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Archive for the ‘WW2’ Category

Alice Network

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I do like to periodically step outside my comfort zone with books. And little is more outside my comfort zone than this. World War I, of which I know little – in particular WWI Espionage, about which I know nothing – combined with post-war searches for lost loved ones. This, in theory, is so not my cup of tea that it’s a double espresso. And yet I was twitching to read it, partially because it was time to step away from ancient history for a bit, and partially because of the author.

I came across Kate Quinn years back through mutual connections. Her Roman novels are superb. While much of my reading at the time was ‘boys own’ Roman military, Kate seemed to have cornered the personal angles of the Roman court and nailed it perfectly. For me it was refreshing and fascinating. Kate and I have since worked on two projects together (for the sake of transparency.) Despite her brilliance with Roman tales, Kate was urged to move into the 20th century for her next book. I was dubious. She was so good at what she did, why change? But I watched (thank you social media) the process that resulted in The Alice Network. And I was intrigued. I wanted to read this book, as I said, because I needed a change and because I trust Kate’s writing.

The Alice Network is two tales that become one. A dual timeline. Charlie, in 1947 hunting her lost cousin Rose in postwar France, hoping that she survived, and Eve in 1915 Lille, part of a spy network that was undermining the Kaiser’s world and aiding Britain and France’s war effort. To be honest, I’m going to spend very little time on the plot, for fear of spoilers. Essentially, Charlie comes across Eve during the hunt for her missing cousin, and the two suddenly discover a mutual thread that leads them on a chase around postwar France, hunting a murderous collaborator. That’s enough. It’s all you get and no more.

I knew little about WW1 espionage. I had heard the name Edith Cavell, but could have told you little or nothing about her. For the record she is but a cameo here. This is not her story. This is the story of the members of the Alice Network, of which I had never heard. Quinn has pulled at a thread of history about which I was entirely ignorant and unraveled a fascinating subject. Like the best historical fiction, The Alice Network is full of real events and real characters, with a fictional heroine to tie it all together.

I have come across the name Oradour Sur Glane, though, in my trips around France. It is a place I always wanted to go. Its inclusion in this book took me by surprise, but it is part of an intricate web woven by Quinn, a web that includes real characters about whom I was unaware and real situations and places tied together with a clever plot.

The story tales several forms. For Charlie, in 1947, it is a hunt for a lost cousin which sends her into the unknown with surprising and intriguing companions, shunning her rich family. In the process she meets Eve. For Eve, in 1915, it is a tale of espionage that has seemingly been very unsung in literature and which carries nail biting tension and impressive depth of character. Kudos to Kate for this. Gradually, as their stories coalesce and intertwine, it becomes more and more about the growing sisterhood between Charlie and Eve.

The Alice Network is a book that tests every emotion in a way I thought only Guy Gavriel Kay could. It is a masterpiece of emotion and power and will drag you along like an action movie because, despite its investigative subject and personal approach, it is full of tension and pace. Quinn excels at creating deep, fascinating and believable characters, and this novel is full of them.

I choose a book of the year each year. I do it in retrospect in December, when I have a full year’s reading. Not so this year, I suspect. Books by authors I love will strive hard to match this one, but even at this early stage I doubt any will manage. The Alice Network is clearly going to be my book of the year in 2017,

Read this book. You are missing a genre-defining event if you don’t. Alice Network is released on July 12th but you can pre-order it now. Here’s the Amazon link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0062654195/

Written by SJAT

May 29, 2017 at 12:22 pm

The Pale House

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Back in April I read McCallin’s first Reinhardt novel (The Man From Berlin) completely off the cuff, as it sounded different and interesting. Set in wartime Sarajevo with a rather lost, bitter detective in the Abwehr, it was a fascinating, complex read with an unusual point of view and setting. Without wanting to risk spoilers, the way it ended suggested that any sequal would have rather a different feel, and the character would be different.

