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A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott

A Treachery of Spies is an espionage thriller to rival the very best, a high stakes game of cat-and-mouse, played in the shadows, which will keep you guessing every step of the way.

A body has been found. The elderly victim’s identity has been cleverly obscured but one thing is clear: she has been killed in the manner of traitors to the Resistance in World War Two.

To find answers in the present, police inspector Inès Picaut must look to the past; to 1940s France, a time of sworn allegiances and broken promises, where the men and women of the Resistance fought for survival against Nazi invaders.

But, as Picaut soon discovers, there are those in the present whose futures depend on the past remaining buried, and who will kill to keep their secrets safe. Old fashioned espionage might be a thing of the past but treachery is as dangerous as ever.

A Treachery of Spies is a well-crafted fast-paced thriller. Much of the novel focusses on the exploits of a number of agents in France – French, English, and American – and their efforts to thwart the Nazis. Ms Scott writes with a clarity which opens up for us the supreme courage of the people who found themselves in such situations; she also describes in detail the time and place so that one can almost feel yourself there, struggling to survive in Occupied France.

As counter-point to this we have the 2018 investigation into the murder of an elderly woman which leads back to the individuals who had lived and fought beside each other in France without knowing that one amongst their number was a traitor. Who was the traitor? Why did they do it? And which, if any, of these old spies is responsible for the trail of death created to hide a dark secret…?

Ms Scott has conducted a great deal of research to provide authenticity to her story with many of her characters based on real people, from the infamous Klaus Barbie to the numerous agents whose biographies inspire many of the actions of the Resistance in her novel. Using the concept of a dual time-line the author is able, however, to take the actions of these agents one step further – how did the men and women of the SOE, the Maquis and the Jedburghs influence post-war spying and politics? What happened to many important Nazis who escaped at the end of the war, and what influence have they had in shaping the world in which we now live?

A Treachery Of Spies is a novel which will appeal to those interested in war stories, particularly the Second World War, and those who love a good thriller which keeps you guessing right to the end. If, like me, you enjoy both genres, then this book is for you.

A treachery of Spies can be found on Amazon

You can find out Manda Scott here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Black Sheep by Susan Hill

‘Powerful… Poignant, bleak and haunting, this is a small masterpiece’ Sunday Mirror

Brother and sister, Ted and Rose Howker, grew up in Mount of Zeal, a mining village blackened by coal. They know nothing of the outside world, though both of them yearn for escape. For Rose this comes in the form of love, while Ted seizes the chance of a job away from the pit. But neither can truly break free and their decisions bring with them brutal consequences…

‘Gripping all the way to its unexpected end’ Spectator

This is a little gem of a book, short but gripping. Ms Hill describes the pit village in all its gritty reality – the home of tired people struggling day by day with the harsh reality of mining life, crowded housing, back-breaking daily labour; a place some feel compelled to stay whilst others seek escape. The houses are dirty, not from want of a woman’s touch but from the all-pervading coal dust which blackens everything, including the lives of people for whom mere existence is hard leaving little time for enjoyment or expressions of love.

Yet love is there, buried deep in the close-knit community, whether it be the love of family or the love of neighbours. Ms Hill describes how support is offered to those who find it hard to make ends meet, and for those who are affected by the tragedy which all mining communities fear (no spoilers). Black Sheep is a bleak novel in many ways, yet that bleakness holds the reader through the atmospheric descriptions and the well-written characters. The reader will find themselves sympathising with Rose whose options were so limited that there was little hope of her ever finding a way out of the gruelling life which her mother had lived, and with Ted who finds the path out of the village to the clean air of the hills and the fulfilling life of working with animals. But will he be able to hang on to his freedom or will duty call him back?

