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Ashes of Berlin

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I’ve been something of a devotee of Luke McCallin’s Reinhardt books since the first one. There was something about the adventures of a distinctly non-Nazi Wehrmacht officer investigating murders in the Balkan territories. It was a region about which I knew little and a time which oddly fascinates me, despite being far from my own era of choice. And interestingly McCallin’s familiarity with the locale and the subject shone through and gave the books great depth and value. I loved both books one and two.

I hesitated over book 3. Honestly, despite loving the first two I really hesitated. Because the war has ended after book 2 and that means that book 3 was guaranteed to be vastly different. Ashes of Berlin is set in 1947, in a city that is divided and overseen by an uneasy alliance of British, American and Russian, with the Germans still there and downtrodden or working desperately with one group or another. I couldn’t see this possibly being anywhere near as engaging as the previous two. But… because it’s McCallin and Reinhardt, I went to it anyway.

In fairness, it took me perhaps the first 10% of the book to get into it. For a while I thought my doubts had been borne out over the setting. But oddly the plot was still grabbing. And so it pulled me along. And I’m glad it did, because after that initial adjustment, I came to appreciate what a rich setting it is.

This world is very different from the wartime Balkans of books 1 and 2, and yet oddly similar in some ways. For Reinhardt, now serving back in the police in Berlin as he once had long ago, he is still beleaguered, untrusting and downtrodden by superiors. They’re just different superiors now. And the brutality and horror of post-war Berlin is every bit the match for the brutality and horror of wartime Sarajevo. McCallin has really pulled out the stops in his research. I cannot imagine how much reading and note-taking he must have gone through for this. But it is a triumph.

The plot is actually better than both the first two. Where books 1 and 2 tended to wander a little by necessity, this one is much tighter and more defined. It is also much harder to anticipate. It unfolds slowly and carefully and caught me out numerous times. I like a good mystery and only with a good plot do I start to guess and work out ahead of the reveal. I was wrong. Several times I was wrong. McCallin has thrown so many curve-balls I kept getting hit in the back of the head.

There are 3 major triumphs in this book for McCallin. The Plot, which I’ve already mentioned. And there’s no point in me trying to explain any of it, but it starts with a man who drowned on dry land, put it that way. Then there’s the world. The atmosphere, the landscape, the descriptive. It is stunning. It becomes immersive and all-consuming. I felt I came to know 1947 Berlin intimately. But thirdly, there is the matter of character. I’d felt there was nowhere really to grow Reinhardt after the war. Gods, but I was wrong. And he is surrounded by a stunning cast. In particular one American, one Brit and one senior Russian. They are so beautifully drawn and realistic it is hard not to picture them in your head.

So there it is. You might have read books 1 and 2 (The Man from Berlin and The Pale House) or you might not. If you haven’t give them a read. If you have, do not be put off by the change of scene with book 3. It outstrips its predecessors. Just read McCallin. He’s a master of the craft.

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Written by SJAT

August 12, 2017 at 8:32 pm

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

Eagles At War

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Ben Kane thunders back into the charts with what I can only describe as an epic novel of the Teutoburg disaster. I’m a fan of Ben’s work, though since I read it his first Hannibal book has remained my favourite. Until this one.

I’m sure there are folks out there who don’t know the history Varus’ disastrous campaign in Germany in 9AD, of Arminius and the tribes. Of the Teutoburg massacre. A lot of you will, even those not particularly au fait with Roman history. It is the most ignominious military loss in Roman history and infamous as such. It ranks up there with Crassus’s death at Carrhae or the unpleasant fate of Valerian, the only emperor ever captured by the enemy. I shall spare you the details. Suffice it to say that this is a novel about Rome and the German tribes in their early days, when there was potential for a settled, Romanised Germany that would become truly part of the Empire. It was a fragile time, but a hopeful one for Rome, and for some of the natives. But not all the Germans were ready to bow their head to the emperor. Cue one man with an ambitious plan to unite tribes whose mutual hatreds went back centuries based purely on the belief that they hated Rome more even than they hated each other. As governor Varus plans his summer marches into the east, so Arminius, the son of a chieftain and a man trained by decades of Roman service, begins to put his plan into action.

Enough about the plot. No spoilers (though to be honest a glance at any webpage or book that mentions Varus or Arminius will immediately barrage you with spoilers if you are in the dark. No matter. This book is not written hinged on complete innocence on the part of the reader. As a man who knows the events around which it is based, I can say with certainty that knowledge of the Varian disaster does not ruin the book, so don’t worry about that.

The book is divided into two parts, with the first being the events that form the backdrop to the rebellion, introducing us in detail to the characters, locations, motivations and themes. The second part is the part that most of you will be waiting for. It surprised me to find how much of the book Ben had devoted to the lead-up, when I had assumed the disaster itself would provide enough material for a book on its own, and possibly even more than one book. But d’you know what? It worked. The way Ben has built the plot gives it so much more of a human edge and a personal feel that it would have missed had it concentrated more on the battle itself at the expense of what precedes it. It also means that the book starts slowly, peacefully and pleasantly, and gradually builds pace throughout the first half, with tension rising, and then gallops into the second part in a crescendo that just peaks time and again right to the end of the book.

