Book Review: Sleeper

Sleeper, by JD Fennell, is the first book in a proposed action adventure trilogy aimed at young adults. It introduces the reader to sixteen year old Will Starling who has been training since the age of twelve with the agents of VIPER. This ruthless organisation has military links around the world, access to advanced weapons technology, and is intent on acquiring power and wealth for its elusive puppet masters.

When the story opens it is 1941 and England is at war. Will is near Hastings on the mission for which he has been groomed. He is to infiltrate a country house and steal a notebook containing codes and instructions. He has been ordered to kill anyone who gets in his way. Will is backed up by other VIPER agents who are unaware that the teenager has been duping them. Will intends to keep the notebook and hand it on to others equally keen on gaining control of the secrets held within.

A running battle ensues and Will ends up half drowned in the sea. He is rescued by a passing fisherman but has no memory of who he is or why he was being pursued. The notebook he finds in his blazer pocket is his only clue. He sets out to uncover his past, but must first escape killers who are hot on his tail.

Will’s combat skills are impressive and he discovers that he is not the only teenager who has been trained in this way. With the help of associates he meets at a school for underage spies he starts to unravel the secrets of the notebook. To save London he must find the Stones of Fire before VIPER catches and defeats him. A ruthless psychopath known as The Pastor is also intent on recovering the notebook, and Will is not the only double agent.

The action is relentless and the death count high with short chapters and concise, fluent narrative keeping the reader engaged. I became a little frustrated at Will’s reluctance to kill but this adds to the character’s ambiguity which I hope to see developed further in subsequent instalments. Although aimed at young adults, who will likely enjoy the vicarious thrill of out-witting evil adults and solving ancient puzzles, it is an entertaining adventure for any age.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dome Press.

Book Review: The Butchers of Berlin

The Butchers of Berlin, by Chris Petit, is a crime thriller set in the city in 1943. Germany is no longer in ascendancy. The effects of the Second World War have resulted in a thriving black market and deprivation for all but the wealthy and powerful elite. Fear and betrayal are rife as the authorities work towards their stated aim of creating a Berlin that is ‘Jew free’. The remaining population have set aside many of their peacetime principles in order to survive.

The protagonist is August Schegel, the son of a wealthy English aristocrat now married to a German businessman. Schegel is a junior detective despised by his boss. Working in financial crime he cannot understand when he is called upon to investigate a double homocide. As the victims appear to be Jews, found dead on the morning of a major exercise to round-up and deport all remaining ‘undesirables’, he finds it odd that any effort is being put into an investigation.

There is an atmosphere of distrust amongst Schegel’s colleagues who are eager to provide the results that will please their superiors. When Morgen, an SS officer, is assigned to assist Schegel it is unclear what is now required of the younger man. Schegel is aware that there are irregularities in the investigation and that corruption is rife at all levels. Attempting to uncover the truth would be a dangerous path to take.

Sybil Todermann, a Jewish seamstress, has escaped the mass round-up and is in hiding with her girlfriend. They have friends in common with Schegel but all favours come at a price. The women now require false papers yet this puts them at the mercy of dangerous men. When more bodies start appearing, grotesquely mutilated and some containing forged currency, paths intersect.

In a vast slaughterhouse in the city Schegel finds what he believes is a killing room for people rather than animals. The shortage of manpower, food, and the dehumanisation of the Jews has allowed sadists to get away with barbarism. The Gestapo become interested in Schegel’s findings as do informers originating from several of the occupied territories. Who their taskmasters are remains unclear. Morgen is still not sharing with Schegel what his remit may be.

This is a lengthy story with a convoluted plot and disturbing desriptions of calculated viciousness. That it reads as a true depiction of life at the time makes for discomfiting reading. The writing is assured, the threads well constructed and managed, but still I struggled to engage. The accuracy of the horror and knowledge that so much of what is related happened detracted from my ability to feel entertained.

