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BOOK REVIEW: The Family With Two Front Doors by Anna Ciddor

Tuesday, March 14, 2017




The Family with Two Front Doors – Anna Ciddor

Blurb (from GoodReads):


This warm and engaging story, inspired by the author's own family, offers a glimpse into a life rich with tradition, celebration and love.

Meet the Rabinovitches: mischievous Yakov, bubbly Nomi, rebellious Miriam, solemn Shlomo, and seven more! Papa is a rabbi and their days are full of intriguing rituals and adventures. But the biggest adventure of all is when big sister Adina is told she is to be married at the age of fifteen - to someone she has never met.

Based on the author's real family, the Rabinovitches dance, laugh and cook their way through an extraordinary life in 1920s Poland.

In the classic tradition, this highly readable story is fascinating, engaging and as warm as freshly baked bread.


My Thoughts:

Inspired by the real-life stories of Anna Ciddor’s grandmother, The Family with Two Doors is a charming and poignant account of the life of a family of Jewish children in 1920s Poland. The book revolves around the upcoming arranged marriage between fifteen-year-old Adina and a boy she has never met, and has all sorts of delightful details about what life was like in 30 Lubartowska Street, Lublin, in the years between the wars. 


If you love children's books set in this period of history you may enjoy my List of Best Children's Books set in World War II

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

BOOK REVIEW: CASTLE OF DREAMS by Elise McCune

Monday, March 13, 2017





Castle of Dreams – Elise McCune


BLURB (from GoodReads)

A ruined castle deep in the rainforest holds a secret that unites three generations of women: two sisters who find themselves in love with the same man as the Second World War rages and, decades later, a young woman determined to uncover the secrets in her grandmother's hidden past.


Growing up together in a mysterious castle in northern Queensland, Rose and Vivien Blake are both sisters and close friends. But during the Second World War their relationship becomes strained when they each fall in love with the same dashing but enigmatic American soldier.

Rose’s daughter, Linda, has long sensed a secret in her mother’s past, but Rose has always resisted Linda’s questions, preferring to focus on the present.

Years later Rose’s granddaughter, Stella, also becomes fascinated by the shroud of secrecy surrounding her grandmother’s life. Intent on unravelling the truth, she visits the now-ruined castle Rose and Vivien grew up in to see if it she can find out more.

Captivating and compelling, Castle of Dreams is about love, secrets, lies – and the perils of delving into the past . . .



MY THOUGHTS:

A gorgeous cover and intriguing title drew me to Castle of Dreams by Elise McCune, described as an ‘enthralling novel of love, betrayals, loss and family secrets.’  The castle of the title is inspired by a real place in the Queensland rainforest, a Spanish-style castillo built by Jose Paronella as a pleasure park in the 1930s. The idea of a castle in an Australian rainforest setting is utterly beguiling, and I was immediately drawn in by the opening scene describing the crumbling bell-tower overgrown by lush vines, brightly coloured parrots darting past. 

Castle of Dreams moves back and forth between the stories of Vivien and Rose, two sisters in wartime Brisbane, who each fall in love with the same man; and Stella, Rose’s granddaughter, who finds herself fascinated by the untold secrets of the past. 

I love this type of dual narrative, and found the scenes set in the 1940s particularly evocative. A real page-turner of a book, with just enough sizzle.


Do you love parallel narratives too?
Here are lots of recommendations for you! 

SPOTLIGHT: Women of the German underground resistance

Wednesday, March 08, 2017


To celebrate International Women's Day, I thought I would spotlight the real (and unjustly forgotten) historical women whose lives I have drawn upon in my fiction.

Today I am focusing on the heroines of the German underground resistance, whose stories I told in my novel The Beast's Garden . 




My novel THE BEAST'S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm brothers' version of 'Beauty & the Beast' set in the Berlin underground resistance to Hitler in Nazi Germany. 

Many of my characters in the novel are based on real people who showed extraordinary courage, compassion and strength of spirit - ordinary people who did their best to fight against the evil of the Third Reich. 

I was particularly interested in the women of the German underground resistance - perhaps because when we think of Adolf Hitler and the women of Germany, we are used to is all those images of star-struck blonde Frauleins with their hands stretched high in the Nazi salute. 


Some German women were even said to eat the gravel upon which Hitler trod.

There were some German women who feared and hated the Nazi leader, however, and who risked their lives to resist his brutal dictatorship.

Sophie Scholl is probably the most famous. A university student in Munich, she and her brother and some friends set up the White Rose group in the summer of 1942. Together Hans Scholl and his friends Willi Graf and Christoph Probst spread anti-Nazi graffiti and wrote six political leaflets, which Sophie helped distribute in letter-boxes and through the mail. 

On 18 February 1943, Sophie and her brother took the sixth leaflet to the university to spread around the campus. A janitor grew suspicious and followed them, and so Sophie threw all the leaflets over a balcony. The siblings were caught and turned over to the Gestapo. Christoph was soon arrested too. After a mock-trial, they were all beheaded. Hans was 24, Christoph was 22, and Sophie was only 21. 


Hans & Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst

In Berlin, another resistance group was secretly meeting to make plans to overthrow Hitler. Like the White Rose, they tried to express their horror and outrage at the Nazi regime through graffiti and leaflets. They also smuggled Jews and other political prisoners out of the country, gave food and clothing to those who were suffering, and collected evidence of atrocities. 

