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#Bookreview GIRL WITH A SNIPER RIFLE: AN EASTERN FRONT MEMOIR by Yulia Zhukova (@penswordbooks) An ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances #WWII

Hi all:

I bring you a book I mentioned a while back, and here it is, finally.

Girl With A Sniper Rifle: An Eastern Front Memoir by Yulia Zhukova

Girl With A Sniper Rifle: An Eastern Front Memoir by Yulia Zhukova

In this vivid first-hand account we gain unique access to the inner workings of Stalin’s Central Women’s Sniper School, near Podolsk in Western Russia.

Luliia was a dedicated member of the Komsomol (the Soviet communist youth organization) and her parents worked for the NKVD. She started at the sniper school and eventually became a valued member of her battalion during operations against Prussia.

She persevered through eight months of training before leaving for the Front on 24th November 1944 just days after qualifying. Joining the third Belorussian Front her battalion endured rounds of German mortar as well as loudspeaker announcements beckoning them to come over to the German side.

Luliia recounts how they would be in the field for days, regularly facing the enemy in terrifying one-on-one encounters. She sets down the euphoria of her first hit and starting her “battle count” but her reflection on how it was also the ending of a life.

These feelings fade as she recounts the barbarous actions of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. She recalls how the women were once nearly overrun by Germans at their house when other Red Army formations had moved off and failed to tell them. She also details a nine-day standoff they endured encircled by Germans in Landsberg.

Regularly suffering ill-health, she took a shrapnel injury to her knee and had to be operated on without an anaesthetic. She would eventually see the end of the war in Köngsberg.

Like her famous counterpart Pavlichenko, she gained recognition but struggled to come to terms with war service. Haunted by flashbacks she burned the letters she sent home from the Front. She later discovered that of the 1885 graduates of her sniper school only 250 had died in the war.

In this powerful first-hand account, we come up close to the machinations of the NKVD (the secret police) as well as the gruelling toll of war and the breathtaking bravery of this female sniper.

Additional material includes notes by John Walter and an introduction by Martin Pegler.

https://www.amazon.com/Girl-Sniper-Rifle-Eastern-Memoir/dp/1784383988/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Girl-Sniper-Rifle-Eastern-Memoir/dp/1784383988/

https://www.amazon.es/Girl-Sniper-Rifle-Eastern-Memoir/dp/1784383988/

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Girl-With-a-Sniper-Rifle-Hardback/p/15806

 

About the author:

Luliia Konstantinovna Zhukova spent her early years in Uralsk but her parents moved from city to city through their work for the secret police, the NKVD. Despite suffering from ill-health in her youth she eventually enlisted and trained to be a sniper. After the war she finished her studies at Moscow University Pedagogical Institute and worked as a Komsomol secretary in Moscow. She then became a school director of a school and worked for the Communist Party.

My review:

I thank Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, for providing me an early hardback copy of this non-fiction title that I freely chose to review.

I reviewed The Sniper Encyclopedia a while back and I became fascinated by the data about female snipers, so I was happy to have this opportunity to review a personal account by one of them.

As the description explains, Luliia (or Yulia, depending on the spelling) Zhukova was one of many girls who fought during WWII as part of the USSR forces. She wrote this book in her 90s (she was 92 when the original version was published), and it is clear from her introduction that she was somewhat reluctant to write a memoir, as she, like many others, thought that only people who’d led extraordinary lives should write such accounts. But she changed her mind as she realised that all lives reflect their historical era, and she also felt that the young generations should have access to different, personal, and alternative accounts to the official narrative of the war in her country (that is not particularly enamoured by). This reflects a major turning point for her, because as we learn when we progress through the book, for many years she wished to bury all memories of that period, suffered terrible nightmares, and made a concerted effort to get rid of any reminders (including burning correspondence, documents, pictures, etc.). Despite all that, there are a handful of photographs, some from her time as a soldier, some from the seventies, when she started attending reunions of veterans of the war, and some more recent, of her with her daughter and granddaughter, which help put a face to the story, and also to some of the other people she mentions. There is also an insert talking about the weapons, and an appendix at the end listing the graduates of the Central Women’s Sniping School who were awarded the Order of Glory 2nd and 3rd class.

Although she does not consider herself extraordinary in any way, she was a determined young woman, and a brave and eager one, as she has always suffered from ill health but that did not prevent her from enrolling into a course to become a sniper, even before she was 18, and then going to war, despite that going against the wishes of her mother and her step-father. Luliia does not describe her life before the war in a lot of detail, but there is enough to give a good understanding of what kind of family she grew up in (she was an only child, so her parents would have been even more reluctant), and it provides us with some understanding of the dynamics of the era (her step-father had been imprisoned once even though he held an official position).

Once Luliia gets to sniper school, her life changes drastically. The narration comes to life with stories of comradery, of life in a group of women, of living away from home for the first time, having to wear strange uniforms, having to follow a harsh discipline, missing her mother but becoming much more independent and proud of her achievements. By the time she goes to war, Luliia has grown up, although nothing has quite prepared all of them for what is to come.

