Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

When the Sky Fell Apart – Caroline Lea

Historical Fiction 4*s
Historical Fiction
4*s

One June day just two weeks after those who had decided to evacuate had left on a boat to the mainland, the sky in Jersey was ablaze, the Germans were bombing and poor Clement Hacquoil, the local butcher is set alight. Watching from the side-lines is ten-year old Claudine whose own father has left the island to fight the war against the Nazis.

This shocking opening sets a scene that is only two believable with the author using the German bombs as a way of introducing some of the main characters that populate this often heart-breaking tale. Dr Carter is an English doctor who if he’d followed the orders should have departed on the boat but is needed on an island which still has a sizeable population left. Edith is an older local woman who is on hand to help the injured butcher with her knowledge of plants which can help the sick and the injured. The locals under Edith’s watchful eye remove Clement from the beach and take him to the hospital but he is too sick to attempt to leave on the last boat out of the island before the German soldiers arrive.

Jersey was under German occupation for five long years. Years where food was short, the remote location and the sheer number of German soldiers which meant that there simply wasn’t enough food to go around. This shortage is mentioned regularly throughout the book in a number of ways including the variety of hot drinks and dishes the islanders made in place of their pre-war favourites; acorn coffee anyone? Potato peel pie? Mmm…

In When the Sky Fell Apart the Commandment in charge of the island is a real brute who has the local population and his own men jumping to ever changing rules. Of course in reality the rules were long, and often petty designed to stop the islanders seeking to defend themselves whilst the Germans busied themselves with the help of the prisoners of war to fortify the island with bunkers, tunnels and sea walls that are still evident today.

So while the story is based on a historical event that left a long shadow, the book is peopled by those of the author’s imagination. And she has created a really good cast. The key members being Maurice, a man with a sick wife, Edith the local healer, Dr Carter and Claudine who all see the war and the occupying soldiers through the prism of their own war years. The characters are varied, at different stages of their lives and all battling their own personal battles because of even a war didn’t stop all other battles small and large that people face in life. I liked all the characters because each one had their good points, and at times not so good. The shifting alliances underlining what people need to do to survive in extreme circumstances. This really is a book where the human element is as strong as the true events that it is depicting and I found both elements equally compelling.

While the years of the war roll by we get to see the personal battles and the way our key characters interact with each other and their neighbours on the island and with so much to engage the reader, the book avoided that mid-book slump that historical novels can be particularly susceptible to. I think it helps that the author was born and bred in Jersey with the local names rolling off the tongue, or perhaps that should be page!

Some of the events this book is based upon are very familiar to me and have also been captured in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society but the story itself is far more than historical events, this is a book where I cared about the characters and willed them to have the best war years possible, and hope that when it was all over, their post year lives were spent in tranquillity.

I’d like to thank the publicist FMcM Associates for sending me a copy of When the Sky Fell Apart ahead of the paperback publication.

First Published UK: 24 February 2017
Publisher: Text Publishing Company
No of Pages:  360
Genre: Historical Fiction – WWII
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

Historical Fiction 5*'s
Historical Fiction
5*’s

This is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read for some time, the focus being the German Occupation of Guernsey. Living in Jersey which was also occupied this is a familiar subject as the history of this time surrounds me with the bunkers and fortifications left behind as well as the German Underground Hospital which has now been rebranded as the War Tunnels.

The beginning of the book strongly reminded me of 84 Charing Cross Road by Hannah Hanff, not only is this an epistolary but one of the earliest letters from Dawsey Adams, Guernsey to Juliet Ashton, the chief correspondent, mentions not only a book that belonged to her but a request for a book, there being no book shops left in Guernsey in 1946.
Juliet responds “I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” What a delightful idea. Juliet is a novelist, her witty war-time column has been collated into a book and she is doing a tour of the UK to promote it. She corresponds to her publisher, also a friend, as well as a close friend in Scotland and then prompted by Dawsey’s mention of The Literary and Potato Peel Pie society she begins to probe at the stories, and the flood-gates open as the Islander’s oblige.

 

German Army Band in the High street

German Army Band in the High Street courtesy BBC Guernsey

Juliet gets to know the inhabitants, even those who disapprove of the project, the nasty minded Christian who is determined to tell the author all about the society member’s failings, but as more stories are told Juliet realises that she wants to visit the island of Guernsey and see her pen-pals in real life. The genius of this book is the perfect mix of horrific stories, those people who were deported, those who lived in fear along with the lack of food, but these are balanced out by some tender moments, with memories of bravery and humour and compassion, not least at the society’s meetings. There were some letters that took my breath away despite being familiar with the nature of the events that occurred.

Guernsey

Guernsey – The Telegraph

But this isn’t just a book about the island the letters also tell us about Juliet, her burgeoning relationship with a publisher, her friendship with her own publisher and friend Mark Stephens and his sister Sophie, living in Scotland with two young children. This mix of her private life with fancy dinners and hotels with the correspondence with the islanders who are rebuilding their lives following the departure of the Germans further highlights the horror of wartime.

I can’t recommend this enough, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to pack so much into a bunch of letters but the author has constructed this so well, reporting items back to her friends as well as corresponding directly to the Islanders giving a light and chatty overtone to the darker moments.

I believe this book is being made into a film although rumour has it that it is being shot in Cornwall rather than Guernsey and I’m keen to see how the construct will alter to enable the audience to fall in love with the lightness of touch which makes this such an enjoyable read.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Last Boat – John F Hanley

Before I moved to Jersey, like every other child in the British Isles I learnt a lot about World War II in history lessons, but I never realised that the Channel Islands were occupied by the Germans.  This happened when it was deemed by Ministry of War that the islands were indefensible. Now it may be that I wasn’t paying attention being more concerned with growing the hole in the sleeve of my jumper or whispering to my friends but I was truly surprised that it hadn’t been mentioned (I was quite good at and very interested in history)

Living here the signs of the occupation are still around and whenever we have guests to stay we go to the War Tunnels which demonstrates what life was like in the islands at that time.  Jersey War Tunnels

This means that being offered a free book to review which centres on the very cusp of that time, June to July 1940, is always going to be a fascinating read, but there is so much more to this book than familiar surnames and place names (although I love that part too)

Historical Fiction 4*'s
Historical Fiction
4*’s

So here is my review:

The Last Boat is the sequel to Against the Tide and as the reader I was plunged straight back into Jack Renouf and his adventures along with all the other characters met in the first book. In all honesty I hadn’t realised how much I missed them all. The Last Boat brings an extra depth to these characters, Jack himself is a year older, a little wiser but still a young man with a lot to learn about life, love and himself.

The book starts in France in June 1940, Jack having left his studies due to the war is involved in the rescue of some of the thousands of Allied soldiers from the beaches around Dunkirk. This book has switched from swimming to sailing, the timings of the tides become crucial to the various missions that litter the pages as Jack begins to realise what type of man he really is. I found myself much more involved with the characters, I actually shed a tear before I was halfway through the book as actions and decisions in the past begin to have very real consequences in the present.

Living in Jersey and having often thought about the sheer enormousness of the decision the locals had to make; to stay and live under German rule or go and leave everything they knew behind, balancing the safety of their loved ones on an uncertain set of scales. John Hanley has done a fantastic job of bringing the scenes to life, those when it was clear the islands could not be defended along with the queues to register for evacuation.

So in conclusion don’t read this without reading Against the Tide, the characters you meet there will explain a lot in this story. Expect a more thoughtful book; the Famous Five mad missions, hiding and carrying out daring deeds, are all still there, but this time the magnitude of what is at stake is far more apparent. I loved it. there is something for everyone within the pages of this book, pure history, the story of a young man finding his way in the world along with some boat-fixing and various other mechanical skills I never knew I wanted to know.

John Hanley has provided some useful timelines and notes at the end of this book which I wish I’d realised whilst reading as they provide answers to some of the questions I had. I was even more delighted to discover that there is to be another episode to find out what happens to Jack and the others.
I received a free copy of this book from the author in return for this honest review.

See my review of the Against the Tide by clicking on the book cover.  I now wish I had asked for a physical book rather than the e-book as the symmetry  in the two covers look amazing.

Against the Tide

Read more about The Last Boat  and John F Hanley from HBS Author’s Spotlight or if you’d like to see a little bit more history regarding the Occupation look at the Jersey War Tunnels