Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding

Hanns Alexander was the son of a prosperous German family who fled Berlin for London in the 1930s. 

Rudolf Höss was a farmer and soldier who became the Kommandant of Auschwitz Concentration Camp and oversaw the deaths of over a million men, women and children.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the first British War Crimes Investigation Team is assembled to hunt down the senior Nazi officials responsible for the greatest atrocities the world has ever seen. Lieutenant Hanns Alexander is one of the lead investigators, Rudolf Höss his most elusive target.

In this book Thomas Harding reveals for the very first time the full, exhilarating account of Höss' capture. Moving from the Middle-Eastern campaigns of the First World War to bohemian Berlin in the 1920s, to the horror of the concentration camps and the trials in Belsen and Nuremberg, it tells the story of two German men whose lives diverged, and intersected, in an astonishing way.

The book alternates between the lives of the two men laying a pathway to when the chapters later merge reflecting the convergence of the two men. This was excellently done as it enabled the reader to understand something of their different backgrounds and perhaps a modicum of understanding of how life took these two individuals down such very different life paths.

This book deals with extremely difficult themes and books about mass killings are never going to be easy to read. There were some descriptions in this book which were hard to read – such as Hoss planning the most efficient way of killing as many people as possible.

Hanns Alexander was the uncle of the author and as such his pride and respect for the man, who was an unsung hero in his own lifetime, has flown in abundance through this retelling of his ancestors  life.  Mr Harding himself describes his uncle’s story as a “Jew fighting back story”. I would dare to go one step further and describe him as a man who wanted justice for all those who died at the hands of Rudolf Hoss; - homosexuals, Gypsies, political prisoners….. the list could go on.

I strongly encourage you to read this book. I borrowed it from the library and I fully intend to buy a copy of it for myself as I know I will want to read it again. I also suspect that my friends and family will be getting a copy of this for birthdays this year. There are very few books that I have read in my lifetime that I felt were a privilege to read. However, this is one of them.

The book begins with the following extract and when read retrospectively is incredibly moving:

Now write down this song and teach it to the Israelites and have them sing it, so that it may be a witness for me against them. And when many disasters and calamities come on them, this song will testify against them, because it will not be forgotten by their descendants.

Today is National Holocaust Memorial Day. Let us never forget the millions who were killed at the hands of a few.

About the Author: 

Thomas Harding is an author and journalist who has written for the Financial Times, Sunday Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, among other publications. He co-founded a television station in Oxford, England, and for many years was an award-winning publisher of a newspaper in West Virginia. He lives in Hampshire, England.

His book, HANNS AND RUDOLF was published in the UK, USA and Canada in September 2013, and is being translated into ten other languages. It was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award Biography prize in 2013 and for the JQ-Wingate Literary Prize for 2015.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Set in Tudor England, Henry VIII is on the throne but his wife Katherine has failed to give him an heir. 

Cardinal Wolsey is charged with securing his divorce so that he can marry Anne Boleyn.

Into this atmosphere of distrust comes Thomas Cromwell - a man as ruthlessly ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.

I think I am probably one of the last people on earth to only just be getting around to reading this novel. My intentions were good. I purchased a copy ages ago but it just sat gathering dust on my bookshelf waiting to be read. When I saw the BBC were making a television series based on this book and its sequel Bring up the Bodies and which starts this evening, I thought it was high time to get it read.

My initial impressions were that it was a bit difficult to get into. This was not helped by the fact that so many of the characters were called Thomas and it was tricky at times to differentiate between the different characters. I think this is a classic case of the truth being stranger than fiction as I cannot imagine if one was working with fictional characters that any author would call so many of the characters by the same name. However, Ms Mantel has been true to her sources in this respect.

This is not a quick read. At 688 pages, it is a long book and at times the narrative felt a little convoluted but as I read on I began to see the necessity of the prose being written in this way. This is not a light historical novel but a book which has been painstakingly researched and written in a way that demonstrates the complexities of the age. Every word in the narrative has been carefully considered and then placed within the prose where it will best have meaning.

Hilary Mantel's writing style is both intelligent and exquisite and although the prose felt a little heavy going at times I still found this a pleasure to read.

I am very intrigued as to how the BBC will condense this book and its sequel into a 6 part dramatisation. I will certainly be in front of my television this evening to see how this adaptation has been handled.

