The stories of people who believe they have had strange experiences

Recently I visited one of the locations in my current work-in-progress, Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire to be published by Amberley Publishing in 2022.

The subject matter of the book varies widely but is largely about curious events in the physical world, based in known fact; however, the first chapter is devoted to strange and spooky tales.

The West Gate of Warwick

The venue was local to my home in Warwick, and I had already received a full account of strange experiences from a very reliable informant, lasting over a period of decades. Now I was seeking a story which might corroborate his description, but describe much more recent experiences. Sadly, the people I questioned on two separate visits had not experienced anything at all. I was inclined to put it down to the Covid-19 lockdown: presumably, I thought, the ghosts had gone into lockdown too. I respected the fact that they had no story to tell, and acknowledged this in my book, believing that a lack of stories is also important to record. For the mystery of paranormal experiences is that whilst many may visit a particular location, some feel and see nothing: others sense a rich atmosphere: and still others do indeed see, hear, and feel things that have no scientific explanation.

This reminded me of a series of questions that collectors of paranormal stories are to ask.

  1. Can you tell me how you first became aware this was more than a mundane incident?
  2. Did any other explanations come to mind?
  3. What conclusion did you reach as you thought through these possibilities?
  4. Did you take any action based on this?
  5. How did it affect you from then on?
  6. Do you have any background, cultural or historical, that sheds light on this?

These are the questions I kept in mind as I researched various stories for my book Paranormal Warwickshire.

Paranormal Warwickshire fireside read published Amberley 15 November 2020
Paranormal Warwickshire fireside read published Amberley 15th November 2020

Paranormal Warwickshire emerged from my experience in several places, which I describe as spiritual resonance.  These great buildings, maybe in a ruinous state, are not simply piles of stone, but animated by that “indefinable spark.”

In my book, the curious anecdotes told of these buildings acknowledge the life that fills the spaces between the stones. I include stories of everyday places as well: shops, railway stations, houses, pubs and churchyards, not just castles, abbeys and manor houses.

When I hear stories, I listen respectfully, even if I feel some may be conjured up by the imagination. I also ask why several different people, independently of each other and unknown to each other, should have the same experience in the same place over a long period of time. There have been many recorded cases of which this is true. Then, if you think it was “all their imagination”, you have to ask “what is it about this particular place that makes so many different people imagine the same thing there?”

The most compelling ghost stories are not about famous historical characters. A lot of them turn out, after research, to have emerged from the lives and deaths of people who never made their mark on history: people about whom we would have known nothing if the paranormal event had not alerted our attention and prompted research.

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A Visit to Stourhead National Trust: a Perfect Vision of an Idyllic Landscape and Lake; an Infamous ‘Romantic’ Encounter in the Temple of Apollo

Before visiting the gardens at Stourhead, Wiltshire the other day I looked forward to seeing for myself this ‘living work of art’, for I had created a brightly coloured, stylised copy of a photo of that iconic view just last year, during the first UK lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic.

When we visited the garden, originally created in the eighteenth century by the Hoare family, we learned that Henry “the Magnificent” (‘gentleman gardener’) had relied on elements of concealment and surprise in his grand vision of this classical landscape. So we took the route that Henry had set out specially for his guests to take, from the house to the lake, and experienced the concealment and surprise and revelation for ourselves.

The first lookout point, Stourhead gardens, from which you can see the Temple of Apollo
Further along the path from the first lookout point, Stourhead gardens
The second lookout point, Stourhead gardens – here you can see the Pantheon
The third lookout point, Stourhead gardens – a clearer view of the Pantheon

Finally, having received glimpses of both the Temple of Apollo and the Pantheon through the carefully selected, planted, cultivated and shaped trees, we came upon the iconic view itself, where you can see the Pantheon across the lake beyond the bridge:

The iconic view of bridge, lake and pantheon at Stourhead gardens

I was enchanted as this was the view I had copied in acrylic paints from a photo back in the lockdown. I felt as if I was walking into my own painting, albeit with more subtle colouring than my own fluorescent production!

