• Books and reading,  History

    Fiction to pose uncomfortable questions: ‘The Berlin Girl’ by Mandy Robotham

    Like her previous novel, The German Midwife, The Berlin Girl is set in Germany and is about the effects of WWII. This time, the story opens in 1938, just before events cascade into war.

    As in her previous book, Mandy Robotham has drawn on her own professional experience to enrich the drama and give a realistic portrayal of the characters’ work. In this case, it is journalism and the protagonist is Georgina (Georgie) Young, posted to Berlin as a fairly ‘green’ foreign correspondent.

    Georgie had been to Berlin a few years earlier, but the city she finds this time is a much darker and murkier one than the Berlin presented to the world at the 1936 Olympic Games. The realities of Nazi control of Germany are being realised by ordinary Germans, especially of course Jews, people with disabilities, and anyone else considered unworthy by the Reich.

    She must quickly find her feet, along with fellow London journalist Max Spender, who is employed by a rival English publication. They need to learn who are potential sources of information, who are allies and who not to trust.

    Their frustration grows at the apparent unwillingness of Western governments to believe what is happening in Germany, frustration shared by their fellow ‘foreign press pack’ journalists, with whom they form a strong camaraderie and bond. They witness the horrors of Kristallnacht, the violent pogrom against Jewish businesses and families. The devastating effects of anti-Semitism are brought home through Georgie’s friendship with one Jewish family, Rubin and Sara Amsell and their children.

    There is rising tension and mistrust as Nazi oppression tightens its grip on the country. There is also a reminder of the importance of a free press and access to information by a nation’s citizenry (especially relevant in this era of Trump, social media and ‘fake news’.) Georgie and her press colleagues attend a press briefing after Kristallnacht given by Joseph Goebbels (the Minister for Propaganda whom they privately nickname ‘Joey’):

    Joey spouted it all with familiar conviction, but he couldn’t have failed to notice the murmurings of disbelief among his audience. To every reporter listening to his fairy-tale rhetoric, it was pure farce. Yet Goebbels remained unashamed, steadfast in his own propaganda.

    The Berlin Girl, p194

    Does that remind you of another (modern day) politician, steadfast and unashamed in their own fake news?

    A theme that runs deeply through this novel is the question: How did Hitler and his cronies beguile an entire country into wholesale murder and war?

    Why, when it seemed so transparent to everyone in the room, did the German people believe it?
    ‘Fear’, said the Daily Express correspondent swiftly. ‘Maybe your average German doesn’t believe it, but they wouldn’t dare express it. Not even to their neighbours. It masquerades nicely as belief when you’ve got no one telling you you’re wrong.’

    The Berlin Girl p52

    The Berlin Girl touches on other issues, including the trail-blazing role of early female foreign correspondents, the wilful disbelief on the part of the British and other governments to prevent Hitler embarking on his murderous path to world war, and the risks taken by the many brave people who did what they could to resist.

    Though set during 1938 – 39, the questions this novel asks about a population’s willingness to blindly support a dictatorial or self-obsessed leader and believe their lies and promises, rang many bells for me. As we see what has played out in the USA and other parts of the world in recent years, can we honestly say that we have moved beyond that tendency to cede power to those who promise to ‘make us great again’? Because that rallying cry of Trump’s was exactly what Hitler had promised the German people.

    Have we really changed that much?

    The Berlin Girl will be published by HarperCollins Publishers on 2 December 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books,  Uncategorized

    Flight of nonsensical fancy: ‘Code Name Bananas’ by David Walliams

    David Walliams, best-selling UK based children’s author, has written another action packed story for readers seven years and older. Full of nonsensical moments and humour, Code Name Bananas takes place during World War II, at the height of The Blitz.

    Eric is an 11 year old orphan who is teased by other kids at school because of his sticky-out ears and glasses. Eric’s favourite place in the world is the London Zoo, where his Great Uncle Sid works, and Eric’s favourite animal there is Gertrude the gorilla. Gertrude and Eric share a special connection, so when he learns that Gertrude is no longer safe at the zoo, Eric and Uncle Sid hatch a wild plan to rescue her.

    The adventure leads them to uncover a Nazi plot and they must do everything they can to escape the clutches of elderly spies, twin sisters Helene and Bertha Braun, and raise the alarm. In between, they float over the River Thames under a barrage balloon, evade capture by London police, survive a Luftwaffe bombing attack, disguise Gertrude as a bride, and are imprisoned in a German U-boat.

    The main characters are endearing; I especially liked that Eric is a kind boy, and his Uncle Sid equally so – his tiny house stuffed with injured animals he has ‘adopted’ from the Zoo is testament to that.

    Amongst all the mayhem, younger readers will be gently introduced to some of the features of the war that impacted the most on Britain – the bombing raids, loss and destruction that could strike at any time, the uncertainty of life during wartime. Of course, Code Name Bananas is first and foremost an action packed and fun read and youngsters will be sure to welcome it.

    Code Name Bananas was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    How the heart survives: ‘The Tolstoy Estate’ by Steven Conte

    The Tolstoy Estate is described as ‘a novel for people who still believe in the saving grace of literature in dark times’ and literature – particularly the work of Leo Tolstoy – is at its heart.

    During the ill-fated German assault on Russia in the winter of 1941, military doctor Paul Bauer is assigned to a field hospital established at ‘Yasnaya Polyana’, the ancestral home of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. We quickly realise that Bauer’s heart is not invested in the ideologies of the Nazi Reich, though he does feel loyalty to his comrades and to his mission as a doctor.

    On arrival at the estate he meets Katerina, the guardian of the property which has great cultural importance for Russians. In Katerina’s youth, she was a passionate supporter of the Revolution; this conviction has faded over the years, replaced by what could best be described as a critique of its methods and results, mixed with a deep love for her country in the face of the invader’s army. She is – understandably – hostile towards the Germans, but Paul recognises her fierce intelligence and a shared love of literature, and a friendship develops between them, despite the difficult circumstances.

    Paul’s job is to treat and repair the damage done to German soldiers on the front. He and his colleagues work under appalling conditions, made particularly hard by the brutal winter cold – with temperatures as low as minus 41 Celsius – inconceivable to someone like me, who lives on one of the warmer continents on Earth.

    The author is unflinching in describing the kinds of operations Paul and his colleagues perform, with enough authentic detail to make the scenes in the makeshift surgical theatre feel visceral. The waves of injured, sick and frostbitten soldiers keep on coming throughout the novel; the horror of the conflict always there. Even eyelids could be lost to frostbite, apparently: a prospect too awful to contemplate. The German troops were ill equipped to wage war in a Russian winter, with winter clothes late arriving, so that the soldiers were wearing summer uniforms well after the onset of cold weather.

    The theme of literature’s role in society is explored throughout, contrasting with the butchery taking place on the battlefields. Paul’s commanding officer Metz (who is experimenting with new drugs to ‘sharpen his soldierly performance’ – with awful results) boasts to Katerina that:

    ‘Deeds, not words, gnadige Frau, are the currency of greatness…with his rifle our humblest Landser shapes the world more profoundly than your Tolstoy ever did.

    To which Katerina replies:

    ‘How odd. You sound rather like him in War and Peace -the dull bits: the little man as mover of Great Events. But you’re mistaken. Lev Tolstoy’s books certainly did shape history. He’s still at it, in fact, tipping the war in our favour.’

    The Tolstoy Estate p28

    And of course, the events of War and Peace are foregrounded, as the fate of the German army replicates that of Napoleon’s, on his unsuccessful invasion of Russia a century earlier.

    This novel is a celebration of the human heart and the beauty of words and ideas, even when surrounded by the very worst of human behaviour. Paul is certain of this when he says to Katerina:

    Yes, what do is important. For the individual it’s vital. But the body is transient, we all know that. It’s stuff. You writers, you forge culture, and culture is eternal. Or as good as…I believe {literature} is beneficial…And enduring. Even the worst of it survives its author, and the best outlives the language it’s composed in. I can’t imagine what it must be like to … know that in fifty, one hundred, two hundred years there will be someone, somewhere reading your books.

    The Tolstoy Estate p175

    The Tolstoy Estate is published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishing, in September 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Resilience and friendship: ‘The Bird in the Bamboo Cage’ by Hazel Gaynor

    This novel introduced me to a previously unknown story of WWII : the experience of teachers and pupils at a Protestant boarding school in northern China while under Japanese control. The students, children of missionaries, business people or diplomats from around the world, received a traditional British-style education including the classics, religious instruction and preparation for English university study.

