City of Spies by Mara Timon – a young woman in a wartime city balancing on the edge of neutrality

 

Realistically exciting and a thriller which maintains a breathless pace, this is an adventure in wartime Europe which expands on the already fascinating stories of female Special Operations Executive heroines. Elisabeth de Mornay is a woman with an obscure past, a perilous present, and an uncertain future. Operating on several levels Elisabeth herself is trying to work out which identity is most effective in a country which is balancing its alliances between German forces, the allies headed by British interests, and the disparate interests of Russians, Spanish and other nationalities all jostling for space and influence as seen in the large number of refugees in a small country. Elisabeth has discovered the high cost of being an agent in France over some time, as the danger of getting close to people as well as the danger of betrayal has left her determined to survive in any way. This is a brilliantly researched novel which revels in the details of a setting intimately described, the clothes that much of rationed Europe could only dream of, and the food and drink that seems to be little affected by shortages. Going under various guises she must work out who, if anyone, she can trust, when no one is completely as they seem.  This is a well written book which I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review. 

 

The book opens with Cecile recalling her time in France as a “pianist” or radio operative. Partly lucky, partly because she is brave and resourceful, she has survived thus far, but one more betrayal has propelled her to seek sanctuary with an older woman even though her very presence is a threat. Her training means that she knows when she is being followed, and what to do in hand to hand combat. She has an incredibly strong need to survive, which keeps her going even when under fire. A chance encounter leads to a whole new set of problems, and means that she turns up in Lisbon in June 1943. Her new setting means a new role with an old contact in a new context, an encounter which exposes several facts about her background. Slipping into the  role of a mysterious French widow who has recently arrived in Lisbon as a refugee from occupied France, she has the house, clothes and identity fabricated for her, but her own preparations means that she goes further to create other disguises in case of need. As she begins to blend in with a society of refugees and transitory residents of a country balancing on the edge of neutrality, the gossip, jealousies and dangers of a confusing place mean that she must constantly adjust her assumptions about those around her.

 

This is a book that is virtually impossible to put down when engaged with the adventures of a remarkable woman. I enjoyed Elisabeth’s story in France as she takes on huge challenges, but it is in Lisbon among a community of potential spies and military from Germany and other enemies that the narrative really comes alive as she must try to double guess everyone who she meets. The setting is beautifully described; the cafes, the parties, the streets and the countryside all come alive in glorious detail. The character of Elisabeth is a wonderful one, as she uses her intelligence and cunning to prepare as much as possible for threats and attempts on her life. A fast moving and enjoyable story with a warmth of personality which is memorable, I thoroughly recommend this remarkable novel. 

I feel really proud to be starting the blog tour for this wonderful book. In the back of the book there is an historical note about the elements of the story as researched by the author, and a question and answer section which gives more details about the writing of the novel. These additional sections are fascinating and well worth a read in their own right.

Eight Hours From England by Anthony Quayle -a reprinted gem of wartime complexity in Albania

Eight Hours From England by Anthony Quayle

 

This is a contemporary book of the Second World War, which never forgets the humanity of those who were fighting. For much of this well written book there is very little actual fighting; survival is much more important in a challenging landscape. Written by a man who had undoubtedly been there, the actor Anthony Quayle exceeds all expectations in his moving and often painfully realistic record of life in Albania in late 1943. Having been disappointed in love by Ann, who he continues to idolise throughout the novel, Major John Overton offers to go on a mission to create trouble in Nazi occupied Albania. Finding a complex situation of near civil war between the Albanians themselves, this is far from a straightforward disruption of German  forces. As shifting loyalties and opposing interest mean that few people, if any, can be trusted, diplomacy is the order of the day as tribal leaders must be placated and bribed with gold, weapons and essential supplies. While establishing a foothold in the unfriendly and largely inaccessible countryside is a priority, difficult decisions must be made when any connection with headquarters is tenuous. There are very few forces to command, as British officers are sent sparingly and relations with those from America and the retreating Italians can be difficult. This is a fascinating account of the humans involved in a complex and changeable situation; the local warlords, the interpreters and guides, the shepherds and the locals trying to survive and preserve their territory. The soldiers who have to survive literally on the edge of mountains with tiny amounts of basic supplies are well drawn. The ever present menace of the German forces threads throughout this war novel which is far more about people than battle. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this reprinted novel in the series of Wartime Classics produced by the Imperial War Museum. 

 

The novel begins with the confusion of a war declared and emerging on so many fronts. Desperate to leave London and an admiration of the seemingly unattainable Ann, John Overton travels to a large British base in Cario. The administration are unsure what to do with this technically trained but inexperienced officer, so he is dispatched to Albania, “the least developed of all the Balkan sections”. In an exciting transfer to the coast of the country, a base rejoicing in the name of “Sea View”, Overton soon discovers that leading a small group of men who are not all under his command will be a delicate matter. As defeated Italian troops defect to Allied protection, their physical presence complicates the situation. Despite his expectations and training, simply blowing up roads and disrupting German forces proves to be far from straightforward, as a factional and fierce situation is revealed, with betrayal and self protection being the dominating motivation, made more complicated by language differences.

 

This book is far from the traditional military account of an ex soldier. It is fictionalised autobiography of the most intimate kind, full of the telling details of sights, sounds and even tastes of someone who experienced them first hand. Quayle was a memorable actor especially in films depicting small groups of people in war. On the evidence of this book he was also an acute and inspiring writer. I recommend this book as an immensely readable account of a confusing yet life changing experience in a lost world, but recognisable for its people full of  fear, loyalty and sheer determination to survive.   

 

  This is my final review of the set of four books produced by the Imperial War Museum in its Wartime Classics series. With a wide range of novels even in these few books, I would love to know if they are proposing to reprint any more difficult to find novels of the Second World War period. If they are as good as these four, they will be worth collecting!

