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.

V2 by Robert Harris

V2 Cover

Publisher: Hutchinson (Ebook – 15 September 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 312 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

One of the most talented historical fiction authors in the game, Robert Harris, dives deep into the history of the infamous Nazi V2 rocket program in his latest novel, V2.

Harris is an impressive and well-regarded novelist who has been writing fiction for nearly 30 years.  A former journalist, Harris’s initial books were a series of non-fiction novels in the 1980’s on various subjects, including a book that is considered to be the definitive account of the investigation into The Hitler Diaries scandal which later inspired a drama-documentary miniseries.  His first fiction novel was the 1992 release, Fatherland, an alternate history novel that depicted Germany wining World War II.  He has since gone on to write a number of other fascinating novels, most of which have a historical edge to them, including Pompeii, The Ghost (later adapted into the film The Ghost Writer), The Fear Index and Munich.  Harris is one of those authors I have been meaning to read more of, but so far I have only checked out his 2013 release, An Officer and a Spy, which featured a fascinating account of the Alfred Dreyfus affair in 19th century France, and which was an outstanding piece of historical fiction.  I also currently have his 2019 release, The Second Sleep, on my bookshelf and it was one of the novels I most regret not reading last year.  As a result, I was rather interested when I got a copy of V2, which sounded like quite a fun and intriguing historical read.

In November 1944, while the Allies advance on Berlin, the Nazis are desperate to avoid defeat at all cost.  Placing his hopes in new technology, Hitler funnels vast resources into his V2 rocket program, the most sophisticated weapon on the planet.  The V2s are powerful ballistic missiles capable of delivering an explosive warhead deep into enemy territory at immense speeds.  Hitler has ordered the production of 10,000 rockets and from an isolated forest in occupied Holland, the Germans launch them towards London, causing immense damage.

Rudi Graf is a German scientist who has long dreamt of sending rockets to the moon, and who now regrets his role in the creation of the V2.  Stationed at the V2 launch site, Graf desperately tries to hang onto his humanity as he watches his dream cause only destruction and death.  At the same time, in London, Kay Caton-Wash, an officer in the WAAF, is experiencing the full horror of the V2 rockets as she barely survives one of their strikes.  Over the course of five days, these two strangers are about to be connected by their circumstances.  As Graf is forced to launch even more of his rockets at London, Kay becomes involved with a secret mission to locate and destroy the V2 launch sites in Holland.  Travelling to Belgium, armed with only a slide rule and some equations, Kay works to end the V2 menace once and for all.  However, danger and duplicity are around every corner, and both Graf and Kay soon begin to realise that they cannot trust anyone.  As both rush towards their destinies, their actions will have unintended consequences on the over, changing the course of history forever.

V2 was a clever and compelling novel from Harris, who did a wonderful job wrapping an intriguing, character-driven story around one of the most remarkable military programs of World War II.  Like the majority of Harris’s novels, V2 is a standalone book that can be easily enjoyed by anyone in the mood for informative historical tale or war story that shows the horrors of war and the terrible ways that a person’s dreams can be twisted for evil purposes.

Harris has come up with a captivating narrative for this book.  The focus of V2 is split between two fictional point-of-view characters, Kay and Graf, and follows their respective experiences over a period of five days, with several flashback scenes thrown in for context.  This proved to be a rather intriguing read, and I liked how the author tied a mostly fictional story around some fascinating historical events, such as the creation and implementation of the V2 rockets.  Both of the two separate storylines are quite intriguing and both go in some exciting directions, including Kay getting involved in a secret military operation while Graf tries to keep his sanity as he navigates the politics, treachery and sadism of his Nazi controllers.  However, the real appeal of this narrative is the way in which the two separate story arcs intersect throughout the novel.  For example, the novel starts with Graff witnessing and assisting the launch of a V2 rocket, which then lands and changes Kay’s life.  As the story proceeds, the various actions and reactions of these two point-of-view characters impacts the events occurring around the other character, resulting in danger and tragedy in equal measures.  While I really liked the fascinating individual narratives and the cool way in which the storylines overlapped, I did think that the main story ended rather suddenly and lacked a substantial or satisfying conclusion.  This narrative desperately needed some big, exciting hook at the end to really tie everything together, even if it was historically inaccurate.  Still, V2’s story was really good and easy to get into, and I had a fantastic time reading it.