    After Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, school life continued largely as before for a time, until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941. Overnight, citizens of the US and the British Empire became enemy aliens and everything changed at Chefoo School. They were, suddenly, prisoners of war. They were moved twice; firstly to another location in the town and later to Weihsien Internment Camp, where they were kept captive for two years until liberation by US soldiers in 1945.

    The author heard about these events and knew this was a story she wanted to write. The novel’s characters are her own creations but she researched accounts of internment and pored over the archives from Chefoo School, to write an authentic and moving account of people living through great hardship and fearful times with humour, compassion and resilience.

    The story centres around a teacher, Elspeth Kent, and three pupils who are young girls at the novel’s opening but teenagers by the time of liberation. Nancy, known as ‘Plum’ to her friends, is the child of missionaries and, even before her capture by the Japanese, had not seen her parents for three years. For someone like me, not familiar with the boarding school system, that seems an incredible time for a child to be without her parents. Nancy and her friends endure an additional four years under the most testing of circumstances.

    What holds the children and teachers together are their friendships and the teachers’ steadfast adherence to maintaining a sense of safety and unity, and what we might think of as a ‘stiff upper lip.’ Or, as Miss Kent puts it,

    I closed my eyes and absorbed the simple familiarity of the moment: chalk dust on my fingertips, the pool of winter sunlight against my cheek, the sounds of singing and instruction drifting along the corridors. Routine and discipline. The glue holding me together while the world was falling apart.

    The Bird in the Bamboo Cage p25

    Told through alternating viewpoints of Miss Kent and young Nancy, we see the circumstances under which the school community must survive deteriorate rapidly; the brutality of some of the Japanese guards; the tragic experiences of the local Chinese communities.

    There are two potent themes throughout: sunflower seeds and the Girl Guides. The seeds are given to Miss Kent by the school’s Chinese gardener just before they are moved from the campus. She plants a seed at various locations throughout the story, one in each place they are interned and in remembrance of specific people.

    She resolutely keeps the rituals of the Guides alive for the girls in her charge, as a way of holding onto meaningful traditions for her pupils, and to follow the teachings of the Guides about honourable and right behaviour and deeds, despite the suffering and cruelty around them.

    One interesting character who really was at Weihsien Internment Camp is Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic athlete on whom the film Chariots of Fire was based. He was held captive at the camp and sadly died there before the prisoners were liberated. There is a memorial at the location where he was buried.

    Both Miss Kent and Nancy come to realise that freedom can be taken away from without but not from within. Nancy’s version of this understanding is this:

    For the first time since we’d been under Japanese guard, I understood that freedom wasn’t something I had to wait for, but was something I could choose. In my mind, in my imagination and my memories, I could be as free as the birds that raced the wind, as free as the clouds that chased the sun far above me.

    The Bird in the Bamboo Cage p277

    The Bird in the Bamboo Cage is a beautifully told story of loss and courage, the strength of the human spirit, and the bonds of friendship.

    It is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Historical fiction in a vivid setting: ‘The Sea Gate’ by Jane Johnson

    Following the death of her mother, Becky begins the sad task of sorting through her things. Among the unopened letters she finds an envelope post-marked from Cornwall that will change her life forever. In it is a desperate plea from her mother’s elderly cousin, Olivia, to help her save her beloved home…

    The Sea Gate

    The Sea Gate is a dual-timeline story: the historic storyline is about wartime Cornwall and 16 year old Olivia, and the modern day one involves Rebecca, the adult daughter of Olivia’s cousin. I enjoy novels that bring together past and present in this way and this one is no exception.

    I especially loved the setting of this book, having travelled to Cornwall and been enchanted by its dramatic rock-strewn coastlines, picturesque fishing villages and brooding moors. They provide a wonderful backdrop for a tale with plenty of family secrets; an old rambling house full of mysteries; intrigue and danger; past wrongs and a dash of romance.

    Becky sets herself the task of restoring Olivia’s neglected family home to some semblance of habitability, so that her elderly cousin can come home from hospital. In the process she finds herself piecing together the secrets of Olivia’s past, especially events that took place during the war.

