Fallen Angels by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR: “When Bergen PI Varg Veum finds himself at the funeral of a former classmate on a sleet-grey December afternoon, he’s unexpectedly reunited with his old friend Jakob – guitarist of the once-famous 1960s rock band The Harpers – and his estranged wife, Rebecca, Veum’s first love.

Their rekindled friendship is thrown into jeopardy by the discovery of a horrific murder, and Veum is forced to dig deep into his own adolescence and his darkest memories, to find a motive … and a killer.

Tense, vivid and deeply unsettling, Fallen Angels is the spellbinding, award-winning thriller that secured Gunnar Staalesen’s reputation as one of the world’s foremost crime writers.”

Okay, no preamble here let’s get straight to to the facts: Gunnar Staalesen is on a different level, an all-time great of of Nordic Noir and Fallen Angels is an astonishingly good novel that’s a shoe-in for the best read of 2020.

This is the seventh Staalesen novel I’ve read though is, in fact, the eighth Varg Veum book, originally published in Norway in 1989. Published now in English for the first time by the powerhouse and champion of great literature, Orenda Books, Fallen Angels won multiple awards upon release and was the novel that gave Staalesen his reputation as the father of the genre. Before there was Harry Hole or Kurt Wallander, before Inspector Van Veeteren or Mikael Blomkvis, Varg Veum was cracking complex and disturbing cases and Gunnar Staalesen was perfecting a style that’s about as good as it gets in literature.

Fallen Angels is a vital component to the Varg Veum series,  both revealing a great deal about the Bergen investigator’s past while unravelling a chain of deception that will leave its mark on him for years to come.  It’s as hard-hitting and powerful as they get when it comes to the key to the killings and there’s nobody who can wind up to a gut-punch that leaves you on your knees like Staalesen. This one hits harder than any I’ve read for some time.

The denouements in Gunnar Staalesen’s novels have never been anything less than knockout , you’re in the hands of a real master of the form here; every strand of the novel tying together and leading you through a beautifully crafted and increasingly intricate plot that doesn’t feel the need to rush or throw in the kitchen sink before delivering that final piece.

Reading a Varg Veum novel is always a real joy that I genuinely look forward to. Staalesen’s writing style and Varg’s methods are worth savouring every word, not a single on of which  ever wasted. There’s a preciseness to his writing that’s deceptive because it takes a real skill to deliver something as rich and involved with an economy of words and Staalesen is just so incredibly talented it makes anyone who wrestles with the written word on the daily envious.

Varg Veum is one of those rare protagonists that I can’t get enough of. He’s an honest, yet flawed character with a moral compass that points true north and is driven by the right motivations, even when he’s not on the clock. There’s a real charm to Veum as a lead in a mystery, his is  technique and style that’s compelling and his propensity for getting into more than his share of scapes in his determination to pick at threads people would rather leave buried makes for great reading. Combine that with a cast of equally compelling characters, a hugely complex plot, a good mix of humour, plenty of music references and plain brilliant prose and you’ve got a great book in your hands.

Fallen Angels is a slow-burning delight that packs an almighty punch. Expertly written and massively addictive. I cannot praise it enough. My thanks to Orenda for keeping my Guunar Staalesen addiction fed and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in its blog tour.

 

 

 

Blog Tour – The Coral Bride by Roxanne Bouchard

From the PR: “In this beautiful, lyrical sequel to the critically acclaimed We Were the Salt of the Sea, Detective Moralès finds that a seemingly straightforward search for a missing fisherwoman off Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula is anything but.

When an abandoned lobster trawler is found adrift off the coast of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, DS Joaquin Moralès begins a straightforward search for the boat ’s missing captain, Angel Roberts – a woman in a male-dominated world. But Moralès finds himself blocked at every turn – by his police colleagues, by fisheries bureaucrats, and by his grown-up son, who has turned up at his door with a host of his own personal problems.

When Angel’s body is finally discovered, it ’s clear something very sinister is afoot, and Moralès and son are pulled into murky, dangerous waters, where old resentments run deep…

An exquisitely written, evocative and poetic thriller, The Coral Bride powerfully conjures the might of the sea and the communities who depend on it, the never-ending struggle between the generations, and an extraordinary mystery at the heart of both”

You know, there’s a time and a place for airport thrillers and, sure, I’ve read a fair few. But if we’re talking ‘thrillers’ and ‘mystery’, what I really enjoy is a good slow-burner of a novel, one with a bit weight and heft. Is The Coral Bride just such a good slow-burner? No: it’s a bloody great slow burner of a novel, one that’s rich in detail, great characters, intrigue and top-class writing.