In order to tell this fascinating tale, Harris utilises two great fictional characters, Kay and Graf, through whose eyes we see the events unfold.  Both of these characters are rather interesting and I quite enjoyed both their individual character arcs.  However, of the two, I definitely found Graf to be the more compelling character.  This is because Graf is a particularly tortured individual, a brilliant scientist who is forced to work for the Nazis to bomb England.  There are some excellent scenes throughout this book that show Graf agonising over his actions working for the Nazis, who have perverted his childhood dream of creating spacefaring rockets into weapons of mass destruction.  Harris also spends much more time exploring Graf’s past, investing in a series of flashbacks that show how Graf became obsessed with rocketry, how he became involved with the V2 project and some of the tragedies that working with the Nazis have brought.  Add in a very captivating storyline that shows Graf starting to rebel against the actions of his Nazi handlers and attempting to find a small measure of redemption out in the wilds of Holland and you have a very impressive and enjoyable character arc that does rather outshine the storyline Harris sets up for Kay.  That being said, Kay is still an interesting focus character in V2, and I did enjoy her arc of trying to find and destroy the V2 launch sites by travelling to Belgium with several other members of the WAAF to work out the trajectories of the rocket flights.  It was also really cool to see this portrayal of a WAAF, a female air force officer, throughout the book, especially one deployed outside of England, and I found it interesting to examine the varied roles that they played throughout the war.  Overall, these two characters do an outstanding job telling this story, and I had a great time seeing how their individual arcs unfolded.

The real highlight of this novel has to be the author’s incredible and captivating portrayal of the infamous V2 rocket program.  Harris has clearly done his research on the subject as he does an amazing job examining all the key aspects of the program and bringing them to life.  This includes a detailed examination of the history of the project, the technical aspects of the rockets and various examinations of how they fly and what they can do.  Harris makes good use of the various flashback sequences in Graf’s chapters to examine the full fascinating history of the project, including the origins of the rockets, identifying who the key architects of the project were and how the project came to the attention of the Nazis.  This includes some compelling depictions of several major historical figures associated with the V2s, such as the project’s leader and main creative driver, Wernher von Braun, as well as several key Nazi characters who had a hand in the project in some way or another.  The author also provides the reader with an unfiltered depiction of the devastating effect that these rockets had on the inhabitants of London when they hit and he actually features several real, historical rocket strikes that occurred during the timeline of the novel, including the most devastating attack that hit London.  The depictions of the horror and the carnage that the rockets caused were really striking, especially as Harris tries to capture the psychological impact that these unstoppable and ultra-fast rockets had on the populace.  I really loved learning more about the V2 rockets and it was easily the most fascinating and captivating part of the entire book.  I especially appreciated the way in which Harris used his dual character perspectives to examine the project from the point of view of the Germans and the Allies, and it was great to see the clash of understandings and opinions about the rockets.  It was also really fascinating to learn more about the Allies’ covert attempts to identify and demolish the V2 launch sites, and this was a great addition to the novel.  All of these historical aspects are immensely enjoyable and fascinating and they add a heck of a lot to the story.

V2 by Robert Harris is a particularly clever and intriguing World War II novel that presents the reader with a fascinating and memorable examination of the infamous V2 rocket program.  Featuring a compelling story, fantastic characters and an outstanding historical focus, V2 was an awesome and captivating read that is really worth checking out.

Nemesis by Rory Clements

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Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback Format – Australia – 3 March 2019)

Series: Tom Wilde – Book 3

Length: 317 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Historical thriller and murder mystery author Rory Clements returns with the third book in his electrifying and clever Tom Wilde series, Nemesis.

August 1939.  War is on the horizon, and while most of the world is preparing for the next great conflict, Cambridge Professor Tom Wilde is enjoying a holiday in France with his partner, Lydia.  That is, until a mysterious man alerts him to the fact that one of his former students, an idealistic young man by the name Marcus Marfield, is currently being held in an internment camp on the France-Spain border after his involvement in the Spanish Civil War.  When Wilde finds Marfield at the camp he moves quickly to secure his release, and they flee the country just as the Germans begin their invasion of Poland.