Reading a war story from the German perspective was interesting, also the views of the English, Irish and Americans who in some way supported the regime. I admire the author’s ability to craft a convincing tale even if I struggled to quell my revulsion and enjoy the unravelling of the mystery. It is a timely reminder of the true horror of war and the depravity such conditions unleash.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Book Review: Starlings

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Starlings, by Miranda Gold, is an intense and evocative journey through the mind of a troubled young woman haunted by her family history. Sally lives with her elderly parents in their home in London. Her mother has been ill for almost as long as Sally can remember, suffering from debilitating paranoia. She is cared for by her long suffering husband, a man who has had to put his wife’s needs before his own and their children’s. Sally’s grandparents, now dead, were Jews caught up in the holocaust of the Second World War. The lasting effects of the trauma they suffered left its imprint on Sally and her younger brother, Steven. Steven left home four years ago, escaping to Brighton without luggage or plans.

The story is set over a twenty-four hour period during which Sally visits Steven, an annual excursion fraught with emotion. The sibling’s relationship, although close and happy in childhood, is now shadowed. Sally is afraid that if she raises certain topics in conversation she will lose what is left of the brother she remembers and loves. She clings to those memories and longs for their closeness to return.

It took a few pages before I found the rhythm of the prose. It has a depth that demands concentration but the reward makes any effort worthwhile.

Growing up Sally did not comprehend much of what was happening around her and her brother as they played. They were offered “a palimpset of stories and silence”. Sally ponders how many of her memories are based on first hand knowledge, how much is accurate and what she has missed from the snippets shared or overheard.

The adults survived in a kind of denial caused by fear. Sally’s grandfather was hospitalised when his wife tried to burn off the camp numbers tattoo’d on his arm. The children watched as she wielded her cigarette, yet heard it talked of as an accident. When the truth was suggested the speaker was talked down.

Sally is often told that she has her grandfather’s eyes and understands that this causes her mother pain. Her inability to prevent this adds to the hurts which permeate the family.

Internalising so much from the generations before has left Sally unsure of how to function in company. She longs to spend time with her brother, to leave the never discussed difficulties and the soundtrack of her mother’s demands behind. When the reality of her trip to Brighton does not match the plans she had conjured in her head she recalls other visits dogged by disappointments which she blames on herself. Her mind overflows with comments and questions that she dare not voice for fear of Steven’s reaction. She tries to fathom what his life has become when her own, it seems, cannot move on.

I found the story challenging but deeply moving. It reveals an effect of the holocaust that I had not considered before. Having discovered that it is inspired by the author’s own family history I am impressed by its lack of rancour.

The disconnect between Sally and the more typical Brighton nightlife offers a poignant juxtaposition. She longs to repeat actions that formed her happier memories. Her travel bag contains little, yet she is burdened with thoughts almost too heavy to bear.

The poetic imagery and loneliness of the protagonist create a powerful voice. This is a beautifully written book that I recommend you read. It is a story that I will be contemplating for some time to come.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Karnac.

Book Review: Devastation Road

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Devastation Road, by Jason Hewitt, is a harrowing yet sympathetically told story of one man’s experience of war and the terrible cost of such conflicts on all involved. It opens with the protagonist waking up in a field with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He is injured but knows not how. The clothes he is wearing do not seem to fit and he carries no means of identification. As hazy memories of home life in Hampshire flit in and out of his aching head he stands up and starts to walk. He joins the tens of thousands of other displaced persons in a Europe torn apart.

The man remembers that he is called Owen, that he worked as an aircraft designer and has a brother named Max. He comes across the bloated bodies of the dead, ransacked homes, and then a teenage boy named Janek who offers him food. Janek is a Czech and they struggle to communicate as neither speaks the other’s language. In amongst the muddle of thoughts and images that come and go, Owen decides he must travel to a place called Sagan, and it seems that Janek will help him to get there.

At Sagan they find a camp that triggers further memories, although it is all but deserted. Both Owen and Janek wish to find their brothers so they decide to head north and west. On the road they meet a girl carrying an infant she is trying to give away. Events unfold and she joins them. Irena speaks several languages so communication is easier, but she offers little about herself.

While travelling towards Leipzig the three learn that Hitler is dead and the war ended. They arrive at the city and view the destruction wrought to achieve this result. Owen wishes to return to England, but Janek and Irena demand that he help them. After all that they have been through his loyalties are torn.

