Book Review: A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939–1940

by Iris Origo

When a complimentary copy of this book arrived in the mail from Pushkin Press, I immediately noticed that the introduction had been written by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, author of The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War – a brilliant, multi award winning biography of the notorious Italian poet and playwright. This certainly boded well in my mind for Iris Origo’s diary, which covers the months leading up to Italy’s entry into the Second World War.

English born Iris came from a privileged background and lived in Italy for most of her life, marrying the illegitimate son of Marchese Clemente Origo in 1924. Together they purchased a 7,000 acre estate in Tuscany and brought prosperity to a poverty stricken region. During the war she sheltered innumerable refugees and helped Allied prisoners escape from the fascist regime. She was appointed DBE in 1976.

Origo was already known to me as being one of the finest diarists of the twentieth century for her moving and compassionate journal detailing Italy’s disastrous involvement in the same conflict, War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944, first published in 1947. Aware that her book had been a critical success, I had coincidentally just been reading extracts from it in Irene and Alan Taylor’s The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists.

Published this month for the first time ever, A Chill in the Air details the extraordinary events to which she was witness during a most peculiar period in Italy’s history. She writes next to nothing about herself or her personal life but records the discussions she had with, among others, peasants, farm workers, friends, members of the aristocracy and her godfather, William Philips, the US Ambassador in Rome – and it is plain to see the incredulity of the ordinary people as Mussolini dragged them to war.

Unable to leave Italy for the duration of the war, Origo was a resident alien, but she was also an astute observer with an excellent understanding of Italian politics, and put her time to good use. However, while her more famous diary vividly records a rural farming community surviving the horrors of conflict, this is a very different document, which is likely to appeal to historians and those with an academic interest in the period rather than the general reader. It does, nevertheless, add to her fascinating oeuvre and is worth perusing in tandem with War in Val d’Orcia.

Many thanks to Pushkin Press for  gifting a copy of this title.

Book Review: House of Fiction: From Pemberley to Brideshead, Great British Houses in Literature and Life

by Phyllis Richardson

Phyllis Richardson is the author of several books on architecture and design, and in this, her latest compendium, she writes knowledgeably about the great fictional British houses we have come to know intimately over the last four hundred or so years. She also scrutinizes the actual bricks and mortar structures that inspired many well-known novelists to create their most memorable stories.

What do people’s homes (grand or otherwise) say about their characters, wealth and standing in society? Writers have repeatedly posed these questions in their works of fiction, and their observations have rarely failed to engage the reader’s imagination.

Richardson highlights the layout, location and other more intimate aspects of these houses in some detail – no dingy niche, winding staircase or flying buttress is left unexamined. She is particularly good on the dwellings behind Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Her chapter on Charles Dickens rediscovering Gad’s Hill Place while on the road to Rochester, and gloomy Satis House, the Gothic pile he dreamt up for Miss Havisham in Great Expectations is exceptionally good. Facts such as Virginia Woolf basing Orlando on Vita Sackville-West and her family’s great Tudor home, Knole, were well-known to me, while others, like Thomas Hardy designing his own writer’s residence, less so.

Some chronicles are inevitably more interesting than others (your favourites are likely to be determined by your taste in reading), and I found myself skimming over certain architectural details. There are, however, fascinating descriptions of Groby Hall, the inspiration behind Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End; Menabilly, Daphne du Maurier’s beloved home, on which Manderley from Rebecca was based; and the numerous settings used by Agatha Christie in her popular crime fiction novels. In fact, there is plenty here to interest most, if not all, lovers of literature.

Houses of Fiction can be perused at leisure or read in several sittings. Either way, it is entertaining, often witty and well worth your time.

NB This book was funded directly by readers through the website Unbound.

Many thanks to Unbound for supplying an advance review copy of this title.

Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

by Heather Morris

In late 1942, when Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov passed through the most notorious gates in modern history, he was a healthy, bright, outgoing young man with a penchant for the company of women. To reach his destination he had travelled for two days on an overcrowded cattle train from Prague without access to food, water or toilets. From this point on he became Prisoner Number 32407 at Auschwitz II–Birkenau, and having survived the initial selection and a serious bout of typhus, he was put to work as camp tattooist.

He had been manager of a fashionable department store in Bratislava when the Slovak Government decreed that every Jewish family living in his home town of Krompachy should send one child over the age of eighteen to work for the Germans. He was multilingual, quick to learn and adored his mother, so offered himself up for transportation in the hope of protecting his family.

Lale did what had to be done to survive, but he also boosted morale and saved inestimable lives by appropriating food and medical supplies from under the noses of the SS Death’s Head Units. He was naturally empathetic, well liked by his fellow prisoners and held out to the end with his dignity and integrity unblemished. More amazingly, perhaps, is that he developed a deep and enduring love for a women he had branded upon entering the camp.

When the writer Heather Morris met him in 2003 he was an elderly businessman living in Australia. They became unlikely friends and she saw that he “might just have a story worth telling”. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the remarkable, percipient, utterly unforgettable novel she based on Lale’s experiences as camp tätowierer.

Although a natural optimist with a tremendous zest for life, Lale feared history might remember him as a Nazi collaborator, which is why he agreed to tell his story. He died on 31st October 2006, aged 90, believing to the end that, “If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.”

Many thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for supplying an advance copy of this title for review.