Monopoli Blues by Tim Clark & Nick Cook – Love in a time of War – A truthful account

A book of war, danger and courage, this is a non- fiction book which makes a real impact by the power of its truth. It shows how a son and his supporters can track down the record of a man whose experiences in war are complex and awe inspiring, with the help of the woman who worked behind the scenes in the same theatre of war. These two people are remarkable in every way, in their bravery and commitment to each other during so many courageous acts, and ultimately their modesty in revealing the story to those who came afterwards. As Tim Clark, their son, seeks to discover the truth from the people who remember and the limited paperwork that survives, he visits some of the places where his parents spent the most significant part of their war, and experience the events that may well have shaped the battle for Italy. This is a book of almost unbelievable bravery, ability and missions that would challenge the most experienced warrior, undertaken by a twenty year old agent.  Meanwhile, a young woman who received so many notes of his feelings was fighting in her own way, maintaining the communications that saved lives, living in a disputed territory. At stake was not only the immediate battle but the fate of a country teetering on the edge of civil war. This book is a well timed reminder that when so much was at stake, the fate of many lives was in the hands of young people like this couple. I was pleased to be asked to read and review this cogently written book.

 

This book begins with the gradual revelation of a story. As objects and documents are discovered, including weapons, the author realises that his father, Bob Clark, has far more to tell about his wartime experiences. It is not a straightforward process to gather the truth; as with many of his parents’ generation, comments and episodes slip out, people are mentioned, contexts hinted at rather than a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. Attendance at Special Forces reunions, close friends of the same age who know some things, and the occasional session of openness for a specific event give tantalising glimpses of a story of battles and missions. While the family are told a little, at the time of his father’s death Tim is left with only five pages of notes of actual facts , and it is from this he must track down more details to flesh out the bare bones of an incredible truth. While he is indefatigable in his hunting through the National Archives and following slim leads, it is only when his mother’s memories and collection of notes and letters appear that he can begin to plot the whereabouts of his parents as the British forces invaded and made good their progress in Italy. As the Germans pulled back they still committed outrages against civilians, and fought to keep their influence in the country.

 

As the letters between his parents emerge, the quick events of life and death in the area are emphasised. Bob wrote “Everything in the world goes right when I am with you. I have never felt so happy as when I was with you.” In the dozens of names in this book, in the sometimes confusing descriptions of times and places, the love of these two young people shines through. I must admit there were times that I wished for more words between the facts, as I was left in no doubt that every name, place, piece of equipment was researched and verified. However, this book represents a tireless search by Tim Clark for the story of his parents first meeting, getting together, and loyal support even when there was some doubt. Together with Cook, Clark’s exhaustive search, visits to the sites and meeting with those who survive have contributed to an incredible record in this book of lives lived in the heat of war. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the work of the Special Operations Executive in Italy, as it is a source of much information and interest.

 

I am really honoured to be kicking off this tour for this special book. Last Thursday Northernvicar and I went to the local theatre to see a special evening commemorating the D Day landings, with two authors speaking about their books, some wartime songs, and a dance specially devised for the occasion. Together with the coverage from France I found it all very moving, and reminded me of my father who was involved in the event. Northernvicar bought me one of the books, so watch this space for a review of that – eventually!

Ungentlemanly Warfare by Howard Linskey – A secret war carried out by gentlemen?

On one level this is a historical thriller set in the Second World War, featuring the fight in France partly run by the Special Operations Executive. It is also a picture of a specific man, Harry Walsh, with a significant backstory of action at Dunkirk, a complicated love life, but especially lacking the acceptable background for being a gentleman.  Anyone with a basic knowledge of the undercover operations which were attempted by British agents will find much to interest them in this novel, but the additional layer of discrimination against people from a lower class makes it an unusual read. It also explains the title; while Winston Churchill called the SOE “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” in that the tactics used by the agents were against all the understood rules of warfare, Walsh himself is seen by certain officers as not the correct class to hold a higher rank or indeed be trusted. With some brutality which is necessary in a book on this topic, it never feels gratuitous. This is a book about feeling the fear and using that energy to defend and even attack. The realistic recognition that German retaliation was always to be considered when planning action is also present, adding to the complexity of the narrative. This is a deeply thoughtful book, which places a quotation relevant to each chapter in the text.  I was interested to read this fast paced and realistic fictional portrayal of the real secret army, and glad to have the opportunity to review it for the blog tour.

 

The Prologue features experiments for a new sort of aircraft which has everyone excited, which may well change the course of the war. Later in the novel the problems of testing and completing the plane for operational purposes become more detailed, but the possibilities of its use by the German air force to finally overcome the RAF is sufficient to make profound plans. Meanwhile, Harry Walsh slips away to expose a impostor who is part of a plan to expose several agents to the ultimate danger. Some success is not enough to impress Price, Harry’s immediate superior, who has his own twisted agenda and ambitions, especially where Harry is concerned. This is a book where the obvious enemy does not pose the only danger; the different departments of government guard their territories without much concern for individuals. Harry has had traumatic experiences and felt compelled to enter into marriage without love. At the point at which the novel begins he has an illicit relationship which will perhaps affect his judgement in the field. Still the training and the refinement of skills proceeds, as a plan evolves will test many people, and some to destruction.

 

This book is a pacy read, sometimes almost getting ahead of itself in its layers of plots and plans. The danger feels real, the power of the occupying forces overwhelming, the lack of concern for human life chilling. There is some light relief as one or two real people appear in passing in very clever ways.This a powerful read in many ways, one that does not waste words and linger over the drama. I recommend it as an exciting and fast moving read, with a real impact in terms of its descriptions of war themes, and some more unusual themes of class and gender discrimination.