#BlogTour The Evacuee Christmas by Katie King

The Evacuee Christmas Blog Tour[6]

It’s my turn on the Blog-Tour for The Evacuee Christmas by Katie King and I’m delighted to be able to offer you the chance to read Chapter One of this tearjerker of a read. Enjoy! Oh, and at the bottom of this post is my review.

About the Author

Katie King is a new voice to the saga market. She lives in Kent, and has worked in publishing. She has a keen interest in twentieth-century history and was inspired by a period spent living in South East London.

Follow @KatieKingWrite @HQDigitalUK @HQstories on Twitter

Follow @KatieKingSagaAuthor on Facebook

Buy The Evacuee Christmas

About the book

Autumn 1939 and London prepares to evacuate its young. In No 5 Jubilee Street, Bermondsey, ten-year-old Connie is determined to show her parents that she’s a brave girl and can look after her twin brother, Jessie. She won’t cry, not while anyone’s watching.

In the crisp Yorkshire Dales, Connie and Jessie are billeted to a rambling vicarage. Kindly but chaotic, Reverend Braithwaite is determined to keep his London charges on the straight and narrow, but the twins soon find adventures of their own.

As autumn turns to winter, Connie’s dearest wish is that war will end and they will be home for Christmas. But this Christmas Eve there will be an unexpected arrival…

Extract – Chapter One of The Evacuee Christmas

The shadows were starting to lengthen as twins Connie and Jessie made their way back home. They felt quite grown up these days as a week earlier it had been their tenth birthday, and their mother Barbara had iced a cake and there’d been a raucous tea party at home for family and their close friends, with party games and paper hats. The party had ended in the parlour with Barbara bashing out songs on the old piano and everyone having a good old sing-song.

What a lot of fun it had been, even though by bedtime Connie felt queasy from eating too much cake, and Jessie had a sore throat the following morning from yelling out the words to ‘The Lambeth Walk’ with far too much vigour.

On the twins’ iced Victoria sponge Barbara had carefully piped Connie’s name in cerise icing with loopy lettering and delicately traced small yellow and baby-pink flowers above it. Then Barbara had thoroughly washed out her metal icing gun and got to work writing Jessie’s name below his sister’s on the lower half of the cake.

This time Barbara chose to work in boxy dark blue capitals, with a sailboat on some choppy turquoise and deep-blue waves carefully worked in contrasting-coloured icing as the decoration below his name, Jessie being very sensitive about his name and the all-too-common assumption, for people who hadn’t met him but only knew him by the name ‘Jessie’, that he was a girl.

If she cared to think about it, which she tried not to, Barbara heartily regretted that Ted had talked her into giving their only son as his Christian name the Ross family name of Jessie which, as tradition would have it, was passed down to the firstborn male in each new generation of Rosses.

It wasn’t even spelt Jesse, as it usually was if naming a boy, because – Ross family tradition again – Jessie was on the earlier birth certificates of those other Jessies and in the family Bible that lay on the sideboard in the parlour at Ted’s elder brother’s house, and so Jessie was how it had to be for all the future Ross generations to come.

Ted had told Barbara what an honour it was to be called Jessie, and Barbara, still weak from the exertions of the birth, had allowed herself to be talked into believing her husband. She must have still looked a little dubious, though, as then Ted pointed out that his own elder brother Jessie was a gruff-looking giant with huge arms and legs, and nobody had ever dared tease him about his name. It was going to be just the same for their newborn son, Ted promised.

Big Jessie (as Ted’s brother had become known since the birth of his nephew) was in charge of the maintenance of several riverboats on the River Thames, Ted working alongside him, and Big Jessie, with his massive bulk, could single-handedly fill virtually all of the kitchen hearth in his and his wife Val’s modest terraced house that backed on to the Bermondsey street where Ted and Barbara raised their children in their own, almost identical red-brick house.

Barbara could see why nobody in their right mind would mess with Big Jessie, even though those who knew him soon discovered that his bruiser looks belied his gentle nature as he was always mild of manner and slow to anger, with a surprisingly soft voice.

Sadly, it had proved to be a whole different story for young Jessie, who had turned out exactly as Barbara had suspected he would all those years ago when she lovingly gazed down at her newborn twins, with the hale and hearty Connie (named after Barbara’s mother Constance) dwarfing her more delicate-framed brother as they lay length to length with their toes almost touching and their heads away from each other in the beautifully crafted wooden crib Ted had made for the babies to sleep in.

These days, Barbara could hardly bear to see how cruelly it all played out on the grubby streets on which the Ross family lived. To say it fair broke Barbara’s heart was no exaggeration. While Connie was tall, tomboyish and could easily pass for twelve, and very possibly older, Jessie was smaller and more introverted, often looking a lot younger than he was.

Barbara hated the way Jessie would shrink away from the bigger south-east London lads when they tussled him to the ground in their rough-house games. All the boys had their faces rubbed in the dirt by the other lads at one time or another – Barbara knew and readily accepted that that was part and parcel of a child’s life in the tangle of narrow and dingy streets they knew so well – but very few people had to endure quite the punishing that Jessie did with such depressing regularity.

Connie would confront the vindictive lads on her brother’s behalf, her chin stuck out defiantly as she dared them to take her on instead. If the boys didn’t immediately back away from Jessie, she blasted in their direction an impressive slew of swear words that she’d learnt by dint of hanging around on the docks when she took Ted his lunch in the school holidays. (It was universally agreed amongst all the local boys that when Connie was in a strop, it was wisest to do what she wanted, or else it was simply asking for trouble.)

Meanwhile, as Connie berated all and sundry, Jessie would freeze with a cowed expression on his face, and look as if he wished he were anywhere else but there. Needless to say, it was with a ferocious regularity that he found himself at the mercy of these bigger, stronger rowdies.

Usually this duffing-up happened out of sight of any grown-ups and, ideally, Connie. But the times Barbara spied what was going on all she wanted to do was to run over and take Jessie in her arms to comfort him and promise him it would be all right, and then keep him close to her as she led him back inside their home at number five Jubilee Street. However, she knew that if she even once gave into this impulse, then kind and placid Jessie would never live it down, and he would remain the butt of everyone’s poor behaviour for the rest of his childhood.

