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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

Isis Covenant

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Some time ago I read the first of James Douglas’s “Jamie Saintclair” thrillers, and I’ve been awaiting thne opportunity to get to the second. Well, now I’ve finally read The Isis Covenant.

There is a certain genre of tale that was made popular by Dan Brown, owing to Indiana Jones and revolving around the mystical and the occult in the modern world. And despite Brown’s fame, there are plenty of writers who, to my mind, are better examples. One is Simon Toyne. Another is James Douglas.

Douglas’ thrillers strike, for me, a superb balance. They revolve around an art dealer and antiquarian, which links the modern to the ancient and strikes a chord with the historian in me. And they revolve around mystical objects, whether they be true or simply misinterpretations of the mundane, which adds the thrill. And finally, at least with the first two books, they connect with the Second World War and the Nazi lunatics’ search for occult items to help empower their master race (a subject that’s a guilty pleasure for me). Superb mix, and guarenteed to hit the spot in at least some way for most readers.

The Isis Covenant takes characters and some dangling threads from the first book in the series and reintroduces them, tugging on those threads and using them to weave a whole new story.

A twisted son, a vengeful neo-Nazi, a stymied cop and Jamie Saintclair all seeking an ancient Egyptian crown and the priceless stone that has long been separated from it together believed to bestow prolonged life. And the search will take them into the world of ageing secret Nazis, Russian gangsters, American assassins and so much more.

Utterly satisfying, well-plotted, gripping and colourful, the Isis Covenant is a perfect sequel to the first great book in the series.

Written by SJAT

January 31, 2017 at 12:25 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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