ETERNAL by Lisa Scottoline

Italy remembers the Nazi raid on the Rome Ghetto
(Memorial to former residents of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto)

Lisa Scottoline has written over 30 novels most of which are legal thrillers.  She decided to change her approach and investigate the Italian Holocaust because while in graduate school she had taken a course from Philip Roth on the literature of the Holocaust and was an avid reader of Primo Levi, the Italian Elie Wiesel.  In her latest effort she branches out to historical fiction  where she continues to deal with issues of family, justice, and honor but in a different format.  Her new novel, EITERNAL is set in Italy beginning in 1937 and follows a group of teenagers who are living a simple life until European politics and war engulf them.  Scottoline examines friendship and love and what they mean to her characters who must mature quickly as war overtakes their lives.

Scottoline begins by introducing one of her main characters Elisabetta D’afeo whose youth was encompassed by the regime of Benito Mussolini wondering how after twenty years she is finally going to tell her son who his father really was.  Scottoline immediately turns to May 1937 in Rome and focuses on the friendship triangle embodied in three teenagers; Elisabetta, who aspires to be a writer, works in the Casa Servano restaurant, caring for her alcoholic father and wrestles with the fact her mother has abandoned her.  Next we meet Marco Terrizzi, a young man who joins the local fascist party and disagrees with his father who fought in World War I and his brother, a priest over the course of Italian politics.  Lastly, we meet Sandro Simone, a brilliant Jewish mathematician, whose father becomes obsessed with helping fellow Jews acquire exemptions when the government begins to pass racial laws that destroy the lives of Italian Jews.

Rome marks 1943 bombing of S. Lorenzo
(Allied bombing of San Lorenzo/Rome, October, 1943)

The three are close friends and a love triangle emerges as both Marco and Sandro fall in love with Elisabetta, a tomboyish girl they have known all their lives.  The first half of the novel revolves around this love triangle but once war commences all three find their lives turned upside down.  Religion, personal loyalty, relationships, and the pressure of racial laws and the war dominate the novel.

Scottoline develops the love triangle very carefully until it is undone by Mussolini’s racial laws.  Each family is affected by its contents particularly those who had been loyal fascists and even fought in World War I.  The story evolves in conjunction with the layering of racial laws by the Fascist government which are proclaimed over a few months.  Scottoline is meticulous in her  command of history and scenes are well thought out as she applies events, documents, and the beliefs of her characters which she integrates into her novel.  Examples of historical accuracy abound.  Aside from the development of racial laws, her recounting of the allied bombing of the San Lorenzo section of Rome in July 1943 and its impact that led to the overthrow of Mussolini is carefully presented while at the same time reflect how her characters react to the bombing which sets the stage for the last third of the novel.

Scottoline develops wonderful characters apart from Marco, Sandro, and Elisabetta.  A prime example is Sandro’s father, Massimo.  Once a successful tax lawyer he becomes the conduit for many Jews to obtain exemptions from the increasingly intrusive racial laws promulgated by the Italian government.  Massimo is a member of the Fascist Party and fought in World War I and can not understand why his family is denied an exemption because of his background.  Another is Nonna, a wonderful woman who owns the restaurant that Elisabetta works in.  When the young girl is left alone by her family she moves in with Nonna who becomes her surrogate mother, and she in turn becomes Nonna’s surrogate daughter.  There are numerous other characters which the author lists at the beginning of the book which makes it easier for the reader to keep up with as they are introduced and become major players in the novel.

The story develops slowly on a number of levels.  First, Marco whose job with the Fascist Party separates him from his closest friend because of the racial laws which he finds appalling because of its effect on Sandro’s family.  Second, Elisabetta, after severing her relationship with Marco and is turned away by Sandro, turns to authoring her novel as a means of healing.  Finally, Sandro, devastated by the racial laws accepts his plight and teaches math to children at the synagogue as part of his solace.

The book is a well written and an accomplished historical novel that is steeped in period detail and full of relatable characters and is a welcome addition to the ever expanding list of new historical novels dealing with World War II, and in this case focusing on Italy.  The concept of blind faith is severely tested throughout be it a loving relationship or loyalty to a growing anti-Semitic regime that has led Italy into a disastrous war denying people their livelihoods and for some their total existence. 

(San Lorenzo 75 years after the war)

Scottoline focuses on the personal journeys of her characters.  Two stand out, Marco and his father Beppe.  The two become estranged over a series of issues but they will come back to each other.  What made it difficult was Beppe’s World War I experience and his belief in fascism.  His son Marco, also a committed fascist loved Mussolini and his country which his father warned him about before the war.  Once Italy surrenders and the Nazis seize Rome father and son join each other in the resistance.

Scottoline does a superb job of ramping up suspense as she delivers a slow-build up as she traces the October 1943 Nazi roundup of Rome’s Jewish ghetto and its impact on her characters that culminates in scenes where Jews are being shipped from a transit camp to their deaths in Auschwitz.  Scottoline offers many poignant scenes, many of which culminate in disaster.  Scottoline’s success in achieving such a wonderful novel leads this reader to hope that her foray into historical fiction will continue.

(Rome’s former Jewish Ghetto)

ASHTON HALL by Lauren Belfer

The Parterre Garden at Blickling Estate, Norfolk. Blickling is a turreted red-brick Jacobean mansion, sitting within beautiful gardens and parkland.
(Bickling Hall, York, United Kingdom)

From the outset I must point out that Lauren Belfer is one of my favorite authors.  That opinion is predicated on a series of wonderful historical novels that she has written since 2003.  The first, CITY OF LIGHT, Belfer a New York Times bestselling author delves into turn of the century Buffalo, NY and evidence of a murder tied to the city’s cathedral-like power plant at nearby Niagara Falls.  She then authored the NPR Mystery of the Year, A FIERCE RADIANCE, a story centered around the uncertain days following Pearl Harbor, and the clinical testing of a new medication at the renowned Rockefeller Institute in New York. Belfer  follows with perhaps her finest work, AND AFTER THE FIRE: A NOVEL a story inspired by historical events—about two women, one European and one American, and the mysterious choral masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach that changes both their lives.  In her latest effort, ASHTON HALL Belfer pursues a different approach as for the first time her novel takes place in the present and does not focus totally on the past.  She still creates a strong evocative story which focuses on Hannah Larson, a frustrated academic who decides to leave New York City as she is dealing with a problematic marriage and takes her nine year old son, Nicky to Cambridge, England for a summer at a historic manor house.  She will soon be exposed to a discovery that will alter her life – her son Nicky finds the skeletal remains of a woman walled into a forgotten part of the manor.