Back in England, the country moves to a war footing, as the Allies attempt to persuade America to join them against the Nazis.  While many Americans oppose joining the war, the sinking of the passenger ship the SS Athenia may be the spark that brings them into the war.  With the Nazis attempting to convince the world that Churchill orchestrated the sinking of the Athenia to galvanise American support against Germany, Wilde and his companions return to Cambridge.

Once back in the city, Wilde begins to notice a change come over Marfield.  At first attributing it to his shell shock following his battles in Spain, a series of mysterious deaths around Cambridge all seem to link to the recently returned Marfield.  These events are tied to a deadly conspiracy to keep America out of the war for good.  A spy ring is active in Cambridge, and Wilde must find a way to uncover it before it is too late.  Can Wilde once again avert disaster, and what role does Marfield play in this conspiracy?

After the excellent first two books in his Tom Wilde series, Corpus and Nucleus, Clements continues the adventure of his series’ titular character, Tom Wilde, as he investigates a series of Nazi espionage activities around Cambridge in the lead-up to World War II.  I have quite enjoyed this series in the past and was looking forward to continuing the story in Nemesis.  The latest book is a thrilling story that takes place just at the outset of the war and utilises the several historical events and figures to turn this into quite an intriguing tale.

Nemesis is a really good historical thriller which combines a great spy story with the historical context of early World War II.  The previous books in the Tom Wilde series have all contained compelling and complex mysteries with huge implications for England and the allies, and Nemesis is no different.  Clements has crafted together an excellent mystery that has massive, worldwide implications, and I really enjoyed unravelling the mystery, especially as the author presents all sorts of doublecrosses, twists, cover-ups and mysterious deaths to confuse the reader away from the main goal of the antagonists.  The antagonists’ master plan is quite out there, and it is one of those plots that would have had massive historical implications.  I quite like the role that new character Marcus Marfield played in this plot, as the protagonists and the reader are constantly trying to work out what his secrets are and what kind of person he truly is.  Overall, I found the thriller and mystery elements of this book to be quite clever and captivating, and readers will enjoy uncovering the full extent of the antagonist’s overall plot.

One of the most interesting parts of the Tom Wilde series so far was its setting during the chaotic pre-World War II period.  In Nemesis, Clements sets his story right at the start of the war and immediately shows all the panic and preparation that followed this declaration of war.  Clements did a fantastic job portraying the low-key sense of dread and paranoia that the inhabitants of England would have felt in the build-up to the war in the previous books in the series, and in Nemesis these feelings are realistically amplified now that the war has begun.  The author has quite a good grasp on a number of historical events and feelings during this period, and I quite liked seeing the Cambridge viewpoint of the war.  The Cambridge setting has always been a fantastic highlight of this series, but it was quite intriguing to see the author incorporate all the various changes to the city that occurred as a result of the war into his novel.  Clements dives deep into the Cambridge lifestyle when it comes to the war, whether it involves the removal of the rare books from the colleges, the preservation of the stained glass windows, the roles that the professors were being assigned in the war effort or even the many Communist professors throwing away their party membership cards when it became clear that the Soviets were supporting the Nazis.

Clements also ties his story in quite closely with one of the more interesting early events of World War II: the sinking of the passenger liner the SS Athenia as it sailed across the Atlantic.  I was deeply fascinated not only with the depictions of this event, but the discussions and conspiracy theories that resulted from it.  This was especially true when it came to the examination about the sinking of the ship being used to bring the United States into the war.  The likelihood of America joining in the war became a major part of the story, and it was interesting to see what the European characters thought about America’s reluctance to enter the war, especially as one of the protagonists is an American character, and one of the chief architects of America’s isolationist policy, Joe Kennedy, was the United States Ambassador to England at the time.  I thought that the historical elements that Clements explored were a real highlight of this book, and readers will enjoy his literary examination of these events.

