Book Review: V for Victory by Lissa Evans – a witty, heartwarming read about the war at home

I seem to have a thing for historical novels at the moment and I’m lucky to be spoilt for choice. This novel loosely follows on from two other books by Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart and Old Baggage, both of which are terrific reads. The main character who features in all three is a boy called Noel who only appears briefly in Old Baggage, but is a young evacuee in Crooked Heart when Vee takes him in.

Vee has had a hard upbringing and knows the value of looking after yourself, with an eye over your shoulder in case someone catches you out. She’s a grifter in the earlier book, and now she has as secret as well as a new name, masquerading as Noel’s aunt, a Margery Overs. It’s the only way she can still be Noel’s guardian, and the two are inseparable.

In V for Victory, Noel and Vee are living in Hampstead, in the house where Noel lived with Mattie, an elderly former suffragette and Noel’s godmother (and also the main character in Old Baggage). Mattie has left a lasting impression on Noel, making him an eager student and likely to quote chunks of literature and even Greek at any moment. It might make him sound a trifle old for his fifteen years but his bright, cheery curiosity soon wins people over.

Such as Winnie, the chief fire warden he meets when out trying to buy a textbook from a recently bombed stationery shop. Winnie’s story is a subplot loosely threaded with the main story and gives a glimpse of the experiences of women left behind by husbands in the forces that they hardly remember.

Winnie’s Emlyn has been in a POW camp since Dunkirk. Now we’re approaching the end of the war, she’s wondering what it will be like to see him again, dreading the mail in case there’s another boring letter outlining imaginary colour schemes for an imaginary house, or garden plans. In the meantime she’s become a confident and able young woman who’s found her feet with her war work, emerging from the shadow cast by her glamorous twin sister.

But the main story focuses on what happens when Vee witnesses an accident involving a US Army truck driver and has to report to the coroner’s court. Vee is terrified of having to lie under oath that she’s Margery Overs. But there’s a happy outcome when she becomes the recipient of treats from the US Army stores and invitations to go out with defendant, Corporal O’Mahoney. You can’t help feeling Vee’s secret will be discovered sooner or later, though.

But most of the fun in this book centres around the odd-bod bunch of boarders Vee has taken in to make ends meet. She selects them carefully so that they can double as tutors for Noel, in place of school. Dr Parry-Jones teaches Noel chemistry, biology and ‘accuracy’ (her steady gaze seemed to see and expect only the truth); Mr Reddish, who once dreamt of a stage career teaches literature and is always on the brink of a recitation; Mr Jepson, a journalist who lost an ear in the previous war, takes care of history and mathematics. Dinner time conversations are always a hoot.

Similarly, there’s plenty of lively banter between Winnie and her fellow wardens in their Post 9 Nissan hut. Evans has such a knack with dialogue, it is easy to imagine these characters and what they sound like. And the wartime drudgery: making meals go further out of rations (fortunately Noel is an inventive cook and they have chickens); the lack of heating; the queuing; the interrupted train services; the end of war fatigue. Not to mention the constant listening for V-2 rockets which fall from the sky with little warning.

It all comes together in a book that captures the time with humour and empathy – a delicate balance to get right – and adds up to a perfect wartime novel. There’s plenty of competition in this genre, but V for Victory stands out for its quirky scenarios and unlikely heroes. I hope Evans has a few more up her sleeve. This one gets a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte – a stunning novel about love, war and snow

I’d been saving this book for a dry spell, thinking it might be a special kind of book and I was right – it is. The Tolstoy Estate is set mostly in the middle of the Barbarossa Campaign, Hitler’s ill-fated attempt to beat the Russian winter and the huge volley of soldiers fighting to keep the Nazis out of Moscow. It’s the late autumn of 1941 when we catch up with Captain Paul Bauer, a surgeon assigned to a field hospital which sets up shop in Yasnaya Polyana, Leo Tolstoy’s old home. It’s a smart move – the Soviet army is never going to bomb a literary shrine.

Oozing disgust and obstruction at every turn is Katerina Dmitrievna, the curator at the estate, who is a fiercely loyal Soviet citizen. She never misses a chance to remind Paul and his equally loyal Nazi commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Metz, that they are doomed. The winter, fast approaching, will be the death of them – their uniforms just don’t cut the mustard. If you needed convincing, Tolstoy captured brilliantly the defeat of Napolean’s army in War and Peace. Paul, somewhat dazzled by Katerina, accepts from her a copy of the book in German from Tolstoy’s own library. He read it as a boy in the last war from which his own brother did not return.

