Blackout by Simon Scarrow

Blackout Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 30 March 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 424 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, breaks new ground in a thrilling and captivating historical murder mystery, Blackout.

Berlin, December 1939.  As the citizens of Berlin worry about a potential upcoming conflict with Britain and France, the Nazi party continues to sink their claws into every aspect of German society.  But as a bleak winter sets in and enforced blackouts plunge the city into darkness, a far more sinister threat begins to stalk the streets of Berlin.

A young woman has been found brutally murdered near a busy set of train tracks.  The victim is a former famous actress with a powerful husband.  Due to her marital connections, as well as a scandalous past with various high-ranking Nazi figures, including Goebbels, her case has dangerous political implications.  To that end, her case is assigned to Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke of the Kriminalpolizei, the Kripo, one of the few police officers not to join the party.  Due to his apparent disregard for the party and the importance of the victim, Horst is under intense pressure from the head of the Gestapo to solve this case.  However, what begins as an easy murder case swiftly devolves into something far more dangerous when a second body is found, and Horst is forced to face the reality that he is chasing a serial killer.

As the bodies of more young women are discovered, Horst rushes to find a killer before the government attempts to hush up the fact that a killer is loose within their perfect Nazi society.  But with the Gestapo interfering at every step and key suspects protected by the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence, this case proves difficult to solve.  When a survivor is found, Horst thinks this may be the opportunity to find the killer.  However, when the witness is revealed to be Jewish, Horst is forced to find a way to protect her from both the killer and the Gestapo.  Can Horst find the killer before it is too late, or will he discover that disloyalty to the Nazi government is considered a far worse crime?

This was another amazing novel from one of my absolute favourite authors.  Scarrow is best known as a Roman historical fiction author due to his long-running and impressive The Eagles of the Empire series, which I am a particular fan of (see my reviews for The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome, and The Emperor’s Exile).  However, Scarrow has also branched out into other historical periods with his Revolution quartet, the standalone novels The Sword and the Scimitar and Hearts of Stone, and a modern crime novel he wrote with his colleague Lee Francis, Playing with Death (which I really need to check out).  His latest book, Blackout, is an interesting change of pace from some of the previous Scarrow novels I have enjoyed, presenting a compelling murder mystery story with the dark historical setting of Nazi Germany.  Blackout, which was unfortunately delayed from last year, proved to be an excellent read, and I loved the complex and powerful story that Scarrow came up with.

Scarrow’s latest book has an outstanding narrative that starts with a Nazi social party scene quickly leading to the brutal murder.  This shocking opening in the dark of a blacked-out Berlin sets the scene for the rest of Blackout perfectly, and lets the reader know that they are in for an intense and dark tale.  The narrative then advances to the next day, with a great introduction to central protagonist Inspector Horst Schenke, who gets to showcase his deductive ability while also covering his personality and feelings about the Nazi government.  Once the case proper begins, Horst and his team are thrust into a lethal hunt for a serial killer, while also having to contend with the vicious politics and intrigue of the Nazi party.  Horst finds himself caught between the Gestapo, German Military Intelligence, and other influential Nazis, each of whom are attempting to manipulate the situation for their own ends.  This blend of mystery and dangerous political intrigue makes for a fantastic read, and I enjoyed the compelling balance that Scarrow produced.  The mystery itself is well crafted, with the author ensuring there is a complex and tangled web to unravel, with several promising suspects.  There are some very cool twists added into the plot, and I quite enjoyed the exciting conclusion and eventual reveal of the killer.  This is also a very effective standalone mystery, which would serve as a great introductory novel if Scarrow ever wanted to revisit this setting and characters in the future.  A series set around this book could go in some interesting directions, and I for one would be quite keen for that.

Easily the most captivating and fascinating part of this novel is the amazing historical setting that Scarrow used as the backdrop to his amazing mystery.  While several great mystery series have used World War II Germany as a setting before (the Bernie Gunther series by the late, great Philip Kerr comes to mind), I think that Blackout was a particularly good example of how it could be done, with Scarrow making sure that it really enhanced this already incredible story.  Scarrow skilfully works several fantastic and intriguing elements of this iconic setting into his narrative.  This includes the blacked-out winter streets and train lines of 1939 Berlin, which serve to hide the killer’s actions and ensures an easy hunting ground.  I also appreciated the air of worry and uncertainty that inhabited many of the characters as they are constantly left wondering if their country is heading towards a bigger war with Britain and France, not knowing of their government’s master plan.  There is also a certain amount of nationalism, patriotism and casual racism/anti-Semitism on the streets, which is a confronting and concerning aspect that the protagonist has to deal with.  There is also a fascinating focus on the way in which the Nazis infested all aspects of the German government and administration, particularly the police.  Inspector Horst is constantly butting heads with other members of the police force who were only promoted due to their party allegiances, rather than any skill or ability, which impacts the protagonists to successfully investigate his crime.  Add in the compelling depictions of German politics and Nazi interference that I mentioned before, and you have a very impactful and distinctive setting, which really helped to turn this crime novel into something very special.

Scarrow has a knack for creating some interesting and likeable characters, and this is certainly true for Blackout.  Inspector Horst is a fantastic protagonist, a former famous race car driver who experienced a traumatic crash several years ago.  He has since reworked himself as a talented police investigator and a rare man of honour in troubled times.  There is a lot to like about Horst, including his brilliant investigative skills, his courage in the face of danger, and his complete disregard for the Nazi leadership.  As one of the few senior police officers who has not joined the Nazi party, Horst is a bit of a black sheep amongst the ranks of his organisation, especially as he barely contains his disdain for the Nazis and what they are doing to his country.  This invariably leads him into a whole mess of trouble, which sees him in the crosshairs of the Gestapo and other Nazi figures, who seek to use his neutrality and skill for their own advantages.  I had a lot of fun following Horst throughout this novel, and it was great to see how a non-Nazi supporter would survive amongst the authoritarian ranks of German police in this period.  There are several great storylines surrounding this character, including about the trauma he is experiencing from his crash, as well as guilt at his failure to save the people closest to him.  I really enjoyed this character in Blackout, and it seems likely that Scarrow would have some very compelling storylines in place for this character if he ever revisited this series.

