All posts by Dorinda Balchin

Recommended Read – House of the Hanged by Mark Mills

France, 1935: At the poor man’s end of the Riviera sits Le Rayol, a haven for artists, expatriates and refugees. Here, a world away from the rumblings of a continent heading towards war, Tom Nash has rebuilt his life after a turbulent career in the Secret Intelligence Service. His past, though, is less willing to leave him behind. When a midnight intruder tries to kill him, Tom knows it is just a matter of time before another assassination attempt is made. Gathered at Le Rayol for the summer months are all those he holds most dear, including his beloved goddaughter Lucy. Reluctantly, Tom comes to believe that one of them must have betrayed him. If he is to live, Tom must draw his enemy out, but at what cost to himself and the people he loves…?

House of the Hanged is a thriller with the majority of the story set in the mid-1930’s when the threat of war hangs over Europe once more, but no one is sure whether it will be fascist Germany who is the enemy, or communist Russia, or maybe a combination of the two.

The novel begins almost twenty years earlier in revolutionary Russia with the main character, Tom, failing to save the life of the woman he loves. The story swiftly moves on to the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War where Tom has given up working for British Intelligence and settled down in the south of France. As the novel progresses we learn more about Tom’s work, how it affected him, and how he is now trying to redeem himself, put the past behind him, and enjoy a life of peace. Each year Tom invites friends to join him at his villa for the summer; he also extends a welcome to refugees, particularly from Russia, as though his efforts to help them may in some way atone for not saving his love. After the thrilling opening the pace of the novel slows as we settle into the relaxed lifestyle of cocktail parties, sailing, swimming etc. in the south of France, but there is already a feeling that this year will not be like those which have gone before. When an attempt is made on Tom’s life the pace quickens again as he begins to question those around him – one of the people he is close to, perhaps someone he loves, has betrayed him.

Mr Mills has created a cast of well-drawn and believable characters in this novel, and the reader will enjoy learning about them and how they could be involved in the attempts to kill Tom. Is the threat to him linked to the current political climate, or has his past in Russia finally caught up with him? (Don’t worry, no spoilers here!) Tom is so unsure of the people around him that he keeps the danger to him a secret; all is calm on the surface, but the author has deftly created an undercurrent of fear and suspense which draws the reader in, helped in no part by his skilled writing, particularly in dialogue. Mr Mills has obviously researched this period of European history and has therefore been able to contrast the relaxed lifestyle of a particular social group on the French Riviera with the tension of a continent edging ever closer to all-out war. He has an evocative style which leaves the reader feeling immersed in a particular place and time – it is almost possible to feel the heat of the Mediterranean sun, the coolness of the water and the everchanging breeze – yet, at the heart, this is a well-paced cat and mouse thriller in which the pace is not slowed by the historical detail.

House of the Hanged is a classic spy story which would make a great holiday read for anyone who likes historical fiction, mysteries and intrigue. I will certainly be trying other books by this author.

House Of The Hanged can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Mark Mills and his work here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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A wartime Christmas

Children who grew up during the long years of the Second World War had a difficult life, they certainly had little idea of the type of Christmas festivities which had been enjoyed by their parents or older siblings in earlier years. With food shortages, rationing, and manufacturing focused on the war effort, these children had far less too enjoy than those who had gone before. But what was worse for most families was the fact that they had to spend the festive season without their loved ones – many husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons were fighting overseas, or were prisoners of war; many women were in the services or carrying on vital war work, many children had been evacuated and would be spending Christmas far from home with strangers. And many families had empty chairs at their tables which would never be filled again – family members killed in action or bombing raids.

As well as the sadness of separation Christmas luxuries were also hard to come by, even basic foods were scarce and people had to improvise by finding creative substitutes for festive ingredients. The black market did a roaring trade  in December but, even so, few people were able to buy gifts which  meant that many of the presents unwrapped on Christmas morning were homemade and practical. The government even encouraged people to ‘Make it a War Savings Christmas’, buying bonds and supporting the war effort rather than giving presents.

Poster issued by the National Savings Committee. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 16433)

Making Christmas look as festive as possible was more difficult from 1941 onwards because it was impossible to buy Christmas wrapping paper thanks to the Ministry of Supply ruling that ‘no retailer shall provide any paper for the packaging or wrapping of goods excepting foodstuffs or articles which the shopkeeper has agreed to deliver’. This effort to save paper  impacted on many aspects of life, including making it difficult to wrap Christmas presents and keep them a surprise. The shortage of paper also meant that it was almost impossible to find decorations so these, too, were homemade, often using old newspapers which had been painted in festive colours.

Children at Fen Ditton Junior School (Cambridgeshire) making paper chains for Christmas..© IWM (D 23619)

Britain’s allies understood the hardships of people back in the United Kingdom and set up charities to help. In America many of these charities came together under the umbrella of the British War Relief Society whose aim was to send food and clothes to those in need. In this photograph a young boy called Derek Cunningham received a Christmas card and gifts from the BWRS in Canning Town (London).

© IWM (D 23296)

American soldiers were also encouraged to spend Christmas with their English allies in an effort to integrate more closely as they were often resented by the locals for being ‘overpaid, oversexed, and over here!’ Most GI’s had never been abroad before so to be spending Christmas away from their families was difficult for them. The idea was that civilians would invite an American to spend Christmas Day with them and, in return, the soldiers would bring gifts (nylon stockings, chocolate, cigarettes, chewing gum etc.). Rationing meant that the British had limited food supplies so each soldier who accepted an invitation was given special rations from the PX for every day that they spent with a host family (the PX was the Post Exchange which was the American equivalent of the British NAAFI). Despite initial misgivings the programme proved a huge success.

© IWM (EA 10182)

Added to the sadness of Christmas without family members and the hardship of trying to find food and presents during a time of rationing, was the fear of the enemy. In 1940 London had been bombed for 57 consecutive nights leading up to Christmas, and no one believed that Christmas Eve would be any different. Fearing for their safetly many people spent the night before Christmas in air-raid shelters rather than waiting at home for Father Christmas to call. It could be a very dark and dreary begining to what should be a festive season.

A Shelter in Camden Town under a Brewery: Christmas Eve, 1940, by Olga Lehmann. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 1899

Some places which offered shelter did thier best to raise people’s spirits with decorations and maybe even a little tree. This picture, by Edmund Knapp, depicts the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields church (close to Trafalgar Square) which was used as a canteen by firewatchers, ARP wardens, and people whose homes had been bombed. The church itself was damaged by the massive bombing raid on 29th December 1940 but the crypt remained intact and in use for the remainder of the war.

Ready for Christmas: the Canteen under St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, 1941, by Edmund Knapp © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 800)

Despite the hardship of a war-time Christmas some pre-war rituals remained, such as carol singing and pantomimes, and the BBC tried to help with the festive cheer by broadcasting a special radio programme for Christmas Day. In 1939 this programme included a Christmas speech from King George VI. Although there had been previous broadcasts by monarchs this message had particular meaning as it was the first year of the war. As well as praising the  armed forces the king ended with a message of hope from the poem ‘God Knows’ by Minnie Louise Haskins:

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”

George VI’s speech was listened to by everyone who could get close to a radio, instilling a sense of common purpose as the country faced an uncertain future. It was to be six long years before the king gave his next Christmas message in a time of peace.

May I take this opportunity to send you all best wishes for  a happy and peaceful  Christmas, and hope that 2018 is all that you dream it will be.

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia is the story of a secret. A secret that unravels behind the porticoed doors of London’s grandest postcode. Set in the 1840s when the upper echelons of society began to rub shoulders with the emerging industrial nouveau riche, Belgravia is peopled by a rich cast of characters. But the story begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. At the Duchess of Richmond’s now legendary ball, one family’s life will change for ever.

Right from the start Belgravia immerses the reader in life in Victorian times with its detailed descriptions of two families. The initial scenes at a grand ball on the eve of Waterloo cleverly introduce the families who will become the main protagonists two decades later, as well as giving an initial insight into a society where class and position were all important. But things were changing in the nineteenth century, and this novel deftly portrays the currents of prejudice faced by wealthy self-made families when they came into contact with those with inherited wealth. This conflict is the backdrop to a story of love and loss, hope and fear, prosperity and debt, and as such it draws us in.

As always, Mr Fellowes has created a cast of characters who are all too human, with all the strengths and foibles which we possess ourselves. We can feel sympathy for some whilst others draw feelings of anger or even contempt from us as they live life in their ivory towers, expecting everything but giving nothing in return. The detailed research conducted by the author places these characters in an authentic historical setting where such behaviour was the norm, and it is a testament to skilled writing that we see the events of the novel through the eyes of Victorians and not our own with our two hundred years of hindsight. Belgravia immerses us in the past with its descriptions of houses, parties, costumes and transport of a bygone age; I found the description of the development of central London and its architecture during that period particularly interesting.

As with Downton Abbey Mr Fellowes cleverly interweaves the lives of the wealthy with those of their servants creating a novel which is well-paced with interesting plot twists to keep the reader wanting to find out more. With a deft touch the author gives us light romance, humour, mystery, suspense, scandal, conflict, and murderous intent. Belgravia is a classic love story which would appeal to anyone who loves books in a similar style to that of Jane Austin.