“…it was a bit late, five months into Operation Barbarossa, to be fretting about safety, personally or otherwise… If the Greatest Warlord of All Time had had any regard for human life, he would not have provoked a contest whose savagery made France seem in retrospect like a war of flowers.”

While the story follows the events of the six weeks Metz and his surgical team spent at Yasnaya Polyana, and the struggle of the German army to take the city of Tula, this is much more than a war story. Through a wide array of the characters, all brilliantly different from each other, we watch how people thrown together in an extreme situation cope. How they rub off against each other and how the difficult conditions make their idiosyncrasies stand out. Weidemann, the second in command is devoted to his gramophone, Metz develops an obsession with Tolstoy’s ghost while Captain Molineux plays practical jokes, often very offensive ones but charms his way out of trouble.

In this respect, the book reminded me a little of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, with its varied characters and dry, fatalistic humour. Bauer consoles himself with War and Peace and thoughts of Katerina. Both are caught up in the middle of regimes that interfere with any attempt to determine their own futures.

…at night he took to lying in his bedroll and blankets, engrossing himself in War and Peace. As usual he found it consoling. Whatever the fate of individuals might be, Tolstoy seemed to say, the rhythms of life would remain the same. The young would be foolish, hopeful and wild, would fall in love and out of it, become sadder, maybe wise. Some would meet their deaths sooner than others, yet there would come a day when everyone engaged in the struggles of their age would without exception die, bequeathing the world they had made to those strangers, their children, who would struggle to change it again.

The Tolstoy Estate is a wonderful read and Conte has done plenty of research to supply the details that make the book so vivid, including the harrowing surgery that Bauer and the other medics perform in terrible circumstances. I might add that as an often squeamish sort of reader when it comes to gory details, I was not put off by any of this, and found it added a lot to the story and helps round out Bauer’s character. The story was engrossing and gripping as war stories tend to be, but also because you know that battling the Russian winter, the survival rate for these men is slim.

I loved this book so much so that once I’d finished it I’d have been happy to start it all over again. It is well deserving of its short-listing for the Walter Scott Prize last year – I usually manage to find a gem among this yearly line-up, and this one was stunning. Conte is an Australian author, his first book (The Zookeeper’s War) winning the 2008 Prime Minister’s Award. The new book is only his second, which attests to the time Conte has taken to create his best possible work. The Tolstoy Estate gets a five out of five from me.

Book Review: The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan – a wartime novel about friendship, rivalry and rationing

Jennifer Ryan cements her reputation for World War Two fiction about the women stuck at home with her third novel, The Kitchen Front. Her previous books, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Spies of Shilling Lane, similarly threw together unlikely allies and mined small-town prejudices, keeping up appearances and the difficulties of maintaining anything like normal life when there’s a war on.

Ryan has a knack for discovering interesting story threads in the archives of wartime social history and memoirs. Here she’s latched on to the concept of cooking competitions that encouraged housewives to make rationed ingredients stretch further and items like whale meat (ugh!) which weren’t rationed somehow palatable. Here we’ve four main characters each vying for a radio slot on The Kitchen Front hosted by fastidious bon-vivant, Ambrose Hart.

Lady Gwendoline Strickland seems a likely candidate as she already hosts wartime cooking demonstrations in Fenley Village Hall. But she doesn’t get all that much cooking practice in, having all the trappings of a manor house kitchen, a cook and kitchenmaid. And a wealthy husband – a not very nice wealthy husband, but still, she’s got a lot of clout.

Then there’s Audrey, Lady G’s sister, who is toughing it out as a war widow, raising three boys and keeping the wolf from the door by baking pies and cakes that sell locally. She barely makes ends meet, and to make matters worse, she’s in debt to her sister for a mortgage on her home, the home she and Gwendoline grew up in. Without the house and grounds, she wouldn’t have the garden and orchards for her ingredients. So Audrey’s under a lot of pressure.

Also in the running is the Stricklands’ cook, Mrs Quince, one of the most famous manor house cooks in the country. But Mrs Quince is getting on and relies heavily on Nell, the kitchenmaid, who’s been learning at the cook’s elbow ever since she left the orphanage at fourteen. The two enter Ambrose’s competition jointly, and Mrs Q encourages shy Nell to speak up and come out of her shell.