Stylised acrylic copy of photo of the iconic view of lake and pantheon in the gardens at Stourhead

Later, after visiting the house, we walked around the lake and climbed up to the Temple of Apollo.

The steps at the Temple of Apollo at Stourhead gardens – this was where Keira Knightley stood, in the role of Lizzie Bennett, in the film of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ when Darcy came striding towards her to propose marriage in the pouring rain – she turned him down.
The Pantheon which you can see across the lake, beyond the bridge, in the iconic view of Stourhead gardens
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A Visit to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard: HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and the Mary Rose, a perfect time capsule that transports us into another world

On a recent trip to Portsmouth, we were absorbed into the lives of the great ships there, and their rich histories. The Mary Rose Museum shone out for us with its immersive experience and its astonishing recovery of details of the sailors’ lives back in 1545.

View of Portsmouth Gunwharf Quays Marine from the HMS Warrior

But HMS Warrior and HMS Victory also enthralled us as we explored both ships, full of wonder at the insights flooding in on us (in the metaphorical sense only!).

HMS Victory

The audio tour of the HMS Victory helped us to relive the dramatic and heartrending moments of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s fatal injury, his journey to the surgeon’s quarters and his final hours, with his loyal second-in-command Captain Hardy.

HMS Victory

The audio narration and dramatic re-enactment engaged us on every level, enabling us to imagine the feelings, sights, sounds and smells of that experience, along with all the emotions of horror and disgust and tragedy and to guess at how the news of victory may have provided some compensation to Nelson for the imminent loss of his life.

Underneath HMS Victory in the dry dock
Underneath the bow of HMS Victory

HMS Warrior, a magnificent Victorian armoured ship in immaculate condition ‘never fired a gun in anger’. Built in 1860 it ran on half sail half steam.

On board HMS Warrior

Now, with Living History actors on board playing the part of the original sailors we felt a real sense of how it must have been to spend time on board as a member of the crew.

HMS Warrior

Beyond these two wonderful ships, the Mary Rose Museum filled us with awe. Sunk in the Solent in 1545, and raised over four centuries later, the Mary Rose and her story exerts a curious power over us: her many artefacts recovered along with the mortal remains of 129 crew, this exhibition was a truly amazing experience for us. The number of people originally on board at the time of the tragedy is not known for sure and it varies between 500 and 700. It is thought the shop was overloaded, and this may have been one of the factors causing it to sink. The number of survivors is also thought to have been between 35 and 40. They would have chanced to be in the right place on the ship at the right time to escape and be rescued by small boats sent out to save them. Many others were trapped by the “anti-boarding nets” stretched over the decks to prevent the enemy swarming on board. The ship sunk very quickly, and half of it ended up deep in silt so it was preserved.

Now, the recovered part of the timber hull is held in a state of perfect equilibrium, so the timbers no longer need to be sprayed with water or viewed through portholes. Instead, thanks to a fine balance of atmosphere and temperature and a series of air-lock doors, we may gaze at the recovered hull in its entirety, at every deck level.

Most poignant of all are the many objects and possessions of the sailors and the remarkable amount of details about several individuals on board: the Master Gunner, the Master Carpenter, the Pursar, the Archer, the Surgeon – their lives, medical histories and personal items.

I am in awe of the skill, ingenuity and expertise of the archaeologists, the divers, the forensic anthropologists and other scientists and all those who made this exhibition possible, for us to see and imagine and empathise with those many hundreds of people who lost their lives that day in 1545.

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A Poignant Story from Charlestown, St Austell Cornwall

We recently visited Charlestown, a beautiful little Cornish seaport, which opened up several stories for me. Not only did we explore the moving and compelling tales of numerous historical shipwrecks and recovered artefacts  in the Shipwreck Treasure Museum: but also I learned the poignant story of the man who created, designed and built Charlestown: Charles Rashleigh.

