Book Reviews

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Anthology #1

Dolphin Junction, by Mick Herron

It’s always a pleasure to find a book by this author, and this is a collection of his short stories, one of which features some of his Slow Horses characters; there are also two featuring his private investigators Zoë Boehm and her hapless, erstwhile husband, Joe Silvermann. Herron seems to have the knack of being able, cosynchronously, to write both contemporaneously and classically; although maybe by that I mean that his writing is cogent, a quality not always found in current fiction; and he is very clever in how he sets the reader up for a conclusion, only to often turn these assumptions on their head. There are eleven stories in this collection, and they are all of the right length, so each new one is anticipated with pleasure. This hardback was published in 2021 by John Murray (Publishers), London, ISBN 978-1-5293-7126-0; there is also a paperback, ISBN 978-1-5293-7127-7.

Our Man in New York, by Henry Hemming

This non-fiction book deserves to be read very widely: I say this as the author of a non-fiction biography, but the remit of this biography is arguably much wider than was mine, so I have every sympathy for this author with regard to the research he must have had to undertake. He is the grandson of a very good friend of the subject, William [Bill] Stephenson, but that notwithstanding, his documentary & anecdotal sources in his family were more limited than he would have liked; nevertheless, he has produced what I consider to be a very well-researched & important record of the British government’s efforts to influence American opinion enough, in 1940, when Britain was on its knees against the merciless onslaught of Hitler’s Germany, to persuade President Roosevelt to bring America into the war on the side of the Allies. Whether Stephenson’s background as a Canadian made a significant difference to his attitude & effect in this campaign is debatable, but suffice to say that, by the time Japan attacked America in December 1941, American opinion had revolved enough to make the country’s contribution a foregone conclusion. A must-read! The paperback I read was published in 2020 [2019] by Quercus editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-7874-7484-0.

The Peppermint Tea Chronicles, by Alexander McCall Smith

I have already alluded to this series; the 44 Scotland Street stories, set in Edinburgh; in a review of another series, the Inspector Varg novels, by this author [no diaeresis over the first A of his name here, as I expected], and I was curious to read how different, or otherwise, this might be from the aforesaid Malmö-set Varg stories. This is trumpeted as “now the world’s longest-running serial novel”, and it is with no little regret that I have to say that this reads like it; that said, it is very pleasant reading, which does have some measure of closure for a couple of the characters, but otherwise, it is a gentle meander through the lives of the characters during a short length of time in “Auld Reekie”. One thing I did find slightly irritating is that, for all the writing is cogent, there is an ever-so-slightly supercilious air about the latin quotations which are used without translation: some I knew, and some I wasn’t 100% sure of. Nevertheless, as said, this is very pleasant, undemanding reading, so I will be very happy to find another instalment in the series, whenever it is in the timescale. The hardback I read was published in 2019 by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, ISBN 978-1-8469-7483-0.

Admissions, by Henry Marsh

This name might not mean a thing to many people, but is you are a supporter of assisted dying, as I am, you might have seen his name as one of the high-profile supporters. He was a neurosurgeon [aka brain surgeon] before he retired, although he had not completely retired when he wrote this book; he was only working part-time though, and he also did stints in Ukraine [before the most recent Russian invasion] and Nepal, working with erstwhile colleagues. These foreign sojourns were partly altruistic, but it is fairly apparent from his personal musings that he has something of a restless nature; he has also seen, in his working career, which has encompassed many aspects of the medical profession, the despair which can overtake human beings who are suffering terminal illnesses, and the anguish which this can cause their loved ones, so this explains why he supports the concept of assisted dying. This has been decriminalised in many countries, and other countries are engaged in rational discussion about its advantages, but Britain doggedly refuses to countenance this humanitarian change, despite many well-informed & high-profile supporters: I can only hope that this resistance is dropped in the not-too-distant future. The paperback I read was published in 2018 [2017] by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, ISBN 978-1-4746-0387-4.

Book Review

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The Christie Affair, by Nina de Gramont

This author is American, and is a newcomer to speculation about the Agatha Christie ‘disappearance’ mythology: it “began in 2015 when she first learned about the famous author’s eleven-day disappearance. Christie’s refusal to ever speak about this episode particularly intrigued Nina, who loves the fact that someone who unravelled mysteries for a living managed to keep her own intact. The Christie Affair is her fourth novel.” I’m not sure if saying Christie “unravelled mysteries” is entirely accurate, because since she created them in the first place, and required them to be plausible, they wouldn’t have required unravelling by her, would they? That could safely be left to her readers. It’s possible that the author didn’t write her own bio, of course. This story is loosely based upon the facts as we know them, according to Christie’s Wikipedia page; some names have been changed, for obvious reasons; but this narrative falls into the ‘what if’ category, rather than a parallel universe scenario: the author describes it as “an imaginative history of sorts”.