The author acknowledges that she might misremember things (and recounts her memory of her first kill and compares it to the account of another woman in her regiment, and there are significant differences), and she does not always recall all dates and locations, but she is excellent at recreating the atmosphere, the smells, the bodily sensations, the fear, the anxiety, and the brief moments of joy (having a bath after days in the trenches, sleeping in a proper bed, receiving any kind of good news…). This is not a list of battles and skirmishes, but a personal account of what it felt to be there, especially as a woman, and the instances of what nowadays would be classed as harassment (almost a way of life) but also of kindness and support. She got separated from the rest of her regiment and ended up joining a male unit, with the difficulties you can imagine. So, although she is not well-known, her experiences deserve to be told, read, and remembered.

There are many moments that give one pause when reading the book, and not because the author goes out of her way to overdramatise things. If anything, her style is matter-of-fact and understated. Often, what is not said is as poignant as what she does say. There are no complaints and the only bitterness she expresses is towards accounts of the war that she feels have robbed those who took part in it of their pride, making them feel ashamed, and some being abused and harassed because of it (to the point where she mentions some veterans who took their own lives because of it). Her opinions will not be to everybody’s taste, but when she mentions an incident when a veteran attended a school and a youth asked him why they had fought so hard in the war and told him that if they hadn’t, Germany would have conquered them and now they would have as good a life as the Germans did, her upset is understandable. We might agree or not with the politics that brought the conflict into being, but the people who got caught in it and put their lives at risk deserve respect.

She shares a poem from Nikolai Berezovsky’s “The Last Front Line Veteran” that I found quite moving and thought I’d share with you:

When out last front-line veteran

Shuts his eyes and lies in peace,

Doubtless, at that moment

We’ll all feel a great unease.

The heart of every Russian

Will be struck by a strange malaise.

If the sun’s out brightly shining,

It will yield to a darkening haze.

We’ll feel an untimely shudder,

We’ll sense a feverish glow,

And the maple in mother’s garden

Will suddenly bow down low.

I think this is an important book that I recommend to those interested in WWII, especially in personal accounts, and more particularly those looking for Eastern Front memoirs. Also, to historians or readers eager to learn more about women’s involvement in WWII, and, in general, to anybody keen to read a memoir from an era we should never forget.

Thanks to Rosie and to the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, smile, and keep safe!

 

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Blog Tour Book launch Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog #FULL LIGHT OF THE SUN by Clare Clark (@claresclark) (@ViragoBooks) A beautiful novel about history, art, and truth.

Dear all:

Although I almost missed the chance to read this novel and participate in the blog tour, I’m pleased I managed. I loved it.

In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark A beautiful story about art, history, and what is truly important.

In the Full Light of the Sun follows the fortunes of three Berliners caught up in a devastating scandal of 1930s’ Germany. It tells the story of Emmeline, a wayward, young art student; Julius, an anxious, middle-aged art expert; and a mysterious art dealer named Rachmann who are at the heart of Weimar Berlin at its hedonistic, politically turbulent apogee and are whipped up into excitement over the surprising discovery of thirty-two previously unknown paintings by Vincent van Gogh.

Based on a true story, unfolding through the subsequent rise of Hitler and the Nazis, this gripping tale is about beauty and justice, and the truth that may be found when our most treasured beliefs are revealed as illusions.

Brilliant on authenticity, vanity, and self-delusion, it is a novel for our times.

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Full-Light-Sun-Clare-Clark-ebook/dp/B07H8FFMK7/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Full-Light-Sun-Clare-Clark-ebook/dp/B07H8FFMK7/

Author Clare Clark
Author Clare Clark

About the author:

CLARE CLARK read History at Trinity College, Cambridge, and is the author of The Great Stink, a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and The Nature of Monsters. She lives in London, and regularly reviews books for the Guardian and other newspapers, and has taught Creative Writing.

https://www.amazon.com/Clare-Clark/e/B001IR1LPC?

https://www.clareclark.net/

In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark
In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark

 

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Virago for providing me an ARC copy of this novel and allowing me to participate in the blog tour for its launch. I freely chose to review it, and I’m very happy I did.

I am sure you will have noticed the beautiful cover and it might give you a hint of what the book is about. Yes, the book is about Vincent Van Gogh; well, about his art and his paintings, and the controversy that followed the sale in Germany in the 1920s of some of his paintings, which later were identified as fakes (well, perhaps, although the controversy about some of Van Gogh’s paintings, even some of the best-known ones, has carried on until the present). But that is not all.

The story is divided into three parts, all set in Berlin, each one narrated from one character’s points of view, and covering different historical periods, although all of them in the interwar era and told in chronological order. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the author had chosen the characters as symbols and stand-ins for each particular part of that period of the history of Germany they represented. By setting the story in the 1920s and 30s, in the post-WWI Germany, we get immersed in a rapidly changing society, and one whose political developments and social unrest share more than a passing similarity with some of the things we are experiencing internationally nowadays.

