn’t know existed: his father, novelist Alexander Wilson, had actually been married to four woman at the same time, producing numerous children. So in his late eighties, Dennis B Wilson discovered new relatives, including actress Ruth Wilson. She says of the poet: ‘As a wounded soldier in the Second World War, he bore witness to so many things, including the D-Day landings, all of which he wrote about in his poetry. I feel I have kindred spirits in my new-found family, I certainly do with Dennis. It may have taken this long to find each other, but I’m so pleased we have.’ If you
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Categories: Book Love and Poetry.

Book review: Noonday

It seems inevitable that the final novel in a trilogy which started with the Great War should end with the Blitz, and that the theme should be death. Death, grief, guilt at being alive, guilt at longing for death, and guilt at wishing another dead. Noonday is a fitting end to the ‘Life Class’ trilogy by Pat Barker, the tale of three young artists – Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville – which started on the verge of the Great War in Life Class, and continued through the war in Toby’s Room. But although the context is war, there are a lot of other things going on. The story opens with Elinor at the country home of her mother, who is dying. The assorted relatives wait, in the scorching heat, for death to arrive. Also present is Kenny, an evacuee sent from London to avoid death by bombing. So, the shadow of death is present from the very first page. Don’t forget about Kenny, he is important, particularly in the impact he has on Paul Tarrant – now Elinor’s husband. Paul’s connection with this sorry out-of-place boy leads him to a meeting with a medium, Bertha Mason. This is
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Book of Lies

What is the truth and what is a lie? Is a fib a lie, is an omission a lie? And what would make you lie? To save yourself, to save a loved one? Is it okay to lie in war? I read this book by Mary Horlock without keeping the title in my mind, but at the end I knew what the title meant. The island of Guernsey is the setting for this family story told through the eyes of two children: in 1985, Catherine is 15; in 1940, her uncle Charlie is 12. He sees the German soldiers arrive to occupy the small island; a generation later, Cat still feels the after-effects of the lies told then. More lies are being told now, the difficulty is in identifying truth from lies. Cat is central to the novel. She is an irreverent narrator who tells us not only her own story but also the history of the island and her family’s war story. She was told both stories by her father, and now that he is dead Cat wishes she had asked him more questions. Cat’s voice is a true teenager, her banter is littered with humour, insecurity, crushes, curiosity
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Categories: Book Love.

How Kate Atkinson writes

Kate Atkinson: “This is a novel, not a polemic [and I am no historian] and I have accordingly left the doubts and ambiguities for the characters and the text to voice.” [in Author’s Note, in the Doubleday paperback edition of ‘A God in Ruins’] In her Author’s Note at the back of A God in Ruins [how I much prefer to read these texts after I have read the novel, not before], Kate Atkinson explains that she decided to write a novel about the Second World War, “I rather grandiosely believed that I could somehow cover the whole conflict in less than half the length of War and Peace”. Of course she couldn’t and so she settled on the London Blitz in Life After Life, and the strategic bombing campaign against Germany in its companion novel A God in Ruins. It is the difficulties of bombing that she leaves in the mouths and minds of her characters. She writes of the perils for the novelist of writing a story based on true events. “There is nothing that happens during the chapters set during the war in A God in Ruins that isn’t in some way based on a real-life incident
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Categories: Book Love, On Researching and On Writing.

Book review: A God in Ruins

If the best recommendation for a novel is that, once you finish it, you want to start reading it all over again, then this is my recommendation for A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. The story of Teddy Todd reeled me in until I was reading late into the night. Teddy is brother to Ursula Todd, who featured in Atkinson’s Life after Life, but this is not a sequel. More a companion piece, one book informs the other but stands up fully on its own. Read either first, it doesn’t matter. This is a book about war – the Second World War, the daily grind of Teddy’s life as a bomber pilot – and the effect this experience has on the rest of his life. War doesn’t happen and then go away, it colours lives and affects them until death, mostly unnoticed or misunderstood by relatives. And so we see Teddy’s life, told in a chopped up manner with excerpts from his childhood, war, early marriage and fatherhood, and as a much-loved grandfather. I don’t think I’m giving much away here to say he survives the war, but Atkinson’s descriptions of his bomber sorties are realistic, we feel the cold, the
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Categories: Book Love.