An image posted by the author.
(Lauren Belfer)

Hannah had been working on her Ph. D in Greek art when her son Nicky was born.  She decided to put off her graduate education and take care of her son full time and relied on her husband, Kevin for support.  As Nicky grew he developed certain emotional and behavioral issues that seem to border on autism, but in the novel it is labeled “neurodiversity in children.”  Nicky is prone to violent and angry episodes at times which he cannot control.  Hannah is at a crossroads.  She wants to complete her dissertation, provide a new experience for her son, and after learning that her husband is bi-sexual decide what to do about her marriage – the offer to stay with her uncle Christopher who is dying of cancer at Ashton Hall seems like a fortuitous opportunity to recalibrate and experience the life she thought she should have, not the one she was living.

Once she arrives and gets settled at the mansion Nicky makes the skeletal discovery and the focus of the novel shifts.  Belfer has constructed a story that runs on parallel tracks.  First, we have Hannah’s personal quest to change her life’s path.  In conversations between characters, we learn a great deal about Hannah.  She comes from a family that survived the Holocaust with a self-willed and independent mother with no father to speak of.  Nicky becomes the core of her existence, but she is trying to ameliorate her situation by turning to her past to rekindle a new avocation.  Second, Belfer uses the discovery of the skeletal remains to pursue another story line and a historical character that Hannah can relate to and to whom she will develop a deep attachment.  Third, she begins to develop a relationship with Professor Matthew Varet, a Cambridge University archeologist who is assisting in trying to identify who the skeleton was and in what time period.

The model for Ashton Hall was Bickling Hall in York, England, a national trust historical mansion.  Legend holds that Anne Boleyn was born at the site and each year she haunts the estate on the anniversary of her execution.  Years ago, Belfer had visited the mansion and stayed at a nearby cottage and after years of deliberation decided to use it as a model for her current work.

Ashton Hall

Belfer carefully unravels the research process that will identify the skeleton as Isabella Cresham who lived in the latter part of the 16th century.  Hannah identifies with Isabella in a number of ways, and it seems the two women are linked across the centuries.  By going through the books Cresham has read in the mansion’s library Hannah learns of their mutual interest in art and from genetic testing she learns that the woman is between 35-45 years old, is physically healthy, is of a high social class, has reddish hair and never gave birth to a child.  Hannah is clearly haunted by the discovery of Cresham, and she sees parallels between their lives with a nagging question: did Cresham choose this life, or was she locked away?   The undercurrent for the Cresham discovery was the reappearance of plague, and the religious conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism in England during her lifetime, a theme that continues to reappear throughout the novel, and evidence that points to Cresham’s devotion to Catholicism.  Intolerance, murder, death, and violence, characteristic of Elizabethan England has similarities for Hannah because of her families’ experiences during World War II.

The physical structure of Ashton Hall is on full display with moats and priest holes along with the architecture  of the castle.  Different personages from the period, i.e., Mary Queen of Scots, Henry VII, and VIII among a number of historical personalities appear.  Belfer employs account registers, library records and key 16th century documents to provide Professor Varet and his academic partner, Dr. Martha Tingley’s tools research in reconstructing Cresham’s life.  Belfer writes with a light touch and digs up fascinating details of the period.  For example, the role of mothers in 16th century England included that of a medical practitioner applying various herbal remedies.  For instance, during his reign Henry VIII suffered from gout and used the homeopathic remedy, colchicum, a remedy that is still used today by homeopathic practitioners and some MDs.

ASHTON HALL is a well crafted novel and draws the reader into the story in a slow careful manner.  Though Belfer’s approach may be different from previous novels, in the end it is a success as one is drawn into the two parallel lives.  The story abounds with comparisons of what it is to be British, and what it is to be American.  The differences and similarities are interesting and point to Belfer’s astute observations. In the end, if you fancy Tudor England, historical fiction, the history pertaining to libraries, and a story that is a struggle for self-identity and discovery you should enjoy the story.

Blickling Hall in Norfolk

THE CONSTANT SOLDIER by William Ryan

William Ryan burst on the literary scene in 2010 with debut novel, THE HOLY THIEF, the first of his Captain Alexi Korolev trilogy that takes place during the 1930s Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union.  His second and third volumes in the trifecta, THE BLOODY MEADOW and THE TWELFTH DEPARTMENT set Ryan apart from other historical crime writers as he continued to navigate the justice system under Stalin.  THE CONSTANT SOLDIER is a departure for Ryan as it is a standalone novel that begins with his protagonist, Paul Brandt, a Wehrmacht soldier, wounded on the eastern front experiencing flashbacks on a hospital train bound for Hamburg.  Brandt slips into unconsciousness taking him back to his relationship with his mother, and a young woman named Judith who has disappeared, for which he blames himself.

Ryan easily catches the attention of the reader with an absorbing story of a man who suffered severe injuries and wondered what he could do with the rest of his life.  The time period is late 1944 and early 1945 in the Upper Silesia part of Poland that had been under Nazi occupation since 1939.  However, as the novel unfolds Russian troops and tanks are making their way west endangering any Germans in their path.  Brandt returns home to the family farm and notices an emaciated young woman who is being held prisoner at an SS “Rest Hut” near the farm.  He is convinced that the woman is Judith, whose real name is Agneta Gruber who Brandt last saw her before the war broke out when they were arrested for anti-Nazi activity in Vienna.  Given the choice of death in prison or the army, Brandt enlisted in the Wehrmacht, but retained a guilt that he had abandoned Agneta years before.