The first part, set in Berlin in 1923, is told in the third-person from the point of view of Julius Köhler-Schultz. He is an art expert, collector, has written a book about Van-Gogh, and is going through a difficult divorce. But he is much more obsessed with art and preoccupied about his artworks than he is about his family. This is a time of extreme inflation, where German money is so devaluated that it is worth nothing, and the comments about it reminded me of a photograph of the period I had seen not long ago where children were playing in the streets with piles of banknotes, using them to build walls, as if they were Lego bricks. As the novel says:

“The prices were meaningless —a single match for nine hundred million marks — and they changed six times a day; no one ever had enough. At the cinema near Böhm’s office, the sign in the window of the ticket booth read: Admission –two lumps of coal.”

This section of the book establishes the story, and introduces many of the main players, not only Julius, but also Matthias, a young man Julius takes under his wing, who wants to learn about art and ends up opening his own gallery; and Emmeline, a young girl who refuses to be just a proper young lady and wants to become an artist. Julius is an intelligent man, very sharp and good at analysing what is going on around him, but blind to his emotions and those of others, and he is more of an observer than an active player. His most endearing characteristic is his love and devotion for art and artists, but he is not the most sympathetic and engaging of characters. He is self-centred and egotistical, although he becomes more humanised and humane as the story moves on.

The second part of the novel is set in Berlin in 1927, and it is told, again in the third-person, from Emmeline Eberhardt’s point of view. Although we had met her in the first part, she has now grown up and seems to be a stand-in for the Weimar Republic, for the freedom of the era, where everything seemed possible, where Berlin was full of excitement, night clubs, parties, Russian émigrés, new art movements, social change, and everything went. She is a bit lost. She wants to be an artist, but does not have confidence in herself; she manages to get a job as an illustrator in a new magazine but gets quickly bored drawing always the same; she loves women, but sometimes looks for men to fill a gap. She can’t settle and wants to do everything and live to the limit as if she knew something was around the corner, and she might not have a chance otherwise. Although she gets involved, somehow, in the mess of the fake paintings (we won’t know exactly how until much later on), this part of the story felt much more personal and immediate, at least for me. She is in turmoil, especially due to her friendship with a neighbour, Dora, who becomes obsessed with the story of the fake Van Goghs, but there are also lovely moments when Emmeline reflects on what she sees, and she truly has the eye of an artist, and she also shares very insightful observations. I loved Dora’s grandmother as well. She cannot move, but she has a zest for life and plenty of stories.

“When Dora was very little her governess put a pile of books on her chair so she could reach the table but Dora refused to sit on them,’ Oma said. ‘Remember, Dodo? You thought you would squash all the people who lived inside.’”

The third part is set in Berlin in 1933 and is written in the first person, from the point of view of Frank Berszacki. He is a Jewish lawyer living in Berlin and experiences first-hand the rise to power of the Nazis. He becomes the lawyer of Emmeline’s husband, Anton, and that seems to be his link to the story, but later we discover that he was the lawyer for Matthias Rachman, the man who, supposedly, sold the fake Van Goghs, the friend of Julius. As most people who are familiar with any of the books or movies of the period know, at first most people did not believe things would get as bad as they did in Germany with Hitler’s rise to power. But things keep getting worse and worse.

“I want to know how it is possible that this is happening. It cannot go on, we have all been saying it for months, someone will stop it, and yet no one stops it and it goes on. It gets worse. April 1 and who exactly are the fools?”

His licence to practice is revoked, and although it is returned to him because he had fought for Germany in the previous war; he struggles to find any clients, and the German ones can simply choose not to settle their bills. He and his wife have experienced a terrible loss and life is already strained before the world around them becomes increasingly mad and threatening. When his brother decides to leave the country and asks him to house his daughter, Mina, for a short while, while he gets everything ready, the girl manages to shake their comfortable but numb existence and has a profound impact in their lives.

Although I loved the story from the beginning, I became more and more involved with the characters as it progressed, and I felt particularly close to the characters in part 3, partly because of the first-person narration, partly because of the evident grieving and sense of loss they were already experiencing, and partly because of their care for each other and the way the married couple kept trying to protect each other from the worst of the situation. I agree that not all the characters are sympathetic and easy to connect with, but the beauty of the writing more than makes up for that, as does the fascinating story, which as the author explains in her note at the end, although fictionalised, is based on real events.  I also loved the snippets from Van Gogh’s letters, so inspiring, and the well-described atmosphere of the Berlin of the period, which gets more and more oppressive as it goes along. I found the ending satisfying and hopeful, and I think most readers will feel the same way about it.