Aside from Horst, there are several other compelling side characters in this novel, which include a mixture of fictional characters and real historical figures.  One of the better characters is Ruth, the only apparent survivor of one of the serial killer’s attacks.  Ruth is a feisty and combative character, made so by her position as one of the few Jewish people still remaining in Berlin.  Despite being threatened by the entire German apparatus as well as a serial killer, Ruth remains strong throughout the book and is a very inspirational character to follow.  I also quite enjoyed the character of Liebwitz, a Gestapo agent assigned to Horst’s unit to spy on him and report back to the Gestapo commander.  However, Liebwitz proves to be a rather unusual Gestapo agent, more concerned with facts and analysis, rather than Nazi internal politics, and it was fascinating to see an honest and non-sociopathic member of the Gestapo.  While there is a lot of mistrust for Liebwitz in the beginning, he soon becomes a major part of the investigation, and Scarrow sets up some very interesting storylines for him.  Finally, I also quite enjoyed the killer of the story.  Several sequences in Blackout are shown from his point of view, although his identity is kept hidden towards the end of the book.  Scarrow paints an interesting picture of this killer’s mental state, and it was interesting to see his motivations run parallel to the goals of the Nazi party, which he uses to justify some of his actions, and indeed his actions are something that the Nazi leadership might approve of.  I felt that the author did a good job setting this antagonist up throughout the novel, and I rather liked the twist surrounding their eventual reveal.

Simon Scarrow continues to show why he is one of the leading authors of historical fiction with the outstanding and captivating historical murder mystery, Blackout.  Breaking into a whole new historical period and setting, Scarrow produces a fantastic and powerful murder investigation which makes amazing use of its complex characters and detailed historical setting.  Featuring all manner of twists, political intrigue and devious Nazi characters, Blackout was a compelling and intriguing read that comes highly recommended.  I cannot wait to get my next hit of Scarrow, and luckily I don’t have to be patient for long as the next Eagles of the Empire book, The Honour of Rome, is out in a few months time.

Small Acts of Defiance by Michelle Wright

Small Acts of Defiance Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 1 June 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Impressive debuting Australian author Michelle Wright transports the reader back to the horrors and struggles of occupied Paris with the moving historical drama, Small Acts of Defiance.

May 1940.  Following the tragic death of her father, Australian teenager Lucie and her French mother Yvonne are left without any means of supporting themselves in Australia.  Reaching out to the only family they have left, Yvonne’s estranged brother Gerard, Lucie and her mother are convinced to journey back to Yvonne’s home city of Paris to live with Gerard in his apartment.

Despite having reservations about leaving for a Europe rocked by the early stages of war, Lucie is quickly enchanted by the beauty and culture of the city.  However, shortly after their arrival, disaster strikes and the French army suffers a catastrophic defeat, allowing the Nazis to invade France and occupy Paris.  Forced to adapt to the new regime, Lucie and her family attempt to survive as well as they can.

While wishing to remain safe and unnoticed by the Nazis, Lucie is drawn into the conflict when she befriends several people around Paris who resent the German occupation.  Encouraged by their strength and determination, Lucie experiments with using her artistic talents to engage in small acts of defiance against the Nazis and the puppet Vichy French government.  However, when she witnesses the Nazis’ increased attacks against Paris’s Jewish population and the attitudes of her authoritarian uncle, Lucie is drawn even deeper into the fight.  How far will Lucie go to save her new home, and what difference can even a few small acts of defiance truly have?

Small Acts of Defiance was a fantastic and moving novel from a promising new author that did an excellent job highlighting the horrors and troubles of occupied France.  Author Michelle Wright, an Australian who has spent considerable time in Paris, has written an outstanding novel with a story that is both beautiful and devastating, as she tells the intriguing and intense tale of Lucie and her experiences during the war.

Wright has produced a fast-paced and deeply moving narrative for Small Acts of Defiance.  The author swiftly sets the scene for the main characters of Lucie and her mother, who move to Paris right before the invasion while still dealing with the traumatic aftermath of Lucie’s father’s death.  It really does not take long for the historical horror to occur, as Paris is swiftly conquered by the Nazis, although Wright ensures that there is just enough time for Lucie, and the reader, to become enchanted with the city before its occupation.  Following the invasion, you are introduced to several great supporting characters who help Lucie to fully see how evil the Nazis and their French collaborators are, especially as some of her new friends are Jewish.  This centre part of the novel is great, and it was fantastic to see Lucie find her feet while also starting her initial acts of defiance.  However, while all appears mostly right, you know that tragedy is on the horizon, especially as the Jewish characters you become close to slowly have more and more restrictions placed upon them, which can only lead to disaster and despair.  Once the inevitable happens, the story really intensifies, as the protagonist witnesses true horrors and atrocities which slowly costs her some people she is really close to.  Readers will not be prepared for how dark and tragic the book becomes, although you cannot help but keep reading, especially as there is a little bit of hope for some characters.  The conclusion of Small Acts of Defiance is pretty intense and satisfying, especially as the protagonist achieves several great things while there is some good news for the other supporting characters.  This entire narrative very well written, and I loved the dramatic and powerful tale that Wright created here.  There is so much amazing and moving character development, especially around Lucie, which really grounds the novel and helps keeps the readers glued to the pages.  Wright has a real talent for writing hard and dark scenes, and I was utterly enthralled by this powerful story.