Barbara loved Connie, of course, as what mother wouldn’t be proud of such a lively, proud, strong-minded daughter, with her distinctive and lustrous tawny hair, clear blue eyes and strawberry-coloured lips, and her constant stream of chatter? (Connie was well known in the Ross family for being rarely, if ever, caught short of something to say.)

Nevertheless, it was Jessie who seemed connected to the essence of Barbara’s inner being, right to the very centre of her. If Barbara felt tired or anxious, it wouldn’t be long before Jessie was at her side, shyly smiling up to comfort his mother with his warm, endearingly lopsided grin.

Barbara never really worried about Connie, who seemed pretty much to have been born with a slightly defiant jib to her chin, as if she already knew how to look after herself or how to get the best from just about any situation. But right from the start Jessie had been much slower to thrive and to walk, although he’d always been good with his sums and with reading, and he was very quick to pick up card games and puzzles.

If Barbara had to describe the twins, she would say that Connie was smart as a whip, but that Jessie was the real thinker of the family, with a curious mind underneath which still waters almost certainly ran very deep.

Unfortunately in Bermondsey during that dog-end of summer in 1939, the characteristics the other local children rated in one another were all to do with strength and cunning and stamina. For the boys, being able to run faster than the girls when playing kiss chase was A Very Good Thing. Jessie had never beaten any of the boys at running, and most of the girls could hare about faster than him too.

It was no surprise therefore, thought Barbara, that Jessie had these days to be more or less pushed out of the front door to go and play with the other children, while Connie would race to be the first of the gang outside and then she’d be amongst the last to return home in the evening.

Although only born five minutes apart, they were chalk and cheese, with Connie by far and away the best of any of the children at kiss chase, whether it be the hunting down of a likely target or the hurtling away from anyone brave enough to risk her wrath. Connie was also brilliant at two-ball, skipping, knock down ginger and hopscotch, and in fact just about any playground game anyone could suggest they play.

Jessie was better than Connie in one area – he excelled at conkers, he and Connie getting theirs from a special tree in Burgess Park that they had sworn each other to secrecy over and sealed with a blood pact, with the glossy brown conkers then being seasoned over a whole winter and spring above the kitchen range. Sadly, quite often Jessie would have to yield to bigger children who would demand with menace that his conkers be simply handed over to them, with or without the benefit of any sham game.

Ted never tried to stop Barbara being especially kind to Jessie within the privacy of their own home, provided the rest of the world had been firmly shut outside. But if – and this didn’t happen very often, as Barbara already knew what would be said – she wanted to talk to her husband about Jessie and his woes, and how difficult it was for him to make proper friends, Ted would reply that he felt differently about their son than she.

‘Barbara, love, it’s doing ’im no favours if yer try to fight ’is battles for ’im. I was little at ’is age, an’ yer jus’ look a’ me now’ – Ted was well over six foot with tightly corded muscles on his arms and torso, and Barbara never tired of running her hands over his well-sculpted body when they were tucked up in their bed at night with the curtains drawn tight and the twins asleep – ‘an’ our Jessie’ll be fine if we jus’ ’elp ’im deal with the bullies. Connie’s got the right idea, and in time ’e’ll learn from ’er too. An’ there’ll be a time when our Jessie’ll come into his own, jus’ yer see if I’m not proved correct, love.’

Barbara really hoped that her husband was right. But she doubted it was going to happen any time soon. And until then she knew that inevitably sweet and open-hearted Jessie would be enduring a pretty torrid time of it.

Review

I think there is a general misconception about the evacuations during the war, and King does go into that in the book. There seems to be this overall consensus that the majority of people or people in general were happy to accommodate complete strangers for there country. A sense of community spirit throughout the entire country, when in fact the opposite was the truth. Evacuation was forced upon both those being evacuated and those taking them in, obviously there were exceptions to the rule.

The government had been planning a mass evacuation since the early 1920s and the process, or first round of evacuations was started during 1939. This period is often referred to as the Phoney War, because the expected destruction and loss of life didn’t take place till later and not to the extent they expected. The man in charge of the evacuation, Sir John Anderson, had little foresight about the potential emotional distress and trauma the upheavals would cause, especially in the case of the evacuated children.

Many of the children ended up in the wrong place with insufficient rations and no homes to go to. The children were often lined up like cattle at a market place and people were asked to select them, hence the infamous phrase ‘I’ll take that one’ which already implies a lack of organisation.

Jesse and Connie are evacuated with their fellow school mates, the evacuation of whole schools was quite common, which meant any pre-existing problems automatically went with them. In this case the school bully, who has to deal with his own difficult issues at home, ends up on the receiving end of some of his own medicine. On a more serious note, Larry’s situation was a common fault of the operation. He ends up being neglected and mistreated, and although there is an adult to oversee and rectify the situation in this fictional scenario, that wasn’t the case for the majority of children.

The Evacuee Christmas is about family and friendship, and about sticking together and supporting each other in times of difficulty. Strangers and enemies can become friends in the direst of situations. When push comes to shove we are all capable of showing each other kindness.

Buy The Evacuee Christmas at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

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#BlogTour East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rahman

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Today is my stop on the Blog-Tour for East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rahman. It is a contemporary novel, a sign of the times, and an attempt to understand the complex thought process of men and women who choose to view their own society and fellow humans as the enemy. Of course there is an amusing story wrapped around the more serious twist.

About the Author

Born in Karachi, Pakistan in 1975 Khurrum moved to England when he was one. He is a west London boy and now lives in Wraysbury with his wife and two children. Khurrum graduated with BSc Honours and has been working in IT for a Local Authority for over 18 years.

His keen interest in fiction initially drove him to write screenplays and write for an independent film maker. However, his true passion lies in reading crime thrillers which have inspired his current work. He has employed his unique perspective and careful study of great writers to develop a fresh voice that crackles with originality.

