Posted in Book review, Books, Historical Fiction, New Books

The Diplomat’s Wife – Michael Ridpath

Hey Loves!

Well, we’ve done week one of 2021 and it probably doesn’t feel very different to 2020… but let’s still keep the faith. There’s plenty of time for lots of reading and finding your next best read. For me, school is still as busy as ever. I’m spending my time teaching online which is not too dissimilar to writing blog posts – I just feel like I’m talking to myself. Hopefully someone, somewhere is listening! Regardless, today I want to share with you a book you all need to keep your eye out for: The Diplomat’s Wife by Michael Ridpath. This was one of those books where I literally couldn’t put it down. I hope you love it as much as I did!

What’s it all about?
The novel opens in Buckinghamshire, England where we meet Phil. It is just before his big adventure to abroad but his plans are in jeopardy following a slight accident with a car. However, all is rectified when Phil’s beloved Grandma, Emma, reveals her need to go on a trip but she cannot possibly go alone. Therefore, it’s set – Phil will drive his grandmother around Europe, to relive her life and to solve the mysteries of the past surrounding her brother, Hugh and her husband, Roland. From here, we see the interweaving of the past and present within the novel.

“One of the reasons I asked you to accompany me is that I want to tell you a story. My story. The story of what I did before the war. I’ve mentioned I’ve been thinking of revisiting my life then. But I wanted to share it, so someone knows about it when I’m gone.”

Grandmother and grandson travel to Devon, where the story begins. Emma was just a teenager, happily living in her brother’s shadow. She absolutely adored him, idolised him really. Whatever he believed, she did too. A theme that runs within the plot is politics – communism and socialism in particular. When her brother changes his views, she feels betrayed. There’s more going on than what is being shared on the surface, clearly. Tragically, Emma was unable to discuss this with her brother further, because he was killed.

‘I pulled back the rug from Hugh’s face. I will never forget what I saw – it was a mess. His forehead and cheek had been smashed. There was blood, but there was also pinkish stuff, which I later realised was brain matter. It was truly horrible.’

Emma’s feeling of unease only grew at Hugo’s funeral. She meets Dick Loxton, Hugo’s best friend and Kay Lesser, Hugo’s girlfriend. Here we learn that Hugo had a secret life – a life as a spy. His death could be as a result of this. It is this information that starts the journey of discovery. From here, the two head to Paris. Emma was, as the title suggests, a diplomat’s wife. This gave her the opportunity to meet people the average person wouldn’t meet. She moved in circles that seem so different to life in the present. Something else was about to disrupt her world: an affair and a pregnancy.

‘Then a darker thought occurred to me. Was the whole thing camouflage? Had their affair already been going on when my mother invited Roland down to Devon? Which meant his wooing of me was just an elaborate cover…’

Emma has a choice to make: one that will dictate her whole future. Kay advises her and she has a plan. She will follow in her brother’s footsteps but to do that, to get information, she needs to remain with her husband. Lothar and Kay get her set up with the relevant equipment she needs. She is now one of them. Back in the present, the trip isn’t exactly what Phil had in mind. He does frequent a couple of bars and meets Heike. Can he trust her? She seems to be perfect and the two love spending time together. It almost feels odd when she asks to join him and his grandmother, something Phil knows his grandmother absolutely would not like. They settle for talking. Lots and lots of talking. Meanwhile, the next step of their journey is decided: Annecy. It is in this section that Phil sees his grandmother in a new light.

‘Nothing in his life up till now had prepared him for this. But he had to concentrate on the road ahead. On getting out of France safely without the police stopping them. Then he could think properly about what happened, what was happening.’

Berlin, Germany: the next stop. The threat of war is imminent in 1939 and it is here that Emma’s information is key. Kay needs her to keep providing but there isn’t anything to say or offer. There’s just no new information circulating. Until the news of Russia. This is the ultimate game changer. This information is huge. It is here though, that Emma learns the real truth. Once again, we know that all is not as it seems.