I was deeply impressed by the sheer amount of historical detail that Wright put into her debut novel, which is no doubt a side effect of all the time she spent in Paris.  The author covers the entirety of the Nazi occupation, from the French defeat, to the chaos of the invasion and the subsequent control of the city by the Germans.  There are so many interesting details and facets of history contained within the story, and I found myself getting really engrossed in the spectacular portrayal of this key historical location.  Wright spends time focusing on the various attitudes and reactions of the citizens of Paris, which ranged from outrage to acceptance or even outright support of the new regime.  The depictions of the puppet Vichy government and its actions was particularly intriguing, especially as the author examines the reason it had some support from the French.  This is particularly shown by Lucie’s uncle, an authoritarian former solider who respected the military general put in charge of the country, and who felt disenfranchised by the previous free French government.  There was also a lot of focus on the gradual crackdown and eventual deportation of the city’s Jewish population.  Due to the protagonist befriending several Jewish characters, you get to see the various restrictive laws come into effect, and the way that the Jewish population was dehumanised and destroyed one step at a time.  All of these proved to be deeply fascinating, and I loved how Wright was able to work it all into her intense and excellent story.

One aspect of this historical detail that I found extremely intriguing was the storyline surrounding the protagonist’s attempts at defying the Nazi and Vichy governments.  Unlike most historical fiction protagonists who fight back with guns, political speeches or brazen heists, the hero of Small Acts of Defiance at first uses art to subtly push back against authority.  This is achieved by drawing pamphlets or subtle symbols of French freedom in the postcards that she sells, small things that could still get her in trouble.  As the war progresses, the protagonist gets involved in other small ways, such as helping to pass information to the Allies or assisting the city’s remaining Jewish population.  I found these small acts of resistance to be a fascinating part of the book’s plot, and it was rather interesting to see the effect that even these minor actions could have on the character’s moral.  It also resulted in some compelling comparison to some of the more radical members of the French Resistance, especially some of Lucie’s friends, who take more drastic actions and face several physical and moral consequences as a result.  While Lucie does become more involved later in the book, I felt that it was really intriguing to see the various small, non-violent ways that French citizens could have helped in the war effort, and I think that it was a fantastic part of this captivating narrative.

Small Acts of Defiance was an incredible debut from Australian author Michelle Wright that does an amazing job capturing the tragedy, division and defiance that occurred during Nazi occupation of Paris.  Featuring a moving and captivating tale that surrounds one girl’s small attempt to help her friends and her new city, Small Acts of Defiance is an outstanding historical drama that comes highly recommended.  I am very intrigued to see what additional novels Wright creates in the future, and I am extremely glad I got the opportunity to read her fantastic first novel.

The Paris Collaborator by A. W. Hammond

The Paris Collaborator Cover

Publisher: Echo Publishing (Trade Paperback – 4 May 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 312 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Amazing Australian thriller author A. W. Hammond presents his first historical read with The Paris Collaborator, a clever and exciting novel set in occupied Paris.

August 1944.  With Allied forces advancing towards Paris, the Nazi occupation of the city seems to be nearly at an end.  But just because the Germans are poised to leave does not mean that the city is any less dangerous, especially for those whose loyalties are in question.  Since the Germans arrived, former teacher Auguste Duchene has taken on a whole new profession to survive: finding missing children.  With his impressive observational skills, Duchene has proven to be a keen investigator, but his talents are about to get noticed by all the wrong people.

Despite his desire to only help reunite lost families, Duchene is forced into working for a violent faction of the French Resistance after they threaten the safety of his collaborating daughter, Marienne.  Recruited to find a missing priest and the cache of stolen weapons he was hiding for them; Duchene reluctantly begins his search.  However, hours after he begins working for the Resistance, he is approached by a senior Nazi officer who blackmails him into finding a missing German soldier.

Caught between two dangerous masters, Duchene has no choice by to comply with both if he and Marienne are to survive.  With only 48 hours until both groups will deliver on their deadly threats, Duchene scours Paris for both the missing men.  However, the more he discovers, the more he begins to realise that the cases may be connected, and that he may be only able to satisfy one of his employers.  Worse, the Gestapo have taken an interest in Duchene’s investigation and are determined to interfere for their own ends.  Can Duchene find his targets before it is too late, or will everything he love be taken away from him?

This was an awesome and fantastic novel from an impressive author who I was not too familiar with before I picked up this outstanding read.  A. W. Hammond has previously written two Australian thrillers under the name Alex Hammond.  These books, 2013’s Blood Witness and 2015’s The Unbroken Line, were intriguing legal thrillers that focused on his Will Harris protagonist.  The Paris Collaborator is the author’s first foray into historical fiction, and he did an exceptional job producing a clever and addictive historical thriller.  I had an incredible time reading The Paris Collaborator and I ended up finishing it off in a few short days once I got drawn into its cool and memorable narrative.

Hammond has come up with an excellent thriller storyline for The Paris Collaborator that is exciting and clever, and which also makes great use of its historical backdrop.  This is a very fast-paced story, and it really does not take long for it to take off, as unconventional missing child investigator Duchene is drawn into the conflicting webs of radical French Resistance fighters and an influential Nazi officer.  Forced to work on both cases on a very lean timeline, the protagonist conducts a hurried investigation, trying to find hints of two different missing persons while also trying to survive in the middle of a chaotic and failing city.  With the interference of the Gestapo, Duchene is trapped in the middle of a three-way battle for his loyalties, as each of these very dangerous groups threatens to kill him and his daughter unless he complies.  This results in a very epic final third of the book, as the protagonist runs around Paris, which is in the middle of overthrowing its German occupiers, trying to find the last pieces of the puzzle with everybody trying to kill or capture him.

This was a very captivating and high-stakes story, and I loved all the thrilling intrigue, action and suspense as the protagonist jumps from one bad situation to the next.  The overall investigation had some rather intriguing twists to it, many of which took me pleasantly by surprise, although they were very well set up in hindsight.  I absolutely lost it when the final twist was revealed, as it was so outrageous and surprising that I ended up laughing for several minutes.  This reveal, while a little hilarious, did fit nicely into the dark tone of the novel, and I felt it was an outstanding way to wrap up this novel, especially as it is guaranteed to stick in the reader’s mind.  I deeply enjoyed The Paris Collaborator’s clever story, and this ended up being one of the more entertaining and unique thrillers I have read all year.