As the narrative progressed, I was wondering why so much space was being given over to the backstory of the narrator, Nan O’Dea, who is this story’s substitute for Archie Christie’s real mistress, Nancy Neele, but the reason for that eventually became clear, and that is the subtext of this narrative: forced adoption of babies by the Catholic church in Ireland. I can’t reveal the reason for that, because the plot revolves around it, but it is a major element of this story. In fact, very little more of the plot can be revealed, but the major aspects of it conform to the real story, whereby Agatha Christie left her home in Sunningdale after a disagreement with her husband, in early December 1926, and after eleven days she was located at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate; although a different name for the hotel is used in the story. The period atmosphere is quite nicely realised so, apart from a few unfortunate Americanisms, which is understandable, given the author’s nationality, the story is a pleasant, undemanding read, even is some of the events do seem a touch implausible: given that this is fiction, I suppose that is forgivable.

It is difficult to speculate as to this book’s target readership, but Christie connoisseurs might enjoy it; as a thriller, it is very lightweight; it probably falls more comfortably into the romantic fiction category; but as stated above, it is undemanding, so it should be possible for different categories of reader to enjoy it. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Pan Books [Mantle], an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-5419-4.

Book Review

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Tomorrow, by Damian Dibben

This is a book narrated, unusually [but probably not uniquely], by a dog: specifically, the eponymous dog of the book’s title. It might seem like an unusual name for a dog, but it is very significant for the dog’s owner, Valentyne, and the book’s premise is depicted quite clearly on its cover, with a handsome & intelligent looking dog lower centre, and surrounded by images suggesting his & his owner’s travels, and a pocket watch to signify the passage of time: a lot of it, in fact, and this is also suggested by a broad ribbon which crisscrosses the cover from top to bottom, whose colour progresses from pale at the top, to dark at the bottom. Valentyne is immortal; so is Tomorrow; but they are no super-heroes: Valentyne discovered a method whereby a fluid carefully & painstakingly distilled from a rare mineral could be injected into a specific place in the body, and repeated several times, until a living stone grows to cease the ageing process, so he bestowed this gift upon his beloved companion, as well as himself. This being the case, they have lived several lives [Tomorrow arguably many more], Valentine’s including physician, philosopher & soldier.

Valentyne is imbued, perhaps as a result of his immortality [which can only be terminated similarly to the premise of the Highlander stories, by hanging or decapitation], with a seemingly insatiable wanderlust, which takes him from his home, of which he never speaks to Tomorrow, to Venice, London, and Denmark: specifically, Elsinore Palace, in 1602, by which time he is already over a hundred years old. Unfortunately, he has a nemesis whose name, we learn, is Vilder, and the peripatetic pair seem to be forever trying to stay at least one step ahead of him, for reasons which are not, initially, specified; although, when they do happen to meet, early in the narrative, Tomorrow cannot help but feel the magnetic power of the man. It might seem strange for a dog to be so apparently eloquent, but that is a plot device which must be accepted with a suspension of disbelief; his conversations with other dogs are helpfully translated for us; although I am of the opinion that the occasional grammatical errors which crop up are human, not inserted deliberately to make the dog seem less than intelligent.

Inevitably, both man & dog have romantic relationships which are inherently doomed, because of the disparity in their respective species’ lifespans, so this is a major element of pathos in the narrative, and both Valentyne & Tomorrow have to learn to accommodate this inevitability; of the two, Tomorrow seems to be the more philosophical, although the death of his one love does affect him deeply, and he also mourns the loss of a true friend, acquired against his better judgment at the time. Despite Valentyne’s constant avoidance of Vilder, or perhaps because of the need for it, Valentyne takes on a mission in life, to be a peripatetic battlefield physician, following military adventures over a wide geographical area, with no obvious partisan loyalties save the relieving of suffering, for which his apparently magical elixir, which he calls jhyr, is occasionally but sparingly put to use. Unsurprisingly, after Valentyne goes missing in Venice, and Tomorrow waits for him for over one hundred years, there is a confrontation & a reckoning between Valentyne & Vilder; before this, Tomorrow, with his travelling companion, Sporco, is abducted by Vilder, and he learns that Valentyne was imprisoned in the same building: it had once been a sumptuous mansion, but it was now a prison by any other name.