(Russian T-34 Tank during WWII)

The physically debilitated Brandt, against the wishes of his family decides to accept a job at the Rest Hut as it’s steward as a means of trying to rescue Agneta and four other woman as the SS had begun murdering their prisoners.  Ryan creates the backstory of the relationship between Brandt and Agneta and Brandt’s obsession with saving her and assuaging his guilt.  The remorse Brandt feels goes beyond his relationship with a woman he still loves to righting the many wrongs he committed on the eastern front as a soldier.

Once Ryan introduces the suicide of an SS officer named Schmidt the novel begins to branch out from the single track of Brandt’s hopes for saving the woman to the Holocaust.  It seems his commander Obersturmfuhrer Friedrich Neumann orders Brandt to destroy Schmidt’s diary and other possessions which delineates what the SS has done on the eastern front murdering Jews.  Ryan manages the Holocaust with subtlety as he does not become involved in descriptions of mass murder, but he provides a number of hints concerning the horrors that have occurred.  For example, Neumann’s comment that he did not want to remain in Kiev and sought his transfer to Upper Silesia.  He like everyone knew what was occurring as he stated, “he hadn’t planned to become a murderer, he didn’t think.  It just turned out that way.”

Ryan does an excellent job juxtaposing a comparison of Brandt’s and Neumann’s beliefs and attitude toward the war, what they witnessed, and been involved in.  Both men develop doubts and disgust at themselves as they pondered their future.  They realize the Russians are not far away when Ryan introduces a third track to the novel through the character of Polya Kolanka, a female T-34 tank driver, one of the few in the Russian military.  We follow her quest to reach Germany and her experiences as the Soviet Union is about to overrun the Germans. 

Homeless refugee women and children, Russia, 1941.
(Refugees fleeing Russians at the end of World War II)

As Ryan’s plot evolves Brandt must navigate between a number of interesting characters.  There is Mayor Weber, a drunk with power who distrusts Brandt and has no compunction about killing.  Second in importance is the sadistic Scharfuhrer Peichl who reveled in beating prisoners.  Hubert, a partisan fighter in the forest who is in love with Brandt’s sister Monika.  Lastly, the four woman who are imprisoned with Agneta.

Ryan has authored a taut novel that expresses the dilemmas faced by Germans and Russians as the war winds down.  The reader wonders what will become of Brandt and whether he will be able to save the woman he loves, among others.  The novel is well written and follows the facts of World War II to a tee.  The novel is in part based on the experiences of Karl Hocker, an adjutant to the last Commandant of Auschwitz and he incorporates photographic documentation created by Hocker that had disappeared until 2005.  Many of the pictures were taken at a rest hut near a small village called Porabka, about twenty kilometers from Auschwitz.  Ryan uses this factual information to recreate a fictional account of an SS Rest Hut and introduces characters that reflect the hazards and emotions that their situation has fostered.

THE CONSTANT SOLDIER is an excellent read and I look forward to his latest standalone novel, WINTER GUEST which will be released this October.

DECEMBER ’41 by William Martin

Roosevelt and family in front of the Saint Croix Christmas tree in 1941.
(The Roosevelt family, Christmas, 1941)

For those  who are familiar with the works of William Martin you have come to appreciate his Peter Fallon mysteries.  Novels such as HARVARD YARD, THE LINCOLN LETTER, CITY OF DREAMS, THE LOST CONSTITUTION, and BOUND FOR GLORY are structured with two alternating time periods, one dating back a century or two to our contemporary world reaching climaxes when the two came together.  Martin’s focus in other novels rests on the traditional chronological approach of historical fiction that includes; ANNAPOLIS, BACK BAY, CAPE COD, and CITIZEN WASHINGTON.  After a ten year hiatus from his last novel, Martin has authored DECEMBER ’41 a supercharged work that adopts the traditional chronological timeline which develops a plot that was designed to culminate in the assassination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Christmas Eve, 1941 shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and a surprise visit of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The novel itself has elements of detective mysteries from the 1930s and 40s with dialogue, scenes, and characters from that time period.  Martin blends this approach with commentary about race, ethnicity, misogyny, and the role of the United States in the world.  In a way Martin has taken a page from Philip Roth’s novel, THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA raising the same issues but his effort is about defeating Roosevelt through assassination, while Roth focused on replacing Roosevelt with Charles Lindbergh in the White House.

Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt sit in the White House in 1941
(Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt sit in the White House in 1941)

Martin begins the novel as Roosevelt is addressing Congress with his “a date which will live in infamy speech” as the American people hung on every word from coast to coast.  At the same time at a shooting range in a Los Angeles County canyon a group of Nazi sympathizers and spies engaged in target practice, one of which had plans to kill President Roosevelt.

Martin has created a scenario that at the time was not out of the realm of possibility, particularly after Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941.  Martin develops three main characters; Kevin Cusack, a script reader at Warner Brother studios, Martin Browning, a virulent supporter of Nazi Germany and an American citizen, and Frank Carter, an FBI agent stationed in Los Angeles.  The three characters evolve slowly and by the end of the novel they will all come together.  Along the way there are a series of other personalities that play important roles.  Vivian Hopewell, a starry eyed Marlene Dietrich look alike; Stella Madden, a hard nosed female detective; Madden’s flamboyant assistant, Bartholomew Bennet; Stanley Smith, a Pullman porter on a cross country train; Emile Gunst, a member of the German Bund who imports German ceramics; Helen and Wilhelm Stauer, Browning’s co-conspirators, and a host of other savory and unsavory characters.

Image 1 - Santa Fe Railroad 1940 Super Chief Vintage Poster Print Retro Style B&W Art

The texture of the time period is front and center.  The reader is provided glimpses into the Hollywood culture of the 1940s with cameos from John Wayne, John Huston, Hal Wallis, Humphrey Bogart, Erol Flynn, constant references to Leslie Howard, and what it took for a female to achieve stardom. 