Follow @KhurrumRahman @HQStories

Buy East of Hounslow

About the book

East of Hounslow (HQ), is Khurrum Rahman’s debut novel, it is part one of a gripping spy thriller trilogy that centres on Javid Qasim, a happy-go-lucky small scale dope dealer in West London. When the Security Service identifies him as a potential recruit and the hardliners at his Mosque start thinking he may be useful to them his happy quiet life begins to implode. To complicate matters further, his best friend is now a Detective Inspector in the local police and, rather carelessly, Javid has also managed to lose his new BMW and £10k he owes his psychopathic drug supplier…

Review

It is gritty, witty and a breath of fresh air. It is relevant to our day and age, and the problems we face in our society. Javid is the boy next door, the last person you would suspect of planning a terror attack, and of course that is the actual problem. The reality is that the world is filled with vulnerable young men and women, who are easy to persuade and lead towards the dark side of life.

Javid Qasim accidentally falls into the role of double-agent, when he is forced to pretend to become a jihadi. If he actually had a choice in the matter he certainly wouldn’t even be entertaining the idea, but when you’re a small time drug dealer with a price on your head you just have to go with the flow, even if it means putting yourself in the middle of a dangerous situation.

Javid can either face his supplier, to whom he owes quite a lot of money and drugs, or infiltrate an terrorist cell supposedly operating out of his local mosque. Seems like a double-edged sword, which of course it is because it’s a lose-lose situation. His decision is swayed by the fact his neighbour and friend Parvez appears to be caught up in the group.

Throughout the book there is this sense of uncertainty when it comes to Javid. Will he be sucked in and enjoy the brotherhood? Is it possible that he believes the mantra of the jihadi and has finally found a way to vent his frustrations against society?

Rahman does a fantastic job of introducing readers to a basic understanding of the religious setting. It is done in an explanatory way, as opposed to a ‘come hither and partake of this field of gold’ way. I found that particular element of the story quite informative. The most important point Rahman makes is that just because Muslims pray at the local mosque and adhere to the rules of their religion, it does not mean they are also planning to wipe out every infidel they can find.

He also portrays the antipathy of the general public towards the Muslim population. Open hostility and a large helping of side-eye has become a daily occurrence. Unfortunately the terrorists, and right-wing groups, use this imbalance between the two groups to incite more hatred, recruit more members and create more chaos.

Although the topic of the plot is a serious one, Rahman still manages to evoke a sense of empathy for his characters, especially the crooked yet charming Javid. Camaraderie and friendship play a pivotal role in this contemporary novel which also has a subtle layer of humour. It’s a read you won’t want to miss.

Buy East of Hounslow at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

Blog-Tour: Let Us Be True by Alex Christofi

Today I have the pleasure to host the Blog-Tour for Let Us Be True by Alex Christofi. Featuring a fantastic Q&A with Alex Christofi and my review. The answers to the Q&A are just as captivating as the novel itself. The last four questions contain some spoilers, so for anyone who hasn’t read it yet and wants to read it without any extra info I will be adding a fair warning before and after those particular questions.

About the Author

Alex Christofi was born and grew up in Dorset. After reading English at the University of Oxford, he moved to London to work in publishing. He has written a number of short pieces for theatre, and blogs about arts and culture for Prospect magazine. Glass is his first novel. His second novel, Let Us Be True, is published by Serpent’s Tail.

Follow @alex_christofi @serpentstail Visit alexchristofi.com

Buy Let Us Be True

About the book

Paris, 1958. After a chance encounter, Ralf and Elsa begin a love affair that will mark their lives. Both already bear scars from their continent’s violent upheavals. The end of the war brought Ralf to Paris, where he feels he can hide from the past. Elsa meanwhile tries to hide not just her past from Ralf, but her present too. As they fall more deeply in love they face a dilemma: can you really love someone without giving yourself away?In a Paris recovering from the Second World War but riven by protests and discontent as the old world order falls away, Ralf tries desperately to hold on to the only person he has ever felt he belongs with, while facing the prospect of a reality where love might not be enough. Deeply moving and sweeping in scope, Alex Christofi’s second novel is an unforgettable love story as well as a profoundly affecting study of the personal cost of Europe’s bloody twentieth century.

Q&A

Before we get down to business (i.e. talking about your book) I would like to ask a set of questions I call ‘Breaking the Ice.’ (readers love to get to know all about their favourite and new authors)

The last book you read? (Inquisitive bookworms would like to know) I tend to consume books like tapas, so this is actually quite hard to answer. Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, or a selected volume of Voltaire, or Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, or Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

Books or authors who have inspired you to put pen to paper? Mikhail Bulgakov, Emmanuel Carrere, George Orwell, George Saunders, Michel Faber, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Gustave Flaubert, Joseph Roth, Albert Camus. I love writers who can fuse beauty and cleverness with social purpose.

The last book you read, which you felt left a mark (in your heart, soul, wallet…you name it) The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante. Everyone has been talking about her for years so it’s not exactly a hot tip, but that’s the honest answer.

Are you more of a movie night or series-binger kind of guy? (Combinations are possible) Movie night. There are enough hanging plot threads in my actual life – I want to be able to sit back and look at the whole story. I don’t need Scheherezade feeding me cliffhangers every night forever. It’s like asking if you’d rather have limbo or a quick death.

Which famous person (dead, alive, barely kicking) would you most like to meet? Not probably any of the people I most admire. Marcus Aurelius was objectively a top guy, but would be a terrible date – after two drinks he would leave citing moderation in all things. You’d want someone with a wicked sense of humour who knew how to live. Hunter S Thompson would probably kill me, but maybe Angela Carter or Ernest Hemingway. Or Obama. Everyone wants to meet Obama.

All of the above questions are actually a pretty elaborate pysch evaluation disguised as random questions. Have no fear here come the real ones. Let’s talk about Let Us Be True.