    She also re-examines her own life and makes some surprising decisions about her future; she is a cancer survivor, still recovering from surgery and treatment and the shock of her illness:

    Fear has trapped me, rendered me immobile and powerless: fear of losing Eddie, fear of the cancer, fear of everything, really. I’d forgotten I ever had wings, let alone how to use them.

    The Sea Gate p304

    This was for me the most satisfying part of the novel: the emotional development of Rebecca’s character and her trajectory of self-discovery and change.

    The one part that didn’t work so well for me was the chapter in which Hamid tells his story. An important secondary character, his story is a good one, so it is perhaps simply personal taste that meant I didn’t enjoy his first-person narrative inserted into the the story in this way. It did not, however, detract from my overall enthusiasm for The Sea Gate.

    It’s an engrossing read, recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, dual timeline stories and an evocative, dramatic setting.

    The Sea Gate was published by Head of Zeus Publishing in June 2020.

    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A WWII story with a focus on women: ‘The German Midwife’ by Mandy Robotham

    Along with writing historical fiction, Mandy Robotham delivers babies. She is an experienced midwife – and it shows in this, her debut novel. The story opens in a Nazi labour camp during WWII, where Anke, the midwife of the book’s title, is imprisoned for helping pregnant women in the enforced Jewish ghetto of Berlin.

    Immediately we are plunged into the darkness, despair and filth of the camp, where giving birth is another trial to be faced by exhausted women weakened by harsh conditions and malnutrition. Having endured labour and birthed a child, their babies are ripped from their arms to be murdered by the guards. This is not a war story where miracles happen and people live happily ever after.

    Then Anke is transported from the camp and taken to a mansion high in the mountains, which we learn is the Berghof, Hitler’s luxury Bavarian complex. She is to be midwife to none other than Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress. This is the what if? question at the heart of the novel: if Hitler had fathered a child, what might that have meant for the Reich, the progress of the war, and the victims of that war – including the midwife and her family, who are all at the mercy of the Nazis and their leader?

    At a deeper, more personal and profound level, the question becomes: how should a person act in such circumstances? What is the right choice: to care for a woman and her innocent child, or to sacrifice either or both for the greater good?

    The stakes are high for Anke as she navigates her way through this treacherous territory. There are flashbacks to her loving family before the war, her work in a Berlin hospital as the Nazis ramp up their cruelty and their control of the nation, and to Anke’s actions which lead to her arrest and imprisonment in the camp. There are examples of the various ways in which ordinary people coped and survived in a world that had become savage and unforgiving. Anke’s dilemma underlines everything from the moment she is chosen to be Eva Braun’s midwife:

    I didn’t know whether to be grateful for my life chance, or angry at her naivety. A thought flashed, ‘a child within a child,’ and I forced a smile in response, while every sinew in me twirled and knotted.

    The German Midwife p62

    One thing that makes this novel stand out from others set during WWII and the Nazi regime, is that childbirth, and the midwives who assist, are the central points around which the story spins. Against a backdrop of widespread death and destruction, the descriptions of birthing are a welcome shift of attention to the act of creation of new life. The midwifery expertise of the author lends great credibility to these scenes: they are believable; never once do they feel gratuitous. The birthing scenes are there for a reason and they anchor the protagonist to a reality other than the one presented by war. Anke reflects on this:

    I soon realised my role – and that of the ten or so other qualified midwives in the camp – was to bring dignity where we couldn’t prolong life. We could create memories, perhaps of only hours or days, where kindness and humanity won out…
    Each of us had our way of creating a small world impenetrable to the harsh reality of noise and stench around us. It was a tiny cosmos where we cried and laughed with them, where we held a space – perhaps only for a few minutes – so pure that only their child, their baby, existed for that time. Their history. The burning ache of a child’s parting was no less painful, but alongside the sadness sat memories of what they did for their babies – memories of being mothers.

    The German Midwife p280

    The German Midwife has plenty of tension as the pregnancy of Eva Braun plays out, and plenty of drama. At its core, though, is an invitation to ask ourselves: What would I do, if this were me? What is the right choice in a world where every decision is fundamentally flawed?
    It’s a gripping read with the experience of women at its heart.

    The German Midwife is published by Harper Collins Australia in
    August 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.