• Books and reading,  History

    Chaos and conflict in post-war Europe: ‘Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook’ by Celia Rees

    Don’t be fooled by the cover or title of this new novel by English writer Celia Rees. This is no light and fluffy historical romance, but rather a gripping thriller set during Europe in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of a vicious war that had destroyed so much.

    The protagonist is Edith Graham, whose rather dreary life as a teacher in war-torn England transforms when she is offered the opportunity to join the British Control Commission in Germany as an education officer, tasked with re-establishing schools within that shattered country.

    I’d not thought much about what life was like for Germans immediately following their defeat, apart from images of bombed-out cities and hungry survivors. The picture painted in this novel is of a people struggling to deal with military occupation by the Allied forces, revealing its darker aspects: a flourishing black market, the flaunting of regulations by many of the populace, lingering anti-Semitism not only amongst some Germans but some of the Allied occupiers as well. Most distasteful of all is the manoeuvring for power by the occupiers, once allies, who were now fighting for control of the resources (both physical and intellectual) left by the defeated Nazi regime. There is suspicion, betrayal and double-dealing aplenty, as Edith soon discovers.

    We get glimpses of Edith’s life before the war, including her brief affair with a handsome German man, Kurt von Stavenow, later meeting his beautiful, wealthy wife Elisabeth, and her interest in cookery and collecting recipes from different part of the world. Edith not only accepts the challenge of working for the Control Commission, but also takes on a hidden role as a spy, which she comes to via her cousin Leo.

    In this, Edith’s role is to gather information and contacts of Germans who have escaped arrest for war crimes. The horrors of Nazi-controlled Europe are revealed as she pursues this work, and she smuggles coded messages back to England within innocent-looking recipes. This is where the ‘Cookbook’ of the title comes in. It’s a clever device and a lovely motif that ties the various parts of Edith’s story together as the novel progresses, also illuminating the culture and experiences of the people she encounters.

    She made notes as Hilde described what to do, remembering her home, her family, her mother and grandmother’s kitchen. A whole world came spilling out with the sifting and stirring of each ingredient…Grandmother, bundt tin, everything, gone in the raid on Hanover that had sent Hilde north to find refuge…

    Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook p228

    There is plenty more intrigue and drama in the novel, heartbreak and hope, which I think is perhaps the most-needed commodity in a world that has been almost destroyed. Edith is a wonderful heroine, an ‘ordinary’ young woman who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances and who has to make difficult choices because of it. She reflects on what lies ahead for Germany when observing young children in their resource-starved schools, in this way:

    How resilient these children were, she thought, how inventive. They had lost everything. Homes. Fathers. Mothers. Their young lives had been shattered like their surroundings by a war that was no fault of theirs but they still managed to conjure a playground out of a bombsite. If this country had a future, it lay with them.

    Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook p363

    The novel kept me guessing to the end of the book, and the conclusion made me go back and re-read the prologue so that I could put all the puzzle pieces together. It’s a well plotted and intriguing story.

    Readers who enjoy a fast-paced novel, with plenty of twists and turns, a dash or romance, and plenty to think about, will enjoy
    Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook.
    It will be published by Harper Collins in July 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    An engrossing wartime mystery that crosses generations: Sonya Bates’ ‘An Inheritance of Secrets’

    In her author’s note, Sonya Bates admits that she has a ‘fascination with secrets and mysteries’ and that this led her to write a very different novel than the one she’d planned to write. I, for one, am pleased she did, as I enjoy a tale with some secrets and twists. I read this book in record time, and would describe it as a ‘page turner’, but it is also a book that prompted me to think about some of the issues covered in its pages.

    To begin with, the question ‘How well can we really know another person, even a family member?’

    Juliet, the protagonist in An Inheritance of Secrets, must confront this question after the murder of her beloved grandparents, who emigrated to Australia after WWII. They were German, and Juliet knows that her Opa served in the German army. As events unfold after his death, Juliet realises that there were things she didn’t know about her grandparents’ lives before they came to Australia. She is caught up in a web of intrigue and danger, and urgently needs to find out more about what her grandfather may have been involved in during his youth. She is torn: does she really want to discover the truth if it means knowing that her Opa was not always the kind, loving man she’d believed him to be?

    There have been many real-life cases, in Australia and around the world, where later generations are confronted with unpleasant truths about beloved parents or grandparents – things they would rather not know. So we feel for Juliet, faced with this awful dilemma. Danger stalks her and she must find answers: who killed her grandparents and why? The tension ratchets as Juliet comes closer to the truth, making this novel an engrossing read.

    Along with the mystery, there are interesting characters who interact in believable ways: Juliet’s estranged sister Lily, her current boyfriend Jason, her old school friend Ellis, all of whom play a part in the drama. Juliet’s journey of discovery is about more than her grandparents – she learns about her family, her relationships, and about herself.

    There was so much I didn’t know about my grandparents. I’d known them only in their later years, seen them from the self-centred perspective of a child. Inside that letter were two people I’d never known, who I wanted to know, to bring those people to life in my memories, make my grandparents complete, something I should have done a long time ago.

    Inheritance of Secrets p125

    Who hasn’t had that realisation as an adult – that we need to move beyond the limited understandings of childhood, before we can appreciate our parents or grandparents, with flaws and all, as fully formed people who made choices in life? And don’t we all have to live with the consequences of our choices?

    This novel is a textured, absorbing thriller that ticked many boxes for me: a mystery from wartime Europe, a modern story line with a believable, sympathetic heroine, fast paced action and a satisfying emotional arc. A bonus: much of the modern day action takes place in Adelaide and Victor Harbour in South Australia, settings not often seen in novels but which work wonderfully in this story.

    An Inheritance of Secrets is published by Harper Collins, April 2020.

    Thanks to the publisher for an advance copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘The Lace Weaver’ by Lauren Chater

    This debut novel by Sydney writer Lauren Chater is historical fiction at its best. The story plunged me into the snowy depths of winter in Russia and Estonia during WWII. Like some other novels I have read, the settings against which the drama unfolds become characters in themselves – and in this, I include the time setting along with the places.

    There are two main protagonists: two young women who at the novel’s opening live on either side of the Russia – Estonia border, but whose stories eventually entwine so that the climax and resolution of the novel involve them both. Katarina is the lace weaver of the title: a young woman determined to carry on the traditions of her Estonian language and culture, including knitting beautiful woollen lace shawls. Lydia is Russian, but her mother was Estonian and she was raised to love and respect Estonian traditions even as the country of her birth, Russia, spread its oppressive tentacles over all aspects of Estonian life. Both women suffer because of the actions and policies of Soviet Russia under Stalin’s rule until they are faced with yet another enemy: Nazi Germany.

    I love historical fiction when it spurs me to think more about the time and place in which it is set. This novel did that, opening up a chapter of European history that I’d previously not given much attention to. It also offered an insight into the dilemma of the Baltic peoples at this time: whether to embrace the Nazi invaders as liberators from Soviet rule or to resist the hateful Nazi race laws and ideology. Reading this book made me realise that for many Estonians at that time, the choice would not have been a clear-cut one, and in the end, the result was oppression and brutality whichever way they went.

    The motif of the lace shawls is woven beautifully throughout and highlights the themes of traditions, culture, family and love.

    I enjoyed this book very much and will look forward to reading this author’s future novels.