‘The anger evaporated, or rather it retired, waiting for a new target. Yes, I had been misled. But so had Kay. Both of us had been misused, drawn to betray our countries on the basis of false promises.’

The final part of the novel is in Spain. Emma is obsessed, literally, with finding out the truth and eventually putting her brother to rest. Likewise, Phil has never known about this side of his grandmother. This journey is as eyeopening for him as it is for Emma. In Spain, Phil sees a face that he recognises and Emma realises they are in immediate danger. As the novel closes, Emma’s story is finally told. We have a voice for Hugh, a resolution.

“To Grams…and her brother.”

Final Thoughts
This book is a must read for 2021. Due for release in February, it needs to be promoted to the top of your TBR lists. There are many strands to this that make it an interesting read. The grandmother/grandson element. It was really lovely to see the strength of the family ties here, especially when Emma did not have these as a child. Along with that, I really enjoyed the historical element of it. Novels set in the war are fascinating because there are so many ways you could present it. I loved the espionage take here was incredible. Who can you trust? You won’t know until the end of the book. Michael Ridpath isn’t a writer I’d heard of but this book has absolutely put him on my radar.

Keep yourselves safe and well.

Big love all xxx

Posted in Book review, Books, Historical Fiction, Reading, Reading Challenge 2020

Reading Challenge 2020: Cilka’s Journey – Heather Morris

Happy Sunday Lovelies!!

I hope you’re all well. This post comes a bit later than I anticipated really. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this utterly shattered and defeated really. It’s hard at the moment but to keep myself going I’ve just been reading and buying plenty of books! I mean, who wouldn’t? Today I want to share with you a book I have had sat on my shelf since the day it was published: Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris. There’s no particular reason as to why this has sat on my bookcase for a little over a year. It’s more of a case of having to be prepared to read about such sadness and resilience. You’ve got to feel strong enough.

The theme and focus of this month for the reading challenge was: November: Something that has been sat on your bookshelf / TBR list that casts a backwards glance. Well, this book certainly does that! If you’ve been keeping an eye on my reading challenge or would like some more information, click here. For those of you who have been around for a while, you’ll remember my post on Morris’s first novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz (click here!) Anyway, I just had to be prepared for another emotional and potentially heart breaking story.

This book is beautiful in so many ways. I really hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

What’s it all about?
This book is the sequel to The Tattooist of Auschwitz, this time based on the true story of a person who survived Auschwitz Birkenau and ten years in a Russian Gulag in Siberia. Cilka Klein is introduced to us in the first book where we hear Lale Sokolov’s story. Sokolov knew Klein at Auschwitz where she was sent in 1942. She was only sixteen years of age. The tale is retold using research and interviews. Some characters are naturally fiction or an amalgamation of many faces and people she met. The most important and poignant factor is that the story is real. This is a story of survival.

“She is just surviving, Cilka has often thought. There is no one way to do it.”

Cilka quickly learnt that survival meant that she had to give the men in the camp exactly what they wanted. Two Nazi officers take a shining to her and they repeatedly rape her. She stays alive by allowing constant and repeated humiliation and abuse whilst in her role as the Jewish guard in the building in which Jewish women are sent to their death. It is here that she sees her own mother led and killed.

“She hopes she will be able to explain to Josie later that he can have her body and that is all; he cannot have her mind, her heart, her soul.”

From here she is sent to the Siberian Gulag because the Russians see her as a German collaborator because of the ‘relations’ she has had with the two Nazi officers. It is here she spends the next ten years of her life. There’s further rape, hard labour and complete and utter despair. What shines through the book though, more importantly, is friendship, courage, beauty and her will to keep the women in her block alive, as well as herself. Their hut is remarkable. The woman mostly work together to try and make it homely, stitching fabric and putting flowers from outside in a broken cup. Her closest friend, Josie, burns her hand and Cilka acts fast to save her by putting her hand in the snow. It is here that she learns about the hospital wing and meets the woman who will help save her life. Never forget the name Yelena Georgiyevna.