Book Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

by Matthew J. Sullivan

Author Matthew J. Sullivan, a bona fide Denverite, has set his debut novel in the Lower Downtown district of Denver, Colorado, and the City is as much a character in his story as the patrons (fondly known as BookFrogs) of the Bright Ideas Bookstore.

LoDo has evolved from skid row to hip and happening neighbourhood in a relatively short space of time – urban reinvestment producing a sort of cultural renaissance – and protagonist, Lydia Smith, whom I suspect is (like myself) on the autistic spectrum, finds these changes somewhat unsettling. She has worked in the book shop for a number of years and has developed a soft spot for the shabby male misfits and eccentrics whose isolated lives are made endurable only by this sanctuary amongst the shelves.

One BookFrog in particular, the intriguing but emotionally damaged Joey Molina, brings out Lydia’s maternal instincts. However, his horrific suicide leads to a concatenation of unexpected developments involving defaced books, the reappearance of peeps from the past and the gradual disclosure of deeply buried secrets. It also forces her to confront memories of her intensely traumatic childhood – something she has endeavoured to suppress almost as much from herself as from her boyfriend and colleagues.

The plot rattles along like the Platte Valley Trolley with each fresh revelation leading to an ever more vexing question, and ciphers discovered between the pages of seemingly unrelated books – the twists and turns emerge thick and fast.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is not a cosy or frivolous tale, more a disquieting mystery set against the background of a changing city, which should appeal to crime fiction readers and bookish literature lovers alike. It has a few rough edges, but no more so than one would expect from a first novel. In the main it is a cracking read and would make an ideal gift for a whodunnit aficionado.

Many thanks to Random House UK for supplying a copy of this title for review.

Book Review: Novel On Yellow Paper

by Stevie Smith

I rather like Pompey Casmilus, the narrator of this slightly off-kilter stream of consciousness novel, which in Stevie Smith’s opinion makes me a “foot-off-the-ground” sort of person. Not only is this a jolly good thing to be, but it is wholly necessary if one is to fully appreciate her exuberant chatter.

This was Smith’s first novel, printed in 1936, and could perhaps be described as a frenetic, not quite fictional, ingeniously funny memoir. The sagacious Pompey (secretary to magazine publisher, Sir Phoebus Ullwater) confabulates on topics as diverse as sex, The Church, Nazism, single women, death, matrimony and oh so much more. She discusses and analyses the people in her life – characters quite obviously based on Smith’s actual friends and relatives – and leaves the reader feeling altogether exhilarated, enervated and not infrequently bewildered.

I expect people either love or loathe this book. I loved it!

NB The text is peppered with German words and expressions (Latin and French, too), but this wasn’t a problem for me because my Kindle offered instant translation.

Also see: Book Review: Me Again: Uncollected Writings Of Stevie Smith

Book Review: Shooting Stars Are the Flying Fish of the Night

by Lynn Michell & Stefan Gregory

What a fabulous title, was my initial reaction to receiving Shooting Stars are the Flying Fish of the Night from Linen Press.

I grew up on the North Wales coast and spent large chunks of my childhood in and on the sea, so I was immediately drawn to this true tale of mother, father and son setting out together on a maritime adventure of a lifetime. The father, Stefan Gregory, an enthusiastic boatman, and the mother, Lynn Michell, the Director of Linen Press– seasoned sailing partners of some thirty years.

The narrative begins in 2003 and continues throughout with male and female monologues, allowing the reader to follow the thoughts, fears, highs and and lows (what the intrepid couple call “internal voyages”) of the Skipper and his First Mate as they cross the vast expanse of ocean. A kind of nautical he-says/she-says, if you like.

I have to confess that I zoned out slightly when reading about the vital statistics of various sailing vessels, but to be fair, that had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the writing and everything to do with my lack of interest in the practicalities of finding, purchasing and equipping a boat. However, the excitement picked up considerably once Stefan and Lynn found Scarlet, their perfect craft, and set sail for Europe from the north east coast of America.

I do not want to include any spoilers in this review, so suffice it to say, fatigue, fog, sea sickness, food shortages, mountainous waves, sensational sunsets, dolphins and yes, shooting stars and flying fish, all have their part to play the story. The family kept their heads and their humour throughout this incredible journey and I felt as if I were on board that boat with them for every nautical mile.

A highly enjoyable read.

Many thanks to Linen Press for gifting a copy of this title.

Book Review: Life After Life

by Kate Atkinson

It is difficult to know how to define Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s 2013 Costa Book Award winning novel. It is part Historical Fiction because of its authentic depiction of English life both during and between the World Wars, however, since the protagonist is repeatedly reincarnated into the same life, it could more precisely be placed in the Sci-fi sub genre category of Time Travel.

It all begins (and keeps beginning) on 11th February 1910, during a particularly heavy snow storm, but the end date varies according to what at first appear to be quite minor decisions on the part of Ursula – the third child of Sylvie and Hugh Todd – which only too often lead to devastating, life-changing and not infrequently tragic consequences for herself and those around her.

This is a book about second chances and what-ifs. It also reveals hidden secrets, explores love in its myriad forms and displays sheer British pluckiness in the face of nightly bombing raids during the Blitz. All this is borne with understated humour and stiff upper lip by the Todd family as they move through varying versions of the same life.

Kate Atkinson’s ingenious novel shows us how small changes of behaviour can have seismic repercussions throughout history. She also left me wondering how some of the terrible events of the 20th century might have been avoided.

Incidentally, this is the first in a duology about the Todd family, the second being A God in Ruins (2015).