This group was called The Red Orchestra by the Gestapo, who suspected them of selling State secrets to the Soviets and harbouring Russian spies. The group – who simply called themselves the Zirkel (meaning circle) – certainly did try to warn Stalin about Germany’s imminent invasion, though they received no payment for the risks they took. 

They also warned the US and Great Britain, only to have their approaches mistrusted and ignored.

The Zirkel was led by two couples - Harro and Libertas Schulze-Boysen and Arvid and Mildred Harnack - and so contemporary scholars often now call them the Schulze-Boysen/Harnack Group. 


Harro & Libertas Schulze-Boysen 

Harro was an officer in the Luftwaffe, and – after the war broke out - worked for Goring’s Reich Aviation Ministry in Berlin. Libertas was the daughter of one of Berlin’s most famous couturiers, Otto Ludwig Haas-Heye, and the granddaughter of Prince Philip of Eulenburg and Hertefeld, once an influential courtier at the imperial court of Kaiser Wilhelm II. She had worked for the MGM office in Berlin, but quit her job and went to work for Goebbels’ propaganda office in the hope of getting access to confidential information.  

Arvid was a lawyer and economist who took up a position in the Reich Economic Ministry, while his American-born wife Mildred – previously a university lecturer and author – did translation work for various German publishers and newspapers.

The group’s primary aim was to gather and pass on military intelligence to the Allies, and so they lived double lives, working inside the Nazi death machine whilst trying to sabotage it from within.

Mildred Fish Harnack, the only American woman executed by the Nazis


Eventually the Gestapo broke the covert operation, and Harro, Libertas, Arvid, Mildred and many more were arrested and executed. Mildred holds the unhappy distinction of being the only American woman executed by the Third Reich.

There were many other women in the Zirkel, such as the half-Jewish artist and photographer Elizabeth Schumacher, and Greta Kuckhoff, who was married to the playwright and dramaturge Adam Kuchoff. Cato Bontjes van Beek (aged 22) and Liane Berkowitz (aged 19) were the youngest of the group, both being executed by guillotine in 1943. (All these women feature as characters in my novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN.)

Also working in Berlin at the same time was a Jewish circle of friends generally known as the Baum Group, named for its leaders, Herbert and Marianne Baum. Most people in the group were young – aged in their twenties – and working as forced labour in Berlin’s armament factories. 

Other members included Sala and Martin Kochmann, Heinz Birnbaum, Heinz and Marianne Joachim, Edith and Harry Cohan, Gerd and Hanni Meyer, and the sisters Hella and Alice Hirsch.


 

Hella Hirsch


The group worked to help the plight of the Berlin Jews, and sabotaged the weapons they were helping to build. They undertook bold graffiti campaigns, and then – in September 1942 - they attempted to blow up Goebbels’ anti-Soviet propaganda exhibit in Berlin, using materials stolen from the factories in which they worked. Only a small fire resulted, but the event was an embarrassment to the Propaganda Minister. 

The defiant saboteurs were soon rounded up, tried and executed. Herbert Baum died in prison, with an official report of suicide. Sala Kochmann tried to fling herself from the windows of the Gestapo headquarters and broke her back. She was carried to her execution on a stretcher. Three of the young women – including Alice Hirsch who was only 19 – were spared the guillotine but were then sent to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. (The Baum Group also features in THE BEAST’S GARDEN). 

Another interesting woman who did her best to resist Hitler was the Countess So'oa'emalelagi von Ballestrem-Solf, known as ‘Lagi’ to her friends. Her name is Samoan, given to her when she was born by her father, who was the Governor of Samoa from 1900-1911. Lagi and her mother Johanna Solf hid fugitive Jews in their house and helped them escape across the border into Switzerland. They also helped prisoners-of-war and smuggled letters and information out of Germany. A Gestapo spy infiltrated their circle and betrayed them. 


Most of their friends were executed, but Lagi and her mother remained in prison. After a bombing raid destroyed all the evidence, they were both released, but were so damaged in their health from their time in prison that both died a few years after the war.

Johanna Solf


Finally, no discussion of the resistance of German women would be complete without including the famous Rosenstrasse protest, one of the largest public displays against Hitler. 

The event happened in early 1943. The Nazis were quickening their round-ups of Berlin Jews, with thousands being deported in horrific conditions to concentration camps.  

Up until this point, Jewish men who had married a non-Jewish woman before the passing of the Nuremburg laws had been protected from the worst of the atrocities. However, Nazi authorities had decided to ignore earlier protestations of protection, and had arrested a large number of these men. They were locked inside a Jewish welfare office on Rosenstrasse. 

Their wives went to protest their arrests, surrounding the building and refusing to leave even when soldiers threatened to fire into the crowd. For over a week, the women picketed the building, making it impossible to transfer the prisoners to the train station. Many threats were made, but the women did not back down and eventually the prisoners were released, including those that had already been sent to Auschwitz. 

A moving set of sculptures in rose-coloured stone now marks the spot where German women faced up to machine-guns to try and save their loved ones. 

You may also be interested in my blogs:

THE BEAST'S GARDEN: How liminal dreaming brought me a story of love, war and resistance 

BEST BOOKS ON THE GERMAN RESISTANCE 

BEST BOOKS ON BERLIN AT WAR

Please leave a comment - I love to know what you think!

