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All the characters are real. All the events depicted are true.
HHhH (initials representing the German phrase which translates as ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich‘) is ostensibly about the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942, otherwise know as Operation Anthropoid. But it’s so much more than that….
when you are a novelist writing about real people how do you resist the temptation to make things up?
I resisted picking up this much praised book for a long time, put off by the notion that this was a novel that was too clever by half, being about the author as much as its subject. I tend to resist that sort of thing because it can be very superficial (to my mind at least) but on this occasion I was absolutely swept away.
Binet is trying to write the story of the two men – one Czech, the other Slovak – who flew from London to Prague to carry out the assassination, knowing that they would almost certainly not survive and that there would likely be significant reprisals against their fellow countrymen. But Binet gets drawn in to the life, career and just general horror of Heydrich that he spends a lot of the novel giving us this background and of course interjecting himself into the narrative.
I really did not think I was going to like this at all but whether it’s the author’s personality (whether real or artificial, because once you start thinking about making things up about real people you have to wonder whether what you are seeing of the author is accurate or not) or the structure of the novel with short punchy chapters, some only a paragraph long for effect, I was gripped and read the book very quickly.
A compelling story well told and one of my favourite reads of the year so far.
In some ways The Collini Case is both really easy and really difficult to describe. A young defence lawyer, Caspar Leinen, gets his first opportunity to appear in court when he is assigned the case of an Italian citizen, Fabrizio Collini, who has brutally murdered a prominent German businessman in one of Berlin’s swankiest hotels. I know how swanky it is because both Michael Jackson and I have stayed there, though obvs not at the same time; it’s just lovely and luxurious. Anyway, advert over, back to the point. Leinin finds out that he has a connection to the murdered man (confusion over names causes this) and tries to recuse himself from the case, but ends up taking it forward and is appalled by what he finds.
Why did I want to read it?
I love courtroom stuff and legal arguments and such like, plus I had read a couple of reviews which made it sound intriguing.
What did I think of it?
This is a book that really grabbed me and I read it in two sittings. It manages to be both very simple and very complex, because it hinges on the motive for the murder and some aspects of German law. I was aware that the author, who is an acclaimed lawyer himself, wrote the book partly to bring to everyone’s attention a particular issue which he felt needed to be addressed, and although the actual details were fascinating the campaigning part of the book (if I can even call it that) was well handled and didn’t get in the way of a tragic and compelling story of the legacy of the Second World War. Anyone who knows anything about that period and sees that the murder victim is an elderly man will probably guess what the murder may be all about but there is so much more to it than that.
This all sounds very cryptic but it’s a really fast and cleanly written story and it’s worth discovering for yourself.
So, let’s start off with another holiday read which turned out to be a fabulous book, and another one that made me cry (doesn’t seem to be too difficult these days, perhaps its my age). Code Name Verity tells the story of Verity (as in her alias, I can’t remember exactly when in the book we find out her real name) who is an SOE operative behind enemy lines in occupied France during WWII.
The story is told in two parts, two different views of the same events which I thought worked really, really well here. We start with Verity who has been captured and is being tortured by the Gestapo; in her cell she thinks back over how she met Maddie, an unlikely friendship as Verity (we find out) is from a wealthy Scottish aristocratic family and Maddie is a working class girl from Manchester obsessed with machines, especially planes. We learn how their friendship develops, how they become involved in the war effort and how Verity ended up where she is. We then switch to the other viewpoint, about which I won’t give too much away, which fills in some of the gaps in Verity’s story and brings the whole thing to a conclusion, which is where my middle-aged weeping comes in.
This is another young adult novel, so again clear, direct, simple language but not flinching away from the necessarily unpleasant aspects of the story. One of the strongest themes is that of female friendship; Verity and Maddie really mean a lot to each other and their relationship was entirely convincing. And it makes clear the sacrifices a number of women made, leaving their families to carry out dangerous work with no guarantee of return. This is an excellent novel and it will hopefully win a number of the awards for which it has been nominated. I thought it was stunning.
One of the things I enjoy a great deal is reading the author’s notes for this type of novel, not so much the acknowledgements to friends and colleagues who have in some way assisted (though they can also be quite fun), but more the research details and in particular any books consulted. Which is how I came to realise that I already had one of the biographies mentioned – A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE; it was inevitable that after reading such a strong novel I would want to dive into the background.
Vera Atkins was a key figure in the SOE French Section and prepared many of the female agents who were amongst more than four hundred who were sent behind enemy lines. A large number of these failed to come back, and the book follows Vera as she attempts to find out what happened to them, particularly the twelve young women for whom she felt responsible. It explains how the French Section worked during the war, the status of the female agents which meant that if captured they would not be protected by the Geneva Convention, and the struggle Vera had to get permission to carry out her search. It also lays bare just how compromised the SOE operation in France actually was, betrayed to the Gestapo at an early stage, with agents being caught almost as soon as they parachuted onto French soil. One of the more sobering facts is that the lifespan of a radio operator in France was roughly six weeks.