The final entrant is London chef, Zelda Dupont. Zelda (not her real name) has always been on struggle street, but has worked her way up to be sous chef at a top London Hotel. When it’s bombed and she finds herself jobless, alone and pregnant, she winds up in Fenley, overseeing the staff canteen at a pie factory. Few know she’s in the family way, although her landlady has twigged and makes her life hell. If her boss finds out, she’ll be out of work too. Winning the competition could save her bacon.

The competition nicely shapes the plot of the novel and Ryan throws in lots of recipes and wartime tips for making those rations go further (Sheep’s Head Roll, anybody?). But really, this is a story about friendship and family, about pulling together, facing up to the truth and making a go of things. It’s a lovely, warm-hearted story, with a couple of villains you love to hate, and a touch of romance. It has that feel-good factor in spades, but there’s enough humour to keep things from getting mawkish. A charming, relaxing read, getting a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Black Out by John Lawton – noirish wartime thriller

I couldn’t remember why I’d put Black Out on my Must Read list. It must have been recommended in glowing tones somewhere as it doesn’t have the look of the kind of book I normally read. But when I eventually picked it up, I was soon hooked. And that’s in spite of it beginning with a grisly discovery – a severed arm on a bomb site.

We’re in London, 1944, and the Blitz has turned whole blocks into rubble. You’d think it would be easy to pass off a killing as death by explosion and get away with it. Fortunately, Sergeant Troy of Scotland Yard knows murder when he sees it. Soon he’s connected it to another death and a disappearance, men who have recently turned up in Britain from Germany. Why would anyone bring them across in the middle of a war just to kill them in this cloak and dagger way?

The plot will involve the American secret service (Office of Strategic Services – which will soon be the CIA) as well as an underground group of Communist sympathisers. There is not one femme fatale , but two, one of them rather short and the other rather tall.

Sergeant Freddie Troy is himself an interesting character. The son of Russian emigré parents, his father made his fortune in newspapers. So Troy went to Harrow, but eschewed university for the police. At twenty-eight, he has decided to stick with the police rather than enlisting in one of the services. Why should he fight for a country that interned his older brother and his uncle? But London in the Blitz is no picnic. Here’s Troy getting a bit of a lecture from older brother, Rod.

‘…The war was, as you put it, good to me. I rather think I enjoyed it. But you didn’t did you?’ You got shot – “
‘Twice.”
‘Stabbed.’
‘Four times.’
‘Bombed.’
‘Twice again.’
‘Beaten up.’
‘More times than I can count. Look, Rod, what’s the point you’re tying to make? You’re not telling me all this tosh just to let me know I missed a trick by not volunteering.’

While I tired a little of the women in Troy’s life, the tall and the short, and even Troy is a cold fish at times, I did enjoy other characters immensely. The pathologist, Kolankievicz, is a wonderful creation with his wild ear hair and colourful language; you don’t want to mess with Superintendent Onions who is bluntly North of England and bull-headed, and then there’s Troy’s side-kick, DC Wildeve who has a gift for intuition and general smarts. Troy and Wildeve are known at the Yard as ‘the tearaway toffs’. Even the scruffy kids who find the arm in scene one are each interesting in their own way, while there’s an eccentric Russian uncle who holds forth on Speaker’s Corner.

Troy’s kind of interesting too, trying to manage all the people in his life and failing miserably. He’s a loner at heart and often his own worst enemy. The story bounces along with a good mix of action, police deduction and Troy getting things wrong, with short, sharp chapters that make for an easy read. But most of all, I enjoyed the smart writing. The dialogue is crisp and a bombed-out London evocatively described.

Black Out is the first book in the series and with the war coming to a close and a peace that will be challenging once the Iron Curtain comes down, there is plenty of potential character development for Troy in the books that follow – although the books seem to jump around a bit chronologically. There’s lots to enjoy here and I shall certainly check in with Troy again. Black Out gets a three and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

There have been quite a few novels telling the story of World War II female British agents dropped into France, and their resistance fighter counterparts, and they often make good reading. It was a time for women getting to do some gutsy jobs, involving danger and cunning – not the usual ‘keep the home fires burning’ roles they were often accustomed to. But what about the earlier war? Kate Quinn puts us in the picture with one particular network run by Alice Dubois (real name Louise de Bettignies) in German occupied France during the First World War.