This isn’t an action, bare-knuckle ride of a story. The plot is a deep, complex web that lures you in until you’re hooked on the line and find yourself a couple of hundred pages in and deep into the novel – fully committed to both the story and the world it inhabits.

The storyline… trying to establish who killed Angel Roberts (and why)… is wonderfully told and lifts the lid on so many family secrets and ‘what the hell?’s that there’s more than enough intrigue and side plots for two novels here. Every time I thought I had an idea of what had lead to Angel’s murder I was thrown off by another gentle revelation that not only serves as ‘twist’ but also unveiled another depth to explore. 

Couple that to the drama that Moralès and his son are facing in their personal lives and you’ve got a real belter of a read. Thing is, and this is an important thing, you never feel that there’s so much going on you can’t keep up… Bouchard writes with an almost poetically deft hand that allows the story to flow like a gentle rolling tide rather than a full on assault. Detail building upon detail as a rich and impressively crafted story unfolds. It’s a genuine pleasure to read.

Roxanne Bouchard is a massively talented writer with a real gift for setting a scene and capturing an environment that immerses the reader deep into the heart of The Coral Bride‘s setting. She writes of Gaspé Peninsula, its people and environs with a real warmth and detail that’s evocative and captivating. This is really is a novel to soak in and savour. 

I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend The Coral Bride. My thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Blog Tour – A Song of Isolation by Michael J Malone

From the PR: “Film star Amelie Hart is the darling of the silver screen, appearing on the front pages of every newspaper. But at the peak of her fame she throws it all away for a regular guy with an ordinary job. The gossip columns are aghast: what happened to the woman who turned heads wherever she went?

Any hope the furore will die down are crushed when Amelie’s boyfriend Dave is arrested on charges of child sexual abuse. Dave strongly asserts his innocence, and when Amelie refuses to denounce him, the press furore quickly turns into physical violence, and she has to flee the country.

While Dave is locked up with the most depraved men in the country and Amelie is hiding on the continent, Damaris, the victim at the centre of the story, is also isolated – a child trying to make sense of an adult world…

Breathtakingly brutal, dark and immensely moving, A Song of Isolation looks beneath the magpie glimmer of celebrity to uncover a sinister world dominated by greed and lies, and the unfathomable destruction of innocent lives… in an instant.”

Where to start with A Song of Isolation? Well, let’s start by saying ‘holy shit, this is a good book’. This Michael J Malone is a sneaky one… each of his previous four novels published by Orenda have managed to deliver a massively rewarding read that takes a detour from the expected and with A Song of Isolation Michael J Malone has  once again managed to deliver a thriller that subverts the genre’s tropes – there’s no body in sight for one thing – with a plot and narrative that packs real power and surprise.

Forget mysterious bodies and murders, broody cops with an alcoholic tendency or ex-military bruisers: A Song of Isolation is a much more taught and intellectual thriller that gets its tensions from the pain of injustice and the constant shadow of threat and panic that hangs over its principal characters.

What’s really compelling is Malone’s portrayal of characters in crisis and under pressure in situations nobody would expect or ever want to encounter. How would any reader respond if they or their loved one were falsely accused and charged of this most heinous of crimes and nobody believed the truth? Remember that phrase about how a lie can travel around the world before truth is still getting its pants on? Here that lie relates to a crime that is an instant – and understandably – gut-reaction button for everyone. I think we’ve probably all read a story in the press where someone is accused of it and instantly wished them hell before any evidence is heard. But this time the lie is told so convincingly that telling the truth is like screaming in the wind and innocent lives are cracked, ruined and thrown upside down – it’s real page-turning stuff.

Malone tackles some massively difficult subjects in A Song of Isolation – there’s the fact that we have a young girl being coached in giving evidence in a sexual assault trial, the perversion of justice, the treatment of the wrongly accused (David’s journey through the system and how he is handled specifically), self-harm and some unpleasant stalker stuff too – and he does so with a style that’s at times intense and unflinching but without resorting to shock value for the sake of it. Meanwhile his handling of some of the more sensitive elements – such as Damaris’ internal dialogue – is deft and insightful.

