Book Review: The Constant Soldier, by William Ryan

Publisher:  Panmacmillan

Publication date:  1st June 2017

Upon finishing this book in the early hours I found I had not only a lump in my throat, but I was speechless at the intensity of the narrative. This is not a book you can easily set aside and forget about (hence why I was reading until after 2.30 a.m.!)  The story remains with me even now and I’ve no doubt it will remain with me for some while to come –and I don’t say this lightly, it’s one of the finest books I have ever read.

Every striking scene, every imminent threat, every laboured dialogue exchange felt as though I were a fly on the wall observing the commands from the hierarchy worm their way downward the ranks only to become an act of obedience from the subordinates, regardless of the grotesque consequences.

How the handful of prisoners lived with the onslaught of fear and a routine so punishing – well, I don’t think I will ever comprehend. Ironically, even though this expendable workforce is exhausted, physically and mentally, it’s all to help the German officers recuperate in a rest hut to which The Constant Solider has been assigned.

Work detail is torturous, particularly for a one-armed, reluctant solider with burns covering most of his body. Not only does he have witness the ‘customary’ ill-treatment of the women prisoners as they carry out infinite housekeeping tasks to ensure a pleasant stay for the guests’, he recognised one of the spectral, emaciated frames inhabiting the raggedy prison clothes from his life before he was consigned to the army.

The Constant Soldier, Paul Brandt, is an especially distinctive character and represents the good / evil divide in the midst of war. The reasons why he came to serve in the army and then accept a position at the hut in spite of his extensive injuries are skilfully and sensitively depicted. It’s his expressions differ from the usual offerings. For instance, when his face expresses any kind of emotion a smile could easily be misconstrued a grimace as the skin on his face pulls taught emphasising his prior wounds.

By taking ordinary words and using them to extraordinary effect, each sentence embodies courage, commitment, misery, atonement, regret and sacrifice. This haunting novel shows how circumstances conspire against the intended course of your life and how humanity still lingers in remote quarters, while offering reflection from allies, prisoners and oppressors who have become tangled in Hitler’s wicked and tyrannical ambition.

Feel the partisans’ breath on your neck, the boot of an SS guard, and the rattle of the window panes as an underestimated opponent grows near – then feel the impression The Constant Soldier will leave on you.  HIGHLY (& ABSOLUTELY) RECOMMENDED.

Rating:  This is one of those awkward situations where a book has once again broken my rating system. Quite frankly it exceeds 5/5 – seriously, just read it immediately!

(Huge thanks to the author and publisher for arranging this review copy for which it is my absolute pleasure to provide an unbiased review.)

(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

‘Haunting, passionate, William Ryan’s The Constant Soldier is a subtle WW2 thriller of horror and love with an utterly gripping countdown to Gotterdamerung. One of my favourites of the year’ Simon Sebag Montefiore

1944. Paul Brandt, a soldier in the German army, returns wounded and ashamed from the bloody chaos of the Eastern front to find his village home much changed and existing in the dark shadow of an SS rest hut – a luxurious retreat for those who manage the concentration camps, run with the help of a small group of female prisoners who – against all odds – have so far survived the war.

When, by chance, Brandt glimpses one of these prisoners, he realizes that he must find a way to access the hut. For inside is the woman to whom his fate has been tied since their arrest five years before, and now he must do all he can to protect her.

But as the Russian offensive moves ever closer, the days of this rest hut and its SS inhabitants are numbered. And while hope – for Brandt and the female prisoners – grows tantalizingly close, the danger too is now greater than ever.

And, in a forest to the east, a young female Soviet tank driver awaits her orders to advance . . .

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(Courtesy of author’s own website)

William Ryan’s Captain Korolev Novels have been shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, the Ellis Peters and John Creasey Daggers and the Irish Crime Novel of the Year (twice). William teaches on the Crime Writing Masters at City University in London. His latest novel The Constant Soldier has been described by AL Kennedy as “a nuanced, complex and gripping tale of guilt and love that captures the chaos at the end of World War Two”.

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Book Review: Shelter, by Sarah Franklin

Publisher:  Bonnier Zaffe

Publication date:  27th July 2017

From the rustic window of this rather exquisite cover lies a magnificent view of the purity of nature, its shifting seasons mirroring the struggles of life, as the shadow of a brutal foe falls upon our shores.

Shelter. A simple one word title captures the underlying theme perfectly: the canopy of trees where apprentice Lumberjills are schooled, the welcome the foresters extend to an outsider or the protection offered by the woodland itself, no matter where your own roots may lie.

Narrated throughout the final year of conflict, with fleeting periods of reflection, the ravages of World War II compel the characters to confront the consequences of their actions, stretching their resilience until they rediscover the true meaning of home.

The ancient forest has witnessed significant changes over time yet it perseveres, regenerates and passes no judgement, much like its dependants. The existing species proudly stand guard but they are rivalled by new specimens in the form of the dynamic and determined, Connie, a grounded but troubled POW and closet woodcarver, Seppe, not to mention the unexpected gifts the uncertainty of war can deliver.

It’s a beautifully composed story, almost a forestry guide of challenging reluctant happiness. The locals have a wonderful way of speaking, especially contemplative Amos whose spare room was commandeered for the tornado of the timber corps, Connie! The author has serenely animated the forest and its inhabitants, showering an otherwise two-dimensional page with an energy that leaves its impression on all five senses.

Even though patience, sacrifice and love offer their own rewards, finding Shelter in the most unlikely places proves to be unfamiliar territory for some as there are times when they just can’t see the wood for the trees.

I loved it, and I’m more than happy to recommend.

Rating: 4/5

(I was lucky enough to win a gorgeous hardback copy of this title via the publisher’s website – ‘Reader’s First’ – and it’s my absolute pleasure to provide this unbiased review.)