Martin also delves into topics which are still germane today and compares them to earlier examples in American history.  For example, when discussing the inferior quality of American leadership, he points to Warren G. Harding.  His approach to the world balance of power fosters a debate as to which is the greater threat, Communism or Nazism.  The antisemitism of the period, the America Firsters, the KKK, and the Nazi ideology espoused by certain individuals is a dominant theme.  In discussing the interaction between diverse characters, American racism comes to the fore particularly the role of porters on American railroads and trains with nicknames like “Super Chief.” In summary, the first half of the novel is not up to Martin’s usual standards in developing his plot.  However, once a number of characters board a train from Los Angeles to the east coast the novel begins to gather steam.  The question is has Martin written a storyline that is feasible, the answer is yes, but has he branched out and produced an approach that is new, the answer is no.  In the end the novel is an easy read, but it is not as absorbing as his other efforts.  When I picked up a William Martin novel I had great expectations.  I anticipated something that was in the realm of previous Martin efforts, Ken Follett or Frederick Forsyth.   However, the current work left me somewhat disappointed.   Despite some exciting and heart pounding scenes, overall, it left me hoping for a plot that was more engaging with greater depth.

President Roosevelt family photo. Courtesy the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

GREY BEES by Andrey Kurkov

Ukrainian frontline in Donbass
(A Ukrainian soldier in the Donbas region)

On May 9, 2022, Vladimir Putin stood in Red Square and celebrated the Russian victory over Nazi Germany.  As he spoke the “Special Military Operation” he unleashed on February 24th grinds on with a death toll estimated at 26,000 for Russia and god knows how many Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, assuredly in the thousands.  The war, a term which is illegal in Russia took a turn last month when Russian forces withdrew from the Kyiv region as Moscow decided to cut its losses in the west and concentrate its firepower in the east, particularly in the Donbas region made up of Luhansk and Donetsk two areas that have been at war with the Ukrainian government since Moscow annexed the Crimea in 2014.

For the people living in the region who did not leave for Russia or safer parts of Ukraine, war has become an almost accepted part of their daily lives.  Today the fighting has been brutal and mirrors the type of conventional battles that ground up thousands upon thousands of soldiers during World War II.  Success for either side on the battlefield has been slow as Russia launches its missiles and artillery and Ukrainian forces try to stall the Russian advance and in certain areas retake villages from Russian troops.  The people who are caught in this morass between the Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk live in what is referred to as the “grey zone.”  No one knows exactly how many people remain in the area, but for those who have stayed the chief aim is survival.  To ascertain what life is like for the residents of the eastern region, Ukrainian novelist, Andrey Kurkov has authored a haunting book entitled GREY BEES, a story about a disabled pensioner and devoted beekeeper – “one of the people of the Donbas.”

PHOTO: donbas region in ukraine

Kurkov’s protagonist is named Sergey Sergeyich who travels to Crimea where he hopes to arrange a holiday for his bees.  Instead, his trip south turns into an ordeal as he witnesses the poor treatment of the Crimean Tatars by Russian authorities.  Sergey tries to maintain neutrality between the two sides, but he develops sympathy for the Muslims and his beliefs create suspicion on the part of the Russian security service – the FSB, which is also a threat to his beloved bees.

The first part of the novel is devoted to Sergey’s life of isolation in the tiny village of Starhorodivka located in the grey zone between Ukrainian and Separatist soldiers.  Sergey’s life is one of repetition, boredom, and survival.  With no electricity and limited access to food his focus is clear – avoid snipers and travel only at night.  The only other person who lives in the village is his “frenemy,” Pashka Khmelenko who seems pro-Separatist/Russia.  Their relationship goes back to childhood and was never strong, but the situation they find themselves in draws them closer.

Sergey was married with a daughter, but after a series of disagreements his wife left taking their child with her.  Sergey had been a mine inspector before the war, but by age forty-two he retired on disability with silicosis.  Sergey’s outlook on life is clear, he must maintain his health as best he can for the sake of the bees.  If he should pass away the bees would perish – he refuses to allow himself to “become the annihilator of hundreds of thousands of bee souls.”  He believed such a sin would burden him through his afterlife.  Sergey is firmly neutral in terms of political affiliation during the war – he only cares about his bees and worries what might occur to his society of beekeepers if Donetsk were to become independent since there was no society of beekeepers in that region.

Map showing areas of Ukraine currently under Russian control

The novel provides a window into the horror of what life is like in eastern Ukraine.  The dominant emotion is how to deal with the silence between bombardments.  Military silence which is not really silence becomes the norm as the shelling can come at any time – it becomes the accepted mode of existence for people in the region.  Kurkov describes a grey area that had been consumed by mining, but Sergey looks forward to spring, whenever it arrives as it brings the beauty of nature that offsets the calamity of destructive warfare.

The second part of the novel evolves as increased shelling begins to disturb the hives, so Sergey loads up his bees in his Lada and travels from town to town finally reaching Crimea.  As the story progresses Sergey finds it difficult to remain neutral as he sees how the Russian soldiers treat his beekeeper comrade, a Crimean Tartar named Akhtem and his family.  Sergey’s commentary is enlightening as he compares the behavior of his bees with behavior during the Soviet period and wonders why his bees are acting like humans.

For the author, “civil society” could learn a great deal from Sergey’s bees.  In addition, Kurkov’s story and dialogue point to the timelessness of war.  For Sergey and others, telling time serves no purpose, only the seasons matter. 

During his journey to Crimea, time is of the essence as Russian authorities will only grant him a ninety day pass.  As he travels on, Sergey meets a number of people that will influence his journey and alter his perceptions of the human condition.  Gayla, a woman who operates a food store, wants him to stay with her.  Aisylu, the widow of his bee colleague, Akhtem provides food and emotional support.  Lastly, a series of Russian officials who seem to enjoy creating obstacles for Sergey.  In all instances the reader will acquire insights into life in Crimea and the Grey Zone and how Putin and his minions inflict tremendous psychological and physical damage on its inhabitants.