I really dig Michale J Malone’s style; it’s concise yet powerful and he’s got a really crafty way of hooking you in deep so before you realise it you’ve burnt up half the night reading and you still don’t want to put the book down. It’s really bloody good stuff.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Blog Tour – The Seven Rooms by Agnes Ravatn

From the PR: “University professor Nina is at a turning point. Her work seems increasingly irrelevant, her doctor husband is never home, relations with her adult daughter Ingeborg are strained, and their beautiful house is scheduled for demolition.

When Ingeborg decides to move into another house they own, things take a very dark turn. The young woman who rents it disappears, leaving behind her son, the day after Nina and Ingeborg pay her a visit.

With few clues, the police enquiry soon grinds to a halt, but Nina has an inexplicable sense of guilt. Unable to rest, she begins her own investigation, but as she pulls on the threads of the case, it seems her discoveries may have very grave consequences for her and her family.”

Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal was one of my favourite reads of 2016 so I’ve been very much looking forward to more from the author and The Seven Doors does not disappoint. No: what it does is captivate from the word go and hold you in its grip well after finishing.

First off this is not your standard mystery – it’s a real slow burning joy of a novel that rewards on many levels.

The plot is a quiet, tightly orchestrated masterpiece and when it all comes together so many little details that had been sewn into the narrative earlier are all bathed in a new light and there’s a real “ohhhh” moment. Not to mention the fact that when it does all click it’s a real ‘holy crap’ moment – I mean, I’ve read more thrillers and mysteries now than I can count but I don’t think I’ve read anything as intense and bitingly real as the final confrontation between Nina and the guilty party (I really really don’t want to give anything away).

Plus Nina makes for a really captivating protagonist, slowly unravelling a mystery while at the same time dealing with a major upheaval in her own life.

But, just like The Bird Tribunal, what makes The Seven Doors such a welcome addition to any bookshelf is Agnes Ravatn’s writing and style. Her style is deceptively unassuming yet completely mesmerising. There’s a real beauty in her prose and a wonderful ability to immerse the reader in the novel’s world. It’s there in both the setting of location and in the portrayal of her characters; a magical thread that seems to effortlessly (and making it seem easy is never easy) breathe a warmth and life into the pages.

Atmospheric, intricately plotted and brilliantly written, The Seven Doors is an easy entry onto the Best Books of 2020 list for me.

My thanks to Orenda Books for my copy of The Seven Doors and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Blog Tour – Long Hand by Andy Hamilton

From the PR: “Malcolm George Galbraith is a large, somewhat clumsy, Scotsman. He’s being forced to leave the woman he loves behind and needs to explain why.

So he leaves her a handwritten note on the kitchen table (well, more a 300-page letter than a note). In it, Malcolm decides to start from the beginning and tell the whole story of his long life, something he’s never dared do before.

Because Malcolm isn’t what he seems: he’s had other names and lived in other places. A lot of other places. As it gathers pace, Malcolm’s story combines tragedy, comedy, mystery, a touch of leprosy, several murders, a massacre, a ritual sacrifice, an insane tyrant, two great romances, a landslide, a fire, and a talking fish.”

Sometimes I’ll get an email about a book and I know straight off the bat I’m gonna enjoy it. This one was an immediate ‘yes’ for me just on the back of the author: Andy Hamilton has made me laugh on so many occasions over the years across TV and radio I knew this wouldn’t be an exception. A comedy writer, performer and director you may know him from his regular appearances on  the BBC TV panel shows Have I Got News for You and on Radio 4’s News Quiz and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. His television writing credits include Outnumbered, Drop the Dead Donkey, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Trevor’s World of Sport, Ballot Monkeys, Power Monkeys and many others. He also co-created the movie What We Did On Our Holiday. For twenty years he has played Satan in the Radio 4 comedy Old Harry’s Game, which he also writes.

So; who is Malcom? Well, as he puts it: “my name is Heracles and I think I may be immortal”. Yup, the Heracles – or Hercules as you may know him – sired by an hilariously bastard-like version of Zeus who discussed himself as Antiphon in order to have his way with Alcmene, Antiphon’s wife. The demi-god offspring manages to piss his ‘real Dad’ off no end by refusing to show Him the respect He feels is due . As a result, Heracles must spend his life – several hundred years and counting – never laying down roots because Zeus is bent on ensuring he’s never happy.

Having been settled for some twenty years with Bess in Scotland – though never ageing – Zeus has rocked up and, through a serious of stunning events laced in black humour, that it’s time to move on again, or else. Long Hand is written as Heracles’ explanation, confession and, at times, lament as he prepares once again to make a hasty exit.

I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much while reading, Long Hand is just deliciously and uproariously funny. An hilarious novel written by a genuine great of comedy writing – that he’s written this novel as a 300 page letter which never once loses momentum or interest and wrap it around a plot that combines classical mythology with modern life and style is testament to just how great a comedic writer Andy Hamilton is.

But Long Hand is also balanced with a real heart and poignancy (after all, those Greek myths are steeped in tragedy). This is a letter from a man on the run seemingly all his life and written against the clock.

I wouldn’t say I tore through this book, more that I devoured it hungrily, savouring every page of it. An absolute giddy joy of a read that I only wish had gone on for longer. Though given that Andy Hamilton wrote the novel by hand – over two years and 43 italic pens – I’m not sure whether it could be longer.

I can’t recommend this one enough. My thanks to Unbound for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to read and take part in this blog tour.

Blog Tour – The Bitch by Pilar Quintana

From the PR: “Colombia’s Pacific coast, where everyday life entails warding off the brutal forces of nature. In this constant struggle, nothing is taken for granted. Damaris lives with her fisherman husband in a shack on a bluff overlooking the sea. Childless and at that age “when women dry up,” as her uncle puts it, she is eager to adopt an orphaned puppy. But this act may bring more than just affection into her home.

The Bitch is written in a prose as terse as the villagers, with storms―both meteorological and emotional―lurking around each corner. Beauty and dread live side by side in this poignant exploration of the many meanings of motherhood and love.”

Sometimes you’ll pick up a book that’s so intensely written and moving that you’ll wonder how the author has managed to pack so much power into so little space. The Bitch by Pilar Quintana is just such a book. I have a few of these ‘bantamweight belters’ on my bookshelves: Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi, Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and, more recent works such as Andrey Kurkov’s The Case of the General’s Thumb and Quintana’s novel sits right amongst those favourite titles which manage to deliver in just 150 pages a wealth of delight and literary brilliance.

In case it wasn’t clear – I bloody loved reading this book. The Bitch is an absolutely gripping and magnificent read that gets you right from the word go and takes you in deep. Its prose is simple and concise yet powerful and moving and conveys a world so vivid and detailed, in terms of characters and setting, with such precision and skill with the greatest economy of words it’s a genuine thrill and joy to read.

The bitch in question is the dog that Damaris takes in, it’s a blunt harsh title that’s in keeping with the prose and the life that the novel’s characters lead. The story goes beyond that of Damaris’ adoption of a dog – this is about Damaris’ life in a world where, as the PR suggests, life is a constant struggle. Having lost her mother at a young age to a stray bullet and forever haunted by the drowning of a childhood friend, not to mention the punishment received, The Bitch offers the story of Damaris’ life and her desperation for love in a hard world without lavish prose and manages to deliver all the more emotional impact as a result.

I’ve got no doubt that I’ll be reading The Bitch again, there’s simply so much to enjoy and admire in it that it I’ve already read it twice and discovered more upon the second reading that I hadn’t picked up first time around. It’s not a gentle read, it’s an on-the-nose book about a hard life in a tough environment but it is such a thoroughly well-written, powerful and rewarding read that I can’t recommend it enough. It more than deserves the accolades and prizes its already received (including the Colombian Biblioteca de Narrativa Prize and being chosen as one of the most valuable objects to preserve for future generations in a marble time capsule in Bogotá) and whileThe Bitch is the first of Pilar Quintana’s novels to be translated into English, I really hope that it’s not the last.

My thanks to World Editions for my copy of The Bitch and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this blogtour.

 

 

Blog Tour: The Twins of Auschwitz by Eva Mozes Kor

From the PR: “In the summer of 1944, Eva Mozes Kor and her family arrived at Auschwitz.

Within thirty minutes, they were separated. Her parents and two older sisters were taken to the gas chambers, while Eva and her twin, Miriam, were herded into the care of the man who became known as the Angel of Death: Dr. Josef Mengele. They were 10 years old.

THE NAZIS SPARED THEIR LIVES BECAUSE THEY WERE TWINS.

While twins at Auschwitz were granted the ‘privileges’ of keeping their own clothes and hair, they were also subjected to Mengele’s sadistic medical experiments. They were forced to fight daily for their own survival, and many died as a result of the experiments, or from the disease and hunger rife in the concentration camp.

Publishing for the first time in the UK in the year that marks the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation, The Twins of Auschwitz shares the inspirational story of a child’s endurance and survival in the face of truly extraordinary evil.”