Along with the history of Charles Rashleigh’s rise and fall, we have numerous heartrending accounts of shipwrecks in the museum. As we wander through the museum gazing at the recovered treasures and reading of the sea tragedies  we may reflect once again on the high risks humans take, for the chance of adventure and the dream of making their fortune. Some succeed; others perish. In no other sphere of human aspiration can we best reflect upon fate than in the realm of sea voyages. The sea remains powerful, mysterious, cruel and merciless: yet a source of unending wonder and attraction.

Charlestown Harbour  St Austell Cornwall

Charles started building the seaport in 1790. It was completed by 1804 and  has changed little since: now it is popular among film location scouts and has appeared as a film location on several occasions.

Views of Charlestown Harbour

The poignancy of Charles’s story lies in the fact that he created Charlestown out of his own personal wealth and was a hugely gifted man, for the port was highly successful: yet in later life he formed an attachment to 2 young men, Joseph Dingle and Joseph Daniel, who betrayed him and brought him to bankruptcy.  The whole story is told in the book ‘Charlestown: a guide to Charlestown and the Shipwreck Treasure Museum’ by Richard and Bridget Larn.

Book Review: ‘Miss Graham’s War’ by Celia Rees

Today I share my review of ‘Miss Graham’s War‘, the latest novel by Celia Rees, which has been released in a new edition, having spent some time on sale as ‘Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook’.

Book Cover Miss Graham’s War, a novel by Celia Rees

Miss Graham’s War‘ is a very complex and gripping account of life in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Allied victory over Germany in 1945. The main protagonist Edith Graham, a lover of recipes and cooking, goes out from England to take part in what is known as the Control Commission, in the British Zone, to try and help the education system in Germany recover. However she is also asked to act as a spy seeking out wanted Nazis in hiding. I learned a huge amount about this period, of which I had previously known very little. It opened my eyes to how the ordinary people of Germany suffered in the first few years after the War, both those who still sympathised with Nazism, and those who had not agreed with Hitler’s ideology, but who had kept quiet to save their lives.

The structure of the book, interspersed with recipes from the time, was fascinating. The recipes and ingredients were very revealing; some horrifying, as they revealed the desperately low rations for people in Germany at that time.

 For instance, one recipe was for Moltkestrasse Tea: pine needles chopped fine, and boiling water.  Used to ward off hunger by those who have nothing else.

Another minimal recipe for the near-starving, deprived of rations, involved finely-cut-up human hair, to provide some element of minerals and vitamins.

A third example is Prison Camp Soup – fish bones and skin; water; and buckwheat, or whatever else you can get.  Note: we have no equivalent, unless you count the Irish a hundred years ago reduced to eating grasses in the Famine.

Other recipes evoked another world entirely: I loved the German cake recipes, especially one for Bee Sting Cake, which is essentially sweet dough, baked, topped with honey, butter, sugar and almonds, and filled with a custard cream.  In wartime circumstances, with rations low, but with the ingredients cunningly sourced from somewhere and hoarded out of sight, a slice of that would have been pure heaven.  Such cakes of course belong to the famous ritual Kaffee und Kuchen.  Another recipe, for asparagus flan, sounded gorgeous; some of the recipes I thought I really must try out myself (but not the ones with human hair, fish bones and pine needles).

The book gives many harrowing details of war crimes committed by the Nazis. It is packed with characters who have different motivations, which can be confusing to the reader, but ultimately we are carried along with the decency and goodness of Edith’s character, and the passion of Harry, whom she loves, and who will later go to Israel and become a member of Mossad. Fate intervenes, along with tragedy. Depending on your point of view it may be said that Edith’s quest ultimately results in poetic justice, or not. Here on earth, we have no final answer to the mystery of human wickedness, or a perfect resolution to the quest for justice. But this story is very compelling and there are many chequered characters to arouse our emotions.

It is the kind of story which may haunt you for some time afterwards, as you wonder about war, and about the aftermath of war, and the disastrous decisions that are made in such times, that attempt to correct injustices but only sew new tragedy and pain for the future, even after the actual fighting has ended.

A highly recommended book for those who can’t get enough of historical fiction and books about the history of the 20th century.