Where did you get the inspiration for Let Us Be True? Probably a question you have been asked before, but I am genuinely interested in the inspiration for the story of Ralf and Elsa. It’s strange, because what I have ended up with is really a character novel – one that devotes a lot of space to investigating the particular psychology of two particular people – but I first conceived it as a novel about the moment after the Second World War that is rarely written about, after the initial reconstruction efforts but before the individualistic, consumer-driven sixties was in full swing. I wanted to write about what it was like to find yourself on the very cusp of the modern era.

Why Paris? Did you pick this particular setting because you know it well or because it made sense logistically, culturally and from an historical point of view? I wanted to write about a place very like our own, but different enough that people could judge it for what it was – a bit like the way Shakespeare tore into society by setting everything in Italy. But Paris in 1958 was also a fascinating place in its own right: the Fourth Republic was collapsing; the communists were still one of the biggest parties, but there was a fascist fifth column in the police; French Resistance hero Charles de Gaulle was returned to power in a military coup and suspended the constitution; France was effectively at war with its own Muslim population; there were peaceful protests, but people were still being guillotined. Parts of Paris were already petrifying into an eerily timeless postcard city, and at the same time some of its residential neighbourhoods were ‘îlots insalubres’, dirty islands of slum housing, where no one owned a fridge and tenants shared a squat toilet. I can’t think of a better (or more intense) analogue for the conflicts we are worrying about here and now.

Although you don’t play on the underlying theme too much, do you think Ralf and Elsa connect in such a monumental way because they share a common denominator in their home country and war-trauma? Absolutely – it is a part of why they connect and also one of the reasons why they clash. But the war itself can’t be spoken about directly, because it simply wasn’t done. It could be referred to, or implied obliquely, but very few people who were involved had any desire (or perhaps even ability) to talk about what they had been through. It is an elephant in the room – the clearest metaphor in the book is of Ralf and his mother sitting at the dining table, painfully aware of the father that isn’t present. Ralf eventually opens up about some of his childhood experiences, but Elsa doesn’t reciprocate, and we implicitly understand why.

Does Elsa accept the negative aspects of her marriage, because she feels guilty and believes she deserves to be punished? Is her separation from Ralf a form of penance? I don’t know if I could be that specific, but sadly it wasn’t uncommon for women to accept physical abuse as a fact of life at that time (which is not to say we have resolved the problem now). Whenever we make choices, we weigh them up relative to our life experience. Elsa’s life with Theo isn’t the worst thing that has happened to her, and its great virtue is that it’s secure and predictable. She has never had that before – for me at least it becomes hard to judge her choice, even if we wish she could make the leap.

Unbeknownst to Ralf Elsa represents the root cause of why his life changed in such a drastic way. Does Elsa make a choice against Ralf because she believes the truth about her past would be an insurmountable hurdle between them? Yes, I think so. But more than that, in order to reveal her past to him, she would have to give him access to parts of herself that she hasn’t shared with anyone, including her husband and family, and it would make her vulnerable in a way she hasn’t been since she was a young girl hiding in a forest, muddy, shivering, terrified and alone. The war didn’t end when the last shots were fired. There was a whole generation of survivors whose lives were irrevocably scarred by what they saw and did, and they were out there, walking in the world, for the best part of the twentieth century. We’ll never know whether so many of them remained silent to protect themselves or to protect the rest of us.

One could argue that Elsa presents a certain coldness, a lack of emotion even, and one could suggest that her experiences in childhood, and as a very young woman, have defined her personality and the choices she makes. However that specific sense of survival and ability to detach herself from emotions was already evident at an early age. This information in combination with the actions of many Germans during the Nazi era begs the question whether Elsa really is the lovable enigma who has managed to enchant Ralf like a personal Mata Hari or is she a woman who is a ruthless survivor? In some sense Elsa is, if not the Nazi ideal, at least a Nietzschean ideal, a forceful, self-directed character. She can’t or won’t be absorbed into a group mentality, which exposes a fundamental contradiction in Nazi ideology: they simultaneously exult exceptional individuals and demand people subsume themselves to the herd. Are some people more valuable than others, or are we all interchangeable members of a group?

I did also really want this to be a story about love, and I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to say that love is one of the best answers to some of the questions posed in the book. But I wanted to resist this idea that’s very common in romance, that the underlying purpose of women’s behaviour can always be explained with reference to sex. Perhaps she is not stringing him along; perhaps it has nothing to do with him.

Thank you for answering all of my questions, even the odd ones! It was a pleasure – thank you for reading it with such care and attention. I think all writers dream of having careful readers!

Review

This read brings a sense of nostalgia with it and an aura of hidden emotions and unfulfilled desires. It is so much more than just a love story. It is about fractured identities and the trauma of war.

It is often hard for non-nomads or people who stay in one place their entire lives to understand what it is like to not feel as if you have a home or a country that feels like home. Being uprooted and becoming a displaced person can rock the very foundation of your existence.

I believe Elsa and Ralf share this feeling of not belonging and loss. Their home country and country of birth is their common denominator, despite their completely different paths in life.

Ralf doesn’t even feel at home in his surrogate country, and he also refuses to maintain a relationship with his mother. His landlord has become his family, a port of call in dire situations and France has become his safe haven.

Elsa is a survivor, albeit one from the other side of the battlefield. Her experiences have made her emotionally unresponsive, which is why she finds it hard to connect with her child and why she struggles to find a sense of peace in her life. It is also the reason she accepts certain negative aspects of her marriage including the occasional  bouts of violence.

I wonder if Elsa believes her guilt is something that would eventually come between them. A secret she can never reveal and perhaps never completely move on from.

Overall Elsa gives off a sense of detachment, a cold and hard face she presents to the world. It’s easy to forget her age at the time of her crimes and her complicity. Her trauma is no more than a footnote in history, although it is ultimately what steers and directs her sense of unhappiness.

In that sense the two of them share another bond in the form of very specific trauma. One could argue that his will always be greater because of the historical implications, however I would argue that trauma cannot be measured by what outsiders think.