I make no secret of the fact that I generally enjoy stories which use the concept of time as their theme; this is only time travel inasmuch as the direction is exclusively forwards, but it does allow the protagonists to experience different periods, with their individual fashions, mores, and personalities, and there is also the slightly furtive frisson to be enjoyed from being aware that the protagonists know something that their contemporaries don’t, provided they are discreet, which these are, of necessity; apart from one confession to an empathetic clergyman in the Carpathian mountains which, luckily, doesn’t put Valentyne in any additional jeopardy. The dénouement is not entirely unexpected, and its message of forgiveness is worthy; whether it is plausible depends upon one’s view of human nature. This book appears to be a one-off, but the author has written another book, which was set for publication in 2020, so it should be available now; that one is set in Renaissance Venice [so he seems to have a penchant for this city, as it features heavily in Tomorrow], and is about how far artists were prepared to go to discover new colours [when they weren’t available in millions, simply by using the correct combination of pixellated pigments]: “Think Perfume, for pigment.”  The paperback I read was published in 2019 [2018, Michael Joseph], by Penguin Books, part of the Penguin Random House group of companies, ISBN 978-1-4059-2578-5.

Book Review

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The Vinyl Detective: Victory Disc, by Andrew Cartmel

This clever story is the third in the Vinyl Detective series; there is a fourth book, Flip Back, described at the time of publishing of this book as being scheduled for May 2019, and I am presuming it is part of the same series, given that each book has a title which is associated with vinyl records. The author, clearly—if his knowledge of the subjects, on display in this book—is a jazz & HiFi enthusiast, and as well as being a novelist, he is also a screenwriter [Midsomer Murders, Torchwood], script editor [Doctor Who], playwright and comic/graphic novel writer, and has toured as a standup comedian: so, very versatile, and his sense of humour comes across in this story, in an understated way. There are brief mentions of a previous adventure, in which the principal character, who narrates but whose name is not revealed in the narrative, and is known by his sobriquet of The Vinyl Detective, was in some danger, but he obviously survived to be involved in this story. The other main characters, who all live in London, are the narrator’s girlfriend Nevada, and their friends, Jordon [aka Tinkler], a fellow audiophile, and the woman he loves—“or at least lusted after”—Agatha DuBois-Kanes, known as Clean Head, because her head is shaved; plus two cats, Turquoise [aka Turk], and Fanny.

At the start of the story, Tinkler has bought a very large speaker cabinet; an exponential horn-loaded loudspeaker, to be specific, for his HiFi: unfortunately, he knew he would be away in France on holiday when it should be delivered, so he asked Clean Head to tell the Vinyl Detective & Nevada that he had arranged to have it delivered to them, somewhat accidentally-on-purpose neglecting to tell his amoureuse that said speaker was a “black behemoth”, taller than an upright piano, and deeper. While searching inside it for the necessary cables, which appeared to have originally been taped to the lip of the cabinet’s internal opening, they discover a very old shellac 78 rpm record, and this sets off a whole train of events involving survivors of the wartime Flare Path Orchestra, the British version of Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band, and the daughter of the band’s leader, Colonel ‘Lucky’ Lucian Honeyland; all the other members of that illustrious [but fictitious] band were in the Air Force, but Lucky was a flier, and a squadron commander, no less. Miss Honeyland commissions the Vinyl Detective and Nevada to find as many other extant records by the Flare Path Orchestra as they can, and in addition to the discs, she is more than happy to pay generously for anecdotes from surviving members as well, so the Vinyl Detective is very happy to help.

Since neither the narrator nor Nevada owns a car, they are accompanied by one or both of the other two of their friends; either in Tinkler’s Volvo, or Clean Head’s taxi; and during the research they variously undertake, they encounter a nubile young 18-year old woman, Opal Gadon, and a ferret-faced local history researcher, who is knowledgable about a tragic wartime murder case in Kent. Also: what is the story behind a psychedelically painted ‘hippie’ van, which seems to mysteriously follow them around? Incrementally, they discover surviving members of the Flare Path Orchestra, and a few more invaluable 78 records, but they also uncover another group which has an interest in the activities & politics of Lucky Honeyland which portrays him as a rather different character; especially in view of the popular and highly lucrative children’s books which he wrote: that being the case, where does this new evidence leave his daughter? Does this have any connection with the brutal wartime murder? This is quite a tangled tale, but as a result of the team’s investigations, the true story is revealed, and the dénouement is rather poignant: at least one person’s quest is resolved successfully, however. This is easy reading, and not unduly demanding, but none the less enjoyable for that, so I shall keep my eyes open for other entries in this series. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by Titan Books, London, ISBN 978-1-7832-9771-1.

