It's September 1938 and Europe appears to be about to be dragged into a war by Hitler less than 20 years since the end of the Great War that killed millions. Neville Chamberlain, desperate to maintain peace, hastens to Munich to try and bring about some form of settlement.
We all know what happened at Munich and there aren't many surprises in this book, Robert Harris sticks closely to the facts and, as far as I can tell, only has two invented characters, Legatt , one of Chamberlain's private secretaries and Hartmann, a minor German aristocrat and diplomat who is part of the highly secret antiHitler faction. Legatt and Hartmann were friends at Oxford. Hartmann is trying to involve Legatt in plans to destabilse Hitler which introduces a nice element of tension but where Robert Harris really excells is in his skill in setting a scene. You really feel that you're there in London, collecting your gasmasks, terrified that war is about to be declared or one of the many who stayed inside when Hitler ordered a massive parade of military stregth in Berlin, silently indicating opposition to the idea of war. He presents Chamberlain as an honourable, thoughtful man who knows that war is probably inevitable sometime but wants to delay it as long as possible, for many reasons, not the least being that his memeories of the last, terrible war are so vivid.
If you enjoy books that open a window on the past I'd reccommend this. Harris says that one of the joys of writing fiction is that he can embellish in ways that non-fiction writers can't - such as putting in a scene after the settlement is agreed where Chamberlain is greeted by ecstatically cheering crowds outside his hotel in Munich - all fact - and Harris has a band striking up with The Lambeth Walk.
This book was selected by the Oprah book club, which was enough to make me refuse to read it since many of her books feel very chick-lit to me. But a friend heard it was about time travel (it isn't) and was dying to read it. Also the author was coming to a speaker series that I often attend and so I broke down and read it. And then I heard him read from it and talk about it last night. I was wrong to have rejected it and lucky to have heard him speak.
I don't know what those of you outside of the U.S. know about U.S. history, so at the risk of telling you something you know, the Underground Railroad was a system of safe houses that allowed slaves to flee their bondage. They were hidden, provided for, and guided to freedom, but it was a very dangerous undertaking for everyone involved.
This book starts out as a description of slave life on a Georgia plantation. Although being a slave is one terrible level of misery, the farther south you went, the worse it generally was. So I think it is generally accepted that slavery in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi was particularly terrible. After a terrible incident, the main character, Cora, decides to flee with a friend of hers, Cesar, who had been sold from a plantation in Virginia, where he was taught to read, to Georgia. And when they flee, Cora finds that the Underground Railroad is exactly that...a railroad. They take various trains and when they come up out of the ground, they are in alternative versions of South Carolina and North Carolina during slave times. What happens to Cora and what she (and the reader) finds out is very interesting, but also thought-provoking. For example (but not the only example), very late in the book, the reader finds out something that Cora doesn't know and will never know, which makes it clear that the lifelong anger she holds against her mother is ill-placed.
The speaker came last night and he was funny and thoughtful. He also dealt well with the 2 instances of rambling series of observations masquerading as questions from the audience. He also seemed very genuine. One person asked him how he felt when white people wrote about the experience of slavery (he's African American) and he said, 'if they can do it, great. My main character in this book was female, so I don't think it's impossible to write from such a different point of view. You have to use your imagination." I really enjoyed his talk and will probably look up some more of his books.
It's a brave author who decides to wrtie a thriller about the election of a pope. After all the action is largely limited to a group of elderly men being locked away until they can agree which of them is going to be supreme pontiff. They are allowed no contact with the outside so it's hard to move things along with a little bit of extra infrmation coming in and changing things.
Robert Harris nearly pulls it off. He's very good at pacing his books, There is some tension as front-runners for the election drop out in one way or another, one or two mysterious things going on, a completely unknown cardinal turns up at the last mment and it become's apparent that the recently deceased pope had a prvate agenda of his own. Ultimately it fails to satisfy though, I felt that the cardinal who was elected to bepope was firstly a huge cop- out, secndly disticntly rpedicatable and thirdly not very believeable.
I don't regret reading it, the backgrund info about how popes are elected was fascinating and it was a page turner, it's just it's not one to look back on and savour.
In 1895, Alfred Dreyfus, a French army captain and a jew from Alsace was convicted of spying for the Germans and sent to Devil's Island for life. The gradual realisation that the wrong man had been convicted and that the Army and the French authorities were steadfastly refusing to consider that Dreyfus might be innocent became a scandal that rocked the French establishment, revealed the deep seam of anti-semitism in all levels of French society, caused suicides, halted careers and toppled governments. No spoilers there - it's history and any of us who studied late nineteenth century European history will have touched, albeit briefly on the Dreyfus case.
The story unfolds in the words of Colonel Georges Picquart, the new head of one of the army intelligence departments who got his post, ironically enough, for how well he observed Dreyfus's trial, who though he initially believes completely in Dreyfus's guilt begins to realise that he cannot be a spy. But his superiors won't listen to him and Picquard, who has his own fair share of anti-semitism and doesn't actually like Dreyfus either (he taught him in military school) is driven by his sense of justice to risk everything, his career, his and his friends' reputations, even coming close to losing his life while he fights to establish Dreyfus's innosense - a battle that lasts years.
This really is a cracking good read, which zipped along like a thriller - despite me knowing what happened in the end, and is one of those exceptional works of historical fiction that seem to open a window on a previous age. It also seems uncomfortably close to home in many ways, if you didn't believe that conspiracies can develop you will after reading this and you also might get a nasty feeling that it wouldn't be so difficult for another Dreyfus-sort of case to happen .
Very highly recommended.
This series of six books is set (mostly) in Berlin in the period 1938 to 1948.
The books in order are:
Although originally about John Russell the scope of the books changed and Russell's girlfriend Effi Koenen featured more heavily.