It’s taken me a while to find the time, but now I’ve read the second book (The Pale House) and, while I had initial reservations, I am impressed and thoroughly enjoyed it. Reservations why? Well, as I said above the previous book had a somewhat game-changing ending, and I think the first maybe 10-15% of The Pale House is spent putting Reinhardt back in a position where he can investigate the plot. It feels a little like the suggested future at the end of book 1 has been glossed over to allow book 2 to flow. So to be honest it took me maybe 10% to settle into it. Then, as Reinhardt returns to Sarajevo, this time as one of the Feldjaeger – the Wehrmacht’s military police – he stumbles across a grisly scene that will have long-reaching effects for him and the military in Bosnia. And with that discovery, the plot begins to roll forward.

And what a plot. You see, while I thought this book took a short while to untangle its legs and get running, once it did it quickly began to outstrip the first book. The plot is tighter, more delicate, intricate, and yet carefully, cleverly revealed to the reader. Moreover, the plot is compounded with a number of subplots, some of which are linked and others not, forming a grand scheme that, while it was easy to pick out about half way through some of what was happening, right to the very end I was still being hit by surprises.

In Reinhardt’s world, no one can be trusted. The enemy are not the allies (Britain, the USA and Russia.) They are, to some extent, the partisans plagueing Bosnia. They are also the native para-military nominally organisations allied to Germany and yet causing more trouble than any enemy. But the most insidious enemies in Reinhardt’s world almost always come from among his own people – among the hierarchy of the German military.

Quite simply, I’m not going to tell you anything about the plot other than how nice it is, as it would be far too easy to accidentally drop in a spoiler. I shall just say that this book is set some time after the first, and while there are a few faces cropping up who we met in book 1, they are largely incidental or at best supporting characters. This is a whole new tale with a whole new cast and it shows that McCallin is anything but a one trick pony. The Pale House is, despite my initial worries, better than The Man From Berlin. I heartily recommend them both. They are tales outside my era-based comfort zone, but I love this series and I am excited to note that a third novel (The Divided City) is due out in December.

Written by SJAT

September 3, 2016 at 10:05 am

The Man From Berlin

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A while ago I saw two novels by Luke McCallin on a promotion and, in a fit of ‘why notness’ I bought them. The thing is, I may be solidly rooted in ancient history with most of my reading there, but every now and then I’m partial to a little World War 2 fiction. Michael Ridpath’s ‘Traitor’s Gate’ made it into my annual top 10. And I rather liked the look of a murder investigation in a WW2 setting.

First off, this is a novel with a fascinating and I might even hazard ‘unique’ viewpoint. Few works of fiction choose to take a member of the wartime German forces as a protagonist. Yes, I’ve seen a few, but not many. Because it’s a brave novelist who takes it on. Because there is a very fine line to walk with it. It’s hard to make the character sympathetic to a modern non-German, I think, because of inherent prejudices born of half a century of ‘White hat – black hat’ thinking. And if you try to make him too sympathetic you run the risk of losing credibility with the character. In that respect, McCallin has hit the sweet spot. Reinherdt is very realistic, and yet sympathetic. More so, I think, even than Ridpath’s hero. In fact as a character he reminds me of Korolev in William Ryan’s pre-war Russian thrillers.

And perhaps a word then about setting. Because in WW2 stories we are very familiar with England, France, Germany and Russia as settings. We’ve also seen North Africa, and on occasion Italy, and Greece. Yugoslavia is a new one on me, and really an incredibly rich and complex setting, with the territory itself almost torn apart by internecine wars, completely ignoring the Germans in overall control. Then there are Italians present, partisans, British in threat form at least. And Orthodox, Muslim and Catholic. And everyone hates everyone else. McCallin does an excellent job of painting 40s Yugoslavia. I wonder if he has spent time there? It certainly felt like he knew the place well.

The plot, then. We are immediately presented with a murder case which is given to Reinhardt as a member of the Abwehr to solve, because while one of the victims is a wealthy, spoilt, man-eating female local journalist, the other is also a German officer of the Abwehr. I have to admit that I was half way through the book before the investigation really picked up pace and we began to discover what was going on, but that was not a fault. The investigation is endlessly messed around with for political, personal and ethnic purposes and it is only when Reinhardt becomes truly galvanised in his role that things pick up speed. The plot is almost as complex as the setting and gives us something of an insight into just how difficult and labyrinthine the internal politics of wartime Germany and the wehrmacht actually were.