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Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire, and Director’s Cut: Works in Progress

Hello! On today’s blog I share what I’m up to at the moment – writing, researching, editing, promoting. I have two books on the go, which makes life interesting!

Firstly, I’m working on my new non-fiction book for Amberley Publishing, Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire. The fully completed manuscript has to be delivered by the end of this year. It will be another highly illustrated volume, including 100 images, as with Paranormal Warwickshire. My tales will cover, amongst others, the following topics: Strange and Spooky Tales, Extraordinary True-life Stories, Tales of Warwickshire Witchcraft, Mysterious Murders and Other Crimes, Intriguing People, Strange Happenings and Mysteries, Curious Place Names, Ancient Legends, Folklore and Folk Customs, Ancient Ceremonies and Strange Rituals, and the Magical Forest of Arden.

I have been out and about gathering photos, interviewing people, and finding new stories. My son Jamie takes many of the photos as he has a good camera and an eye for an excellent view, The other day we travelled up to north Warwickshire in search of one story, and found material for three others, which was very exciting.

Alongside my work on Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire I’ve also been editing my new novel Director’s Cut. This novel is to be the first of a series starring gifted young musical rebel Dylan Rafferty. Director’s Cut is set in south London. I’ve written half of the sequel, which is called Standing Ovation and is set in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Director’s Cut should appeal to all those interested in the world of actors and filming; and in the reputation of actors to be superstitious, sensitive souls. Here is a quote from Geraldine Beskin, owner of London’s most mystical bookshop, Atlantis Books, for the Ghost Club, on 15 May 2021. What she says encapsulates how I feel about actors, and why my fascination with them has fed into this novel.

Geraldine Beskin emphasises the very human side of the acting profession with both its quicksilver triumphs and equally cataclysmic failures. ON and off stage, actors and actresses are known for their sensitive and emotional natures Drama is not confined to the theatre (or the filmset). Many thespians exist in a state of high tension, surviving on the margins, experiencing intense peaks and troughs of personal emotion, often alone.

As I’ve edited the novel, this theme has woven itself more deeply into my plot. Initially, the world of acting was to have simply provided the presenting situation for Dylan; but now, following several interviews during research, and a deeper understanding, it has an organic relationship to the unfolding of the story. The word liminal also plays a central part in the novel. Liminal means: ‘occupying a position at, or on both sides, of a boundary or threshold’.

One of the best illustrations of this theme lies in the closing speech of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck, the mischievous spirit who stirred up all the emotional tumult at the behest of Oberon King of the Fairies, says this as he comes to address the audience:

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this and all is mended,

That you have but slumbered here

while these visions did appear.

During my research for Paranormal Warwickshire, I studied a lecture by Professor Sir Jonathan Bate about Shakespeare’s Ghosts and Spirits.

One of the points he makes is that the word shadows may also be taken to mean actors. Therefore, the interplay between actors and spirits is one that Shakespeare felt deeply. Another famous Shakespeare quote also demonstrates this:

As Prospero the magician says in The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended, these our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits

In Director’s Cut, Dylan, gifted young musical rebel, discovers his favourite actress is filming a TV drama in a nearby Jacobean mansion, and he crashes the set to meet her. Upon arrival at Trident Court he discovers a deeply dysfunctional family haunted by an intergenerational curse, and a troop of ghostly actors in the garden doomed to perpetually rehearse A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Meanwhile actors, directors and film crew in the house are all swept up into the family’s strange world. Dylan comes to believe he alone can save them through the power of his musical genius. But he learns he must team up with the local priest to discover the family’s secrets. As they delve deeper into the family’s traumatic backstory Dylan encounters a supernatural being and finds he must cross the boundary between this world and another dimension.

As I near the end of my editing work on the novel, I seek beta readers before I pitch to publishers. In particular I am unsure about genre, whether the novel is paranormal mystery, magical realism or gothic. So I welcome any offers from prospective beta readers who may be able to clear up the mystery for me!