While the main focus of the book’s story is a conspiracy and the start of the war, Clements does take his time to continue to develop a number of the characters introduced in the previous books.  For example, Wilde continues to deepen his relationship with his romantic partner, Lydia, and I quite liked the role that Lydia played in investigating the case alongside Wilde.  There is also a significant focus on Wilde’s American friend Jim Vanderberg and his family, especially as Vanderberg’s family are passengers aboard the Athenia.  Phillip Eaton, the British spy who was hit by a car in the last book of the series makes a return in Nemesis, and the reader gets to see his struggles to recover from his horrific injuries while still working as an intelligence officer.  A number of intriguing new characters are introduced in this book and it will be interesting to see what role they and the existing characters will play in any future entries in this series.

In the latest book of his enjoyable Tom Wilde series, Nemesis, Rory Clements once again delivers a captivating historical thriller that brings the reader into the early days of World War II.  Featuring an incredible overarching mystery and some detailed examinations of intriguing historical events and settings, Nemesis is a deeply interesting book that is well worth checking out.  I am very curious to see where Clements takes the series next, and I look forward to seeing what impact Thomas Wilde will have on the rest of World War II.

The Honourable Thief by Meaghan Wilson Anastasios

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Publisher: Macmillan Australia

Publication date – 31 July 2018

 

In her first solo novel, Australian Meaghan Anastasios has produced a deeply compelling historical drama that combines a thriller storyline with an archaeological investigation into one fun and invigorating narrative.

In 1955, world-renowned archaeologist and war hero Benedict Hitchens has been living a life of academic exile in Istanbul.  His promising archaeological career and professional reputation were destroyed after a chance encounter with the mysterious Eris, who held a horde of ancient treasures that validated the legends of the Iliad.  When Eris and her treasures suddenly disappear, Ben’s attempts to find her result in suspicion from the authorities and disbelief from the world at large.  His only tangible proof of the encounter is a small tablet that hints at the existence of Achilles, Ben’s archaeological obsession.

Now, Ben embarks on an ambitious plan to flush out the people responsible for Eris’s disappearance, hoping to bring her to justice and salvage his life and reputation.  The clues that he uncovers take him on a quest to find the tomb of Achilles, travelling through Greece, London and Turkey in order to locate one of the world’s greatest treasures.  However, a shadowy group is manipulating Ben at every turn.  Can Ben find the Achilles’s tomb before the ghosts of his past catch up with him?

Despite this being her first solo book, Anastasios is already a successful author, having previously teamed up with her husband to produce the historical drama The Water Diviner, which was adapted into a movie starring Russell Crowe.  While this book does not appear to be connected to Anastiasios’s previous work, both stories are primarily set in Turkey and focus on key events in the country’s history.  The Honourable Thief does contain a fun little callback to her other novel when its main character is at one point nicknamed ‘the Water Diviner’ due to his uncanny ability to find archaeological material.

The overall story that Anastasios presents with The Honourable Thief is a fantastic narrative that combines mystery and suspense aspects, great historical fiction elements, exploration of Greece and Turkey, and a whole lot of archaeology.  There is a great focus on the impact of World War II on Greece, especially Crete, as well as a detailed examination of Turkish history and culture.  Having the protagonist work on uncovering both an archaeological investigation and a conspiracy around missing artefacts is an interesting combination that creates a very interesting story.  The ties to the stories of the Iliad as the protagonist examines the possibility of finding the tomb of Achilles are fascinating and will appeal to fans of the classics.

The author has split The Honourable Thief into two parts and three separate timelines.  Part I of the book only briefly touches on the storyline set in 1955, and instead focuses on the events in the protagonist’s life that led up to the latest timeline.  One of these storylines looks at Ben’s early life during the 1930s and 1940s, including his experiences during World War II.  The second storyline is set in the early 1950s and focuses on the events that led up to Ben losing his reputation and the beginnings of his self-destructive life in Istanbul.  Part II of the book mostly contains the 1955 storyline, and follows Ben’s quest to clear his name.

This split into three distinct storylines is a great way to highlight The Honourable Thief’s intricate narrative, and it was interesting to focus on the earlier timelines in the first half of the book.  This also allows the main plot to continue almost uninterrupted in the second half of the book, ensuring that the reader can completely focus on the intense and electrifying adventure set around the protagonist’s hunt for answers.  This formatting decision was a great change of pace from other novels that slowly reveal their protagonist’s past through the course of the entire story.