Book Review

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Stasi Child, by David Young

This is the first book in this series, featuring East German Volkspolizei [People’s Police] officer Karin Müller, her deputy Werner Tilsner, and their regular companion on investigations, Kriminaltechniker [Forensic officer] Jonas Schmidt. I have already reviewed a later story, Stasi Winter, very recently and, although I do mention some of the characters’ backstory in it, because I had already previously read the first one, but not reviewed it, I thought it would be worth reacquainting myself with it, and my readers, if you feel that a more detailed knowledge of the characters’ progress would benefit your understanding of the later story [and any others in the series I might be lucky enough to find]. It is February 1975 and, notwithstanding the inevitably bleak east German winter climate, the postwar communist régime is well & truly entrenched and operating relatively efficiently, the way that communist régimes do: enforcing their control through paranoia & terror, with little enjoyment and few benefits for the Citizen Comrades.

At this point in their careers, Karin is an Oberleutnant [First Lieutenant] and Tilsner is an Unterleutnant [Second Lieutenant]; Schmidt doesn’t have a rank, as such, so his designation will not alter, for the foreseeable future, at least. At the instigation of a Stasi [secret police] officer, Oberstleutnant [Lieutenant Colonel] Klaus Jäger, they are requested to investigate an unusual incident: the body of a young girl has been found near the Wall in a cemetery in the Mitte district of Berlin, where they are based, so a short hop in a car from their offices, normally. There is something unusual about the case, though, hence the Stasi’s interest: contrary to the normal demise suffered, according to the official position, by Citizens foolishly attempting to escape the democratic paradise of the People’s Republic, the dead girl was apparently shot from the West while entering the East—the immediately available evidence appears to support this hypothesis. On closer inspection, however, certain elements arouse suspicion, plus the fact that, despite having been specifically requested by Jäger, which is supported by Karin’s superior, Oberst [Colonel] Reiniger, the Stasi’s involvement should not be mentioned, unless absolutely necessary.

The parlous state of Karin’s marriage; her husband Gottfried has only recently returned from a ‘re-education’ stint teaching at the youth reform school on the island of Rügen, in the north of the country [a location which will again feature in the later story]; and a possible infidelity with Tilsner [the complete recall of which is impossible, as a result of excessive alcohol intake the previous evening] at the start of the story, only serve to make life difficult for her: Tilsner seems to affect a blithe disregard for such complications. They have been instructed to ascertain the identity of the victim, but to disregard the circumstances causing her death; of course, telling Karin this is almost guaranteed to have the opposite effect and, before long, she realises that they will have to tread very carefully, despite Jäger’s involvement being a confusing mixture of qualified assistance and admonishment: Karin is canny enough to know that Jäger must be holding something back. Interspersed with the current action, commencing nine months earlier, is the continuing story of another later returning character: the red-haired fifteen-year old Irma Behrendt, who is a resident at the youth reform school on Rügen, whose life is made wretched by the combination of exhausting work & repressive living conditions.

Before long, Karin’s enquiries take the team to Rügen, but at this stage, Irma is not included in the investigation: it is only later, when the focus of the case moves to the Harz mountains, in the centre of the country, but the mid-western boundary of the DDR, that the connection is made. More I cannot reveal! This is a very good introduction to the series, and it lays the groundwork with all the frustrations & complications of living in a repressive country, whose régime many people still found reasons to support, but which is now looked back on with a mixture of many conflicting emotions: I will be very happy to find other stories in this series. The paperback I read was published in 2016 [2015] by Twenty7 Books, London, ISBN 978-1-7857-7006-7.