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Thoughts on ‘Witch Child’ by Celia Rees

Today I share my review of ‘Witch Child‘ by Celia Rees, now out in a special 20th Anniversary edition. This is a compelling historical novel of the arrival of a group of Puritans in New England in 1650, of their encounters with the Native Indians, and a tale not only of religious intolerance but of the deep-seated fear human beings have of anybody who dares to be different.

Cover design for Witch Child by Celia Rees – 20th Anniversary edition

Having just finished reading The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory, about Catherine Parr and the dangerous path she trod through religious fanaticism and intolerance, I feel my senses have been sharpened to this theme of rejection of women for being different. It seems that historical fiction is an excellent vehicle for this theme but sadly the theme is also highly relevant in today’s world.

Witch Child is a Young Adult novel and has been firmly established on the schools curriculum for the challenging issues it raises, vital for children to wrestle with, themes of intolerance, the true nature of freedom, the forces of conservatism, spirituality and female independence.

The book opens with a horrific account of the persecution of a woman in late 17th century England. Through the eyes of a young girl, we learn how her grandmother is dragged away – feared and reviled as a witch for her role of village “wise-woman and healer” – tortured then hanged for witchcraft. We are confronted with the intense hatred, fear and hysteria that flares up among the local ‘authorities’ (often self-appointed); their fanaticism aroused by another opportunity to publicly shame, humiliate and destroy a woman for being different.

As I read the story of Mary’s departure for the New World with a group of Puritans, I was keen to refresh my knowledge of this period of English history. As it happened, the Puritans sought freedom in another land to practice their own brand of religion freely. Ironically they took all their own prejudices and narrow-mindedness with them and transplanted it into the communities they built in New England.

I was moved by Mary’s growing connection with her two allies from the local Indian tribe, White Eagle and Jaybird. They too knew what it meant to be ostracised for bring just what they were. The themes of nature-connection are strong between the girl trained in ways of herbalism and intuitive healing, and the native people with their deep spirituality and knowledge of the earth and their environment, as with all First Nation peoples.

I loved the overriding structure of the book, pages of an authentic historical journey, found sewn into a late 17th century quilt, and the mystery with which the book ends. I know the author wrote a sequel, but this book left the way wide open for me to imagine exactly how I wanted it to end and what I hope happened to Mary next.

A compelling story from an author who has just brought out a new book, this time for adults, called Miss Graham’s War. Set in Germany in 1946, and published by Harper Collins in May 2021, this will be my next read.

Thoughts on the Tudors and ‘The Taming of the Queen’ by Philippa Gregory

The Tudors have been popular for the last few years, in books and films and TV programmes. And whatever we think of Henry VIII as a man, he was certainly a gift to history. For he must be one of the most memorable of all characters in the story of Britain. Never mind that he was a monster and a psychopath. It seems that Tudor propaganda has won out through the centuries, and many prefer to think of him as a colourful over-the-top character who started up the Church of England, ate an enormous amount, and killed a few wives on the way.

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Although I myself love history, and read history books as well as historical fiction, I know that many, perhaps, learn most of history through reading historical fiction. That is why I believe our high quality historical novelists are so important to us, because they engage us in history and encourage us to imagine what it must have been like to be there, and to deal personally with characters like Henry VIII.

Such is the case with ‘The Taming of the Queen’ by Philippa Gregory which is the story of Henry’s last wife, Kateryn Parr. This novel was published in 2015 and although I have read several books of historical fiction by other authors, I haven’t read many Philippa Gregory novels, other than ‘The Boleyn Girl’. However I found this story of Kateryn compelling, and Gregory drew me in so that I felt I was there with Henry’s sixth Queen, navigating the mercurial character of the monster she was forced to marry, while keeping her love for Thomas Seymour a secret.

I was also captivated by Kateryn’s passion and intelligence, and her commitment to religious reform, as she led a theological study group in her palace rooms. Kateryn’s tragedy was, in the world of the Tudor court, “Nobody likes a clever, passionate woman.” We see that in the case of the religious reformer and courageous preacher Anne Askew who was ultimately tortured on the rack then burned at the stake.