As Cilka learns how to be a nurse we see the narrative split into the past and present. Cilka has regular flashbacks to her life at the concentration camp. These are weaved with what events of the Siberian camp to show us exactly the horrors that Cilka experienced. It’s utterly harrowing. I had to keep reminding myself of her age when I was reading. Her whole youth taken from her.

“She didn’t choose it. It just happened.”

Yelena can clearly see that there’s plenty on this girls mind. But she is a good nurse and in demand from the patients. She experiences life on the main ward, the maternity ward where she learns to deliver babies and ultimately changes how the nursery is ran. She spends time in the ambulance, going to various calls outs where mines have collapsed. She faces these challenges head on, only to really think about what she has achieved later. Cilka opens up to her mentor, Yelena and it is here we learn her true story.

“The first day I saw you I felt there was something about you, a strength, a sense of self-knowledge that I rarely see. And now, with the little you told me, I don’t know what to say except that you are very brave.”

The end of the novel gives the reader hope. Cilka falls in love, escapes and does get to live a life outside of a prison camp. As heart warming as that is, for me it isn’t the most important part of the story. It’s the fact that she is given a voice. She shows how at such a young age she knew she had what it takes to survive. We see her sacrifice herself on so many occasions. She doesn’t harden or become cruel. Quite the opposite. She is given the opportunity to be free: she nominates Josie and her baby. She saves lives. She talks to very sick patients and gives them a soft exit from this world. She cares and she fights and ultimately it saves her life.

“It’s time to live now, Cilka,” he says. “Without fear, and with the miracle of love.” “Is that a poem?” she asks him, smiling through her tears. “It is the beginning of one.”

I hope we never have to live through events like this again. What is just as important is that these heroes, these young people, have a voice today to share their stories which at the time probably didn’t mean anything to them. It was just the daily grind to get through. Now we can share the stories and humbly reflect on how lucky we truly are.

“Stories like Cilka’s deserve to be told, and I’m humbled and honored to bring it to you. She was just a girl, who became a woman, who was the bravest person Lale Sokolov ever met.”

Final Thoughts
This book is moving, beautiful, poignant and utterly compelling. I read it in one sitting because I literally just couldn’t go to sleep without knowing what happened. You can tell Morris researches the historical details yet this doesn’t turn into a heavy book. The beauty of friendship and sisterhood is something that relates to today. All of us have a fight or flight instinct. Cilka’s was definitely to fight and boy, what a fight she gives. Like many, I did wonder if this book would be as good as the first. However, enough time has passed between the two for me to be able to make a fair judgement. It is just as good, if not better. Morris really has created a masterpiece.

Continue to look after yourselves everyone. Stay safe.

Big love all xx

Posted in Book review, Historical Fiction, Reading, Reading Challenge 2020

Reading Challenge 2020: Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys

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Hey Lovelies!

I can’t believe we are deep into February which means I’ve survived my first half term as Head of Department. Also, I’m quite proud of my progress so far too because I’ve read 16 books so far this year which I think is pretty good. I’m waiting for the slump to hit me though. I did have high hopes for half term but I’ve spent most of it with a lingering cold and dodging the relentless rain. Regardless, I hope you’re all well and staying safe in this weather. I am looking forward to catching up with you all!

You may remember from a previous post that I created my own reading challenge for 2020 (click here for a recap) and today I wanted to share with you the book I read for January: Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys. This book completely took my breath away. It is exquisitely written, moving, powerful and evocative. Get yourselves a copy as soon as possible.

What’s it all about?

Firstly, the criteria for January was a tale that represents a new beginning. When I first started reading this book, I wasn’t really sure it fit the criteria but I continued because the book was just so bloody good. Regardless, this book absolutely represents the grit and determination of people wanting to survive in some of the cruelest places on earth. There’s love, kindness, compassion and hope, even when on the surface it appears to have completely gone.

