Reading in July

I read nine books in July – it was a really good batch of books. I’ve written about 7 of them – click on the titles to see my reviews.

  1. The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths 3*
  2. Katharina: Fortitude by Margaret Skea 5*
  3. The House by the Loch by Kirsty Wark 4*
  4. The Bear Pit by S G Maclean 5*
  5. Who Killed Ruby? by Camilla Way 3.5*
  6. Dolly by Susan Hill 5*
  7. Blood on the Tracks edited by Martin Edwards *
  8. Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers 4*
  9. The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry 4*

I’ll be writing more about Clouds of Witness and The Art of Dying later this month, but for now here are my initial thoughts.

Clouds of witnessClouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers is the second Lord Peter Wimsey book. I really enjoyed this book. It has wit and humour as  as well as being a murder mystery. Lord Peter Wimsey’s brother, the Duke of Denver is accused of murder and refuses to explain or defend himself, so it’s down to Peter to get to the truth. The murder took place at the duke’s shooting lodge and Lord Peter’s sister was engaged to marry the dead man. One of the things I like about it is that it is clearly a book of its time with all the class distinctions and snobbery of the 1920s clearly on display.

Art of DyingThe Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry, anothoer book I really enjoyed is a new publication due out on 29 August this year.  It’s the sequel to Ambrose Parry’s debut novel, The Way of all Flesh. Ambrose Parry is a pseudonym for a collaboration between Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. It’s historical fiction set in Edinburgh in 1850 as  patients are dying all across the city, with doctors finding their remedies powerless. Will Raven returns to Edinburgh as a doctor having been in Europe studying. Dr. James Simpson is being blamed for the death of a patient in suspicious circumstances, and Will and former housemaid Sarah Fisher are determined to clear his name.

 

 

Katharina: Fortitude by Margaret Skea

Katharina fortitude

Last week I wrote about Margaret Skea’s latest book, Katharina: Fortitude, historical fiction based on the life of Katharina von Bora, the escaped nun who married Martin Luther. I loved it. It is beautifully written and meticulously researched giving a vivid portrait of Katharina from the beginning of her married  life with Luther in 1525 to her death in 1552.

For the whole of August it is on sale for 99p in the UK and $0.99 in the USA – a real bargain!

Here’s the link that takes you straight to the book page, whatever country you are in:

https://books2read.com/u/meBAgA

Katharina: Fortitude by Margaret Skea

Historical fiction at its best

‘We are none of us perfect, and a streak of stubbornness is what is needed in dealing with a household such as yours, Kat… and with Martin.’ 

Katharina fortitude

Sanderling Books|23 July 2019|print length 446 pages|e-book review copy|5*

My thoughts:

I loved this book; beautifully written and meticulously researched Katharina: Fortitude by Margaret Skea it presents a vivid portrait of Katharina von Bora from the beginning of her married  life with Martin Luther in 1525 to her death in 1552. It is the conclusion to Katharina: Deliverance, which covered the early years of her life from 1505 up to her wedding to Luther.

They both work well as standalone novels but I think reading both gives a fully rounded picture of her life. Margaret Skea is a skilful storyteller and seamlessly blends historical fact into her fiction. She is an award winning author both for her short stories and her historical novels – and Katharina: Deliverance was Runner-up in the Historical Novel Society Novel Award 2018.

Just as in Katharina: Deliverance, I was transported back in time and place to Reformation Germany, and in particular to Wittenberg in Saxony, experiencing the social, cultural and political situation. It’s also an intensely personal novel and I feel I really came to know Katharina and Martin very well. They lived through turbulent times, suffering outbreaks of plague, political and religious conflict as well as coping with the death of two of their children. Their marriage, initially one of convenience, opposed by some of his friends and fellow reformers, eventually became full of their love for each other and Martin came to value Katharina’s candid opinions and the support she gave him.