(Andrey Kurkov, author)

In a novel that professes neutrality the portrayal of Russian characters comes off according to Jennifer Wilson in her March 29, 2022, New York Times  book review “as eerily cold, almost monstrous – snipers, cops, Putin apologists – as the actions of the Russian government were in some ways reflective of a deeper national character.  It recalls Kurkov’s professed view of Russian and Ukrainian people as fundamentally different, each with a unique ‘mentality.’ As Putin tries to justify his occupation on the grounds of a shared history, there is indeed a strong current within Ukraine’s intelligentsia toward highlighting what makes the cultures and literary traditions distinct. Any suggestion of syncretism or co-influence feels tantamount to treason.”

The Dublin Literary Award states that Grey Bees is as timely as the author’s Ukraine Diaries were in 2014 but treats the unfolding crisis in a more imaginative way, with a pinch of Kurkov’s signature humor. Who better than Ukraine’s most famous novelist to illuminate and present a balanced portrait of this most bewildering of modern conflicts.

PHOTO: A Ukrainian Serviceman monitors the possible movement of the separatist forces at a frontline position held by Ukraine's 503rd Detached Marine Battalion on Feb. 7, 2022, near Verkhnotoretske, Ukraine.
(A Ukrainian soldier in the Donbas region)

THE DIAMOND EYE by Kate Quinn

(Lyudmila Pavlichenko)

The preparation and presentation of good historical fiction is an art form.  The ability to engage in the necessary research and apply what is uncovered in a fictional format that represents accurate history is a challenge.  Blending the lives of historical figures with fictional ones can create fascinating stories that should absorb the reader’s attention.  One of the most important practitioners of this art is Kate Quinn whose previous historical novels include; THE ALICE NETWORK, THE HUNTRESS,  AND THE ROSE CODE all of which have attracted a wide audience and critical acclaim.  Her latest effort, THE DIAMOND EYE will surely gain the same notoriety and praise as her previous work.

The central character in THE DIAMOND EYE is Lyudmila Pavlichenko (Mila) who during World War II transformed herself from a studious girl who loved history into a deadly sniper whose nickname was “lady death.”  Quinn is able to take her remarkable story and develop it into an amazing novel that reflects heroism and the transformation of her subject from motherhood to becoming a soldier.

The question that overlays Quinn’s novel is how a library researcher, a graduate student, an aspiring historian, and mother becomes a deadly sniper?  Along with providing the answer to this query, Quinn develops Mila’s character and sense of self very slowly.  Her growth and confidence carefully evolve as she masters the intricacies of science, weather, logistics, and math that are a part of each shot a sniper must consider. 

Eleanor Roosevelt
(Eleanor Roosevelt)

An important dynamic in the novel is how Mila finally stands up to her husband Alexei who she married at fifteen, got pregnant, and raises her son Slavka.  Alexei wants no part of his family and abandons them to reappear as a surgeon on the southern front in the great patriotic war against the Nazis.  Mila will fall in love with her commanding officer Alexei (Lyonya) Kitsenko and believes they will have a wonderful life should they survive the war.

Along her journey Mila must overcome a number of fears and obstacles.  First, as the only woman sniper in a company of men she fears being raped.  Second, most officers believe that women should not be soldiers, less so a sniper.  Third, she misses her son Slavka who is being raised by her parents.  Fourth, dealing with an obnoxious, misogynistic husband who will not easily grant her a divorce.  Lastly, overcoming her fear and then acceptance of death, including her own.  As the novel progresses these issues all come to the fore.

Quinn has created a dual plotline as she develops her story.  From the outset Quinn strongly hints that her story is more than just recounting the life of a woman sniper with over 300 kills.  As Mila’s reputation proceeds her, against her will, the Soviet propaganda machine sees her story as an opportunity to foster publicity for the war effort particularly as it relates to the disposition of the Russian people and how they are perceived by the United States.  In 1942 Mila will be dispatched from the fighting in Sevastopol to the United States where she will meet  Eleanor Roosevelt, a character Quinn makes excellent use of with her diary commentary about the war and her husband. The trip has its highs and lows, as Mila unexpectedly develops a friendship with Eleanor and tries to influence American policy.   

The Eastern Front exacted a terrible toll on the German Army and Hitler’s refusal to abandon the Crimea needlessly cost Germany countless troops.

While in Washington it seems that a “Marksman” is following Mila who he hopes to scapegoat as an assassin of President Roosevelt.  The “Marksman” will conduct the deed and arrange a scenario for Mila to be blamed thereby ruining the allied alliance and removing a president that isolationists and conservatives abhor.

As in all her novels Quinn’s writing is spot on and is able to humanize Mila by showing how she and Kostia, her sniper partner use humor, along with a healthy amount of vodka to cope with their risk-taking to survive in the hostile environment of warfare.  Her relationship with Kostia is extremely important as are Quinn’s insights into the training, preparation, and implementation of the tasks that are the raison detre of being a sniper.

Quinn integrates a number of characters of which the members of her sniper command stand out, particularly Vartanov, an old ranger from Crimea who could move through trees likea ghost who Mila comes across and will join her group despite his age.  He is an asset because of his knowledge of the terrain, and he is “dead on” shot.  Olena Ivanova Paily also stands out as the nurse who befriends Mila and treats her in a field hospital after she is wounded twice and encourages her to pursue a life apart from killing Nazis.