Book Review

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Judas 62, by Charles Cumming

From the strapline on the front cover of this book—“He thought the mission was over. Now Moscow has him in their [sic] sights.”—and the photo of a Lada with an obviously eastern European, possibly Russian licence plate, the reader might be tempted to assume that the 62 in the book’s title refers to the year in which the story is set. Not so: the Judas referenced is a ‘hit list’, of Russian intelligence officers, military personnel and scientists living in the West who had been targeted by Moscow for reprisal assassinations, as in the case of the real life victims Skripal & Litvinenko, to name but two. The impression is given that the author, whose name is vaguely familiar [but I am not familiar with any of his other work] knows of what he writes: in his very brief biography at the front of the book, we are tantalised with the information that “Shortly after university, he was approached for recruitment by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), an experience that inspired his first novel, A Spy by Nature.” So is it safe to assume that he was recruited? Presumably, he could tell us, but then he’d have to kill us…… not easy, if he is anticipating a numerous readership.

This book is the second in what promises to be some sort of a series [something I seem to be making a habit of: jumping in to a series mid-way, but given the random access nature of public library usage, inevitable], the previous one of which was called BOX88. The significance of this name might have been explained in the eponymous tome, but it isn’t here, other than to impart the information that it is “a top-secret Anglo-American spy agency” which, given the protectionist mentality of both countries when it comes to sharing secret intelligence, does seem slightly implausible, but for the sake of enjoying the story, it is necessary to suspend that disbelief: it is well worth it, however. We are also expected to swallow the fact of a young student, who had not yet graduated from university, being sent into the heart of post-Soviet Russia by BOX88 in the summer of 1993, to exfiltrate a biological weapons scientist, Yuri Aranov, who wanted to defect to the West. That being the case, this story is in three parts: the fairly lengthy narrative of the exfiltration, bookended by events in the present [2020], in which COVID is affecting everything: even the London location of the BOX88 headquarters.

When the protagonist, Lachlan Kite, who is now middle aged, but by now in a senior position in BOX88, finds out that his erstwhile cover name, Peter Galvin, is on the Judas list, assigned the number 62, hence the book’s name, naturally enough, he is concerned; the question is how this could have happened, given that there is an unwritten law in espionage that intelligence agencies do not target each others’ operatives for elimination; but also, Kite is worried for the safety of his erstwhile girlfriend, from whom he is now estranged, but who played a significant part in his covert operation in Russia in 1993. A sting operation is decided upon, to be played out in Dubai, but using better backup facilities than Kite was able to call upon previously. This is a substantial book, of nearly 500 pages, and although the infrastructure of BOX88 is not in the le Carré mould, the plotting & the characters are as believable as he might have used, so this is definitely a book which, for me, easily held my attention all the way through, and the possibility of a further story in the series is implied at the end, so I will certainly look out for another book, be it the forerunner or a sequel; and Cumming has written other series and standalone stories, so I would be happy to find any one of those. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-0083-6350-5.

Book Review

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Last Flight to Stalingrad, by Graham Hurley

This is not the first of the author’s Spoils of War series I have read: in fact, it is at least the third, and possibly the fourth, but it is the first I have chosen to review, for a variety of reasons [none of which was that the other ones were less enjoyable]. It is actually the penultimate book in the series, as of 2021, so I am not doing my readers any favours by jumping in here, for which I apologise. The backstories of the main characters don’t need conveying in any great detail which might compromise enjoyment of earlier stories, so they are standalone to that extent, but I would recommend, in advance of, and notwithstanding the following review, locating the earlier stories, if possible, which comprise, in sequence: Finisterre, Aurore, Estocada, Raid 42, the current book, and Kyiv [sadly, again relevant]. As you might be able to infer from the title under review here, the subject of the series is World War II and slightly before, but the stories are set in a variety of locations, partly to demonstrate the many countries adversely affected by the tragic events therein described.

This is a story which culminates in an act of revenge; not an act or a process which is subject to an easy or simplistic moral judgement; but the story also concentrates on one of the most devious, whilst also demonstrably successful, of the vile characters in the heinous hierarchy which comprised the National Socialist government of Germany from 1933 to 1945. It is Joseph Goebbels, who was Reichsminister for propaganda, and it is the relationship of a fictional character called Werner Nehmann with him which forms the backbone of this narrative. Nehmann is not German: he is from Georgia, but he assumed a German name for purely practical & expedient reasons, and Goebbels has come to rely on Nehmann’s journalistic prowess, which can sometimes involve surprising Goebbels with copy which doesn’t always strictly toe the party line, but which Goebbels has hitherto tolerated and even, in general, capriciously or mischievously encouraged. However, Nehmann is under no illusions as to Goebbels’s credulity, and as events progress, Nehmann comes to realise that Goebbels is a lot cleverer than he thought, and has always been a few steps ahead in the chess game which is their lives.