All in all, the novel was intricate, fascinating, and kept dragging me back. It is not the most pacy novel I’ve read, with some parts feeling a little languid, but when the action comes, it comes thick, fast and unforgiving. Similarly, while there are times when I felt the plot becoming a little muddled, all comes out well and the ending is very satisfying. And like all good whodunnits, many of the things that slip past early on as not vastly important actually do in the end have a place in the tale and a bearing on the case.

So the upshot is that as soon as I have the time, I shall be reading the second Gregor Reinhardt novel. If you have any interest in the war, or in complex murder investigations – and certainly if both – then you might well want to give the Man from Berlin a try. An absorbing read.

Written by SJAT

April 21, 2016 at 3:22 pm

The Madagaskar Plan

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A few days ago Guy Saville pointed out on Facebook that the paperback of The Madagaskar Plan was coming out today. I’ve had both this and The Afrika Reich sitting in my ‘to-be-read’ pile for some time. I ummed and ahhed over whether it would be wise to start book 2 before I’ve read book 1, but heck with it… I did.

Interestingly, there is enough background, and there are enough illuminating flashbacks in this book that it does not seem to rely entirely upon the first to be readable. Not that I’d heartily recommend starting with book 2, because now that I’ve done it, I have to go back and read book 1 to see what I missed.

Firstly, what is The Afrika Reich trilogy and this book in particular? Well, it’s almost Historical Fiction. It’s a ‘what if’ scenario. The premise behind the series is that the Dunkirk evacuations failed, Churchill resigned over the failure and consequently the succeeding British government came to peaceful terms with the Nazis. By the early 50s, when the book is set, Britain still has its Imperial holdings, Germany has overrun Russia and controls roughly half of all African territory, and the United States is out of it as a neutral nation. Africa is divided between Britain and Germany, with a few smaller states belonging to Italy, Portugal etc, and a neutral South Africa.

Madagaskar is the greatest imaginable prison camp for deported Jews. Europe having been largely emptied of them, there are 5 million living on the island under SS rule, being gradually worked to death.

Burton Cole, a survivor or earlier clashes in Africa and clearly the hero of the first book, returns to Britain to find his lover – a former Austrian Jew – has been found out by her cuckold husband and deported to Madagaskar. He thence rushes off to find her. Meanwhile, his former nemesis, Hochberg, the governor of German Kongo, has his own reasons building to head to the island in the hope of achieving German domination of the continent. And his deputy, now in exile. And a Jewish partisan. And others.

Incredibly skillfully, Saville weaves a web that brings so many seemingly disconnected elements, many with totally different motives, to the island and into the crucible of destruction. For Madagaskar is an island on the very brink of revolt, and the world is watching tensely, for any shake might bring America into the matter. There is no forced or over-woven aspect to the drawing together of the strands of plot.

A word needs to be said on the characters. Despite this being Britain and Nazi Germany, do not expect to read with a ‘black and white’ moral attitude. You will find every shade of grey on both sides. Some of the Germans are almost sympathetic. Some of the British are downright loathsome. And they are all believable, which is perhaps the most critical thing.

Despite the ‘alternate reality’ setting of the novel, it is so realistic and clearly feasible that it doesn’t jar the reader at all. In fact, it is all too easy to accept this version of history as the truth. It so nearly could have happened.

The feel of the plot is something of a mix. It is part war story, part espionage, part drama, part prison movie. At times it felt a little like The Wild Geese, at others Where Eagles Dare, and others again Papillon. It is all of those things but not them alone. It is a masterful example of the craft of fiction and kept me riveted from beginning to end.

It’s out in paperback today. Go get these books folks, and make sure you have them read before the final part of the trilogy is published.

Written by SJAT

January 28, 2016 at 1:51 pm

Michael Ridpath – Traitor’s Gate

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There will be those of you out there who watched Valkyrie and loved it.

Traitor’s Gate does the same thing but better.