BOOK REVIEW: ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr

Friday, July 29, 2016

BLURB:

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

WHAT I THOUGHT:

I loved this story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose stories slowly converge amidst the horror of the Second World War. The book is composed of small vignettes of their lives, as they each struggle to make sense of the madness that is their world. Werner is fascinated by radios, and so is trained to track down the anti-Nazi resistance. Marie-Laure escapes the invasion of Paris with her father and makes it to the old walled town of Saint-Malo where her reclusive uncle remembers his past with an old radio transmitter. When Marie-Laure’s father is arrested, she and her uncle begin to surreptitiously use his old radio to help those fighting to resist the German occupation. And so the two story lines converge, with heart-breaking results. A truly compelling and moving novel.

SPOTLIGHT: Best Children's Books Set in World War II

Sunday, November 08, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Best Children’s Novels Set in World War II

My new novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm fairy tale ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, set in Nazi Germany.

I have been fascinated by World War II ever since I was a child, and read every book I could find set during those tumultuous years as I grew up. 

I thought I’d make up a list of my favourite children’s books set in World War II for you. 


The first book I ever read with that setting was The Diary Of Anne Frank. It sent a seismic shock through my life when I first read it at the age of twelve. Her voice was so honest and true, and her ending so very tragic. I found it devastating, and it began my lifelong fascination with the Second World War.


I am David by Anne Holm was published in 1963, and written by a Danish author. It’s a haunting tale about a 12 year old’s escape from a concentration camp and his struggles to find safety and a home. I have read it again several times, and it never fails to shock and move me. 



The Silver Sword by Ian Serrallier, published in the late 1950s, is another utterly gripping and harrowing children’s book set during World War II. 
On a cold winter’s night in Warsaw, three children watch in horror as the Nazis arrest their mother. Left alone to fend for themselves, in a city that has been bombed into ruins, the three children struggle to stay alive. Eventually they hear their father is alive and has escaped to Switzerland. They set out to find him, keeping as their talisman an old letter opener that they call the silver sword. 


The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico is a small exquisite book about the friendship between a crippled young man, a girl, and a snow goose. It was first published in 1940 as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post, then he expanded it to create a short novella which was first published on April 7, 1941. It was my introduction to the extraordinary story of the Dunkirk evacuation, and has lingered in my imagination ever since. Youc an read a longer review here.


When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr is inspired by the author’s own childhood, growing up in Nazi Berlin. It tells the story of a little girl who does not even realise that she and her family are Jewish until the pogroms begin. Her father – an outspoken writer – has to flee in the middle of the night, and Anna and her mother and brother must try to follow as best they can. I remember lying awake for weeks afterwards, imagining what I would pack … where I would hide … would I remember a can opener? Which one of my beloved soft animals would I take? 


Good night, Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian did not have as strong an impact upon my imagination as many of the other books in my list – perhaps because it is set in England and so the danger did not seem so acute. It tells the story of a skinny Cockney boy sent away from London because of the Blitz. He is reluctantly taken in by a grumpy old man in a small country village, but the two end up being each other’s saviours. As a child, I mainly remembered the scene in which the boy, Willie, is discovered to have been sewn into his undies by his mother … and his bed-wetting …. But I read the book again as an adult, and found it a beautiful and subtle book.
 

I first read Dawn Of Fear by Susan Cooper because I loved her Dark is Rising fantasy series so much, rather than because of its WW2 setting. However, it lingered for a long time in my memory … I think because it felt so real. It tells the story of a mob of boys in blitzed London, their games and feuds, and the sudden shock of tragedy that changes everything. An unjustly ignored book, I think. 


As I grew older, I read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, an utterly brilliant story about the Danish Resistance and how they worked to save nearly all of the country’s Jewish population after the German occupation in 1943. This is a book I return to again and again – it is so simple, and yet so powerful. In my estimation, it is one of the best books for children about World War II.



In my teens, I also read Briar Rose and The Devil’s Arithmetic, both by Jane Yolen. The first is an extraordinary reimagining of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale ‘Briar Rose’, moving between the modern day story of a Holocaust survivor’s granddaughter and her grandmother’s harrowing escape from the Chelmno concentration camp. The second is a timeslip adventure, taking a modern-day girl – who finds her family’s Jewish traditions embarrassing – back to a Polish village in the 1940s. When the Nazi soldiers come and start rounding up the Jewish residents, only Hannah has any idea of what lies in store … but no-one will believe her. Utterly compelling and heart-wrenching.


As I grew up, I never stopped reading WW2 fiction intended for the young … here are a few favourites by contemporary authors:


A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

This is the first in a trilogy about an extraordinary family, the FitzOsbornes, who live in a tumbledown castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray. The FitzOsbornes are minor royalty, and their home has a strategic position in the ocean between Germany and Great Britain. Beginning in 1936, the trilogy charts the lives of the family as war breaks out in Europe. It is fresh, charming, surprising, and will make you smile one moment and weep the next. You can read more about Michelle Cooper and the Montmaray 
Journals here




 
I also really love those books of Eva Ibbotson set during this period. My favourite is A Song for Summer, which tells the story of an unusual English girl who takes a job as a housekeeper in a progressive Austrian boarding school in the late 1930s. As always, the minor characters are extremely eccentric and delightful, but there are darker shadows here as the Third Reich spreads its tentacles over Europe. I’d also recommend The Morning Gift and The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson, set in the same period and sharing her delicious blend of sparkling humour, acute insight, and heart-warming romance.