The timespan of the narrative begins in early July 1940, when Nehmann is effectively living in a confiscated apartment, ‘belonging’ to a rich fellow Georgian, Guramishvili, on the Wilhelmstraße in Berlin, and runs to mid-January 1943, when the tide of the war is turning against Germany, which is painfully obvious to all except the Führer, and his circle of slavish devotees. Goebbels makes the mistake of entrusting Nehmann with a billet doux to be delivered in Rome to Goebbels’s former Czech mistress, an actress by the name of Lida Baarova, who fled to her native Prague, after suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of the vilification she had received, orchestrated by Goebbels himself after being instructed in no uncertain terms by Hitler, who adored Goebbels’s three children, and also had a soft spot for his wife, Magda, to end the very public extramarital relationship. Nehmann tries a very risky manoeuvre in the course of this operation, thinking that it will give him leverage against Goebbels, but he is only too well aware that it could also prove to be his undoing.

The narrative includes at least one other real character, in addition to Goebbels: Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen, who was a cousin of the Red Baron, and was one of Hitler’s favourites, as a result of his swashbuckling prowess, and Nehmann has some interaction with him, during the German military’s ill-fated incursion into Russia. Aside from the fictional characters, whose dealings with real characters such as Goebbels are not consequential when set against real events, the narrative broadly follows the real course of the war during this time period, so scholars of real history who also enjoy historical fiction should not be disappointed with this story, although I was irritated by a few mistakes & inconsistencies, but I won’t detail these, because overall, they shouldn’t detract from enjoyment of a decent wartime yarn; and, as stated, the previous stories are worth seeking out. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Head of Zeus Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-7885-4756-7.

Book Review

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Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Perhaps I am displaying my age, and possibly also—although I hope not; but if so, it is regrettable—some gender stereotyping, but I automatically assumed that a person called Curtis would be male: not so. I know I am somewhat prejudiced against American culture, so perhaps I had better not fulminate, but it now seems impossible to assume a person’s gender from the given name, which makes life somewhat less predictable, and for an older person, that can be occasionally unsettling. This book is categorised as “a novel”, but I eschewed including that in its title, as that is not entirely clear; there is a qualifying line under the effective subtitle—the main title being displayed vertically, over a sepia-toned photograph of a younger Hillary—which reads: “What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?”, and this crystallises the “sliding doors” scenario on which this story is based. I can’t say I’m more than slightly interested, in general, in American politics, but they can have far-reaching repercussions & implications, and Bill & Hillary Clinton were two of the best known, and possibly divisive [although that surely comes with the territory?] personalities in recent American political history.

I have to assume—lazily, of course, but then again, I’m reviewing it: not writing it!—that the majority of, if not all of the events which occurred before the bifurcation in Hillary Rodham’s life story are true; or, at least, predominantly true. The narrative is actually in three parts: the first is the, presumably, essentially true part, and the following two are Hillary Rodham’s life as she progresses in her career, free of any commitment to Bill Clinton, which she relinquishes in 1974, so a large part of her fictional life must be very different from her real one. Given that this is novel, and not a biography/memoir/hagiography, or anything similar, it is impossible to reveal any other than general details of her later life, which must be discovered from the book. How plausible a life arc it might be is impossible for me to say, but she does seem, from her early life, and stated beliefs & commitments [the narrative is written in the first person], to be the sort of person who would, very probably, have endeavoured to achieve what she does in this story.

Growing up female, albeit white, in postwar America, meant that she would encounter much opposition to her forthright political opinions, so the fact that she espoused & supported causes which promoted women, and people of colour—an underclass at that time—is very easy to believe, but she never considered herself physically attractive, which is why it was so surprising to her that Bill Clinton was attracted to her; and all the more galling when she realised how highly sexed he was. In a nutshell, the latter is the primary reason why she decides not to marry him here: no matter how much he pledged himself to her, which she did believe, he also couldn’t promise, in a way she could believe, that he would never stray, so his post-bifurcation career progresses in a very different way from reality. He doesn’t become president in 1996: this falls to one of the contemporary front-runners, Jerry Brown, with Bob Kerrey as his VP. The following two presidencies are also different: John McCain and Sam Brownback in 2000 and 2004. History gets back on track in 2008 & 2012, with Barack Obama & Joe Biden.

