#BookReview The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

The Women of the CastleAbout the Book

Bavaria, Germany. June 1945. The Third Reich has crumbled. The Russians are coming.

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once-grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resister murdered in the failed 20th July 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

Marianne assembles a makeshift family from the ruins of her husband’s resistance movement, rescuing her dearest friend’s widow, Benita, from sex slavery to the Russian army, and Ania from a work camp for political prisoners. She is certain their shared past will bind them together.

But as Benita begins a clandestine relationship and Ania struggles to conceal her role in the Nazi regime, Marianne learns that her clear-cut, highly principled world view is infinitely more complicated now, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart.

All three women must grapple with the realities they now face, and the consequences of decisions each made in the darkest of times…

Format: Hardback (368 pages)     Publisher: Zaffre
Publication date: 18th May 2017 Genre: Historical Fiction

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20-books-of-summerMy Review

The Women of the Castle is the third book from my list for the 20 Books of Summer 2022 reading challenge. Yes I know, we’re already over half way through August. Like all the other books on my list, it’s been in my TBR pile for way too long.

Firstly the things I liked about the book. I thought the way the author uses the prologue to contrast the glamorous atmosphere within the castle with events elsewhere in Germany was very powerful. ‘But outside, beyond the walls, terrible things were happening.’ Even more so once we realise the party is taking place on what will come to be known as Kristallnacht. I also liked the fact the book focuses on Germans who were opposed to the Nazi regime, including those such as Marianne’s husband who made the difficult choice to take direct action to oppose Hitler. I found the stories of Ania and Benita especially powerful (even if I never quite worked out how Ania ended up on Marianne’s list of the wives of resisters).

As the book progressed I didn’t mind the changes in point of view from one woman to another but the frequent moving back and forth in time left me frustrated and often confused.  At one point the book jumps back to 1923 and a rather unnecessary (to my mind) final part sees us in 1991. Often there are brief references to quite significant events in the past but it is many chapters before we learn the full details of them.  At times, I felt the book glossed over some events while dealing with others in painstaking detail.

Marianne is the dominant character in the book, or perhaps domineering would be more appropriate. So many of the events in the lives of the other two women are influenced by the decisions Marianne makes. On a number of occasions they are wrong, even fateful decisions. As Benita observes at one point, ‘It was so much like Marianne to act first and then think.’ I had to agree with Ania’s first impression of Marianne as a woman ‘accustomed to giving orders.’ Although I could admire Marianne’s determination to fulfil the promise made to her husband to be ‘the commander of wives and children’ and rescue the families of his co-conspirators, I found her rather contradictory. For example, she is effortlessly multi-lingual but can’t acquite basic cookery skills.

Focussing on the positives once again, I felt the book was particularly successful in demonstrating how difficult it can be to lay to rest the events of the past, to heal the divisions caused by war, and to repair, both physically and mentally, the damage that has been done. Benita exemplifies this well. ‘History was horrible, a long, sloppy tail of grief. It swished destructively behind the present, toppling everyone’s own personal understanding of the past.’

In the Acknowledgments, Jessica Shattuck reveals that it took her seven years to write this book, much of it inspired by her own family history. The depth of historical detail in the book is evidence of her painstaking research. However, although I found much to admire about The Women in the Castle, the back and forth structure of the book didn’t quite work for me.

I received a review copy courtesy of Zaffre.

In three words: Powerful, detailed, expansive

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Jessica ShattuckAbout the Author

Jessica Shattuck is the award-winning author of The Hazards of Good Breeding, a New York Times Notable Book and finalist for the PEN/Winship Award, and of Perfect Life. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Glamour, Mother Jones, Wired, and The Believer, among others. A graduate of Harvard University, she received her MFA from Columbia University. Shattuck now lives with her husband and three children in Brookline, MA.

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#BlogTour #BookReview Katastrophe by Graham Hurley

BLOG TOUR BANNER_Katastrophe4Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Katastrophe by Graham Hurley. My thanks to Sophie at Ransom PR for inviting me to take part in the tour and to Head of Zeus for my review copy. Do check out the review by my tour buddy for today, Elizabeth at Libcreads.


KatastropheAbout the Book

Confidant of Goebbels. Instrument of Stalin. What’s the worst that could happen?