Much has been written about the Second World War. This story keeps the conflict as a backdrop exploring the personal impact on just a few of the people whose lives have been irrevocably altered, who have lost everything they owned and become separated from those they love. In the destruction and confusion it is not always clear who has survived or where they might now be. By focusing on these three individuals amongst the flood of refugees pouring through a ravaged continent it becomes possible to empathise with the reactions to this vast, man made disaster, and to better understand why so many dreadful, smaller events took place.

There is no shirking from the individual barbarisms war can create. In places it is distressing to read but the author avoids judgement, offering up all nationalities as casualties. The anger and desperation of the survivors, the cruelties but also the kindnesses are well evoked. The writing is succinct yet conveys what Owen is suffering with sensitivity. Each of the trio is damaged by their experiences, and their actions, even when horrific, are presented with compassion. Given the refugee situation in Europe today it offers much to ponder.

I was deeply moved by this book yet it is not written to tug on the heart strings. The skill of the author in bringing to life a known history in such a personal way is to be lauded. We need stories like this to ensure that our capacity to empathise is not overloaded by the sheer number and scale of the disasters still happening around the world. The people suffering are individuals, just like us. If we would expect help in their situation, we should be offering it to them.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Scribner.

Book Review: Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

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“against the great theatre of world events, it is the intimate losses, the small battles, the daily human triumphs, that change us most.”

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave, is a story of friendship and love set against a backdrop of the unimaginable suffering of the Second World War. It brings home to the reader how it must have been to watch the known world crumble, and why many of those who lived through it baulked from talking of their experiences in any personal detail afterwards.

When war was declared Mary North was eighteen years old and saw it as her chance to begin life beyond the shadow of her mother’s expectations. A society beauty, Mary and her best friend, Hilda, had no need to work but longed for more excitement than was offered by the social conventions of their privileged circle of acquaintances. Mary volunteered and was surprised when assigned a position as schoolmistress (she had wondered if she might be made a spy). Hilda was less ambitious, seeking only opportunities to meet handsome young men in uniform.

Tom Shaw regarded the war as a foolish endeavour and did not believe it would last long. When his flatmate, Alistair Heath, enlists he comes to realise that, despite his ambivalence, life is about to change. One of these changes is his promotion to supervisor at the Education Authority when his work colleagues leave to join up. Having a school district to run would have been more rewarding had most of the children not been evacuated.

Tom meets Mary when she arrives at his office demanding he find her a school, having been sacked from her first for behaviour deemed unsuitable in a teacher. Bowled over by her beauty, wit and persistance he agrees to reopen a class for those children rejected by host families in the countryside. The evacuation, it seems, was a beauty contest from which the coloured, disabled or in any way different were rejected.

Alistair completes military training and is sent to France. Mary and Tom fall in love. Hilda is introduced to Alistair when he returns home on leave but he has been forever changed by what he has seen and done. The war’s progression is about to change them all.

This is more than a simple love story. The author is a wordsmith, an artist who paints the world he is creating with a depth and hue that brings it to life. Amongst the rubble and despair, the hunger and desperate humour, he makes each character believable with their flaws and foibles. There are acts of bravery but also betrayal. There are enduring prejudices amidst the dreams of a better future.

Immersed in the pleasure of reading this prose I did not want the story to end. I savoured each chapter and cared for each character, grieving when their impossible situations forced them to act in ways that would haunt them. There is no sugar coating but neither is the horror dwelt upon. The narration balances perfectly between the poignancy of an horrific war and the hope to be found in love.

A rare and affecting account of friendship in adversity; a compelling love story that is beautifully told. Although fiction it is inspired by the author’s grandparents’ experiences. The authenticity shines through, yet it is the skill with which the tale is woven that makes this such a satisfying read.

Book Review: Her Father’s Daughter

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Her Father’s Daughter, by Marie Sizun (translated by Adriana Hunter), is the second in a series from the publisher titled Fairy Tale: End of Innocence. Peirene Press publishes these series of contemporary novellas, each consisting of three books chosen from across the world connected by a single theme. TLS described them as “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film.”