The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo is one of my daughter’s all-time favourite books. I first read it to her when she was about eight, and she has read it again many times since (Michael Morpurgo is her favourite author). It’s the story of a girl and her cat and their small English village, and the impact of the war upon their lives. I am not ashamed to say I cry at the end every single time. We also love Waiting for Anya and  An Elephant in the Garden by the same author.


One of the most brilliant, clever, and heart-rending novels about WW2 that I have ever read is Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. It was only published in 2012, and so is a recent addition to the oeuvre – and absolutely one of the best.   It tells the story of a young British female spy whose plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Arrested and held prisoner and tortured for information, she tells her story on small scraps of paper … yet is she telling the truth? This is one of those books that is terribly hard to summarise in a blurb, in the fear of giving away the story’s unexpected plot twist … and yet you want to say to everyone: READ  IT!




Elizabeth Wein’s follow-up Rose Under Fire is almost as good … which means it is absolutely soul-shakingly brilliant.


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne has been widely celebrated and has sold a motza. I did not like it much when I first read it – I felt it struck a note of false naivety, plus I thought it was too similar in key ways to Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, which I absolutely loved. However, I have re-read the book a few times since then and have been won over. In a way, its simplicity and naivety make it a key entry point for teenagers who have never read any Holocaust fiction … and its ending (very similar to the ending of Jane Yolen’s novel) at least does not try to escape the awful reality of Auschwitz. 
 
I just hope that readers of John Boyne’s work will go on and read Anne Frank, and Anne Holm, and Ian Serallier, and Jane Yolen, and those other writers of extraordinary WW2 children’s fiction. 


And one final note: I cannot talk about wonderful WW2 children’s’ fiction without mentioning my own sister Belinda Murrell’s brilliant and heart-wrenching novel The Forgotten Pearl, set in Darwin and Sydney in the 1940s.

 


You may also like to read my blog about The Diary of Anne Frank, and how reading it changed my life. 


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!


SPOTLIGHT: Jazz Music in Nazi Germany

Sunday, October 25, 2015

I have always loved jazz music, ever since my mother used to play it to me as a little girl. 


So when I was writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN – my novel set in the German underground resistance in Berlin during the late 1930s and early 1940s – it was a perfect opportunity for me to weave in many of my favourite songs of the era.




The Nazis did not approve of jazz. 


It was seen as a symbol of the decadent and dissolute Weimar Republic. After Hitler came to power in 1933, there were some early prohibitions – jazz music by black or Jewish musicians was banned, for example. 


The repression of jazz music intensified in 1937 and 1938, as many young Germans began to embrace the new jazz-style swing music with its wild dance moves. Many clubs where the Swingjugend (lit. Swing Youth, usually translated as Swing Kids) met to play jazz and dance swing were banned. However, the clubs just moved underground, with the Swing Kids meeting in basements or at each other’s houses. 


Early in the novel, in 1938, my heroine Ava goes to one of these underground jazz clubs with her best friend Rupert. She wants to be a jazz singer, while he plays the trumpet. 


“Listening to jazz and swing was banned, of course. Herr Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, called it ‘niggerjazz’ and ‘jazzbazillus’, as if it was some kind of disease. Ava and Rupert loved it passionately. Whenever they could, they sneaked out to watch Hollywood movies like Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or Day at the Races with the Marx Brothers. There was one scene in that film which Ava just loved, where black male dancers threw their short-skirted partners up into the air and spun them in deft somersaults. All the dancers skipped and swung and spun as if they were all so full of joy they were just about ready to burst out of their skins.”




      

Later: 


“Ava and Rupert loved jazz because it was all about celebrating the individual. Jazz was improvisation, innovation, inspiration. Nazism was all about subjugating the individual. It was control, constraint, constipation.
And so they defied it the only way they knew how - by singing and dancing and swinging.”



Ava has a form of synaesthesia. When she listens to music, she sees colours and images. This is actually a strange gift of mine, which I gave to her. Often – when I describe Ava ‘seeing’ as she listens to music - I am describing what I myself ‘see’. 


“As long as Ava could remember, words and songs and stories had conjured imaginary pictures for her. When her father read fairy tales at night, Ava saw the dark forest leaning over her bed. When she sang ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, she saw a thin black woman creeping away through a forest, carrying all that she owned tied up in a red scarf, hoping to find freedom, hoping to find love. 

People’s names were like flashes of brightly coloured pictures in her mind’s eye. Her father’s name, Otto, was a railway tunnel through a hill of pine trees. Monika’s name was steely-grey and sharp-toothed, like a trap. Bertha was shaped just like her name, soft and billowy and yet capable of stinging. Rupert’s name was a drag on a cigarette, the first mouthful of smoke, the hit at the back of the throat. Jutta was one of those feisty little black terriers, always barking at bigger dogs. 