This is not a novel for everybody. It is literary fiction, and although it has elements of historical fiction, and also of the thriller, its rhythm is contemplative, its language is descriptive and precious, and it is not a book where every single word moves the plot forward. This is not a quick-paced page-turner. Readers who love books that move fast and are heavy on plot, rather than characters and atmosphere, might find it slow and decide nothing much happens in it. There is plenty that happens though, and I could not help but feel that the book also sounds a note of caution and warning, because it is impossible to read about some of the events, the politics, and the reactions of the populations and not make comparisons with current times. As I sometimes do, although I have shared some quotes from it already, I’d advise possible readers to check a sample of the book before making a decision about it. This is not a book for everybody. If you enjoy reading as a sensual experience, appreciate the texture and lyricism of words, and love books about art that manage to capture the feeling of it, I cannot recommend it enough. It is beautiful. This is the first book by this author I’ve read, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Thanks to the publishers, to NetGalley and to the author, thanks to all of you for writing, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review and always keep smiling!

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog The Third Reich in 100 Objects: A Material History of Nazi Germany by Roger Moorhouse (@Roger_Moorhouse) (@penswordbooks) Great images and fabulous writing. #History #Photography

Hi all:

I bring you another book by Pen & Sword, and I think this one will be of interest to many people.

The Third Reich in 100 Objects by Roger Moorhouse

The Third Reich in 100 Objects: A Material History of Nazi Germany by Roger Moorhouse  (Author), Richard Overy (Author, Foreword) A Fantastic Book, didactic, entertaining, and moving. Great images and fabulous writing.

Hitler’s Third Reich is still the focus of numerous articles, books, and films: no conflict of the twentieth century has prompted such interest or such a body of literature.

Approaching the canon of World War II literature is a challenge for a general reader but the 100 objects approach is a novel and accessible presentation.

This is a compelling, frequently shocking and revelatory guide to the Third Reich that has been collated and presented by two of the world’s leading World War II historians.

The photographs gathered by Roger Moorhouse and Roger Moorhouse include Pervitin, Hitler’s Mercedes, Wehrmacht toilet paper, Hitler’s grooming kit, the Nuremberg courtroom, the Tiger Tank, fragments of flak, the Iron Cross and, of course, the Swastika and Mein Kampf.

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Third-Reich-100-Objects-Material-ebook/dp/B0761TQX82/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Third-Reich-100-Objects-Material-ebook/dp/B0761TQX82/

Hardback:

https://www.amazon.com/Third-Reich-100-Objects-Material/dp/1784381802/

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Third-Reich-in-100-Objects-Hardback/p/13559

Author Roger Moorhouse
Author Roger Moorhouse

About the author:

I was raised in Hertfordshire and ‘enjoyed’ an unspectacular career at Berkhamsted School, before being inspired to return to education by the East European Revolutions of 1989. Thereafter, I enrolled in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies of the University of London in 1990 to study history and politics. I graduated with an MA in 1994 and have since studied at the universities of Düsseldorf and Strathclyde, cunningly avoiding gaining a Ph.D. at either.

I began my writing career working for Professor Norman Davies. I collaborated with him on many of his recent publications, including Europe: A History, The Isles: A History, and Rising ’44. This working relationship culminated in 2002 with the publication, in three languages, of a co-authored study of the history of the city of Wrocław (the former German Breslau) entitled Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City.

2006 saw the publication of Killing Hitler, my first solo book. An account of the numerous attempts on Hitler’s life, it was a critical and commercial success and has been published in numerous other languages, including German, Spanish, Chinese, Italian and Japanese.

My most recent book – entitled Berlin at War – is a social history of Berlin during World War Two, which was published in the summer of 2010. Based on first-hand material such as unpublished diaries, memoirs, and interviews, the book gives a unique “Berlin-eye view” of the war. It has been well-received, with positive reviews in most major publications. Writing in the Financial Times, Andrew Roberts said of it that: “Few books on the war genuinely increase the sum of our collective knowledge of this exhaustively covered period, but this one does.”

My new book, published in August 2014, is The Devils’ Alliance, a history of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, one of the few remaining unexplored areas in the history of World War Two. It is published to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Pact’s signature, in August 1939.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Roger-Moorhouse/e/B001H6N0AI/

Twitter:

 

My review:

Thanks to Alex and the rest of the team at Pen & Sword for providing me a hardback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I have always been fascinated by antiques and collectibles, not so much for their monetary value, as for the stories (and the History) behind the objects. As museums prove, objects can make us feel closer to other cultures and eras, creating a tangible reminder of lands and times distant from ours. Some objects might have an intrinsic interest (they are made of valuable materials, or by well-known artists), others are interesting because of their owners (kings, queens, or famous historical figures, like writers, inventors, artists…), and others because of what they represent. Although no objects are good or bad in their own right, they become infused with meaning through the use they are put to, and they can make us feel all kinds of emotions, from delight to abject fear.