One of my favourite characters in the novel is Will Somers, the King’s Fool. He is so witty and clever, an acrobat, a juggler, a commentator and observer of the action rather like the Chorus in ancient Greek tragedies. He made the King laugh, he lightened the mood, then when his political satire became too close for comfort, he acted silly to relieve the tension.

“It is easier to stand on your head than keep the king in one mind,” he says. At another point, he remarks, “If I were a wise man I would be dead by now.”

In reading the story of Kateryn, I think the best safeguard any Queen of Henry might have would be her ladies-in-waiting and her gentlewomen of the bedchamber. All the queens depended on their ladies’ 100% loyalty and trustworthiness, their ability to sniff out danger ahead, and to warn of conspiracies in the making. Kateryn relied on Catherine Brandon, Anne Seymour, and her own sister Nan.

Nan, we are told, has served six of Henry’s queens and buried four. Nan forewarns Kateryn she is being targeted for criminal proceedings against her on the grounds of heresy; and as we can see from this novel, Henry changed his mind week by week about what constituted heresy. Bishop Stephen Gardiner (one of the top nasties of the Tudor court, along with the Duke of Norfolk) is assembling a case against Kateryn.

“He’s coming for you, Kat,” warns Nan, “and I don’t know how to save you…. they are changing the law ahead of me. I can’t make sure you obey the law because they are changing it faster than we can obey.”

Thomas Seymour, the man Kateryn loves and believes she has lost, tells Kateryn that he must marry; the Seymours need an alliance at court and he needs a wife who will speak for him; his choice is 12 year old Princess Elizabeth whom Kateryn knows “has a childish adoration for Thomas.”

Alongside this we are constantly brought face to face with the volatile, psychotic King – obese, an addictive over-eater, tormented by the pain of his leg ulcer and his inner demons.

Meanwhile conspiracies continue, and the question of what religion Henry believes shifts daily. A Howard plot to remove Kateryn, replace her with Mary Howard, and bring the country back to Catholicism, is revealed.

When Kateryn is forewarned that Henry has signed a warrant for her arrest, she is able to make her case to him. She submits to him and presents herself as an ignorant, subserviant woman, for the safety not only of herself, but also “of all who depend on this tyrant for their freedom. I can rack my pride. I can dislocate my shame.” Thus the Queen is “tamed”. He then physically abuses her; he whips and humiliates her in a shocking scene (I am not sure if historical evidence exists for this).

But by her willingness to appear “tamed,” Kateryn wins her life, and ultimately survives her marriage to Henry. The novel concludes after Henry’s death with Kateryn exalting in her freedom; she says she is free to be herself at last, may pursue her passions and interests, her commitment to religious reform, and write her books.

I must admit that reading this story I feel surprised that Kateryn didn’t suffer from post traumatic stress disorder afterwards; and perhaps she did. Tragically she only lived a further 18 months because (foolishly, we may believe, taking the long view) she married Thomas Seymour; and having become pregnant, she died shortly after childbirth. The fate of her little daughter Mary Seymour, following the execution of Thomas the following year, is unknown to history. It is thought she died around the age of two; but no evidence of this exists. Perhaps the truth will come to light one day.

Ultimately I found this book an emotionally engaging, enlightening and intellectually stimulating read, and Philippa Gregory’s reputation as ‘the contemporary mistress of historical crime’ is well deserved.

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Naturewatch in St Nicholas Churchyard Kenilworth

Last Sunday St Nicholas Church Kenilworth held a ‘Naturewatch’ in the churchyard.

The church is close to the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey and Abbey Fields, which feature in my book Paranormal Warwickshire. The Naturewatch took us on a walk around the churchyard identifying a variety of beautiful and curious things – flowers, trees, gravestones, herb garden, secret steps, Celtic cross, abbey ruins, fallen wall and old tree which have become wildlife havens. This churchyard has long been one of my favourite places, and yet I learned many new things. An enchanting and fascinating churchyard hunt.