Kate Quinn is a superb storyteller, and she perfectly captures Mila’s spirit and personality both on and off the battlefield. Quinn provides an important chapter entitled “Author’s Note” at the end of the book that provides a great deal of insight and information regarding Mila and how she structures her novel.  This is an important book especially since the fighting takes place in the Ukraine, Crimea to be exact, and shows like today how civilians with no military experience can make a difference in combat.

lyudmila pavlichenko

(Lyudmila Pavlichenko)

THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY by Amor Towles

Image 1 - 1946 Studebaker Coupe Auto Car Ad Refrigerator / Tool Box Magnet

After creating two the national bestsellers, RULES OF CIVILITY and A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW, Amor Towles has now offered his third novel, THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY which has also received praise from many quarters.  The book approaches a ten day period in June 1954 involving four major characters as their journey culminates in New York City.  The story is told from multiple points of view, which has become a staple in Towles’ novels.  The story begins with Warden Williams returning Emmett Watson to his home Morgen, Nebraska after serving an eighteen month sentence at the Salina, Kansas youth home for manslaughter.  After Watson has been delivered to his house he discovers that two inmates from the farm, Woolly Walcott Martin and Daniel (Duchess) Hewett have hidden in the warden’s trunk as a means of escaping the farm.  These three characters along with Emmett’s brother Billy are the vehicle from which the stories embedded in the novel are told.

After their farm is foreclosed upon following the death of their father, Emmett and Billy decide to head to California to try and locate their mother who had abandoned them a decade ago.  Their plans change when Duchess and Woolly abscond with Emmett’s Studebaker and travel to New York.  The novel builds on this framework developing many interesting situations and characters highlighted by Towles approach to life and the foibles of people. 

The Lincoln Highway map from the book

Towles does a superb job framing scenes and is a master of dialogue be it a discussion of Kazantis the escape artist or the philosophical approach to life of Ulysses Dixon, “a large negro” who will save Billy’s life while traveling on a freight train.  Towles creates delightful characters that will capture the reader’s attention throughout the novel.  For example, Emmett’s search for cereal in the General Mills freight car that he and Billy had stolen a ride on to catch up to Duchess and reclaim the Studebaker.  It is on that freight car that Pastor John appears who informs Billy that he is a real pastor “like my namesake John the Baptist, my church is the open road and my congregation the common man” that things will become interesting.

Of all the characters that Towles creates, Ulysses is the most interesting. Ulysses’ story is a sad one as he volunteered for military service in 1943 against the wishes of his wife who was pregnant and when he returns following the war they are nowhere to be found.  Ulysses punishes himself by living in a homeless community under a bridge in New York City and traveling the country using freight trains as a means of transportation.  Towles use of Homer’s THE ILIAD is a remarkable tool to gain insight into Dixon’s life and what the outcome of his journey might turn out to be.

As Towles tells his story through the lens of the four main characters and a few ancillary ones the reader gains diverse perspectives about the same scenes and events and provides a greater understanding of human nature than focusing on only one perspective.  Towles is a marvelous storyteller with a keen eye concerning human relations and their attitude towards life’s vicissitudes.  Towles integrates a number of unusual analogies, for example, comparing the Salina youth farm with Alexandre Dumas’ THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO among many others.

Towles provides an accurate view of the 1950s through the landscape of the Lincoln Highway which connects Times Square in New York to San Francisco.  As Towles characters travel across America underlying themes of ant-communism, anti-Semitism, racism, and socio-economic inequality come to the fore.  Towles eye for detail is astonishing as he explores American culture employing diverse examples including; a Coup Deville, a Playtex bra, cans of Chef Boy-Ardie, television programs from Dragnet to the Long Ranger and others too numerous to mention.

The novel revolves around Emmett’s search for Duchess and their coming together in New York. The travail’s they experience, include Woolly and Billy, along with the family baggage they carry around.  The adventures that emerge are entertaining, thoughtful, and easily maintain the reader’s attention.  The commentary offered by Emmett, Duchess, Woolly, and Billy stand out in terms pathos, empathy, humor, and the serious nature of the lives they are living.  Towles use of Professor Abacus Abernathe’s COMPENDIUM OF HEROES, ADVENTURES, AND OTHER INTREPID TRAVELERS, a red book carried by Billy everywhere describing 26 heroes from Achilles to Zorro is an excellent source to present past history and how it affects the present.  Towles scenes where Billy meets the professor is unusual, and extremely important.

Times Square 

One of the many strengths of THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY is Towles knack of introducing new characters then delving into their personal stories.  Through their recounting we learn a great deal about America ranging from life in an orphanage in Nebraska, a youth facility in Kansas, Harlem neighborhoods, Manhattan to the Adirondacks. Towles has produced a sweeping book that is as much about literary history of the road novel as it is about one engaging journey.

Chris Bachelder is dead on in his November 7, 2021, New York Times  book review when he writes; At 600 pages, “The Lincoln Highway” is remarkably brisk, remarkably buoyant. Though dark shadows fall across its final chapters, the book is permeated with light, wit, youth. Many novels this size are telescopes, but this big book is a microscope, focused on a small sample of a vast whole. Towles has snipped off a minuscule strand of existence — 10 wayward days — and when we look through his lens we see that this brief interstice teems with stories, grand as legends.

THE BOODLESS BOY by Robert J. lloyd

(17th Century London)

Robert J. Lloyd’s first novel begins on New Year’s Day 1678.  The setting is London, a city still recovering from the Conflagration or Great Fire eleven years previous with the appearance of numerous true historical figures as well as many fictitious ones.  Charles II,  occupies the English throne and rumors abound concerning Catholic plots to assassinate him.  The title of the novel, THE BLOODLESS BOY is very apropos as the drama that hovers over the story surrounds the discovery of the body of a three year old boy near the Fleet River with wounds providing evidence that the boy had all of his blood drained from his body.  What makes matters worse is that as the plot evolves other bodies are found in a similar state.

The two most important protagonists are Robert Hooke and Henry Hunt.  Hooke is the Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, Gresham’s Professor of Geometry, and Surveyor of London.  Hunt, a former protégé of Hooke’s, now on his own is an Observator of the Royal Society of London and both men have been tasked by Charles II and Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, the Justice of the Peace for Westminster to assist in solving the murders.  Hooke is very reluctant fearing it will interfere in what he believes to be his greater work for the Society, and Hunt is more than willing to cooperate as he sees it as an avenue to emerge from under his former mentor’s shadow.