There will be those who hated Valkyrie.

Traitor’s Gate is more accurate and more tense. You will prefer it.

There will be those who’ve never seen Valkyrie.

Don’t bother. Read Traitor’s Gate!

I’m not an avid reader of the WW2 era, nor a student of the period, though I’ve delved here and there. I’ve watched a number of movies based on the period, including some from the German point of view, but it’s still far from my comfort zone.

To be honest, if a friend of mine had not raved at some point about how good the book was, I would never had picked it up on a whim, needing a change from Roman stuff, and read it.

I’m glad I did. Though early on, I realised that this is not strictly speaking a war book. This is a book about people and espionage and the hell that was the Third Reich before the war. This is a tale about a confused and dreadful time during which trust was hard to come by, and humanity even more so.

Though the direct protagonist and antagonist are fictional, the story introduces us early on as supporting characters to two key figures in the history of the 3rd Reich, both of whom were already familiar to me. Reinhard Heydrich is one. If you know anything about the period, that name should make you shudder. He was one of the architects of the Holocaust and one of the most brutal and unpleasant people during the war, running the Gestapo. The other is admiral Canaris, head of the German secret service, hero of mine and unsung hero of the war. To be honest, if I’d known it involved Canaris, I might have read it earlier.

Essentially, this story tells the dreadful tale of an Englishman in Berlin in 1938 battling with his family loyalties and his conscience in a world rapidly descending into hell. It is refreshing to see a tale that tells of high-powered and intelligent Germans, even in the party itself, understanding that Hitler was bad for Germany as well as for the rest of the world and beginning to put together a plan to remove the Fuhrer from power.

A lot of the story relies on secret negotiations between high level anti-Nazi Germans and peripheral members of the British government, arranging to carry out a coup against Hitler should the Fuhrer decide to invade Czechoslovakia despite British and French opposition.

Traitor’s Gate is a tremendously tense novel, building up with the crescendo of Nazi power in the days before the annexing of the Sudetenland. For those of you who’ve seen Valkyrie, it carries the tense moments of planning the coup in at least as stunning a manner – better, in fact. Despite the fact that even the least informed reader will go into the meat of the novel already aware of the fact that Hitler did not in fact die in 1938, and therefore we know that any plot failed, the novel is so well written that it is impossible not to be swept up in the tension and hope against hope that somehow the plot succeeds. Impressive, that.

In addition to the plot concerning a potential removal of Hitler from power, the story is cleverly interwoven with another thread involving a woman with Jewish ancestry (you can guess the direction that one’s taking.) This allows Ridpath not only to explore aspects of divisions in the higher ranks of the Third Reich and grand moral and political concerns, but also to investigate and reveal the deeper, more personal effects of the rise of Nazi power on the ordinary people of Germany. I gave to say that at least one anecdote told in relation to this thread will stay with me for a long time.

So… the characters are extremely well constructed and smoothly filtered in among real personages of the era, all of whom are excellently portrayed. The feel of the book is utterly atmospheric. It is like stepping into the page and finding yourself in just pre-war Berlin. The plot is tightly-constructed and builds continually to an impressively tense conclusion (especially given the foreknowledge that Hitler doesn’t die!) Clearly Ridpath’s research has been spot on and his storytelling is impeccable.

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is exactly the sort of book I would not have thought to read, and I would have missed out. Don’t make the same mistake. This will most definitely hit my top ten of the year.

Go get it and read it. You will NOT be disappointed.  Oh, and, currently at £2.19 on kindle it’s also a bargain!

Here’s his website. Here’s the Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk listings. And here’s his twitter handle.

Written by SJAT

November 7, 2014 at 11:02 am

Harvey Black

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Hi folks.

Today I’m going to direct your attention to another writer of historical fiction. This one, however, writes a little different from the people I’ve steered my friends & readers towards previously. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m so heavily-based in Rome and the ancient world that I can barely even think in terms of anything after the end of Byzantium and that the modern world gives me a faint case of the heeby jeebies.