This story is set in Paris at the close of the Second World War. It centres around a child, not yet old enough to attend school, who lives in a small apartment with her beautiful mother. It is told from the girl’s perspective but with the clarity of an adult’s mind. It is memory, those fragments of a life that stay with us when others are lost to the passing of time. The events related will change the child’s life forever, in ways that she could not then comprehend.

Referred to by all she knows as ‘the child’, or ‘my darling’, she was given the name France at the dictate of a father she has never met. He is a prisoner of war, taken early in the conflict. The war is now coming to an end and he is to return.

France’s days revolve around her mother. She has been allowed to act as she pleases, drawing on walls and in books, eating only the food she enjoys, her unruly existence indulged. France resents any who distract her mother: neighbours, acquaintances, and most especially her maternal grandmother who berates her daughter for the child’s behaviour. France likes best to stay home, to have her mother to herself. Although they go to the park or to shops, she has only once left Paris. This was to stay in a house in Normandy, with a garden, but memories of that time are hazy and she is forbidden to mention them.

When France is told that her father is to return she understands that the life she has enjoyed is about to change. She cannot imagine having a man in their home; this is beyond her experience.

“What is a father? […] Father’s, these days, are pretty thin on the ground”

When her father moves into the apartment the dynamics of the little family must adapt. He is still suffering the effects of his incarceration, is appalled at France’s behaviour and the way his wife has kept house. France observes how her parents behave when together and how her mother has been altered, shrunk. France desires nothing more now than to win her father’s affection for herself.

What the reader is offered is a view of the strange world of adults through the eyes of a child, the hurts and resentments harboured when ignored or reprimanded, the promises made and then forgotten. France attempts to draw her father closer by sharing her innermost secrets. In doing so she emits a seismic blow to the fragile peace so carefully constructed from her father’s return.

The writing is subtle and exquisite, a literary ballet offering a poignancy and depth beneath the delicacy of presentation. Each short episode leaves the reader eager for the next. I couldn’t put this book down.

A stunning, beautiful read that is everything a story should be. I cannot recomend this book enough.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: The Murderer In Ruins

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The Murderer In Ruins, by Cay Rademacher (translated by Peter Millar), is a fictionalised account of a series of murders that were perpetrated in Hamburg during the freezing winter of 1946/47.

Following the devastation wreaked by the Second World War large swathes of the city were reduced to rubble. Utilities and infrastructure were on the brink of collapse and the cold, hungry residents struggled to survive on subsistence rations. Within this bleak landscape a murderer is at large who strangles and strips his victims, leaving their naked bodies in the ruins of the bombed out city. Nobody knows who these people are or why they were selected. The frozen corpses yield few clues.

Frank Stave, is the police officer assigned to investigate the murders. He is required to work with two assistants: Lothar Maschke from the vice squad, who volunteered to join the team; and James MacDonald, a lieutenant in the British army, who was seconded by the Allied Administration as liaison officer. With memories of their active roles in the recent conflict still so raw it is difficult for Frank to know who he can trust to investigate these current crimes within the fair remit of the law.

The prose is precise and, in many ways, as cold as the landscape in which the story is set, yet the humanity behind Frank’s thorough investigations burns through. This is a man struggling with personal tragedy in a city where every survivor harbours torrid memories. The vivid portrayal of the horror that comes after the devastation of war is uncompromising.

Frank is offered every assistance by his superiors but the challenging conditions and few clues leave him little to work with. What he does uncover is a hidden war crime, a national secret, and a moral dilemma. Sides must be chosen where the nebulous concepts of right and wrong have become blurred.

Brought to life within these pages are ordinary Germans. I couldn’t help but consider the parallels between the reasons why Hitler came to power and current attitudes in this country towards those who the media portrays as a threat to the comforts of the British people. If only we could resist the urge to follow self-indulgent leaders and learn from history.

The denouement tidies up the many threads unraveled by this tale. The thaw in the weather feels as much of a relief to the reader as the conclusion of Frank’s varied investigations.

A fine work of crime fiction that is unusual in its detailed, historic setting and Germanic tones. Well worth reading for the telling of the tale, and provides plenty on which to reflect.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Arcadia Books.