While the vast majority of The Honourable Thief is told from the protagonist’s point of view, some very short chapters that buck this trend have been added into Part II of the book.  These smaller entries are inserted before the longer chapters that focus on the protagonist and contain brief, shadowy conversations between the story’s villains.  During these chapters, these hidden characters discuss and analyse the actions of Ben and work out ways to manipulate him further.  The identities of these conspirators are not revealed within these chapters, which builds intrigue as the reader tries to work out who they are.  These short chapters are a terrific addition to the book, as they provide the story with some short, but stimulating, breaks in the narrative.  It also adds a completely new perspective to the story and allows the reader insight into the machinations of the book’s antagonists.

Anastasios has created an interesting and memorable protagonist for her excellent story.  When Benedict Hitchens is introduced, he is a disgraced and self-destructive character who does not elicit a great deal of sympathy from the audience.  However, the author’s clever use of the separate storylines allows the reader to view his backstory, which explores his obsession with finding Eris and Achilles.  Both earlier timelines are vital in explaining the character’s motives and emotional baggage, turning Ben into a tragic and sympathetic character.  It is also fascinating to see the changes that have happened to the character during the various timelines.  For example, his experiences change his entire outlook on life and make him more likely to engage in reckless actions.  It also changes his style of archaeology as he goes from the academically accepted practice of carefully digging trenches and laboriously recording every single detail, to a more reckless technique reminiscent of a tomb raider like Indiana Jones.  Anastasios has included an interesting character flaw for her protagonist: despite him being a brilliant archaeologist, he keeps falling for a series of blindingly obvious manipulations, which becomes quite frustrating for the reader to watch.

The reader may find it is possible to predict many of the book’s various twists well in advance, and that lessens the impact of the story.  The eventual reveal of who the antagonists are also was not too uprising.  However, there is one significant, if not slightly ridiculous, twist in the last few pages of the book that nobody is likely to see coming.  While these negative aspects are slightly detrimental to the story, I felt that the all the book’s other amazing elements more than make up for it and turn The Honourable Thief into a captivating and highly enjoyable read.

This fantastic novel is a superb first solo outing from Anastasios, who has crafted an excellent story of betrayal, mystery and adventure, all bound together with archaeology and history.  Cleverly utilising three separate timelines into one compelling narrative, The Honourable Thief is a powerful and distinctive read that will appeal to a huge range of readers.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Lace Weaver by Lauren Chater

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Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date – 19 March 2018

 

Love, war, suffering, oppression, hope and lace all come together in this emotionally charged debut from Australian author Lauren Chater.

It has been two years since the outbreak of World War II.  Following their respective expansions, Nazi Germany and the USSR now control much of Europe between them.  The small country of Estonia, located on the border of the USSR, has been occupied by the Soviets and is now controlled by Stalin’s Red Army, who have brutally installed their communist ideals.  Now all of Estonia’s resources are controlled by the Soviets and any signs of opposition are brutally cracked down on.

In the middle of this horrific occupation lives Katarina, a young Estonian woman whose family survives because their farm produces food for the occupying forces.  While the Soviets are attempting to control all parts of Estonian life, Katarina works to preserve her family’s culture through their lace shawls, which contain intricate and unique patterns and stories.  She must also deal with her feelings for her old friend Oskar, who is leading the revolution against the Soviets.

At the same time in Moscow, another young woman, Lydia, lives an ostensible life of privilege, but is really living in a gilded cage, controlled by her ruthless guardian.  Fleeing to Estonia, the land of her mother, Lydia attempts to find sanctuary but finds out just how far her captivity truly extends.

When a Soviet crackdown forces Katarina and Lydia together, these two women must find a way to survive the horrors of the occupation.  As they become part of Oskar’s resistance against the Soviets, Katarina and Lydia must learn to work together, even when Lydia falls for Katarina’s brother Jakob.  But their situation is about to get even worse, with the forces of the Third Reich set to invade.

This is fantastic first book from Chater, who has woven together an amazing tale filled with great characters and an outstanding and underused historical location.  This book is also an extraordinary piece of dramatic literature.  All of the main characters experience significant loss, heartache and disappointment as they attempt to survive the most turbulent time in our world’s history.  These heartbreaking losses of friends, family and other loved ones draw the reader in, while Chater’s fantastic writing makes them feel the character’s loss and grief as she highlights the brutal reality of those caught in the middle of war.