The book is based on true historical events that took place following the expansion of the Soviet Union into the surrounding countries, prior to the Second World War. The novel starts in Lithuania, in the house of Lina. There’s a ominous boom at the door which brings fear and trepidation. Lina, her younger brother Jonas and her mother Elena are taken one night by the NKVD (a forerunner for the KGB) and placed on a goods train along with many other ‘criminals’. Their crime? Unknown. No court, no charge. Just a journey in a train with ‘thieves and prostitutes’ painted on the side. 

“Three NKVD officers had Mother encircled. ‘We need more time, we’ll be ready in the morning.’ ‘You have twenty minutes or you won’t live to see morning,’ said the officer. He threw his burning cigarette onto our clean living room floor and ground it into the wood with his boot. We were about to become cigarettes.”

Lina’s father is absent for this as he never returned home. At this stage we can only assume or guess why. Has he spoken out against Stalin?

From Lithuania the train travels into Siberia, a long cold, dangerous journey. Siberia does not sound like a place I’d ever want to be to be honest. Overcrowded, with no food or sanitation the cattle trucks soon become filthy and disease ridden. One by one the dead bodies begin to mount up.

Lina’s mother becomes a ray of hope amongst the devastation as she takes charge and tries to forge a purpose and unity from the scared, hungry and increasingly weak companions in their cattle truck. Her unflagging, unrelenting spirit drives them on. Lina loves to draw but in this desperate place all she can do is draw in the filth on the floor.

“I counted the people – forty-six packed in a cage on wheels, maybe a rolling coffin. I used my fingers to sketch the image in a layer of dirt on the floor near the front of the train car, wiping the drawings away and starting over, again and again.”

During this journey she meets Andrius and together they manage to make contact with people on some other trains heading into Siberia. They find Lani’s father, imprisoned on a different train but alive! He will escape, they will be together as a family again…

42 days of travelling in a cattle car and Lina arrives at Altai Labour Farm inside Siberia. They’ve had to travel with dead bodies, endure the taunting and brutality of their guards, even had a to shower in cold water with leering guards looking on.

Through all of this Lina’s mother has kept her safe, bribing guards with jewellery and money she had hidden in her clothing. For the moment however, the travelling was over. However, they were not greeted with warmth or kindness. Yet more hostility presented itself.

“ ‘What’s she saying?’ asked Jonas. ‘She says she has no room for filthy criminals,’ said Mother. The woman grabbed my hair and pulled it, yanking me towards the door to throw me out. Mother yelled and ripped the woman’s hand from my head, slapped her, and pushed her away. Jonas kicked her in the shin. The Altaian woman stared at us with angled black eyes.”

At this point the characters are forced now to work on a farm, given the bare minimum food to survive with their ration docked for any infringement of the rules, life gets worse and worse. (There is a clear link to the theme for this monthI promise!!)

The NKVD want them to sign a confession and agree to a sentence of 25 years, in return they will give them more food and permission to visit the nearby village. In an act of solidarity the prisoners refuse to sign, the only act of defiance they can muster.

Their solidarity does not last, (did it ever begin?) and the NKVD find some who will inform on the others, find some who will serve them in other even lesssavoury ways. The prisoners turn on each other, not knowing who to trust. Some sign, then more. They stop being a people and become a collection of individuals desperate to live one more day, desperate to find any ray of hope in order to survive. This was the key. Not living.Surviving.

“ ‘Mother, will there be potatoes for us tonight?” When we asked we were told we had to work to earn food. ‘If you worked for the NKVD, Mother, would they give you food?’ asked Jonas. ‘No my dear, they would give me empty promises,’ she replied, ‘which is worse than an empty belly.’”

 

Through all the brutality of the labour camp Lina continues to draw. This is a means of escape for the young girl, a sense of her old normal life. She manages to get paper and hides her drawings. She holds onto the dream of getting a message to her father, so he can come and rescue them.

Even though the prisoners are divided and manipulated by the NKVD, some sense of solidarity and humanity prevails. They celebrate birthdays, they find reasons to smile and sometimes they can help lift each other a little way out of the horror they are enduring. Illness comes, Jonas falls very ill. The NKVD refuse to feed him or provide a doctor. Elena manages again to protect her children, the fierce mother that she is. Amazingly, against all the odds, Jonas recovers.