Although The Alice Network is partly written through the eyes of a fictitious character – Evelyn Gardiner, a British spy (code name Marguerite Le Francois) – Dubois and her network of spies are also incorporated into the story. We first meet Eve years later as an ageing drunk with deformed hands, a bad temper and a tendency to wave her Luger around, firing off a round when startled.

It’s an evening in 1947 when nineteen-year-old New Yorker, Charlie St. Clair, hammers on Eve’s door demanding to be let in. It’s pouring with rain, and Charlie has escaped her mother during a visit to Europe for a completely different purpose. Charlie is determined to track down a long lost French cousin, Rose, angry that no one has found out what happened to Rose in the recent war. Without a death certificate or witness statement, she still hopes Rose is alive. Eve, working at a bureau that helped locate refugees, had corresponded with Charlie’s father about Rose giving no reason for hope.

That’s not the only problem for Charlie – she’s three month’s pregnant and was supposed to be going to a clinic for an abortion. But Charlie needs to track down Rose before it’s too late and take control of her own life. Eve is set to turn Charlie out into the street, but a new lead sparks her curiosity. Before long they form an unlikely alliance, heading to France with Eve’s Scottish hired help, Finn Kilgore, in his ageing Lagonda. Finn also has his own war story, which eventually emerges, but the narrative is mostly Eve’s and Charlie’s, flipping between WWI and 1947 to fill us in on the story of the Alice Network, and Charlie’s journey of discovery.

This is a nicely paced novel. The story of Eve’s war is a grim one, unfolding to reveal how women spies picked up gems of information about troop movements and planned attacks. Eve, with her stutter, looks naive and youthful, but as a waitress in the only decent restaurant in Lille, is an ideal spy with her ease in both French and German. There’s lots of tension here and the sudden switches to Charlie’s story give a bit of light relief. Although her’s is a sad story too, there’s a bit more fun in the way the three travellers interact and develop a grudging respect for each other. Things simmer between them until the past finally catches up with the present and everything comes to a dramatic finish.

I enjoyed the novel immensely as an escapist read, but was also really interested to learn more about the spy-ring run by Alice Dubois and the fate of those who were captured. Remembering that this is a time before women had the vote in Britain, it’s remarkable how these female agents were allowed to take on dangerous missions behind enemy lines. The execution of Edith Cavell, a nurse shot for aiding the escape of Allied soldiers, is a stark reminder that this wasn’t a game.

The characters of our three main players are both interesting and engaging, and the cliff-hanger chapter endings keep you racing through the story. It’s not surprising this novel has been extremely popular and well-recommended, and many will be eager to read Quinn’s new book: The Rose Code. The Alice Network is a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff

I read the audio version of The Lost Girls of Paris, having first been intrigued by the book when it came out. Perhaps I was a little reluctant to read about female agents dropped into France during the war, as I knew many fell straight into enemy hands only to be tortured and killed. The title of the book offers no consolation but trialling the first few minutes of the audiobook, I found I was immediately hooked.

It’s New York in 1946, and Grace Healey is on her way to work after a tumble in the sack with an old friend of her late husband. She’d bumped into Mark on the street, had too much to drink, etc. etc. and now she feels a little ashamed of herself. She feels scruffy in yesterday’s clothes and is running late. Near Grand Central Station, she comes across the aftermath of an accident – a woman hit by a car and killed, a sobering moment for sure. Determined to clean herself up in the station bathroom, Grace discovers an abandoned suitcase and takes a peek inside to look for the owner’s identity. There are no obvious clues, but tucked within is a packet of photographs showing women in uniform.

The sight of the photos does something to Grace and before she knows it, she’s stuffed them into her handbag before hurrying off to work. Planning to return them later, events conspire against her. Grace learns the photos belonged to the dead woman, Eleanor Trigg, a former British secret service officer in charge of women agents sent to France. She becomes determined to find out what Trigg was doing in New York and the significance of the photos. Slowly, the story of the women agents who lost their lives in the build-up towards D-Day unfolds.

The novel is told partly from Grace’s point of view, with her developing and bumpy relationship with Mark as a back story. We also have the narrative voice of Eleanor Trigg herself, a former Polish refugee, with indispensable skills at the conference table at SOE headquarters. When male agents keep getting captured in France, Eleanor points out that they are too easily spotted in a country where nearly all the younger men have been sent to camps as either POWs or for work. She suggests sending women. The idea seems shocking at first, but before long, Eleanor finds herself in charge of their recruitment and supervision.