Perhaps the most memorable part of The Lace Weaver is the story’s central setting of Estonia.  During World War II, Estonia was in the unfortunate position of being one of the countries that fell between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.  Estonia was a significant theatre of war where many horrors occurred, and yet very few novels focus on this part of World War II.  Chater’s decision to focus on this underused period of war history is intriguing, and she has done a commendable job of calling attention to the horrors experienced by the Estonians during the time that they were occupied by two of the world’s most brutal regimes.

Estonia was brutally occupied by the Soviets in 1940, and a large portion of this book is set during this period.  Chater does an amazing job of describing this brutal period through the eyes of her Estonian characters.  There is a serious sense of dread from these characters as they anticipate what horrible crimes might occur next.  The descriptions of the Soviet soldiers’ brutality and contempt for the Estonians is at times harrowing, and there is one sequence describing a mass deportation that will stick in the reader’s mind.  While the scenes describing the occupation of the Soviets are pretty distressing, one of the most disturbing parts of this story is that for much of the book many of the characters, especially Oskar and Jakob, believe that their salvation and freedom could be granted to them by the Nazis.  Reading this can prove to be disquieting as you are forced to watch the characters help the Nazis occupy their country.  The characters working out what they have let into their country is chilling to behold, and by this point readers will be desperate to see what happens next in Estonia.

In addition to focusing on the terrible occupations Estonia suffered during the war, The Lace Weaver also contains an insightful look into some aspects of Estonian culture.  This is mainly shown through the use of the lace shawls, which are described as an important part of Estonian culture and history.  Chater spends a large part of the book investigating these shawls, and the reader soon appreciates their importance.  Katarina spends a significant part of her narration describing the significance of these shawls to her family, and her interactions allow the readers to see how vital they were to her social and familiar circles.  These shawls are also very important to the story as they draw many of the characters together, especially the two main characters, Katarina and Lydia.  The scenes in which the shawls are being worked can also be seen as an indicator of the periods when the characters are managing to survive and have some hope for the future, and are to be cherished, especially as the reader grows to care for these characters.

There are some great characters within The Lace Weaver that readers will find themselves deeply invested in.  Narration of this story is split evenly between the two main characters, Katarina and Lydia, both of whom have unique stories to tell.  Lydia’s transformation from a sheltered girl in Russia to a hardboiled Estonian survivor is particularly gripping, and revelations about who she actually is offer big thrills in the first part of the book and up her personal stakes.  Katarina’s story of survival and her attempts to keep the cultural ways of life she inherited from her beloved grandmother are also heartfelt and compelling.  The unique stories that these two characters have are deeply absorbing and emotional, and Chater does a masterful job of eventually combining these two stories together into one extraordinary and captivating tale.

The Lace Weaver is a deep and emotional wartime drama that makes full use of its dark setting, rare historical fiction location and amazing characters.  Australian author Lauren Chater has produced a very impressive first book and readers will fall in love with this fantastic tale.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Juliet Code by Christine Wells

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Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 30 April 2018

 

From acclaimed Australian author Christine Wells comes this touching and memorable tale of love, captivity and endurance in the darkest of times.

During World War II, Juliet Barnard was a British agent working for the Special Operations Executive.  A skilled wireless operator, she was one of the few female agents that were dropped into occupied France to meet contacts and pass intelligence back to the Allies.  While initially successful, she was only active in France for a short time before the Nazis captured her.  Trapped in a prison that specialised in interrogating captured spies and infiltrators at Paris’s Avenue Foch, Juliet endured torture, drugging and manipulation and came out of the prison a different person.

Now, two years after the end of the war, Juliet is still recovering from her ordeal and trying to continue a relationship with Felix, the man she fell in love with during her training.  Claiming to be suffering from memory loss, Juliet has managed to avoid providing any details about her time at Avenue Foch or about the man who held her captive, Sturmbannführer Strasser.  Finding Strasser is the last thing Juliet wants to happen, because he knows a dark secret about Juliet – a secret she would kill to protect.  However, when Juliet meets Mac, an SAS officer turned Nazi hunter whose sister served in the war with Juliet, her guilt compels her to return to Paris to help him locate Strasser.