(Charles II, King of England)

Political intrigue and spies abound in the novel with the constant references to Popish plots against the government, assassination plans to remove Charles II, and a series of Ciphers that come into the possession of Hooke, Hunt, and others.  As the plot meanders slowly for a number of chapters Hooke is very concerned that the murders may lead back to the earlier English Civil War and Charles II escape to France.  Further, Lloyd expertly integrates the story of the Earl of Shaftsbury, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Chancellor, and First Lord of Trade who upon writing a pamphlet arguing that the powers of the king should be restricted spends a year in the Tower of London until he expresses contrition for his beliefs.  Despite this expression his life centers around seeking revenge.  Another story that Lloyd weaves into the novel is that of Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge who commits suicide which Hooke and Hunt promise his widow to keep his cause of death a secret.  The question is clear, what do the murders, political machinations, and suicide have to do with one another?

Lloyd possesses an excellent command of British history as is evidenced by his commentary centering on plots against the government, use of the views expressed by the historical figures he incorporates into his plot, and knowledge of natural philosophy and London and its environs.  Lloyd uses Hooke and Hunt who make up an odd couple to solve the murders and their interactions provide a useful guide into scientific, philosophical, and political knowledge of the day.  Lloyd’s descriptions of London as it existed after the devastating fire of 1666 which destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 Parish churches, The Royal Exchange, Guildhall, and St. Paul’s Cathedral are important as he reviews the architectural changes of the city focusing on older buildings that survived the fire, those that did not, and the newest structures that have been built or are under construction.

Source
(Robert Hooke)

Lloyd’s use of late 17th century language and his attention to the smallest detail add authenticity to the dialogue and atmosphere reflected in the story.  Based on the author’s commitment to detail the reader can smell the leather tanneries, the smell of the food served in the taverns, and the snow and rain that was a staple for 17th century London. Lloyd captures the ambiance of the Scientific Revolution and coming Enlightenment with references to the works of Sir Isaac Newton, William Harvey, and the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, among others.

The construction of the plot passes through many layers as Lloyd builds the tension surrounding the many conspiracies, murders, political machinations, religion, and ciphers at the same time the distrust the characters have for each drips in each interaction.  The blend of fact and fiction make for an excellent historical mystery, and I hope to read Lloyd’s sequel which he is working on as soon as it is published.  Let me add one caveat, after reading THE BLOODLESS BOY you are sure to develop a different view of the Scientific Revolution.

Lambeth Palace in the foreground, with the Thames and the City to the north forming the background
(17th Century London)

THE VOLUNTEER by Salvatore Scibona

(Nixon makes the case for a U.S. invasion of Cambodia, April 29, 1970)

It is sometime in 2010 and a five year old boy has been abandoned at the Hamburg-Fuhlsbuttel International Airport.  So begins Salvatore Scibona’s second novel, THE VOLUNTEER a searing story that spans over forty years from the Vietnam War to the post- 9/11 Afghanistan encompassing four generations of fathers and sons that takes the reader from Latvia, Vietnam, Queens, New Mexico among many locations.  Once the boy is introduced wandering the airport as others try to determine his identity and story, Scibona introduces Elroy Heflin, a former convict who resorted to a myriad of lifestyles from stocking a grocery store, slinging heroine, sleeping in shelters and on the street to survive.  He was soon arrested and joined the army to get his life straight.  Later, he is assigned to the Office of Defense Cooperation attached to the American Embassy in Riga, Latvia.

Heflin will develop a relationship with a woman named Evija who upon becoming pregnant refuses Heflin’s offer to marry.  Five years later while serving in Afghanistan, paying one- third of his pay in child support he learns that Evija has abandoned their son Janis who he sees twice a year and wants him to take custody. Heflin will take Janis to the airport to catch a flight to London but decides to leave him in a toilet cubicle at the Hamburg airport before continuing on his way home.

Scibona is a master of shifting scenes from one character to the next.  In the first major instance he moves on from Heflin for about half the book and focuses on Mr. Tilly or Vollie Frade who was Heflin’s guardian until he had reached the age of eighteen.  In telling Vollie’s life story we learn that he too was an unwanted son, born to aging cattle ranchers outside of Davenport, IA and at the age of seventeen forged his parent’s signature and joined the Marines winding up in Vietnam.  Vollie is a complex character who is preoccupied with erasing his identity.  Throughout the novel there are scenes where he seems to be taking himself away.  For example, when he is a small boy his parents burn his clothes to prevent an outbreak of meningitis, for Vollie they are burning him.  During his tenure in the Marines, he finds himself captured in Cambodia, a mission the government says does not exist – then does he?  Later, during bouts of PTSD he again questions his existence.

(US soldiers burn a wooden structure in a village in eastern Cambodia in May 1970)

Scibona’s description of the war in Southeast Asia is reminiscent of the works of Dennis Johnson, Karl Marlantes, Michael Herr, and Tim O’Brien.  It is raw in conception digging deeply into the stupidity of the American role in Vietnam.  The scenes described as Vollie acts as a “Santa Claus” type of character driving in a convoy distributing mail, supplies, and anything else needed to the front lines reflects the absurdity of war.  The discussion surrounding the US invasion of Cambodia and what occurs has a “Apocalypse Now” type of reality as do other scenes in the novel, particularly after he returns from Vietnam and Vollie finds himself ensconced in Queens, NY conducting a spy mission on a Social Security swindler who may turn out to be a Nazi fugitive.

Intergenerational misery dominates the plot as we move from place to place.  A priest trying to crack the mysteries of Janis’ birth in Germany, a commune in Nevada and on and on.  This is a very difficult novel to follow.  At times it feels as if you are reading a Kurt Vonnegut novel taking place in Cloud Cuckoo Land.  Despite a number of difficulties there are a number of portrayals of America that are priceless.  The 1973 description of Queens, NY is priceless from the stoops, woman in house dresses, pickup basketball, church fellowship etc. Scibona has captured the neighborhood perfectly and this goes along with  his striking social commentary.