Then, without warning, a number of them are selected. Herded again onto another train. Lina, Jonas and Elena are among those taken but Andrius is left behind. The journey leads them to a river and barges. They travel further and further north. Eventually they reach Trefimovsk, inside the Arctic circle. The conditions here make the farm seem like a luxury spa, freezing cold there are not even huts or shacks for shelter. The only buildings are for the guards, they are expected to build their own shelter from whatever is on the ground.

“It was completely uninhabited, not a single bush or tree, just barren dirt to a shore of endless water. We were surrounded by nothing but the polar tundra and the Laptev sea. ‘What you don’t like it? You think you are too good for this? Facist pig. Pigs sleep in the mud. Didn’t you know that?’ He moved closer to Mother. His corroded teeth protruded from under his top lip. ‘You pigs disgust me.’”

 

From here, life gets increasingly desperate. The prisoners are stick thin and fall ill easily. Elena’s indomitable spirit is finally crushed by the desperation of this place, by the brutality of their guards and most of all by the news that her husband has been shot. She slips into illness and her body slowly shuts down. Her only hope has been cruelty taken from her.

Winter comes and in this barren place on the edge of the world it is a terrible thing to endure. Especially when you are living in a makeshift shack with barely any food. The incrediable resilience of these wrongly accused people shines though. Desperate and down trodden though they are, the fact that they can still show compassion and still feel hope is remarkable.

The ending is a surprise for you! However, I will say it moved me to tears. It was the silent tears that you don’t even realise you’re spilling. That kind of emotion. So, in the words of the writer, I’ll end with this:

“Some wars are about bombing. For the people of the Baltics, this war was about believing. In 1991, after fifty years of brutal occupation, three Baltic countries regained their independence, peacefully and with dignity. They chose hope over hate, and showed the world that even through the darkest night, there is light.”

 

Final thoughts

This book is just incredible, in ever sense of the word. New beginnings were created by a sense of never ending hope for these people. The fact that it’s based on history means that I feel an overwhelming sense of loss when characters died, their pain was my pain and I desperately wanted them to survive. It’s the perfect book to start my reading challenge with.

February – Read a book that tells the story of love: good, bad or otherwise. For this I’ve chosen to read An American Marriage – Tayari Jones. I don’t know anything about it and I’ve not seen many reviews (haven’t looked to be fair!) so let’s see what this brings for the month of love! Obama and Oprah recommend it so that’s enough for me!

More to catch up on soon.

Big love to you all. Xx

 

 

Posted in Book review, Historical Fiction

The Tattooist of Auschwitz – Heather Morris

Hey Everyone!!

Happy April! I can’t believe we have reached this point in the year. January seems to be a distant memory. However, over this Easter holiday I have achieved one thing: to read plenty. I’ve chosen to review The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. This book completely took hold of me. I’d read it over two days. I couldn’t not read it. I was desperate to know what happened. However, it sounds so ridiculous but I was so scared to read it because I was terrified as to what the outcome was going to be. Prepare to be on the edge of your seat.

 

What’s it all about?

The novel focuses on telling the true story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who spent three years in Auschwitz. However, it isn’t like the other Holocaust novels. This novel focuses on love, hope and survival. The amazing Heather Morris spent time with Lale gathering experiences to create this book. Boy, what an absolute treasure it is.

Lale knew exactly what was in store for him on that fateful day he was taken to Auschwitz. Luckily Lale landed a job as a tattooist, a job that gave him a slither of protection. Whilst doing this job, he meets a range of different people; one in particular catching his eye and changing his world forever.

‘Her eyes, however, dance before him. Looking into them his heart seems simultaneously to stop and begin beating for the first time, pounding, almost threatening to burst out of his chest.’

We see Lale travel to Auschwitz in a cattle cart with numerous people around him. You can imagine the sight, the smells and the sense of fear through the description. On his arrival to the camp he is stripped, searched and put into the striped uniform. During the cold, harsh nights, Lale sees people being shot for needing the toilet, one of whom is a child. It is at this moment that Lale makes a decision.