(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

Perfect for fans of Early One Morning by Virginia Baily and the novels of Maggie O’Farrell.

Led here by necessity, she knows she cannot stay. Brought against his will, he never wants to leave.

Early spring 1944.  Connie Granger has escaped her bombed-out city home, finding refuge in the Women’s Timber Corps. For her, this remote community must now serve a secret purpose.

Seppe, an Italian prisoner of war, is haunted by his memories. In the forest camp, he finds a strange kind of freedom.

Their meeting signals new beginnings. But as they are drawn together, the world outside their forest haven is being torn apart. Old certainties are crumbling, and both must now make a life-defining choice.

What price will they pay for freedom? What will they fight to protect? 

The world was alive out here, the scent of bud and blossom in every breath a stark contrast to the thud of bombs into sandbanks, or worse, the iron tang of blood.’

‘This was a place where you could hide, where you could start again . . .

Shelter is a captivating and tender novel about love, hope and how we find solace in the most troubled times. 

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(Courtesy of Reader’s First Website)

Sarah lectures in publishing at Oxford Brookes, is the host of Short Stories Aloud and a judge for the Costa Short Story Award. She has written for the Guardian, Psychologies magazine, The Pool, the Sunday Express and the Seattle Times. In 2014, Sarah was awarded a Jerwood/Arvon Mentorship on the strength of her opening pages of Shelter, and worked on the novel for a year with Jenn Ashworth, amongst others.

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Book Review: The Invitation, by Lucy Foley

Publisher:  Harper Collins

Publication Date:  14th July 2016

The Invitation - My Review

The Invitation by Lucy Foley.jpgFrom the moment I began reading and was whisked away to Rome to step back in time to 1951, I knew I would be enchanted by The Invitation.

When the original reporter has a prior engagement he asks his lowly colleague Hal to cover a soiree in his place. Little does Hal know that the seemingly innocent invite with its golden lettering possesses an almost fate like quality.

The local elderly Contessa wishes to raise awareness for investment for a new film she wishes to make of her ancestor’s life. It is entitled The Sea Captain and is very loosely based on a journal of he kept after being subjected to a fair amount of artistic license. Hal, feeling socially inept in his crumpled attire, catches the Contessa’s eye and worries he’s to be thrown on to the street until he finds she is miraculously aware of his previous writings. That short spark of conversation one evening leads not only to a proposal to diarise the filming schedule as the cast and crew cruise will luxuriously sail toward Cannes for the final showing, but a close encounter of the one-off passionate kind following a chance meeting with an extraordinarily enigmatic guest.

As Hal accepts the Contessa’s offer to join the cruise we are treated to an epic stream of film screenings, sumptuous dinners, glorious scenery, and the discovery of exclusives of the cast and crew. Most reporters would be tempted to use this ammunition to their advantage and yet he listens, becoming the keeper of their secrets that are too precious to publicly share.

This grand career opportunity is made all the more difficult as Ms Enigmatic is also on board. The couple try to keep their own secrets too when a confused whirlwind of emotion threatens to cast them adrift from the half-life they have both accepted for themselves.

Behind the façade of polite conversation and dress codes, the effects of the recent war remains embedded in everyone’s mind. With each port stop or chance meeting on deck it becomes clearer that despite the sparkling glamour, people are still stumbling from the debris of their past lives to find some semblance of how to survive in this changed world, or at the very least find a corner to exist now the world has changed them.

Although the ship is afloat as it makes its way to the final destination it’s clear that the people on board are drowning in one way or another. Some are manipulated, severely grief-stricken, or merely keeping up the pretence that they are actually living their lives. But all are standing behind a thin veil that separates them from true happiness.

On the side of the promenade protected by the tight mouth of the harbour, the water is still calm. But on the other the sea is wild and dark, capped with foam like the froth on a madman’s lips.

This cinematic, sweeping story of simmering passion is laced with intrigue, sadness and hope. The varying degrees of fallout following the ravages of war guided me on a truly immersive journey and I willingly became lost among the perfectly evocative passages, as diving into the pages of The Invitation was blissfully escapist.

Rating:  4/5

(I was extraordinarily lucky to receive a hardback copy of this wonderful book in a generous Twitter giveaway from the publishers, for which I’m delighted to offer an unbiased review as a thank you to both them and the author.)

The Invitation by Lucy Foley Blogger Giveaway Prize

The Invitation - Book Summary

(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

‘The perfect summer read… Gorgeously compelling’ Good Housekeeping

‘Film crew, Italian Riviera, 1950s. What part of that does not appeal?’ Red

Rome, 1950s. One fateful night, Hal Jacobs meets Stella, a beautiful society darling from New York. To Hal, flailing in the post-war darkness, she’s a point of light. They’re from different worlds, but both trying and failing to carve out a new life.

Stella vanishes all too quickly, until a curious invitation from an Italian Contessa reels her back into Hal’s world. They join the Contessa’s collection of luminaries on a yacht headed for Cannes film festival.

The scene on board is a fiction – scars from the war can be hidden yet not healed. Everyone is hiding a dark history, but Stella’s secrets run the deepest. Compelled by her fragile beauty, Hal is determined to bring back the girl she once was, the girl who’s been confined to history.

The Invitation is an epic love story that will transport you from the glamour of the Italian Riviera, to the darkness of war-torn Spain, and to a golden – if rather haunted – time. Perfect for fans of Kate Morton and Victoria Hislop.

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The Invitation - Author Profile

(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

Lucy Foley studied English Literature at Durham and UCL universities. She then worked for several years as a fiction editor in the publishing industry – during which time she also wrote The Book of Lost and Found. Lucy now writes full-time, and is busy travelling (for research, naturally!) and working on her next novel.

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