I felt immense admiration for Katharina, for her strength of character, resilience and courageous spirit. She gave birth to six children, whilst looking after Martin, who was often ill and suffered from depression. And in addition she also managed the daily life of the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg, often under financial difficulties because of Martin’s generosity towards others. She catered for the students and all the visitors and boarders, as well as working in the garden, with its vegetable beds and herb garden, the brewhouse, stable and piggery. Luther continued to be involved in religious controversy, whilst lecturing students, and holding his Table Talk sessions discussing a variety of topics ranging from theology and politics to diseases and their remedies.  He also translated the Bible into German, composed hymns, catechisms and treatises. 

I have often written in my reviews that I am not a fan of novels written in the present tense, but I had no issues with it in either of these books about Katharina and I think it fits the story perfectly. I was totally immersed in the story, enhanced by the richly descriptive writing, which made it compulsively readable for me.

In her Author’s Note Margaret Skea states that her book, based on a research trip in Saxony, ‘is a work of fiction, and though based on extensive research, the Katharina depicted here is my own interpretation’. There is a list of the main characters, a glossary of German terms and a map showing Saxony and Surroundings to help with the locations. It is a remarkable story, full of drama, centred on Katharina, a strong and courageous woman who never gave up no matter the difficulties that life with Luther brought her. I loved it.

With many thanks to Margaret Skea for sending me an advance review copy.

 

Library Loans

Here are some of my current library books

Lib bks July 2019

  • Dolly by Susan Hill, sub-titled ‘A Ghost Story’, a novella set in the Fens where two young cousins, Leonora and Edward spend a summer at Iyot Lock, a large decaying house, with their ageing aunt.  I’ll be writing more about this book soon.
  • Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear, a Maisie Dobbs novel. This is no. 12 in the series (I’m not reading them in order). This one is set in 1938 when Molly travels into the heart of Nazi Germany.
  • The Trip to Jerusalem: an Elizabethan Mystery by Edward Marston, the 3rd book in the Nicholas Bracewell series about a troupe of players travelling England – not  to Jerusalem but to an ancient inn called The Trip to Jerusalem – whilst the Black Plague rages.
  • The Last Dance and other stories by Victoria Hislop. Ten stories set in Greece, described on the book cover as ‘bittersweet tales of love and loyalty, of separation and reconciliation’. I’ve recently enjoyed reading her latest book, Those Who Are Loved, also set in Greece, so my eye was drawn to this book.

The library van used to visit here once a fortnight, but now it only comes once a month. I hope it continues coming, but I fear that its days are numbered, so I make sure I use it whilst I still can.

The Bear Pit by S G MacLean

Bear Pit

Quercus/ 11 July 2019/Paperback/ 416 pages/ Review copy/ 5*

S G MacLean is one of my favourite authors of historical fiction, so I was delighted to read her latest book, The Bear Pit.  It is the fourth book in her Damien Seeker series, set during the Interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. I’ve read the previous three books. Reading them takes me back to England in the 17th century, a time and a place full of danger and unrest, teeming with spies, exiles and assassins. Whilst I  was happy to read them as standalones, I think it would help to follow the progression of events if they are read in order.

This one begins in September 1656 as three men are waiting for Oliver Cromwell to emerge from Westminster Abbey on his way to the State Opening of Parliament in Parliament House. Their plan to assassinate Cromwell had been in preparation in Cologne and Bruges for a year and a half, but that day it was thwarted. However, they will not give up.

Damian Seeker, Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, works for John Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief Secretary and spy master, in charge of the security of the regime, running a virtual secret service. Thurloe is floundering under all the reports from the Continent about plots against Cromwell’s life and to reinstate Charles Stuart as King. He tells Seeker until they have corroboration of the rumours they don’t have the time or capability to look into the matter. Not wanting to go against Thurloe’s orders, Seeker decides to take part in a raid on an illegal gaming house which ends with the discovery of the body of an elderly man chained to the wall by his neck and half eaten, obviously ravaged by a bear. But bear baiting had been banned and all the bears had been shot recently – or so it was claimed. Where had the bear come from and why was the man killed? And what connection, if any, does the murder have to the plots to kill Cromwell?