My Top 5… World War Two novels

This was an impossible list to write. My childhood was filled with World War Two novels and films, plus lots of cowboy and westerns too, thanks to my father. So this list combines childhood favourites with literature discovered in later years. ‘Sophie’s Choice’ by William Styron Who can forget the book, or that scene in the 1982 film. Sophie’s Choice: the phrase now commonly known to mean ‘an impossible choice’. Buy now ‘Where Eagles Dare’ by Alistair MacLean The 1968 film: Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton, need I say more? I gobbled Alistair MacLean’s books as a child; cheap paperbacks bought by my father and read by us all. Old-fashioned now, but still great page-turners. Buy now ‘Schindler’s Ark’ by Thomas Keneally I bought this one in July 1983 after it won the 1982 Booker Prize. In 1993 it was made into the film Schindler’s List starring Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern and a young Ralph Fiennes as the terrifying Amon Goeth. Buy now ‘Fortunes of War 1-3’ [The Balkan Trilogy] by Olivia Manning Guy and Harriet Pringle [aka a very young Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thomspon, then married in real life, in the 1987 BBC
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Categories: Book Love and On Writing.

Book review: Marking Time

September 2, 1939: Germany has invaded Poland and, for the Cazalet family in London and Sussex, war seems imminent. The story is told from 1939 to 1941 from the viewpoints of three Cazalet cousins, teenagers Polly, Louise and Clary. Marking Time is second in the five-book series The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. We see them growing up quickly, forced to face war and death before their time, watch their parents struggle with ordinary life and relationships and health crises which continue despite the fighting. One day a German bomber crashes into a nearby field and Christopher, a pacifist, runs out to prevent the local men from shooting the injured Germans. Afterwards, Polly and Christopher go for a walk. Polly thinks “how odd it was that when one wanted everything to be good with somebody, one started not telling them everything.” They come to understand that their parents are not just parents, but people too with their own feelings and worries. Polly wonders if “concealment and deceit were a necessary part of human relationships. Because if they were, she was going to be pretty bad at them.” Louise is at acting school but struggles to play a character ‘in
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Light Years

If you haven’t read this book [it is the first in a series of five], you are in for a treat. Elizabeth Jane Howard died last year at the age of 90 and this prompted me to buy ‘The Cazalet Chronicles’. I recently read them on holiday, back-to-back and know I will re-read them many more times. This is a great family saga, a glimpse of upstairs and downstairs as World War Two threatens the Cazalet family. Over the course of these five books we see the changing social geography of England through the prism of this family, the changing lives of the women and servants, wartime privations, the threat to the family timber business as they face up to the reality of fear. Oh how I gobbled up these novels. This, the first, introduces us to the family: the patriarch William and his wife The Duchy, their three sons – Hugh, Edward and Rupert, and their wives – and daughter Rachel. As a new war threatens, the hidden wounds of the Great War have not healed and there is no appetite for another. The family gathers at the Sussex house, Home Place, which is the hub of the action.
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Midnight in Europe

1938. Spain at war, Europe on the brink of war. This is the first World War Two novel I have read about the overlap of the two wars, the impact of one on the other, and the approaching shadow of fascism. Nothing happens in isolation. The Spanish Civil War is notoriously difficult to understand: so many factions, changing names etc. Sensibly, Alan Furst concentrates on one aspect: the supply of weapons to the Republicans fighting the fascist army of Franco. A secret Spanish agency in Paris sources arms and ammunition for the Republicans. Cristián Ferrar, a Spanish lawyer living in Paris and working for a French law firm, is asked to help. Unsure what he is getting into, but resigned to help his mother country, he is soon looking over his shoulder to see if he is being followed – he doesn’t know who by, it could be the Spanish fascists, the Gestapo, the Russians. Inter-cut with Ferrar’s story are excerpts from the front line in Spain where preparations are being made to fight the Battle of the Ebro. The need for the weapons is desperate, as bullets are counted out for each soldier. Working with an odd mixture of
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Categories: Book Love.