January 1945. Wherever you look on the map, the Thousand Year Reich is shrinking. Even Goebbels has run out of lies to sweeten the reckoning to come. An Allied victory is inevitable, but who will reap the spoils of war?

Two years ago, Werner Nehmann’s war came to an abrupt end in Stalingrad. With the city in ruins, the remains of General Paulus’ Sixth Army surrendered to the Soviets, and Nehmann was taken captive. But now he’s riding on the back of one of Marshal Zhukov’s T-34 tanks, heading home with a message for the man who consigned him to the Stalingrad Cauldron.

With the Red Army about to fall on Berlin, Stalin fears his sometime allies are conspiring to deny him his prize. He needs to speak to Goebbels – and who better to broker the contact than Nehmann, Goebbels’ one-time confidant?

Having swapped the ruins of Stalingrad for the wreckage of Berlin, the influence of Goebbels for the machinations of Stalin, and Gulag rags for a Red Army uniform, Nehmann’s war has taken a turn for the worse. The Germans have a word for it:

Katastrophe.

Format: Hardback (448 pages)  Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 7th July 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Katastrophe, the latest book in the author’s ‘Spoils of War’ series, is set in the final months of the Second World War. There’s a real sense of finality about the book as we witness the ruin of people and places. The terrible and lasting impact of war – physical and psychological – is reflected in the experiences of the four main characters – British MI5 operatives, Tam Moncrieff and Ursula Barton, journalist and propagandist, Werner Nehmann, and German intelligence officer, Wilhelm Schultz – some of whom make return appearances from the author’s previous two novels, Last Flight to Stalingrad and Kyiv.

There are some intense, dark and harrowing scenes involving Nehmann and Schultz, both survivors of the siege of Stalingrad, but now respectively subjected to the horror of a Soviet labour camp and brutal interrogation. Subsequently they find themselves pawns in a wider political game.  For Moncrieff and Barton, their experience is one of overwhelming disillusionment and a sense of betrayal. It’s something that has left Barton ‘a frail, tormented figure’ and Moncrieff with unanswered questions about the fate of someone close to him.

The title of the series – Spoils of War – is particularly apt because in Katastophe the reader sees played out the manoeuvring even amongst supposed allies for control of territory occupied during the conflict. The co-operation that existed between Western nations and the Soviet Union in order to defeat Hitler is crumbling, replaced by suspicion, secrecy and underhand tactics.  Stalin emerges as a ruthless and malevolent player in this attempted power grab. As Ursula Barton observes at one point, ‘The war’s coming to an end. Everyone knows that. The question is how, and when, and who controls which bits of our poor bloody continent when it’s over’. We also witness those formerly high up in the Third Reich, now in shattered pieces, struggling to come to terms with defeat or even in their delusion refusing to accept it.

Behind all the political manouvering the suffering inflicted on civilians on both sides is laid bare: the bombing of cities, the displacement of people, the ravages of hunger or the ruthlessness of invading forces.  It’s brought vividly to life in a way that can’t help make you think of the current situation in Ukraine. Indeed, I found myself thinking of that poor country repeatedly whilst reading the book, leaving me with an overwhelming sense of sadness that we seemed to have learned nothing. As a character observes, ‘No one was ready for Hitler, not because he hadn’t warned them what was coming, but because they hadn’t listened.’ For Hitler, substitute Putin?

Katastrophe is a brilliant blend of fact and fiction that even in its darkest moments remains utterly compelling. It takes a fair degree of skill to create a sense of tension in a series of events where the outcome is already known, but the author definitely achieves it.  I felt totally immersed in the lives of the characters and eager to learn their fate. None of them emerge unscathed but there are one or two glimmers of hope that demonstrate perhaps war hasn’t robbed them all of everything. If Katastrophe does mark the conclusion of the series, it’s definitely ended on a high note.

In three words: Gripping, immersive, masterful

Try something similar: Vienna Spies by Alex Gerlis

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Graham HurleyAbout the Author

Graham Hurley is an award-winning TV documentary maker and the author of the acclaimed Faraday and Winter crime novels, two of which have been shortlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Award for Best Crime Novel. His Second World War thriller Finisterre, part of the critically acclaimed Spoils of War collection was shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. (Photo: Goodreads author page)

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