‘As they disappear into the darkness, Lale makes a vow to himself. I will leave this place. I will walk out a free man.’

 

There was a moment when my heart was in my mouth and I thought Lale wouldn’t make it. Actually, there were more than one. The first was when Lale got Typhus. As many historical accounts say, the sick were merely cast aside or shot. They were of no use as they couldn’t work. But in a tale of true heroism, many people saved him; the majority nameless. Pepan, a Tattooist, continues to look after him whenever he can along with those from Block 7.

“A young man was pleading with the SS to leave you, saying that he would take care of you. When they went into the next block he pushed you off the cart and started dragging you back inside.”

Not only did Pepan help save his life, he offered another lifeline: a job. Lale becomes a Tattooist with him. He can speak many languages which appeals to the officers. Yet tattooing causes a moral problem for Lale. He doesn’t wish to inflict harm on any other human being but he wants to survive. More than that, he wants to help others. Pepan reminds him of what an opportunity this is.

“I saw a half-starved young man risk his life to save you. I figure you must be someone worth saving.”

One huge reason why Lale survives is arguably because of Gita. With the help of an officer he finds which block she is in. This is the beginning of something beautiful after all. Despite the despair and daily horrors around him and many others in that situation, he tries to be friendly to everyone. He strikes a deal with Victor and Yuri who are working on the roof. They smuggle him food which he saves and passes around his friends. He asks the girls to keep looking for jewels so he can use them to repay the kindness of Victor. Of course, if any of them were caught, they’d be killed.

‘Victor closes his hand over Lale’s in a handshake, palming the jewels. Lale’s bag is already open and Victor quickly transfers some packages into it. Their alliance is now sealed.’

One of the most remarkable thing about this novel is the notion of hope. Lale is always hopeful about leaving; something he passes onto those he meets, especially Gita. Lale is completely in love with her. He goes out of his way to see her, strikes up a deal with officers in which chocolate plays a key role and they have beautiful, blissful moments together.

“There will be a tomorrow for us…We will survive and make a new life where we are free to kiss where we want to…”

Things take a turn for the worst when Lale’s stash is discovered. Rather fortunately (because once again my heart was in my mouth) Lale’s earlier kindness keeps him alive. Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop him getting a severe beating. Everyone must do what needs to be done to survive in a place like that. This is just another example of that.

“You were kind to me and I will make the beating look worse than it is, but I will kill you before I let you tell me a name.”

The monotony of daily life at the camp is broken up. There is a sense of urgency as we proceed through the novel. It’s not just survival, it is a change in the atmosphere. Clearly something is happening to make the camp a hive of activity. People are coming to save them. It is at this point I probably felt most uncomfortable. Will they ever see each other again? Who will survive? What happens next? I was reading this and only noticed at the end just how tightly I was holding onto the book.

‘Whatever happens tomorrow will happen to all of them – together they will live or die.’

As they are all separated, the narrative almost splits. We see the girls taken away with many falling at the sides. We see Lale end up in a new role – providing nice girls for the soldiers, a role in which he is possibly even less comfortable than before. He pockets some jewels and finally decides to get freedom: a train to Bratislava. The whole time his thoughts are consumed with Gita. It takes two weeks but amazingly, thanks to the Red Cross, he finds her.

‘Then, with Gita’s arms around Lale’s waist and her head resting on his shoulder, they walk away, merging into the crowded street, one young couple among many in a war-ravaged city.’

Overview

It has been a long time since I’ve hung onto every word written in a book. I have probably never felt so much hope either. I bought and read this book with great trepidation. I find these events so utterly horrific and yet even though these were in the book, the overwhelming feeling is of hope. It is a remarkable story in every sense. Right until Gita’s death, Lale wanted to protect her, hence why the book wasn’t even written let alone published. Lale is a truly magnificent person and Heather Morris has done an amazing job in telling his story. Read this book; it will change your life.

Big love xx