While readers will definitely remember the amazing thriller story, I also must highlight the exceptional historical setting that was featured in The Paris Collaborator.  Hammond chose to set his clever story amid the final days of the Nazi occupation of Paris, which I really enjoyed.  The author does an outstanding job of portraying this intriguing historical setting, and I loved the exploration of an occupied city on the edge, with minimal resources, a thriving black market, a near-rebelling populace, nervous soldiers starting to pull out and a dangerous resistance movement planning their next strike.  Hammond makes great use of this unique setting throughout the story, and I really appreciated the way he featured historical elements like the Resistance, the Gestapo and the German army throughout the story.  The final part of the book is set during the French uprising to free Paris from the Nazis, and I loved how the protagonist had to overcome all the obstacles this put in his way, from tanks attempting to put down dissent, to crowds determined to kill any Germans they could find.  This was an outstanding depiction of occupied Paris and I felt that Hammond perfectly utilised it throughout this amazing book.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the historical setting of The Paris Collaborator is the compelling focus on the French mentality of collaboration and resistance.  Throughout the novel, the protagonist encounters a wide range of different characters who have survived the Nazi occupation by working for, engaging with, or falling in love with German soldiers, much to the disgust of their fellow French citizens.  The protagonist himself is considered by some to be a collaborator, not only because he has helped wealthy French collaborators find their children but because he finds himself working for various Nazis throughout the course of the book.  This forces the protagonist to walk a thin line, as he must appear to be a patriotic Frenchman disgusted with the occupiers while also making sure that he does not enrage any of the Nazis who are employing him, something he does not do particularly well.  As a result, Duchene, and several supporting characters, encounters dangerous reactions from some French characters and Resistance members, and this really adds to the tension and danger that he encounters.  I think that Hammond did an excellent job examining and portraying this mentality of anti-collaboration throughout the novel, especially as it is cleverly layered into nearly every interaction the protagonist has.  Some of the actions of French characters who were actively resisting against the Germans were also pretty intriguing, including one particularly over-the-top one that is definitely going to stick in my mind.  It was also fascinating to see what some people would do to avoid being labelled as a collaborator, even if that means completely changing who they are.  I really enjoyed the author’s examination of how collaborator would have been viewed during this turbulent period of history and it ended up being an excellent and compelling addition to The Paris Collaborator’s narrative.

The Paris Collaborator by A. W. Hammond is an outrageous and impressive historical thriller that comes highly recommended.  Hammond has written a fantastic fast-paced story that is heavy on action, intrigue, and amazing twists, all set amid Paris in the final days of the Nazi occupation.  I had a lot of fun getting through this awesome novel, and thanks to some outstanding reveals and exciting moments, The Paris Collaborator is really going to stick in my mind.  Readers are guaranteed a thrilling and clever time with this book and will power through it in no time at all.

The Warsaw Orphan by Kelly Rimmer

The Warsaw Orphan Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 28 April 2021)

Series: Standalone/sequel to The Things We Cannot Say

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to have your heart broken again and again as Australian author Kelly Rimmer presents a captivating, powerful and dark historical drama, The Warsaw Orphan.

Warsaw, 1942.  The Nazis have a firm control over all of Poland and have moved the entire Jewish population into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto.  Vastly overcrowded and with limited supplies, life is extremely hard in the Ghetto, and many have given up all hope.  For Jewish teen Roman Gorka, all he can do is try to survive and earn enough to keep his family alive.  However, when rumours spread through the Ghetto about the Nazi plans to transport them to “work camps” out in the forest, Roman knows that it is time to act.  Knowing that the lives of himself and his parents are already forfeit, Roman attempts to find a way to save his younger siblings.

At the same time, a young woman, Elzbieta Rabinek, has just arrived in the city and appears to be a typical Polish girl living with her family.  However, Elzbieta is hiding a dangerous secret: her real name is Emilia, and she is the younger sister of an executed Jewish sympathiser.  Fleeing her village with her new family, Emilia is kept hidden from any potential pursuers.  But when Emilia discovers the truth about the Ghetto, she becomes determined to help and joins an underground group of women working to smuggle Jewish children to safety.

As Emilia becomes more involved with the secret work of her organisation, she soon encounters Roman.  Working together to save Roman’s younger sister, the two grow close and soon their fates are inevitably tied together.  But when a terrible tragedy strikes, both Roman and Emilia will be thrown into disarray.  As Warsaw becomes overwhelmed with fire and despair, can these two young people survive with hope, or will they be washed away in a flood of righteous anger?

Wow, just wow.  This was an incredibly touching historical drama that has really impressed me thanks to its moving story and striking portrayals of life in World War II Warsaw.  The Warsaw Orphan is the latest novel from Australian author Kelly Rimmer, who has previously produced moving novels such as Truths I Never Told You and Before I Let You GoThe Warsaw Orphan is actually a sequel to Rimmer’s previous book, The Things We Cannot Say, with some of the supporting characters from the previous novel appearing in more prominence in this latest novel.