The narrative ends after the 2016 election; outcome not to be revealed; but Donald Trump’s predilection for litigation notwithstanding, he figures highly in this contest, and it is probably well nigh impossible to write something that might have exited his mouth which is [allegedly] so stupid that he couldn’t have said it! Despite this being a novel, in which the author can make the characters do whatever he or she wants, I am not entirely convinced that events could have turned out the way Ms Sittenfeld writes them; also, the conclusion seems to happen very quickly, in contrast to the slow, and very detailed progression from Hillary’s childhood; and, finally, the continual time-shifting can become wearisome—not specifically disingenuous, but why reveal something from an earlier time period later in the book, when it could have been revealed earlier, when that period was covered previously? Having said all that, I did enjoy reading this book, because Hillary [now] Clinton is a very interesting character, who was badly treated by the political circus, the media, and inevitably by extension, the American public: interesting as fiction, of course. The paperback I read was published in 2021 [2020], by Penguin Random House, London, ISBN 978-0-5527-7660-8.

Book Review

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Drowned Lives, by Stephen Booth

This is a rambling sort of novel, albeit well researched [from my, admittedly, not entirely comprehensive knowledge], and unless you are a dedicated family history enthusiast, you might find all the family connections contained herein rather confusing—especially, given that they extend back over two hundred years—and easy to forget! The author, who has written 18 other books, to date [2019], is described hyperbolically, with no apparent irony by an unnamed reviewer at the Guardian as “A modern master”; he is the CWA Dagger-winning author of “the acclaimed thrillers featuring Cooper and Fry. The series is in development as a TV programme.” [a very minimal description, and as most people with any knowledge of the entertainment industry must be aware, “development” by no means guarantees production.]

The story is set in & around Lichfield, in Staffordshire, and the local canals feature heavily. Chris Buckley is an Information Officer with Staffordshire County Council who is soon to be made redundant. In the course of his work, he has spent time getting to know members of the Waterway Recovery Group, which was restoring sections of the local canals and associated infrastructure; previously, he had been a journalist, having worked at the Lichfield Echo: as a sideline, he still writes theatre & book reviews for the local papers, but because they “barely bring in a new pounds”, he also writes feature articles for “some of the glossy magazines…mainly because they pay well”, supported by his own photographs. He currently lives alone in the house previously owned by his parents, both now recently deceased, and one cold February morning in 1998, on one of his visits to the Fosseway restoration site, he is introduced to “a tall, elderly man in a dark overcoat”, by the name of Samuel Longden [the man, not the overcoat].

Chris had hitherto thought himself the last of his family line, all his antecedents having died, but Samuel is introduced as an old friend of his family by one of Chris’s few friends, Andrew Hadfield, an architect and a recent recruit to the restoration team. What Samuel tells Chris about his background comes as a complete surprise, not having previously had the remotest interest in his family history, and at first, he is rather dubious about Samuel’s information, but it sets Chris on a very dangerous trajectory, especially after he deliberately avoids meeting Samuel in a public place one evening, bringing him to the attention of the police, and the uncomfortable & unwelcome scrutiny that involves. Chris’s next door neighbour Rachel, a vet’s surgery receptionist, previously a librarian and a  divorcée of five years and a similar age to Chris, takes an unsolicited and rather obvious interest in his movements, but in the course of his travails, he comes to realise that she can be a very useful ally, especially as it is soon painfully obvious that he can trust almost no-one.

This was probably one of the most difficult aspects of this book for me, in addition to all the family history background already alluded to: I found it hard to believe that a passably intelligent man, albeit possibly not the most gregarious—very common, and not to be denigrated, of course—could be so credulous, possibly even naïve, in his reactions & responses to the people with whom he comes into contact during the course of this narrative. Perhaps I am being unfairly judgmental, given that I have the luxury of observing the events from the position of a dispassionate outsider. Of course, his jeopardy is the fuel of this narrative, so had he been more astute, the dénouement would have been simpler and reached more quickly, so I suppose I have to accept that this is his character’s personality: I hope this won’t deter potential readers of this story, because there is plenty there to be enjoyed. The paperback I read was published in 2019 by Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, ISBN 978-0-7515-7630-6.