In this book, the author has collected a hundred objects to give us, as the subtitle states, ‘A Material History of Nazi Germany’. And he achieves his aim with flying colours. The author is an expert on the period and has written many books about Hitler and Nazi Germany, and although I’m sure different people would have chosen differently, the selection he has put together gives the reader a good understanding of all aspects of life in Nazi Germany. We find personal objects, both of the Nazis (from Hitler’s paint box and his moustache brush to medals, decorations, and death cards) and their victims (the well-known Judenstern [the yellow star Jews had to wear), a forced labourer’s ‘Work Card’, or Sophie Scholl’s Matriculation Card [a member of the White Rose resistance movement]), objects that illustrate everyday life under the regime (ration cards, a gas-mask, the devaluated German banknotes, Hindenburg Lights…), examples of propaganda (The Schattenmann [the shadow man, a warning against talking about military secrets], a variety of posters including one for the propaganda anti-Semitic film Der Ewige Jude, the Great German Art Exhibition Catalogue, and the many imposing buildings), objects directly related to the war, including weaponry (planes, tanks, bombs, even the V-2 Missile) and documents. Each object is accompanied by a brief note (around a page or so) explaining its origin and putting it into context.

Richard Overy’s introduction sets well the project of the book and its author and emphasises the importance of image for Hitler and his party. This becomes increasingly evident as one progresses through the book, where there are ample examples of uniforms, symbolism (like their use of runes, the swastika, and the German eagle), badges… The writing is both informative and compelling, and it varies to suit the nature of the object. Sometimes it is descriptive and fairly neutral, but at others, it is impossible to read without feeling grief, sadness, and/or anger. The book has the advantage of not following a narrative thread, whereby it is easy to read in fits and starts, and readers can pick and choose the objects they are interested in, or go through them all, as I did. If we read it from beginning to end, the objects form a chronological history of sorts, as we start with objects that reflect the beginning of the regime, and eventually get to weaponry and documents from the very end of the war. The last object is Göring’s cyanide capsule, so you get the idea.

There were objects I was familiar with, and others that I knew about but had never seen (for example, the iron bed of a psychiatric asylum, that, as a psychiatrist, I found particularly moving and horrifying), and some that were complete surprises, like a Hitler Elastolin Toy Figure, the Mutterkreuz (a cross given to mothers who had 4 children or more. The author summarises it thus: It signified, in effect, the politicisation of the German womb, [Moorhouse, p. 109]), or the very cute ‘Goliath’ miniature tank (sorry, but there are some lighter moments as well. In case you feel curious, you can check it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goliath_tracked_mine). What I was more impressed by, apart from the quality of both, images and writing, was the way these disparate objects and the narrative behind them managed to give me a good sense of what life was like at the time, without having to read tonnes and tonnes of pages full of dry information. This book illustrates well the power of images. I have read plenty of books set on that era and watched many movies that take place in the same historical period but seeing the real objects helped me feel closer to the action, the people, and the events than I had ever before.

I recommend this book to people interested in the history of the period who are not big experts on it and don’t want an exhaustive account of battles and events. I also recommend it to anybody thinking about writing a book about the era, or people who design sets or work sourcing props or designing backdrops and objects for theatre, television or film. There is plenty of material to inspire numerous productions, and it is all collected in a single, easy-to-read, and well-indexed volume, with notes that facilitate further research tasks. Another winning volume published by Pen & Sword.

A quick note: my version of the book is a hardback copy, but I’ve checked the e-book version and the images are as good as those in the print version (although depending on the use you are thinking of giving it, you might consider what suits you best, as there’s little difference in price between the two versions, but this varies depending on the store).

Thanks to Pen & Sword and to the author for this outstanding book, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and keep smiling!

 

 

Categories
Book review Book reviews Rosie's Book Review Team Rosie's Book Team Review

#TuesdayBookBlog DEVIL IN THE COUNTRYSIDE by Cory Barclay (@CoryBarclay) A bizarre true story brought to life in a novel that moves across genres.

Hi all:

Sometimes it’s difficult to know why a book doesn’t seem to work for us. This is one of those cases and most people who’ve read it have enjoyed it a lot more than me, so I suspect it’s me rather than the book, but here is my review. Thanks to Rosie Amber for creating Rosie’s Book Review Team (don’t forget to check here if you’re an author and would like to have your book reviewed).

Devil in the Countryside by Cory Barclay

Devil in the Countryside by Cory Barclay

Devil in the Countryside is a story about the most famous werewolf investigation in history, brimming with intrigue and war, love and betrayal, and long-kept vendettas.

It’s 1588, the height of the Reformation, and a killer is terrorizing the German countryside. There are reports that the legendary Werewolf of Bedburg has returned to a once-peaceful land. Heinrich Franz, a cold and calculating investigator, is tasked with finding whomever — or whatever — the killer might be. He’ll need all the help he can get, including that of a strange hunter who’s recently stumbled into town. Though they’re after the same thing, their reasons are worlds apart. And through it all, a priest tries to keep the peace among his frightened townsfolk, while a young woman threatens his most basic beliefs.

