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Posts Tagged ‘WW2

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

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 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

Top Ten Reads of 2014

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It’s that time again where I choose the top ten books I read throughout the year. This year I have reviewed fewer books than in the previous two. A few I’ve read have not made it to review because they didn’t quite match up to the level of quality of those I have done, but others were held back because they have not yet been published and were still in draft manuscript form (I read quite a lot of those this year.) Note that these ten are in Author order, not preferential countdown. If you missed these books in 2014 go read them in 2015.

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I suspect I have now reached a point where certain authors are pretty much guarenteed a place in my top ten unless a new unknown suddenlyblows my socks off. Mike Arnold is one such. Captain Stryker’s adventures are a highlight of my year and are always highly anticipated, never failing to thrill. In this fifth installment, Arnold created a perfect tightly-knit mix of action, suspense, intrigue and character. See my full review here.

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In one of the most outstanding Roman series available, Nick Brown upped his own game again this year with a heady, evocative, exotic thriller, sending Corbulo on the hunt for a stolen relic in the eastern provinces. Corbulo and his allies continue to grow and evolve as characters, and Brown quickly shot to the top reaches of the Roman A-list for me. See my full review here.

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Paul Collard managed a rare thing last year with the Scarlet Thief: he took a barely touched milieu and a fresh, unusual idea for a character and crafted a stunning debut. This year’s sequel could easily have been either a poor follow up or a yawn-worthy repeat of book 1. Yet, despite the inherent difficulties, he managed to keep the tale fresh and exciting, and the story echoed at times one of my fave movies – Zulu. Read me full review here.

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One of history’s fiercest sieges retold in one of the year’s most tense, gripping novels. Angus Donald’s characterisation of Robin Hood continues long beyond the death of Richard I and into the reign of the ignoble King John in this latest offering, which is one of the strongest in the series so far. See my full review here.

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Valerius Verrens is one of the best Roman characters in literature, running the whole gamut from war hero to tortured lover to dishonoured refugee to spy and so much more. Jackson has written books that are tense, dark, exciting, edgy and more, and in this latest, he really doesn’t disappoint. Read the full review here.

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This far, Hannibal has been my favourite of the three series by Kane. It is, I think, the most human, the most sympathetic and the most varied in scope, despite how geographically wide the Forgotten Legion books were. Hanno and Quintus are well-pitted against one another, and are both taken to the reader’s heart. This latest in the series takes one of the most critical moments in the Punic Wars and weaves an exciting tale around it. Read the full review here.

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I had read Kristian’s Raven saga and, like you I’m sure, was hungry for more. But he was busy on his civil war series. And then suddenly we were treated this year not to a new Raven book, but to a prequel. The beginning of it all, as Sigurd flows into the pages of fictional history. Gods, I’d missed Sigurd, and he came back with a bang. Read the review here.

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Remember how I mentioned the possibility of a new find blowing my socks off? Well had it not been for a read of Ridpath’s opus on a whim, Douglas Jackson would have had two books in this list! Ridpath’s tale of love, loss, intrigue, espionage and tense uncertainty in pre-war Berlin was something of a surprise for me. One of my absolute faves. Read the full review here.

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Kydd is as much the quintessential Napoleonic era sailor character as any Hornblower, Bolitho, Ramage or Aubrey. And he travels to some stunning locales to take part in some truly nail-biting escapades. Stockwin manages to write in a very authentic period prose and yet tell tales with the cinematic punch of a blockbuster, and I think Pasha is his most absorbing to date. The story also contains changes that will affect the future of the series. Read my full review here.

So there you go. Ten books to catch up on if you missed them. Happy new year every one. I hope you all have a good one, and I cannot wait to see what new gems 2015 will produce.

Written by SJAT

December 31, 2014 at 9:00 am

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