Book Review

Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash

Stasi Winter, by David Young

It is always slightly difficult to review a book which is the latest in a series without revealing too many details of previous stories, which might compromise readers’ enjoyment of them, if they are able to find them; but necessarily, some backstory facts must be given, so I will try to keep these to a minimum, as a reading of the whole series—ideally in sequence, although that is not always possible—is definitely recommended here. I might have mentioned previously that I have some tangential experience of the former East Germany, having worked there for six months, albeit three years after die Wende, the local name for the change in government which occurred after 1989 when the border between the democratic West and the “democratic” East was breached, and the former communist state was dismantled: I will refrain from commenting on the repercussions of what occurred, because opinions are quite polarised, according to one’s political affiliations, but it was an exciting time, and I was privileged, in a way, to have experienced it, even if at some remove.

The Stasi in the title was the colloquial name for the successor to the Gestapo, the wartime secret State police, and it is a shortened form of Staatssicherheitsdienst [State Security Service], which itself is part of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit [Ministry for State Security]. This was a terrifying organisation, not least because it was all-pervasive in East German society, willingly & wittingly fuelling the crippling paranoia with which ordinary East Germans had to contend on a daily basis, even the informers & salaried staff at all levels. The winter is 1978-9, and it was referred to as a “catastrophe winter”, even if not as severe as that of 1962-3, which I remember as being exceptional in Britain. The setting is the far northern island of Rügen, on the edge of the Baltic, which was the location of Hitler’s massive holiday resort building of Prora, built but never used by the Kraft durch Freude organisation [strength through joy] for its intended purpose*. The main authorial device, which has been borrowed from the earlier winter, is that the sea froze to such an extent that escapes to ‘the West’ over the frozen water, by Republikflüchtlinge [escapees] camouflaged by white bedsheets, were possible and did, indeed, take place.

In addition to the police characters, another returning character here is a 20-year old woman, Irma Behrendt, who four years previously had regretfully informed on her own mother, in an attempt to prevent her being sent to prison for inadvisable associations, but which only achieved the exact opposite; this outcome was compounded for Irma by being trapped in the rôle of regular informer. She had had a difficult childhood in the nearby Jugendwerkhof Prora Ost [translated in the book as “severe reform school, dedicated to socialist re-education”], where she had been treated as little more than a slave. Now she has a boyfriend, Laurenz, but he is boring, and she is attracted to the cavalier & piratical Dieter, who is one of the construction brigade working on roads, bridges, and the harbour at the larger town of Sassnitz, at the northern end of the east-facing bay where Prora is sited, Prorer Wiek. Working in a construction brigade is a standard punishment for men who refuse to do national service, which is a step up from imprisonment, the punishment which might have been expected from this repressive régime. Irma is immediately drawn to the potentially dangerous Dieter, and it transpires that he and two of his associates are planning a Republikflucht [escape from the republic], but Irma sees the advantage of joining them, despite the obvious risk, rather than informing on them, as should be her albeit unwelcome duty.

What the conspirators don’t know is that they are being watched by the local Stasi, and they are joined by two VoPos [Volkspolizei, People’s Police officers], Major Karin Müller and Hauptmann [Captain] Werner Tilsner [a Stasi informant], alongside Kriminaltechniker [forensic officer] Jonas Schmidt, from Berlin. Müller had wanted to leave her position as head of the Serious Crimes department of the VoPo, to take up a teaching position at the police college, after some stressful & dangerous previous cases, but it was made very clear to her that this wasn’t an option, so most reluctantly she agreed to head this latest investigation. The head of the Jugendwerkhof Prora Ost has been found dead in suspicious circumstances: ostensibly suicide, but why would an otherwise intelligent woman go out shopping, dressed only in light clothing, in the severest winter weather in living memory? Of course, Karin is only too aware that this investigation could be a poisoned chalice, so she realises that she will have to proceed very carefully, not least because both refusal to comply, and awkward revelations in the case could jeopardise the tenancy of her Berlin apartment, which she shares with her infant twin children and her maternal grandmother, Helga, but also because Tilsner would be reporting back on her every move.

It is not absolutely necessary to have a detailed knowledge of the former East Germany or the German language to be able to enjoy this book, although they undoubtedly enrich the experience. The sense of nervousness & paranoia comes across very well, which elevates this above an average police procedural, and the dénouement, involving a Soviet icebreaking ship, is nicely tense, with a happy resolution for at least some of the protagonists. I will certainly keep my eyes open for other books in this series. The paperback I read was published in 2020, by Zaffre, London, ISBN 978-1-78576-546-9.

*This is a town in itself [although not shown on all maps, for obvious reasons] near the Ostseebad [Baltic resort] of Binz, and there is an English translation of a very helpful website about Prora here.