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Warsaw Orphan a few weeks ago and thought it sounded like an intriguing novel, especially as it was from a new-to-me Australian author.  Based on the synopsis for the book, I knew going in that this would be a dark and emotionally rich novel, but I was very surprised with how compelling and poignant the narrative it contained would be.  Using the perspectives of the two narrators, Roman and Emilia, Rimmer paints a grim and powerful picture of the situation in Warsaw which the two protagonists find themselves in at the start of the book.  Both story arcs progress on their own separate way for a while, and it is intriguing to see the different experiences of two people living only a few streets away from each other in Warsaw.  It does not take long for the protagonists to encounter each other, combining the narrative together.  While the initial joining of their character arcs brings some hope to the story, Rimmer makes sure to quickly crush that with despair and heartbreak as both protagonists experiences tragedy after tragedy, as a series of different historical catastrophes engulf Warsaw and its people.  Every time the two central characters appear to be close to some sort of happiness, some new danger or disaster seems to befall them, and the reader is forced to sit back and watch as they endure their latest hardship.  While this novel is emotionally tough to read at times, Rimmer’s excellent storytelling ensures that you keep moving forward, especially as you become really invested in the lives of her two protagonists and the struggles of the various peoples of Warsaw.  While you may be left emotionally ragged and drained by the end of this book, readers will come away from this story extremely satisfied and with a little bit of hope.

I must really highlight the author’s outstanding and powerful depiction of historical events and places throughout The Warsaw Orphan.  Rimmer has clearly done her research on the subject and utilises a lot of fascinating and horrifying historical elements to great effect throughout the narrative.  For example, much of the story surrounding Emilia and the organisation she joins that helped to smuggle Jewish children out of the Ghetto is based on real life Polish hero Irena Sendler, with various features of Sendler’s work and personality imparted on some supporting characters.  The portrayal of occupied Warsaw is also extremely impressive, and you get a real sense of life in the city.  This is especially true of the Ghetto, as the author spends a significant amount of time exploring what happened within.  Rimmer pulls no punches when it comes to the horrors of the Ghetto and the brutalities the Nazi regime imparted on the Jewish population.  The various descriptions of the Ghetto are extremely harrowing, but through them the reader gets a sense of what the people within would have experienced.  I particularly appreciated the way in which she tried to capture the uncertainty that many of the characters, both Jewish and non-Jewish, had about the Nazis’ plans and you get a real sense of the fear and confusion in the lead up to the deportations.  Rimmer ends up covering all the key events that occurred in Warsaw between 1942 and 1947, and readers get some powerful and detailed views of the forced deportations to the camps, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Warsaw Uprising, the German retreat and the subsequent Soviet occupation.  The author shows every dark aspect of these historical events as her point-of-view characters find themselves involved in them, often to their great detriment.  All these powerful and remarkable historical events and locations serve as a great backdrop to this dramatic tale, and I found it fascinating to learn more about some of these events.

Rimmer has come up with an incredible pair of young point-of-view characters for this book, Roman and Emilia.  Roman is a Jewish teen living in the Warsaw Ghetto with his family.  Through his eyes you get to see many of the horrors of the Ghetto, starvation, Nazi oppression and the constant fear and death.  Rimmer does an impressive job of capturing the inner thoughts and feelings of someone caught up in these terrible events, and I really appreciated the strong sense of survival and desperation you get from him.  This quickly morphs in anger, righteousness and revenge when Roman experiences one tragedy too many, and he becomes in a number of dangerous fights against his oppressors.  Not only does this result in a number of brutal war sequences, but Rimmer paints a picture of a rebellious soul whose anger and moral outrage overwhelm his senses and force him to do darker and more dangerous deeds.  This depiction of anger and rage is quite powerful, and definitely fits an individual who loses everything and does not know what to do.

Emilia, on the other hand, is a somewhat more innocent figure, who, despite not being Jewish, has her own experiences with oppression after witnessing her brother dying in The Things We Cannot Say.  Due to the events of this previous book, she has fled to Warsaw with her adoptive parents, hiding under an assumed name.  Despite the troubles she is running from, Emilia chafes under the rules her guardians put in place, especially once she learns what is happening in the Ghetto.  Despite her fear, uncertainty and loyalty to her guardians’ wishes, Emilia soon becomes involved in the smuggling of children.  I really liked how Rimmer decided to utilise her previous character in this novel, and the author does a great job of revisiting parts of her story so that new readers can appreciate what has happened in her past.  Emilia proves to be a really interesting character throughout the book, and I loved the contrast in views between her views of Warsaw and Roman’s darker experiences.  Watching a non-Jewish citizen experience the horrors of the Ghetto for the first time is pretty moving, and the reader feels a certain kinship to her as they are also witnesses to the various tragedies.  I loved the storyline surrounding Emilia joining the movement to save Jewish children, and the author utilises her to tell this group’s very unique tale extremely well. 

Both Roman and Emilia have some fantastic storylines in The Warsaw Orphan, and I really liked the way their two separate character arcs come together.  These two characters experience an immense amount of grief, regret, violence and despair throughout the book, and their connection is one of the few things to keep them going.  Rimmer sets up both characters extremely well throughout The Warsaw Orphan and readers will quickly become obsessed with their unique tales and harrowing experiences.  I think both character storylines worked extremely well on their own, but together they tell an even more tragic story, as these two fall in love amongst the worst moments of human history.  Seeing the various tragedies and poor decisions that impact their relationship is pretty heartbreaking, and the reader is left in hope that they both survive in the end.  I think that Rimmer did an exceptional job creating and developing these two characters, and it is a mark of her writing ability that I ended up caring so much for them both. 

The Warsaw Orphan by Australian author Kelly Rimmer is an exceptional and incredible historical drama that comes highly recommended.  Rimmer has produced a first-rate story that perfectly utilises two tragic protagonists, an extremely dark and atrocious historical period and an addictive, if tragic, story of love, loss and survival.  The Warsaw Orphan is a powerful and compelling book that will stick in your mind long after you finish its final harrowing page.

Quick Review – The Imitator by Rebecca Starford

The Imitator Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 2 February 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5

Deception, divided loyalties and despair are all on offer in the debut novel of Australian writer Rebecca Starford, who presents a curious and captivating read with The Imitator.

Synopsis:

‘We trade in secrets here, Evelyn. There’s no shame in having a few of your own. Our only concern is for who might discover them.’