In a time when life is cheap and secrets run rampant, these four divergent souls find themselves entwined in a treacherous mystery, navigating the volatile political and religious landscape of 16th century Germany, fighting to keep their sanity — and their lives.

https://www.amazon.com/Devil-Countryside-Cory-Barclay-ebook/dp/B01MSEI8EM/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Devil-Countryside-Cory-Barclay-ebook/dp/B01MSEI8EM/

Author Cory Barclay

About the author:

As far back as he can remember, Cory Barclay has always loved the “big picture” questions. How much knowledge did humanity lose when the Library of Alexandria was burned down? Why has the concept of Heaven remained intact, in one form or another, throughout most of human history and how has it impacted life on Earth?

And even before that, when he first began writing stories in grade school, he’s been fascinated with histories and mysteries. Whether Norse mythology, the Dark Ages, or the conquests of great leaders, Cory’s been that kid who wants to know what’s shaped our world and write about it. Especially the great unsolved mysteries.

So Devil in the Countryside was a natural for him.

Born and raised in San Diego, he graduated from University of California, Santa Cruz, where he studied Creative Writing and Modern Literary Studies. He’s also a songwriter and guitarist, and – no surprise – many of his songs explore the same topics he writes about – the great mysteries of our crazy world.

Devil in the Countryside is his second novel and he’s hard at work on its sequel.

https://www.amazon.com/Cory-Barclay/e/B01MR4MXFX/

My review:

I write this review as part of Rosie’s Book Review Team. Thanks to Rosie Amber and to the author for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is a book based on a real case (although so many years later and with the few documents and written clues available it is difficult to know what might have been ‘real’ and ‘true’ at the time) that has all the elements to be a fabulous novel, or a TV investigative documentary, or a movie. You can check the Werewolf of Bedburg and you’ll find a lot of information (or rather, a bit of information elaborated upon and repeated everywhere, but not many different sources). It’s easy to understand why the author would become fascinated with the subject and I also see how a writer would feel that the bare bones of the case that can be found through research would make a great starting point to write a fully-fledged and fleshed-out story. And that is what the author decided to do. In such a case, decisions have to be made as to how close to keep to the facts (such as they are) and how many fictional elements should be introduced. With this particular story, there were also many possibilities with regards to genre. Should it be a historical novel, researching the place and times and fitting in the specifics of the story around the findings? Should it be a mystery/thriller, chasing and investigating an early example of a serial killer? Should it be a horror novel? Personally, I’m not sure what I would have done, but as a reader, this novel was not what I expected. This has probably more to do with me than with the book itself but, in my opinion, it tries to be too many things.

The novel has elements of historical fiction. The author explains, in an end note, who were the real characters, and who the ones he created, and also briefly exposes some of the liberties he took. The historical background and facts are fairly accurate (although if you research the story, it seems that the fate of the daughter was very different to the one in the book, that seems an attempt at introducing a romance and a happy ending of sorts, that, in my opinion, does not befit the subject), and one of the things that the author does very well is to reflect the conflict between Catholics and Protestants at the time, the atmosphere of deep suspicion and hostility, and the paranoia that permeated all levels of society, whereby nobody was safe and anybody could be betrayed and accused of being a follower of the wrong faith. The author uses modern language, a perfectly good choice to ensure more readers access the text, but there are anachronisms and expressions that felt out of place (and perhaps using a more neutral, rather than a very casual language would have been less jarring, as some expressions sounded particularly weird in such setting. We have references to teenager, an expression only in use in the XXc. , characters drink coffee whilst it was never introduced to Germany until the late part of the XVII century…). I also wondered about some of the characters’ actions. Sybil, a young girl who lost her mother and looks after her father and younger brother, challenges her father’s authority with no consequences, goes out by herself and does things I would have thought would be out of character (but I will try and not offer too many spoilers). Dieter is a young and pious priest that seems to change his faith and his mind practically overnight (no matter what he thought about the bishop, the religion he’d dedicated years to, one would expect it would mean more to him than that) as a result of falling in love at first sight (as there is nothing in common between him and the girl) and in general I felt most of the characters were not psychologically consistent. I am not an authority on that historical period, although I have read other books about that era that created a clearer picture in my mind, about the historical period and also about the society of the time.

Whilst the novel opens as if it was going to be a straight investigation into bizarre murders, with a suggestion of the paranormal, there are some elements of investigation (following people, plenty of intrigues, researching paperwork), but a lot of the novel is taken up by telling (more than showing) us about the religious situation, the machinations of the powerful of the time (particularly Bishop Solomon, not a real character who is truly despicable and has no redeeming features at all) and it stirs the book towards the territory of the intrigue/conspiracy-theory novel  (it appears likely that those aspects played a big part during the trial of the man who was found guilty of being the werewolf).

Although at the beginning there is the suggestion that there might be elements of horror in the novel that is not the case. Or rather, the real horror is the way the truth is sacrificed to political and religious interests and how no side is above using any means to win (the Catholics come out of it slightly worse off, but nobody is truly blameless).  There is action, violence (some for comic relief, but some extreme and graphic, including torture scenes and gross deaths), and war, so this is not a gentle novel for people intent on learning a bit about the historical era, but it is not scary in sense horror lovers would expect.