Like all good historical fiction The Bear Pit blends historical fact and fiction. There was indeed a plot to assassinate Cromwell in the autumn and winter of 1656 as described in the novel, whereas the mystery of the man killed by a bear and the subsequent search for the bear’s whereabouts are fictional. 

Some of the things I enjoy in this book are the return of characters from the earlier books -Sir Thomas Faithly, Lawrence Ingoldby, Manon, Marie Ellingworth, to mention just a few, and the glimpses we see of other historical figures – such as John Evelyn, a young Samuel Pepys, the poet Andrew Marvell as well as John Milton and one of my favourite historical figures when I was at school – Prince Rupert of the Rhine. I was fascinated by the details of The Cabinet of Curiosities, assembled by John Tradescant and his son, in Tradescant’s Garden in South Lambeth. In her Author’s Note S G MacLean states that these were indeed, very much in existence and were open for business as well as being a public attraction. The remains of the collection are held in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. 

S G MacLean is a wonderful storyteller and her books are full of authentic detail skilfully interwoven in the stories without holding up the action. The Bear Pit is a fast-paced book, full of action and danger and wonderful characters, especially in the figure of Damien Seeker. He is the hero of the book – strong, dedicated to his work, indefatigable in his search of the truth and loyal to his friends and colleagues. The atmospheric setting complements the plot – the streets of London in winter, the cold, fog and damp and in particular Bankside in Southwark and the eerie atmospheric wastes of Lambeth Marsh. I was completely absorbed in the book. I found it compelling reading both the murder mystery and the assassination plot gripped me and I raced through it, eager to find out what happened. I was absolutely incredulous at the ending though, but it does give me hope that there may be fifth Damian Seeker novel.

Many thanks to the publishers, Quercus, for my review copy via NetGalley.

Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop

Those who are loved

Headline Review|30 May 2019|496 pages|Review e-book copy|4.5*

Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop is one of the most moving novels I’ve read for a long time. But it begins slowly and it was only at about the halfway stage that it really took off for me. And now I’ve come to write about it I’m finding it difficult to put into words just how exceptional I think it is. Whatever I write will not do it justice – it really is ‘an epic tale of an ordinary woman compelled to live an extraordinary life‘.

It is historical fiction ‘set against the backdrop of the German occupation of Greece, the subsequent civil war and a military dictatorship, all of which left deep scars.’

The main character is Themis Koralis/Stravidis (in Greek mythology Themis is the personification of fairness and natural law). In 2016 she is a great grandmother and realising that her grandchildren knew very little about Greek history she decided to tell them her life story, beginning from when she was a small child in the 1930s, through the German occupation of Greece during the Second World War, the civil war that followed, then the oppressive rule of the military junta and the abolition of the Greek monarchy, up to the present day.

As she grew up she and her brothers and sister had many disagreements, holding differing political opinions, which came to a head when the Germans invaded Athens in 1941.  Themis and her brother Panos joined the communist party in their fight against the Germans, whilst her other brother Thanasis and her sister Margarita opposed them, hating the communists’ views and believing that Germany was a friend of Greece, not a foe.

During the civil war Themis was imprisoned on the islands of exile, Makronisos and then Trikeri. Her experiences were horrific, but only strengthened her determination to survive. On Makronisos she met Aliki, also a member of the communist party, and when Aliki is condemned to death, Themis promises to find and raise Aliki’s son, Nikos as her own.

During the early part of the book I felt it was rather like reading a history book. But then, the book sprang to life, the pace increased, and I was totally gripped and moved as history and fiction came together dramatically in glorious technicolor, telling the story of the characters personal lives and their parts in the action.