I’ve touched at various times on this blog on my interest in certain passages of history, specifically the Second World War. As part of this reading I’ve covered some pretty harrowing accounts of what those of Jewish faith endured both in the build up to and during the war – the increase in persecution, the stirring of hatred, the betrayal from friends and their treatment in concentration camps. Eva Mozes Kor’s account of this time is a vital read.

Mihail Sebastian’s Journal 1934-1945 gave a revealing insight into the persecution of Romanian Jews at home but Sebastian was an adult, an educated man and writer. What makes The Twins of Auschwitz so startling and vital is that Eva, as a child, was not aware of what was happening as the war and persecution of the Jews progressed and Transylvania was given back to Hungary and she found herself in a classroom presented with maths problems such as “if you have five Jews and you kill three of them how many do you have left?” The Twins of Auschwitz is written in a simple and direct narrative that’s perhaps as much due to Eva’s interrupted education and the fact that she details events as she experienced them at the time – as a child. It’s hugely affecting.

The increasing and constant terrors Eva and her family endured at home are one thing and certainly make for disturbing reading – it’s always shocked me just how easily people turned against their friends and neighbours with a little encouragement – however, the other element of this book is that their torture didn’t end their: like so many millions of over Jewish people in Europe, they were forced out of their homes, into cattle trucks and sent to a concentration camp. For the Mozes family that meant Auschwitz.

Saved by the fact that they were twins, at just ten years old (though Eva later references two year old twins also being in their barracks) Eva and her sister Miriam were taken from their family upon arrival. Their parents and two older sisters were sent to the gas chambers.

Again; I’m sure we’re all pretty familiar with what awaited those that were imprisoned at a concentration camp. I’ve read some pretty horrific accounts and I know that given that reading about it can barely tap the surface. Eva and her sister had to endure this as ten year olds. As Eva states: “Being in Auschwitz was like being in a car accident every single day. Every song day something terrifying happened.”

The reason that Eva and Miriam were kept aside is simple: Dr Josef Mengele was a sick bastard. Mengele – or ‘the angel of death’ as he was later known – used prisoners for experimentation. With twins he carried out some truly shocking experiments including unnecessary amputation of limbs, intentionally infecting one twin with typhus or some other disease, and transfusing the blood of one twin into the other, attempting to change twins genders by blood transfusion or genital removal…. he was a sick bastard let loose. At one point he personally killed 14 twins in one night with chloroform. If one twin died as a result of a disease he’d infected them with he’d immediately have the healthy twin killed to allow for post mortem comparison of the organs.

It was into this hell that Eva and Miriam were plunged as ten year olds. While Eva wasn’t aware of the full depth of Mengele’s experiments she was injected with a disease meant to kill her. It was only her determination not to give in and her efforts to reach water that kept her alive. In cheating her own death though, Mengele went to town on her sister, giving her a multitude of injection, one of which would stunt the growth of her kidneys, never letting them develop further.

The Twins of Auschwitz documents the twins’ time at Auschwitz and beyond – the realisation that their family was gone and their desperation to find home and simply be children with a simplicity and directness that is both profound and heartbreaking. Though I think it’s also a case that it’s written in such a manner so that we don’t simply get lost in emotion but that we learn, we remember and we ensure that it never happens again.

What makes this book all the more vital is the additional epilogue on Eva’s recovery and how she came to a point where she publicly forgave the Nazis. Not, as Eva and this book are keen to point out, on behalf of all who suffered, but for herself. Mengele was an unrepentant Nazi. When his son found him in later life in South America (that the bastard died of natural causes is confounding), Mengele refused to acknowledge any wrong-doing and sure as hell would never ask for forgiveness. But what Eva Mozes Kor teaches is that in her forgiving him and the Nazis, she is both taking the power from them and that her letting go isn’t reliant on them: “it made me feel good to have any power over my life as a survivor”. By all accounts it changed her as a person, removed a weight and she became a happier and healthier person free from the bitterness she’d carried since the Red Army liberated Auschwitz.

The Twins of Aushwitz is an important and revelatory read. I ran the gamut of emotions across its two hundred or so pages, it’s one I know will stay with me for some time and one I won’t hesitate in recommending to anyone.

My thanks to Monoray / Octopus for my copy and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part on this Blog Tour.

Blog Tour: Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver

From the PR: “It’s a small story. A small town with small lives that you would never have heard about if none of this had happened.

Hinton Hollow. Population 5,120.

Little Henry Wallace was eight years old and one hundred miles from home before anyone talked to him. His mother placed him on a train with a label around his neck, asking for him to be kept safe for a week, kept away from Hinton Hollow. Because something was coming.

Narrated by Evil itself, Hinton Hollow Death Trip recounts five days in the history of this small rural town, when darkness paid a visit and infected its residents. A visit that made them act in unnatural ways. Prodding at their insecurities. Nudging at their secrets and desires. Coaxing out the malevolence suppressed within them. Showing their true selves.

Making them cheat.

Making them steal.

Making them kill.

Detective Sergeant Pace had returned to his childhood home. To escape the things he had done in the city. To go back to something simple. But he was not alone. Evil had a plan.”

Right: Hinton Hollow Death Trip. I’m sat here a good couple of weeks on from finishing Will Carver’s novel and it’s still painted vividly in my mind. This one will stay with you for a while much as Carver’s previous novels did too.

DS Pace is a man on the run from his past and the nightmares he’s picked up via Carver’s previous bloody brilliant books Good Samaritans and Nothing Important Happened Today. Both of those books left my mouth on the floor but Hinton Hollow Death Trip fucking floored me like a coup de grâce. Because what Pace is running from is waiting for him… Evil is in town by the time Pace arrives it’s already set in motion – via a series of little nudges and a few hard pushes on the right buttons in a few people – that will devastate both detective and town. Oh, and the reader.

See, Hinton Hollow Death Trip hits hard. Let’s be honest; a story told from the narrative point of view of Evil having a play session wasn’t going to be sunshine and kittens but what unfurls in these five days is brutal. And yet massively addictive, I mean I tore through these 400 or so pages like Dorothy Reilly with a family bucket of chicken.

Because Will Carver has populated Hinton Hollow with a great cast of characters, whether it’s the lesser ‘nudged’, the bystanders or those given a real push by Evil, that are so engrossing and make for a bloody compelling read, it’s impossible to put it down until everything has reached its head for better or worse.

Will Carver is a very talented author. Each of his books has a way of getting into your head and staying in there. He writes with a unique voice and his insights and comments on human nature are at times funny and disturbing. Oh and the final reveal and coming together of two plots was an absolute master stroke, didn’t see that coming at all.

There are a lot of great things going on in Hinton Hollow Death Trip: there’s a brilliantly crafted and multi faceted plot that would make this an essential read in itself but the way in which it is told, both in terms of the narrative view but Carver’s prose style – along with his in-character commentary – make it a serious contender for one of the year’s best reads. It’s a novel that challenges and rewards on multiple levels and stays with you long after.

Very much recommended and my thanks to Orenda Books for my copy of Will Carver’s Hinton Hollow Death Trip and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this blog tour.

“During the war…” Ten ‘Essential’ WW2 Reads

These days I find myself questioning the teaching methods / teachers I had back in secondary school. I know I always liked to learn about history but back then it was a case of ‘the eight Henrys and two world wars’ and even then it was pretty dry stuff and mostly dates from what I recall.

Cut to a fair few years later and while my wife and I were dating we wanted a little getaway, drove up from Paris to Normandy to a little B&B we booked online only to discover that we were staying in Coleville-sur-Mer, just up the literal track from what had once been code-named Omaha Beach.

Coming face to face with the scene of the bloodiest of landings and standing where those German gun encampments once sat was a pretty strange sensation only matched by the cemetery up the road. It re-awakened my interest in that particularly tragic and yet inspiring periods of our history. Inspiring in terms of what ordinary people are capable of when placed into the most extraordinary of circumstance. It was this element that does and still interests me a lot more than sheer dates and stats ever could and there’s no interest from me in the “guys and glory” style or “we killed all those Jerry bastards from here to Berlin” approach – it’s the personal that counts.

As this part of history takes a good percentage of the non-fiction part of my library, second only to the ‘music’ section and already having done so for that section, I thought I’d list out (this one’s been in the making for a while) those 10 books I’ve found the most essential during my ‘re-education’. After all, if we ignore history and it’s lessons we’re doomed to repeat its mistakes.

Max Hastings – All Hell Let Loose

Finding one book that manages to convey the vast depth and sweep of a global conflict in one volume is never easy but Max Hastings was always gonna be a safe bet and All Hell Let Loose does a great job of while still managing to focus on individual accounts and the impact of the war on the personal levels rather than simply get lost in stats and dates.