The story is told in the third person from the point of view of different characters, and each chapter starts with the name of the character whose point of view we share, although at times we get reflections and comments from an omniscient point of view (comments about character’s feelings or motivations that do not seem to come from them). Heinrich, the investigator, is an enigmatic character we never get to know well, as although we see things from his point of view, we aren’t privy to his full motivations (and that is aided by the third person narration). He is at times presented as weak and ineffective (a bit like Johnny Depp’s depiction of Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow) and at others, he is clever and manipulative (and the ending is quite eerie, but no, I won’t say anything else). He seems determined to carry on with his investigation and get to the truth one minute, and then he settles for what he knows is a lie, behaving as a corrupt cog-in-the-machine.

I suspect it was partly because of the point of view changes but I found it difficult to connect with the characters (my favourite was Georg, a conflicted character whose motivations are easier to understand and who was, despite his flaws, a good man.  I felt sorry for Sybil but her character didn’t quite gel for me) although it is impossible not to be horrified at what went on and I didn’t manage to get the timing of the events straight in my mind.

Some of the comments expressed unhappiness with the ending, but for me, that is well resolved (perhaps apart from the happy ending part of it, but then that is a matter of genre) and I did not find its openness a problem but rather a plus.

Most of my difficulties with the book stem from my own expectations about what the story was going to be about and how it was going to be told. I’ve read many positive reviews about the book, and as I said, it does create a sense of dread, paranoia, and suspicion that can help us imagine what living in that historical period, so uncertain, must have been like.  And it has a chilling and eerie ending. So, if you are intrigued by the history behind it, don’t take my word for it and check a sample of the book. And do a bit of research. It will prove, once more, that reality can be stranger than fiction.

Thanks very much to Rosie Amber and to the author, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment and CLICK and of course, to leave reviews for the books you read!

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#Bookreview #RBRT Ghost Variations: The Strangest Detective Story In Music by Jessica Duchen (@jessicaduchen). Music, mystery, beautiful writing and a story that proves reality is weirder than fiction #TuesdayBookBlog

Hi all:

As you know, I’m taking a bit of a break from blogging and working behind the scenes, but I keep reading and might be sharing reviews every so often to avoid flooding later on.

I could not resist sharing this review with you and will probably keep sharing reviews to make sure I don’t leave you bereft of books. Take care, keep reading, and, without further ado…

Cover of Ghost Variations by Jessica Duchen. A fabulous historical fiction novel for music lovers
Ghost Variations by Jessica Duchen

Ghost Variations: The Strangest Detective Story In Music by Jessica Duchen. Music, mystery, beautiful writing and a story that proves reality is weirder than fiction

The strangest detective story in the history of music – inspired by a true incident.

A world spiralling towards war. A composer descending into madness. And a devoted woman struggling to keep her faith in art and love against all the odds.

  1. Dabbling in the fashionable “Glass Game” – a Ouija board – the famous Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi, one-time muse to composers such as Bartók, Ravel and Elgar, encounters a startling dilemma. A message arrives ostensibly from the spirit of the composer Robert Schumann, begging her to find and perform his long-suppressed violin concerto.

She tries to ignore it, wanting to concentrate instead on charity concerts. But against the background of the 1930s depression in London and the rise of the Nazis in Germany, a struggle ensues as the “spirit messengers” do not want her to forget.

The concerto turns out to be real, embargoed by Schumann’s family for fear that it betrayed his mental disintegration: it was his last full-scale work, written just before he suffered a nervous breakdown after which he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. It shares a theme with his Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations) for piano, a melody he believed had been dictated to him by the spirits of composers beyond the grave.

As rumours of its existence spread from London to Berlin, where the manuscript is held, Jelly embarks on an increasingly complex quest to find the concerto. When the Third Reich’s administration decides to unearth the work for reasons of its own, a race to perform it begins.

Though aided and abetted by a team of larger-than-life personalities – including her sister Adila Fachiri, the pianist Myra Hess, and a young music publisher who falls in love with her – Jelly finds herself confronting forces that threaten her own state of mind. Saving the concerto comes to mean saving herself.

In the ensuing psychodrama, the heroine, the concerto and the pre-war world stand on the brink, reaching together for one more chance of glory.

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LW6HZV6/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01LW6HZV6/

A bit of information about the writer:

Author and musician Jessica Duchen
Author and musician Jessica Duchen

“Schumann’s wonderful violin concerto has a tragic history unlike any other piece of music. In this splendid new novel Jessica Duchen manages to find the fine balance between facts and fiction.Her book reads like a thriller yet it’s also a tribute to great music and musicians.” — Sir András Schiff on GHOST VARIATIONS

“Enthralling…Jessica writes with an unpredictable and original voice and a dazzling perceptiveness” Joanna Lumley on SONGS OF TRIUMPHANT LOVE.

