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: Then She Was Gone

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Then She Was Gone, by Luca Veste, is a crime thriller set in Liverpool, England. It starts with a father walking his baby daughter through a park where he is attacked and the child taken. At first the police are sympathetic, as you would expect under the circumstances, but when their investigations uncover apparent inconsistencies in the man’s story suspicions turn towards him.

A year later and two detectives from the Major Crimes Unit, Murphy and Rossi, are asked to look into the disappearance of a local man, Sam Bryne. They are to do what they can to keep their enquiries from the press due to Sam’s profile. He is a prospective MP, wealthy and privileged, and there are aspects of his life that his well connected family do not wish to share.

Murphy and Rossi question Sam’s staff, visit his house and talk to his parents. They discover the uncomfortable truth of what is being left unsaid. When a body is found, and then another, the full extent of Sam’s proclivities are revealed.

I found the writing a little simplistic at first but the structure and plot soon drew me in. There are chapters written from the point of view of the killer and the timeline goes back to explain why they seek revenge. The attitudes of many of the characters are depressing in their realism. There is casual racism, an inbred sense of exclusive entitlement, and an attitude towards women that is rarely acknowledged in such a blatant way.

This is the fourth novel in the author’s Murphy and Rossi series although the first that I have read. There are references to their past adventures but the story works standalone.

An engaging read with some satisfying twists. For fans of crime fiction, this one is for you.

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

Gig Review: Jason Hewitt in Bath

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Yesterday evening I attended my first book event of the Autumn season. With two of my children now up at university I have more time to treat myself to such outings. This first excursion was to Toppings bookshop in Bath where Jason Hewitt was due to hold a local launch for his second published novel, ‘Devastation Road’, which I review here.

I follow Jason on Twitter so had picked up on the fact that he has recently moved from London to Bath. What I had not been aware of was that he has a personal history with the city. Twelve years ago he graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. In the audience were a number of other writers who have either taken this course or are currently attending. There were also published authors, family members and various friends there to support this very personable young man. It was one of the most open and friendly events I have been to. I enjoyed chatting to a variety of attendees both before and after the author’s talk.

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Jason opened by explaining why he came to write this book. His first published work, ‘The Dynamite Room’, is also set during the Second World War and he wished to stick with the same period. The challenge was how to tell a story that had not been told many times before. As he was unfamiliar with events in mainland Europe around VE day he decided that others may also have this gap in knowledge. There was scope to inform readers as well as to entertain.

We were treated to three readings from the book. As always it was interesting to hear an author give voice to his characters. Jason is also an actor and was a delight to listen to. He appeared very relaxed in front of his captivated crowd.

The plot explores memory and the impact of its loss. Owen, the main character in the book, wakes in a field with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. When he discovers that he is not in Hampshire, as he first believes, but rather in Czechoslovakia, he determines to make his way back home to England. Thus begins a road trip during which he joins the many hundreds of thousands of other displaced people caught in a war ravaged Europe at that time. His memory gradually returns, snapshots finding context and merging to provide some coherancy to his background.

Jason explained that he wished to evoke the numbness felt by many, particularly in Germany, as the war ended – the surreal atmosphere caused by the pause when survivors wondered what would happen next. The many prejudices did not just disappear. The celebratory atmosphere experienced in Britain was not enjoyed here.

Many people in Germany were just waking up to what had been happening so close to their homes. There was the practicality of how to deal with a vast number of stranded foreigners. There were ill and injured requiring treatment, including those liberated from the dreadful camps. There was the question, reminiscent of the refugee crisis today, of who should pay.

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Jason concluded his talk by taking questions from the audience. I wondered if the unusually high quality of these was down to the fact that so many attendees were writers themselves.

He was asked about his research for the book. As a part of this, Jason made the same journey across Europe that his characters took. He aims for historical accuracy in his writing, only veering from fact when essential for the plot. Although entirely fictional, what happened to each character happened to someone for real. Place names have been changed but each location exists.

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This fascinating discussion could have gone on much longer but time was called and I took my copy of the book to be signed. I was taken aback to discover as I left the shop that a couple of hours had passed. Time truly does fly when spent in such convivial company.

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Devastion Road is published by Scribner (Simon and Schuster UK) and is available to buy now.

 

 

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: The Glass Painter’s Daughter

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The Glass Painter’s Daughter, by Rachel Hore, tells two interwoven stories set over a century apart. Each is written in a very different style. Much as I dislike the limitations imposed on a book by assigning it a genre, the modern section read like an easy romance, not the sort of tale I choose to read as I tend to find such books two dimensional. The historical section was more to my taste and I enjoyed it, but not enough to redeem the whole.

Set in the 1990’s, the modern section tells the story of Fran, a professional tuba player who is obliged to return home when her estranged father suffers a catastrophic stroke. We learn that Fran never knew her mother who died when she was young, and that she was raised by her father in a flat above Minster Glass, the stained glass shop which her family have owned and run for generations.

Fran’s father has a talented assistant at the shop, Zac. He is a quiet and reliable friend to Fran, especially after she is hurt by the self absorbed Ben, another musician she meets at choir. Along the way Zac and Fran help out Amber from the homeless hostel, a young girl who has had a tough start in life but who comes good when given the opportunity. Although their tale is nicely told I found the characters shallow.

Of interest was the author’s choice to set the story before mass use of internet and social media. She commented on this saying:

“Because of the gothic claustrophobia I wished to create I couldn’t have modern media”

It is easy to forget how these days it is easy to research people on line and to keep in touch, that this instant access is a recent phenomenon.

Zac, Fran and Amber are working to restore a stained glass window that has recently been discovered in a nearby church. The window, depicting an angel, provides the link to the historical element of the book. The protagonist of this section, Laura, is the daughter of the church vicar in the late nineteenth century. Laura’s family are mourning the loss of their son and daughter, Ned and Caroline. Another daughter is married and expecting her first child leaving Laura to support her grieving parents.

Laura also has love interests: Anthony Bond, the solid and upright churchwarden of whom her family approve; and Philip Russell, a man with an estranged wife who is commissioned to create two stained glass windows for the church on behalf of Minster Glass.

There are obvious parallels between the life experiences of Fran and Laura. There are also a great many angel references, something which other readers warmed to but which I found a little too much at times.

I was sent this book to review as a member of the Curtis Brown Book Group so had the privilege of asking the author about the variations in the way she wrote the two stories. My question was:

“Fran’s story seems to be written in quite a different style to Laura’s. I wondered if this was deliberate, if you were trying to tell the modern story in a modern style and the historical story in a period style?”

Rachel replied:

“It is deliberate, yes, and your explanation is bang on the nail! It just is a question of imagining the sensibilities of the characters in the different eras.”
I then asked:
“Some readers choose books because they like a certain type of writing. Were you at all concerned about mixing it up in this way?”
Rachel replied:
“It worked for me, Jackie, so I had to hope it did for the readers. I find that I can’t write while thinking about the readers because there are so many different reactions from people and it can be muddling. The place one is in psychologically while writing is a very secret one. It’s the editing process that draws in the editor (and the writer as self-editor) in the role of reader.”

I found this answer insightful. My reaction to the modern story may be critical, but only because of my personal preferences as a reader. From the discussion it was clear that others thoroughly enjoyed the author’s approach.

I believe I was put off this book early on when Laura peeked into her dead sister Caroline’s bedroom and noted the possessions still there, included a teddy bear. Caroline died in 1878 yet teddy bears became popular after 1902 following a bear hunting incident involving American president, Theodore Roosevelt. As an arctophile, this grated. Later in the story a window at Minster Glass is broken by vandals, and glaziers are called to mend it. I wondered why a shop trading in fancy windows could not replace a simple pane of glass themselves.

I considered too much detail was glossed over: failing to name other choirs at the time, referring to them simply as ‘well known’; the vicar’s lost glasses being found ‘in the obvious place’ which went unspecified. The homilies from the vicar as he gave well meaning advice seemed overly religious. I accept that he was a vicar so this was in character, but found it challenging to read.

I did enjoy the ending, which took us back to Laura’s story and worked well.

I guess I prefer my mysteries to be a little more subtle. I found this tale predictable with just the occasional unexpected event thrown in, rarely altering the outcome.

I like to read eclectically and this was not a typical book for me. Whilst I recognise that many others enjoy the genre, I will not be adding further romantic fiction to my TBR pile.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group.