Out of place at boarding school, scholarship girl Evelyn Varley realises that the only way for her to fit in is to be like everyone else. She hides her true self and what she really thinks behind the manners and attitudes of those around her. By the time she graduates from Oxford University in 1939, ambitious and brilliant Evelyn has perfected her performance.

War is looming. Evelyn soon finds herself recruited to MI5, and the elite counterintelligence department of Bennett White, the enigmatic spy-runner. Recognising Evelyn’s mercurial potential, White schools her in observation and subterfuge and assigns her the dangerous task of infiltrating an underground group of Nazi sympathisers working to form an alliance with Germany.

But befriending people to betray them isn’t easy, no matter how dark their intent. Evelyn is drawn deeper into a duplicity of her own making, where truth and lies intertwine, and her increasing distrust of everyone, including herself, begins to test her better judgement. When a close friend becomes dangerously ensnared in her mission, Evelyn’s loyalty is pushed to breaking point, forcing her to make an impossible decision.

A powerfully insightful and luminous portrait of courage and loyalty, and the sacrifices made in their name.

This ended up being a fantastic and enjoyable read from Rebecca Starford, who has come up with a really intriguing and unique story.  Starford is an Australian writer who is probably best known for her work on the Kill Your Darlings magazine, as well as her non-fiction book Bad Behaviour, which chronicled the author’s life at an elite country boarding school.  The Imitator, which was also released under the title, An Unlikely Spy, is an impressive and captivating historical drama that follows a young woman who becomes involved with British espionage at the start of World War II. 

The Imitator has an interesting and surprising story to it which is guaranteed to grab the reader’s attention all the way up to its final shocking twist.  Told from the perspective of protagonist, Evelyn Varley, the story is split into two distinct periods, with some of plot set shortly after the end of World War II, while the rest follows the protagonist during the early days of the war.  Most of the narrative is set during the earlier time and examines the protagonist during this period, including her recruitment into MI5 and her eventual work investigating Nazi sympathisers.  This proves to be quite a fascinating narrative thread, and I really enjoyed the great blend of historical espionage and the compelling drama surrounding the character and her personal relationships.  I was particularly intrigued by the parts of the book that explored Evelyn’s attempts to infiltrate a major group of Nazi sympathisers, especially as she is forced to alter her personality to fit into the tight-knit group of fascists.  Starford also includes several chapters set after the war which show Evelyn dealing with the aftermath and her actions during the conflict.  These post-war sequences compliment the rest of the story extremely well, and hint at tragic consequences to what she did after she is contacted by people from her past.  However, readers are in for quite a shock, as these later sequences are shown to be a major bait and switch.  Instead of the conclusion that you would generally expect in one of these stories, Starford puts in a particularly major and dramatic twist which really changes the entire tone of the narrative.  This twist was a brilliant master stroke from the author, especially as it switches around the implications for the post-war chapters and shines a whole new light on everything.  I was really impressed with this amazing narrative, especially once you realise how the author set up the clever ending, and this was truly an awesome and memorable story.

One of the things that I really liked about The Imitator was the fantastic historical setting of London during the early period of World War II.  Starford did a great job of highlighting what life during this period would have been like, from the early actions of organisations such as MI5, to the feelings of the populace, most of whom were convinced that the war would be fought far away or would not happen at all.  I was also really impressed by the author’s examination and dramatization of several intriguing real-life historical events that occurred during this period.  The character of Evelyn Varley is based upon the real life of MI5 operative Joan Miller, who infiltrated a major Nazi sympathiser movement, known as the Right Club, in London back in 1939.  Many details about the Right Club are fitted into the book and used as the basis for the Nazi group the protagonist infiltrates.  While there are several name changes, the fictional group closely matches what actually happened with the Right Club and MI5’s mission to infiltrate it.  I felt that Staford did an amazing job exploring this group and the mission of Joan Miller, and it proved to be an exceptional and clever base to this awesome story.

I also must compliment the compelling and intriguing protagonist of this novel, Evelyn, who serves as the main point-of-view character for the story.  Evelyn is a complex individual with a number of features formed during her harsh early life at a prestigious private boarding school.  Thanks to her less affluent parents, Evelyn does not really fit in with the richer students and is soon forced to adopt a much different persona, which is helped by the relationship she forms with the family of her one friend at the school.  This ability to change her persona becomes particularly important later in life when she begins her career in espionage and must show a false side to herself to people she is trying to take down.  Starford has written a fantastically complex character here in Evelyn, and I really appreciated the way in which the author examines what events or personality traits a successful undercover spy might need to have.  I also liked the way in which we get to see the character at different parts of her life as the book progresses, such as her innocent pre-war life, her experiences as a seasoned infiltrator and her reflections as a damaged survivor.  These various periods of her life and the different personalities are very dramatic and intriguing, and I found it fascinating to see how the author envisioned her changing personality.  Starford also writes in an extremely good storyline around the protagonist’s twisted loyalties, which forces her to choose between the safety of her country and the people closest to her.  These conflicting loyalties and friendships take Eveyln in some dark places and I really must applaud the clever and powerful narrative that Starford constructed around this great character.

Overall, The Imitator by Rebecca Starford is an exceptional and captivating read that comes highly recommended.  I really enjoyed this fantastic book’s clever blend of historical fiction, espionage and dramatic storylines, and I had a wonderful time getting through all of The Imitator’s compelling twists and revelations.  An outstanding read that is guaranteed to stick in the mind long after you have finished reading it.

The Kaiser’s Web by Steve Berry

The Kaiser's Web Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton/Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 23 February 2021)

Series: Cotton Malone – Book 16

Length: 14 hours and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The always impressive Steve Berry returns with another amazing great historical conspiracy thriller, The Kaiser’s Web, which sees his long running protagonist Cotton Malone investigate secrets left over from World War II.

Germany is in the midst of a ferocious electoral battle as two very different candidates vie to become chancellor.  One is the incumbent chancellor, a long-term public servant who believes in the goodness of her fellow Germans, while her opponent is a far-right populist, stoking the flames of nationalistic hatred and resentment to gain his power.  Both have their own vision for the future, but the key to this election may lie in the past, specifically, to what really happened on 30 April 1945, the day that Hitler and Eva Braun supposedly died in their bunker underneath Berlin. 

When a series of mysterious documents hinting at secrets from her opponent’s past are delivered to the German chancellor, she turns to her long-time friend, former United States President Danny Daniels for help.  Determined to keep Germany from going to the far-right, Daniels calls on the services of former American intelligent agent, Cotton Malone, and his girlfriend, the resourceful Cassiopeia Vitt.  Together, Malone and Vitt follow the trail left in the documents to Chile, where they uncover a dangerous web of deceit and hidden Nazi money, seemingly created by Hitler’s closest confidant and personal secretary, Martin Bormann.

When evidence suggests that Bormann, who everyone believes died in the last days of the war, may have actually survived and fled to South America with billions in stolen wealth, Malone and Vitt are shocked.  However, they soon discover that not everything is as it seems, and that someone has woven a dangerous trap around them, one that could tip the election in the far-right’s favour.  In order to save Germany from itself, Malone and Vitt must unravel the entire truth behind the conspiracy known as the Kaiser’s Web before it is too late.  But what impact can secrets from over 70 years ago have on present day Germany, and how far are people willing to go to protect them?  The truth about Hitler, Braun and Bormann will shock the world, and not even the legendary Cotton Malone will be prepared for the consequences.

Berry has been writing exciting and clever thrillers for nearly 20 years, ever since his 2003 debut, The Amber Room.  While he has written several standalone novels, Berry is best known for his Cotton Malone books, which started in 2006 with The Templar Legacy, and The Kaiser’s Web is the 16th entry.  I only started getting into the Cotton Malone series a few years ago when, on a whim, I decided to try the 14th book in the series, The Malta Exchange.  I ended up really enjoying the amazing story contained within The Malta Exchange, which combined together historical tales of Malta, the Knights Hospitaller and the Vatican, to create an impressive and addictive read.  I was also lucky enough to receive a copy of the 15th book in the series, The Warsaw Protocol, last year, which turned out to be another awesome read that dived deep into the heart of Poland’s history and politics.  Both books were really intriguing reads and I am now quite determined to check out any and all new Cotton Malone novels that come out.  I was particularly interested when I saw the synopsis for The Kaiser’s Web last year and I have been looking forward to reading it ever since.  I am extremely glad that I did, as Berry has once again produced a fantastic and captivating thriller that not only weaves a unique fictional historical conspiracy into an excellent and highly enjoyable story, but which also allows new readers to dive in and readily enjoy. 

For his latest novel, Berry has come up with another cool and impressive story that combines an investigation into historical secrets with an intense and dramatic thriller.  Told from the perspective of all the various players in the book, The Kaiser’s Web’s narrative starts off quickly when a mystery with world-altering implications is presented to the protagonists, forcing them to explore the final days of the Nazi regime and travel all over the world to find the answers.  While it initially seems like the protagonists are caught up in an elaborate and dangerous trap, the narrative quickly takes a turn when a third party intervenes, disrupting the entire plot and leaving everything, including the protagonist’s success or failure, up to chance.  There are so many amazing elements to this story and I loved the way that the author works his altered historical details into a high takes, thrilling narrative, with the secrets of the past very much having an impact of key events from the future.  Like several of Berry’s previous novels, The Kaiser’s Web has a lot less action in it than most thrillers do; instead most of the narrative is filled with talking, historical flashbacks and character building, which I personally really liked and which give this book a much more distinctive feel than some other examples of this genre.  That being said, there are several great, fast-paced action scenes in this book, which, when combined with the clever historical elements and investigation, resulting a thrilling and powerful novel.  I also liked how The Kaiser’s Web has much more a political thriller vibe to it than some of the previous Cotton Malone novels I have enjoyed, with the result of the protagonist’s investigation having severe impacts on the fate of Germany’s election, and indeed Berry works several different stages of the opponent’s campaign into the overarching story, showing how close the election is.  All of this comes together into one big and captivating conclusion, and while I was able to predict a couple of the big twists, including a particularly major reveal, Berry still surprised me in places, and I had an outstanding time getting through this awesome story.

To really flesh out The Kaiser’s Web’s narrative, Berry dives deep into the heart and soul of the country of Germany and its people to set up the story’s central conspiracy and explain its significance.  This includes a really intriguing examination of Germany’s history, both during the war and in the post-war period, and readers get a comprehensive understanding about what happened in Hitler’s bunker, and how history has recorded or, in many cases, failed to properly record these events.  Berry also features a really in-depth examination of some key Nazi figures, including Martin Bormann and Eva Braun, showcasing their psyches and personalities, as well as exploring their role in the war, the major policies that Bormann enacted and their significance to people like Hitler.  There is also an intriguing exploration around their recorded deaths, and the historical inaccuracies about them become a key part of the plot.  There is also a compelling look at what happened to former Nazis post World War II, both in Germany and outside of it.  In particular, the story traces the routes and hideouts that several former Nazis had in South American countries, and it was fascinating to see some of the real-life examples of fleeing Nazis that are repurposed for this narrative.  All of these historical aspects are very interesting, and I love the unique and clever story that Berry was able to create using them.

In addition to Germany’s wartime history, Berry also examines the current political and social climate of Germany, which becomes a significant part of the book’s plot.  Berry really attempts to explore a lot of the current attitudes that the modern German people have, especially as certain resentments, forced political concessions and other factors have seen a re-emergence of the far-right in Germany (and other European countries), and the election featured within the book becomes a real battle for the soul of the country.  The author has obviously spent a lot of time researching current German moods and political preferences, and this proves to be a powerful and compelling heart to the novel, especially as he really does not have to exaggerate some of the problems that new hard-right organisations in Germany are causing.  Berry does a fantastic job not only exploring the roots of a lot of these problems, many of which date back all the way to the war, but also working it into his clever thriller story, resulting in an amazingly powerful narrative that, thanks to these real-world issues, really drags you in.