France, like many other countries are often guilty of revisionism, especially when it comes to history. They like to forget and hide their guilt and crimes, and the part they played in some of the bloodiest and politically disruptive times in the twentieth century. They like to sweep a lot of uncomfortable truths under the carpet of national charm.

This is a love story taking place during some of those periods in time, so it isn’t just about two broken people finding a safe haven in each other, it is also about shining a light on the past. A past that is in danger of being repeated as we speak.

The author brings a maturity, insight and wisdom to the pages. He writes as if he has experienced decades of longing, pain and heartbreak. He is an author I will be revisiting. Oh and kudos to him for the Vélodrome d’Hiver part of the story. It’s a very significant and poignant part of history. A small moment in the book, but those are the ones that count.

Buy Let Us Be True at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

Let Us Be True blog tour (1)

A fantastic Q&A with Affinity Konar, author of Mischling

To celebrate the paperback release of of her novel Mischling Affinity Konar agreed to take part in a Q&A and answer some of my questions about her fantastic book. My review might be a tad long, but in my defence, this was such a good read I couldn’t stop talking about it.

About the Author

Affinity Konar was raised in California. While writing Mischling, she worked as a tutor, proofreader, technical writer, and editor of children’s educational workbooks. She studied fiction at SFSU and Columbia. She is of Polish-Jewish descent, and currently lives in Los Angeles.

She dearly misses writing about Pearl and Stasha, and is grateful to any reader who might find the company of the twins.

Visit affinitykonar.com Follow @affinity_konar @leeboudreauxbks @littlebrown

Buy Mischling

About the book

Pearl is in charge of: the sad, the good, the past. Stasha must care for: the funny, the future, the bad.

It’s 1944 when the twin sisters arrive at Auschwitz with their mother and grandfather. In their benighted new world, Pearl and Stasha Zagorski take refuge in their identical natures, comforting themselves with the private language and shared games of their childhood.

As part of the experimental population of twins known as Mengele’s Zoo, the girls experience privileges and horrors unknown to others, and they find themselves changed, stripped of the personalities they once shared, their identities altered by the burdens of guilt and pain.

That winter, at a concert orchestrated by Mengele, Pearl disappears. Stasha grieves for her twin, but clings to the possibility that Pearl remains alive. When the camp is liberated by the Red Army, she and her companion Feliks–a boy bent on vengeance for his own lost twin–travel through Poland’s devastation. Undeterred by injury, starvation, or the chaos around them, motivated by equal parts danger and hope, they encounter hostile villagers, Jewish resistance fighters, and fellow refugees, their quest enabled by the notion that Mengele may be captured and brought to justice within the ruins of the Warsaw Zoo. As the young survivors discover what has become of the world, they must try to imagine a future within it.

Q&A

Before we get started on the Q&A I would just like to say how much I enjoyed Mischling. At times I felt as if I was with those children in the camp and could feel their despair, which is truly the mark of a great storyteller.

It must have been incredibly difficult to immerse yourself into the subject matter of the Holocaust, and perhaps even more difficult, the medical experimentation. Thank you so much Cheryl—it’s always very rewarding to hear such things, but to know that the emotions were very present for you is deeply meaningful to me with respect to this particular book, and its many challenges. So thank you, and thank you for the opportunity to be interviewed, and the lovely, thoughtful questions!—AK

What was it that made you want to write about this particular heinous part of 20th century history? My family was able to leave Poland in 1932,  and one of my grandfathers served in WWII so I always felt naturally drawn to the period as a child. It was a fixation that was unhealthy in many ways, but couldn’t be helped. In the course of touring, I’ve been fortunate to meet many scholars who have devoted their entire lives to the preservation of this history; they often describe this as a choiceless pursuit, one often informed by a personal sense of crisis. While my engagement has been less intense, that description is something I can relate to. All I really know is that when I found the story of the twins in “Children of the Flames” by Lucette Lagnado, I started hearing an imagined echo, a kind of conversation between a pair of twins who were determined to survive. But I didn’t imagine that it would be a book, and I didn’t consciously set out to write it for years.

Do you believe that despite great outcries of ‘We shall never forget, always remember and let’s not make the same mistakes again’ that the world needs books like Mischling to remind people of those sentiments? I very much believe that this is so; I think fiction’s great gift to us is its ability to collapse distance. The testimonies of survivors and witnesses, the art that came from the camps, all the nonfictional accounts—these will always be the most vital warnings. But I like to think that fiction can serve a purpose in this attempt, that it can effectively trail behind history as a kind of shadow, because it can provoke empathy on a level that can force one to imagine this suffering differently, and with a nod to the fact that genocide is not limited to a certain time, people, or place. Such work can remind us to check our language, our actions, and encourage a kind of vigilance; it’s easy for remembrance to become a passive act, even while “never forget” is something that remains a fixture of our consciousness.

You have researched and written extensively in great detail about the Holocaust and Mengele’s atrocities, has it taken its toll on you in any way? I was uncomfortable speaking about this for some time, because I felt that the personal effects of this research had no place in this conversation. But while touring, I’ve been approached by generous people who express concern after hearing me speak. So I guess I don’t hide it very well, especially when Mengele’s crimes are addressed. I suspect that I’ve begun to block certain facts and images, but there are those that will always remain, and should remain. I went into this process with an immense respect for survivors and their descendants–they carry an unimaginable burden–and when my immersion was complete, that respect enlarged to include journalists, social workers, therapists, criminal investigators—anyone whose work requires a relentless attention to trauma, because it forces you to live a double-life, mentally, in order to remain functional.