The ending of this short novel is as moving as it is unexpected. Anyone who is familiar with Ms Hill’s work will not be expecting a hearts and flowers love story, but her deceptively simple style evokes a depth of understanding of people placed alongside the allegorical view of life as three levels of existence. Her description of Mount of Zeal – the ‘hell’ of the pit, the ‘world’ of the Middle Terrace, and the ‘Paradise’ that awaits those who can escape to the upper slopes of the hills which surround the pit and beyond – reflect the struggles that we all undergo in life. This book will not be for everyone, but I urge you to try it. Whether you read it as a simple tale of village life or look for deeper meaning, Black Sheep is a book which  will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

Black Sheep can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Susan Hill here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – The Balloonist by James Long

The BalloonistLieutenant Willy Fraser, formerly of the Royal Flying Corps, has been delegated the most dangerous job on the Western Front – a balloon observer hanging under a gasbag filled with explosive hydrogen, four thousand feet above the Ypres Salient, anchored by a slender cable. Swept across enemy lines after his balloon is damaged, Willy is hidden by Belgian farmers, whom he grows close to during his stay. With their aid, he manages to escape across the flooded delta at the English Channel and return to his duties. But once he’s back in the air, spotting for artillery and under attack, Willy is forced to make an impossible decision that threatens the life of the woman he has come to love.

This novel by James Long is divided into two distinct parts. The first finds Willy Fraser in Berlin during the last few days before the outbreak of the First World War and follows him as he makes his way to Belgium keeping just ahead of the rapidly advancing German war machine. This well researched section tells of the heroic stand of a neutral country which fought hard for every inch of land as her army retreated to the final Yser enclave which the Belgians were able to maintain for the long years of war which lay ahead. This stand by a greatly outnumbered and ill-prepared army allowed the French and British the time to strengthen the border and halt the German race for Paris.

Two years later we find Willy Fraser serving as a balloonist, a role which few people know much about. Mr Long’s detailed research of the few first hand accounts of these men (few of them lived long enough to write about their experiences) is the framework on which this novel hangs. Tethered balloons flying at almost a mile high were sitting targets for enemy planes and artillery whilst the balloonists had to combat terrible conditions as they observed the enemy lines and called in attacks onto the big guns which were turning the trenches into desperate killing fields. There were numerous ways for observers to die – failed parachutes, burning up with their balloons, or being cut adrift and coming down behind enemy lines to name but a few – and life expectancy was short. The historical accuracy of The Balloonist draws the reader in, educating on little known aspects of the war without ever seeming to preach.

Added to the historical background of this novel is the story of Willy’s journey into himself, his character and motives which change as he lives through tumultuous times. It is here that I find the one weakness in the story as there are perhaps a few too many co-incidences bringing the main characters together at key moments but this is, after all, fiction so if you are able to suspend belief at times, and enjoy an action packed and pacey ‘boys own’ storyline you will enjoy The Balloonist.

The Balloonist can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

‘To the Bright Edge of the World’ by Eowyn Ivey

Winter 1885. Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester accepts the mission of a lifetime, to navigate Alaska’s Wolverine River. It is a journey that promises to open up a land shrouded in mystery, but there’s no telling what awaits Allen and his small band of men.

Allen leaves behind his young wife, Sophie, newly pregnant with the child he had never expected to have. Sophie would have loved nothing more than to carve a path through the wilderness alongside Allen – what she does not anticipate is that their year apart will demand every ounce of courage of her that it does of her husband.

To The Bright Edge of The World was inspired by the real-life journey of Lieutenant Henry Allen into Alaska in 1885 and tells the story of an expedition up the Wolverine River in search of passage through the mountains. It is an absorbing tale of a western explorers meeting with the First Nations people who had lived on the North American continent from time immemorial, a people steeped in myth and superstition at a point where their way of life was coming into conflict with one which was so very different to their own; a conflict in which we see that there will only be one final ‘victor’.

In her novel Ms Ivey has brought the stunning Alaskan landscape to life and peopled it with characters who are not only searching for a route across the land but are also searching for the truth within themselves. One can almost feel the cold and hunger which the early explorers of the wilderness endured, the nervousness with which they came into contact with the native peoples, the struggle for understanding when there was not always a common language between them, the fear that they might not make it back alive.