The third narrator is Marie, noticed on a train reading Baudelaire in the original French and offered an interview. Marie is just scraping by, trying to maintain payments on her London home, her husband having decamped for South America and leaving her with a young daughter, now in the care of an aunt. It’s hard to imagine why Marie would be a good agent, apart from the faultless French, as she’s always asking questions and struggles with the training. Only her rapport with Josie, a former street kid with plenty of nous and well-honed survival skills, keeps Marie going. We follow Marie through her first missions in France as a radio operator, her friendships with fellow agents, particularly the gruff young man in charge of operations.

The story keeps you on the edge of your seat, with the Allied invasion looming, the liberation of France can’t be far away. But this only adds to the risks Marie and co must take, sabotaging the enemy’s potential to fight back and that will mean reprisals. Meanwhile, Grace struggles to learn more about Eleanor and the women agents who failed to return after the war. No one knows what happened to them, they just disappeared.

I enjoyed the characters of Marie, Eleanor and especially Grace, who is still coming to terms with being a war widow, but is determined to forge an independent life for herself in New York, rather than relying on her comfortably off parents. There are some interesting minor characters – I particularly enjoyed Grace’s boss, an overworked solicitor advocating for recently arrived immigrants. The writing however was a little overwrought at times when I felt the events of the story often spoke for themselves. This was a little disappointing as this is such a story worth telling. Still, the narration of the audiobook made it all whizz by and the ending was reasonably satisfying. A three out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons

You never know what you’ll pick up at a second-hand book fair, but I’m glad I spotted this 2011 novel by Natasha Solomons. The Novel in the Viola is the story of Elise Landau, a plump and rather spoilt nineteen-year-old, not obviously talented like her musician sister, Margot, and opera singer mother, Anna. It is 1930s Vienna, and the Nazis are starting to make things difficult for Jews in the city. As Margot and her husband prepare to escape to the United States and her parents apply for visas to join them there, Elise has no choice but to try for a place as a maid in an English household. Expressing herself in her ‘fluid’ English, she writes, ‘I will cook your goose’. A Mr Rivers of Tyneford offers her a job as parlour-maid and the means to travel.

Elise is determined she will hate England, missing her family desperately, cherishing Anna’s pearls, while learning how to wait at table, lay a fire, polish the silver, all the while running from task to task. Dawdling is the privilege of the moneyed classes, it seems. Mr Rivers is unfailingly understanding, a widower with one son away at Cambridge. He was charmed by Elise’s letter and takes her surname, Landau, to be a good omen, having a fondness for the books by one Julian Landau who Elise admits to being her father. Mr Rivers’s library has all of his books. She doesn’t tell him that her father has entrusted her with a carbon copy of his latest novel, secreted inside an old viola of Margot’s.

Letters from Margot admit their parents struggles to obtain visas, while rumbles of war make things tense in England. But there is light relief when Kit Rivers arrives home for the summer, enchanting everyone around him, particularly the young women, including Diana and Juno, from the local nobility, and even Elise. Not only does Elise gradually fall in love with Kit, but with the countryside around her. She has never lived by the sea before, and suddenly finds she can’t imagine life away from it. Natasha Solomons writes some gorgeous descriptions of this little corner on the Dorset coast and weaves into the story the changing seasons and rhythms of rural life.

The book is full of a terrific characters: snooty Diana who drops acid with every utterance; Art the chauffeur who likes four-legged creatures better than two-legged ones; Mr Wrexham, the butler/valet who wears his tailcoat throughout the most difficult times refusing to let standards slip – to name but three. But it is Elise who is the stand-out character here, losing her puppy fat, and adapting to the difficult role of being not readily accepted upstairs or below, but somehow finding a place in the household. She grows up a lot but never loses her independent streak, her passion.

Solomons has dipped into her own family history to help bring Elise to life, inspired by her great-aunt Gabi Landau who managed to escape the persecution of Jews in Europe by becoming a mother’s help in England. Apparently many refugees arrived in England on a ‘domestic service visa’ leaving their cosseted lives behind them for the challenges of life below stairs. Key aspects of the war drive the plot – particularly reports of brutality to Jews by the Nazis but also the privations of life for those in wartime England, Dunkirk and the war in the air. It is also a record of what life was like in rural England, the customs that knitted the social classes together before the war changed things forever.