In a lot of the scenes the reader feels the strange intimacy and bond between the children in the Zoo and the twins. You also described the way each twin dealt with the emotional and physical torture in their own way, which makes their individual status more evident in the story. Was it important to you to show readers the effect on their bonds as twins, and also on the girls as individuals? I love this question, because the portrayal of these bonds, and the individual natures of Pearl and Stasha, was one of the significant challenges of the book. Twins are so symbolic, a built-in cheat—I worried that I might end up fetishizing them in a super-literary way that felt unacceptable within the novel’s aims. My big fear was that one would end up serving as a kind of foil to the other; I was most concerned about Stasha’s very elaborate voice overwhelming Pearl’s. But strangely, this began to fall away as I explored Pearl’s burden to bear witness to these events in a precise fashion. Her personality arose from that need, and met, rather naturally, Stasha’s own posture of lament. I wanted two distinct personalities that joined each other in the need for remembrance, their resistance against Mengele, and their love of family. It’s funny because I often hear from readers that they wished that they had a twin growing up—I always felt that way too. But there’s also a complexity to this bond that we often overlook. So I wanted to allow it all the beauty that such a relationship deserves, while being careful to explore how painful it might be too.

On a lighter note, were and are you surprised by the success of Mischling? I was surprised that I even finished the book at all! It was an intensely private thing for years, so to have it find anyone, much less my agent Jim and my editor Lee—that was hugely disorienting. And I’m disoriented all over whenever I see a translation venture out. “Success” is a hard word for me to relate to, especially with respect to this novel—I tend to think of it just as this object that I started writing when I was really lost and had dropped out of high school. But I find it deeply gratifying to receive letters from people about their families and their histories, and it’s probably the sweetest thing to hear readers refer to Stasha and Pearl with the same affection I’ve had for them for so long. I never expected the book to be real, much less for it to receive such a kind welcome, and I’ll always be shocked by that.  

Review

Mischling is a fictional story based on, or rather Konar took inspiration from, the true experiences of Holocaust survivors.

In particular on those of the twins, who made up the majority of the 3000 children unfortunate enough to end up in the hands of the sadistic Dr. Mengele, also known as the Angel of Death.

He was known to pick twins, triplets and any other people with specific abnormalities, because of his interest in genetics. He shared his findings with his mentor and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the predecessor of the Max Planck Institute.

Only a small number of those children survived the experiments and the concentration camp. Many of those have suffered from numerous medical problems, were mutilated and have subsequently succumbed to the repercussions of the experiments inflicted upon them, including eyewitness and survivor Miriam Mozes.

Tragically the medical manipulations have possibly also been passed down to future generations. A few of the very small number of these particular survivors, who are still alive, and their offspring have willingly participated in research to try and understand the future consequences of those experiments and the possible genetic changes caused by the them and the trauma (epigenetics).

The survivors have had to live with the nightmares of being part of Mengele’s sadistic human zoo. They have beaten the odds to survive and tell their tales only to be struck down by the same man at a later date, and the fact his actions may also be making their offspring ill, is truly diabolical. Luckily he isn’t here to pat himself on the back.

Mengele managed to evade any form of punishment for his actions. He lived in comfort with his family for many years in Argentina, as did many war criminals from the Nazi regime.

Mengele used the platform of the concentration camp to live out his cruel, sadistic tendencies all in the hypothetical name of science and research. Fact of the matter is he enjoyed and took pride in the pain he inflicted on others. His victims were nothing more than subjects in his mind. Aside from the horrific and inhumane experimentation, he also often abused, tortured and killed for pleasure, during his reign in Auschwitz.

Pearl and Stasha are the main characters in Mischling. They are Jews with fair hair, hence why Mengele thinks they are Mischlinge (of mixed race). Each twin tells their own story, switching from chapter to chapter. Stasha believes that Mengele views her as special, which is why he makes her immune from death. This belief and her retreat into a world of imagination and denial, is how she deals with the trauma. Whereas Pearl is a realist and remains resourceful throughout her time with Mengele. Stasha seems oblivious to the abuse and experimentation both she, but especially her sister has to endure. The disappearance of Pearl is pivotal in the change in her behaviour. The fact she doesn’t want to accept the death of her twin is ultimately what saves Stasha from giving up. Denial is her coping mechanism.

Stasha connects with a young boy, who has lost his own twin. The loss of the twin was very important to the survival of any the remaining twin in Auschwitz. When one died the other would soon be killed, so Mengele could compare and autopsy the corpses.

survivors

Some of the children who survived the experiments

So, imagine you are faced with death or collaboration. The type of collaboration that kills you inside bit by bit, forced to commit abominations under duress. How guilty does that make you? There is a huge difference between those that collaborated with the regime and helped willingly, and those that had no other choice but death. They tried in their own way to help fellow prisoners. Many children, often not even related, were passed off as twins, in an attempt to give them a greater chance of survival.Pearl finds herself drawn to the Jewish doctor who assists Mengele, albeit unwillingly, and the Czech soldier in charge of the admin. Both of them struggle with the guilt of their actions. One of elements of the Holocaust that Konar alludes to in Mischling is the culpability of those people forced to become part of the systematic extermination. In a life or death situation you make a choice, and in this instance those choices weren’t always about self-preservation. There were family members and fellow victims to consider and the majority wanted to make sure the world knew what the Nazi regime had done.

To be completely frank it isn’t an easy read, if you look at it on a purely emotional level. Even after all these years, having read, watched and listened to many survivor’s relate their stories, I can still can’t fathom the depth and range of the inhumanity of the Holocaust.

Although I loved the read, despite the horrific nature of the topic and the fact it is based on true events, I did feel as if the last few chapters didn’t do the rest justice. I can imagine that even as an author both the writing and the research of not only the Holocaust, but specifically the atrocities committed by Mengele, would take a toll on anyone. Suck the heart and soul right out of you. It felt as if Konar had been weighted down and burdened by all of it towards the end. As a reader and as a Mensch I can completely understand that. Kudos to the author for this powerful, insightful and extremely poignant read.

It is not only a read I highly recommend, it is also one I will be gifting to others.

Buy Mischling at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

Remembering the Mengele Twins at the CANDLES Holocaust Museum

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Two Nights by Kathy Reichs

two nightsIt doesn’t matter how experienced, famous or acclaimed an author is, it is always difficult to change genres or start a new series. Not difficult in a writing sense, but rather living up to the expectations of their readers or fans.

When you have a long running successful series, that’s without counting the legions of fans who watch the tv show based on the Temperance Brennan character, readers are eager to see or read about their favourite character on a regular basis. They are perhaps a little less eager to embrace an entirely new venture or main character.

I really enjoyed this new venture and can’t wait to read more about Sunday and Gus.

Kudos to Reichs for creating a main character with an airport carousel full of baggage. Sunday isn’t your standard candy floss and fluffy unicorn type of character. She has a past full of abuse, aggression and manipulation. On top of that she is a veteran suffering from PTSD.

Her whole life revolves around safety measures and paranoia. She is abrupt, short-tempered and doesn’t give two hoots about being politically correct or adhering to any kind of rules.

When she is hired by a grande dame of society she cares less about the money and more about the young girl in the midst of a dangerous group. This is actually where the story gets an added twist. The reader gets short glimpses of a young girl being held captive and abused. It is fair to say that everything is not exactly as it seems.

Two Nights, nice play on the names by the way, is an invigorating new series with a bolshy leading lady. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Sunday or her elusive brother. It has plenty of potential and it deals with some hard-hitting issues. I think Reichs should take a few more walks on the wild side and spread her literary tentacles into a few other ventures.

Buy Two Nights at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

Follow @KathyReichs

Read The Swamp BonesBones Never Lie,  Bones in her Pocket or Speaking in Bones by Kathy Reichs.

Read ExposureSwipe or Code by Kathy and Brendan Reichs.

Blog-Tour: Reconciliation for the Dead by Paul E. Hardisty

Today it is my turn on the Blog-Tour for Reconciliation for the Dead by Paul E. Hardisty. It is a fascinating read, and yet also one that may make you sit back and ponder it, especially when you read the historical note and acknowledgement at the end of the book.

About the Author

For the past 30 years, Paul E Hardisty has worked all over the world as an engineer and environmental scientist. He has roughnecked on oil rigs in Texas, explored for gold in the Arctic, and rehabilitated village water wells in the wilds of Africa. He was in Yemen in 1994 as the civil war broke out, and in Ethiopia as the Mengistu regime fell. In 2015, his first novel, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, was published to great acclaim – it was shortlisted for the CWA Creasy dagger award for best thriller or crime novel in 2015, and was one of the London Telegraph’s 2015 crime books of the year.

Lee Child called the sequel, The Evolution of Fear: “A solid, meaty thriller. Hardisty is a fine writer and Claymore Straker is a great lead character.” Paul is currently working on the third Claymore Straker novel, a prequel set in Apartheid era South Africa. One of his short stories, Blue Nile, will shortly appear in an anthology entitled “Sunshine Noir”. He lives in Western Australia, and is a keen outdoorsman, triathlete, and martial artist.

To connect with Paul E. Hardisty follow @Hardisty_Paul or @Orendabooks on Twitter or on facebook.com/paul.hardisty.9

Buy Reconciliation for the Dead

About the book

Fresh from events in Yemen and Cyprus, vigilante justice-seeker Claymore Straker returns to South Africa, seeking absolution for the sins of his past. Over four days, he testifies to Desmond Tutu’s newly established Truth and Reconciliation Commission, recounting the shattering events that led to his dishonourable discharge and exile, fifteen years earlier. It was 1980. The height of the Cold War. Clay is a young paratrooper in the South African Army, fighting in Angola against the Communist insurgency that threatens to topple the White Apartheid regime. On a patrol deep inside Angola, Clay, and his best friend, Eben Barstow, find themselves enmeshed in a tangled conspiracy that threatens everything they have been taught to believe about war, and the sacrifices that they, and their brothers in arms, are expected to make.

Witness and unwitting accomplice to an act of shocking brutality, Clay changes allegiance and finds himself labelled a deserter and accused of high treason, setting him on a journey into the dark, twisted heart of institutionalised hatred, from which no one will emerge unscathed. Exploring true events from one of the most hateful chapters in South African history, Reconciliation for the Dead is a shocking, explosive and gripping thriller from one finest writers in contemporary crime fiction.

Review

When it suddenly dawns on you that the story is more than just a fictional plot or the creative imagination of the author in question. It’s actually worse when you realise that even the most talented weaver of stories hasn’t got a thing on the actual depths of inhumane behaviour and unimaginable cruelty real humans are capable of.

South Africa has a very turbulent and volatile history, especially events that took place in the 20th century. I think, like many countries, there is plenty of revisionism going on and selective amnesia seems to be a problem. Apartheid, genocide, land dispossession and the South African Police, who were little more than a murder squad during certain periods of time in history.

Claymore Straker is an interesting character. He doesn’t try to excuse his actions, in fact he feels such immense guilt that he finds it difficult to find any peace at all. Clay is a soldier, a killer who follows orders, and yet he is also a man with a conscience. He often tries to do the right thing, despite putting himself and others in danger.

On a side note, I really enjoyed the banter and relationship between Clay and Eben. The two of them are on the same wavelength when it comes to justice. Eben just tends to be a wee bit more reckless. They have a bond, a brotherhood, which is often formed between soldiers in dangerous situations.

Hardisty has only taken a small section of that history and of the political unrest of South Africa and combined it with a fast-paced and heart-wrenching plot. It is also brutal, violent and not for the faint of heart. At the same time the author has managed to create characters, who evoke empathy, which is quite extraordinary considering the hardcore events that unfold around them.

Reconciliation for the Dead isn’t just a story, it is a stark reminder of South African history. Without delving too much into the plot and revealing any spoilers it is a cracking read, and it is and was a shocking plan. What is even more disgraceful is the real lack of restitution, despite the reconciliation. Criminals who deserved a firing squad walked away scot-free.

When it comes to military thrillers authors often can’t find the right balance between the cold hard facts of war, weaponry, logistics and the storytelling. Well, let me tell you Hardisty doesn’t have any problem at all in that regard. He strikes exactly the right tone in both areas. This is a captivating and poignant read, and yet it is also one that made my soul weep for humanity.

Buy Reconciliation for the Dead at Amazon Uk or go Goodreads for any other retailer.