Jessica is a versatile author with a musical bias. Her output includes novels, biographies, plays, words&music projects, poetry for musical setting, music journalism and more. Born in London, she studied music at Cambridge and piano with Joan Havill.

Her novels often focus on the cross-currents between family generations, with music a recurring theme. The latest, GHOST VARIATIONS, is “the strangest detective story in music”, based on the true story of the bizarre rediscovery, and Nazi propaganda conscription, of Schumann’s long-suppressed violin concerto.

Jessica’s biographies of the composers Gabriel Fauré and Erich Wolfgang Korngold for Phaidon’s 20th Century Composers series have met with wide acclaim. Her writing has appeared in in The Independent, The Guardian and The Sunday Times, as well as BBC Music Magazine and Opera News, among other publications. Her music blog “JDCMB”, http://jessicamusic.blogspot.com, has attracted more than 2m readers.

She is now writing an opera libretto, SILVER BIRCH, for the composer Roxanna Panufnik – a commission for Garsington Opera 2017. Her play A WALK THROUGH THE END OF TIME often pops up at music festivals to introduce Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and has been performed by actor teams including Harriet Walter & Henry Goodman and Janet Suzman & Michael Pennington.

Jessica lives in London with her violinist husband and two big fluffy cats. She loves long walks, cooking, ballet, theatre and scouring second-hand bookshops for out-of-print musical gems. Special passions include Russian literature and Nordic Noir.

Watch an interview with Jessica by Melanie Spanswick:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vv_rTlnB-g

Watch a preview of the Schumann Violin Concerto in which Jessica tells its story:

And don’t forget to follow her and check her page:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jessica-Duchen/e/B001HCXXL8/

My review:

I’m writing this review on behalf of Rosie’s Book Review Team. I was given an ARC copy of this book and I voluntarily chose to review it.

I enjoy reading in a variety of genres but have recently realised that I really enjoy historical fiction, as it offers me both, great stories and a background that’s interesting in its own right and that often offers me insight into eras and situations I know little about.

When I read the description of this novel I thought it sounded very different to what I usually read, but fascinating at the same time. A mystery surrounding a piece of music (a violin concerto) by a famous composer (Robert Schuman) that has been hidden for a long time. I love music but I’m not a deep connoisseur, and I didn’t realise when I read about the novel that the story was based on facts (it follows quite closely the events that took place in the 1930s, involving Hungarian (later nationalised British) violinist Jelly d’Arányi, and a concert Schuman wrote whilst already interned in an asylum) and included an element of the paranormal. It’s one of those cases when reality upstages fiction.

Despite the incredible story, that’s fascinating in its own right, Jessica Duchen does a great job of bringing all the characters to life. The story is told in the third person mostly from Jelly’s point of view, although later in the book we also get to hear about Ully, a character that although not based on a real person brings much to the equation, as it offers us a German perspective on the story. Jelly, who lives with her sister, brother-in-law, niece and their dog, despite her many admirers and some failed romances, is single and dedicated heart and soul to her music. I easily identified with Jelly, although our vocations and personal circumstances are very different, but I appreciated her dedication and love for music and for her family, her horror at the social and historical circumstances she was living through, her difficulties fitting in, as a foreigner living abroad, and her awareness of the challenges and limitations she was facing due to her age. There are very touching moments, for example when Jelly goes to visit her secretary and friend at the hospital and gives an impromptu concert there, when she organises a tour of concerts in cathedrals, free for everybody, not matter their social class, to collect funds for the poor, and when she becomes plagued by self-doubt, due to her personal circumstances and to her failing health. Jelly is not perfect, and she appears naïve at times, showing little understanding of issues like race or politics, limited insight into her own beliefs about the spirit world, her feelings and hesitating about what to do in her personal life, but she is a credible and passionate human being, and she gets to confront many of her fears by the end of the book.

Apart from the gripping story and the background behind the discovery of the concert, there is the historical context of the 1930s. As Schuman was a German composer, somehow it became a matter of national importance to recover the concert and claim it as a German work. The changes in Germany, the atmosphere of menace and threat, the rise of dangerous nationalism, and how that was also reflected in Britain, where the sisters lived, was well reflected and built into the book, especially when, at first sight, it seems to be only marginally relevant to the central mystery. As several characters observe in the novel, a piece of music is not ‘just a piece of music’ any longer and everything becomes vested with particular significance, thanks to manipulation and propaganda, no matter what the original intention of the composer might have been. I suspect most people who read this book won’t be able to resist comparing the historical situation then to our current times and worry.

This novel is a joy to read, one of these cases when the story and the writing style are perfectly matched and one can almost hear the music flowing from the pages. A wonderful novel that I recommend to anybody interested in the period and in good writing. I’ll be closely watching this author in the future.

Thanks to Jessica Duchen for this wonderful book, thanks to Rosie for all her work picking up such great books and coordinating all of the reviewers (she’s a saint) and thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment and CLICK!

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