What I think deserves first special mention here is Ben’s characters. Not for their realism or depth. If you’ve read Ben’s books before then you expect nothing less than deep and realistic characters. No, what I like is who Ben has chosen to tell his story. We have Varus, the governor, a senatorial noble of Rome. We have Arminius, the German chieftain serving in Rome’s military. Yes, they are the prime movers in the events behind the book. But in order to give us the events from an intimate level, we also have a veteran centurion – Tullus – and a young legionary recruit – Piso. Thus every level is open to the reader, from those who shape the empire to those who die for it. Writing a tale like this from four such disparate viewpoints cannot be easy, but it is carried out with skill, and the reader can identify with and follow each of the four. Also, each is sympathetic in their own way – even Arminius! Oh, there is one loathsome character in there, but I’ll let you find him on your own. In fact, Varus is here given a very favourable treatment, flying in the face of the more common portrayal of an impetuous fool. Refreshing. And because of the way the story is written, there is no sense of ‘good guy and bad guy’ in Eagles at War. As is so often the case in reality, both sides are simply people, each with their own belief in the value of their motives.

In terms of themes, the book gives us a nice view of what it might have been like in the early stages of the Romanisation of a land, with tribal leaders both obsequious and resistant, some trying to outdo each other in the new regime while others grumble about taxes. It also makes some use of an aspect of the Roman military that is very rarely mentioned in novels: the slaves. When an author deals with the five thousand men of a legion, plus the cavalry and support etc, what is often forgotten is that most officers would have at least one slave, and the senior ones probably and entire household of them. Think on the activity of slaves in a Roman camp, serving one legate, one camp prefect, six tribunes and sixty centurions, plus various other officers. We are not talking about the odd body, after all. The human aspect is handled well particularly through the trials and tribulations of young Piso, and of a woman with her girl and pup, who become a recurring thread. And as for the sheer power of the loss of a legion’s eagle? Well that is put over very well. The chaos of unsought and unexpected combat is a major theme in the second part of the book and drives the narrative at least as much as the specifics of the timeline.

In fact, part two reminded me in style at times of two different tales. It carries the epic scale of The Longest Day, roving back and forth across the locations, giving us a view of events from several angles without dropping the pace of the action. And it also contains all the tension and eeriness of a nervous journey, a-la Apocalypse Now (or Heart of Darkness, of course). The legions are strung out, there is trouble communicating, there are isolated pockets of men involved in their own tiny wars all forming part of one great whole.

All in all, this is a masterpiece of the genre, from the earliest stages of the troubles right up to the tense, violent climax. In fact, twice in this read I was so hooked that I continued reading at night long after I was really ready for sleep. Roll on the next book, I say, for I think I know what it will involve….

Written by SJAT

July 2, 2015 at 9:53 am

Facts about Fritz

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An unusual review of a little gem for you today. As you know I occasionally like to review the odd non-fiction work among the novels I read. Well the other day I came into possession of a copy of Facts about Fritz by Robin Schafer and Tim Hardy. Rob is a German military historian and consultant (and without doubt the most knowledgeable such I have ever come across) and Tim is a talented graphic designer. Together they have combined their skills to release this wonderful item.

If, like me, you have a passing knowledge of the First World War, mostly gained through school, holidays in northern Europe… and Blackadder, of course… then this book might prove as fascinating and informative to you as it does to me. If you are already an expert, it is pitched a little below your level to be honest, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having. Far from it.

Essentially, this book is 50 pages, with every two pages being an individual fact sheet on one aspect of the German army in 1914-1918. The production is superb. Glossy and beautiful, it’s a thing of beauty. But beyond that, it is chock full of period photographs, fascinating images of artefacts surviving to the present day, anecdotes and accounts from witnesses as well as the facts themselves as provided by the informed mind of Rob. The content varies from short factoids – such as

“Approximately 40,000 Messenger dogs operated with German units during the war.”

to letters written by the men at the front, to lengthy paragraphs detailing for instance the Reich’s Postal Service, to extracts from contemporary tales. All interspersed with appropriate imagery.

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Subjects covered include such wide-ranging matters as the Iron Cross, Flags, Trench Newspapers and the Flying Circus.

The book is an objective and factual work on the army of the Kaiser’s Germany and should be fascinating to anyone who has even a passing interest in the era. The book costs £7.99 and is currently only available through Tim Hardy’s website HERE. I would also urge you to keep an eye on Rob’s site –  as well as being fascinating in general, he has another book on Fritz and Tommy coming out next year through the History Press and that will be worth grabbing.

Back with some more choice fiction for you in the next week. 🙂

Written by SJAT

October 22, 2014 at 10:55 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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