Ava’s mother’s name had been Clementina. It was a joyous name, full of sunshine and sweetness, yellow-gold as C major. There was nothing sharp or black or cruel about the name Clementina. Ava had never known her mother, but when she whispered her name she saw her, golden-skinned and smiling. 

Her own name was white-winged, like a bird leaping into the sky. AVA. 

Then there was Nazi. A word with claws.”


Here is Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’ 





 Ava’s “favourite song of all time was Billie Holiday singing ‘Summertime’, with Artie Shaw on clarinet and Bunny Berigan on trumpet. Billie’s voice was not perfect by any means. It was tremulous, even weak. There were no astonishing vocal acrobatics, no extraordinary range. Yet it raised all the hairs on Ava’s arms. 

As Billie Holiday sang, Ava saw in her mind’s eye a sad-eyed black woman with her head wrapped in a kerchief, rocking a drowsy child in her arms. The endless flat cotton fields stretched away to the horizon, sharp-etched thorns snagging blowsy white balls like clouds hooked from the sky. The light was golden, thunderous. White-winged birds soared high. But the black woman must stay, pinned to the spot, to that life. Her voice broke. She could sing no longer. So the two voices of the trumpet and the clarinet sang for her, giving her the strength to lift her voice again, to spin out that thin thread of hope to the sleeping child. 

Listening to that song, Ava felt it in every cell of her body. It made her want to cry, thickening her throat and burning her eyes. It made her want to dance, a slow sun-worshipping sway, lifting her arms to the sky. It made her want to sing.”


Billie Holiday singing ‘Summertime’ is my all-time favourite song too.





Another favourite song of mine that Ava sings is Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Under the Spell of the Blues’.





And I describe Rupert doing a trumpet solo of ‘The Very Thought of You’. Here is the amazing Wynton Marsalis and his band playing the same song:






 
After the beginning of World War II, it became even more dangerous to listen to jazz. Many Swing Kids were arrested and sent to concentration camps.  


Rupert was one of them. He was sent to Buchenwald.


One of the biggest and most brutal of the German camps, Buchenwald later became famous for its underground musical ensembles. A jazz band was set up there in 1943, with the musicians been given easier jobs in the camp to protect them. Instruments were bought or stolen, and the musicians ranged from young to old, amateur to professional. Rehearsals were held secretly during official work time. Eventually, the camp jazz band played even to the SS officers, who were bored and wanted entertainment.  



"Buchenwald Concert" - Pierre Mania

In the outside world, jazz was breaking free of Goebbels’ bans as well. German soldiers were so sick of the old-fashioned folk music being released by the Propaganda Ministry they were illegally tuning into British and American radio stations to listen to their jazz tunes. Goebbels knew the importance of maintaining morale, both among the military and civilians. So he set up state-sanctioned jazz bands that played state-sanctioned jazz music. 


However, after the cataclysmic defeat of German forces at Stalingrad in February 1943, Goebbels declared a state of 'total war' and all entertainment venues – including opera houses – were shut down. Most of Berlin had been bombed into rubble, and the dreadful machinery of the Holocaust was grinding millions into dust. 


“For Ava, music had always been the way to heal herself. When she sang of loss and love and longing, she brought those feelings out of the darkness and into the light. She had always thought that she would die if she could not sing, as if music was a part of her body, like her heart or her lungs or her liver. Now Berlin lay in ruins …. Ava was not sure that she ever wanted to sing again.” 


Somehow she finds the strength to sing again, in order to save her husband. Dressed in gold silk, she sings to a room of SS officers. The song is Billie Holiday’s ‘Lover Man’







You may also enjoy my blogs on:


THE BEAST’S GARDEN: HOW A BOOK CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE



BEST BOOKS ON BERLIN AT WAR



BEST MEMOIRS OF LIFE IN BERLIN DURING WW2



THE BEAST’S GARDEN: How liminal dreaming brought me a story of love, war & resistance




THE BEAST'S GARDEN: How a book can change your life

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Sometimes a book can change your life.

The Diary of Anne Frank was that kind of book for me. 

I read it when I was twelve years old.  I can still remember the awful shock of reaching the end, and finding out that Anne did not escape her attic, that she died in Bergen-Belsen when she was only a few years older than I was. 

I had never read a book like it before. It felt like I had been punched hard in the solar plexus. I could not breathe, I could not cry. My very heart felt bruised.


Anne Frank

I began to write my own diary a few days later. Anne Frank had written hers as a series of letters addressed to an imaginary friend named Kitty. I did the same, but addressed mine to “Carrie”. The first entry was written on 15/8/1978 and began ‘Dear Diary, your name is now Carrie. You’ll be my confidant and my port in which to lay my head and my poor worn-out hopes, thoughts and ambitions …’ 

I have written in my diary nearly every day since. That is thirty-seven years of consecutive diary writing, much more than the two years so tragically given to Anne Frank.

Her diary also sparked in me a lifelong fascination with Hitler, and those few brave people who tried their best to resist Nazism. I began to collect a library of books to do with the Second World War, many of them first-hand accounts and memoirs. I was particularly interested in stories of ordinary people who found within themselves extraordinary courage and strength. I knew that one day I would try and write a novel about someone like Anne Frank. 