As the fictitious Allen Forrester makes his way through the northern forests his wife, Sophie, has remained behind. She is strong-willed, determined, a lover of nature; more than anything else she would have liked to travel part of the way with Allen but cannot because she is pregnant. As her husband encounters a changing world in which superstition and the natural world order are being slowly but surely changed by encroaching westernisation Sophie finds herself at an equally interesting point in the way women see and are seen. She finds it difficult to settle into what is expected of an officer’s wife on an army base and feels constrained by societies expectations of what she should and should not be allowed to do. Whilst her husband faces the trials and tribulations of the north Sophie has her own challenges which leave her, for a time, wondering where her life will take her. But Sophie also has an interest in photography which was just becoming popular, and I very much enjoyed reading about the development of this art form in the 1880’s, how Sophie experimented and persevered to try to achieve a particular type of photograph which is still not easy to achieve today.

I also enjoy the way that the author has used old black and white photographs of some of the key places in her story to bring the narrative alive and make it all the more believable to the reader. The photographs along with the colourful descriptions of people, time and place serve to immerse the reader in a world which is long gone yet which was so full of wonder, excitement and mystery at the end of the nineteenth century. I found myself wishing I could have travelled with Allen on his journey or gone with Sophie on her no less important journey into the art of photography, and into the heart of what makes us who we are.

To the Bright Edge Of The World can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Eowyn Ivey here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Empire of Sand by Robert Ryan

A sweepingEmpire of Sand epic historical novel about Lawrence of Arabia, one of the most compelling characters in British history.

1915: While the war in Europe escalates, a young intelligence officer named Thomas Edward Lawrence is in Cairo, awaiting his chance for action. His superiors, however, have consigned him to the Map Room at GCHQ. But there’s more to Lieutenant Lawrence than meets the eye. A man of immense energy, he runs a network of agents across the Levant. Lawrence is convinced that an Arab revolt is the only way to remove the Ottoman presence, and leave a free self-governed Arabia. Soon, alarming reports reach him of trouble in Persia, orchestrated by infamous German agent Wilhelm Wassmuss. Intent on taking down Wassmuss and, at the same time, unlocking the secret of his success, Lawrence assembles a small group and travels to Persia…

Anyone who has an interest in the First World War, the Middle East or T E Lawrence (as I do) will enjoy this book. Contemporary accounts of the life of Lawrence were often contradictory, and few people would ever have known of his actions if not for the journalist Lowell Thomas who is responsible for bringing the hero whom he called ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to public attention. Yet, 100 years later, the real man still remains elusive and enigmatic. Empire of Sand is a work of historical fiction although much of the novel is based on events which really happened to Lawrence (destroying railways, working with the Bedouins etc.), and the tactics he used in his unconventional warfare, which are mentioned here, are still used today. In its way this novel gives us a real insight into the complex character of Lawrence and how he came to be involved in such important events in the evolution of the Middle East as we know it today.

Mr Ryan has included in his novel a number of real people such as the German Wilhelm Wassmuss (who was the same age as Lawrence, looked similar, and worked in a similar way) and Captain Noel Edward, as well as the great female explorer Gertrude Bell. The main plot line (the importance of Wassmuss’ luggage – no spoilers!) is based on a real event in which all of these men were involved. This novel is a testament to the detailed research conducted by the author who has created an absorbing novel around real and very important events. The descriptions of Cairo, the life of the British in the Middle East, and the difficulties involved in desert warfare all serve to draw the reader into this story, giving an understanding of how people used to a British climate and culture struggled to live and work in the Middle East in the early part of the twentieth century. One can almost feel the burning sun and the wind-blown sand which plagued those who struggled in unfamiliar surroundings against the Turks and Germans.

Mr Ryan has delved deeply into the character of Lawrence and his love for the Arab peoples, so much so that this novel gives a clear insight into what Lawrence believed was the best way to bring about peace in the Middle East, it is a sad truth that if he had been listened to many of the problems which face us there today might never have arisen. The narrative of Empire of Sand enables the reader to get to know the real Lawrence, rather than the hero of David Lean’s epic film, and as such elicits a sympathy for and understanding of him which is often missing in purely historical accounts.