Blog-Tour: Sleeper by J.D. Fennell

Today it is my turn on the Blog-Tour for Sleeper by J.D. Fennell. Along with the About the Author and About the book features, I am also delighted to feature a fantastic Q&A with J.D. Fennell, and hey of course last but not least, my review of Sleeper.

About the Author

J.D. was born in Belfast at the start of the Troubles, and began writing stories at a young age to help understand the madness unfolding around him. A lover of reading, he devoured a diverse range of books – his early influences include Fleming, Tolkien, Shakespeare and the Brontës.

He left Belfast at the age of nineteen and worked as a chef, bartender, waiter and later began a career in writing for the software industry. These days he divides his time between Brighton and London, where he lives with his partner and their two dogs.

Visit sleeperbook.com  or you can follow @jd_fennell or @DomePress on Twitter or on facebook.com/JDFennellAuthor/

Buy Sleeper

About the book

Sixteen-year-old Will Starling is pulled from the sea with no memory of his past. In his blazer is a strange notebook with a bullet lodged inside: a bullet meant for him. As London prepares for the Blitz, Will soon finds himself pursued by vicious agents and a ruthless killer known as the Pastor. All of them want Will’s notebook and will do anything to get it. As Will’s memory starts to return, he realises he is no ordinary sixteen-year old. He has skills that make him a match for any assassin. But there is something else. At his core is a deep-rooted rage that he cannot explain. Where is his family and why has no one reported him missing?Fighting for survival with the help of Mi5 agent-in-training, Anna Wilder, Will follows leads across London in a race against time to find the Stones of Fire before the next air raid makes a direct hit and destroys London forever.

Q&A

Before we get down to business (i.e. talking about your book) I would like to ask a set of questions I call ‘Breaking the Ice.’ (readers love to get to know all about their favourite and new authors)

The last book you read? (Inquisitive bookworms would like to know) I love reading and always have a book to hand. Here are my recent three: Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet; I Let You Go, by Claire Mackintosh and right now I am reading Spellslinger, by Sebastian De Castell. Three wonderful books, all quite different.

Books or authors which have inspired you to put pen to paper? John Irving is amazing. Stephen King. Sarah Waters. Ken Follett. Authors that make me want to be a better writer are Thomas Harris, Ian McGuire and Hanya Yanagihara.

The last movie you watched, which you felt left a mark (in your heart, soul, wallet…you name it) I really enjoyed Allied with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. It is set during the same time as Sleeper and gave it a resonance for me. It is also gripping with a great twist.

Are you more of a movie night or series-binger kind of guy? (Combinations are possible) Definitely a series-binger, because there is a greater scope to tell a story and develop characters. Game of Thrones is a good example here.

Which famous person (dead, alive, barely kicking) would you most like to meet? I’d like to meet Thomas Harris for lunch or dinner and learn as much as I could from him.

All of the above questions are actually a pretty elaborate pysch evaluation disguised as random questions. Have no fear here come the real ones. Let’s talk about Sleeper!

Sleeper is a YA adventure set in the Second World War with flair of fantasy and an essence of a dystopian setting.

What made you pick the WW2 time period for your setting? I’m fascinated by London during the Blitz, a city collapsing under the nightly air attacks. Also, I really wanted to set an action/adventure with fantastical elements during a familiar time in our history. Second World War London just seemed the perfect setting for a thriller. I had to write it.

During the story I think readers may often find the borders between good and bad guy skewed when it comes to VIPER and The Fellowship. Do you agree with that assessment, and if so was this intentional on your part? Yes and No. Yes, the Fellowship are good, however, they turn a blind eye to the Pastor’s methods because they understand what is at stake for the world. VIPER will do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. They may employ regular people, who do not share their ambitions, or are unaware of who they are working for, to help achieve their goals.

Will has been defined, trained and lived as a member of VIPER for many years. Isn’t there some part of him which is subconsciously loyal to VIPER? I’m afraid you will have to wait until the next instalment to find that out. *smiles*

So, you have this incredible weapon with as yet not completely explored powers, doesn’t even a teeny weeny piece of Will think about taking control of the weapon himself? Ha! That would be telling. For now I will refer you to the previous answer.

Sleeper. Liberator. Executioner. Does Will secretly enjoy being each one of these identities? Will is driven by revenge. I would say he does not enjoy being that type of person, however, it does change him and give him purpose.

Will we be seeing more of Will in the near future, and will his sidekick be returning? Will and Anna shall return next year with velocity.

Thank you for answering all of my questions, even the odd ones! Thank you Cheryl. I really enjoyed answering them.

Review

Fennell has chosen an interesting setting for his dystopian young adult series. It takes place in the early 1940s during WW2. So you not only get the general gist and flavour of life during the Blitz, you also feel the intensity of the devastation the war leaves in its wake.

I have to say that although this is pegged as young adult it is also a book I would buy for a younger reader. Readers will be able to identify with the characters, the historical context and also the why of what makes Will tick.

What makes him push forward is the strong desire to fulfil his mission, which is even the case when he suffers from a bout of amnesia. He somehow always manages to find the right way even when the deck is stacked against him.

Will is nothing if not determined, despite all the obstacles and extremely dangerous situations he stumbles in and out of. He has been a part of VIPER since his pre-teens and is well versed in the megalomaniacal manipulations of this organisation. They will do anything to control the world and more importantly to get their hands on the powerful Stones.

What can I say it’s a story with a lot of potential. The author ends the book with the kind of hook that will keep the readers trailing along behind that fishing rod with the wriggly wee plot enticing them to follow along right behind him.

Fennell has created a fast-paced adventure with plenty of scope for future books. Sleeper is a captivating combination of history infused with futuristic and dystopian elements, and let’s not forgot the mystery surrounding Will. Ancient artefacts and puzzles worthy of a young Indiana Jones adventure will keep readers both young and old wanting the next instalment of this series sooner rather than later.

Buy Sleeper at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

To buy Sleeper (hardback)

To buy Sleeper (paperback)

Goldsboro Books are also selling limited edition hardback signed and numbered editions

Publisher website: www.thedomepress.com

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