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Book Review: ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr

Today I share with you my review of this immersive vision of life among the French Resistance in the 2nd World War.

Book Cover: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Review

The story of All the Light We Cannot See tells of Marie Laure, a blind girl living in Paris in the 1930s with her father, a museum locksmith and miniaturist. Marie Laure’s father creates a model of the city to help his daughter make her way around the streets; and every birthday his gift to her includes a puzzle box which needs skill and ingenuity for her to open, and find the gift within. Thus she gains skills in orienteering and in construction projects requiring dexterity and ingenuity; both of which will be invaluable to her survival, not only in peace, but during the coming war, the Nazi occupation of France, and especially when she finds herself alone and vulnerable in St Malo during Allied bombing.

The story is told in two time frames, early 1940s, and then on to the final stages of the War, and also shifts back and forth between Marie Laure’s story and that of Werner, a German boy, who is an expert at constructing radios, and who is compelled to join the Military Training Academy for young people, whose methods are often cruel and ruthless and sadistic. We meet Frederick, Werner’s friend at the academy, who openly defies the cruelty, and suffers for it. Ultimately Werner and Marie Laure will meet; grief, tragedy but also love and hope is ahead for them.

The novel creates for its readers an immersive experience, of what it would feel like to be part of the French Resistance in St Malo. I was totally absorbed in Marie Laure’s world, her challenges and threats, her relationships, her courage and resourcefulness.

Werner too aroused my compassion and I understood what it must have been like to be swept along by the Nazi machine, compelled to participate. Even though his sister Jutta shows evidence of a free spirit, people like her within Nazi Germany would have needed to be extremely discrete and subtle about their dissent.

I found the story slow-moving to start with and difficult to get into; then, when the War starts, it becomes totally immersive, as young Marie Laure and her father escape from Paris to her great uncle Etienne’s house in St Malo, while 8 year old Werner in Berlin with his sister Jutta discovers how to make a radio.

In St Malo Marie Laure and her father are cared for by the kindly Madame Manech who gathers together a group of ladies to resist the Nazi occupiers by ingenious means. Madame Manech sets about persuading Etienne to use the one remaining radio in the house – which he has cunningly hidden in the attic, away from the Nazis – to transmit messages to the Allies from the Resistance.

The reader needs to get used to the switches of time-scale from 1940 and then on to 1944 when the Americans are bombing St Malo in a last attempt to flush the Nazi occupiers out, and Werner is hunting for illegal radio operators in occupied France, with orders from the Nazis to kill all those he finds in possession of radios.

In 1944 Marie Laure, blind and totally reliant on her own strength, courage and instincts, is trapped in the house in St Malo. The people who have loved and protected her are absent: Madame Manech has died; her father has been seized by the Germans whilst visiting his Paris Museum; and her great-uncle Etienne has vanished.

Back in 1940 Frederick invites Werner to join him on a visit to his mother at his privileged and wealthy home in Berlin. The two boys are friends; and yet Werner feels powerless to help when Frederick is persecuted for voicing his dissent from the Nazi creed.

In 1944 Werner is told he has been at the Military Training Academy under false pretences, and we fear he will be killed; instead he is sent to “a special technology division of the Wehrmacht.” Werner is pressed into service in France, tracking illegal radio transmissions by members of the Resistance, using his transceiver.

From this point the story moves forward relentlessly, with high emotional stakes and jeopardy for both Marie Laure and Werner. How they come together is something you will discover when you read the book.

This is the kind of book which is so immersive you are with the people of the story, experiencing the danger and the emotional and psychological challenges alongside them; and indeed the kind of book which has you scurrying for Google to refresh yourself on such areas of knowledge as the Allied bombing of St Malo; the activities of the French Resistance; and the shocking facts about systematic rape of German girls and women by Russian soldiers for three years after the 2nd World War ended.

The story shows the resilience of the human spirit and the prevalence of love, goodness and kindness, along with courage and ingenuity; whilst also inevitably opening our eyes to the sheer wickedness and evil of war.

A very highly recommended book.