Alan Deere – Nine Lives

Alan Deere was a New Zealander who joined the RAF in 1938. He flew Spitfires in both the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain and fought throughout the war – a fighter ace with 22 confirmed victories who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. His account of his time, Nine Lives, is written with a real warmth and charm while not flinching from the reality that faced the men – some little more than boys only a year or two out of school – during those dark times.

See also: First Light by Jeff Wellum and Stormbird by Hermann Buchner for a take from the ‘other side’ as it were.

Andrew Williams – D-Day to Berlin

A smaller focus than Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose but nonetheless detailed and with more insight as a result of the tighter arena, Andrew William’s D-Day to Berlin looks, as the title suggests, at the Allied arrival on the beaches, the fight for Normandy, the breakout and fight on to Berlin. It was one of the first I books on the subject I picked up and it remains an oft-referred to one. There was a BBC documentary based around it, though buggered if I can find it all these years later, and it’s written with both an eye to the overall campaign as well as the personal accounts and it’s always those that make these books worth reading to me.

Herbert Werner – Iron Coffins

Without a doubt one of the finest WW2 diaries and a real eye-opener. There weren’t many U-Boat commanders that made it through the war, such were the odds against them in the final half of the war when the tables were turned and the wolf packs became hunted with greater accuracy and techniques. Werner’s account is written with insight and with the use of his own diaries and records for accuracy and is a real eye-opener: in the space of those years Werner went from officer candidate in 1939, to the early victories the U-Boats scored in the Atlantic to fighting for survival and barely escaping the same fate that sent so many other crews to the seabed. Beyond the facts and figures, what makes Iron Coffins such a favourite on my shelves is the personal insights – while Werner is fighting for survival below, the war is destroying his home in Germany and the increasing – its important to remember the German Navy were not all Nazis – frustration in their orders and their direction.

Stephen E Ambrose – Band of Brothers

An obvious choice really but it doesn’t make it any less a great read. Of course I saw the series before reading the book, it was one of the first things I did on my return from France that summer and it spurned me on to find more hence the inclusion of this book and the next couple too. There’s so much more in Ambroses’ book than could ever be captured by HBO’s series (it’s always the way, there’s nothing new here) – such as how, in Bastogne, sat staring at the same tree line day after day, Darrel ‘Shifty’ Powers, was convinced there was a tree – a mile away – that hadn’t been the day before. Turned out it hadn’t – it was camouflage that the Germans had put up for their anti-aircraft battery, which was promptly taken out. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers is an essential read for all the obvious reasons – it’s the true story of those ordinary guys thrown into the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Major Dick Winters – Beyond Band of Brothers

Of course, reading or seeing Band of Brothers will leave you wanting more and appreciating what a damn fine leader of men Dick Winters was. His own Beyond of Brothers delivers more insights into both Winters as a man and leader as well as Easy Company’s campaign. A more personal account than Ambrose’s book and his guide to leadership is one I try to incorporate into my own life.

Robert Leckie – Helmet For My Pillow

Watching HBO’s The Pacific was a real eye-opener for me in much the same way as my recent watching of Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War was – and identified the next area of history to read up on. The operations in the Pacific theatre were pretty unknown to me but I soon realised that was home to some of the grizzliest and barbaric fighting and conditions. Robert Leckie’s account served as part of the series’ source material and makes for a harrowing but vital and very well-written and detailed read that gives a real look at the impact of some of the most inhumane conditions coupled with the horror of intense fighting has on people.

See also: With The Old Breed by E.B Sledge

Stuart Hills – By Tank Into Normandy

My paternal grandfather served in a tank regiment during the Second World War though spoke precious little about it to me. Aside from the closeness of Stuart Hills’ surname, the fact that he came from just down the road in Tonbridge and found himself in fierce tank combat in European fields that, while geographically close, must have felt like a million miles away from the security of Kent made this a real connection for me. These personal and individual accounts of the war that are printed by smaller publishing houses and take a little finding are all the more interesting to me and reveal so much more than statistics on the number of tanks that “brewed up” ever could and gave me a real eye-opening look at just what my grandfather may have faced when his tank rolled across those fields.

Matthew Cobb – The Resistance

You know these days you’d be forgiven for thinking that every French person has relatives that fought as part of the Resistance movement and were involved in either hiding and ferrying allied airmen to safety or blowing up German trains… the truth is that only a very small percentage of the population were involved in the French Resistance movement and of those even less in such movie-style acts of sabotage. Cobb’s book is not only a great account of the movement but also of life in occupied France which appealed both the historian and Francophile in me.

See also: Americans in Paris by Charles Glass.

Ben Macintyre – Operation Mincemeat

After success in North Africa the allies needed to open a new front in the European theatre and liberate Europe. But where would and could they land first? In April of 1943 a fisherman found a corpse floating in the sea – the body was identified as that of the Royal Marines’Major William Martin and his attached case revealed to the Germans the Allied invasion plans.

Except this was Operation Mincemeat. The body that of a tramp and the documents all perfect fakes with one aim in mind – fooling Hitler and making him believe the Allied landing would take place somewhere other than Sicily.

Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat reads like one of the greatest spy novels but it’s all true – the level of detail involved in planning and carrying out the campaign, the now-available insight into how the Germans swallowed it and how it was handled their side make for real jaw-droppers. There were so many things that needed to work and so many details that could cause it all to fail.

But it worked: Hitler informed Mussolini that Greece, Sardinia and Corsica must be defended “at all costs” and transferred panzer regiments, planes and troops to that affect so that when the allies landed on Sicily it was comparatively unopposed – even hours later Hitler remained convinced it was a rouse. So much so that similar deception methods would be employed to dupe the Führer into believing Calais to be the landing point for D-Day.

See also: Double Cross by Ben Macintyre.

 

Blog Tour: The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone

From the PR: “Running private investigator and funeral home businesses means trouble is never far away, and the Skelf women take on their most perplexing, chilling cases yet in book two of this darkly funny, devastatingly tense and addictive new series!

Haunted by their past, the Skelf women are hoping for a quieter life. But running both a funeral directors’ and a private investigation business means trouble is never far away, and when a car crashes into the open grave at a funeral that matriarch Dorothy is conducting, she can’t help looking into the dead driver’s shadowy life.

While Dorothy uncovers a dark truth at the heart of Edinburgh society, her daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah have their own struggles. Jenny’s ex-husband Craig is making plans that could shatter the Skelf women’s lives, and the increasingly obsessive Hannah has formed a friendship with an elderly professor that is fast turning deadly.

But something even more sinister emerges when a drumming student of Dorothy’s disappears and suspicion falls on her parents. The Skelf women find themselves sucked into an unbearable darkness – but could the real threat be to themselves? Following three women as they deal with the dead, help the living and find out who they are in the process, The Big Chill follows A Dark Matter, book one in the Skelfs series, which reboots the classic PI novel while asking the big existential questions, all with a big dose of pitch-black humour.”

I must have slept on A Dark Matter which I’m kicking myself for now because not only were the two previous Doug Johnstone novels I read – Breakers and Fault Lines – seriously good, but The Big Chill is a bloody great read.

Admittedly, I was momentarily thrown off when I realised I was reading a ‘sequel’ but The Big Chill works brilliantly enough at covering the retrospective detail needed without either labouring the point or taking away momentum. I still want to get my hands on A Dark Matter though – even if I now know the end I need to know the rest – because the Skelfs make for massively compelling protagonists and Doug Johnstone’s work is always compelling . There’s a warmth and humanity to Johnstone’s Skelf ladies – even, and especially, when surrounded by the coldness of death and some of the most inhuman events – that it’s impossible not to get on the team and they’re so well written and rounded as characters they practically walk off the pages.

Johnstone has a real ability when it comes to painting his locations in a near cinematic style, whether it’s the grim tower blocks of Breakers or a ‘volcanic’ Edinburgh – and that’s certainly true with The Big Chill. When coupled with the vitality of the novel’s cast, this lends a real gritty grounding to the story and keeps you immersed – though if you find this as addictive as I did you’ll only need a couple of sittings.

Picking up six months from the events of Dark Matter a large part of The Big Chill‘s plot follows directly though also takes time to bring in the mystery of first a missing school girl, then that of her father (I did not see that one coming) and the search for a dead homeless man’s identity while touching on human relationships, the nature of grief and, er, quantum mechanics.

I found these subplots – the search for Abi and her father and that of Hugh and his past – particularly engaging. Dorothy’s PI work and style was brilliantly written and paced while Hannah’s investigations and the revelations of Hugh’s life served to remind that you never really know what goes on in other people’s lives – especially those you’d least suspect.

The Big Chill is a both a gripping page turner and a warm, rewarding read. Very much recommended and I look forward to more from the series. My thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.