Vera does find out what happened to all of her agents, and it is a really harrowing story of bravery in the face of genuinely wicked cruelty and brutality as her quest for information brings her face to face with the atrocities committed in Natzweller, Ravensbruck and Dachau.
It is also the fascinating story of Vera herself and the secrets she kept; suffice to say she wasn’t exactly what she appeared, and the author’s investigation into Vera’s past is equally fascinating. Again, a book well worth reading to get a sense of a life totally dominated by wartime events.
Around the same time I was reading these two an interesting series was being broadcast on TV which was also about the impact of wartime events on post-war lives. The Bletchley Circle is the story of four friends who had worked as code-breakers during the war and use their skills to investigate and unmask a serial killer through patterns that only they seem able to see. The compulsion that causes the murderer to kill in the way he does points out again the impact of wartime on the minds of those who experienced it (though actually his character is rather ambivalent, besides being a murderous psychopath of course) but the thing that stuck out for me was the four friends themselves, who had carried out important work that they couldn’t discuss even with their families, and the way their lives seemed so dull in the aftermath that they would put themselves in such danger to catch a killer.
And just finally, a few weeks ago a memorial was erected in London to one of Vera’s agents, Nora Inayat Khan, who met one of the most brutal of ends with genuine bravery. One of those periods in history we mustn’t forget.
This is set in 1952, and Isabel, newly married, moves to Yorkshire with her husband who is a GP. It’s a time of austerity with rationing still in force and their flat isn’t very warm or welcoming. Isabel is left very much to her own devices as her husband is constantly busy. One night Isabel wakes freezing and wraps herself in an old greatcoat she finds at the back of a cupboard wakes.
And then there is a knock at the window and she sees a young RAF pilot wanting to come in….
This is a story of unfinished business, loneliness and passion, the impact of war and how the recent past can come back to haunt. Very intense and powerful.
This was my seventh and final Readathon read (or at least the last one I finished).
The first book to be finished in 2011 though it was very much the last read of 2010 and a chunky one too. But also absolutely fascinating and I found myself reading large sections of it in each sitting.
In common with a number of women, Vere Hodgson began to keep a diary when war started, partly to record her own impressions but also to share with members of her family abroad so that they would have news about what was happening on the Home Front. She describes it as:
a diary showing how unimportant people in London and Birmingham lived through the war years 1940-45 written in the Notting Hill area of London
Vere originally came from Birmingham but lived in London where she did welfare work for a private organisation which meant that she was exempt from the conscripted war work that caught up so many other women. Her descriptions of the impact of the Blitz are very vivid as you might expect, and her curiosity about the aftermath of some of the attacks took her on walks throughout London to see what had been damaged and what was still standing. It might seem a bit odd (if not slightly ghoulish) to go off and see where homes and business premises had been destroyed, but in one way I can understand that in a period where rumours about what was gone and what was still standing abounded, going to find out for yourself (if you could) was probably an effective coping mechanism.
Some of the descriptions of her walks are hugely interesting to me; I spend quite a lot of time on business in the area around London Wall, Cheapside and St Paul’s where so much was destroyed, and I work close to Holborn which was again badly hit, so (with a little bit of thinking) it is quite possible to imagine myself standing alongside her.
As the preface says, she can be a tiny bit pompous on occasion and her uncritical admiration of Churchill and De Gaulle jars a little, bit but her descriptions of rationing and fire-watching, trying to travel to visit her family in Birmingham, the sheltering from the bombs, the lack of sleep but also the camaraderie with her friends and colleagues gives a really rounded picture of what it was like during those five years, and is well-worth reading.
Part of the TBR challenge – this book has been on my shelves since I received it as a Christmas present in 2004.
Another police procedural, this one is set during the Second World War, and begins with a murder in Paris and the theft of a number of valuable diamonds. The action then moves to London in the blackout, where a young Polish girl is murdered, seemingly at random. Of course, as with all good mysteries, there is significantly more to this than meets the eye.
Madden gets drawn into the investigation surrounding this crime because the girl in question, Rosa Nowak, was a land girl working on his farm. He feels that this wasn’t a random crime, that there was a reason Rosa was killed, and determines to help his former colleagues in any way he can. And of course he is right, and as the bodies pile up all over the place it becomes clear they are dealing with a particularly ruthless and efficient killer and that the motive is buried in Rosa’s past.
It’s always difficult reviewing books in a series because you tend to find that the things that you loved in the earlier book(s) are repeated in the later ones. So again, a sense of melancholy in Madden’s character, his happy home life contrasting with the lives of the people drawn into this crime are all very satisfying; what’s different here is how effectively Airth gives a sense of London as the war is coming to an end, the weariness of the population and the need to make do in their everyday lives. There’s also an interesting subplot about the introduction of women police officers and the limitations that were imposed on them.
Very well written as always, I devoured this one pretty quickly. It’s a real shame that it doesn’t look like there will be any more in the series.