I was disappointed that this novel took the story of Lawrence up to the time he went into the desert to help the Arab uprising against the Turks but did not include the dramatic events which led to his ride on Damascus. To do what Lawrence did, lighting a fire beneath the Arab revolt and dealing with the difficult leaders of the Middle East, took a charismatic and quite unique character and I would love to see this part of Lawrence’s life portrayed in another novel by Robert Ryan!

Empire of Sand can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

Recommended Read – The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden Of Evening Mists“On a mountain above the clouds, in the central highlands of Malaya lived the man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.”

Teoh Yun Ling was seventeen years old when she first heard about him, but a war would come, and a decade would pass before she travels up to the Garden of Evening Mists to see him, in 1951. A survivor of a brutal Japanese camp, she has spent the last few years helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, she asks the gardener, Nakamura Aritomo, to create a memorial garden for her sister who died in the camp. He refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon’ so she can design a garden herself.

Staying at the home of Magnus Pretorius, the owner of Majuba Tea Estate and a veteran of the Boer War, Yun Ling begins working in the Garden of Evening Mists. But outside in the surrounding jungles another war is raging. The Malayan Emergency is entering its darkest days, the communist-terrorists murdering planters and miners and their families, seeking to take over the country by any means, while the Malayan nationalists are fighting for independence from centuries of British colonial rule.

But who is Nakamura Aritomo, and how did he come to be exiled from his homeland? And is the true reason how Yun Ling survived the Japanese camp connected to Aritomo and the Garden of Evening Mists?

This is a novel which appears, on the surface, to have a rather simple storyline, but as the reader journeys through it page by page a subtle complexity is revealed. Through a strong description of time and place the author uncovers the history of Malaya in three distinct time periods – during the Second world War, ten years after the war, and thirty years later. The novel switches between time periods without any indication in chapter headings etc. and, at first, this is a little disconcerting; but as you move further through the book it is easy to slip from one time to another which subtly mirrors the way Yun Ling’ thoughts and memories move as she attempts to come to terms with an illness which leads to loss of memory, although sometimes there are things she deliberately chooses to try to forget and these are, paradoxically, the ones which seem to remain.

As Yun Ling thinks back over her experiences, both as a prisoner of the Japanese during the war and during the Emergency which followed, the relationships between the characters and the consequences of their actions are revealed. These individual relationships mirror those of the nations involved in the conflict – no one person or nationality is wholly good or wholly bad and Yun Ling has to struggle to accept the complex characters of the people around her, particularly the Japanese.

Tan Twan Eng has drawn on his own experiences to describe Malaya in a way which is totally believable, one can almost feel the heat, smell the vegetation, luxuriate in the cooling rain. This is seen most clearly in the Japanese garden which is slowly created and is a central feature to the story, its development mirrored in the unfolding of Yun Ling’s story, her understanding and final acceptance of all that she has experienced. The subtlety of a traditional Japanese garden presenting constantly changing vistas as you move through it is used as a perfect metaphor for the journey of Yun Ling, and our own journey, through life. The layered depths of the story are beautifully described in elegant prose which leads to an absorbing novel of personal and social transformation. Important issues are hidden beneath surface detail and it is a delight to uncover these in both the people and the land as one reads further, and deeper, into this novel.

The Garden Of Evening Mists is a beautifully written novel in which the loss of honour, dreams, and loved ones in carefully balanced by the beauty of a Japanese tea ceremony, lanterns of hope released into a dark night sky, and a beautiful garden which finally brings peace and closure. This novel will not appeal to all readers. If you like an action-packed book with a clearly defined story arc you may find this a little too much work, but if you enjoy exploring ideas of identity, love and loss, and of the interplay of pleasure and pain in the recalling of your past, then I think you will enjoy this novel. It is an intelligent read in which mysteries are slowly and carefully revealed, yet certain aspects are left deliberately obscure to allow the reader to follow their own inner journey to its conclusion. When the character Yun Ling begins her apprenticeship with Aritomo she observes him carefully and notes ‘He was similar to the boulders…only a small portion was revealed to the world, the rest buried deep within, hidden from view.’ A perfect description of this wonderful novel which masterfully allows the reader to uncover those hidden depths for themselves.

The Garden Of Evening Mists can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Tan Twan Eng here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

 

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