One of the things that I always like about the Cotton Malone novels are the awesome depictions of the different countries and landscapes that form the backdrop for the impressive narrative.  It is obvious that the author has a real passion for travel and new landscapes, and this really flows through into his writing as Berry spends a lot of time describing all the key features and locations his characters see, both man-made and natural, in exquisite detail.  These depictions are so detailed and compelling that the reader can often believe they are standing next to the characters enjoying the view.  The Kaiser’s Web is no exception to this as the author once again details several amazing places that form the backdrop to the complex story.  As a result, the reader gets to experience some really cool locations, including several provinces of Germany, parts of Chile, brief looks at countries like Switzerland, Belarus and Austria, and an expanded exploration of the Free State in South Africa.  In each of these locations, Berry provides the reader with fantastic details about the landscape, the people, local industries and politics, as well as some fun snippets of history, most of which relate to the post-war period.  This becomes an extremely fascinating part of the book, especially as Berry’s enthusiasm for different horizons is quite infectious, and I had a great time exploring these new locations.  I cannot wait to see where the next Cotton Malone novel is set, as the author is bound to feature some new and intriguing places.

I have to say that I also really enjoyed some of the new characters featured within The Kaiser’s Web.  This was a pretty good book for characters, as Berry continues to not only showcase his long-running protagonist Cotton Malone but also reintroduces two characters who were somewhat underutilised in the previous book.  Cotton, who is something of a nexus for historical conspiracies, has another great adventure in this novel, and I loved seeing this ageing former agent turned rare book dealer get into all manner of trouble as he attempts to find the truth.  Despite being the nominal main character of this novel, I did think that Cotton was slightly pushed into the background of the story, mainly because several of the other characters were very heavily featured.  Part of this is because Cotton spends the entire novel teaming up with his love interest Cassiopeia Vitt.  Due to the fact that I have only read a couple of Cotton Malone novels, this was the first time I have seen the character of Cassiopeia in action, and I quite enjoyed her as a character.  Cassiopeia, who is also the focus of several Berry’s short stories and novellas, is another great character to follow and it was interesting to see her counterpoint to Cotton’s perspectives.  Cotton and Cassiopeia form a fantastic team in this book and I enjoyed seeing them work together and support each other in various ways.  Aside from Cotton and Cassiopeia, it was also great to see more of former US President Danny Daniels, who becomes a key part of the story.  I loved the idea of a popular former President running important international espionage missions after his retirement (could you imagine Obama doing something like that? That sounds pretty awesome), and he serves as a great supporting character getting Cotton and Cassiopeia involved in the story.

While the returning characters are good, my favourite point-of-view characters had to be Marie Eisenhuth, the current German chancellor who finds herself caught in the middle of dangerous events, and her main opponent in the upcoming election, Theodor Pohl, the book’s primary antagonist.  These two characters represent the very different ends of the German political spectrum, with Eisenhuth a pro-immigration and anti-Nazi politician, while Pohl is a far-right figure who is attempting to utilise the conservative populations to introduce damaging nationalistic policies.  Both Eisenhuth and Pohl get a substantial amount of focus in this book and it proved extremely fascinating to see them throughout the novel, especially as their electoral campaign plays out like a battle for the soul of Germany.  It was also great to see Pohl’s perspectives, especially when he is manipulating people or reacting to the actions of Cotton and his friends and is forced to put more deadly plans into play.  While The Kaiser’s Web initially focuses on their political differences, the novel soon examines various parts of both characters’ lives, pasts and families, which proves to be deeply compelling and interesting.  I love the cool reveals behind these characters, and their storylines reveal a very intriguing case of nature versus nature.  I think both characters had exceptional story arcs throughout this book and their storylines ended up being an outstanding part of The Kaiser’s Web.

I ended up listening to The Kaiser’s Web on audiobook, mainly because I have found that Berry’s awesome historically based conspiracies translate across to the audiobook format extremely well and I end up following all the cool detail and inclusions a lot more.  With a run time of 14 hours and 32 minutes, this is a fairly decent sized audiobook, but listeners should generally be able to power through it rather easily, especially once the cool conspiracy really hits its height.  I also really enjoyed the awesome narration of Scott Brick, who does an exceptional job with this latest Cotton Malone book.  Brick is a well-established narrator who has contributed his voice to an amazing number of audiobooks, including all the previous entries in the Cotton Malone series, as well as the fantastic Orphan X series (for example, he did a great job narrating Into the Fire and Prodigal Son).  I particularly enjoyed Brick’s amazing voice work in The Kaiser’s Web, mainly because he got an opportunity to show off the wide range of accents he could do.  Not only does he pull off a range of German accents for the various German characters, but he also does some amazing South American accents and some extremely authentic South African accents.  The South African accent, which is a really hard one to pull off (so many narrators and voice actors try and fail to do it properly, often coming off as Australian), was really good in this book, and I am really impressed by Brick’s skill.  At the same time, Brick’s general narration voice fit the intense tone of The Kaiser’s Web extremely well, and I thought that he moved this dense and complex story along at a decent pace, ensuring that the listener’s attention was constantly drawn in.  As a result, I had an exceptional time listening to this audiobook and this is easily my preferred format to enjoy Berry’s Cotton Malone novels with.

The Kaiser’s Web is another outstanding novel from Steve Berry, who has once again produced a captivating and clever historical conspiracy thriller.  Featuring a unique tale, intriguing dives into several countries and some fantastic characters, The Kaiser’s Web is a must-read for thriller fans and comes highly recommended.  I personally loved untangling all the threads in this cool thriller and I cannot wait to see what Berry comes up with next.