ISBN: 978 0008126445

Publisher: Fourth Estate

Price (based on today’s price at Amazon.co.uk): £3.85

About the author:  

Hilary Mantel is the author of thirteen books , including A Place of Greater Safety, Beyond Black, and the memoir Giving up the Ghost. Her two most recent novels, Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring up the Bodies have both been awarded The Man Booker Prize - an unprecedented achievement. In 2006 Hilary was awarded a CBE for her contribution to literature.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Undertaker's Daughter by Kate Mayfield

“The first time I touched a dead person, I was too short to reach into the casket, so my father picked me up and I leaned in for that first, empty, cold touch. It was thrilling, because it was an unthinkable act.

When Kate Mayfield was born she was taken straight to the funeral home where her family lived. Her father was the undertaker of the small town Jubilee in Kentucky. Consequently, Kate grew up surrounded by corpses as her father dealt with the towns deceased.

Life above the funeral home was much tougher for Kate. There she lived with her mother and father, brother and sisters. Kate soon learned that life upstairs amongst the living was much more challenging than downstairs amongst the dead.

This is a very interesting memoir in which the author looks back on growing up in a small town in Kentucky in the 1960’s and 70’s.

The cast of characters that inhabited the world of her childhood and youth were wonderfully eccentric and diverse and she describes them in such a way that I felt I knew these people personally. Kate herself, was very easy to engage with and she tells her story well.

At times it made uncomfortable reading as methods used by an undertaker in preparing the dead were described. However, it was not overly described so did not make me feel squeamish. These sections of the book were handled with sensitivity.

This book is very aptly titled as the focus of the book really is on the relationship between Kate and her father. She appears to describe her father with great honesty whilst never forgetting the flaws of the man. As a reader I respected her for her sensitive portrayal of him.

However, without doubt, Kate lays bare the dysfunctional relationships within her family. How much of that can be attributed to the unusual circumstances in which the family live, she leaves the reader to decide.

What I really liked about this book is that although it deals with some very difficult themes it is an optimistic book. It never becomes depressing to read and demonstrates how people learn to cope with the difficult circumstances which life throws at them.

This is an interesting coming of age memoir which anyone with an interest in relationships would enjoy.

ISBN:   978 1471134470

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Price: £10.39

About the Author: 

Kate Mayfield is co-author of Ten Steps to Fashion Freedom and Ellie Hart Goes to Work. She attended Western Kentucky University before moving to Manhattan where she graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After living in New York and Los Angeles she now lives in London.

Monday, 5 January 2015

The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

A.J. Fikry is the owner of Island Books which is suffering its worst sales in its history. This is not helped by A.J. himself who is grumpy and unwilling to try selling any books that he does not like or approve of. When he is approached by Amelia Loman, the new and idealistic representative from Knightly Publishing with their upcoming list, his attitude to her is hostile to say the least.

A.J.’s life has not turned out as he planned. He is already widowed and is left with nothing but his failing bookshop and a rare edition of poems by Poe. That is until the book is stolen. However, he soon finds himself left with a new responsibility and he does not foresee just how much his life it about to change as a consequence.

This book was a wonderful start to my reading for 2015. It was a delightful and charming story with characters that I liked and really cared about. All of the characters have a quirkiness about them which made them both engaging and lovable.

I found myself wanting to sit and read this book in one sitting as it was a wonderful combination of sadness and humour. There were a few occasions when I chuckled to myself but there are also moments of real poignancy. I was completely gripped from the first page. Our introduction to A.J.’s irascibility at the outset of the novel meant I could not help but like him and ignited my desire to find out how the author was going to shape his character as the story progressed.

My only criticism is the ending which just felt a bit rushed but this does not detract from this book being a very enjoyable read.

However, this is a little gem of a book and one I am sure I will reread in the future. It is an uplifting story of second chances and the power of love to transform lives. An excellent read and I would recommend it to anyone who likes books about books.

ISBN:  978 1408704615

Publisher: Little Brown

Price: £11.59

About the Author: 

Gabrielle Zevin  is the author several Young Adult books and is most well known for her novel, Elsewhere. She began her writing career at age fourteen as a music critic for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

She is a graduate of Harvard University. After many years on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she recently moved to Silver Lake, Los Angeles.