2016 Historical Fiction

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: WWII, London, teacher, love, triumphs

I loved Chris Cleave’s debut novel, The Other Hand, but his subsequent books haven’t been in the same league. With Everyone Brave Is Forgiven he has returned to form. The fact this is based on the experiences of his relatives has ignited a special spark in his writing – the passion and emotion shines through. I even discovered a few more facts about WWII!

The book begins in London at the start of WWII, with Mary North volunteering to become a spy. To her disappointment she is assigned to teach in a primary school, taking over the job from a man who is sent away on war business. Mary forms a bond with the children, particularly Zachary, the son of a black minstrel. But the main focus of the novel is love and the way war impacts on the relationships that are formed during this difficult time.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven is very well researched and I loved learning about a slightly different aspect of WWII. There were a few disturbing scenes, but these were balanced by the humour present in the rest of the novel. It was lovely to see how the British public coped with the terrible situation by making light of their plight – the dialogue was fantastic and most of the jokes were new to me. As per this History articles you will get the brief idea about immigration.

The imagery was also particularly vivid:

They were all turning to stone from hunger. They took  cover behind stone walls. They painted their trucks and their helmets and their guns to resemble stone blocks, as if by sympathetic magic some hardness might accrue. They saw rubble walls when they closed their eyes at night. Sometimes, when one was particularly hungry, the omnipresent yellow limestone had the exact hue of cheddar, and when the enemy’s paratroopers finally came it would afford about as much protection.

This book covers a subject that has been written about thousands of times before, but somehow Chris Cleave shows it to us in a fresh light. I’m sure it will be on a few prize shortlists later this year.

2016 Historical Fiction

The Villa Rouge by Maggie Ross

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: WWII, family, secret, consequences, life

I hadn’t heard of Maggie Ross until this book popped through my letterbox, but the PR blurb highlighted the fact that she won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize back in 1969 and so I was intrigued.

The Villa Rouge is a slow moving, but richly detailed, story set during WWII. The plot revolves around Morgan Pericall, a young woman whose husband volunteers to join the army at the first opportunity. Betrayed by his abandonment, she leaves London and moves back into her childhood home. The events of WWII slowly develop around her and we see the effect that war has on a range of different people.

Charlie found it exciting listening to Simon’s tales: twelve miles inland from the coast had been designated a danger area; London was in a state of emergency, although it was reported that people were dying mostly from accidents caused by pitch-dark roads; there were already wardens on street patrols in the West End. Arpent said A.R.P posts were being set up in London’s private houses. So why not at the Villa Rouge? Rhoda and Charlie thought it thrilling. All Morgan could think about was her home in Tufnell Park.

I thought that I knew most things about WWII, but this book has a level of detail which surpasses most others on the subject. I’m not sure how old Maggie Ross is, but I read this feeling as though she’d lived through these experiences herself. The authenticity and meandering nature of the plot gave the impression that this book was more autobiographical than fictional.

Much of this book was impressive, but my main gripe was that the characters weren’t very likeable (something I’m scared of writing, given the fact I think this is autobiographical!) I love deeply flawed characters, but these didn’t seem to have many redeeming features. I failed to form a connection to them and so didn’t care what happened.

I was also a bit annoyed to discover (on the very last page!) that this book carries on into a sequel. I try not to start series until the final one is published, as I know I will never remember enough detail if I have to wait until the next one is released. I think the fact this is only the first half of a book should be revealed on the cover.

These small problems shouldn’t put you off reading it, as there is a lot to enjoy in here. The Villa Rouge gives a rare insight into domestic life in England during WWII. Recommended to anyone who enjoys reading about family life.




1950s Books in Translation Thriller

The Darkroom of Damocles by W.F. Hermans

The Darkroom Of Damocles Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke

Five words from the blurb: occupation, Holland, assassinations, traitors, impossibility

The Darkroom of Damocles is set in Holland during WWII. It centres on Henri, a young man who is approached and asked to perform a series of assignments. These become increasingly dangerous, but his loyalty to the British is unwavering and he puts his job above relationships with his own family. Henri only starts to question his actions when the war ends and he begins to discover the truth behind the secrets of war. This leads the reader to question whether there can ever be a “right” side to take in a conflict situation. 

This book was very readable. Much of it felt like a fast-paced spy novel, but as it progressed it was increasingly possible to see the depth and complex moral issues that the author was trying to address. 

Unfortunately I felt the book was too long for its plot. There were several sections in the middle where I lost interest and I wish that some of these had been edited out. I’m not normally a fan of spy novels so I think this probably contributed to my boredom as after a while one chase scene seemed very much like the next:

Osewoudt turned round, the pistol in his trembling fist almost level with his eyes. He positioned himself with one foot forward while keeping watch on the door to the kitchen, which was slightly ajar. He couldn’t see into the kitchen because the door was at right angles to the passage. He should have left it open, he now realised. He listened intently, but could hear only the muffled sound of Lagendaal’s footsteps approaching.

Luckily the ending made up for some of excessive middle section. I was impressed by the way everything came together, but I was hoping for a greater emotional impact than I found.

I’m pleased I’ve read this Dutch classic, but I wish it had been half the length.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Though The Darkroom of Damocles is full of action, it was the parts where nothing was happening that I liked best. The Asylum

The action is thrilling, the detail grounded and real, the prose (and the exceptional translation) deceptively simple and fluid. Lizzy’s Literary Life

It’s a book to make you think, and go on thinking for some time after you’ve put it down. Fleur in her World


2009 Books in Translation

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Alone in Berlin (Penguin Modern Classics) Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

Five words from the blurb: ordinary, German, postcards, attacking, Hitler

Alone in Berlin begins in 1940 with a couple discovering that their only son has been killed fighting in France. Devastated by the news, the couple decide to drop postcards which attack Hitler across the city. This act of resistance is extremely dangerous and the couple risk their lives every time they step out of their apartment with a new piece of propaganda.