(Salvatore Scibona)

The characters are lost in their own worlds especially Vollie whose view of life is one who is disappointed in himself and life in general as moving from one lie to another no matter how honest some appeared to be.  Lorch, the spy handler’s quoting of scripture really plays no purpose, but he seems to do so each time he appears.  Louisa, like Vollie is saddled with the burdens of the past as she cares for a baby out of a commune that practiced free love.  Elroy, as he matures, like Vollie he replays scenes of a boyhood of abandonment.

The phrase that captures the essence of the novel is Vollie thinking about how “am I nobody from nowhere” as he and other characters try to maneuver in lives that do not turn out the way they want.  The concept of identity appears repeatedly – for Vollie does he have one since he tries to cut himself off from everyone and everything. 

To Scibona‘s credit his descriptions are often entertaining, but also sarcastic and draining.  He has a keen eye for detail and many of his scenes seem similar to other works of literature and film.  Overall, it was a difficult book to read, and I would only recommend it for someone who has a great deal of time to devote to understanding what the author is trying to say and enjoys a dark story that can be very painful.

(President Nixon announces the entry of US troops into Cambodia)

THE HISTORIANS by Cecilia Ekback

(Kiruna mine from which the novel is based upon)

Swedish born author Cecilia Ekback has written a very complex and believable novel that focuses on the possibilities of a Scandinavian Reich that could have emerged during the Second World War.  At a time in the publishing world when there is no shortage of World War II based historical fiction, Ekback’s new book THE HISTORIANS stands out for its character and plot development and the creation of a scenario that is quite credible.

Set in Sweden during World War II the book reintroduces that country’s controversial role during the conflict.  Claiming neutrality, the Stockholm government accommodated the Nazi regime by allowing the passage of over two million German soldiers through Sweden.  Further, Swedish iron ore shipped to the Berlin regime was critical for Nazi wartime production of steel, and lastly Swedish railroads allowed the transport of the German 163rd infantry division with its equipment to pass from Norway to Finland.  It was only after 1944 with the German war effort heading for defeat did Sweden share military intelligence and allow the allies to use Swedish airbases.  Hardly the actions of a country that could be relied upon during war.

The book opens in 1943 with the Nazi regime pressuring Sweden to increase its supply of iron ore.  Laura Dahlgren, part of the Swedish trade delegation negotiating iron ore access with the Germans discovers the body of Britta Hallberg, a former classmate at Uppsala University and a member of a close knit group of five friends, tortured and murdered.  It seems that Britta had become a “sparrow” or Swedish spy whose job was to get close to German diplomats, but was also finalizing her university thesis entitled, “Nordic Relations Through the Ages: Denmark, Norway and Sweden on a New Path”  which was delivered to Jens Regnell, Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs after her death.  The question was why the thesis was delivered to Regnell, and did her research have anything to do with her murder.

The Royal Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

As Ekback develops her dramatic plot another death takes place that of Daniel Jonsson, an archivist at the Swedish Foreign Ministry.  First it seemed a suicide, but as evidence accumulated it was clear it was murder.  When a bomb goes off in Dahlgren’s apartment it is clear that anyone who investigates Swedish racial policy is a threat and are in danger.

The core of the plot revolves around a meeting that took place in 1914.  Referred to as the “The Three Kings Meeting” it was made up of monarchs and foreign ministers of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.  They discussed the possibility of the creation of a Scandinavian Reich under one strong leader based on the supremacy of the Nordic race.  A committee was created to study the feasibility of the concept.  By 1939 a second meeting was held and the program was formally shut down, but in reality the ideas related to a new Reich remained to be implemented by powerful forces within the Swedish bureaucracy and body politick to not only carry out the unification of the governments involved but also to ethnically cleanse and eliminate the Sami, an indigenous people who lived in the northern part of the Scandinavian peninsula as well as parts of Norway, Finland, and Russia.  It is estimated they numbered between 50,000 and 100,000.

As Dahlgren and Regnell investigated they learned that it was possible that certain elements were conducting human experiments on the Sami, with many people disappearing from the Blackasen Mountain area where iron ore was mined.

An image posted by the author.
(the author)

An interesting component to Ekback’s novel is how she integrates Nordic myths and symbols into the plot.  The vehicle she chooses is the unlikely friendships among Dahlgren, Britta Hallberg, Erik who was a hothead and a fool in many ways, Matti, who seemed sober, totally focused on his job for Finland, and Karl-Erik, who seemed to be the brightest during their debates while at the university.  During these discussions Sweden’s racial policy emerges, and after Britta is murdered they grapple with how best to discover what happened to her and why.  When the remaining four try to find the underlying cause of what is going on, unimaginable things occur.

As Ekback develops her novel a number of important questions emerge.  First, were members of the State Institute for Racial Biology conducting experiments on the back side of the Blackasen mountain?  Second, was there an actual plot to create a Scandinavian Reich and purify the “lesser” Nordic types?  Third, why were authorities who investigated Britta’s murder being stymied?  Fourth, who were the people who were trying to create the new Reich?  Lastly, do these elements still exist in Swedish society?

Ekback’s approach in creating her story was to start slowly introducing a myriad of characters that at times is difficult for the reader to digest.  As she moves along her storyline develops momentum as the reader begins to wonder if this type of scenario was actually feasible.  Every author of historical fiction faces the dilemma as to how far from “historical truth” they can deviate from and not lose their readers.  Ekback takes the reader right up to the line between truth and fiction and fashions a searing novel that may be speculative in nature but in the end is quite satisfying and sheds light on Sweden, whose machinations during World War II are part of the historical record as certain individuals dallied with “Nazi leanings.”  Ekback has authored a blistering novel, once you get past the early development of the plot, it will be difficult to put down.

(Kiruna mine, which the novel is based on)