I have only skimmed the surface of this book – there is so much more to the story than I can mention here. But after the slow start I loved it, even though it is not a book I can say I ‘enjoyed’. It is a powerful and shocking story of remarkable characters faced with brutal and traumatic events. It has a completely convincing and vivid sense of location. I knew next to nothing about this period in Greek history before and I was astounded by what I learnt. 

On a personal note, the earthquake in Athens on 7 September 1999 plays a part in the story. We were there then on holiday. We had been out at sea on that day and travelled back to our hotel through Athens, seeing some of the destruction and terror it caused. The earthquake had been felt at our hotel in Marathon – people had been thrown out of the swimming pool and later that evening we could still feel the aftershocks.

Many thanks to the publishers, Headline Review, for my review copy via NetGalley.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

‘a story of two ordinary people, living in an extraordinary time, deprived not only of their freedom but their dignity, their names and their identities.’

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Zaffre|4 Oct. 2018|320 pages|Paperback|3*

Yesterday when I finished reading The Tattooist of Auschwitz, I didn’t want to write about it, but I kept thinking about it and in the end I decided I needed to record a few of my thoughts about it. It is not a book I can say that I ‘enjoyed’, because I didn’t – the subject matter is too painful, how can you enjoy a book that describes the horrors of one person’s experience of his time in the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau*!

It is ‘based on the true story of Lale Sokolov’.  He was born Ludwig Eisenberg on 28 October 1916 in Krompachy, Slovakia and transported to Auschwitz on 23 April 1942. He was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival. He met and fell in love with Gita, a fellow prisoner and he was determined that they would be survivors. The story Heather Morris tells is simply devastating and I could hardly bear to read the horrors of life in the concentration camps; it is appalling as it reveals the brutality, hatred and evil side of human nature. But is also about love, determination, compassion, and the strength of human nature. 

It is simply told in a straight forward, childlike style and in the present tense. It is certainly a most unsettling and depressing book, despite the fact that I knew that Lale and Gita would survive their horrific experience.

Heather Morris wrote the book after meeting Lale and hearing his story. In her Author’s Note she tells how she spent three years listening to him as

he told his story piecemeal, sometimes slowly, sometimes at bullet-pace and without clear connections between the many, many episodes. … Lale’s memories were on the whole, remarkably clear and precise.

The epilogue describes what happened to Lale and Gita after the end of the war. They married, moved to Bratislava, and, after travelling to Paris, eventually moved to Melbourne. There are photos at the end of the book of Lale and Gita in Australia with Gary their son and an Afterword by Gary about their family life and how their years in the camp affected them both.

But the line between fiction and fact can be blurred in a novel and there are claims that ‘the book contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements‘. I have read the article pointing out the errors etc. It concludes that the book should be seen as an ‘impression devoid of documentary value on the topic of Auschwitz, only inspired by authentic events … Given the number of factual errors, therefore, this book cannot be recommended as a valuable title for persons who want to explore and understand the history of KL Auschwitz.’

It seems to me that it is a novel that clearly conveys what Lale experienced during the three years he spent in Auschwitz, as he remembered it many years later. Despite the errors that have been pointed out, I think it is a story of man’s inhumanity to man and a tribute to the strength of the human spirit for survival.

KL Auschwitz-Birkenau 

The first and oldest was the so-called “main camp,” later also known as “Auschwitz I” (the number of prisoners fluctuated around 15,000, sometimes rising above 20,000), which was established on the grounds and in the buildings of prewar Polish barracks;

The second part was the Birkenau camp (which held over 90,000 prisoners in 1944), also known as “Auschwitz II” This was the largest part of the Auschwitz complex. The Nazis began building it in 1941 on the site of the village of Brzezinka, three kilometers from Oswiecim. The Polish civilian population was evicted and their houses confiscated and demolished. The greater part of the apparatus of mass extermination was built in Birkenau and the majority of the victims were murdered here;’ (extract from the history page of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum)