A moving and wonderful book about the worlds biggest maritime tragedy

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am actually a little breathless having finished this book, it’s taken my breath away and I’m feeling that awful grief you get when you have finished a book that is really special and you know your time with the characters has come to an end. I had heard wonderful things about Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys but I really had not expected to fall in love with this book quite as hard as I did.

The first thing that struck me about this book is that it is based on fact and actual events that occurred at the end of the second world war. Being naturally inquisitive I went and found out more about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German transport ship that was transporting German military and refugees in the Baltic Sea when it was struck by torpedoes from a Russian submarine causing the loss of around 9,400 lives. This makes it the biggest maritime disaster of all time and yet I know that so few people have heard of this and now having read this story I find it even more heartbreaking.

The story is told in really short chapters. Each is only a page or two long so the story drives forward really quickly and in bursts that whilst initially giving us only snippets about our characters does help to add to the mystery about their backgrounds. We have four main characters who narrate the book, each of them has a different secret they are hiding and they are all seeking the same thing, escape from their past and a new future with the promise of reuniting with loved ones they have lost or a fresh start. As their stories intertwine we learn more about the tragedies each have faced, the difficult choices war has forced upon them and the horrors they have seen along the way.

Of our narrators 3 of the 4 are wonderful characters, the fourth is a complex and difficult one to like but his voice is equally important as he brings us the voice of the German Nazi machine as it begins to fall apart and the unhinged beliefs of the Fuhrer and how they have infiltrated the German people. We may not like him but his voice provides the context that brings the books dark undertones even more to the fore.

The stories in this book are gritty and heartbreaking. Of the Young Adult novels I’ve read about World War II this alongside The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas are probably two of the most emotional and touching. Not to say that others are not but the subject matter is difficult to read, it includes some very adult themes and doesn’t hold back during the storytelling about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

I read this book in a day, I could not put it down. Once I had understood each of the characters back stories I was rooting for them, I fell in love with the surrounding characters and the character of the Shoe Poet will remain with me for a long time to come. The quote he makes on deck of the ship just before it is hit is beautiful as he tells Florian “Just when you think this was has taken everything you loved, you meet someone and realise that somehow you still have more to give” This was so poignant from an elderly man talking about the loss of his wife and how a young orphan boy gave him the strength to go on. It was such a beautiful moment in a book filled with much darkness.

It is a book I didn’t have to think about what rating it deserved, from the moment I picked it up till I finished it I was drawn in, it engaged me fully and it made me fall in love with it. Absolutely inspiring writing and I cannot wait to try more books from Ruta Sepetys.

An emotional and clever tale of World War II and the women who gave their lives

Code Name Verity (Code Name Verity #1) by Elizabeth Wein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are quite a few Young Adult novels based on the stories of people during the years of the Second World War. Several of these have become huge bestsellers are they are often sought out as books to be studied within the classroom such as The Book Thief and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. I’d heard really good things about Code Name Verity and as it’s been a little while since I read a Second World War book in this genre I decided it might be nice to see whether it could be a valuable read for my 11-year-old who is going to be studying this time period at school.

This is an interesting book told through the eyes of a Gestapo prisoner in Nazi occupied France. Initially, we know very little about our narrator other than she is a British prisoner, although as she reminds us frequently she is, in fact, Scottish which I found quite amusing as being Scottish myself I know the pains we will go to in order to not be regarded as English. It is clear she has given in under pressures of interrogation and is now writing down what she knows about the allied war effort, the kinds of planes we use, where our air bases are and radio codes that we use for transmitting messages. As she tells us she is a coward, she has bought herself an extra two weeks of life in order to share all the knows with the Germans but ultimately she knows she will die at the hands of her captors.

As the story progresses we find that her way of telling what she knows about the war is both humorous, insightful and written through her experiences during the war. She is often scathing about the Germans who hold her, she is telling her story her way and sometimes this leads to her being punished for the things she says. There is lots of information about flying and the aircraft used during the war but if you can cut through this fundamentally this is the story of a young pilot Maddie who is as capable as any man at flying but during the war she is used for ground duties and eventually for ferrying planes around the UK for repair and to collect aircraft personnel. The story is Maddie’s and that of her best friend Queenie who she meets during her training. They are two people who outwith the confines of the war would never be friends. Maddie is the granddaughter of a Jewish bike seller whilst Queenie is a Scottish aristocrat from a large family with a title and immense wealth.

This story is really touching and we are given more information slowly throughout the first two thirds of the book where our prisoner tells us about how she comes to be in Occupied France and how this links to the stories of Queenie and Maddie. We know it won’t have a happy ending but the story is heartbreaking and engaging and the further into the book you go the more entrancing the story becomes.

The last third of the book is told by a different narrator, Maddie. In this part of the book we fill in the blanks that our Gestapo prisoner was unable to tell us and it is in this section that we learn the whole truth about the novel and as it ended I was left breathless by how cleverly crafted the story had been and how people will find the strengh to rise to challenges they never could have faced if not forced to do so through wartime.

A wonderful novel it is a great read, I wouldn’t recommend it for very young pre-teen readers but I’d say that the content would be fine for ages 13 and above. I also imagine that the often long descriptions of flights and aircraft may put some readers off who find themselves bogged down in this and unable to cut through it to the heart and soul of the story. I can understand perhaps why it’s not used as a school text as often as others of a similar genre.

I really enjoyed this book but I’d still say Prisoner of Night & Fog remains my favourite Young Adult WWII novel.

A beautiful historical novel from Kate Morton

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been a big Kate Morton fan since reading The Forgotten Garden and despite a dip in form in The Distant Hours she is definitely back to her best with The Secret Keeper.

From the first chapter it starts with a bang when Laurel Nicolson witnesses her mother Dorothy violently stab a man who comes to their quiet countryside home one summers afternoon. For years she has lived with what she saw without understanding why her mother would do such a thing but as she prepares for her mother’s 90th birthday many years later she begins to be drawn into the mystery even further.

Jumping between present day and London in the second world war we see the story through the eyes of Laurel, her mother Dorothy during the war and find out about the mysterious relationship between Dorothy and her friend Vivien. Twisting and turning from the start the writing is wonderful. The story is gripping and beautifully evocative of war time London. Just when you think you’ve got the ending all figured out it twists and turns again.

A brilliant book, I was reading it whilst on holiday in busy Blackpool and found that I couldn’t wait to keep going back to reading it, snatching moments in the car or a quick 5 minutes here and there to keep reading so gripping was the story. Very much recommended.

A touching and emotive novel set in WWII occupied France about sisterhood and friendship

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a month or so of sticking mainly to Young Adult fiction, I felt the need to read a “grown-up” book and one of the most frequently talked about books online was The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, a book full of emotion and guaranteed to make you cry was the vibe that people game me about this story and it sounded like just what I was looking for.

Set in France during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War we follow two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle and their two different experiences during this time. Vianne lives just outside of a small village with her daughter Sophie and husband Antoine who is called away to fight for France and upon their surrender is captured as a Prisoner of War. Her younger sister Isabelle is a willful 17-year-old who has been expelled from countless boarding schools and is sent to live with her sister during the war by their father who has had little contact with his daughters since the death of his wife many years before.

The first thing I loved about this book was the way that we followed the two sisters throughout the years of the war, from the early years when hope was high and people believed it wouldn’t go on too long and that human kind would never be so cruel as to allow the kinds of torture the Nazi’s would inflict upon people. From their different perspectives, it’s a really insightful book as we see the two sides to the story. Isabelle’s strong beliefs and outspoken nature mean she struggles to be complacent with the changes to French life when the German’s arrive and take over. She is insolent and headstrong and this leaves her sister fearing she will do something to place them all in danger.

Vianne, on the other hand, is trying to comply where she can, to keep her head down and raise no attention to herself and her daughter. When a German officer begins living in her home she struggles with reconciling the image of the harsh Nazi officer with the sometimes gentle and kind man she meets. People begin to question if she is too close to her lodger and she feels it hard to judge what is acceptable to take for her survival and what to be classed as collaborating.

From these point of view of these two different women we follow the resistance movement during the war, the defiant and dangerous acts that were undertaken to help allied pilots who became stranded in France and also the risks taken to help protect Jewish children from the prisoner of war camps. The tearing apart of families and the loss of friends and the sense of community.

I love that we see two different extremes of the German officer, it was nice to not have them all painted as intrinsically evil but instead to look at the internal struggles many suffered as the German campaign to eradicate Jewish people grew as the war went on. Whilst many reveled in the power it brought them others just wanted to go home to their families as much as the French women longed for their men to come home.

This book was beautifully written, it was such a wonderful story of sisterhood, family, motherhood and the things we will do to survive. A really moving piece and at times, as promised, a tear-jerker. I now understand why it is given such wonderful reviews and is regarded so highly. It was my first Kristin Hannah novel but I am sure after this it will not be my last.