It all adds up to a very compelling and yes, sad, book, full of atmosphere, interesting characters although the more emotional moments did seem a little overwrought at times for my taste. But then there was the music, a theme which also pervades Solomons’s The Song Collector, a novel which throws a light on another interesting aspect of English cultural history. Solomons is definitely an author on my watch-list and overall this book didn’t disappoint. A three-and-a-half out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford

The plot-line for The Lost Lights of St Kilda is fairly classic: boy meets girl; boy falls in love with girl and she with him; circumstances tear them apart and years later, boy tries to find girl again and wonders if it’s too late. Nothing very original here, but what makes this novel so very interesting are the settings.

The story opens with Fred, a prisoner of war courtesy of the Germans, following his capture at St Valery. It’s 1940, and while many British servicemen were evacuated at Dunkirk, he’s stuck in a dark, dank prison cell with others from the 51st Highland Division, dreaming of home. Fred’s in his thirties, has lived all around the world with his work as a geologist, but what he can’t stop thinking about is the girl he left behind a dozen years before when he was researching the rock strata on St Kilda.

St Kilda is a wild and rugged island group off the coast of Scotland. Quite a way off the coast of Scotland. Lewis and Harris are part of the Outer Hebrides, and are hardly within cooee. St Kilda’s home to thousands of seabirds, particularly gannets and fulmars which earn the islanders their livelihood. It’s pretty much subsistence living – it has to be as there’s no regular postal service, no radio communication, so the locals rely on visiting fishing boats and such for mail and supplies.

There’s also a bit of tourism in the summer – visitors make day trips to buy St Kilda handcrafts and to photograph ‘Britain’s last hunter-gatherers’. You can imagine what a smart St Kilda girl like Chrissie thinks of that. Chrissie’s story is woven in with Fred’s. She’s a plucky young girl when we meet her and her narrative describes among other things her fondness for the laird’s son. Archie Macleod is a charismatic but wayward young man who visits the island as a child and instantly causes trouble. Later during his final year at Cambridge, he turns up with Fred Lawson, the two of them settling in for a summer that will change their lives.

Through Fred’s eyes we see a dying way of life. The breathtakingly dangerous work the St Kilda men do each year to harvest fulmar chicks for their oil and meat, abseiling off the steep cliffs that border the main island of Hirta. Then there’s the evenings spent around the fire, the women weaving, the singing and storytelling. The intense devotion the families have for their children who are precious, because so many have died as infants.

Events conspire to have Fred making a new life for himself, though his story is mainly about his wartime bid for freedom, his survival through a terrible winter and his struggle to get back to his girl not knowing what he will find when he gets there. It’s a hymn to the sterling work of French Resistance and ordinary people, often at great cost, to get Allied escapees home.

I loved this book. There is plenty of dramatic tension among the characters, particularly Chrissie, Fred and Archie who are each sympathetic in their own way. Even Archie, who continues to cause trouble as an adult, is well fleshed out, battling his private demons. But mostly it’s the geography that steals the the show here, sending you to the Internet and the haunting images of a lost way of life. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

I may be wrong, but The Sixteen Trees of the Somme could be the first Scandinavian book I have read that wasn’t a crime novel. Not that there aren’t some terrible events here: war, genocide, theft, a disputed legacy, blotted reputations and simmering feuds. Why throw in the police as well? There’s also a fairly mind-boggling mystery at the heart of the story.

Edvard has grown up on a remote potato farm in Norway under the care of his grandfather, Sverre. His parents died with he was three in mysterious circumstances while on holiday. The family of three were on a road trip to visit the birthplace of Edvard’s French grandmother, a farm adjacent to the battlefield of the Somme. Young Edvard went missing for several days before being left at a doctor’s surgery. Nobody knows who cared for him before Sverre arrived to take him home.

When his grandfather dies, a beautifully crafted coffin has been kept for him at the undertakers, which can only have been built by Sverre’s brother, Einar, a master cabinet maker. Edvard may have left it at that, buried his grandfather, and carried on with the farm. There’s Hanne, a high-school sweetheart back home from veterinary college, to hang out with. But the past nags at him and before long, Edvard is following a trail of clues to a tiny island off the Shetland coast called Haaf Gruney, in search of the uncle he hardly knew.

The Shetland Islands have a long Norwegian history, before becoming part of Scotland, and it is curious just how many place names and turns of phrase have a Norwegian ring to them. Edvard arrives off the car ferry from one remote spot on the atlas to an even remoter one with very little life experience. Soon he meets the much more savvy Gwen, a young woman the same age as Edvard, with a strong connection to her late grandfather, a wealthy timber merchant who owned Haaf Gruney. The two have a connected history it seems.

The story takes you through a maze of twists and turns as Edvard pieces together his uncle’s life. There’s his war – we’re up to World War II now, where Einar was involved in the French Resistance, and the importance of some trees that once grew in the Somme, and its link with Gwen’s grandfather’s experiences in the previous war. Then there’s the question of Einar’s feud with Sverre, attributed to the fact that Sverre fought for the Germans – or was there more to it than that? And then there’s Einar’s reverence for wood – you learn a lot about the craft of making fine things, the timber that makes it special.

Mytting builds the story beautifully, pulling you in as Edvard and Gwen make the discoveries that lead back to the terrible day when Edvard’s parents died. But this is so much more than an extremely satisfying mystery. Edvard has a lot of growing up to to do and some big decisions to make. The legacies of both Einar and Sverre pull him in two directions, as does his attraction to two women. And this a young man who until leaving Norway had never eaten anything remotely as exotic as an Indian meal served in restaurant on a Shetland island.

The revelations of the story will really tug at your heart as well – the events of two world wars have hammered both Gwen’s and Edvard’s families. It’s no wonder they form an attachment. As the past drags them into some terrible discoveries, you wonder how they will recover. It makes you ponder the way that people’s heritage is linked to who they are and how they build a future from that. How much can be forgotten? It all adds up to a powerful story, one that will haunt you well after finishing the book.

I’m happy to see there’s a new Lars Mytting book just out – The Bell in the Lake – the first in a trilogy no less and which promises more of the themes Mytting is drawn to. One for my To Read list for sure. This one scores a four and a half out five from me.

Book Review: The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan

The Spies of Shilling Lane by is another wartime story by Jennifer Ryan, the author that brought us the hugely popular novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. As before we have a mix of unlikely heroes and heroines thrown into the maelstrom of World War II, with outcomes to surprise both the reader and themselves.

With her second novel, we meet the loud, bossy and unlovable Mrs Braithwaite on her way to London to find her daughter, Betty. It is 1941, and London is being hammered by the blitz, so why would Betty want to leave the comforts of home and the small town of Ashcombe? To make matters worse, Mrs B has been dropped by the Aschombe Women’s Voluntary Service where she was Queen Bee, a role taken on by former friend Mrs Metcalf. The ladies aren’t happy with Mrs B because of her divorce and general bossiness.

No wonder Betty escaped to work for Bexley Sewage Works – who wouldn’t? When Betty seems to have disappeared, Mrs B inserts herself at Betty’s address, number 3 Shilling Lane, also home to landlord, Mr Norris, a quiet unassuming accounts clerk, and two girls: vague and messy Florrie, and coolly beautiful Cassandra, neither of whom were particular friends of Betty’s.

Mrs B discovers that Betty has never been an employee at the sewage works, but a series of clues lead her to a butcher shop in Clapham. Suddenly Mrs B is thrown into the dangerous world of MI5 and an undercover operation to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring. She may have over-focussed on social standing at the expense of her daughter in the past but she’s brave enough to get to the bottom of things, determined to make amends.

Mrs B drags Mr Norris into her plans – a reluctant hero if ever there was one. But while Mrs B is learning what it means to be a caring parent, Mr Norris is developing the courage he’d always thought he’d lacked. In the meantime, London is repeatedly under siege, and our team of reluctant heroes are completely confounded by not knowing who they can trust, Ryan throwing in a few plot twists before the final page.

Jennifer Ryan has created a humorous story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, with a cast of colourful characters and believable settings. It is also at times an emotional book, the carnage of the blitz creating a relentless backdrop to events, out of which appear small moments of hope. However, I struggled not see Mrs B as a kind of wartime Hyacinth Bucket (tv’s Keeping Up Appearances), and yes, I did find my credulity stretched a little at times. So while I found it competently written and engrossing enough, it’s a three out of four from me this time.