This is the third book from Wells, who has previously written two English-based historical stories that feature a strong, female protagonist.  The Juliet Code is the second book from Wells that focuses on British spy activities during World War II; her previous novel, The Traitor’s Girl, focused on a World War II MI5 operative.  The Juliet Code is another excellent and intense romp into the history of World War II, and Wells has done an amazing job of creating this unique and emotional story.  This book is a combination of a great dramatic story and a two-stage historical spy thriller wrapped up with a poignant romantic subplot.

Wells has injected considerable drama and emotion into her story, especially through her main character, Juliet, who goes through substantial emotional changes throughout the book.  Before she is dropped into France, Juliet is portrayed as a shy girl, unsure of her abilities as a potential spy but eager to do her duty to her country.  After the war she is more hardened individual who is suffering from guilt, both due to being one of the few agents to survive capture and because of her own actions during the war.  These changes in the character are made obvious to the reader, not just because of Wells’s great writing ability but also because she switches between the mid-war and post-war scenes multiple times.  Wells slowly reveals the main character’s wartime secret, which is a central part of the plot.  While there are some hints to what this secret is early in the book, the full reveal is not done until later in the story, and makes use of a moving and artfully constructed confession scene.

The Juliet Code is set in the 1940s, and Wells has broken the story up into two distinct periods.  The first period starts in 1943 and continues for the rest of the war, examining the main character’s training, her infiltration of occupied France and her time as a captive at Avenue Foch.  The parts of the book set during the war are very intriguing and are some of the most appealing scenes from a historical fiction viewpoint.  The sections that feature Juliet training and actively spying in France were some of my favourite parts of the plot, and I loved reading Wells’s descriptions about the French resistance networks, the British covert activities, their espionage techniques and the counteroperations the Nazis were undertaking to catch the operatives active in France.  There are also some significant descriptions of how the British wireless transmitters functioned and British coding techniques.  These very technical parts of the book contain some fascinating information while also providing the reader with a good understanding of this technology and what the operators were doing with it.  There are also a number of scenes that follow Juliet after she is captured and held as an enemy spy in Paris.  These parts of the book are, by necessity, darker in nature, depicting how these spies, especially female operatives, were treated during this period.  There are also thorough descriptions of the historical locations used as prisons in Paris.

The second part of the book is set in 1947 and features Juliet and her companions revisiting the sites of Juliet’s captivity and attempting to hunt down her jailer.  This part of the book comes across as more of a traditional spy thriller, and contains some vivid descriptions of post-war France.  There are some examinations of how the Allies and the Soviets were attempting to capture or recruit former members of the Nazi regime, as well as some interesting looks into the post-war espionage that was occurring at this time.  Wells also revisits characters and locations encountered by the protagonist during the war, and these scenes are used to provide clues to locate Strasser while also providing additional hints about what happened to Juliet during her captivity.

Among the defining features of The Juliet Code are the realistic and detailed characters that the reader gets to enjoy.  They feel so realistic because these characters were inspired by real historical figures who served in similar capacities during the war.  This touch of realism adds a lot to the book and serves as an inspirational reminder of those unsung heroes of British espionage.  These fictional facsimiles do interact with a few real historical figures within the book, and readers will be captivated as they find out which of these unique wartime stories are actually historical fact.

Wells has included an enticing romantic subplot between the characters of Juliet and Felix.  Readers will be able to feel the affection that these two characters have for each other, as well as the loss they experience as a result of Juliet’s capture.  Their relationship is also masterfully woven into the main story, and elements of their romance become key plot points, such as some personal romantic poems that actually contain transmitter codes.  Thankfully, Wells decided not to invest too much time in a love triangle between Juliet, Felix and Mac, although she does include the initial and somewhat entertaining jealousy you would come to expect from this situation.  Overall, the romantic subplot is both absorbing and nicely subtle, as it does not overwhelm the rest of the story.

Australian author Christine Wells once again delivers an elegant piece of literature that makes full use of its well-paced dramatic story and an utterly stimulating historical setting and content.  Fans of historical fiction will love The Juliet Code’s dive into World War II spycraft and counterespionage, as well as the excellent and electrifying thriller that blazes through post-war France.  This is a phenomenal novel that sticks in the mind and will appeal to wide array of readers.

My Rating:

Four stars

Nucleus by Rory Clements

Nucleus Cover.jpg

Publisher: Zaffre

Australian Publication Date – 1 March 2018

World Publication Date – 25 January 2018

 

In June 1939, war is on the horizon.  While many in England still hope to avoid another conflict with the Germans, it is becoming clearer that war may be unavoidable.  Nazi Germany is aggressively moving throughout Europe, while back in England the IRA has embarked on a new bombing campaign.

While the world watches and waits, many governments have turned their focus towards a dangerous new arms race.  Advances in nuclear fission have allowed scientists to envision a potentially game-changing weapon: an atomic bomb.  Many believe that the research at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory will lead to the creation of the first bomb, and the laboratory is now the subject of intense scrutiny.

While holidaying in America, Cambridge professor Tom Wilde is summoned to the White House to meet President Roosevelt.  The president requests that Wilde use his position to spy on the research at Cavendish and report their progress to the Americans.  Upon his return to Cambridge, Wilde begins to suspects that Nazi spies may have infiltrated the laboratory when one of the Cavendish researchers is brutally murdered.  As he investigates further, he learns that the murder may be connected to a wealthy family with Nazi sympathies and the famous movie star sister of one of his colleagues.  Wilde is forced into a web of spies and assassins as he tries to discover what terrible plans the Nazis have for Cavendish.  What does his long-lost cousin have to do with this plot, and how do these attacks tie into a kidnapped child that Wilde’s girlfriend, Lydia, is searching for in Germany?

Nucleus is a pulse-pounding thriller that combines mysterious events and spycraft with a dark historical background and a grounding in nuclear physics.  This is the second book in Clements’ Tom Wilde series, and the follow-up novel to his 2017 bestseller, Corpus, which was a stunning historical thriller that featured a plot against the royal family.

Clements has a lot of experience with historical thrillers, having previously examined espionage during the Elizabethan era in his acclaimed John Shakespeare series.  In Nucleus, Clements combines several intriguing storylines into one compelling plot that will draw the reader into the book’s many mysteries.  With a series of hidden adversaries, twisting character loyalties and several shocking conclusions, Clements tells a first-rate thriller that combines well with his story’s historical setting and locations.

Clements uses his latest book to once again explore the period of calm immediately before World War II.  Clements does a masterful job of depicting the dread and apprehension filling England as the whole country found itself drawing closer and closer to war.  This bleak and foreboding historical period is the perfect setting for Clements’ thriller, especially as the characters realise the major repercussions their actions could have on the world.

The historical locations used throughout Nucleus are an essential part of the book and add a lot to the story.  Clements once again returns to the Cambridge backdrop that was one of the defining features of Corpus.  The academic background is used less during this book, but the reader is compensated by being able to see the famous Cavendish Laboratory.  There is also a harrowing journey into Nazi Germany for one of the characters, Lydia, which Clements uses to full effect, highlighting the terror many German citizens felt during that time and their attempts to flee the country before it was too late.  Another highlight of the scenes set in Nazi Germany was the interesting focus on some of the groups attempting to get refugees out of the country, such as the Quakers and the staff at the British Embassy.  The reader also experiences Lydia’s palpable dread as she comes into direct contact with the dark mechanisms of the Nazi machine, and these scenes contain an amazing and appropriate level of suspense.

Due to it being a major plot point for Nucleus, Clements spends a significant amount of time focusing on the state of nuclear science in the 1930s.  Clements does a good job of explaining the science in some detail without it getting too complicated.  As a result, the reader receives a basic understanding of nuclear science of the time, at least enough to appreciate what the spies and nuclear physicist characters within the book are up to and are attempting to achieve.  This is a good balance to have and it allows the reader to experience the fascinating early history of nuclear fission and the early arms race for the atomic bomb.

By infusing his excellent storytelling with a dark historical period, Clements once again delivers with an exhilarating historical thriller.  Featuring a gritty and captivating storyline and making full use of its excellent historical setting, Nucleus is guaranteed to blow you away.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars