‘Remote Sympathy’ – Catherine Chidgey

Remote Sympathy begins with Doctor Lenard Weber’s initial forays into a revolutionary cancer treatment. Inspired by a visit to an exhibition, Weber plans to try and cure cancer using his machine – the Sympathetic Visualiser. While there were a couple of seemingly positive reactions, at heart Weber knows his machine does not work. He becomes preoccupied with survival as he takes the steps necessary to survive the changes made in Germany under the Nazi regime.

Our other key focus is Greta Hahn, the young wife of the new Commandant of Buchenwald camp. Determined to support her husband, she makes the best of her new home. She fears the camp and those working inside, but she vows to try and make the best of her situation. After all, with so many craftsmen on their doorstep, Greta and the wives of the other officers are able to get whatever they want from the inmates.

The story focuses initially on Greta and her family, showing how life in such a place continues seemingly normally. The attitudes of those in power showed they were all too aware of what they were supporting, but they found ways to justify their actions.

When Greta shows signs of illness, she thinks she may be pregnant. The reality is that she has cancer. Her husband reads of this fantastic machine and, in desperation, arranges for Dr Weber to be sent to Buchenwald in order to treat his wife.

Set against the backdrop of a truly barbaric situation, the reality of these characters’ lives is depicted with honesty. Many take actions that could be seen as morally wrong, but each does what is necessary to survive. We can only watch as events unfold in front of us.

As time passes and we sense the increasing likelihood of Allied intervention, things at Buchenwald become increasingly desperate. The closing stages of the book were difficult to read, particularly so as we have laid out in front of us the reality that so many were complicit in such events by turning away. A timely novel that I would encourage others to read.


‘Let’s Go Swimming on Doomsday’ – Natalie C. Anderson

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before its June publication. A harrowing story, but one that should not be ignored.

Our main focus is Abdi, a sixteen year old Somali boy, who – in order to protect his family – was asked by the Americans to infiltrate the jihadi terrorist group Al Shabaab. He vividly recalls the day that Al Shabaab boys came to his town and took his brother. Abdi was thirteen.

Our story is split between the now – when Abdi is being cared for by Sam, a worker for the UN – and then – the process that lead to Abdi being recruited by the group and the activities he was forced to take part in.

There’s no getting away from the fact that the subject matter is tough reading. The indoctrination of children to such groups, and the callous disregard for human life shown by such leaders, is graphically conveyed to us. However, making it clear that Abdi did not participate willingly, and that he is now in fear for his life, meant the book did not seem to glamorise such actions at all.

The details given about how the group operated were fascinating. What struck me, however, was the very real focus on the emotional impact on Abdi and others like him of such groups. There was an emotional honesty to this that is hard to ignore, and I cannot wait to see how it goes down with teen readers.


‘When the World Was Ours’ – Liz Kessler

While this story will seem familiar in some ways, it offers an approach to the topic of the Second World War that will not fail to impact on readers.
At its heart this is a story about faith, love and having the courage to stay hopeful even in our darkest moments. It covers a period in history that cannot fail to shock, but what struck me in this was the emotional impact the book held.
Our story focuses on three children – Max, Leo and Elsa. Best friends, their story begins with a memory of a wonderful birthday celebration where they rode on a fairground ride, shared cake with one another, smiled and laughed. They each have a picture of that day. That picture becomes significant.
Told through their alternating perspectives, we start to see the fracturing of their idyllic childhood. Living at a time when fascism is on the rise, we know things are going to get tense. When we learn that Elsa and Leo are Jewish, we sense the personal conflict to come. Once we learn that Max’s father is becoming a much respected member of the Nazi party we get an inkling of how this might go.
Ambitious in its scope, we focus on a substantial period of history. We are given facts about the experiences the children have, while learning about the reality of the period. Disturbing, yes, but necessary if we are to ensure people do not forget what happened. There are details that will shock and upset readers – but I think this is inevitable when grappling with this historical experience. Told from the views of the children there is a simplicity to their accounts that, perhaps, renders events a little less upsetting.
Each of the children has a very different war-time experience. Leo manages to flee to England with his mother, desperate for news of his father who was sent to Dachau. Elsa remains with her family through many of the indignities bestowed on her simply because of her faith, but she is separated from them when they are taken to Auschwitz. Max has always been desperate for his father’s approval, and his need to belong and gain admiration makes him susceptible to the indoctrination of the Nazi party. As his father rises in power, Max follows. He too ends up in Auschwitz.
As we drew to the close of the book I had to face the stark reality that these three characters were not all going to get their happy ending. Some might not even survive the experience. By the end, that picture had come back to haunt us. Such a simple image, but it came to mean so much.
I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this in advance of its late January publication, and will have no qualms about recommending it to readers.


‘The Silent Stars Go By’ – Sally Nichols


Margot has been in love with Harry ever since his family moved to their village. As a vicar’s daughter Margot knows certain expectations are held for her, so it is something of a shock to learn that nineteen year old Margot is actually the mother of a toddler. The father, Harry, went missing in action and doesn’t know he has a child.

Worried about the social implications of having a child when unmarried, Margot’s parents engineer events so that they adopt the child and he is raised as their own. Now nineteen, Margot wonders how she can reconcile her thoughts and feelings with her sense of duty.

The story is quite a familiar one, so I’m assuming this is a foray into the context for younger readers.

We see things through Margot’s eyes and, in the main, it’s all a little superficial. I would have liked to know a little more of Harry’s thoughts upon learning the truth, and for a family so worried about what others would think of them there was little to indicate this was necessary. The elder brother suffering was also somewhat glossed over.

I felt sympathy for the experience of all those involved, but it never really developed in a way that made me feel overly engaged. I’m sure, however, that younger readers of those who don’t know much about this period in history will fall under the spell of Margot and her family and wonder how things were ever like this.


‘Midnight Sun’ – Stephanie Meyer

Twilight from Edward’s view…yes, at the time, I read the leaked version that made its way on-line and, yes, at the time I thought it seemed a little pointless. When this project seemed to be shelved, life went on and I didn’t think of it again…until we got the news it was releasing this summer. No matter what I thought of it, I knew I’d read this because it counted as unfinished business and my curiosity would win out.

The first thing to make clear is, as so many point out, this is over-the-top, riddled with cringe-worthy similes and there’s still very little to make Bella a particularly endearing character. I have to say I expected this. The second thing to comment on is the story is the same. We know what’s going to happen and it really is a step-by-step rehash of the story we already know, so there’s little added for us. Again, no surprises.

What we did get with this story from Edward’s view was an attempt to poke beneath the surface of what still seems a very odd and unhealthy relationship. I actually found myself liking some of the big scenes coming from this perspective – things were fleshed out and it was easy to see why events were organised as they were. Learning a little more about the Cullens and their backgrounds was good. Some will kill me for saying it, but I also liked the fact there was surprisingly little focus on Jacob and the wolves. My only concern now is the somewhat cynical fear that we’re now going to get another book…this time telling us Jacob’s story. I truly hope not, as I feel this would be too much and definitely exploiting all those readers (myself included) who probably could have done without this but who read it for the nostalgia fix.


‘Hitler’s Secret (Tom Wilde 4)’ – Rory Clements

When I requested this on NetGalley I was fascinated by the idea of the story, and had no idea this was part of a series. I was concerned that it would make little sense on its own – and I’m sure some of these characters and their relationships would be clearer if you knew the previous books – but I worried needlessly.

In this book, Tom Wilde is called upon to carry out what can best be described as a foolish mission: to travel to Germany and remove a package of extreme importance. What nobody tells him is that the package is actually a ten year old girl thought to be the secret daughter of Adolf Hitler.

From the outset we are witness to some unpleasant events. This is a regime built on terror, and some of the behaviours shown are chilling. There’s still good guys, and though we’re not always sure of the boundaries we have to place our trust in them.

The book takes us through a number of terrifying scenarios. It’s enough to make anyone applaud the bravery of those who risk their life for such situations, even if we’re also shaking our heads in sorrow at the brutality and callousness shown by some inherently selfish characters.

The backdrop to the story seemed plausible, and the blending of fact and fiction creates an interesting atmosphere. I was pleased that we were offered another viable reality for Klara at the end of the book, but I’m guessing there’ll be more to come from Wilde.


‘White Chrysanthemum’ – Mary Lynn Bracht

Korea, 1943. Hana has lived her entire life under Japanese occupation. As a haenyeo, a female diver of the sea, she enjoys an independence that few other Koreans can still claim. Until the day Hana saves her younger sister from a Japanese soldier and is herself captured and transported to Manchuria. There she is forced to become a “comfort woman” in a Japanese military brothel. But haenyeo are women of power and strength. She will find her way home.

South Korea, 2011. Emi has spent more than sixty years trying to forget the sacrifice her sister made, but she must confront the past to discover peace. Seeing the healing of her children and her country, can Emi move beyond the legacy of war to find forgiveness?

Hana has had the need to look after her little sister, Emi, instilled in her from an early age. As she performs the work of a haenyo, Hana keeps one eye on the shore to look out for her sister. One day her pledge to protect Emi costs her everything.

Taken from her family at the age of 16, Hana is seized by Japanese soldiers and taken to become what has been termed a ‘comfort woman’ – a Korean woman taken to fulfil the sexual needs of Japanese soldiers. In this new existence, Hana is expected to spend six days a week for up to eleven hours a day having sex with men who choose her.

Bracht is unflinching in the details she gives about the horrors Hana and those like her have to endure. It is hard to read, and knowing that this happened made me grit my teeth and read what I would really prefer not to have read. It’s the smallest act we can take to honour those who are treated so awfully in times of war.

The story does alternate between the events Hana experiences and the story of Emi, the sister left behind. This allowed us to get a sense of the cultural response to events described but it did lend a rather disjointed feel to the story.

I have to thank Bracht for writing this and raising my awareness of the subject. Thank you also to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication. Lastly, thank you to the women like Hana for what they had to experience.

‘Purple Hearts’ – Michael Grant

Hats off to you, Michael Grant, for writing what I hope will become a must-read trilogy for anyone.

I’ve just finished this surrounded by articles in today’s press about the furore over whether or not to wear a poppy in remembrance of those who fought in war. From this remoteness, even though we can read of atrocities committed throughout the world at the touch of a button, it’s all too easy to forget about the sacrifices of those who went to war. We should never forget.

In this final instalment of the trilogy we follow our favourites Rainy, Rio and Frangie through the last push. We focus on battles that might sound familiar, but the details we’re given here vividly bring the events to life.

At times this was hard to read. Senseless brutality, questionable moral decisions being taken and a no-holds barred account of what happened. Some of it may have been imagined, and some of it may have been far worse. But it’s important not to ignore…how else will you encourage people to stand up for what is right?

Thank you NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication (scheduled for January 2018). It was a privilege to read…and I’ve pre-ordered my physical copy.

‘Silver Stars’ -Michael Grant

Silver Stars

It is the summer of 1943 and our women soldiers, with the cries of battle fresh in their ears, are being shipped out – with the rest of the American army – to conquer the Italian island of Sicily.

With some time having passed since I read the first in the series, it did take a little time to get back in the heads of Frangie, Rainy and Rio though they remain fascinating characters. Once again Grant blends the historical detail with masterful storytelling to create the kind of book that you want to devour in one sitting, but also savour for what it tells us about war and our attitudes to fighting.

As Grant points out, he tones down the reality faced by those at war and that’s a sobering thought. The accounts of battle are vivid, and it is as if we are alongside the soldiers through their experiences. Too often, there were details I’d rather not have to think about, but I think that simply shows why books such as this are needed.

I felt mixed emotions while reading this. I felt frustration at the situations these men and women were placed in; I felt annoyed by the casual sexism and racism that was faced; I was dismayed at the seeming ineptness of some of those in charge, but my overwhelming feeling was of intense admiration for those who can face their worst fears as these characters do.

I received a copy from edelweiss in exchange for my honest thoughts, and I have to thank them – and Grant himself – for giving me the opportunity to read this.


‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ – Chris Cleave

Everyone Brave is Forgiven


When war is declared in 1939 Mary North, the daughter of a wealthy family, signs up to do her bit. She is assigned the role of teacher, which those who supervise her think she is wholly unsuited for and she is ordered to remain in London. Determined to do her bit, this fiery character seeks an audience with the education administrator and practically demands that he let her resume teaching those children not deemed suitable to be evacuated to the countryside. Tom agrees, and so marks the beginning of an unusual relationship.

Mary is passionate and her relationship with Tom becomes personal. This might have become a pedestrian romance in the hands of less engaging writers, but Cleave introduces a third character, Alistair, and thus begins a wholly engaging story.

The characters of Mary and Alistair are loosely based on Cleaves’s own grandparents, and the personal investment in this shone through in the tender portrayal of the relationship. Cleave is unflinching in his depiction of the wartime experience, and I felt the writing was evocative.

Though a happy ending seemed inevitable from the outset, I think that one of the strengths of this novel is the cast of characters surrounding our main trio. Throughout I was keen to know more about their experiences and how the war affected them.

Thank you to NetGalley for the advance copy in exchange for an honest review.