The years passed, and I wrote a great many books. More than thirty-five at last count. My books range from picture books to poetry, and from heroic fantasy for children to historical novels for adults. I have written books set in Renaissance Venice and at the court of the Sun King in Versailles, in the English Civil War and in the perilous reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Napoleonic Wars, and in worlds of my own imagining. Yet the Second World War never loosened its hold on my imagination. I continued to read as many books as I could find set at that period, and to continue to think about writing one of my own. 

Fairy tales are another long-held passion of mine. I have just completed a doctorate in the subject, and many of my novels have fairy tale motifs and metaphors entwined through their stories. 

The Wild Girl tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most beloved ‘wonder tales’. She told him stories like ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘Six Swans’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, and ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,’ a beautiful variant on the tale we know as ‘The Beauty and the Beast’. 

Arthur Rackham's illustration for 'The Singing, Springing Lark' 

In this story, the father catches a lark, rather than stealing a rose, and the beast of the tale is a lion by day and a man by night (an arrangement which I always thought might have its compensations). The greatest difference, however, is the ending. In Dortchen Wild’s tale, the heroine must follow a trail of blood and white feathers her lover leaves behind him, and then outwit the enchantress who first cast the curse upon him. The heroine is given three gifts to help her: a dress as golden as the sun, another as silver as the moon, and a griffin on which to escape. 

Writing a novel always throws up many unexpected ideas as well as unforeseen problems, and The Wild Girl was no exception.  Taking place over twenty years, and told from the point of view of a young woman forgotten by history, The Wild Girl was very research-intensive indeed. And, for a long while, I did not have a strong sense of the narrative structure. I knew I wanted to retell one of Dortchen’s stories in some way; I did not yet know how. 

While researching the Grimm Brothers, I was distressed to learn their tales had been banned in Germany after the Second World War, as part of the Allies’ Denazification program. Hitler had loved the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales and had recommended all German households have a copy on their shelves. I went to bed that night troubled and upset. I loved the Grimm tales too. In times of darkness and fear, they had given me light and comfort. Yet I had always hated the Nazis and all they stood for, including their burning of books. 

I could not get to sleep that night, my mind in turmoil.  Eventually I got up and found myself a novel to read. I chose an old World War II thriller, about the Danish resistance to the Nazis. I read the whole book through, finally going to sleep long after midnight. Just before I fell asleep, I thought again about the novel I was struggling to write and about the beautiful tales Dortchen Wild had told Wilhelm Grimm. I said to myself: “Trust in the universe. The answer will come.” 

The next morning, as I drifted in that hypnopompic state between sleeping and waking, an image rose up in my mind’s eye. I saw a beautiful young woman, wearing a dress as golden as the sun, singing in a vast dark hall. Her audience were German soldiers in black SS uniforms. I knew instinctively that she was some kind of spy, or resistance fighter, and also that she was German herself. 

I wrote in my diary that day, Monday 3rd October 2011: ‘I couldn’t sleep last night for worrying about Wild Girl … I need something new, strange, unexpected, surprising … I woke this morning and lay in that dim borderland between awake and asleep, that place of creative dreaming, and the idea came to me – why not have the secondary tale set in WWII … perhaps she has to flee and live wild in the woods – or joins the German Resistance - & she carries everywhere a copy of the Grimm fairy tales, as a kind of talisman … it feels good, it feels right, it feels hard and scary – but absolutely seems it have some kind of power to it …’  

My unconscious mind had put together two very different desires – wanting to write a novel about resistance to the Nazis and wanting to retell one of Dortchen Wild’s fairy tales – and come up with something quite unexpected. 

That was the beginning of my novel The Beast’s Garden, a retelling of the Grimms’ version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, set in the German underground resistance to Hitler.

That vision, that not-quite-a-dream, was the beginning of an extraordinary journey of discovery for me. At first, I thought that this story of courage and resistance would be the second narrative strand in The Wild Girl. Slowly I came to realise it was a novel in its own right. I had to put the idea aside as I wrote The Wild Girl and finished my doctorate in fairy tale studies. The idea would not leave me alone, however. I began to read as much as I could about the German Resistance. 

I discovered, rather to my surprise, that many Germans abhorred the Nazis and risked their lives to stand against Hitler. I read about the Swing Kids who played jazz and danced swing in basements and cellars, despite the threat of arrest. The White Rose group of students in Munich printed leaflets calling the German people to rise up against the Third Reich. The Edelweiss Pirates in Cologne did battle with the Hitler Youth and hid deserters from the army. The Baum group in Berlin blew up one of Goebbels’ exhibitions. Other resisters smuggled Jews out of Germany, or hid them in their houses and gardens. Most of them paid for their defiance with their lives.

One of the most successful groups of resisters was based in Berlin. The Gestapo called them the Red Orchestra. They called themselves the Zirkel, which simply means circle. Their members were writers, actors, journalists, musicians and sculptors. Their leaders were a Luftwaffe officer called Harro Schulze-Boysen, his young aristocratic wife Libertas, and their friends Arvid and Mildred Harnack. Mildred would earn the terrible distinction of being the only American woman to be executed by the Third Reich.

Harro & Libertas Schulze-Boysen, who were both executed for their resistance to the Third Reich

I imagined a young German woman (the Beauty of the tale) who marries a Nazi officer (the Beast) in order to save her father. But secretly Ava helps her Jewish friends whever she can. One day she meets Libertas, and is drawn into the dangerous world of the underground resistance. Living a double life, she must spy on her husband Leo in order to help save whom she can. Gradually she comes to suspect her husband is himself involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. When the plot fails, Ava must risk everything to try and save her husband from a cruel traitor’s death. 