Mr Fellowes is able to bring the past alive for us is a way which helps us to understand the social and political conflicts of a time which, in some ways, is not too different from our own where reputation is all important for many people. If you like historical fiction, and enjoyed Downton Abbey, then I can pretty much guarantee that you will enjoy Belgravia.

Belgravia can be found on Kindle

You can find out more about Belgravia here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

(New York Times Bestseller)

In Nazi-occupied Holland, seventeen-year-old Noa snatches a baby from a train bound for the concentration camps, fleeing with him into the snowy wilderness surrounding the train tracks.

Passing through the woods is a German circus, led by the heroic Herr Neuhoff. They agree to take in Noa and the baby, on one condition: to earn her keep, Noa must master the flying trapeze – under the tutorage of mysterious aerialist, Astrid.

Soaring high above the crowds, Noa and Astrid must learn to trust one another…or plummet. But with the threat of war closing in, loyalty can become the most dangerous trait of all.

In this novel Noa, a Dutch teenager who falls pregnant after a one-night stand with a German soldier, is disowned by her family and forced to give up her baby. She later comes across a train pulling a cattle truck full of Jewish babies en-route to a concentration camp, and impulsively takes a child – partly because of her horror at the situation and partly because of the loss of her own child which has left her feeling guilty and bereft. Noa gets lost in a snow storm and expects to die, but is rescued by a travelling circus where she makes a strange alliance with Astrid who has her own complicated history as a Jew who had once been married to a German officer. The premise of this story may seem far-fetched but, surprisingly, it is based on a number of true stories from the Second World War. In her notes at the end of the novel Ms Jenoff explains how she came across two stories in the Yad Vashem archives whilst doing research for her job as a diplomat for the U.S. State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. The first story was an account of a boxcar full of babies being sent to a concentration camp, the second was the story of a German circus which had sheltered Jews during the war (the owner, Adolf Althoff, was named Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem). The author has taken these stories and woven them together to create a fictional circus with characters and incidents which give us a glimpse of the fear and hardship of those who put humanity above nationality during one of the darkest periods of the 20th century.

Using parallel narratives Ms Jenoff tells an inspiring story of two very different women brought together by war; characters who are believable because they are so flawed – capable of generosity and selflessness at times, and at other times quite reckless and selfish; women who are changed for the better by the tragedies they have to endure. I must admit that I found Noa’s almost instant love for Luc, and his for her, rather improbable; for me this is the weakest part of the novel but, setting that aside, it does help the author to explore one or two other themes connected to war and conflict, particularly how a family (in this case Luc’s) can be divided by their beliefs and by what they feel is the best way for them to protect the people around them. Noa also seemed rather reckless at times as she knowingly did things which could jeapordise the safety of others but, having said that, one must remember that the character is just seventeen years old and I’m sure that the characteristic traits of a teenager could not be totally surpressed even during a time of war! The focus of this novel is on the relationship of these two women rather than the war itself, and I find this to be one of the strengths of the book. The two women journey from jealousy and suspicion to a grudging respect, and then even love for each other.

Ms Jennoff has also shown a detailed knowledge of circus life in her writing. The atmosphere of the circus ring is vividly evoked – the excitement and glamour as seen from the perspective of the customers. Yet this is well contrasted with life behind the scenes – the shabbiness, the hard work, the lack of privacy, the monotony. The author also conveys how life became much more difficult for German circuses during the war as restrictions were placed on them by the Nazis, yet the determination that ‘the show must go on’ shines through, particularly as the circus brings a feeling of normality and escapism to the people of towns and villages living under German occupation.

‘The Orphan’s Tale’ has a well-structured plot which is well paced with the tension rising steadily to the ultimate climax in the big top. Interestingly the pivitol role is a baby who has no words to speak and no actions which influence the tale; the purpose of his character is, in my view, to be a symbol for all those who were victims of the Nazis. The child represents every Jew, or gypsy, or homosexual, or disabled person taken by the regime; it doesn’t really matter who he is or where he came from, the underlying current of this novel is that he should survive to tell the tale and to live a life denied to so many others. ‘The Orphan’s Tale’ is historical fiction with a focus on how ordinary people survive during times of conflict and upheaval rather than on the key events of the war. If you are fond of character driven  historical novels you will probably enjoy this.

The Orphan’s Tale can  be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Ms Jenoff here

You can  find more of my Recommended  Reads here

 

Joy Lofthouse – the girl who flew Spitfires for the RAF in the Second World War

During the Second World War women took on many jobs that were previously reserved for men. One such job was with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). The ‘Attagirls’ delivered planes from the factory to operational airfields, which freed up male pilots to fly missions.

One of the 164 women who flew these planes was Joy Lofthouse, who died this week aged 94.

Please do take a look at his article and listen to Joy, who was interviewed earlier this year. A remarkable lady who did a remarkable job for her country.

