Tag Archives: World War II

The Fall of the Stone City – Ismail Kadare

Stoney FacedIn September 1943, German soldiers advance on the ancient gates of Gjirokastër, Albania. It is the first step in a carefully planned invasion. But once at the mouth of the city, the troops are taken aback by a surprising act of rebellion that leaves the citizens fearful of a bloody counter-attack.

Soon rumours circulate, in cafes, houses and alleyways, that the Nazi Colonel in command of the German Army was once a school acquaintance of a local dignitary, Doctor Gurameto. In the town square, Colonel von Schwabe greets his former classmate warmly; in return, Doctor Gurameto invites him to dinner. The very next day, the Colonel and his army disappear from the city.

The dinner at Gurameto’s house changes the course of events in twentieth-century Europe. But as the citizens celebrate their hero, a conspiracy surfaces which leads some to place Gurameto – and the stone city – at the heart of a plot to undermine Socialism.

Thanks to Sarah over at Hard Book Habit for bringing this book to my attention and thanks to the well-known chain of bookshops that actually bothered to stock it, rather than just pander to the popular books and terrible novelty things clogging up the entrance that one has to wade through before getting to the good stuff.

World War II is a natural hotbed for history and literature (although perhaps it is reaching saturation point on the latter), yet Albania and its inhabitants aren’t mentioned in anything I have read.  Neighbour Greece has plenty written about it but it is surprising that Albania hasn’t had as much coverage as it makes for an interesting study.  Part of Italy’s empire until their eventual capitulation, taken over by Germany and then under the yoke of communism, there is certainly plenty of scope for exploring the political and human aspects of the conflict.

Mixing fact and fiction Kadare creates a thought-provoking story, filled with satire and darkness where fact and fiction mingle to manufacture confusion and fear at every turn.  From the outset there is a feel of magical realism to the book, slightly reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez but this is layered over with a nightmarish quality that runs through the book, hinted at in the beginning and coming to brutal fruition towards the end. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on 15/05/2016 in Fiction


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The Fires of Autumn – Irène Némirovsky

WarmAutumnParis 1918, Bernard Jacquelain returns from the trenches a changed man.

The city is a whirl of decadence and corruption and he embarks on a life of parties and shady business dealings, as well as an illicit affair.

But as another war threatens, everything around him starts to crumble and the future for him and for France suddenly looks dangerously uncertain.

Irène Némirovsky has long been a favourite author of mine and is definitely one of the best 20th century authors, sadly still criminally under recognised by readers out there.  Her ability to clearly convey human nature is incisive and dramatic but most of all beautifully accomplished.

The first chapter contains a wonderful Champs-Élysées family scene, which was perfectly executed and was made all the more poignant knowing the events that history is rushing inexorably toward.  I would have been happy to stay in that place and just wish these people well but sadly that is not life.

Perhaps they have now gone too far to step back and feel we’re on the brink of an abyss?  But what is certain is that it will be the young men who are first to fall into that abyss.

It’s a hard book to read knowing what will befall nations and tear apart of families.  The problem with Némirovsky’s characters – which goes for all her books – is that they are so well realised and penned that it becomes hard to see them suffer on their journeys.  Even the characters one dislikes demand a certain sympathy as their flaws are something we can all relate to as much as their fears and expectations. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on 27/11/2015 in Fiction


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The Topography of Terror

Just behind (or in front of depending on your orientation) these particular remnants of the Berlin Wall the museum building  stands. it’s a modern cube that sits (it changed position between sentences) surrounded by wide open spaces and to the right of it are two art galleries and the home of the Berlin’s State Parliament, not too long ago the situation was very different, as this location once – as a handy plaque informed us:

housed the most important institutions of Nazi terror:  the national central headquarters of the Secret state Police (Gestapo), The Reich SS leadership, The Security Service (SD) and the Reich Security Main Office


The open and airy lay out of the gallery is a good thing as the reading material is at best challenging.  It shouldn’t be, I’ve read plenty of history books and I’m familiar with the appalling numbers of casualties, of the terrible fates suffered by innocent people, of the mass slaughter and cruelty and senselessness of it all and yet when on such a site as this I just couldn’t read about these events.

It is considerably harder to reconcile these events than usual when, where you happen to be makes it tangible, visceral, much more real.  With propaganda films and footage of executions, photos aplenty and sickening headlines in papers it was all a bit too much for me. it was plenty shocking, sickening and gruelling to the point where I had to sit down on the many handy benches to write some notes. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on 24/11/2015 in History, Travel


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The Ministry of Fear – Graham Greene

TMoFFor Arthur Rowe the charity fête was a trip back to childhood, to innocence, a welcome chance to escape the terror of the Blitz, to forget twenty years of his past and a murder. Then he guesses the weight of the cake, and from that moment on he’s a hunted man, the target of shadowy killers, on the run and struggling to remember and to find the truth.

For those of you who like a bit of paranoia and deception in your literature, you can’t go far wrong with this novel.  This short and pacy read is partly reminiscent of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps but goes much deeper into the human aspect such events evoke..

Arthur, our accidental protagonist is a mind estranged from the world, struggling to comprehend the seismic changes around him as well as his past actions.

His turmoil of an ordinary individual tortured by his inner demons, coupled with the usual struggles of a lonely man. One just trying to get along, reveals a vulnerable side which has you rooting for the type of chap he is.