A writer who inspires me: Judith Kerr

Where do I start? Judith Kerr. You perhaps don’t know her name but you will know her books. Mog the Cat and The Tiger Who Came to Tea are ageless books for children. I don’t write children’s books, so why am I inspired by Judith Kerr? It’s difficult not to be. Here are some inspiring facts:- Mog. The Tiger. In 1933 when she was nine, she escaped from Berlin with her parents and brother. After moving around Europe, they settled in London in 1936. Her father was a writer and drama critic whose books were burned by the Nazis. Judith continued drawing throughout the whole experience. She’s 91 and still drawing and writing. She has written countless books for children, which never go out of fashion. She has no time for trendy education methods, and thinks children need to be sat down and taught spelling, grammar and times tables. Her trilogy Out of the Hitler Time – comprising When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, The Other Way Round and A Small Person Far Away – is the story of Anna and her family from 1933 and the rise of Hitler, through the war to Anna’s return to Berlin many years later.
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Categories: Book Love and On Writing.

Book review: The Beekeeper’s Daughter

I haven’t read a book by Santa Montefiore before, and if I’d seen the cover in a shop I doubt I would have picked it up: flowers, soft focus woman in a flowing dress. A bit twee for me. But I didn’t see the cover, I downloaded it from Net Galley. And it just goes to show how a cover can deter as well as attract, because I enjoyed the book. In a ‘I need an unchallenging read for a hot summer day when my brain isn’t fully-functioning’ kind of way. I was 75% of the way through the book before I worked out why I was slightly dissatisfied, and I emphasize the ‘slightly’. Something was missing: context. The bees are drawn beautifully, the description of bees, the beekeeping, their role in Grace’s life. I could not say the same for the World War Two strand, in which war was a distant event: the women take over work at the Hall, and they have plenty of vegetables to eat. Likewise the Seventies, lightly drawn with sweeping pencil strokes. That’s why for me, the book is a lightweight read although it examines heavyweight topics and the characterization is strong. So I
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Citadel

I read a lot of books. Amongst those with the strongest sense of place, the ones that linger in my imagination, are the Languedoc trilogy by Kate Mosse. Citadel, the third novel in the series, is set in ad342 and 1942 during World War Two. Unusually with a trilogy, you don’t have to have read the other two books in order to enjoy this one. Certainly it is some years since I read Labyrinth and Sepulchre and the details are hazy, each book stands on its own. I enjoyed this book immensely. The story centres on a small group of women who fight against the Nazi regime and who, by the very fact that they are women, are able to slip unnoticed along the night-time streets of occupied Carcassonne. The Prologue describes ‘the woman known as Sophie’ and the reader is left to wonder, which of the women in the story is ‘Sophie’? I must point out that the story is slow to get going, I had to be patient, but I trusted Mosse [below]. It did make me question whether my attention span is shortening, I hope not. If it is I must read longer novels to re-stretch my
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Categories: Book Love.

Book Review: Dominion

You know that feeling, it happens once in a while, when you finish reading a book that was so good you want to go back to the beginning and start again? Well, it was like that for me with CJ Sansom’s Dominion. It was the premise that caught my attention as soon as I read the pre-publication reviews: an alternate history set in Britain in 1952, peace is made with Hitler in 1941 which changes the direction of World War Two. An alternative world. Previously I had read one Sansom novel, Winter in Madrid, which I enjoyed; three of his Matthew Shardlake mysteries sit on my to-read shelf. After Dominion, I will turn to them quickly. The story focusses on four main characters, a scientist, a civil servant, the civil servant’s wife, and a Gestapo officer based at Senate House in London, the tall university building being the Gestapo’s London HQ with torture cells in the basement. This is a different Britain, where Jews are being rounded-up and transferred to camps in the country, where the Isle of Wight is occupied by the German army [which is still fighting in Russia], and where it is rumoured in Berlin that Hitler is either
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Categories: Book Love.

Reading for research… Young Voices

As research for the next novel, I’m reading a lot about the Second World War. For a while I’ve been working my way through a fascinating book called Young Voices by Lyn Smith, produced with the Imperial War Museum. I picked it up in my local library. It is an account of children’s experiences during the war. I’m particularly interested in children who lived through Occupation and there are children quoted throughout who grew up Guernsey. One woman tells how it became compulsory at school to learn the German language. One day the German kommandant arrived to present a prize, which she as top of the class in German, was to receive. He asked her a simple question in German, ‘how old are you?’ Her brain froze and she couldn’t answer, terrified she was going to be shot. Someone whispered the question again in English, and the girl was able to answer correctly. The prize? A book in German which she was unable to read. Fascinating stuff, don’t know yet how I am going to use any of this. I enjoy researching my next novel while writing the current one. Sometimes it just gives the brain a rest, a new
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Categories: On Researching and On Writing.