Alone in Berlin reads like a classic – the writing was simple, but had an effortless style:

It doesn’t matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not.

The pace was excellent in the beginning, but as the book progressed it began to flag a bit. I think this was mainly due to the inevitability of the conclusion (or possibly because this 600 page book was written in just 24 days and could have done with a bit more editing!)

The book did a fantastic job of showing what life was like for ordinary Germans living in Berlin. The difficulties and fear they faced were shown without sensationalism. Each character was well drawn and I loved the flawed nature of their personalities.

I want to criticise the book for its unlikely coincidences, but on reading the afterword I discovered that it is heavily based on fact. This makes the story more poignant, but also more frustrating. Warning, minor spoiler: Their tiny act of resistance put many people in danger, but failed to achieve anything. I prefer to read about people who make a real difference in the world and this couple just seemed to bumble around without having any real impact.

My only real criticism is that the book lacked atmosphere. There weren’t many descriptive passages and there was an emotional distance between the characters and the reader. Luckily I know enough about Berlin to be able to conjure up my own mental images of the city, but I’d prefer to have these reinforced by the text.

Overall this book has many positives, but seems to fall down the more you think about it. Recommended to those who’d like to know more about life in Berlin during WWII, but prefer gentler reads. 


The thoughts of other bloggers:

… this book is beautiful, a quiet book of common decency...The Parrish Lantern

…the momentum of this novel, which is divided into four chunks, is lost in the big baggy structure of it. Reading Matters

 …the novel brings to life superbly drawn characters… Euro Crime

I read this as part of German Literature Month – take a look for lots of great reading suggestions!


2000 - 2007 Historical Fiction

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch

Five words from the blurb: Londoners, 1940s, streets, secrets, liaisons

The Fingersmith is one of my favourite books so I had high expectations for this one. The Night Watch wasn’t quite in the same league, but I was impressed by Waters’ ability to bring war-torn London to life.

The Night Watch begins in 1947 and goes backwards in time, showing how WWII affected four Londoners. It was a fairly quiet book, concentrating on the relationships and emotions of ordinary people living within the capital.

Every scene was vividly described and the characters were all well developed. I’ve read lots of books about WWII, but this was the first to really make me understand what daily life was like for those who weren’t fighting on the front line.

The period detail was fantastic and it was especially nice to recognise the places in London and to learn how landmarks that I am familiar with were utilised or damaged during the war. The resilience of the characters and their attitude to the ever-present danger of the bombings felt accurate and it was nice to see positive stories layered with the darker ones.

She’d never thought of that before, about all the secrets that the war must have swallowed up, left buried in dust and darkness and silence. She’d only ever thought of the raids as tearing things open, making things hard.

The only negative was the lack of forward momentum.  I’d heard a lot about the amazing backwards structure of this book, but I’m afraid I wasn’t impressed by it. I felt that it would have been stronger with a conventional timeline as the reversal seemed like a gimmick.

Overall this was a beautifully researched piece of historical fiction, packed with atmosphere. I’d have preferred a stronger narrative, but it is still an impressive book and I recommend it.


2013 Novella

Magda by Meike Ziervogel


WARNING: Review contains spoilers. If you are unfamiliar with Magda Goebbels’ story and are sensitive to spoilers I recommend that you read the book, not the review!

Five words from the blurb: Goebbells. Hitler, relationship, mother, foreboding

A few years ago I read The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins, a fantastic, albeit slightly weird, book set in Berlin. It introduced me to the story of Magda Goebbels and numerous other families who committed suicide during WWII. Since then I’ve been intrigued by the forces that drive people to kill their own children;  so when I was offered a review copy of Magda I jumped at the chance to read another book on the subject. The fact this one was written by Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, was an added bonus. She has published lots of fantastic novellas over the years and I was interested to see what kind of book she’d write herself.

Magda was an illegitimate child who had a difficult start in life. Her problems seemed to be solved when she fell in love with Josef Goebbels, but his place by Hitler’s side only lead to further heartache.

Humans need hope and faith in order to live. Some are born with the ability to have faith, to have hope. They are the blessed ones, like the Führer, Father and Mother. Most people, however, are born without hope and faith, but they can learn it from a Führer. And then there are people like me. We have to struggle, to fight for our faith and hope. We have to be continuously aware of the enemy inside us. We are never allowed to let go.

The book gives a brief glimpse into Magda Goebbels’ early life, but as the second world war draws to a close, and the family move into Hitler’s bunker, the point-of-view switches to that of her eldest daughter, Helga. I was initially disappointed to see the focus taken away from Magda, but as the book reached its conclusion I realised what a clever structure this was.

The plot was simple and, despite knowing how the story ends, it was still a heart wrenching shock to read the final chapter. The book shares many similarities with Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi*, one of my favourite books. They both have the same sense of foreboding that permeates every page and a simple clarity that allows the characters and their emotions to shine.

The book left me with many questions about Magda’s decisions, but filling in the gaps gave the story an enduring quality and left me wanting to know even more about the women in Hitler’s bunker.

This is a brief, but powerful book. I highly recommend it.


*published by Meike’s Peirene Press