This layered character is the everyman, a real human with which each reader can see themselves in his place and empathise with.  His struggles living through the Blitz, at the heart of wartime England just trying to survive and keep same…yet at the same time way out of his depth is a familiar feeling to all of us at some point.

What starts off as a gentle read quickly becomes an intricate tale with lots of questions and loose ends that beg to be tied up.  Starting at a fete, it all feels very nostalgic and British, guessing the weight of the cake is practically a national pastime over here.  Things quickly become serious and mysterious though, giving us a classic innocent man hunted scenario albeit one that also focuses more on themes such as identity and guilt in the past.
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Posted by on 05/10/2014 in Classics, Fiction


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The Complete Maus – Art Spiegelman

MauzCombined for the first time here are Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale and Maus II – the complete story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, living and surviving in Hitler’s Europe. By addressing the horror of the Holocaust through cartoons, the author captures the everyday reality of fear and is able to explore the guilt, relief and extraordinary sensation of survival – and how the children of survivors are in their own way affected by the trials of their parents. A contemporary classic of immeasurable significance.

it’s easy to get lost in the horrifying statistics of the Holocaust but this personal account makes for a powerful and poignant view on one of histories most tragic events. Hindsight of the inevitable makes this book doubly sad, reading of those incomprehensible actions of past that can only be relived with a sense of helplessness and inevitability.

Presented in black and white, the art fits in with the footage and photos from that time, an almost unreal, colourless world which makes it easier to digest than most literature concerning the Holocaust. Characters are represented as animals and the inevitable questions are raised over what exactly these animals say about each race, naturally simplistic generalisations are easy to fall into but there is surprising depth to be pondered upon.

Spiegelman opts to introduce us to the events through the tried and tested story within a story approach, which works well up to a point, its strength lies in allowing the reader to form an understanding of how events in World war II have affected and irrevocably changed Vladek Speigelman.  Viewing his idiosyncracies with this hindsight makes for more depth of character which is a welcome aside from the obvious barbarism.

The family dynamic is fascinating, with hardship running through the past and guilt issues in the present, it is understandable how the family is like they are.  I didn’t expect to find them irritating but the foibles are repetitive and not in the least endearing, there is even a mention of racism which is interesting after the experiences of war.  Perhaps the author being of a younger generation struggles to understand the atrocities and concepts in the US now at (relative) peace. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on 29/08/2014 in Graphic Novels


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The Hanging Garden – Patrick White

15983323Sydney, Australia, 1942. Two children, on the cusp of adolescence, have been spirited away from the war in Europe and given shelter in a house on Neutral Bay, taken in by the charity of an old widow who wants little to do with them. The boy, Gilbert, has escaped the Blitz. The girl, Eirene, lost her father in a Greek prison. Left to their own devices, the children forge a friendship of startling honesty, forming a bond of uncommon complexity that they sense will shape their destinies for years to come.

Seen through the eyes of the young the world can seem like a distressing, grotesque and thoroughly grey place, especially for children living through extraordinary times and upheavals.

In his last and unfinished novel, Patrick White has the seed of what was to be his final epic.  With the trademark downbeat feeling that he does so well, the themes of longing and melancholy course through this work and punctuate right at the heart of the social ills that society attempts to hide beneath a veneer of respectability.

tonight I am the Meccano set no-one will ever put together, even if all the bits are there.

Class is the epitome of the social disease and this commentary into the nature of the adults is a parody of the respectability and selflessness they portray, the inherent selfishness of human nature, even in good acts is shown to be most farcical in the face of an innocent child’s perception.

the character viewpoint changes rapidly and seamlessly as innermost thoughts are explored in brutal honesty.  At times, the perspective changes once or twice within the same paragraph but never to the detriment of the narrative flow.  The beauty of White’s style is that he leaves you in no doubt about what each character is doing or thinking at any time…in a way his style – for me – depicts the all round complete character portrait. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on 30/12/2013 in Fiction


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Charley’s War – Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun

CharleysWarOneLargeGraphic novels/comic books are an underrated medium but one stand out comic series has been re-released in the last few years makes everything all right with the world again. Bringing together as it does an important anti-war message as well as a compelling storyline.

War serials in comics – the British comics at least – have a rich history stories which usually featured one hero running through a hail of bullets whilst everyone was being cut down and saving the day.

Charley’s War though is refreshingly different, not only bringing the insanity and horrors of war to the fore but also framing a moving and action packed story in the world of static trench warfare.

Appearing in Battle Picture Weekly, the story follows Charley Bourne a 16 year old who lied to get into the army and subsequently arrives at the trenches not long before the Battle of the Somme is due to start, what follows is a powerfully poignant tale of growing up, of life, death, friendship, bitterness and questions of why?

Although the subject matter is no doubt grim, it is offset not only with the legendary camaraderie of the troops abut also with some clever and  wonderfully moving plot devices to stop you warying from the inhumanity of the conflict.  One of which are the letters exchanged between Charley and his family, which start out all care free like he is on an adventure and having fun. Later when the realities of war kick in and he changes and grows harder to the carnage around him, we see the frivolities of family life back home and how the letters from the front keep the upbeat tone as the world goes to hell around him, it’s an admirable and touching thing he does, adding a lot of depth to his character. Read the rest of this entry »


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