The Beast’s Garden was in many ways the most difficult book I have ever written. I found the research utterly harrowing. For months, every day was spent reading about Hitler, about the Gestapo, about the Holocaust. I wrote the first draft entirely in first person, as if it was a diary or a memoir. But then I found it was too limiting, trying to tell such a big story from just one person’s point of view. I rewrote the entire book, in just six weeks, from a number of different points of view, including that of a Jewish girl in hiding. 

On Thursday 12 February 2015, I wrote in my diary: ‘I finished the novel last night, at 1am … and could not sleep afterwards … very tired now, but oh so happy …’


The Beast’s Garden is my paean to all those ordinary people who found such extraordinary courage and strength of spirit within them during the dark days of the Third Reich, including, of course, Anne Frank and the people who hid her and her family. 

You can read more about my liminal dreaming here and more about my research books for THE BEAST'S GARDEN here


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REVIEW: The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico, illustrated by Angela Barrett

Monday, September 28, 2015



The Snow Goose – Paul Gallico (illustrated by Angela Barrett)


The Blurb:
A stunning new edition of a beloved children’s classic.

On the desolate Essex marshes, a young girl, Fritha, comes to seek help from Philip Rhayader, a recluse who lives in an abandoned lighthouse. She carries in her arms a wounded snow goose that has been storm-tossed across the Atlantic from Canada. Fritha is frightened of Rhayader, but he is gentler than his appearance suggests and nurses the goose back to health. Over the following months and years, Fritha visits the lighthouse when the snow goose is there. And every summer, when it flies away, Thayader is left alone once more.


My Thoughts:

The Snow Goose is set in the years running up to the evacuation of Dunkirk in the Second World War. Originally published in 1940 in the Saturday Evening Post, it was brought out in book form the following year by Knopf, Michael Joseph and M&S simultaneously. It won the prestigious O Henry prize that same year and has been continually in print ever since. The Snow Goose has inspired a number of musical scores and albums, has been made into two feature films and moved generations of readers. A new feature film will be released in the coming year.

Beautifully written, with a powerful ending, and breathtakingly illustrated, this is an exquisite edition of Gallico’s masterpiece. 


I remember reading this beautiful book when I was a child. It’s the story of a young crippled man, a girl, and a snow goose in 1940s Essex, in the lead-up to World War II. It’s a story of kindness and friendship, of the beauty of nature and our need to protect it, and of the importance of not judging by appearances. It is also a love story. Philip Rhavader is a hunchback, shunned by all, who looks after hurt and injured animals. He makes friends with a young girl named Fritha who brings him a snow goose to tend. As she grows into a beautiful young woman, he falls in love with her but cannot speak of what is in his heart. Then the Second World War breaks out, and Philip sails across to France to help rescue the thousands of soldiers stranded at Dunkirk. As a child, the book made a strong impression on me, but I had not read it in years. When I saw this lovely new edition, with exquisite illustrations by Angela Barrett, I had to buy it for my daughter.


It was such a pleasure reading it again - and so this book is part of my secret 50/50 project, in which I am trying to re-read all my favourite books again. 


SPOTLIGHT: Best Books on Berlin at War

Friday, September 25, 2015

My novel THE BEAST'S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm brothers' version of 'Beauty & the Beast' set in Nazi Germany. 

The story takes place between Kristallnacht in November 1938, and the fall of Berlin in April 1948, with most of the action centred on Berlin, the nerve centre of the Third Reich. 

I read a great many books to help me imagine what life must have been like in Berlin during those tumultuous years. Here is a list of those that helped me most:



BERLIN AT WAR - Roger Moorhouse

This book rarely left my desk for the months and months it took me to research and write THE BEAST'S GARDEN. Lucidly written and a mine of information, it is probably the best book on what it was like for ordinary Germans to live at the epicentre of Hitler's war. I can recommend this to anyone!



THE FALL OF BERLIN 1945 - Antony Beevor 

The story of the Fall of Berlin is one of terror and betrayal, destruction and bloodshed, rape and revenge, and is not one for the faint-hearted. Antony Beevor has examined every aspect of the events leading up to the cataclysmic destruction of Berlin in April 1945. The book is incredibly well-researched, and beautifully written, but is best for those who have already extensively studied the history of Germany in the Second World War, or those with a particular acute interest in warfare and battles - every manoeuvre, every push and retreat, is given space on this book's pages. Perfect for me, since I needed a day-by-day breakdown of the city's fall!   



INSIDE HITLER'S GERMANY: Life Under the Third Reich - Matthew Hughes and Chris Mann

A broad and accessible look at life in the Third Reich, with lots of pictures and breakout boxes. Useful and informative, with a good bibliography.


VICTORY IN EUROPE - Gerald Simons (with the editors of Time-Life Books)   

A simple and well-illustrated look at the final months of the Second World War in Europe, with lots of maps and photographs and newspaper headlines. It is one of a whole series of Time-Life illustrated books on World War II which I bought at a second-hand booksale in an old church in the Hunter Valley (with thanks to my brother Nick who lent me the money to buy them, then carried the heavy box out to the car.)