I’ve recently expanded my reading outside the confines of the empire, however, taking in the viking writings of Giles Kristian and the brutal Robin Hoodiness of Angus Donald (both of whom I will be revisiting soon, so watch this space.) The furthest from my comfort zone, though, has to be Harvey Black.

I bumped into Harvey courtesy of twitter (where I have to admit that I’m considerably more prolific than I am here, though no less daft.) Through our nodding acquaintance and off the cuff, so to speak, I bought Harvey’s first book, Devils With Wings.

No, this is no Stephanie Meyer-esque sucky gothy horror work. Nor is it about moths, which, my mother tries to convince me are said Devils. No. Devils with Wings, in fact, is as far removed from the doom-ridden Twiglet series as it is from my normal comfort zone. It is, in fact, a novel about the Fallschirmjäger, the elite Green Devils paratroop regiment of the German military in the Second World War.

Given everything you know about me, here’s the big surprise, then. I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it enough that I’ll happily recommend it to you guys. Moreover, I enjoyed it enough that I have the sequel: Silk Drop, sitting next up in my pile of books to read.

To entice you, I give you first: Imagery…

 Devils with Wings: Silk Drop: The Green Devils' Invasion of Crete

And I give you description of the first novel:

From the blurb:

A military thriller based around the adventures of two young Fallschirmjager paratroopers during the early part of World War II. It is a fictionalised adventure based on the famous assault on the impregnable Belgian Fortress, Eben Emael.

Tall, gangly Paul Brand is supported by his junior sergeant, Unterfeldwebel Max Grun, as he experiences his first action as a platoon commander in Poland, September 1939. The mutual respect between the two comrades grows as they experience the sights and smells of battle at close quarters Following their success in Poland, Paul, Max and the platoon are sent to a clandestine camp in the foothills of the Harz Mountains to train for a secret mission.

Confined to camp for six months they undergo intensive training for their next mission – the subjugation of the Eben Emael Fortress. Two German secret weapons will assist them to complete their task; the first is the glider, used for the first time to deposit troops directly onto a target, and the second secret weapon is a new Hollow Charge Weapon, capable of blasting through steel or concrete. On completion of their training, nine gliders containing seventy two Fallschirmjager land on top of the fortress, before the troops move in to the depths of the tunnels to finish the job.

Over one thousand Belgian troops fail to stop them. This exciting fictionalised retelling of the assault on Eben Emael is written by an author with experience in army intelligence.

And in my own words: Devils with Wings is a tight story with some very engaging characters, packed with action and adventure, telling  the events that surrounded the first strike of Germany into the western front, in Belgium. It is an event about which I had previously no knowledge and therefore was new and interesting. For me, the high point is the tense approach to the main mission in rickety gliders. More to come on that. I fear there may be some out there who would be put off by the fact that this is a story of a German wartime unit. To you, I would say, Pah! Do not be. We are all aware that, despite that diminutive psycopath with the oily hair and ‘tache and his close cadre of genocidal knobheads, there were a number of men and women in wartime Germany that were not murder loving Nazis but rather real, ordinary people with a job to do, with families, dreams and aspirations and, yes, honour. This story is about them and Harvey deserves, I think, a certain respect for telling such a tale. Finishing Devils With Wings merely made me want to read Silk Drop.

And thirdly, Click HERE to read an extract in PDF format of my favourite part of the book (short enough to browse now, I tell you!)

Fourthly, I shall barrage you with a selection of appropriate links, on the understanding, and in the knowledge, that you will click at least two and peruse them, or my hords of flying plasma-cannon monkeys will seek you out and fling poo at you.

1: Amazon’s page on Harvey, with appropriate links to both his books: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Harvey-Black/e/B001KCG3DK/

2. Harvey’s website (on which today – Saturday 10th March – you will find a storming blog about Berlin during the cold war, Harvey’s era of service):  http://www.harveyblackauthor.com/

3: A page on the Fallschirmjäger to satisfy the needs of fact-a-holics:  http://www.fallschirmjager.net/

And finally, and only to save them for a grand finale, here are three promo videos for you to have an ogle at:

Written by SJAT

March 9, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Posted in WW2

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