RIP Joy Lofthouse.

 

THE GRAVES AT MERSA MATRUH.

At 11am on 11th November we remember the ending of the First World War, and the men and women who lost their lives in other wars and other parts of the world. Much of our focus is often on Europe, and those who fought and died in other theatres of war can sometimes be forgotten or relegated to the sidelines. One such group are the men who fought and died in North Africa during the Second World War.

Men of the Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment) camouflaging a gun position at Mersa Matruh, 28 May 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193447

Mersa Matruh is an ancient fishing port dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. It was also the place where Anthony and Cleopatra would escape for seclusion – at the time it was a village of sponge fishermen where the two lovers would relax and swim naked together in the sea. Allied troops were stationed in Mersa Matruh during the First World War, and at the time of the Second World War it was at the end of a narrow-gauge railway from Alexandria and as such was an important supply post for the Allies. The Allied troops who fought in North Africa came from all around the world – from the United Kingdom to Australia, from India to New Zealand, and the British Eighth Army (including the famed Desert Rats) set out on some of their most important operations from Mersa Matruh. Mersa was also the site of a crushing Allied defeat by Rommel’s Afrika Corps in June 1942.

I would like to thank Ian from the Desert Rats website for allowing me to use the following poem as a tribute to all those who fought and died during the North African campaigns of World War 2.

Signallers at Homs

THE GRAVES AT MERSA MATRUH.

How often do you folks at home
Think of sandy graves without a stone,
Where sleep our comrades brave and true,
Out in the desert at Mersa Matruh.

The raging sandstorms awake them not,
They’re cool below but above is hot
The trails of the desert are over them,
They fought and died like Englishmen.

Do you not feel pride in your heart
Where you think may be a friend took part
in the struggles for the empire, Britain and you,
And lay down their lives at Mersa Matruh.

On honoured scroll their names shall shine,
And will not dim through pass of time
In years to come we will remember them
As soldiers of the empire and British men.

Then forget them not you folks at home,
Those men who lie in the desert alone,
They died for their country, Britain and you
In the western desert of Mersa Matruh.

Desert Graves

Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Winter, 1916. In St Petersburg, snow is falling in a country on the brink of revolution. Beautiful and headstrong, Sashenka Zeitlin is just sixteen. As her mother parties with Rasputin and her dissolute friends, Sashenka slips into the frozen night to play her role in a dangerous game of conspiracy and seduction.

Twenty years on, Sashenka has a powerful husband and two children. Around her people are disappearing but her own family is safe. But she’s about to embark on a forbidden love affair which will have devastating consequences.

Sashenka’s story lies hidden for half a century, until a young historian goes deep into Stalin’s private archives and uncovers a heart-breaking story of passion and betrayal, savage cruelty and unexpected heroism – and one woman forced to make an unbearable choice …

Sashenka is a classic historical fiction novel focusing on the lives of a family across generations. Encompassing the story of Russia through the 20th century Mr Montefiore has woven a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of Soviet Russia and its impact on Sashenka, the daughter of a wealthy family, who embraces the message of equality within the communist doctrine. As with all good books in this genre a number of historical figures are featured, and it is their interaction with fictional characters which is so appealing – you can know the history of Russia, but the way it impacts on this fictional family is new to you and, as such, draws you in.

As always, Mr Motefiore has conducted detailed research into the period he is writing about. The description of St Petersburg under the last of the Tsars gives an insight into two very different Russias – high society with its materialism and decadence, coupled with the secret police and their attempts to destroy the fledgling communist party set against the extreme poverty of millions of women and children whose men are sent to fight in the First World War. The novel then leaps forward to the Soviet period under Stalin and focuses on the fear and insecurity of people like Sashenka, people who have been loyal communists from the very beginning yet are just as likely to suffer under Stalin’s mercurial rule. The final section is moving in the way it portrays life after communism, the search of people who lived through difficult times for those they loved and lost, most not expecting any kind of reunion but just wanting to know what happened to their families.

The author of Sashenka has created believable characters who can be idealistic yet brutal, worldly yet naïve, and who it is easy to sympathise with. This is not a comfortable novel to read, at times it can be quite brutal, but to omit such sections would give a false picture of those times in Russia and do a great disservice to the real people on whose lives these fictional characters are based. The style of Mr Montefiore’s writing is clear and precise at times but can then switch to a description of deep love and passion, whether between a man and woman or a woman for her children, and as such the book has a great emotional impact.

Sashenka is a novel full of plot twists and turns, it is well-paced and vivid, complex and passionate, and incredible evocative of time and place with its accurate historical backgound; in all a gripping read which I would recommend to anyone with a love of historical fiction or of Russia.

Sashenka can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Simon Sebag Montefiore here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here