I also read a number of memoirs of life in Berlin during the war. The most useful to me were LETTERS FROM BERLIN by Margarete Dos and Kerstin Lieff, and BERLIN DIARIES 1940-1945, by Marie Vassiltchikov.  You can read more about them here.

You can also read my blogs on Best Books on Hitler and Best Books on Jews in Nazi Germany 

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SPOTLIGHT: Best Books on the German Resistance

Thursday, September 24, 2015



My novel THE BEAST'S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm Brothers' version of 'Beauty & the Beast', set in the underground German resistance in Nazi Berlin. I first got the idea in a liminal dream - as I drifted in the shadowlands between sleeping and waking, I saw an image of a young woman, dressed in a 1940s golden gown, singing to a nightclub full of men in black SS uniforms. I knew - I don't know how - that she was German, and a member of an underground resistance movement sworn fight against Hitler.  (You can read the whole story about that first moment of inspiration here).

I had not realised that there was a German resistance movement before.  

had heard about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose group, and knew there had been numerous attempts to assassinate Hitler, but that was the extent of my knowledge. 

I got out of bed and went down to my study to see what I could find out.  Within a day or two, I had most of the plot of THE BEAST'S GARDEN roughly planned.

Over the next few years, I read many books about the German Resistance, and I thought I would share some of them with you, if you were interested on going on to read more.



GERMANY'S UNDERGROUND: The Anti-Nazi Resistance - Allan Welsh Dulles

This is the classic account of the German Underground, written by someone who was there on the ground and published in 1947. 

Allen W. Dulles was the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Switzerland during the war. This was the predecessor of the CIA and was formed to conduct espionage behind enemy lines. He concentrates on the 1944 Generals Plot to assassinate Hitler, best known as Operation Valkyrie, but does touch upon many other resistance groups, such as the Kreisau Group. A really good place to start, as I discovered.   




OPERATION VALKYIE: The German Generals' Plot Against Hitler - Pierre Galante
This account of the Generals' Plot looks at the sequence of events from the beginning of the conspiracy to the bitter failure of the end. The Generals' Plot has been immortalised by Tom Cruise in the 2008 movie 'Valkyrie', so most people will know the basic story arc - the madness of Hitler, the growing unease at many in his army command as the Holocaust began its terrible human toll, and the repeated failed attempts to assassinate the dictator.  This is a very readable and persuasive account of the events which led to the July 1944 plot to blow up Hitler at his Wolf's Lair headquarters, and the violent aftermath of its failure. 


ON THE ROAD TO THE WOLF'S LAIR: German Resistance to Hitler - Theodore S. Hamerow
A scholarly examination of the men and women who worked to bring about the Operation Valkyrie, with many references to primary documents such as letters, diaries, and reports. It is particularly concerned with the slow awakening of conscience in the generals and other army personnel, and their individual decisions to risk their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, to kill Hitler. A fascinating but rather heavy read.

COUNTDOWN TO VALKYRIE: the July Plot to Assassinate Hitler - Nigel Jones

A very readable account of Operation Valkyrie, with a close look at the personalities of the men involved, and the chronology of the events. Very useful to me as I built my timeline!


CONFRONT! Resistance in Nazi Germany - ed. John J. Michalczyk 

A more scholarly look at the topic, with a variety of different essays each focusing on a different aspect of resistance within Germany. 


CANARIS: Hitler's Spy Chief - Richard Bassett

A biography of the fascinating and enigmatic man at the centre of the plot to assassinate Hitler - the dictator's own spy chief. Canaries was head of the Abwehr, the German secret intelligence service, yet he worked quietly for years to feed information to the Allies and  misinformation to Hitler. He paid for it with his life, just days before the liberation of the concentration camps by the Allies.  



RESISTING HITLER: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra  - Shareen Blair Brysac

RED ORCHESTRA: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends who Resisted Hitler - Anne Nelson 

At the heart of THE BEAST'S GARDEN is the tragic story of the Red Orchestra, a circle of writers, actors, artists, journalists and academics who played a dangerous double game as they lived and worked in Berlin yet passed on secret information to the Allies. These two books were absolutely crucial to me in building my story, and I studied them again and again.  It is an absolutely fascinating and largely unknown part of German history, and I really encourage anyone interested in the German resistance to read these two books.  


BERLIN GHETTO: Herbert Baum and the Anti-Fascist Resistance - Eric Brothers

A little known circle of resisters were a group of young Jewish couples and friends who tried to blow up Goebbels' anti-Soviet exhibition, smuggling the fuses and gunpowder out of the armaments factories in which they worked as slave labour. The bomb attempt largely failed, and most paid for their defiance with their lives, but its a significant example of Jewish resistance to Hitler. 



SOPHIE SCHOLL: The Real Story of the Woman Who Defied Hitler - Frank McDonough 

The story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose group of friends is probably the most famous account of resistance in Germany, and - like so many others - it has a tragic ending. This is a really balanced and beautifully written account, and a great place to start if you want to discover more about those courageous Munich students. 


WOMEN HEROES OF WORLD WAR II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue  - Kathryn J. Atwood

A fascinating account of brave young women of many different nationalities, including Germany as well as the Netherlands, Poland, France, Denmark and the UK and US.   


 
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